Fear of Abandonment is Real

Stephanie Drenka and genetic family

I went looking for a topic for today’s blog and found this story by Stephanie Drenka. She writes that – “I was struck by the pervasiveness of adoptive parent-focused stories. Where were the adoptee perspectives ?” The photo is from when when she was reunited with her biological mother, two sisters, and a brother.

She notes that “abandonment issues do not end in adulthood. Though I haven’t experienced divorce, I can imagine it might be similar. If a woman’s husband leaves her, even after remarries the perfect guy, she may always deal with a persistent fear that he will leave her as well. Fear of abandonment is real, and has to be acknowledged in order to resolve it.”

I have personally witnessed this issue playing out in a loved one and it had not been resolved previously. It came out at a very inopportune time but never-the-less had to be dealt with in its extremity.

Stephanie notes – Even the most well-adapted adoptee still faces moments where the trauma resurfaces. For me, that meant small things like every time a doctor would ask me for my family medical history or now, post-reunification, not knowing when I will be able to meet my biological sister’s new baby boy. And adds – I won’t go into the trauma experienced by birth mothers and families, because that is not my story to tell. Suffice it to say, from my personal reunification experience, adoptees are not the only ones who struggle with the aftermath of adoption.

She says – I love my (adoptive) mom and dad to the moon and back. They are my role models, biggest supporters, and best friends. I feel blessed to have them in my life– but please don’t presume to tell me that I was “lucky” to be adopted. Like many adoptees, my parents told me that I was special. While meant with good intention, being chosen is a burden. It puts pressure on us to be perfect and grateful. It can be incredibly emotionally taxing and negatively effects your self esteem in the moments where you can’t live up to that perfect picture. These expectations can prolong mental illness without treatment, because it may seem like asking for help is being ungrateful.

Choosing to adopt is an expensive proposition and as Stephanie notes – one mostly related to white privilege. I agree with her stated perspective – Can you imagine if the money people spent on adoption services went instead to supporting single mothers or low-income parents? Or what if adoption profits were used to benefit adoptees themselves in the form of post-adoption services like counseling, genetic testing, mental health treatment, or birth family search costs?

She ends her own essay with this – The truth about adoption is that there is no Truth. Adoption is many different things for many different people. It is love, loss, grief, abuse, hope, despair. It can sometimes be celebrated, but should always be examined through a critical and compassionate lens.

Broken Family Threads

It is said that it is Black History Month, though many of my friends chafe at that and say it is ALWAYS black history. I understand. Imani Perry’s book South To America has been getting some buzz and as I writer I notice those things.

Yesterday, I read an essay adapted from her book published in Time Magazine’s Feb 14 – Feb 21 2022 issue titled “The Way Home.” It is about her effort to reconnect with a grandmother in Maryland who she is able to know very little about. Was her name Easter Lowe or Esther Watkins ? Was she born in Maryland or Georgia, was she 101 years old or 91.

I realized as I read how much I could relate to her journey to Maryland which is described in the article. Her attempt to get some insight into unknowable people. I recognized my own “roots” journey, often fraught with disappointment and too little too slowly. I am fortunate to know what I know now. Though the African American experience of slavery is not mine, I know how it feels not to know anything about where one came from (both of my parents were adoptees). At one time, I used to tell people I was an albino African because no one could prove me wrong, not even myself. Now I finally do know better.

Slavery was not exactly in my family history but in a way it was. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC at a young age. She was not allowed to keep her own earnings and was probably expected to do a lot of other chores in the home. Her mother died when she was only 3 mos old and she had to live with a decidedly evil step-mother (from a story I heard about her being tied to a tree in a thunderstorm). She was a run-away slave. When her family visited her grandfather and her aunt in La Jolla California, she refused to return to Asheville and her slave labor there.

Poverty and the Great Depression was likely the cause of both of my grandmothers being separated from their babies. There really was not any family support for them. My maternal grandmother also lost her mother at the age of 11. She also escaped harsh conditions with her widowed father who was a sharecropper. She ran away to Memphis where she met and married my mom’s birth father.

Though I am not black and my family wasn’t enslaved, I can relate to Imani Perry’s story because in very real ways it is my story too. I didn’t grow up with a strong white supremacist’s identity. I was in the minority in Hispanic El Paso Texas and anyway, we didn’t have a clue to our ethnicity. Even so, I do recognize now that being white has put me in a class of advantages and I’ve worked very hard at educating myself by reading every anti-racist type book that has come my way. I celebrate the contributions of Black, African Americans to the diversity and vibrancy of the country of my own birth.

Colorblind Idealism

There seems to have been an evolution among some citizens in the United States to realize that racially colorblindness isn’t really the answer to racism. In the evolution of adoption and in an attempt to get some children in foster care placed in stable homes, transracial adoption was seen as the answer. As some of these adoptees have reached adulthood, they are increasingly speaking out about why growing up black in a predominantly white community and school has proven challenging, even difficult for them.

Recently The Washington Post had an article by Rachel Hatzipanagos that focuses on transracial adoptees – I know my parents love me, but they don’t love my people. A few years ago, there was a Medium piece – The Myth of Colorblindness by Rosa Perez-Isiah.

For adoptees, their adoptive parents couldn’t see and rarely talked about the racism they experienced. Classmates’ racist comments about their hair and eyes were dismissed as harmless curiosity. America’s racial dynamics were explained in the language of “colorblind” idealism. 

In her Medium piece, Perez-Isiah says – Colorblindness is the belief that we don’t see color or race, that we see people and that we are all the same. These beliefs are widely held by well intentioned people, including educators and school leaders. These are idealistic beliefs and there are a number of issues with this ideology. Colorblindness negates our diversity, race and culture because we all see color and we all have biases. When we identify as colorblind, we are suppressing our authentic views and in the process, perpetuating systemic racism. Race matters and it has impacts on opportunities, education and actual income (as well as its future potential). Colorblindness oppresses people of color. When you fail to see color, you fail to acknowledge the current narrative, a system of injustice for many non-white people.

Cross-cultural adoptions have been debated for decades. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took a strong stand against the adoption of Black children by White parents. Several years later, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to address the wave of Native American children being separated from their tribes and placed with White families.

The growth in transracial adoptions from foster care in recent years has far outpaced the growth in same-race adoptions and transracial adoption is now 28% of all domestic adoptions in the United States. More recently, the national conversation about systemic racism (driven by George Floyd’s death in 2020) has cast a new light on interracial adoption and prompted transracial families to confront the unspoken cultural divides in their own homes.

For adoptees, there is a transracial adoption paradox. Growing up, they experience many of the privileges that come with Whiteness because of their adoptive parents. When they then enter the school system or move out of the family home to live independently as adults later in life, they’re confronted with the reality of being perceived and treated as a racial minority. Not so subtle is the experience of white students putting their pencils in the hair of a Black student and marveling at the way the texture makes them stay in place.

When adoption agencies take on a color-evasive approach with hopeful prospective adoptive parents, they signal to these white parents that race does not need to be a significant factor in their decision-making. Then, by extension, it is no surprise that these adoptive parents might not think that the race of their adoptees is a significant factor in raising their child. Often these parents naively hope their support will make up for racial difference, even when they acknowledge there are challenges in raising a child of a different race.

From a transracial adoptee – “I believe that a lot of people think that adoption is this beautiful, magical, straightforward process. And also when they think of adoption, that they are centering around this “White savior” image and focusing on adoptive parents more than adoptees. And/or birth, biological parents — those two seem to get left out of the narrative a lot. I also believe that adoption from a birth mother, birth parent perspective can be very intense, very complex, very emotional. And I believe that we need to lean in and listen to adoptees and birth parents more.”

Today, many adoptees have their DNA tested, either at Ancestry or 23 and Me. For an adoptee that was raised white, it can be an amazing experience to discover their father is Black and see somebody that looks like them, finally a true racial mirror. One mixed race adoptee notes – “I think a lot of White people think that they have a good handle on race … and have what they would call a ‘colorblind’ kind of mentality. But I don’t think they understand that when you say the word ‘colorblind,’ what I hear is ‘I see you as White’.”

Another transracial adoptee suggests – “I think first acknowledging that your child is not White is, like, a huge step for a lot of White adoptive parents is to, like, see outside. Because a lot of parents see their child as, this is just your kid. They don’t see them in racialized terms. But in seeing them in that colorblind way, you are not protecting them. You are not preparing them to grow up and be an adult.”

Adoption is a trauma. Every adoptee has a different response to their trauma. Often it takes therapy to understand what was experienced as a pre-verbal infant and more importantly, how it continues affecting the adult adoptee. Therapy can help an adoptee get over feeling defective simply because they were given up for adoption. It can require learning that babies are placed for adoption for a number of reasons and that none of those reasons have to do with the baby or the value of that baby regardless of their skin color. The adoptee, not the adoptive parents, needs to be the center of their own life and story. Much of the narrative around adoption centers on the adoptive parents and frames their actions as selflessness and saving a child.

One Black adoptee admits –  I longed, and continue to long, to understand why I needed to be adopted, why I needed to be shipped across the country, why I couldn’t stay in the South, why I couldn’t stay with Black families, why I couldn’t have stayed with at least my biological extended family.” And though I am white and my mother was white too, this is a universal need in adoptees. My mom’s genetic, biological family was in the rural South and she was taken by train from Memphis to Nogales Arizona by her adoptive mother. For a long time, my mother believed she had been born in Memphis, a belief her adoptive mother was also led to believe by Georgia Tann, until birth certificate alterations made clear my mom had been born in Virginia which just made my mom believe she must have been stolen from her mother because things like that happened with Georgia Tann’s adoption practices.

Sadly, the saviorism of white adoptive parents is just so prevalent. Unfortunately, there is a deep-seated belief that white people can take care of Black people better. I have been learning a lot about this in overall society by reading White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad.

I end today’s blog back where I started with the issue of colorblindness – Why is the colorblind narrative popular? The Medium piece notes – it is easier to identify as colorblind than acknowledge differences that make us uncomfortable. This is easier for people to handle, especially in schools where we may lack the information and guidance to have difficult conversations about race. Another reason is simply not knowing…you don’t know what you don’t know. Many people also repeat what they’ve been taught and fail to reflect or question those beliefs. In the end, we don’t realize how harmful the myth of colorblindness can be.

Adoption is a challenging situation regardless – add in racial differences and it becomes doubly so. It takes courage and practice to shift from a colorblind to a color BRAVE ideology.

Believing in Colorblindness is a Privilege

Colin Kaepernick with his parents, Teresa Kaepernick, Rick Kaepernick and girlfriend, Nessa Diab

Read the link to Colin’s story at the end of this blog to understand more completely why his photo is here.

Articles that mention adoption always catch my attention. Today, I saw one in the Huffington Post – Like Colin Kaepernick, I Wish My Adoptive Family Had Talked About Race by Melissa Guida-Richards. She was adopted from Colombia in 1993 and her adoptive parents were one of many that believed in the colorblind ideology. Her adoptive parents believed that giving a child a loving home was all that was necessary. 

For most of her life, the family didn’t talk about her race and ethnicity. Actually, she was not aware of her true racial identity until she was 19 and found her adoption paperwork. Her parents had believed that if they raised her as Latina, she would be treated differently than the rest of the family. However, people often questioned her about where she was from ― particularly when her adoptive family wasn’t around. When she was out in public with her white parents, she found that she was included under their umbrella of privilege. But the moment she was out on her own, people treated her differently.

Many BIPOC adoptees eventually learn that the world is divided into how they are perceived with their adoptive families versus when they are alone. And this is especially true in today’s climate where an Asian adoptee shopping for groceries can be attacked, a Black adoptee pulled over by police is potentially in danger, or a Latina adoptee walking in their town is told to go back to their own country. Adoptive families can think that it will never happen to their child, but for most transracial adoptees, it does. It’s just part of the reality of being a person of color.

Transracial adoptees do not have the privilege of believing in colorblindness. It can be fatal for a Black adoptee to “forget” that they are Black. If that adoptee approaches a police officer the same way their white parents do, they could find themselves in danger. When adoptive parents do not properly prepare their transracial adoptee for a racialized world, they are left playing a game of catch-up that they hopefully can win before it costs them their very life.

Current policies disallow considering race when placing children in adoptive homes. This is due to laws like the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), which prevents child welfare agencies that receive federal funding from denying or delaying a child’s placement based on race. MEPA was amended in 1996 to establish that states could be fined for using race in placement decisions. While MEPA also requires agencies to “diligently recruit families that reflect the racial diversity of the children in need of homes,” it does not fine states that fail to do so.

Currently over 70% of adoptive parents are white and over half of adopted children are of a different race than their adoptive parents. One key issue with MEPA was that, while it made it significantly easier for white middle-class adoptive parents to adopt children of other races, it neglected to require anti-racism and transracial adoption education before or after placement.

The adoption industry perpetuates the idea that adoption ends in a beautiful happily ever after. When we think of adoption as an ending, we forget that it has a lasting, constant impact throughout the adopted person’s life, not just their childhood. Race should not be an afterthought in adoption. Adoptees are often pressured to be grateful and simply be happy that they have a family, to forget all of the challenges and trauma they experience.

When you are a person of color, you know how the world sees and treats you, and when your family refuses to be open to simple conversations about ethnicity and race, you start to wonder what’s so negative about acknowledging your identity. It impacts how you see yourself and how you believe your family sees you.

The author found that her adoptive family avoiding conversations of racial differences led to her having feelings of rejection and shame. She struggled to understand how her parents and relatives could love all of her, when they refused to acknowledge a big piece of her identity. Adoptive parents need to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations about race. Race may be a construct but its ramifications are very real.

At the beginning of her essay, the author also mentions Kaepernick’s interview in Ebony magazine. Worth the quick read.

I Admit I Am Old School

This not the first time it has come up. I am doing my best to recognize changing norms and find a good level of acceptance within my self. For one thing, among those changing norms is a recognition of the trauma that every adoptee experiences. Another is same sex couples and the frequent desire of these couples to go beyond marriage to parenting. There I do struggle with having grown up with a certain kind of mindset that believes optimal for children growing up is having both a male and female role model. I am also realistic enough to know that isn’t always possible. We have several single mothers in my mom’s group. Some chose to enter into pregnancy without a male partner and some became widows after their children were born. In both cases the children do seem to be thriving and I am a witness to that fact.

Today the question was asked in my all things adoption group – What are your thoughts about the Buttigieg’s impending adoption? I didn’t know about it until I saw that. So I went looking and see that this male same sex couple is at least enlightened enough to have been seeking “a baby who had been abandoned or surrendered at short notice”. Yet, we are talking about an infant it would appear. I once had a discussion with a friend who was good friends with a male same sex couple who was raising a little girl who they had via a surrogate. I expressed my reservations about that situation honestly. I have less concern about a female same sex couple where one contributes the egg and the other carries the pregnancy. There is still the issue of the child being donor conceived and how some sperm donors have fathered a multitude of genetically related children.

I am glad my boys have their father as a male role model. I am glad they have me as a female role model. There are a lot of gender issues in our modern society. There is toxic male culture but my boys are home schooled so they aren’t exposed to very much of that in their daily life. It’s enough that they have witnessed me have to push back on some of that at home. Thankfully, my husband is for the most part respectful, appreciative and considerate of me. With over 30 years of marriage completed, there are bound to be moments that aren’t sterling.

In these days of gender equality, marriage equality and equal employment opportunities, it might seem odd to even contemplate discussing the topic of a male parent versus a female parent. Undoubtedly many well-adjusted children are raised in single gender families making the equality of parenting question seem out-dated and narrow-minded. I do understand this.

However, there are a number of ‘experts’ who agree that the influence of both a female and a male are vital for proper child development. This diversity give the child a broader, richer experience of interactions. I found an article that shares the perspectives of Dr Kyle Pruett of Yale Medical School who notes that females and males parent very differently.

If you are at all interested, you can read about his perspectives in this article – Do Children Need a Male and Female Parent? “Need” is probably too strong a concept given the realities. I would say in a perfect world . . . but this isn’t . . . is it ? So adoptions still continue to happen today. They probably always will but reforms in the practice are still possible and adoptees are leading the charge to make reforms possible – keeping genetic and identity information intact – even after an adoption.

Strong male/female influences can be created through other family members such as an aunt or uncle, grandfather or grandmother. In an imperfect world this is a reasonable alternative method of supplying male or female role models in single sex households.

Oh What A Beautiful Baby

Magnolia Earl is the 2020 Gerber baby seen here with her adoptive family

Magnolia Earl is the winner of the 10th annual Gerber Baby search.  She’s the first Gerber spokesbaby to be adopted. Magnolia is from Ross CA and was picked from over 327,000 entries submitted. She has “captured the hearts of the judging panel with her joyful expression, playful smile and warm, engaging gaze.”

“At a time when we are yearning for connection and unity, Magnolia and her family remind us of the many things that bring us together: our desire to love and be loved, our need to find belonging, and our recognition that family goes way beyond biology,” Bill Partyka Gerber President and CEO said in a press release.

Magnolia’s parents, Courtney and Russell Earl, have two other daughters, Whitney age 12 and Charlotte age 8 (who is also adopted).

It would appear that Gerber has been actively seeking more diversity. Past winners have included the first Gerber Baby with Down Syndrome and the first of Hmong descent. Ann Turner Cook, the very first Gerber baby, is still featured in the iconic charcoal sketch done by her mother in 1928 and seen on most Gerber packaging since 1931.

The issue of trans-racial adoption remains highly controversial and images of Magnolia in a headwrap set off divisive debates on social media. I know this because I wandered into one that has kept my heart’s attention since last night.  So, this morning I wanted to educate myself about what seems to be the contentious aspect of the baby being photographed in a headwrap.  Truly, the adoption issues should be front and center, though it does appear that aspect is part of the marketing effort by Gerber.

So, regarding the headwrap.  This usually completely covers the hair, being held in place by tying the ends into knots close to the skull. As a form of apparel in the United States, the headwrap has been exclusive to women of African descent.

The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves similar functions for both African and African American women. In style, the African American woman’s headwrap exhibits the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and worldview. In the United States, however, the headwrap acquired a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent. During slavery, white overlords imposed its wear as a badge of enslavement and afterwards, during Jim Crow it was part of the regulations.  Over time, it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the “Black Mammy” servant.

The enslaved persons and their descendants have regarded the headwrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of true homeland-be that ancient Africa or the newer homeland, America. The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity.  At its most elaborate, the African American woman’s headwrap has functioned as a “uniform of rebellion” signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.  Which gives me pause in the case of a black baby adopted into a white family.

Tying a piece of cloth around the head is not specific to any one cultural group. Men and women have worn and continue to wear some type of fabric head covering in many societies. What does appear to be culturally specific, however, is the way the fabric is worn; in other words, the style in which the fabric is worn is the ultimate cultural marker and a studied way of presenting the self based upon an idea of how one ought to appear to others.

A woman of African ancestry folds the fabric into a rectilinear shape usually ties the knots somewhere on the crown of her head, either at the top or on the sides, often tucking the ends into the wrap. African and African American women wear the headwrap as a queen might wear a crown.  Some African American women played with the white “code”.  Flaunting the headwrap by converting it from something which might be construed as shameful into an anti-style uniquely their own.

African American women demonstrate their recognition that they alone possessed this particular style of head ornamentation.  Donning the headwrap is an acknowledgment of their membership in an unique American social group. Whites have often misunderstood the self-empowering and defiant intent, seeing the headwrap only as the stereotypic “Aunt Jemima” image of the black woman as domestic servant (putting the image of the Gerber baby alongside the iconic one on social media has set off discussions related to race rather than adoption and that was the predominant energy in the discussion I found myself in last night).

The more complicated truth regarding the headwrap is that it acquired significance for the enslaved women as a form of self and communal identity and as a badge of resistance against the servitude imposed by whites.  The headwrap worn by African American women was forged in the crucible of American slavery and its aftermath.  Modern African Americans consciously adopt the headwrap to mark their cultural identity and in solidarity with the black women who were often forced to wear it in the past.

The research paper I read was based on comments made by approximately two thousand formerly enslaved African Americans who recounted their experiences and contributed their oral histories to the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936 to 1938.  There is much more about the symbolism and history of headwraps at this link – http://char.txa.cornell.edu/Griebel.htm

It’s Complicated

I find myself in conversation with a diversity of people about a diversity of issues related to adoption and mother/child separations.  I am always amazed at how many people have some such issue in their family and friend’s lives.

Even though I have had a radical change of heart about adoption due to learning about the wounds that causes, I also acknowledge that the issue is not simple but very complicated.  There are times when children definitely need a safe and loving space to exist in.  There are times, when knowing the circumstances, we can admit that adoption was better than the alternative.

But there always are alternatives and some are less damaging than others.  Harder to arrive at is why people become wounded and messed up.  Why they don’t do better.  Why the children are often the ones to suffer the most.

Learning about all of the circumstances at play in my own family’s lives has given me an appreciation for the big picture and how things progress over time.  I am in the midst of editing a new manuscript that I actually wrote the rough draft for six years ago and then events delayed my return to it.

At this point in the story, I am in heaven.  And the topic of predestination and free will comes up between me and a trusted friend of the heart there.  I think this perspective may be close to the truth of the matter and so, I share –

“Are you telling me that everything is preordained and that I had no choice in how my life unfolded?”

“Absolutely not.  The nature of reality in this realm is that everything is adjusting instantaneously to every choice and circumstance that happens.”

What happens if different choices are made ?

“It would have all morphed and changed to suit new circumstances.  In fact, there are layers upon layers of redundancies. There are trajectories and unfoldings that are the natural outcomes of current events and like your own micro circumstances it is all morphing and adjusting continuously.  There are situations that, if they don’t occur,  could delay your next lifetime.  Other situations could speed up your return to Earth in another incarnation.  We really don’t know the hour of our birth, just as we really don’t know the hour of our death; and yet, it is all completely natural.”

Though Life is so very complicated that any action we may take could be beneficial or detrimental regardless of the best of intentions, even knowing all that could possibly happen that we never considered, we act anyway – for not to act might bring some irreversible harm that could have been prevented.