Are You My Mother? Adoptees are in reunion whether they’re searching or not

Many of my weekends are spent mentoring young transracial adoptees. While browsing books at a local bookstore, she grabbed the book "Are You My Mother," even though it is below her reading level. It prompted a rich discussion around her "Ghost Kingdom."  -Angela Tucker, 2017 

Many of my weekends are spent mentoring young transracial adoptees. While browsing books at a local bookstore, she grabbed the book "Are You My Mother," even though it is below her reading level. It prompted a rich discussion around her "Ghost Kingdom."

-Angela Tucker, 2017 

During a recent presentation at an adoption conference, I had the members attending my session participate in a quick exercise before they took their seats. I asked them to walk around the room and find the person they thought they most closely looked like. The room instantly filled with nervous laughter as the participants met each other’s gaze, searching for facial similarities. After a few minutes I had them take their seats and we talked about what that experience was like. I explained that this is what adoptees often do. They walk through the world, searching for their lost “twin” or someone they resemble. Like the little bird in the popular children’s book, adoptees look at others and wonder: Are you my mother?

As an adopted child grows older he wants to know if he resembles someone. This is especially true during the adolescent years when the quest for identity emerges. “Who am I?” Individuals who were not adopted are able to see themselves in the features and mannerisms of biological parents and family. This is more difficult for an adoptee. He looks around a packed stadium wondering if a biological connection is among those cheering on the football team or if a sibling might be sitting next to him in geometry class. One teen client explains, “I spend a lot of time scanning crowds, wherever I am, imagining a brother or sister. I make up stories in my head about what it will be like when we finally meet.”

The author Betty Jean Lifton, an adoptee and trailblazer in the field of adoption calls this living in the “Ghost Kingdom.” It’s the place where adoptees can go and “hang out” with their birth relatives and imagine life if they hadn’t been adopted. One of my young clients, “Ben” was adopted at birth. At age eight, he was struggling with separation anxiety and sleep problems when his parents contacted me. Ben’s parents doubted his issues had anything to do with adoption. “He never talks about it. He’s fine with it,” said Ben’s dad. Soon after we began working together it became clear that adoption was on Ben’s mind often. “Well, I think about her when I wake up in the morning,” he said, referring to his first mother. “I wonder what she looks like and if she would even recognize me. I feel sad that she might not.” I asked Ben how often he thought about this and he answered, “Every day, more than just in the morning. Maybe about 5 or 6 times.” Ben’s anxiety was linked to the worry that his birth mother might not recognize him and also, the fantasy that he might be seeing her each day and not recognizing her.

Years ago, I worked with “Kate,” a 12-year-old girl, who like Ben, was adopted at birth. Kate’s parents described her as “angry, oppositional, and living in her own world.” They explained to me that they had met her birth mom and knew she did have biological siblings but they hadn’t shared that information with Kate. They were waiting for the right time. They explained how they answered Kate’s questions related to adoption when asked but added they never initiated conversations. “She’s just not that interested,” they said. I quickly learned Kate was very interested in who she was, who she looked like and where she came from. She was indeed living in her own world – she was living in the Ghost Kingdom! Kate explained she likely shared her hair and eye color with her birth mom. “She must like to dance because I do,” Kate said. She planned to live with her birth mom for one year when she turned 18. Kate “knew” she had brothers and sisters and suspected she saw a sister recently at a farmer’s market in her town. “She looked exactly like me and we had on the same jeans!” she exclaimed. Kate had much to tell and I suspected she was angry because no one else seemed interested in her internal world. Kids Kate’s age may not start talking about adoption but they would like their parents to be curious and begin the conversations.

Professionally, my work with the adoption and foster care community has shown me most adoptees spend a lot of time thinking about adoption, reunion and genetic relatives – far more time than their adoptive parents might think. Personally, I knew this all along!

I first “met” my birth mother in elementary school. “Mrs. Jensen” was a classmate’s mom who volunteered during the lunch hour a few times a week. Her platinum blonde hair, frosted lips and mini-dress completed her “Charlie’s Angel” look. My eight-year-old self was convinced that we shared the same hair color and same eyes: we must be related. I imagined how surprised Mrs. Jensen would be when she discovered that her child, me, was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich right next to her!

Adoptive parents can rest assured that this “searching” and wondering is completely normal. While it doesn’t mean their child is unhappy or longing to be somewhere else, the amount of time spent fantasizing may interfere with day-to day activities and concentration. It may be the root of anxiety and sadness. Part of knowing who you are is knowing where you came from. This isn’t a “given” for many adoptees whose ancestry is a mystery to them. Living in the Ghost Kingdom can be distracting for a child who is trying to study for a math test.

Parents are their child’s best advocates and there are many ways parents can help their child integrate their biology with their biography. Parents can obtain as much information as possible about their child’s history before they came to be a family including information about both birth families. This makes it easier to answer questions and provide valuable information to their children. Parents can lead conversations and bring up the topic of adoption often. In doing so, the child gets the clear message that mom and dad are okay talking about everything related to adoption. Once Ben’s parents began talking about his birth mom “Cindy” and allowing him to verbalize his worries, his anxiety began to dissipate. Ben’s parents also created a “Lifebook” for Ben. Lifebooks include pictures of birth relatives, and other visuals incorporating pre-birth and birth history. As the child gets older, he can become his own historian, adding information to the Lifebook.

Parents may also consider open adoption, a choice that is becoming increasingly popular. Author and adoptive parent Lori Holden explains how adoption creates an unnatural split between a child’s biology and biography. Openness in adoption allows that split to be healed. Although they first thought she was too young, Kate’s parents agreed that maybe connecting with her biological siblings would be helpful. In our subsequent meetings they began to share pictures of Kate’s birth mom and also told her she did indeed have siblings. Over time and with much guidance, we worked together and decided the circumstances were appropriate for Kate’s parents to contact her birth mother to set up a meeting. This was healing for Kate and the families continue to have a relationship.

Support groups are a way for parents to connect with others in the adoption community. I co-facilitate a monthly group for all adult members of the adoption and foster care communities, that is: adult adoptees, adoptive parents, foster parents and birth parents. It’s a powerful experience for everyone to hear the varying perspectives. There are numerous books and online resources relating to all aspects of adoption. Finally parents may wish to contact a professional to help them. In seeking a therapist, it is wise to find one who has special expertise in working with the adoption population.


By Lesli A. Johnson, MFT ~

Originally posted on May 2015

My Recent Interview with

I recently spent time with writer, Natalie Brenner who asked a series of questions for publication at I felt a sense of respect and understanding about the sensitivity of her questions. Due to her loving and empathetic questioning, I felt able to answer her questions thoughtfully and vulnerably. It was a pleasure to chat with her. 

Here's a clip from our interview:

Q: Did people ever ask your parents intrusive and sometimes-inappropriate questions about you while you were right there, and how did your parents respond or how do you wish they responded?

A: Oh, of course! I haven’t met one conspicuous family that hasn’t run into the intrusive questions as it seems to be [inevitable] for transracial families. The comment that we continue to get is from those who call my parents “angels,” or gush about how amazing they are for “taking in all these poor kids.” My parents typically responded with a definitive “No. No. We are just parents, who love our kids.” I loved this, because I knew, after further exploration of this topic that they don’t feel pity towards any of their children’s biological families, and subsequently, they don’t feel any pity on us. The ever-present White Savior attitude was not a narrative that I was familiar with, until society began to place that label on us. My parents did not feel that they were ‘saving’ any of their children, but rather that we would each be afforded a different life, and different opportunities than we would’ve had were we not adopted by them.  My parents’ simple answer “No. No,” felt brilliant and honoring.

It’s easy to think that my birth mom, Deborah’s personal hardships led her to sign documents relinquishing her parental rights and that her “decision” to place me for adoption was because of her less than ideal circumstances, but in reality the necessity for my adoption was predicated on the shoulders of her ancestors. It’s refreshing to have parents who know that none of our choices are made in a vacuum. We are all shaped by our place within the context of our time.

There seems to be an expectation for us adoptees to either shell out our private, potentially traumatic life story whenever anyone asks, or to speak for free as a sort of restitution for having been given a “better life.” In reality, some details don’t even belong to me to share! For example, lots of folks want to know about my birthmother. [I get asked] “Why couldn’t she keep you?” “What kind of drugs was she doing?” Assuming that I knew the answers to these questions (which I don’t), it isn’t my information to share. Those facts belong to my sweet, wonderful birth mom. She should be allowed to decide whether or not a well-intentioned stranger gets a glimpse in to this particular time in her life or not.

Click here to Read the full article.

Life at The Office - A Birth-Family Reunion

A few months ago, I accepted a new position at Amara, a foster-care agency in Seattle. I'm having a blast building a new Post-Adoption Program, that will be designed to support all members of the adoption constellation. Just three months in to my new position I received a phone call: 

“Hi, my name is Mariya. I think my biological sisters were placed for adoption through your agency about a decade ago. I’d like to know what I need to do in order locate them, and possibly meet them? And, by the way, my mom – their mom – doesn’t know that I’m making this call.”

Read the full story & watch the 3-minute reunion video HERE.


I Wonder if Kamiyah Mobley Believes The Word "Mother" is a Verb. I do.

Kamiyah Mobley (18) and her "mother," Gloria Williams.

Kamiyah Mobley (18) and her "mother," Gloria Williams.

Underneath a picture of a beautiful teenager and her "mother," is a headline "A teenager stolen from hospital as a newborn baby has been reunited with her birth family after the woman she thought was her mother was charged with kidnapping." For all Kamiyah knew, Gloria Williams was her mother. In the courtroom yesterday, Kamiyah told her "I'm praying for you. I love you."

I've spent the last day perseverating and obsessing about this teenager, feeling pain deep in my heart as I read and re-read the details. I consulted with a friend - a white adoptive mother who has a daughter she adopted from China - and she replied right away, with compassion helping me to unpack exactly why this particular story felt triggering to me. She said "This girl basically had a closed adoption where the adoptive mother did not tell her she was adopted." She was right. Like many well-intentioned adoptive parents, Kamiyah's "mother" did not abuse or neglect Kamiyah, in fact many neighbors recall them getting their hair and nails done together, and working outside in the yard. However, she did contribute to the damning trauma of not allowing her to know her true identity. 

After the arrest, Kamiyah was allowed to spend a few moments with [her mom]. She cried out "momma" while reaching through the caged fencing of the jail cell that separated them. Authorities are now encouraging her to begin a relationship with her biological family, who understandably are overjoyed and in shock knowing that she's alive.

Being adopted has undoubtedly shaped my worldview in many ways. One specific way is my belief that being a mother does not solely depend upon childbirth, genetics and biology. I equate mothering with actions, commitment, showing up, stability and dependability. To me, "mothering" is a verb. An action. Ms. Williams was a mother to Kamiyah in the verb sense. 

This distinction shan't minimize the role of a birth parent, as when we allow for openness within adoptions, we allow birth parents the ability to play an active role in their child's life, too. Whether that's through phone calls, letters, texts, Skype, in-person visits or adoptive parents working to keep their child's biological parents' spirit alive in some other fashion. This, too, reflects "mothering" as a verb. There is room for both!

My adoption was closed, however not knowing my identity was not predicated on a lie - or a crime, but rather the inability of social workers (in that era) to understand the lifelong impacts and importance of helping my birth-family and I stay connected.  Once I began a relationship with my birthparents, I had a steady rock of support from my [adoptive] parents, and had spent time processing and preparing for the moment, working through all the possible "what-if" scenarios. To imagine this young girl being thrust into new relationships without the support of the single person who raised her feels to be a society-approved re-traumatization of the victim. I worry for Kamiyah - the only mother she knew is now being raised behind bars, and is being shamed by the entire country. Although, her "mother" committed an egregious, crime, throwing her in jail does not help her daughter as she begins to process the trauma of living a lie, perpetrated by her mother. 

Kamiyah's "mother" kidnapped her, without providing any truth to cement and anchor her true identity. This is not too dissimilar from a closed adoption, or from the years when we sent pregnant, un-wed women away to give birth in private, secrecy and shame. It's not too dissimilar to how we turn a blind eye, when hearing stories of parents smuggling children out of the country, or trafficking children for profit. Forcible, black-market crimes against children are happening all around us, and are as upsetting as Kamiyah's kidnapping.

One report stated that Kamiyah's birthmother would wrap a piece of birthday cake in foil and put it in her freezer on her birthday each year. Years ago, her birthmother told reporters "I wonder, 'what does she like? What kind of food? What kind of colors? How smart is she? Does she have long pretty hair? Does she have my eyelashes?" If only Kamiyah could know that her biological mother has been actively mother her all her life. If only all of the biological parents who have been denied a relationship with their children could be seen as mothers - the verb. 

I am continuing to grieve and process this story, but am fortunate to have finally identified my trigger. It's the fact that people I know have legally adopted their child, but are currently raising their children like Ms. Williams. And it's legal.