A Mother’s Daughter

Nanisca and Nawi

We watched The Woman King last night. Afterwards, my husband said, there’s your mom’s blog for tomorrow and I thought, yes, it fits and is appropriate. Nawi was conceived in rape. When her mother, Nanisca, escapes she finds herself with child. However, due to her life’s career as an Agojie warrior, she cannot raise her baby. In deep grief for having to let her go, she cuts her babies arm to insert a keepsake into it, a shark’s tooth, with no real intended outcome except to “mark” her baby in some manner.

The child is given to missionaries to raise but is adopted out. Her adoptive father attempts to sell her to an older man as one of his wives but the girl rejects him because in their initial meeting, he is already beating her. So her father takes her to the king’s palace to leave her for whatever his use of her will be. She also becomes a Agojie warrior. Eventually, her mother realizes, almost to her horror, that this is her own daughter returned to her. After a rocky reunion, the two women reunite as mother and daughter. The movie is a strong statement about the bonds of fierce sisterhood and female empowerment.

Maria Bello conceived the movie after visiting Benin. It was inspired by the true story of the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. The Smithsonian magazine has an article on LINK>The Real Warriors Behind ‘The Woman King’ and an image of them. The Agojie became known to Europeans, who called them Amazons, seeing in them similarities to the warrior women of Greek mythology. The Woman King is therefore based on a true story but with extensive dramatic license. Though the broad strokes of the film are historically accurate, the majority of its characters are fictional. Nanisca and Nawi share names with documented members of the Agojie but are not exact mirrors of these women. King Ghezo reigned 1818 to 1858 and his son Glele reigned from 1858 to 1889. Together they presided over what’s seen as the golden age of Dahomean history. An era of economic prosperity and political strength.

The real Ghezo did successfully free Dahomey from its tributary status in 1823. But the kingdom’s involvement in the slave trade does not end (as it does in the movie) according the historical record. Dahomey was a key player in the trafficking of West Africans between the 1680s and early 1700s by selling their captives to European traders. The presence of Europeans and their demand for slaves was also one of the reasons for the monumental scale of Dahomey’s warfare.

In truth, Ghezo only agreed to end Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade in 1852, after years of pressure by the British government, which had abolished slavery (for not wholly altruistic reasons) in its own colonies in 1833. Though Ghezo did at one point explore palm oil production as an alternative source of revenue, it proved far less lucrative, and the king soon resumed Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade.

Portraying the Agojie, through Nanisca’s actions, as critics of the slave trade makes for a nice story. It probably is not historically accurate. Though these women were symbols of strength and power. They were complicit in a problematic system. They were under the patriarchy of the king and therefore participants in the slave trade. We also recently watched Black Panther, the all-woman Dora Milaje regiment is based on the Dahomey warriors.

The first recorded mention of the Agojie dates to 1729. The unit was possibly formed earlier, toward the beginning of Dahomey’s existence at the time of King Huegbadja who reigned from 1645 to 1685. He created a corps of woman elephant hunters. Queen Hangbe ruled briefly as regent following the death of her brother in the early 18th century. Some believe she may have introduced the women warriors as part of her palace guard. The Agojie reached their peak in the 19th century under Ghezo. Due to the kingdom’s ongoing wars, Dahomey’s male population had dropped significantly. This created an opportunity for women to replace men on the battlefield. The Agojie included volunteers and forced conscripts. Regiments were recruited from slaves, some of them captured as early as 10 years old. They also included the poor and girls who were rebellious like Nawi.

All of Dahomey’s women warriors lived in the royal palace alongside the king and his other wives, inhabiting a largely woman-dominated space. Aside from eunuchs and the king himself, no men were allowed in the palace after sunset. The Agojie they were restricted from having sex with men. To become an Agojie, recruits underwent intensive training, including exercises designed to harden them to bloodshed. In 1889, a French naval officer, Jean Bayol, witnessed Nanisca while still a teenager undergo a test (her person inspired the general in The Woman King). She had not yet killed anyone but easily passed the test by walking up to a condemned prisoner, swinging her sword three times with both hands. Then she calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk and squeezed the blood off her weapon to swallow it.

Dahomey’s women warriors upset the French men’s understanding of gender roles and what women were supposed to do in a civilized society. The women’s flaunting of ferocity, physical power and fearlessness was manipulated or corrupted as Europeans started to interpret it for their own goals. The existence of the Agojie were simply more reasons for the French to conduct their civilizing mission, seeking to impose European ideals on African countries.

After facing defeat at the Battle of Atchoupa on April 20 1890, Dahomey agreed to a peace treaty assenting to French control but the peace lasted less than two years. Over the course of seven weeks in fall 1892, Dahomey’s army fought valiantly to repel the French. The Agojie participated in 23 separate engagements during that short time span, earning the enemy’s respect for their valor and dedication to the cause. One battle brought a moment of clarity for Dahomey’s king. He now realized the inevitability of their kingdom’s destruction. The last day of fighting was one of the most murderous of the entire war, beginning with the dramatic entrance of the last Amazons as well as the elephant hunters whose special assignment was to direct their fire at the officers. The French seized the Dahomey capital of Abomey on November 17 1892. After the war, some of the surviving Agojie followed their king, Béhanzin, into exile in Martinique.

French colonization proved detrimental to women’s rights in Dahomey. The colonizers barred women from political leadership and educational opportunities. Nawi, the last known surviving Agojie with battlefield experience, died in 1979 at an age well over 100 years old.

Below is the movie trailer –

Why It Matters

No relation to me, simply illustrating family relationships carved into grave stones.

I often walked cemeteries with my husband back in the day before our oldest son was born looking for relations of his. His family surname is not common and many of them settled within a close geographic range. I didn’t know anything about my own ancestors at the time. I had not considered how often people are defined for all eternity simply by their relationships to their family members. Their identity encapsulated and literally carved in stone. Cemeteries were important then and also when I started looking for the graves of my own genetic family members, as I learned about my origins (something my adoptee parents didn’t even know when they died at 78 and 80 years old).

How is it that so many people can’t understand why these relationships might be meaningful to adoptees ? Why they might want to search for these, why their absence might be something they grieve. It is no wonder we care about our own bloodline or ancestral family. That facet of life has been ingrained into every culture as being important throughout time.  Virtually all cultures revere ancestors as I do now that I know who mine were. People will even pay a lot of money to ship bodies home for burial.

When I visited the graves of my mom’s genetic family members (all of them already deceased), I sat there at their stone markers and talked to them, poured my heart out, and told them who I was and how I was related to them. The only way I will ever have to talk to any of them.

My maternal grandfather’s grave stone in Pine Bluff Arkansas (the first one I found).

My mom’s half-sister, also in the same Pine Bluff cemetery (the information on it also led me to my cousin).

My maternal grandmother, Lizzie Lou, at Bethany Cemetery in Eads Tennessee.

I have yet to visit the graves on my dad’s side as they are further away in Arizona and California. Maybe someday, I will.

Some Origins Aren’t Happy

Being a domestic infant adoptee is hard enough but image that you met your biological mother but were told that you were a product of rape and that she wouldn’t go into any more detail about your biological father. This adoptee would rather know the truth than always wonder. Therefore, she asks what other adoptees have done when faced with a similar situation. Did they just let it go or bet a DNA test ? She admits that her biggest fear is that 50% of my DNA is monster and that now she has passed that on to her own children.

Some responses –

I wouldn’t condemn yourself for the crimes of your origin. There’s been several studies on the impact of nurture vs nature. The best way to deal with some things in life beyond our control is to just acknowledge them. You don’t need to accept it, you don’t need to approve it. Just know it and understand what that information means to you and what you will do with it essentially.

Another shared – A very dear friend was always told she was the product of incest. She did DNA testing for other reasons and has found a whole other family that never knew she existed. It’s been difficult for her to navigate but she is glad to be in reunification. The stories we hear about us form our ideas about the world and as the stories evolve sometimes our identities and the world we see changes too.

Then there was this – I’m an admin of a large adoptee only group, and this narrative is sadly not uncommon. Now, your mother may well have been abused, however many women are so heavily shamed that they were left with invent a story that makes what they did (have sex!!) appear more socially acceptable, to them and their (judgmental) family. It’s actually more common than imagined. That said, I’d highly recommend having a trusted therapist in place before exploring – to guard your mental health no matter the outcome. Personally, my mother won’t even say my father’s name. He was a major player. AND I have a relationship with his side of the family, which I value. Take your time.

Another adoptee admitted – My biological mom told me I am the result of rape also. And I’m inclined to believe her, because that’s a heavy burden to carry and I want to believe she wouldn’t lie about it. She did, however, give me his name and I found and spoke to him, and naturally his side of the story was very different than hers. I don’t know where in the middle of both of their stories the truth is, and that will probably eat at me for my entire life.

Then this one – While my mom didn’t say she was raped, she did tell me that my father was a pretty shitty human. They started dating when she was 15 and he was 21. Two years later she got pregnant, thought they were headed to get married, but instead got blind sided by him telling her that he was already married with an infant and a pregnant wife, and that he was also heading to prison for armed robbery. I did do DNA tests and found his side. He passed about a year before I found him. I’m still back and forth on whether I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet him or if I’m relieved I don’t have to make that decision. I did find both of those siblings, along with another younger brother (yet another mom) and a bunch of nieces and nephews. As big of a surprise I was to them, they have all been wonderful and welcoming. I don’t know if this helps but I don’t regret finding all the answers.

Some more encouragement – It’s okay to feel like you deserve answers, because you do – even if the answers are uncomfortable or hard to hear her give you. DNA testing helped me find family and get a few more sides to my adoption story than the one I had initially. Your mother may absolutely be telling you the truth, and I’m absolutely not saying to doubt that. I’m also very much a “believe all women” type. But if you feel a nagging that there’s more to the story than you’re aware of, it’s okay to seek answers. Good luck.

More about the potential realities – My biological mom will not tell me any details, although I do believe her that it was rape now. It’s frustrating not to know details of who this person was, but it’s painful for her to talk about it and she said she will never tell me. I’ve done a DNA test, not specifically to find him, but I didn’t get any additional information by doing so. At the moment, I’m just letting it go.

Still Separated

The good news is that just under 3,000 of the 4,000 children separated from their families by ex-President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy at the southern U.S. border have been reunited. That policy was lambasted as cruel and inhumane by critics. It has taken years for government officials to reconnect relatives with their young children.

Nearly 1,000 children still need to be reunited with their relatives. It is the second anniversary of the task force created to help with the reunifications. Many of those kids are Central American migrants who were separated from their parents at the border and placed in detention centers. That method was part of the Trump administration’s hardline approach to immigration and was meant to deter millions of migrants from seeking asylum in the US during his term in the White House.

“We understand that our critical work is not finished,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to fulfill President Biden’s pledge to reunify all children who were separated from their families under the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy to the greatest extent possible, and we continue to work diligently to incorporate the foundational principle of family unity in our policies and operations.”

“We have made significant progress toward reunifying families and providing them with necessary services and support,” the Dept of Homeland Security said. “This critical work will continue until all separated families that can be found have been provided the opportunity to reunify.”

Been There, Doing Better

Today’s story – not my own.

I am a former foster care youth who was adopted. When my biological niece (I found my family via Ancestry) was taken and placed in foster care, I had to step up and help since I’ve been there. So, I got kinship guardianship of my niece while my brother was in a recovery program. He was making good progress. Sadly, about 4 months ago, he stopped going and relapsed. The timing was bad. The case worker and attorney are looking to switch my niece’s program to a Termination of Parental Rights goal. I’m afraid if they do this, my brother may spiral downward. I definitely don’t want to see that happen. I’m not given any specific information because I am just the caregiver. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with the termination process or addiction. I don’t know what to expect or how to help my brother.

From experience, someone commented – As the current legal custodian of my niece and myself, a child raised under legal guardianship – Would you be willing/able to remain her legal custodian under kinship as a long term permanency plan? Being raised within my family was in some ways very beneficial for me. There was still a lot of trauma. But if your niece is safe with you and you can raise her long term, that may be very beneficial for her.

In response, the original commenter said – she has been with me a little over a year now. she was in foster care 5 months before she came to me. She will always be welcome here. I did not know there were long term kinship options. The only options I am aware of come from the caseworker. His perspective is if my brother does what he should, he will get her back. If I take Article 6 Custody (from termination of parental rights) that drops the case for both my brother and the baby’s mother. (I have never meet her. She checked out of the hospital early and never set anything up with Dept of Social Services to have visits or anything.) I didn’t want the final option, which I was told was my willingness to adopt her. I don’t know where this will go but I definitely don’t want to see my brother fall down the rabbit hole.

And then there was this (people can really care !!) – Addiction is a disease that can be treated. This child has a genetic risk of inheriting this gene. I want to share with you that I’ve been in recovery for over 23 years – completely clean and sober. I can share some things with you and resources, as much as you want. Please feel free to ask me ANYTHING either here or privately in private message. There IS hope and as long as your brother is still breathing, he can still clean up. There are resources for you, for the child, all sorts of things. It’s ok, and my heart goes out to you and I am sending prayers to your brother, you and all in this situation. There IS hope and he CAN recover. I think you are doing the right thing by keeping your niece with you in a kinship capacity. Please feel free to reach out, now or later, ok? xo

What’s In A Name ?

A major topic for reform in adoption is in regard to the adoptee’s name. Today’s story is complicated and long and so I’ll try to summarize it. There was an oops when bi racial boy/girl twins were born to supposedly white biological parents. When they were born, their mom put her husband’s last name on their birth certificate. However, it was determined that he was not in fact their dad. So, the twins last name was changed to their mom’s maiden name. For rather obvious reasons, her husband did not wish to parent these children and so they were put up for adoption.

They are now 7-1/2 years old and their adoption will most likely be finalized in the next couple of months. The soon to be adoptive parents are in contact with these twins older half siblings. One of the twins is the only one of all the siblings without a double letter in their name but they did not want it changed. The issue of what their last name will be has been handled delicately. One twin wanted to keep their last name but add the adoptive parents’ last name, the other twin just wanted the adoptive parents’ last name. Recently, one twin asked, “since the adoption is coming up, can I change my name?”

This is the same child that didn’t want to change the spelling of their first name, now they want to change the name completely. When the kids (both the soon to be adoptive parent’s biological children and these twins) play dress up, they have alter egos. They go by their alter ego names while playing pretend. The twins will even go by their alter ego name when they change their hair style from natural to braids, twist, finger curls, etc. for a day or so. This child is asking to change their name to their alter ego name and they said, “you can spell it anyway you want.”

Almost every child, at some point in their childhood, will go through a phase of trying a different name. So the almost adoptive parents said it takes a judge to change your name, no matter the reason. There are situations where names are changed – when you get married and you can change your last name, if you correct your gender you can change all of your names, at adoption names are often changed and you can keep all of the names your first family gave you or change parts of your name, and at the age you are grown up if you just really dislike your name, you can change it then.

Another adoptive parents said –  I wish no one brought up name change at adoption. It makes it seem like something that should happen, and I no longer think it should. I also think it’s a lot to ask a kid to make a decision about this, especially a kid with adoption related trauma.

A domestic infant adoptee said – I think giving a kid the opportunity to make a decision about their huge upcoming life shift that is completely out of their control, gives them a tiny bit of control back when things are so rocky. However I still believe the first name change can happen as a nickname, let her go by that but let her choose her last name for the adoption finalization. Then, when she is older, if she has kept that nickname for years, then as a teenager let her consider changing it legally.

Another adoptive parent shared – In our case, I screwed it up in the worst way. We changed all her names with her “choosing” from several names we were considering. But keeping it the same wasn’t presented as an equal choice. She was 4 years old at the time. She is 8 years old now and sometimes she wants to change back, sometimes she wants a friend’s name, sometimes she’s happy with what it is. We are now in reunion with her birth family, through a relative who adopted her younger siblings when they were born and we have discussed the name changes we made, our reasoning, and how we feel now. Both of us independently decided that we will support any changes the kids want, when they are adults but we will pay the court costs. I don’t think there are any right answers but my main regret is that keeping the name at birth was not presented as an option. I’ve heard adoptees say that with so much taken away from them, their name should remain the same.

Another adoptee said – I’m a non-binary trans person who has changed the name they go by as an adult. Let them go by the name they want to legally change it to – immediately. Start calling them by that name. Don’t give the legal name change a deadline (the legal adoption finalization date). These are two distinctly different things and while they are connected, each needs its own timeline. You can help them by discussing if they like the name. If they go by it for a long period of time, then you can discuss legally changing their name. I recommend this because of their young age and the already overwhelming situation of the adoption being finalized. Names are a GIFT, and if that gift no longer works for them, they can give it back and find one that meets their needs now. Changing the name during adoption seems to layer on trauma but for an older trans person I think it removes trauma.

Yet another adoptee shares – I was different because I’m neurodivergent. I wanted to change my name to fit in, rather than have a name no one connected to. When I grew up, I changed my name. Always Always go with what the kid wants. It just doesn’t have to be legally changed until they’re older and had a long time to think about it. Kids are still discovering themselves.

Sour Grapes

From my all things adoption group – an adoptee after reaching maturity should not have to deal with this in her adoptive mother but I have seen such bad behavior before in one of my adoptee relative’s adoptive mother as well. So sad.

How do you help someone you love, who is on the fence and struggling, come out of the adoption fog ? Or do you even try ? The person I am talking about is going to be my daughter-in-law in less than a month. We have become close and she is great. She is only 20 years old. I’ll call her T.

T expressed to me that she was curious but scared to reach out to her birth mother. She eventually did so behind her adoptive mom’s back. Her adoptive dad has passed. She said her birth mother was very nice and she told T that she tried to make contact many times throughout the years but that the adoptive parents would block her and change their numbers. T told me she didn’t know who to believe because her adoptive mom said this was a lie. T asked me why would her adoptive mom lie and so, she tended to believe her adoptive mom over her birth mom. I gently asked her to think about who would be more motivated to lie about this.

Anyway when her adoptive mom found out that T was contacting her birth mom, she had a complete emotional breakdown and made T feel so bad. She even said maybe it was a big mistake even adopting her blah blah blah.

I met her adoptive mom last week at the bridal shower and she told me that she was totally fine with T meeting her birth mom but she would not let the birth mom emotionally abuse her with lies.

T has since blocked the birth mom on social media and says she is scared and creeped out. These situations have shoved her way back into the adoption fog. I’m so sad for her because I know that this is important for her mental health. She deals with a lot of anxiety and often struggles with her adoptive mom. T was adopted with 2 her biological sisters who also are struggling with anxiety and mental health.

What can I do with the most love to help her ? She has some leads on her biological dad but now says she is even more creeped out by him. Someone told her he may or may not have shot someone in the past. I wonder who she got that idea from?? Eye roll.

She is definitely afraid of getting in trouble with her adoptive mom (who is paying for the wedding). Her adoptive mom also helped her get a car, after T went back into the adoption fog in submission. Another Eye roll.

My own comment is simply – why do adoptive mothers behave this way once their adoptee is a grown person ? Clearly exerting financial leverage (I saw my mom’s adoptive mother do that with her). They had the child all to themselves all the child’s life. I saw this during a loved one’s (adoptee) wedding. Previously, I would never have thought that woman could be that way but . . . adoptive parents it seems also have their own triggers.

We All Have The Same Beginning

Most of my life (over 6 decades actually), I had no idea of what our family genetic history was because BOTH of my parents were adoptees with no knowledge of their origins. As I watch Christmas greetings go by with cultural flavors, I am happy to realize my own – Danish, Scottish, Irish and English with touches of Ashkenazi Jew, Neanderthal and even a bit from Mali (I suspect from the slave holding line on my mom’s paternal side).

I never knew my genetic ancestors but I feel them in me more strongly now that I have some idea of where I came from. If you are still in the seeking/searching mode, I wish you every success in connecting the dots as I was able to do for my own self (my parents were already deceased, so my discoveries came too late to share with them but I suspect if there really is some place beyond this physical life – which I do happen to believe there is – then my parents have had their reunions with their birth parents and know even more than I do now).

From your blogger on this Christmas Day – thank you for reading. I send you spirited blessings and hope that everything around you this year is Merry & Bright !!

Funeral Anxiety

Today’s story (not my own) –

I’m an adoptee who didn’t find out I was adopted until I was 24…I turned 40 in May (major trauma obviously, but that’s for another time). I’ve met my birth mother, maternal grandmother, birth father, and a couple (not all) of my siblings. Novel made short, my birth grandma died last Thursday. Her celebration of life is set for next Friday and I am struggling really fucking hard as to what to do.

Yes, I knew (?) and loved her. I THINK I want to be there. But I also don’t want to be the proverbial long lost child/grandchild/sibling who comes waltzing in. I have so much guilt, I’ve carried it since I first met my birth mom (another long story). It’s such a tricky relationship, on all sides, and I hate this. I wish more than anything I had someone to just tell me what to do; to hop on that flight and do this, or to stay home as I am so sick and conflicted already that it wouldn’t be well for my mental health. My birth mother has always made me feel horribly guilty. My adopted mother does the same. So I just kind of keep all of the moms at arms length for the sake of my mental health. My Granny was different. I only saw her a literal handful of times, but she was strong and kind and she validated me. Now that she’s gone, I don’t know what I want anymore.

It’s just weird. It’s a weird place. Being adopted is weird period, and I mostly despise it.

One response from another adoptee – I wouldn’t want to miss it and regret it. Family events are hard for me because biological family is all gathering, and it is a painful reminder of all the family events I was not a part of. You aren’t obligated to stay. If you feel it’s too much to handle, you could leave at any time. I’d check into nearby coffee shops/diner/regular shops that are in walking distance in case I needed an early escape. I didn’t know my maternal grandma for long but I did spend her last moments with her in the hospital. I am glad I did.

Someone else suggested exit strategies – Opps-forgot my sweater in the car. (5 min break). Tylenol is in the car too. How forgetful. Sigh. Need some caffeine to stop this headache. (Walk to coffee shop, 20 min break) Oh no, I cleared the day but work really needs me to resolve an issue. Can we catch up in a couple of hours over dinner? Also, if it would be helpful, bring a support person who can just listen to you (and serve as a buffer if you need one).

Another adoptee points out that funerals are for the living. Do what’s going to bring YOU peace and screw what anyone else thinks. Don’t overcomplicate your decision with the intricacies of your relationships with your birth family. Either you want to be there for YOU or you don’t. I hope you find peace in whatever decision you make.

Another asked – Would you regret it if you stayed home? Would you later look back and think you should’ve gone? Go with the option that leaves you little to no regret. You deserve to be there, this is your family and I’m sure you’re very wanted. The original poster answered – I’m truly not sure if I would regret it. She’s already been cremated, so I could always go on my own time, alone, and save myself some chaos. It’s just a tricky relationship with my birth mother …odd at best. I’m putting it very nicely, too.  I don’t like feeling manipulated.  It’s been rocky, and then some.

Mary Ellen Gambutti

Thanks to my friend Ande Stanley, a late discovery adoptee, who’s own effort in the cause she has titled LINK> The Adoption Files, I learned about this author, LINK> Mary Ellen Gambutti, today. In looking more closely at Ms Gambutti, I discovered this site LINK> Memoir Magazine, which I may look into submitting to some time in the near future. She has written several books and has a few blogs available on her author page at Amazon.

I Must Have Wandered is described as a memoir told through prose, and the letters, fragments, and photos of her infant relinquishment at birth in post-World War II South Carolina. Her adoptive parents were native New Yorkers, who happened to be stationed in the state at the time. Common in that time period – hers was a closed adoption. She reflects on the primal loss experienced by many adoptees. In her case, there were also the separations caused by a transient military lifestyle. The book includes her coming of age in the turbulent ’60s and the barriers to truth that many adoptees find, due to their sealed birth records. Add into the mix a culture of secrecy, which is often the adoption experience. Just as often, adoption includes a hefty dose of religious fervor. It is sadly a common enough story but universal in adoptionland and yet always highlighted by individual details. Like many adoptees, this woman’s genetic heritage was obliterated by her adoption, and then similarly to my own roots discovery journey, her quest for identity includes some degree of reunion. 

Gambutti also wrote a book of essays titled Permanent Home. One reviewer wrote that this book blends early childhood memories into what reads like a vision or a dream. Detailed is the trauma and loss many adoptees realize when they learn the circumstances that surrounded their birth. Her search is not supported by her adoptive family and trigger warning – there is abuse. Never-the-less a reviewer says the book is not a downer but reality. Common to the experience of many adoptees is missing health history and not looking like anyone else in their family.