Unprepared: Walking into Adoption (Day 28 of 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days series)

“I was unprepared. I was unprepared for fostering, for the adoption following it, for the open adoption which unexpectedly blossomed, for raising an African American son as a white woman. I was unprepared for all of it. I didn’t know what we were getting into despite my prolific reading on the subject. Adoption caught me by surprise.”

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You can read the rest of my piece for Portrait of an Adoption‘s 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days series here. In their words, “In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.”

I’m honored to be a part of the narrative.

 

Sometimes, adoption sounds like this:

Example 1:

We took Isaac to meet a new before/after school, in-homedaycare provider. Isaac played with her son while I filled out paperwork. I let her know that we have an open adoption so she wouldn’t be caught unaware if Isaac brought up his sisters or his other mom. Since Isaac has shared with me that it makes him sad when people talk about adoption around him because it makes him think of his first mom, I made sure he was downstairs when I shared this information. Still, as we were heading out the door, he whipped back around and called out, “Just so you know, I’m adopted!” It was seemingly out of the blue, so I asked him where it came from. “Well, I don’t want her wondering how come that black kid is with these white people!” He said it with a crooked smile that said, “Don’t be CRAZY. I’m just setting things straight,” but it was a perfect example of how often adoption, particularly his transracial adoption, is on his brain. This wasn’t out of the blue for him. It is something he talks about periodically but thinks about frequently. Adoption can be a struggle for him.

Example 2:

A friend was visiting and playing a game with Isaac. She knows his back story and about his first family. They were in the middle of the game when Isaac said, “You know S. (his first mom) died.” She replied that, yes, she did know that. “It just makes me sad that God made S. die right in the middle of her fun,” he said. We shot eyes at each other. How do you reply to that? That didn’t just slip out- it was a comment that has been picked and pulled apart by my 5 year old and is a piece of how he is viewing God. Adoption can cause him pain.

Example 3:

I had asked Isaac to come back upstairs to shut off his bedroom lights and close the door, something he frequently forgets to do which is an irritation when you have as many animals as we do and I’d prefer my child to sleep on fur free sheets. “Aren’t you up there?” he called. I raised an eyebrow to our empty bedroom because I’m a mom and a teacher and when a child is disrespectful that eyebrow goes up no matter who’s around to see it. “You can help around the house, sir,” I called back. Complying, he stated as a matter of fact, “I don’t think I should have to,” and then went back downstairs. Ryan, having heard the exchange, asked Isaac if he’d just told me that he didn’t have to help around the house. “Well this isn’t really my house. I live in an apartment.” Ryan asked for clarification and in my upstairs eavesdropping I braced myself because I’m a mother, regardless of how that came to be true, and I could sense it before the words appeared. “Well, S. lived in an apartment before I got taken away and that’s where I was supposed to live and she’s my real mom.”

I cried. I let myself cry for about 30 seconds upstairs and then I sucked it up and went downstairs as Ryan was trying to find some appropriate way to respond. “Listen,” I said gently to our son whom I love, “I’m glad you feel comfortable talking about how adoption is sometimes hard for you and how you wish we all looked alike or how you miss your first family. You should talk about it and I’m happy to talk about it with you. But you have two moms who are real in different ways and don’t you think for a second that if S. was standing here that she would be okay with you saying that you don’t have to help out in this family. So you keep on talking about the hard stuff with us, but you will not use adoption as an excuse to not help in our family again, do you understand me?” He nodded, because he did, and he’d seen S. and I together and knew I was right, that she wouldn’t have stood for it. He needs to see me calm and willing to talk and that means crying for him as well as my own human woundedness later, when he isn’t around. Adoption is confusing to him; he needs to evaluate and push and question to see where he actually fits into his families. My personal baggage shouldn’t be his problem.

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Frankly, adoption is confusing to me too. That entire dialogue took place in the span of a few minutes but my feeling unprepared can’t be used as an excuse for a lack of response. It is a precarious balance between acknowledging his need to feel comfortable talking while also corralling my own fragility. Being a parent (through any means) requires learning to be selfless even when it hurts and I know he wasn’t trying to hurt me. He was being honest in what he’s feeling. He trusts us to share his fears and woes and I feel immensely thankful that he does. Adoption is how I became a mom, but it isn’t how he became a son; I hold in my responses the ability to make his story more or less complicated.

This is why I don’t know how to respond to adoption questions: because I’ve become so passionate about the need for us to push aside the rainbows society has fed us about adoption and start admitting that rainbows must occur along side of storms, of rain. That being said, there is also so much sunshine and every child deserves a family in which to feel safe and well loved. It is the single most difficult, beautiful, confusing path I have ever taken, and that is something I have trouble articulating because I fear it sounds as though I am discouraging adoption. On the contrary, I have felt the weight of being an adoptive parent and I see the immense responsibility it offers up and if you are ready to take up that challenge… GO! Going into adoption with open eyes will better prepare you, can only help you both in the long run. The privilege of holding the hand of a child who could use a safe place to process, to feel, to question- it is enormous. It is miraculous. It is worthy of weighing out, it is worthy of looking past the hype. Be prepared, be honest, be sincere: it is worth wading through the storms.

Teach them to stay open.

A few days ago, an Amber Alert was issued for a little boy from my hometown by the name of Omarion, “Mars” for short. It was a particularly complicated case as he went missing while in the care of his foster family and was autistic and nonverbal. My small, Midwestern town rallied and searched and prayed and, five days later, his body was found in a lake in the city park which had just recently opened following much fanfare and planning.

It was impossible not to follow the case as it unfolded since there were so many posts on my social media feeds: the searches, the leads, the birth mother speaking out, the foster family keeping quiet. It wasn’t long before speculation began arising about who was to blame. Conspiracy theories bounced around and fingers were pointed. When tragedy strikes, we like to identify the root of the issue. Speculation is a natural human response to explaining the unexplainable. I watched and I mulled and I felt uncomfortably conflicted and so I mulled some more until I could put my finger onto why I felt so unsettled about my reaction to this boy’s too short story…

… and then I read this news story recalling his history:

“Omarion wears adult clothes held up by a belt and wears shoes with no soles. Omarion’s teacher provides Omarion clothing that he changes into before class starts in the morning,” court documents in Oakland County said. “Omarion is frequently bullied by his peers due to poor hygiene and for body odor. In the past, school personnel have had to give Omarion sponge baths due to his overwhelming body odor and hygiene.” (Source: Mlive)

At that moment, I realized why I was feeling uncomfortable: Mars’s tragic passing was uncommon, but his life beforehand was not. That description above? That could be detailing normalcy for any number of children living in poverty. I’ve seen it and I teach them and I’m telling you not in condescension but merely as a voice for the voiceless, this is so very disturbingly normal.

photo credit: andré´s converse via photopin (license) (No changes were made)

photo credit: andré´s converse via photopin

  • Shoes 3 sizes too big or too small
  • Pants that look like capris but are really just a younger sibling’s clothes
  • Odors of human or animal feces or urine
  • Lice jumping off heads onto tables
  • Bedbugs hiding in homework
  • Skirts in the dead of winter
  • Shirts worn 5 days in a row
  • Teeth broken in two from poor hygiene and diets
  • (And that list doesn’t even begin to address the homes of mattresses with no sheets, dog shit covered floors, roach infested kitchens…)

I know these things to be true because those are all truths from my own experiences as a teacher. That little boy’s story is shamefully normal. 

Now, lest we begin to jump on the judgement train again (and trust me, I’ve had quite a few therapy sessions revolving around resisting the urge to become completely jaded after years upon years of the same) it would do us all good to leave space for a couple of truths.

First, let us remember to be extremely careful of falling into the trap of the Single Story.

This TED talk absolutely beautifully illustrates this point, but allow me to apply it to this situation.

The foster family: On one hand, Ryan and I definitely made some crazy eyes at each other in our foster care training classes. There are some Crazy (with a capital C) people out there. Listen, they didn’t put this clause in our foster parent handbook because they were afraid someone might do it:

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On the other hand, fostering is hard. Fostering a child with special needs is hard. We don’t have enough foster families as it is and, even if these foster parents are found guilty of negligence, it is important to understand that fostering is deeply complicated in even the best case scenarios.

The birth family: First, it was difficult for me to hear Mars’s birth mother speak out about her missing son because the media was really throwing out the heartbreaking mom story. Single story, friends. Beware the single story. Certainly, definitely, grieve for this mother whose son went missing while under the care of another, but let’s not forget why he was with the other in the first place.

And yet, blame is heavy; let it not rest too heavy on any one individual. As terribly conflicting as it is to accept, when children are taken from unsafe families it should not be equated with that family not loving their child. I’m not offering excuses for atrocities brought upon children. I am offering that we remember not to judge from a Single Story. Some people really suck as parenting and there are a whole host of reasons for why this occurs. Love, (as all of us who understand that any family is complicated), is sometimes just not enough.

Finally, may this serve as a reminder to all of us that we are constantly surrounded by poverty, constantly surrounded by child maltreatment, EVEN WHEN WE DON’T SEE IT. I am  surrounded by it and I still have to fight to truly see because it is so much easier to look away. But we have to look. If you don’t see it in your daily life, I encourage you to find a way to look harder. We aren’t heartless, just overwhelmed, so start small. Talk to a friend who works around poverty. Don’t skip over the journal articles about how poverty impacts children. Talk to a staff member of a school in an area of high poverty. (Remember, it doesn’t just affect urban areas. Poverty impacts rural schools just as often.) Talk to someone who is currently living in poverty.

We don’t have to fix it ourselves. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need to stay aware. We need to get to the point where we understand that this little boy’s life wasn’t an exception to the rule; get to the point where his history horrifies us because it is yet another example of inequality and not because it is shocking in its originality.

Start small,

Beware the single story,

And keep your eyes open. Teach them to stay open.

 

photo credit: andré´s converse via photopin (license) (

Mother’s Day for the rest of us.

A year into my infertility, I went to church on Mother’s Day. I had no qualms whatsoever, but about 20 minutes in I realized how horribly I had misjudged the effects of Mother’s Day when your  journey as a mom doesn’t fit society’s pre-defined role. I was held, sobbing, after the service by a mom who got it: who’d walked before me and said she’d been praying for me throughout the service. She knew what I hadn’t foreseen and her recognition of my unexpected and unprepared for grief was a blessing for which I wasn’t even aware that I needed.

This Mother’s Day, allow me to pass on her blessing by recognizing the unconventional, the grieving, the hopeful mamas in all of their beautiful, painful, and honest forms…

I see you mama, you who have been trying and trying, poking and medicating, charting and waiting. You who melt onto the bathroom floor when you recognize another month as a wash; when you have to tell your other half that it didn’t work. Again. I see your grief and I recognize you as the hopeful mama you are and so deeply desire to become.

I see you mama, you who suffered a terrible loss after carrying your child for all of those 9 months. You, who visit the shore or tiny gravestone where you lay your baby down. I recognize you as the mama of the children who are physically with you- and the one who isn’t.

I see you mama, you who have a family of tiny, precious embies. I know there are many who can’t see those little embryos as your babies, but they have never walked in your shoes and they do not understand how you could cherish something so small. I recognize you as the protective mama I know that you are.

I see you mama, you who have miscarried. People rarely grasp the magnitude of the grief felt when a child, for whom you were the vessel, doesn’t arrive how you’d anticipated. I recognize you mama, and how deeply you love and how carefully you carried that child.

I see you mama, you whose child was carried by another whether by adoption or surrogacy. I see the genuine joy in your face as you watch your baby grow up and I also recognize the pain that comes with never having had the chance to cup your baby’s foot as it protrudes from your own swollen belly or, perhaps, missing out on entire months or years of your child’s life. I recognize you as a real mother, as carrying a child in your womb is not the defining characteristic of a mama.

I see you mama, you who were the first and whose child is now being raised by another. I know that you are overlooked and undervalued as a parent. I recognize you as a real mother regardless of how your story has played out.

I see you mama, who are missing your own mama. You who are grieving the loss of the woman who raised you up, comforted you, was your support system. I don’t need to, but maybe you need someone to give you permission to not have to fake it through this holiday acting like you’re fine when you’re not. I’m so sorry for your loss.

To all of you who deeply desire a child, those who are mamas though unconventional means, to the mamas whose children have gone before you, to all of you who experience some level of sadness over this holiday: I recognize you in sharing your experience. If you are in a place where the grief is raw, may you be blessed by a woman who sees you and comforts you this Mother’s Day. Alternatively, if you know this grief but have walked in it long enough to have tamed the intensity, may you be wide eyed in recognizing the woman who hasn’t. May we bless each other through our shared experiences and recognize mamas in all of our many forms. Happy Mother’s Day, to ALL of you mamas.

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Dear teacher of my ((adopted)) son.

Dear teacher of my son,

My name is Sara, and I should tell you first that I’m a teacher too. I want to tell you that so I’ve got some credibility for what I’m about to say. I know how hard you work and I know how much it exhausts you. I know how there are at least a couple of kids in your class who make you turn your back and make a “Dear Jesus, come quickly” face to the wall. I also know how there are some kids who just get right into your heart and literally make you cry over their stories. I have these kids, too. I’m worried that my child is going to be one of these two for you.

If my son drives you up the wall because we are honing his bossiness into leadership, please be patient. If my son makes you do a lot of those deep, dramatic sighs because he feels everything really BIG (like his mama), please help him to temper his emotions into words. If my son acts impulsively out of frustration, YOU CALL ME. But seriously, help me to raise my son in the way he should go and dig deeply before you make a judgement call. See, because I’m his mama I worry about the studies on boys, (particularly black boys), in school. I know what people mean when they hear that I teach in a high poverty, urban school and ask, “Do you have mostly black students?” My son is not naughty because he is black. He may be naughty sometimes, but that’s because he is a stinker-child and not because of his skin color.

On the other hand, if my son’s history in foster care makes you pity him, please stop. If my son’s early life experiences make you go easy on him, please don’t. If my son’s having been adopted makes your heart leap, please remember that there are some truly painful aspects of adoption and it isn’t a perfect solution. I’m telling you this because I don’t want my son to get special treatment. If he is struggling in something, I am begging you, push him as hard as you would push a child who still lives with his biological family. Please don’t go easy on him because you’ve read the research about how early trauma affects children. Please don’t knowingly nod your head if he is having a difficult time grasping something and write it off as a side effect of his history. I have the same expectations as any other mother. I left much of your back to school questionnaire blank because I’ll wait to tell you pertinent information if the need arises, but I don’t want you starting a full year with my son and your mind already made up. Trust me when I say that I never forget what my son has experienced, but that hasn’t stopped us from setting the same high expectations we’d set for him if he hadn’t.

I know how hard you work, I do. I know that you get families in there all the time asking you to watch over their child in one form or another and I know how honestly impossible it is to meet all of the requests made of you. I would just really, really, from the bottom of my heart, like to ask you to see my son as a teachable, beautiful, original child. I want the same things as all of those mamas who carried their children and it would be an immense relief and blessing if you could see those things for him too.

Sincerely,

Isaac’s mom

PS:

If you could please talk to your administration about getting this form changed, I’d greatly appreciate not having to mark myself as “other”.

School Registration

 

One year.

As of tomorrow, it will be exactly a year since Isaac’s first mom unexpectedly passed away. We are going out to the cemetery to meet up with some of his other family members for a bit after work. I haven’t told Isaac yet because he processes deeply and I’d rather him mull over it for the hours before as opposed to the days before. Navigating death with a 5 year old is strange and our circumstances make it stranger.

When his granny called me a year ago tomorrow to tell me, shock immediately turned into grief. I felt sad that a friend had died, but sadder that my son’s mom had died. He was four.

I grieve that she:

– doesn’t get to hear how he is THIS CLOSE to riding his bike without training wheels

-misses the intense concentration he musters to practice piano

-can’t cringe at his froyo store concoctions- always the gummies- or sneak bites like her mom (Isaac’s granny) does

-isn’t here to see how much her daughters adore their little brother, and he them

 

I grieve that he:

-can’t ask her the questions that have formed/are forming/will form for her, many to remain answerless

-won’t hear her praise him

-isn’t able to see the way she always looked at him

-has experienced such a staggering level of loss before he’s even entered school

 

I grieve a lot about her being gone.  I know that there are things that she could have provided him that I just can’t. We’re able to provide him with much, thank God, but there are some things… I just can’t.

An adoptive mother’s view of #FliptheScript

November is National Adoption Month and, as a mother who has adopted, I’ve been paying attention to the related news and there is a lot. National Adoption Month was initially created to raise awareness for the thousands of children in foster care without permanent homes. Over time, it has become more of an over-arching theme celebrating adoption via any route including domestic or international. Much of the news this year has been around a movement called #FliptheScript, in which adult adoptees are voicing their need to be a larger part of the conversation about adoption. So, there’s your basic background.

Let me begin with a story. This weekend, my parents took my husband, Ryan, and I out to a concert. Before dropping our son Isaac off at the sitter’s, we went for a quick dinner at a fast food restaurant. (We won’t here get into my foodie-snob issues with eating fast food because it would also delve into my lifelong issue with running late which is why we were there in the first place.) Isaac wanted to order for himself and he was wearing a winter hat that looks like a frog face, complete with pop-up eyeballs. He was (is) adorable. He made the cashier smile and she said,

“Did you adopt him?”

I immediately thought of the litany of blogs I’ve seen titled with some form of, “Things not to say to adoptive parents.” I’ve read these.  I’ve related to some of the comments. However…

After I told her that yes, we had adopted him, (which explains the tell-tale melanin differences…) she said,

“I love seeing families like yours. He’s got such a better life.”

I immediately felt two things:

1. Compassion for this woman who meant nothing but kind regards toward my family, and

2. The complicated emotional onslaught of wanting to stick up for the family this woman was completely unintentionally degrading while also knowing that it would have been inappropriate to launch into this explanation. His first mother, with whom I had an unbelievably complicated and beautiful relationship and over whom, like with any family, you feel protective. (You know? Even that crazy relative who, in fact, you also feel driven crazy by? You’d defend them if someone outside of family was speaking ill of them.) I wasn’t mad at this woman in any way; I just felt like I was in some way betraying my son’s first family by agreeing with her statement. Does he have a SAFER life? Yes. Of course. But is there not loss involved in that? Of course.

What I said was, “Well, he has many people who love him.”

What I felt later was:

3. An ache that my child will be hearing this for the rest of his life, this categorical grouping into the box general society holds of adoption. After learning this part of my child’s story, many- if not most- will file it away into the drawer filled with all of the amazing characteristics of my child and they will not fixate on this. But my son will tell this part of his story over. And over. And over.

I want him to have the confidence and the voice to handle this. I want him to understand that his story has played a part in shaping him and his story is valid, but he need not be defined by how others interpret this. He will have to find answers to:

“How come your real mom gave you up?”

“What happened to you when you were little?”

“Why don’t you live with your real family?”

I am ill equipped. (And thankful for a Jesus who equips those who are so far from perfect. So, so far.)

I don’t know how my son will feel as he grows. I am doing my damndest to be honest, to tell the truth as far as it is age appropriate, to foster strong and healthy bonds with his first family, to let him know that he can talk about his story. I don’t know what to do, but I’m trying. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified by some of the emotions adult adoptees articulate about adoptive parents. I am listening to more than just the story general society tells me about adoption because I want all of the angles. I want to be as prepared as I can possibly be in raising a strong, confident man.

I am learning from voices like those in this video. (I have especially appreciated the voice of Angela Tucker, who speaks around minute 5:20 and is the woman at the center of the documentary Closure, which I continue be unable to say enough about.)

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m trying to move forward with eyes and ears open. I cannot speak to what it feels like to be adopted, but I do know that it is a much more complicated journey that can be explained in an honorary month.

I can’t and shouldn’t explain all the nuances of my child’s background to the woman at the fast food checkout. I can, however, do my part to blog about it and tell you that, as a parent impacted by adoption, it is good and right to recognize that there is much more to adoption than for what we, on the outside looking in, give it credit.

On thankfulness.

To be clear: I am not overweight. I am not of a minority race. I am not starving. If I get sick with a curable illness, I have access to the medication to heal me. I do not fear over a very real threat that my child will be sex trafficked, nor did my parents worry about this when I was a child. I do not fear that my child will be brainwashed and drugged and forced to fight in a war when he should be in elementary school.

Things have always happened easily for me or I was able to work to make them happen.

Until, that is, I entered my 30’s and began the walking the road of infertility. It has completely shaken my faith. Please, hear me out on this. I am not comparing infertility to child warfare in the Congo, malaria outbreaks in Africa, or a typhoon in the Philippines.

What I am comparing, is the trend in my life for things to work out to what we consider GOOD and for the lives of so many others to trend to what we consider BAD. The realization that I didn’t have to manage long term struggle until I was well into adulthood devastated me because it served to reaffirm in a huge way that things in the world in which we live are desperately, intensely unfair.
Last week at school, one of my first graders was called fat by her peers. She is 6. It deeply and quite possibly punctured a wound in her that she will bear for the rest of her life.
I have a son whose skin is darker than mine and so has a life ahead of him that will need to be navigated more carefully in many areas than his Caucasian friends, solely as a result of his genetics.
I cannot personally relate to these obstacles. I don’t think that shame is the correct term, but it confuses me that I feel without a doubt that my heart was made to break for the overlooked,  under-served, underprivileged, and defenseless when my life has been a comparable cake walk. I’ve been mulling this over and over for months. It does not reason out neatly.
There are, however, small breakthroughs. I watched this viral video of a woman named Ash Beckham speak at a TEDx conferences about homophobia specifically, but more broadly about society’s propensity to be uncomfortable with what we don’t understand. She said,
“Hard is not relative. Hard is hard.” 

I related to this thought. Going through hardship is personal AND universal. Although this is not to say that my hardship is even remotely on the same scale as the hunger that some of my students experience, it IS to say that hardship has a way of breaking down some of those barriers between the lot of us. Working through difficulty puts people on something of a common ground- it makes us seem so much more HUMAN. Weakness makes us vulnerable and I want to believe that seeing vulnerability in others makes us more compassionate which God knows we need more of. I want to be able to look around at deep need and move to act because righting wrongs is what we do when ONE of us is connected to ALL of us as opposed to seeing the distribution of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and feeling hopeless.
Another breakthrough is this verse, which I have been trying to focus on for the last few weeks, though often failing miserably. In Luke 6:45, it says this:
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

I have been so deep in grieving the brokenness around me at work in my urban school, in my son’s past without me, and in the global community for the last year that it has sometimes almost completely overwhelmed me. There is SO MUCH BROKENNESS and SO MUCH UNFAIRNESS that it literally clenches my heart to think about it. Unfortunately, it has had a tendency to break me down and create in my heart anger and frustration which speaks out of my heart instead of the good which I should be storing up to even remotely combat the evil around us. We are called to continual thankfulness because it is the only thing to keep us from sinking into despair over the negativity we face on a daily basis. Being continually thankful is an art. It is learned. It is a process. I’m working on it, because I want desperately to focus outside of myself in a manner that is proactive. Grieving has a place, but so does activism. When the outlook looks too bleak to handle, thankfulness pushes us to action. I want to be there.

Rejoice always, pray continually, 
give thanks in all circumstances.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18