Sometimes Saying "My Birthmom Didn't Want Me" Is an Adoptee's Coping Mechanism

"When you're adopted, at some level, your story is defined by a person who did not want you. Not wanting you may have been defined by wanting the best for you — in fact, most of the time it is." - Genes Aren't Destiny, & Other Things I've Learned From Being Adopted by Todd VanDerWerff


Sometimes when I hear adoptees make a statement such as the one quoted above, it is a statement of protection. I know, firsthand how choosing to reunite or seek out your roots is quite a scary endeavor. Stating "she must not have wanted me," is a great way to help your brain to make sense of such a formative abandonment and thus allows us adoptees an easier excuse when making a choice not to face the unknowns a reunion may bring. If this is your tactic, it's good to know where the impetus lies. This statement often is not a truth coming directly from your birthparents mouth, but rather it's a coping mechanism to help stave off scary and hard feelings. That is an understandable strategy.

When I was denied by my birthmother the first time I laid eyes on her, it did feel a bit like a second rejection, but this does not prove that she did want me. I know that there are far too many pieces to her story and the circumstances surrounding my birth  to boil it down to a statement like "she did not want me." Having been in reunion now for a few years, I know that were I to continue to believe this, not only would I be lying to myself, but also it'd be a callous disrespect to my birthmom.

It is with such jubilation that I now know my birthmother, and that I've gotten the chance to hear her directly tell me that I was wanted! Being placed for adoption had absolutely nothing to do with her personal desires or want, but rather my placement in to foster care and ultimately being adopted, was the result of a host of other personal issues and systemic failures.

Give this article a read. The author is an adoptee, and has reunited with his birthparents. This blog post is not a reflection upon his life, as I've never met him in person. These are just my reflections on a sentiment I hear adoptees use quite often. I'm thankful to see this article in Vox as it is increasingly important to hear the point of view of courageous adoptees, whether we agree or disagree with what has been written.

GUEST POST: A White Mother on Explaining Ferguson, Trayvon and Jordan to Her Black Daughter

What do white adoptive parents say to their black child when events like those in Ferguson, Missouri are playing out?  Soberingly, my children, like many children, are already too well-versed in these conversations with us, from the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial to Jordan Davis’s murder in his parked car.  We have gone out of our way to shield them from the latest story of African-American kids shot to death by white adults… and then a random taxi screen or a thumbnail on a website catches their attention and we’ve found ourselves scrambling to explain.  We’ve searched online for the right words, emailed non-white friends and experts for perspective, sit down with our children to tell them our painstaking takes on unsparing truths, hoping that we are getting it right.

This summer, though, we have been on a self-imposed exile in the Sonora Desert and so, when the news first started trickling in about Michael Brown’s death and the growing protests in his neighborhood, we didn’t scramble as we had in the past.  Could there be even more to say than the words we’d already put together to explain about Trayvon Martin, about Jordan Davis?, wasn’t it enough that we’d already had to break the news of life’s breathtaking imbalances and racial disparities?  Couldn’t we just coast along like desert millipedes and watch the gorgeous sunsets and revisit this on another day, at another time?  That is, after all, what privilege allows.  In normal life, we live in Harlem — a mostly white family with an Afro-Latina child on a historically black street.  We try to make the right choices, we talk openly about our dilemmas, and we grapple with issues of race/class/unfairness every single day.  We are transracial adoptive parents who took seriously our training as such; there is no anachronistic wall decoration or casual slur in our family’s or friends’ homes that goes unchallenged by us.  We came to the desert tired, wanting to take deep breaths and leave behind those daily discussions of a world that, from my computer’s headlines, was looking increasingly brutal, divided and hopeless.  In such a world, unfortunately, we don’t always get to pick when our extended breaks from thinking can happen.  At breakfast, alas, the kids finally noticed their grandparents’ newspapers full of photos of the fire in Ferguson. When you are white parents trying to raise a thinking child of color, you are humbly obliged to maintain even less control over when those breaks can happen.  It’s rough out there.  If we don’t frame the roughness with some softened grace notes, the roughness will surely frame itself first.

“Kids,” I said, “do you remember when we talked about how some young people lose their lives to people with guns?”  They were all ears and anxious eyes, waiting for me to elaborate.  We have spoken to them before about racist assumptions as they were applied to Trayvon Martin, we have spoken about white privilege as it was used against Jordan Davis.  This early morning, I’m a little too lazy to find the appropriate words to explain shootings of unarmed men by police.  “Aren’t police supposed to protect people?,” my daughter asks.  Sigh.  I start to connect dots between the conversations we’ve already had and this one, I pause to look for words that are both truthful and not too scary, to reach for the required insight and then “HELLO, DOLLY” – my singing father enters the room, interrupting with a loud and un-ignorable “Well, HELLO, Dolly!”

We are in his spacious house, not in Harlem now.  Our only tether this summer to stark reality was supposed to be my father, whose worsening dementia has been enough difficulty for any of us to handle.  Indeed, in those quiet moments when my white child and my Afro-Latina child sit together with their grandfather, watching old musicals on the couch, it looks like harmony on earth is quite attainable.  Who doesn’t love Hello, Dolly?  Who can’t smile at Barbra Streisand and Louis Armstrong and all of our differences turned into glorious Technicolor?  Who needs to think about dementia, OR murder, OR mortality, OR Ferguson, MO anyway?  In those moments, I tell myself – we have made a safe home, a loving family, and the nasty curveballs outside these walls don’t matter.  We have enforced thoughtful language and rules for ourselves and for other adults in our family when speaking about race and identity to our children.  I think that we’ve earned the right to this summer break, when –  “What’s your name?”  My father has suddenly turned and asked that question of my daughter.

My heart freezes.  He has known her, adored her, up until right now and suddenly he is observing her as one might observe a stranger.  That is his illness.  Maybe she has sung “too loudly” for him or otherwise shaken the equanimity.  Whatever the reason, his expression is such that I fear what might come out next, and I rush to interrupt.  “Where are you from?”, he asks her, with a tone that holds special panic for parents by adoption.  I hear a THUD as I realize that there will be no summer sabbatical from explaining the extremely painful.  My father has loved my daughter more than life for almost nine years, has written pure and lovely songs about his love for her, has always respected those rules that we’ve laid out.  At this moment, though, he doesn’t recognize any of that, or her, and his look seems to me to underscore the power and the privilege that his color has bestowed on him all of his life.  It says to her, “Do you belong here?”   To tell you the truth, probably the look is not all that different from the look that, in his shakiest moments, my father has bestowed on all of the rest of us.  Given to my child of color, though, this questioning look must be treated differently.   As white parents, it is our duty to see its inherent power, to recognize its automatic assumptions, to react to its potential impact on our child.  This look, to us, says that we can not hide from Ferguson, even out in the desert, because we can not hide from some deep realities of race and difference, even in our well-meaning and well-regulated living rooms.

“She is your granddaughter, of course!,” I shout, as I hurry to take the children out of the path of any imminent collisions, out to the desert where we can escape.  Today is different, though.  Ferguson is exploding even more spectacularly in the paper this morning, my father doesn’t remember us or our careful rules, and so we start to scale my parents’ subdivision wall.  They live in a “gated community” built for cars; our New York need to go on foot instead leaves us climbing over the back wall of the neighborhood, balancing as if on a beam, stepping over a high metal fence, jumping onto the sand below.  This has always been an added, fun adventure — right now, however, all I can think about is the gated community in which Trayvon Martin was pursued and shot to death.  I worry about my children — no, actually just my one black child — one day scaling these walls as we have so casually taught her to expect to do.  Without us, however, with only her own skin, what will stop others from viewing her as a stranger?  How can I keep her safe then from those who would want to “protect themselves” from that stranger they think they see jumping over the fence?  Today, as we, with our privilege, jump over the fence and head into the desert, instead of asking the usual, “Who sees a jack rabbit?”, or instead of asking, “Does anyone spot coyote tracks?”, I say, “Let’s talk about Ferguson, Missouri.”

We talk about the importance of citizens being able to protest. We talk in smaller-word terms about institutional racism.  We talk about how rules and procedures are in place to keep things fair.  We talk about Eric Holder and Barack Obama.  We talk about how more white people tend to have more power in our culture, and that anyone who has more power has a responsibility to use it wisely.   We hear ourselves talk and we wonder if we live by these principles as cleanly as we should, as we must.  We wonder if anyone does.  We tell them that we are sure that justice will prevail, but we are certainly not sure of that at all.  We amend what we just said to, “Sometimes things don’t work out as fairly as they should.”  We say that when people talk about racism, they are not talking about “ALL white people” or “ALL black people” — obviously people of different colors love each other wildly in our family and in many families.  We say that it is our duty, as their white parents, to think and talk about all of these things even more than we already do.  We resolve to do that.  We have some revelations, (which will be Part 2 of this post).  We see that the children are understanding us.  We see that they are very interested.  We see that they are fearful.  Finally, we change the subject and we talk about jack rabbits.

When we get back to the house — climbing back over the wall, (“only ever do this with grown-ups!”, we say) — my father is there at home.  He recognizes us again; he doesn’t remember not recognizing us.  He is delighted to see the children and he playfully pretends to snatch my daughter’s nose, with all of the familiarity and love in the world.  Watching them settle back into the living room together, you might again think that there is no bad news anywhere.  “Oh, what a beautiful morning!”, my father sings at the top of his lungs.  The children answer, in pretend baritones, “Oh, what a beautiful day!”  I smile at their singing and at their familiarity, but I sit down smack in between them, a buffer and a barricade, nonetheless.  I would be negligent not to.  I am the white parent of a black child in a world where all of the protective rules that we establish, in our societies and in our homes, have shown a tendency to tumble down around us.  It is not just my job to clean up after that happens, it is my job to work to prevent that from happening to my child in the first place.   The children sing with my father, “I’ve got a beautiful FEELING/ Everything’s going my way.”   Out in our peaceful stretch of desert, on the open side of a gated subdivision, it IS an incredibly beautiful day.  Until the days get better in Ferguson (and in Iraq, and at the Nogales border less than an hour due south of us, and in Gaza, and in so many other places where we are divided in excruciating ways) — we have a particular duty in our house, as white parents, to make sure to sing songs about those places too.

As gaily told•tales, Gail Lauren Karp is the author, along with her daughter, of the upcoming children's book Paloma the Possible (available in November 2014), the story of one girl's imaginary search for her birth family.

Under her actual name, Gail is a long-time teacher, writer, artist, aspiring changemaker, and parent living in Harlem with her family.  On the subject of adoptive families, she has chaired the Touched by Adoption group at Bank Street College of Education in NYC since 2011 and her writing has appeared in Adoption Today magazine.

What Role Does Religion Play in Parents' Motivation to Adopt?

Earlier today, my friend Maureen wrote a post about Kristen and Douglas Barbour who adopted two unrelated Ethiopian children via Bethany Christian Services to add to their large family. They recently pled "no contest," to the charge of assault and endangerment of their children. [Please read that piece!] RBarbour

This awful case is remarkably similar to the Hana Williams case in which the parents were sentenced last year. Some of the more notable similarities are the heavy reliance upon isolation, emotional control, authoritarian discipline  and other methods ascribed to from books such as To Train Up A Child (I believe the Duggar family also uses this method). In both cases, the parents' main motivation to adopt Ethiopian children was to support and uphold their religious beliefs that by adopting they were doing a charitable act.

It sure is hard to understand the role Christianity may have played while learning of a baby's broken femur, malnourishment, or blindness due to a blow to the head. A quote from the article on The Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

 "The doctor advised the defendants to be more flexible and change their routing and accommodate [the boy]," she continued. But "Both defendants balked at this advice. 'That's not the way we do it. That's not the rules in our house.'"

Is there a tie between far right fundamentalist christianity and excessive, harmful parenting of adopted children?


** Please know that I know not all Christian parents ascribe to these parenting styles  **

A Worthy Voice: An Adoptive Parent Who Cannot Carry Her Baby

I am an adoptive parent with a physical disability. There may be a common misconception that having a physical disability makes one less equipped to parent, and therefore less equipped to adopt children. But I find that growing up with a physical disability has prepared me in many ways for the unique challenges of adoptive parenting.

I have had cerebral palsy from the waist down since birth, which impairs my gait. I walk on my toes with my ankles out and knees in. I have heard it described as walking like a T-rex. This is a blunt but pretty accurate description.

My partner and I adopted domestically, because we wanted an open adoption that would allow our child's biological parents (birthparents) to be in their lives. That means that in order to adopt we needed to be selected by the expecting parents.

When we first started in the process, I excitedly called the adoption agency that we were planning to use, to make initial contact. When I told the social worker that I was disabled, she said "Oh, well, it will probably be a long wait, because birth moms will probably want a healthy mom." I explained that I was very healthy and active. She responded, “Well, you know what I mean. Have you considered going through a Christian agency?" After that phone call, I felt totally hopeless. I feared I would never be able to raise a child because of my disability. No one would want their child to have a disabled mom.

As it turns out, my disability was not an issue for us. We were found by a young woman who knew that we were the family for her little girl. Our adoption agency had to rush our paperwork to get everything done in time for the birth. Sometimes in the adoption process it is hard to know whose version of perfection you are living up to: is it the expectant mothers or the agencies who are looking for Joan Cleaver?

While my disability may have been viewed as a barrier to adopting, growing up with a disability has prepared me to be an adoptive parent in a number of ways. First of all, I know that not everything has to look the same. I can still walk; it just doesn't look like your walk. I can carry a laundry basket up the stairs: just not the way that you would do it. I can be a strong and loving parent, recognizing my own limitations. I had to make adaptions to carry my daughter when she was a baby. At age two, she is too big for me to carry now, but we still snuggle and tickle and walk holding hands. Above all, I can still build a strong and loving family: it just might not look like yours. My daughter's birth family is part of our extended family. That doesn't mean that I am any less my daughter's mom, or that my family is any less of a family. It just looks different. I am very proud of the family that we have built together.

I have spent my entire life answering insensitive questions about my personal life. I've been educating people for as long as I can remember. When I was in the first grade, I was so tired of all the questions about my walk and the staring from other kids that I made a poster about my disability and presented it to every class in my elementary school. By the time I was an adult, educating people in grocery store interactions was just part of life. So I am well practiced in the art of addressing such personal questions when they come up around my daughter's adoption, or when people ask me why she does not look like me. Sometimes I answer these invasive questions. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I care enough to share with the person in front of me. Sometimes I don't. I hope I can show my daughter that answering such questions is really up to her.

Last but not least, my daughter and I both lost something at birth that we didn't know that we had. Now, I am not saying that being disabled and being adopted are the same. Obviously, they are not. But I think there are some similarities in terms of both living with loss, and the evolving understanding and meaning of that loss over the course of our lives.

My daughter and I both have the "what if" factor. When we first brought my daughter home, I was deeply saddened that she had already lost something, and that she had no say in it. No matter what I did, or how much I loved her, I could never make up for that loss. She would always have the questions: What if I wasn't adopted? What would my life be like? Who would I be? It reminded me of all the times growing up what I had wondered the same thing about myself. My disability is such a huge part of who I am that I often wondered who I would have been, had I not been disabled at birth. What path would my life have taken?

I hope that I can use these experiences to help my daughter navigate her own as she grows up. I will remember that, although I was sad at times, I never wanted to be someone else. I never disliked my life. I was just mourning an inherent loss. And so, when my daughter is feeling sadness related to her adoption, I will put my arm around her, and say;

"It is okay to be sad sometimes. It doesn't mean you are not happy with who you are, or your life. It doesn't mean that you don't love your dad and me. Sometimes you just have to let yourself be sad about what might have been. Please remember, all of this makes you the wonderful person that you are. You are stronger for the journey.”

--Mary Robison, Adoptive Parent