Missed Opportunties. Part One. (Adoption)

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(photo by Posy Quarterman)

I have been trying to figure out how to preserve some of this writing (print it? book? pdf to hard drive?) and in doing so, I have been reading back through the last 9 years. I wince. I laugh. I think, "woman, you used to sew a lot of clothes. You used to sew a lot of everything". I'm happy I wrote about the kids when they were little. This is their baby book in so many ways. I am doing a lot of remembering which is great! The typos are making me crazy. You'd never know that I aced AP English in HS.

***

I was thinking about an all day seminar Paul and I took after we had submitted our adoption application. It was an orientation at the agency for prospective parents. They covered a lot that day, but the part that has lived with me– haunted me!– is the presentation by a woman they had brought in to cover cultural competency. She had been raised in a town South of Portland. She had brothers. She laughed about learning how to hunt and fish as a child while simultaneously learning (as most black and brown kids on this coast learn) "I-5 Stay Alive". She talked about "black hair" and what shampoo is good for babies. She left a card for a salon she liked. She talked about her life. She answered a few awkward questions. She was lovely. It was fine.

Sort of.

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? This was not the information these families needed. This was a woman who had been raised by the parents that she was born to. She had a large family and support system. She did not indicate that she knew anything about adoption. Had she placed a baby? Had she been placed as one? At the time, I remember leaving that day feeling like it had been a giant waste of time. This was not helpful. Where were the adult adoptees in the room? Where were the people to say "I grew up in a home like yours and I turned out all right. Here is why"? Or better, where were the people in the room to talk about how it gone horribly wrong? They were missing, and for good reason. This is not a narrative that most agencies have sought to understand.

This was most frustrating because we felt like our agency was sensitive to these issues. As a part of our home study we had to complete a course covering racial identity and the ways it affected our worldview. We were asked to write a series of small essays detailing our history of prejudice, how race had affected our lives, and what practical things we were doing to prepare to raise a child of colour in the place that we had chosen to live. There was required reading. I read beyond the list– books by adult adoptees– all of which left me sobbing. I watched documentaries. I read about the history of transracial adoption in this country which included a lengthy account of how and why many social workers and adoption professionals lobbied against it. I read blogs by first/birth/natural parents who had placed their children. I read about the politics of hair and skin. I made sure our bookshelf was full of kids books that would reflect all the colours in our family. We had purposefully chosen to live in a multiculturaI neighborhood. In many ways, we had spent years preparing for this time. I told myself we would figure it out. I told myself that we were as ready as anybody. I told myself it would be okay. It was a baby! All babies need the same thing, yes?

***

I was reminded about all of this in the last few weeks after the fallout from Melissa Harris Perry's segment and subsequent (moving) apology. In response, NPR then aired a segment last week from an adoptive parent and author detailing their own experience parenting very young brown children (this is a beautiful and powerful response to that segment). This was a VERY difficult piece to listen to. This interview was not the story that prospective adoptive parents need to hear. These are not the kind of stories that should instill confidence in the adoption industry. These are, instead, the stories that we tell ourselves to make each other feel better. White folks, these are the stories we tell when we are trying to ignore the fact that we are participating in a system that is built around a crisis of poverty and inequity.

I want to make it clear that I love my children with the fire of a 100 suns. This love moves me to talk about things that make me uncomfortable. This love moves me to find peace in the way that multiple narratives (some of them conflicting) around our story can exist simultaneously. I recognize that this is our story. I know that no two families are the same. My understanding of these issues is evolving and I'm grateful for the people in my life who have suffered through those changes with me. That said, being a parent is not easy and it is often defined by heartbreak and a level of selflessness that would bring a monk to his knees. Being a family built by adoption, particularly transracial adoption, thrusts that heartbreak into the public sphere. If you are an adoptive parent you must make peace with that heartbreak. We have been complicit in our child's lost history. If we cannot acknowledge and seek to understand that loss, how will they be able to?

***

There is a Part Two somewhere in me. (And some of that aforementioned sewing… This is the only way I can think to maintain this space. Multiple narratives, people!) There are folks that write about these issues with far greater poise and power than I do. If you are a person who is looking at becoming a parent through adoption, SEEK OUT THESE PEOPLE. Seek out the hard stories. Make room for criticism of your choices. Understand that much of the criticism might be valid or may come from some place outside your experience.

Do not buy into the myth that Love Is All You Need. If that were true, my babies would not have been placed.

29 Comments

  1. Melissa,
    I am reading your words on the anniversary of my second (biological) son’s ninth year.
    I am broken with heartbreak. Hitched to the promise, the possibility, of doing better, being better, singular and plural.
    And I am hoping, hopeful, that you keep coming back with any and all narratives that work, for you and yours. Please? And thank you. In advance.

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  2. I am a lurker who reads your blog occasionally and I have always felt your love for all of your children. I cannot imagine what you and your children experience everyday. The feelings that they have lost a family – will they lose another. We are a different color and have different traditions – will we be accepted? The acceptance that you have given them is most important and the road will not be easy, but it will be worth the pain you all experience. You are trying to lift them up and there are a lot of people that will help and as they learn more about your family they will be more accepting. You are opening eyes and hearts, but the pain you and your children will experience in the process are horrible. Bless you in your endeavors.

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  3. Mellisa, how frustrating that your agency brought in a non-adoptee to speak about her experience as a black person in this country. Very surprising that an agency would chose to do that. Thank you for this wonderfully honest blog post. Best wishes to your family.
    -Angela

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  4. Whenever you post about racism and the struggles you and your family face, I have to acknowledge my ignorance (and privilege, as I’ve never experienced racism first-hand). I’d like to understand more but don’t even know where to start.
    Would you be willing to suggest some online or in-print resources that have been helpful for you? It would be very much appreciated.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this space.

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  5. Adult adoptee here. However with us, Mum said they tried to match her up with our birth mum looks wise. It didn’t work – they both had brown hair and I came out strawberry blonde! My brother and I are mixed race but I’m whiter than white. He’s a little darker but no one notices – I’ve even been told we look alike (we don’t), just like people tell me I look like Mum.
    We had a charmed upbringing. I think the only thing I would change (and looking back, Mum would change) is that my parents were immigrants. Obviously I wouldn’t change my parents for anything, but this meant that we weren’t fully immersed in the culture we grew up in. Maybe they could have made more effort? I don’t know. When I started school I didn’t know the dialect. Even now things that my friends take for granted as an integral part of “our” culture are still alien to me. And now I’ve gone and broken their hearts by living in their country (the UK), while they continue to live in mine. And on the forms I fill in “white British” because that’s the only way I can really justify seeing myself. Putting “mixed” would feel like a lie because there is no denying my white privilege and culture, you know?
    It’s really such a minor thing but I think about it every time I fill out one of those forms. Maybe whatever I say is a lie.

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  6. love you. and your candid way of bringing up these issues and dealing with them through honest self-reflection and love. i’ve told you before, and i am sure i will continue to tell you…you are my hero. xo.

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  7. I am a long time blog reader, and felt moved to comment. I am a mother who grew my family through birth and adoption. Nearly six year ago we brought home a sibling group (they are Hispanic, I am not) from the WA state foster care system. At the time they were 10yo, 7yo, and 17months old. I was 25. It is hard to not resent the agency who placed our children with us. I love my kids, so very much, with the same fire you talk about, yet this road has been tragically hard. So very hard. Our agency had no such essays we were required to write. We did a few seminars like the one you mentioned and had a home study and we smiled and were happy. We met our kids at a burger king and two weeks later they were in our home as an adoptive placement. We had never been foster parents. We had 2 young boys under 3 in our home already. This was not a safe plan. Yet it happened. Our hearts were so full, so passionate. But we were so naive. I often wonder about the woman at the agency who sat with us, signing off on this adoption. I wonder what she saw when she looked across the table at me, a young mom who had no idea of what she was walking into. I wonder a lot. My oldest boy has been in a RTC for two years. But that is such a small slice of what the real heartbreak has been. Because the real heartbreak, the one you mention, is the enormous loss that took place for my children before they ever met me. The loss that they carry now. The loss I try to bear for them, but can’t knowing it is not so simple as that, is it? Much love to you.

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  8. Melissa – I had forgotten about that woman from the adoption training. It’s both amusing and sad to me now. This parenting thing is so hard. So often I feel like I’m in the trenches. I am so aware of how parenting our transracially adopted child is different than our biological children, but sometimes it’s hard to find the time and mental energy to do the adoption and race-related extras that he needs. Usually we’re focused on the extras required by his dynamic personality. (I can’t decide whether to put a smiley face after that sentence.) I can find myself coming up with a mental tally of all the ways we are failing him. I have missed seeing you since soccer ended. Jennifer

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  9. “White folks, these are the stories we tell when we are trying to ignore the fact that we are participating in a system that is built around a crisis of poverty and inequity.”
    “We have been complicit in our child’s lost history. If we cannot acknowledge and seek to understand that loss, how will they be able to?”
    These statements ring so clear and true. Thank you for moving the adoptive parent narrative forward. This post should be required reading for all prospective adoptive parent and all adoption agency workers.
    Thanks for always showing up. I’ll keep showing up too. Even when it’s uncomfortable and hard and messy. You inspire me.
    PS–I look forward to part 2 (and 3 and 4 and…).

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  10. My husband was adopted. One of six adopted babies. While it is a lengthy story, not to share here, I can tell you with certainty, love is not all you need.
    Because you feel what you do, you are an awesome mother. xo

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  11. This post is very timely for me. We have 3 biological children and always thought at some point we would adopt. I’ve watched both my brother and sister-in-laws adopt transracially in the last few years, and it has made me question our plan to adopt. I never thought adoption would be easy or full of glittery butterflies, but I don’t think I realized how much I might wrestle with the decision–how feeling like a “white savior” might make my stomach churn, how other people of color might judge us for adopting a baby from their race, how I would have to learn to gracefully answer unsolicited questions in the grocery store aisle. It can be done. It is done every day by adoptive parents. But I don’t think I realized that I would struggle with the discomfort of it for my entire life. Like you said, I want to hear the hard truths. Or maybe I want to hear the hard truths with the amazing truths thrown in too.

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  12. I’m new to your blog and am so happy I found it. I love your truth and sensibility and visual aesthetic too. I love that you are choosing to write about these difficult topics. It’s funny how one can find the thing that they most need when they most need it. We live in Portland and are thinking of (grappling with…obsessing about) growing our family by adoption (we have two of our own boys, 3 and 8 months) and your words are so timely for me to consider right now. thank you!!!

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  13. I grew up with biological and adopted siblings (trans-racial international adoptions, of a baby, toddler, teen, and later a sibling group ages 5-9). In the eighties, families like ours were less common, and people (including social workers), seemed to be very invested in seeing us as a fairy tale ending for all involved, rather than looking at the adoptions as the beginning of a long, hard road.
    It seems like things are slowly getting better, but love is definitely not all you need. Honesty and openness and a willingness to be real about adoption, such as you show in your writing, go a long way. I really appreciate you putting these thoughts out here for us.

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  14. We are adoptive parents (through US infant domestic adoption) with two biological children. We’ve considered adopting out of the US foster care system, but then we read Adopting the Hurt Child and Parenting the Hurt Child by Keck and Kupecky. If you haven’t read them, they were riveting. Probably the most heart wrenching and accurate description of adoption challenges ever. I spent a lot of time reviewing the reasons, the real reasons, we though we wanted to adopt out of foster care. Then we choose to focus on the family we had. Our middle son, who is adopted, will surely have to face the hurt and questions of his past at some point, and this Mama wants to be ready to help him.

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