Category Archives: An Expanded Family

We Are Family

I grew up in a very traditional nuclear family. So did my parents. So did my grandparents. And so on, and so on. I remember thinking nothing of it.

Today all the folks we consider kinfolk has expanded dramatically. Adoption, marriage, babies, step kids…I often joke that we have duct taped and stapled folks to our family tree.

And that’s a good thing for all of us.

Over spring break we visited Hope’s side of the family. Previous visits were short,this one had us in the area for 3 days. It was worth all the driving and all the angst.

I’ve always known this but I see and know it more than ever now: There is something about being with your people that is incredibly powerful. Nature means folks look like you and sound like you, act like you. Hope’s biological relationship with her kinfolk is undeniable; she looks just like them.

We learned a lot about Hope’s family on this trip. I better understand why kinship adoption wasn’t the best fit and how that truth has nothing to do with love. I wish that things had been different for Hope and for them, but we can only look forward. On this trip I learned what it feels like to also be grafted into a family tree. I imagine that this isn’t quite what Hope felt, but maybe something along a parallel track.

This is the family visit when it all came together.

Well it did for me anyway. I think Hope is still trying to figure it all out. For us adults, we have life skills and emotional intelligence to make this work more easily. I see their love for my daughter; they see my love for their daughter. There doesn’t need to be any drama; we are a family and we’ll do what we have to in order to make it work for Hope because that’s what sensible grown folks do.

Hope still has some work to do in this area. She has quickly become territorial about aspects of the experience and even the chocolate cake her grandmother made because she knows I love cake. Hope isn’t a big fan of cake. It will likely go uneaten because I decided to just let it be her cake, which I know she will not eat (more on the cake in a separate post).

It is a strange thing for all the adults in a room brought together by the love of a child to get it together only to watch the child struggle.

My daughter was frustrated by the family desire to talk about her parents; she quietly complained that she didn’t want to talk about them unless they came up in conversation, but they did, a lot. My inner monologue also was running and said, “Well why the hell are we here if not to be around your family who will no doubt talk a lot about your parents???” I knew better than to ask that question out loud.

I relished in getting pictures of my daughter as a little girl with her parents, while she alternated between balking and sobbing at the imagery and demanding copies of everything. Mid-trip we talked about what it felt like to sit up at night and intensely study the pictures looking for resemblance and connection.

While I’m happy to have taken this trip, now that we are home I’m realizing the real emotional cost. It is hurts to know that my daughter doesn’t understand that there is enough love and loyalty to go around. There will be more questions, there will be more trips. I feel grafted into the family, but I’ve still got lots of questions and curiosity from my own biological family about “them.” If history is predictive, there will be big emotions. There will be clingyness. There will be pulling away. There will be anger. There will be just a lot of stuff. It exhausts me thinking about it.

But I would do it again. How could I deny Hope her family? How in good conscious could I do that? My emotional output is minimal compared to the opportunity to reconnect with family. To see her family delight in seeing her again, getting reacquainted, to have the chance to share childhood stories of her lost parent, to see themselves in her…it is a beautiful thing to witness.  This isn’t just for Hope; it’s for all of them.

We’ll visit again and again. I look forward to inviting them to visit, to graduations, to a wedding, to birthday parties and other events.

We are family.


Thoughts on Searching

My family has long been interested in genealogy searches. Several members, including my mother, enjoy trying to find members of the extended family tree, trying to trace our lineage as far back as they can. This can be challenging given that African Americans were counted as property for so long in the US. Despite this reality, it remains an enjoyable exercise in unearthing our history.

More recently, my immediate family has gotten into the DNA testing game. My parents took the test and found all kinds of connections. Most stunningly, the test revealed the existence of a close relative none of us knew about.

We are all in the process of learning about each other, bonding and attaching, figuring out how we feel about all this new found information. The discovery has prompted a rush of emotions that can hardly be articulated as anything but overwhelming.

I had the pleasure of meeting my relative this weekend; at one point in the conversation I asked him what he thought about all of *this,* this being the discovery, how it fit into his life, how he’s managing all of this new information.

He acknowledged that it was overwhelming, but that he’d been wondering and curious for so many years. He had kind of resolved to himself that some questions would never been answered, but to have them answered and to experience acceptance was more than he could have imagined. It was all still settling in.

This wasn’t an adoption story, but I thought a lot about adoptees as he was talking to me. I like to consider myself an advocate of the adoptee voice, but honestly at that moment, that voice and the needs that come with it resonated so deeply within me.

People want to know who they are and where they come from. There’s a desire to connect somewhere, biologically. There’s a need to understand their origin, their history. This is why they search. They have questions, more questions than I could ever dream of.

I listened as my new family talked about wondering who they looked like, who their people were, did they have mannerisms like anyone related to them.

I watched him and marveled at how much he looked like us; I cried when he spoke because it was like listening to another close family member—nearly tonally identical. The mannerisms were so similar too, and yet, he never knew any of us.

It’s more than nurture; it’s nature, and it’s undeniable.

As I tried desperately to stop staring and focus on listening to my new extended family, I thought of all of the adoptees whom I have listened to, including my beautiful daughter Hope. We’ll be traveling to see her side of our family in a few weeks. I was reminded how important those connections were. I imagined how she must have felt when it seemed that she would never have contact with them again. I smiled when I think about how I look at her face and see her birth family. I watch her grow and how her body shape is morphing to look like her aunts. I see her genes coursing through her.

The search for birth families must be difficult. The call to search, the decision to heed the call, the desire and wonder to know what you’ll find at the end of the search and how it will make you feel. It must be so powerful, scary, joyous, heartbreaking and all consuming.

I know that sometimes it’s something feared by adoptive parents, but it shouldn’t be feared at all. We have puzzle pieces that we need to gather. This experience, which is still developing, has provided me with a greater sensitivity to understanding an adoptee’s compelling need to know and to seek out their families of origin.

I feel better about my own search for Hope’s birth mother last year. I told Hope I’d found her; she said she didn’t want the information. She might one day and I’ll be ready to give it to her. Supporting her desire to know is important, and it’s no threat to me and my relationship with my daughter. I knew it was important before, but now sitting in the midst of a different, yet similar situation has me doubling down on the importance of supporting adoptee searches for birth families.

Certainly, adoptees don’t need me wandering in their space and co-signing on their voice, but I hope that other adoptive parents understand and are more supportive of their sons and daughters who choose to seek out their people.

The siren of biology does matter, and our hearts must be big enough to help our families answer if we can.

*Featured Image: giphy.com

ABM & DAI – The Sequel

I am so excited to share the second part of my series with The Donaldson Adoption Institute! In this post I discuss how same race adoptive families of color can also struggle with racial identity issues.  Sometimes class and race issues are socially tightly knit together.

For our children coming from hard places, becoming a part of a new family is a paradigm shift.  They may be struggling with big emotions like grief and fear; they are learning to be a part of a family that is likely a lot more functional that what they understand…there are new people, new schools, new everything. Often times there are also more resources.

My daughter Hope had a very different understanding of what it meant to be black before meeting me. It’s been a challenge for her to reconcile that black folk are not a monolith. Whether she or I want to admit it or not, the truth is that Hope is a solidly middle class kid now. Most of the time she seems comfortable with that, but in this Dondalson post I talk about when it’s not quick so easy for her.

Again, I’m delighted that the organization thought my voice was important and valuable. I’m totally jazzed that the good folks there have decided to feature my story as in honor of Black History Month.

Here is the link to the second of my two-part series over on the Donaldson Adoption Institute blog.  Be sure to stop by their Facebook page and hit them up on Twitter too!

dai

RACE, PRIVILEGE & FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS


Thoughts on Mothers’ Day

Hmmm. I thought I would feel different this mother’s day. Last year was my first Mother’s Day with Hope and we were traveling. I was so happy to get a nap last year. This year has been quiet. When Hope arrived home from school on Friday I announced that we weren’t doing anything that I didn’t want to do this weekend.

Umm, yeah, it’s Mother’s Day.

I’ve been a slug since then. I’ve been exhausted the last few weeks, and we didn’t have anything planned. I’ve watched lots of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. I bought myself some gourmet popcorn that I don’t intend to share. I took hour long walks and napped on the couch with Yappy.

Today, the actual holiday, I walked 3 miles, cuddled with Yappy, changed my bedding and did 2 loads of laundry. I think I might go out to shop for a couple of new workout tops since it’s time to put away the long sleeved stuff. I may get a slurpee—that blackberry ginger ale flavor is the business. I intend to cook bratwurst for dinner this evening. I like brats with lots of mustard.

Hope has largely been held up in her room, watching YouTube videos and the Disney channel since she hasn’t had TV for a few days.

It’s been quiet, and I’ve been thinking.

I’m glad to be a mom and all that, but I wonder what Hope’s birth mother is feeling and thinking today. I imagine she misses this beautiful young woman that I’m raising. I imagine that she wonders what she looks like now. I bet she wonders how she’s doing in school; she’s doing really quite well.

I bet she wonders where Hope is and whether she’ll ever see her again.

I want her to know that even though Hope struggles with her feelings about her; I don’t judge her. I don’t pretend to understand the series of events that led to Hope becoming my daughter, but I also don’t dwell on them more than I have to, no more than is necessary to help Hope heal. I regret that she couldn’t be what Hope needed her to be or that she couldn’t protect her from a bunch of foolery, but I can’t judge her.

And I can’t judge her or say anything bad about her because I hold out hope that one day, when she is healthy and happy that she will resurface in Hope’s life. I can’t hate her because I hope that Hope will one day not be so angry and that she will learn to forgive. I know I have to model that for her.

In a perfect world, years from now, we might even be friends as we watch Hope continue her life journey.

I don’t know if that’s realistic, but I hope to live in a way that at least allows for that option one day.

So, to Hope’s birth mother, I hope that wherever you are you know that Hope is safe and sound and that her second mom wishes you a happy mother’s day.


From Closed to Open

I owe a debt of gratitude to countless adult adoptees who have schooled me on this adoption thing in the last year. I’ve learned to respect my daughter’s intersecting and layered identities as an individual, as my daughter, as an adoptee, as someone who has a first family and a life that preceded me. I’m glad that I started reading their blogs, their tweets, their articles, watching their movies (Closure…if you haven’t seen it you should, just Netflix it). I’m glad that I didn’t knee jerk label them as angry, bitter, isolated bad experiences or anti-adoption. I’m glad I just shut my pie hole and listened.

I’m not sure when I really got hip to #flipthescript; certainly it was before the hashtag, but I’m not sure when I really started reading about the adoptee viewpoint.

That, some good therapy with Absurdly Hot Therapist, and lots of prayers to relieve me of anger and fear and to grant me patience and grace have helped me figure out how to pry my and Hope’s adoption open, at least a bit.

Credit: Open Clip Art

Credit: Open Clip Art

To a lot of outsiders, it may seem inconceivable to be inclusive of a first family in an adoption like ours. It’s complicated and I’d prefer not to share the entire story of Hope’s life to protect her privacy, but these were people that Hope knew as a child, visited during the summers, had fond and sometimes complicated memories about. These are people, her family, trigger strong reactions from her. And make no mistake they are her family.

I remember being totally freaked out when they found us on Facebook. Oy! It was hard. But, as I have written before, I had initiated a search for Hope’s family. I was curious. So it stands to reason that they would look for Hope. It was inevitable.

It was so very hard figuring out what to do. I struggled to construct some boundaries, some rules of engagement for the family. I struggled to figure out who in the family was “safe,” who did Hope really remember. I wrestled with what it must be like to be somewhat of a prodigal daughter, but one who didn’t hit the lotto when she was out there somewhere. I wondered whether Hope’s anger about being “lost” would fade; she was so angry about why no one fought for her or why they didn’t even call.

I struggled with how I was supposed to feel about it all. I still do, to be perfectly honest. There are so many things on an adoption journey that make you think, “I didn’t sign up for this ish.” I was deliberate in pursuing children who were in foster care but were legally free. I didn’t want to foster and give a child back (Kudos to you folks who are built for that calling; I am not), and I thought that legally free would mean I wouldn’t have to deal with the messiness of birth families. I mistakenly assumed I would have a closed adoption by default. I was absurdly naïve to miss the fact that Hope had a whole family out there somewhere and what if they found us? I didn’t start really thinking about it until Hope had been placed with me for a couple of months.

It’s nearly a year later. I’ve sent pictures and cards. Christmas gifts were exchanged. I finally spoke to an aunt and recently, after nearly 5 years, Hope spoke with her grandmother. In the moments I was monitoring the call; I ended up stepping away because the grief of missing my own grands was overwhelming. I can’t imagine what it was like for both of them. We hope to visit this summer, but I have a lot of negotiating to do to make sure my daughter is safe. Boundaries people, boundaries.

Recently I was sharing about how Hope and I are negotiating this family thing. My companion went in, ranting a bit about how they didn’t agree with my decision to open this adoption at all. Um, ok, didn’t ask, but ok.

I sat and listened to how this non-adoptee/non-adoptive parent discussed how they would feel in this situation (irrelevant, but ok), and what their friend who’s adoptive parent did (denied the child any information or contact until he was 18 and then he didn’t want it) and how I really should consult with professionals before doing what I’m doing.

Yeah, ok.   Thanks. You know, why don’t you have a seat…in fact, you can have all of the seats.

Opening adoptions that you thought were closed, even had hoped they were closed, is a really emotional thing. I can’t imagine having family, then one day just not having family and getting a new one. This isn’t what I thought it would be. But yeah, I’ve consulted with a lot of folks on how to handle this. Ultimately, I’m relying on my gut and my daughter’s readiness to connect. I’m not forcing it, but I deliberately keep the lines of communication and access open. I’ve got rules in place and everyone seems to be playing nice. Really, I want my daughter to be happy, to be well adjusted to this crazy life and able to love and be loved by as many people as can healthily love her back. And right now, that means a larger extended family.

Based on what I’ve read from adoptees, I think my approach is a good one. This doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it seems like a solid plan for now. My daughter is a kid, but she’s not a little kid. I respect her and understand her need for familial connection that’s biologically rooted. I get it. This isn’t about me, this is about her. It’s about figuring out who she is; Hope’s coming of age. I’m here to help her do that. Sometimes, that process is more complicated than we thought.

So Hope and I are slowly moving from a closed to open adoption, and all that comes with it. It’s complicated, but it’s good.


Family Ties

So, if you caught the last Add Water and Stir podcast, you know that I had a big breakthrough regarding Hope’s family recently. I made a conscious choice to drop the “bio” reference; they’re just “family” now. In dropping something, I hope to add something, though to be honest, I’m not sure what that something is yet.

After we received The Package with some really personal items, I couldn’t, in good conscious, continue to make this familial distinction. These folks are Hope’s family. And now as Hope is my daughter, I’m connected to them as well. As I kicked it around, it made the distinction of “bio” or other terms like “first family” or “birth family” or any of those kinds of terms seem intentionally separatist. So, I decided to just try to drop it.

I’m hoping that the rest of me follows along with this bold choice; is it even really all that bold really? I don’t know. Given my level of anxiety regarding Hope’s family, it certainly feels bold.

I’ve been thinking about my own family a lot lately, and how much I missed certain family members, including and especially my own grandparents. I want her to have access to lots of people who will just love on her; she needs the love. Her family can, hopefully, gently, cautiously, help give her the love she needs.

So, all this maturity ish that I’m working on led me to reach out to the family member who actually respected my wishes and laid low until I was ready to talk. She also happened to be one of the two family members Hope said she would like to have contact with in good time.

We talked this weekend, or rather, she did most of the talking this weekend.

It was an overwhelming rush of chatter. There were squeals, apologies for losing her, gratitude for adopting her, lengthy explanations about her view of what happened, promises to continue to lay low, wondering about how Hope will make contact, wondering whether Hope will make contact.

It was a lot. I tried to start sentences and would just get overwhelmed with words tumbling through the phone. I finally just kept quiet until it seemed like all the words fell to a trickle. In retrospect, I imagine she’s been waiting for this call, hoping for this call, had so much to say and potentially so little time to say it. She had to get it all in.

There were moments when my eyes welled as I learned tidbits of information that explained things or at least gave me some context. There were unfiltered moments that piqued my anxiety to hear about family discussions to try to fight me for Hope, discussions questioning why I was protective, why I wouldn’t just fling open the doors of our new life to them. There were moments when I felt so angry because she just kept using the polite euphemism, “well, you know she’s been through so much” to characterize Hope’s trauma. There were still other moments when I wonder whether she knows just how long the most traumatic episodes were or whether she was just in denial.

There were times when I wished I wasn’t Southern, but was glad that I am because I understood some of the traditional phrasings that said, “I know things were really effed up, but you know we don’t talk about that sort of thing.” The cultural touchstone pissed me off because I realize how much it mutes concrete discussions about effed up stuff. And Hope ain’t Southern; I wondered how pissed she would be because of this minimization of her lived experience. I was righteously pissed on her behalf.

And then I felt sad because I can only imagine what it must be to wonder what happened to your cousin/neice/daughter/sister/granddaughter when they were in the foster care system. My heart broke.

And even though I set up the call, I really wasn’t as sure what I wanted to say. I felt unsure and scared. I didn’t want the phone call to create a bunch of expectations of me or of Hope. So, when I finally spoke my normally loud voice was soft; I stammered because of nerves, I stumbled because I wasn’t always sure what words I wanted to us to get my point across.

This does not happen!! I make my living by largely talking. Not having words to articulate things…I don’t have the experience often. I was scared ish-less.

I had a couple of points to make: I wanted to see if Hope could have a healthy relationship with her family; I wanted to be clear about boundaries in any relationship and beyond boundaries, there were some complete and utter non-negotiables that we needed to consider moving forward with more contact.

I got a lot of “yeah, yeah, yeah’s” and “right, right, of course’s.” I want to believe her;I do.

But I’m not sure. I’m terrified that we’ll call and boundaries will get obliterated and lots of damage will be done. I’m scared, but I believe that I’m doing the right thing.

Sigh. Honestly, I’m exhausted by the call even a day later. I’m still trying to unpack it and tease through the complicated feelings so that I can be ok when I tell Hope that that door is now open.

Not sure what will happen next, but we’ll be moving forward. We wrestle with things that happened, but we still press forward. This is just another pit stop on our journey.


The Package

Since June, I’ve been wrestling with the emergence of Hope’s biological extended family finding us. The irony of their emergence is that I had initiated my own search of them a mere six weeks before. I was curious about them. Hope had memories, both good and bad about some of the folks in her family. I wanted to know about them; I wanted to know where to find them if Hope wanted to reach out to them. I wanted to have some control over when and how the connection was made. And then the first day of our celebratory vacation, I got the Facebook inbox message.

I remember immediately feeling threatened—What did they want? Even though we were “legal” would they try to take her from me? Would Hope choose them over me?  Would she run to them if she got pissed off at me? Was blood going to trump me? How did they find us? I had given Hope a pseudonym on social media and our privacy settings were pretty high.   I remember feeling so panicked and so very threatened. I didn’t want to lose the kid that I had just put on lock, so to speak.

It has taken some time to navigate advancements in this relationship. I insisted that they go through me for contact. I asked questions on her behalf. I sent pictures and very modest updates. I got royally frustrated, no pissed really, when it was clear that some family members had higher expectations about my engagement with them.  It has also been rough because people who have hurt her seem to have selective memory about their relationship with Hope.

Of course this has been emotional for my sweet girl too. The first few mementos they sent triggered anger, sorrow and so, so much grief. But this time has also represented so many breakthroughs. Hope is busy constructing an identity that includes two last names (She kept her birth surname and just added mine—it’s long, but it works!); she now has some items that are priceless to her; she has begun to make peace with a lot of her grief. We’ve developed a few new rituals to commemorate key dates in her life before me, thanks to the emergence of her family. It hasn’t been easy and Lord knows I’ve griped, but being found has not been a bad thing.  It’s been a hell of a challenge, but it is not a bad thing.

Recently, Hope’s paternal grandmother sent her a package. I’ve been on the road so much recently that I just picked it up this week. The package included some cards, poems, some of her granny’s arts and crafts (there’s an apron for the liquid dish detergent bottle <quizzical grin>), and most importantly, Hope’s father’s American flag.

I pre-open things, and even though I knew it was in the box it was a shock to see it, lovingly wrapped in plastic, preserved for when they found Hope. The cards were addressed to my daughter using her full name, her new name, my surname.

Seeing her name and the small simple thank you card they included for me changed everything.

They acknowledged that I was her mother. There is no threat; Hope just has a really big family. I cried more than Hope did.

Hope went through everything in the box; I continue to see her grow and thrive. I’m so proud of her. These developments are so important to her.

We’ll be integrating these arts and crafts into our home; they are special to both of us. (There are bar soap cozies too. I imagine that there’s a plastic slipcover somewhere to be seen in my future; my spidey sense tells me so.)

We will be moving to phone calls soon and a visit eventually; Hope’s family is a reasonable drive away. All in good time.

This journey continues to teach me so much.


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