The Child I Didn’t Adopt

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little-boy-and-teddy-bear Image via Shutterstock

It was something about the phrasing that got to me. Something about the cadence of his words, the staccato of his speech.

“Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.”

It is an odd turn of phrase, isn’t it?

Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

He was buckled into the backseat of my Toyota, still too little to sit up front. At seven he had already moved more times than the total number of years he had been on the earth. And this time, like the times before it, he moved with his belongings in a trash bag. A suitcase, at least, would have added a small degree of dignity to the whole affair – to being “placed” in another and another and yet another foster home before reaching the 3rd grade. Trash bags break, you know. Trash bags can’t possibly support the contents of any life, and certainly not a life as fragile as this.

They break from the strain, eventually.

This move was harder for Stephen than most. It was a home he thought he would stay in, at least for awhile. He had felt affection there. When I went to pick him up, after his foster mother gave notice that he could no longer stay, he came easily with me; head down, no reaction on the surface of it. It was only when he got into my car that he began to sob the kind of aching sound that leaves you limp in its wake.

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He could barely get out the words. Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

Months later, in a repeat scene (another foster mother, another removal), he would put up a fight. He would run around the living room, ducking behind furniture, refusing to leave. But on this night he had no fight in him.

That was Stephen at seven.

Nine-year old Stephen grips his report card in sweaty hands. We’re headed to an adoption event, where we will meet families who want to adopt an older child; families who do not automatically rule out a boy like Stephen with all of his long “history.” And he wants to impress them, these strangers. He wants to win them over, and so he brings his good report card along as tangible proof that he is a child worth loving.

A child should never have to prove they are worth loving.

Twelve-year-old Stephen tells me that I’m his best friend. I’m his social worker, and he should have a real best friend, but I don’t say this to him. We’re at a taping for Wednesday’s Child, the news spot featuring children who are up for adoption. Stephen is engaging on camera. Maybe somebody will pick him this time. Maybe he is offering just enough evidence, at twelve, that he’s a boy worth loving. And he is lovable, truly. But it is not enough. A family never comes.

Years later, long after I’ve left the agency, I get an email from my old boss asking how I’m doing, and ending with a short P.S. “Stephen is in DYS lockup after running away from his foster home. You need to adopt him.” My stomach drops. I’ve had this thought many times. I should adopt him myself. But I don’t.

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I heard about his murder from a friend who had seen it in the news. Shot outside a party over some foolish dispute. Dead at 18, dead just as he became a man. Not my Stephen, I prayed. When I realized that it was really him – that it could be no other – I sobbed gripped by the kind of anguish that leaves you limp in its wake.

The newspapers ran very little about the murder, as if it were an afterthought. Barely worth a mention, really. Anonymous strangers posted nasty comments online: “Just another gangbanger,” they said. You don’t even know him. You don’t know the first thing about this boy. You don’t know that as a child he would trace letters into my back with his finger to pass time at the doctor’s office, asking me to guess what phrase he was spelling out. “I ♥ U” he traced between my shoulders, the last time we played this game.

Stephen had been wrong, that night in my Toyota. His mother did love him, in her way. She was there, at the funeral. She greeted me kindly. I think she knew I loved Stephen as I knew she did. We both failed him in the end, and that joined us I suppose. Neither of us could give him a family.

There were no photos from Stephen’s childhood at the funeral home. No images of the green-eyed boy with the sweet smile to remind us of what had been lost. There were no pictures of Stephen with his brothers, and so I printed up snapshots of the four boys together, taken on a supervised visit, and brought them to the funeral to give to the family. It was something I could do, against the larger backdrop of nothing I could do.

There were very few social workers at the funeral, and none of Stephen’s many foster mothers. Did they even know he was dead? Stephen spent more of his life being raised in the system than out of it. If you claim legal responsibility for a child, you best show up at his funeral. You should show up when he dies. He was yours, in a way, wasn’t he? You owe it to him. And if he did not belong to you, then who did he ever belong to?

His mother was there, at least. His mother who gave birth to him. I hear the echo of his voice from those many years ago.

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Somebody does love you, Stephen. I want to tell him. But it’s too late.

Stephen was the one, for me. The one who embodied all the failures of a system so broken that to heal it would take far more than the casts that heal the literal broken bones of the children growing up within it.

They break, you know. These kids we leave behind. Eventually they break.

November is National Adoption Month. For information on adoption from the foster care system, visit the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

*Stephen is a fictional name for a real boy the world lost.

We Are A Very Real Family, Thank You Very Much

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hand-on-skin Image via La Jolie Vie Photography

My family is no stranger to questions, stares, and assuming statements. Since my husband and I became parents five-and-a-half-years ago, we’ve pretty much heard it all.

“Are they all yours?”

“I cannot imagine giving my baby away.”

“Are you the nanny?”

“Isn’t adoption really expensive?”

“What country are they from?”

“Why didn’t you adopt white kids?”

“Aren’t a lot of adopted kids, you know, pretty messed up?”

“Doesn’t open adoption confuse your children?”

“OH! What a wonderful thing you did adopting children who needed good homes.”

“Are they foster kids?”

“Aren’t you afraid their birth parents will try to take them back?”

We’ve had plenty of practice responding to the slew of statements and questions we encounter. There is rarely a day that goes by when we aren’t approached to answer a question about adoption.

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Some believe we’ve signed up for being adoption educators. After all, we chose this path to parenthood, and our status as an adoptive family is apparent. We are white, and all three of our kids are black. We have become more outgoing, patient, and strong, with each passing year. The questions that are asked of us are our normal. We know how to respond with education, grace, and honesty, all while protecting our children’s privacy.

But there is one question that never fails to get under my skin, causing my chest to tighten, and my face to flush.

“Are they real siblings?”

Imagine you are in a store with your family, and the person in front of you in the checkout line turns to observe the restless children (with their incessant touching/bouncing/bumping/giggling/shrieking). After a quick glance over the children, and the sweaty mother trying to contain them while simultaneously grabbing all the candy bars her toddler has nabbed, the person asks, “Are they real siblings?”

It’s not what you would expect. Nor is it what you want to hear, with your cart heaped with haphazardly stacked groceries and diapers and feminine products and clearance clothing. With your energetic little ones. With your coupon binder spilling open and your wallet missing, only to discover, oh yes, the baby is playing with it, sprinkling your credit cards and coins around like birthday confetti.

Why do you not expect it? Because you are just a normal parent, trying to insure your kids remain safe and happy and healthy. Because you are at the store trying to pick up food and clothing and personal hygiene products—like normal people do.

And because, above all, your children are standing right there, and they have a right to respect and to
just be kids. They aren’t adoption’s poster children for you to interrogate.

Think for a moment about the people you love. Really love. Your best friend. Your partner or spouse. Your parents. Your sister’s step-son. Your godchildren. Your grandmotherly neighbor who is always looking out for you. Your favorite childhood teacher or coach. These are the people who have invested in your life, who have been with you in good times and in bad, who know your idiosyncrasies and love you like crazy anyway.

Many of these individuals aren’t your biological relatives. But your love for them runs deep and true.

There are countless times I’ve been asked the “real” question. It comes in many forms. I understand the person is substituting the word “real” for “biological,” and as an adult, I know what you mean. But please think about the innocent, beautiful little humans standing beside me. The word “real” is confusing, intrusive, and hurtful.

My kids act like any other children who are in the same family. They pull each other’s hair, give one another hugs, steal toys from the hands of the other, share an evening bath, join hands and play endless games of Ring Around the Rosie. They argue, they reconcile, and then argue again. They play, dance all kinds of silly when their favorite song comes on, and they nurture one another.

My kids are real people. With thoughts and feelings. Newsflash: They can hear you when you pepper us, the parents, with questions about our family’s authenticity.

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Our love is real.

Our family is real.

It’s all real.

The next time you see a family at the store, at the park, in a restaurant, at the library, standing next to you on the subway, and the family looks like they may not be biologically related or they may have joined together through the process of adoption, it’s perfectly fine to smile. But please keep the word “real” to yourself.

Or as my mama taught me, just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it aloud.

Related post: A Child of My Own

How I Want To Respond To The Adoption Questions

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adorable-little-boy Image via Shutterstock

November means stuffing our faces with pumpkin pie and fake whipped cream. November means three AM bargain hunting on Black Friday. November means leggings, sweaters and poking fun at the people who get all twitterpated over pumpkin spice shit.

November is also National Adoption Month, and the fact that we celebrate children finding families and giving thanks in the same 30-day time period? Well, let’s just say that’s not lost on me.

Two of my kids are adopted. My brother and several of my cousins are adopted, too. Growing up, adoption was just a normal part of how you get kids. As an adoptive parent, I get asked all kinds of rude, nosy and sometimes really weird questions about adoption. I usually manage to answer semi-politely while evading. “Oh, look at the time, gotta go take care of my pesky chin hairs now,” and so on.

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But just for fun, here are some of the answers I wish I could give to people who ask nosy adoption questions.

1. Can’t you have any children of your own? That’s a big no because I have no uterus and my fallopian tubes are shriveled up. I had endometriosis and it gave me raging awful periods, so I had some key girl parts removed. Shall I go on? I love talking about my vagina.

2. What happened to their real momGosh, I don’t know! These rude little humans woke me up at 5AM crying for Dora and then they asked if I’d make them oatmeal. That seems pretty real to me. Is there someone else that should be handling these buttcrack of dawn requests? Oh, and say! Are those your real boobs?

3. How much did they cost? They were free, but let me tell you the shipping and handling was pretty freakin’ steep. Oh, and say! How much did you pay for that ostentatious gas-guzzling SUV?

4. Do you know Angelina Jolie? I totally do. Yesterday I was just saying: “Angie, we need to call Madge, put on our good yoga pants, jump in the minivan and head to Sonic for happy hour.” Of course I know famous people that have adopted. We all hang out drinking boxed wine and snarfing crockpot cheese dip. Fun!

5. Why did you adopt from China instead of your own country? I adopted from my own species. That’s something, right? And… When would be a good time to talk about your made in Indonesia shoes and your Japanese car, hmm?

6. Now that you’ve adopted, do you think you’ll get pregnant? Ooooh fun! We’re not done talking about my vagina yet? Just kidding. See #1.

7. Are you planning to tell them they’re adopted? It depends on how smart they turn out to be. They may eventually figure out that two Caucasians don’t usually produce Asian kids, so if it seems like they’re going to be smart, we’ll have the adoption talk when they’re about 13 and really starting get going with that whole teen angst thing.

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And my personal favorite,

8. You’re a saint for giving those poor children a good home. You’re fuckin’ A right I am. Gotta go now. Here come the kids with my beer.

Related post: 20 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Adopting

20 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Adopting

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family-of-three Image via Shutterstock

Like the first-time pregnant woman who remains blissfully and intentionally naive about the pains of childbirth, my husband and I sat in many an adoption class grinning wryly at one another. “It’s not going to be like that for us,” said the grin. Except it was like that for us. It was like that in ways that even the classes, taught by qualified adoption professionals, could not have convinced us.

Now, eleven years into our journey of parenting, two by adoption and one by birth, I have cobbled together a list of things I wish I had known before adopting: 

1. Adoption is a wonderful way to form a family.

2. No matter how simple or rosy your adoption might seem, all adoption is predicated upon loss. Even if you are the lucky one-in-a-million to “catch” baby in the hospital and you celebrate with the birth mother as she joyfully signs parenting rights over to you, your child will be affected by the adoption. Your child’s birth parents and extended family will experience loss. You will feel the sting of not having carried your child. Everyone will miss the medical history if there is none available. You will have to deal with the emotional scars of adoption. Even if it doesn’t look like there are any scars, there are.

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3. Make sure you are surrounded by supportive people who will shower you with all the rituals that traditionally come with forming a family with children. The two showers we were thrown made us feel like we were a real family (despite the many messages out there that we were not).

4. Some people will treat you like you are not a real family. Our first social worker — I said SOCIAL WORKER — was pregnant.  She constantly communicated to us that while she was forming a family, we were apparently playing house.  When she did a home visit, 8 months pregnant, she stopped at the nursery and said, “Oh…hmmmm…I guess I wouldn’t recommend setting up room for a child since, you know, you might not get one.” Before firing her, I asked, “Do you have a nursery set up?” “Yes,” she said, pointing to her swollen belly, “But, you know, mine’s a sure thing.” Ouch.

5. Set aside two to three times more money than the agency tells you you will need for the adoption. If you need it, it is there.  If you are lucky enough not to need it — college fund!

6. Make absolutely sure that somebody is there to visit/greet you when you bring your child home. If you adopt internationally, make sure people are waiting to welcome you at that airport.  If you are coming home from the hospital or a foster home, make sure there are people who will come by and (appropriately) ooh and aah with you over your newest family member, whether the child is a few days old or 13.  You need this.  Trust me.  We arrived from Haiti to an empty airport.  The fact that we had just become parents did not feel special to us at all.

7. Most people, when they inquire about your children, really do have good intentions.  Some are just curious.  Some are considering adoption.  Some have already adopted.  Some are grandparents awaiting a grandchild through adoption (we meet a lot of these).  Some are from your child’s country of origin.  Many are innocently curious children.  Be kind.  Give them the benefit of the doubt when they are asking questions — until they have proven that their intentions are not good.

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8.  Occasionally, you will meet people whose intentions are not good.  Feel free to tell them it is private, ignore them completely, or in extreme cases, ask them an equally rude question.  Once a lady pointed at my kids and asked, “Where did you get those and how much were they?”  Hoping to educate her on the language a bit, I responded, “They joined our family through adoption.  She pushed, “I can see that, but what’d you do to get them?   I asked, “Are you considering adoption?”  “No,” she responded incredulously, “I just want to know where and how you got ‘em.” Sobering up to the situation, I asked, “Do you have children?”   She nodded yes.  I rapidly retorted, “Were they born vaginally or did you have a c-section?  When you conceived them, what position did you use?  How much was the hospital bill?” She walked away and the checker plus the 2 other people in line at the supermarket all applauded. That was the only time I can recall where I felt the need to be rude in response to an adoption question. 9.  Respect your child’s place of birth and family of origin.  While it is important to be honest if they come from a family or culture with big challenges, always be respectful.

10. If you are adopting because you believe the child you wish to adopt is a heathen or going straight to hell without your help, DON’T. If you are repulsed by the potential child’s cultural heritage and are adopting to save them from it, do not adopt. That is not love. That is not respect. In doing so, you strip the child of dignity.

11. Before even beginning the process, know this: You are in this for the long haul. If your child develops in a way you did not expect, you are still their parent.  Do not assume that you can do anything with your child through adoption that you would not/could not do with a child from birth.  Yes.  Adoption can be difficult.   As I mentioned, there are always scars.  Often times those scars can cause behaviors and emotions that are incredibly challenging.   You need to know that before you sign on the dotted line.  If you would not “return” a child born to you with a severe disability, don’t expect to “return” a child from adoption who is emotionally scarred.  If your child needs a level of support that you cannot provide by yourself, it is your job to find the necessary resources AND continue to support the child as a parent should.

12. At some point, no matter how much you have reenforced positive adoption language, your child, most likely a ‘tween, will scream for their “real mother/father” when angry with you. It will sting.

13. Likewise, if your child is not able to have a relationship with their birth family, they will fantasize about living with them — and the fantasy will often times look better than their real life.

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14. Numbers 12 and 13, as well as other painful scenarios — like your child running away to find their birth family — are perfectly normal.

15. Normal, age-appropriate challenges will be both punctuated and informed by your child’s adoption.  Often times, that which punctuates and informs those struggles is 100% unknown to you.  This is hard on everybody.  As difficult as it is for you as the parent, though, imagine how tough it is for your child that you and they don’t necessarily know what they have been through.

16. The lack of medical information, should that be an issue, is a challenge for the parent.  For many children, it is confusing at first (0-7 years), then embarrassing (8-11 years), then devastating (12+ years).

17. Any amount of loss that you are feeling because you did not carry your child in pregnancy, did not know your child from birth, etc. is multiplied by a great deal for the child.  While you sort through your own loss, recognize that theirs is greater.

18. Most of your friends and family will not fully grasp the labyrinth of emotions involved in adoption.

19. Find people who do fully grasp the labyrinth of emotions involved in adoption.

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20. Adoption is still a subject that requires some careful treading in many circles.
 People will tell you that the issue you are facing is a normal, age-appropriate issue.  That may well be true, but adoption adds another layer and you, as the parent, must be prepared to dig in and work through the issue with your child.  Other people will respond to adoption thoughtlessly (the grandparent who treats children who were adopted differently, the teacher who points out your child any time adoption is a topic, the neighbor who is uncomfortably nosy).  In choosing to adopt, you are also choosing to be both your child’s protector and your child’s advocate.  You will be responsible for educating the uncouth teacher and nosy neighbor.  It is your job to have the difficult conversation with the thoughtless grandparent.

Related post: We Are A Very Real Family, Thank You Very Much

I don’t like my skin

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Mother Care

We traveled to Ethiopia in December of 2009 and returned with our son EJ on Christmas day. This little guy has completely changed my life and how I view things. There is no one that makes me laugh harder, keeps me on my toes, and challenges me more often.

Some of the best conversations take place between 7:30 am and 7:50 am every morning. EJ uses our car ride to school to voice opinions, ask questions, and tell me stories. I learn a lot in twenty minutes.

But this morning’s conversation was something I wasn’t expecting to happen so soon. It threw me off, made me sad, and brought me back to reality.

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I had taken EJ to the dermatologist the day before. He goes every year to have his eczema checked out and check some of the pigmentation marks he has. It is routine and takes only minutes. I told him that his skin gets a little rash sometimes when it is dry, just like Mommy gets, and we just need the doctor to check it. She told him he looked great!

So this morning I was surprised when I heard from the backseat:

“Mommy, why did I go to the dermatologist yesterday?”

“Just to check your eczema. Lots of people get that. But you looked great. We just need to keep up with your cream!”

“I don’t like my skin.”

“What?”

“It’s too dark.”

My heart literally sank. I wanted to pull over. These are words that I dreaded hearing but knew that might possibly come at some point. I didn’t think he would be just shy of four.

“EJ, I love your skin. You have beautiful brown skin.”

“Well I don’t like brown skin. I don’t want it.”

“Lots of your friends have brown skin.” (I then listed them in a panic)

“Yeah they do.”

“What kind of skin do you want?” I knew the answer.

“Skin like yours.”

This was lot for me. By myself in the car at 7:30am. I was stumped, sad, and caught off guard. I never wanted him to feel this way. This was a lot for him.  Clearly he had been carrying this around with him. I thought we had done the right things to prevent this. But yet again, I know so little and am so naïve. There is no way to prevent this conversation and I knew that.

“EJ, you have beautiful skin. We all have different color skin. All of us. If we didn’t, think how boring we would all look. You loved learning about rainbows this year in school and all the colors. People are like rainbows, all different colors but all beautiful. I want you to realize that your brown skin is just as beautiful as Mommy’s even if it is not the same. There isn’t too dark or too light.”

“OK.”

We pulled into school and he asked if he was heading to Pre-K for the day.

This conversation is far from over. This conversation is only the beginning. I called Mike on my way to work to recap and I could hear in his voice the same sadness and realization that this day has come. I then went and visited with a colleague of mine who provided me with an understanding ear and some great wisdom. I was very grateful for her perspective and guidance.

I truly wish we didn’t have to tackle these issues with EJ. Not for us. Not because it is hard for us to talk about or involves us doing some work, talking to others and a lot of reading. But because I can see the pain and confusion it causes my little guy. And I would do anything in the world to prevent that. But once again, I can’t.

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I would love advice, reading suggestions, stories from those who have far more wisdom and experience than me. I would love some guidance and reassurance that we are taking the right steps and saying the right things. More than anything I wish I could know for certain that we can guarantee that all future pain, confusion and identify issues can be kept to a minimum. That we could know for certain that he will always love himself and who he is, even if he is different from Mommy and Daddy. The best we can do at this point is show him the many, many, many reasons we love him and do our part to help him shape his own identity and self-love.

Tonight I asked EJ if he wanted to read his Ethiopia book. We looked at photos of his birth family. “Your birth mommy and daddy have brown skin just like you! And their skin is beautiful!”

He smiled and nodded, “Yep!”