Can Black Folks Revamp the Foster-Care System With Their Collectivist Ideals?

Over the past five years, I've spoken to hundreds of folks about foster-care and adoption all over the United States. I've managed a caseload of prospective families, met with individuals in-person, via Skype, dined with curious citizens, but I'd never been in a room of black prospective foster-parents who were eager to discuss the disproportionality of black kids in foster-care and the lack of licensed black homes. Such was the case on Saturday morning for a groundbreaking event hosted by the Northwest African-American Museum and Amara.

While aware of statistics pointing to black families choosing to informally adopt members of their extended family, I was curious to learn what Seattle's black community thought about black kids who were not informally taken in by any extended family members. What did they think about the rate at which those kiddos are being placed with white families? I wondered what thoughts they had about the formation of trans-racial families and the subsequent gentrification of what were our predominantly black neighborhoods. I braced myself for tense conversations, and prepared my ears to hear terms such as "stealing," or "white-saviorism."  I was also prepared for the invariable; "I just don't think my heart could handle being a foster-parent," or "how do we get a young child who hasn't had very much trauma?" I was ready to employ calming techniques in order to appropriately respond to questions in productive and informative ways. To my utter amazement, these questions and sentiments never came. 

Instead, folks wiped tears from their eyes after viewing a few clips from Closure, then the audience sat with rapt attention listening to the panelists share personal experiences as foster-parents and child welfare professionals. When the floor opened up for questions, I took a deep breath in anticipation of the questions I'd heard so many times before, but was instead met with the question "what happens to our children when they age out of the system?" Another person waved their hand stating "I'm old, and am not able to get my house licensed to house our kids, but I can be someones auntie!" Small group discussions formed all around the room, engaging in brainstorming sessions around ways to care for our black kids in the community who do not have a permanent family.

As the small groups conversed, I took a pulse of my heart-rate and my body. I rifled through the rolodex of emotions typically felt during my public speaking engagements to try to assign a label to my feelings. Eventually, I realized that this event was unlike the others that I'd been a part of, and thus none of my usual emotions accurately reflected that moment. I only knew for certain that this space felt safe, warm and inviting. Evidence of my comfort came as I found myself disclosing that I was mortified that my mom told my birthmom that I'd seen The Sound of Music hundreds of times (to which my birthmother replied "I've never seen it!"). While overwhelmed to be in the presence of my birthmother for the first time in my life, I was silently screaming; "MOM! Why would you share such a white thing with my black birthmom!?!" A couple members of the audience approached me afterwards singing "The hills are alive!" and confessing that they, too, enjoyed that movie, but didn't want others to know, out of fear of not being black enough. What a relief! 

Historically, black folks haven't had the privilege of self-sufficiency, and have had to rely on each other in order to remain - characteristics like being self-sacrificing, dependable, generous, and helpful to others are of the utmost importance importance, slightly resembling a collectivist culture. Individualistic cultures tend to focus inward and value independence, and self-reliance. In fact, depending on others might be viewed as shameful. The stark contrast between collectivism (let's do what's best for society!) vs, individualism (doing what's best for me) with regards to foster-parenting in these communities is something for which I'm continuing to process. 

Due to high demand, another similar event is already being planned by Amara!

Northwest African-American Museum + Amara event flyer

Northwest African-American Museum + Amara event flyer

Birth-mother vs. First-mother? A Shift In Adoption Terminology

I have a deeply entrenched habit of referring to my birth-mother as birth-mom, as this was how I referred to her for 25 years of my life, prior to our reunion. Post-reunion, she has asked that I replace that I discontinue using that term, and instead simply say her name. I'm ashamed to admit that I have failed at her request as my habit is so entrenched, and the word birth-parent is so inculcated within the adoption field, and thus my vernacular. Aware that this reasoning is insufficient and in order to show respect, I need to address this habit rather than make excuses. Thus, upon further examination, I can't help but wonder if part of my inability to discontinue the use of the word; birthmother (specifically in relation to Deborah) reflects my discomfort and unresolved adoption-related issues. After all, calling her by name instantly humanizes her which feels a bit scary.

Adoption terminology can be tricky - many terms evoke strong emotions, are used incorrectly and aren't always completely thought through. Some terms verge on extinction as we begin to realize the repercussions and importance of language. For example, asking an adoptee about their "real parent" is now commonly understood to be inappropriate and demeaning. Professionals discuss a biological parent's rights being terminated rather than stating that she gave up her child. Myself, along with many other adoptees are working to replace the phrase adopted child with word adoptee.

This trend towards taking a careful look at adoptive terminology stems from the fact that agencies and adoptive parents have been in charge of coining these terms since the early 1970's. An adoption agency's website currently states that "Positive adoption vocabulary helps to ensure that adoption is viewed as a wonderful way to build families." As I read this, I wonder do birth-parents view adoption as a "wonderful way to build a family"? "Positive" adoption language may have subconsciously served as a way to further insulate those most privileged within the adoption dynamic (agencies & adoptive parents). 

That word makes me sound like a baby machine, a conduit, without emotions.
— anonymous birth-mother/first-mother

During a recent webinar, Beth Hall, the founder of PACT, remarked on this shift from birth-mom to first-mom, stating that the use of the term first-mom implies that the biological mother is more than simply a genetic connection to the adoptee. Perhaps it's time we examine the word birth-parent and afford it the option of a 21st century re-brand?

Birth-parents/first-parents; please weigh in - what word (other than your name) do you prefer within this context? 

Post-Adoption-Visit-Blues with a Side of Profundity

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Deborah's visit to Seattle has come and gone. There were high high's and low low's. It remains to be a surreal experience for both of us to be able to spend time together. I am now left to recover from the post-adoption-visit blues, I imagine that she, too, is navigating her own feeling of loss, separation and sadness. Deborah uttered many profundities during her stay. However, one remark in particular has left me with a lot to ponder. She said:

...they cared a lot about you right away. But no one cared about me. Hours after you were born, I was back out on the streets. Homeless. But you were getting medical care, people were choosing your name, and searching for a good home for you...
— Deborah (birthmother)

The term "abandonment" is often thrown around with regards to a child when a parent is unable to care for them, but it seems we could just as easily apply the word to birth-parents who receive no support after relinquishing their child. I spoke with a colleague about this statement, to which we both wondered what advances the social-work profession has made specifically regarding treatment of birth-parents. Where can we learn about best-practices?

My Birthmom is Coming To Town!

Seeing my mom and my birthmom together is one of my favorite sights. 

Seeing my mom and my birthmom together is one of my favorite sights. 

In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, the word enouement means "The bittersweetness of finally seeing how some aspect of your life turned out, while wishing you could share the news with your younger self." John Koenig created this dictionary coining words for emotions that had never been linguistically described. In 17 days, my birthmother will board a flight and travel across the country, to spend time with my family and I for a week. As I countdown towards her arrival I traverse into my personal enouement.

Four years ago my birthmom left muggy Tennessee and flew to soggy Seattle to tour my hometown for the first time - my dream-come-true after 25 years of longing. At that time, I subconsciously chose to allow only one emotion to be present at the time; elation. I was absolutely elated to have her near! I planned out her days ensuring that all but the red carpet would be rolled out beneath her every step. While walking around downtown Seattle, I looked back at her every 25 seconds to make sure she was happy, safe and as ecstatic to be together as I was. I likely resembled a new parent after giving birth to a child, checking to make sure their newborn baby is still breathing. I needed assurance that she felt welcomed by us, forgiven for any remaining pangs of rejection, and safe with us, strangers, in a foreign city. I wanted assurance that she believed in my truth that she holds a sacred place in my adoptive family. The planning, execution and suppression of my anxieties during that trip invariably led to exhaustion and loneliness following her anticlimactic departure.

As I countdown to her arrival in a few short weeks, I realize that I am also ushering in a new phase in our relationship. Keeping our long-distance relationship healthy via text messages, snail mail and phone calls has had it's difficulties, but it seems we moved through the early phases of our adoption reunion relationship quite smoothly. Phase 1: Excitement & Disbelief, Phase 2: Obsession & Infatuation.  Personal experience tells me Phase 3 is Acceptance & Grace.

Both she and I will soon come to accept that some of the high hopes we have for our relationship may never come to fruition. I may never know all of the details about her pregnancy, my birth story or how she felt leaving the hospital without laying eyes on the fruits of her labor. Both she and I will need to accept the fact that spending time together now does not make up for lost time. I hope to accept and release the desire to know exactly what my life would've looked like had we never been separated. The damage from all those years of separation, subsequent rejections and years of wonder is irreparable. However extending grace for all entangled in our beautiful relationship may assist in allowing all emotions to be present during her visit. My hopes are that Phase 3 will allow the safety for a repressed tear to roll down my cheek, or a frustrated scream to escape my lips. Or maybe my large smile will remain plastered on throughout the week in contentment and delight. We shall see. 

It seems that the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows does not yet have a word for the combination of abandonment, fear that I'll never see her again and residual joy from spending time with a special person.

I imagine a pedicure & hot chocolate might be in order in the days following to help with my inevitable post-visit blues. Acceptance & Grace, here we come. 

 

 

**The phases of reunion relationships that I listed are not evidence-based. This is based on my personal reflection and interpretation of my relationship.