When, as a transracial adoptive family, we move into a new community, or when our children move to a new school, we are faced with the challenge of explaining how we are connected as a family. Let’s face it, this is a constant part of the experience of adopting across racial lines: every place we go together, we face direct or unspoken questions that confront the legitimacy of our family. It’s understandable: we don’t look alike, people are naturally curious. But that doesn’t change the trepidation that these transitions bring up for all of us.
James was starting fourth grade at a new school. As usual, it went smoothly for the first several days, because people hadn’t matched us up yet. As long as only one of us picked up James, they figured his other parent must be African American. But eventually everyone realized that we didn’t match, and so the questions began.
It was my husband Ted’s day for pick-up. The kids waited for their parents by the big tree in front of the school. Since we lived about five miles away, Ted was driving. He had parked at the other end of the block. James was waiting, backpack hanging off his shoulder, eager for a snack and ready to go home after a long day at school.
As they walked to the car, James walked next to the chain-link fence that surrounded the block-long schoolyard, with Ted next to him on the street side of the sidewalk. Inside the fence was a little boy who, as it turns out, was in James’ class. Black like James, Dexter worked to get James’ attention.
“Hey, James,” Dexter called out, “James, is that your dad?” James tried to ignore him at first, but Dexter was persistent and he wasn’t going to let up.
“James, James, is that your dad?”
James responded with a distraction. “Hey Dexter, look, the guys are playing basketball, they want you to come over.”
Dexter looked over and contemplated the game, but there was something here he needed to know. “Yeah, yeah, but James, is that your dad?”
Taking James’ backpack, relieving him of one burden, Ted remained silent as they walked the trek to the other end of the block.
“Hey, Dexter, what did Ms. Johnson say we have to do for math? I didn’t understand that part about the apples and pears, did you?”
James, walking with his head down, looked like he wanted to sink into the sidewalk itself. Ted remained silent, allowing our son handle his friend without interference.
Dexter was nothing if not persistent. Everything James had thrown his way had not distracted him from his purpose. Eventually even James seemed to accept the futility of fighting off this unwanted curiosity.
As if in front of a firing squad, James turned and spat out his response: “No, he isn’t my dad!”
Time stopped. The instant was transformed into something bigger and more potent than any of the three had planned. It was one of those split seconds of parenting that we all fear, where no amount of preparation can possibly predict the feelings and tension of the moment of truth.
Ted and James walked silently to the car and got in. Seatbelts on, snack delivered. Ted turned to James and said: “James, I just want you to know that I know that you love me.”
Our baby collapsed in the arms of his father and sobbed, wracked with the pain of denying this man he loved and worshipped. And in that moment, Ted proved himself to be worthy of that devotion, because he understood that what had just happened was not about him. Not about whether or not James loved him. It was about James trying to manage the walk between fitting in with his same-race peers and loyalty to his family—race vs. adoption vs. his own personal identity. And in that moment Ted understood that the injured party was James.
We spent a lot of dinner-table conversations discussing how to handle such situations in the future. We all had suggestions and ideas. In the end, James and Dexter became fast friends because it turned out that Dexter had a white mother himself and had been looking for an ally in James. But that was later, and it didn’t change the challenge of the moment when James had felt he had to choose.
Getting to the end of the block and having a father who recognized his pain—this is what James needed. On this day and many others like it, Ted was my hero, because he showed the true meaning of acting in “the best interests of the child.” If I am honest with myself I have to acknowledge there were more times than I care to remember when I failed in that goal.
I was recently advising a parent whose eight-year-old is asking questions about his birth mother: “Where is she? Why did she choose adoption? Did she love me? Does she think about me?” This boy is on target developmentally, expressing what research tells us are normal questions for an adopted child his age. But Mom was struggling. She finally confessed that her son’s questions were hurting her feelings.
Mom felt bad, she didn’t want it to be about her, but she was struggling with her own buried fantasy that her son would grow up so satisfied with his relationship with her that he would never need to wonder about his other mother, his first mother, and why he wasn’t with her. She knew better, she wanted to be better, but she was honest enough to admit that that she was wrestling with her own sense of entitlement, wanting to be able to fix her baby’s pain by being his only real mother, able to completely reassure and comfort him simply by expressing her own love and commitment. Opening the door to his other mother and her own lack of control was scaring her. I recognize her feelings within myself – within all of us who are our children’s last parents but not their first.
When I suggested to Mom that her reaction might put her son in the position of having to take care of her, instead of working on understanding his own experience, she whimpered and acknowledged what she already knew to be nothing less than the truth. And of course what I know is that she has already begun the most important work of being a good adoptive parent. We focus so much on picking just the right words and planning for particular conversations, but some of the most important work we will ever do is being able to hold our own adoption journey separate from that of our children. We need to let them explore, without having to worry about taking care of us. We can then go find our own support and validation elsewhere, with friends, family, and professionals, but we should never ask our children to take care of our needs or fears.
For children adopted across racial lines, race and adoption often become inextricably connected. Many transracially-adopted adults talk about being unable to think about adoption as an issue separate from race. Because race is so obvious a marker of difference between members of a family created through transracial adoption, it is common for the child to experience his or her race as a powerful reminder of his or her adoptive status within the family. Racial differences may serve—sometimes appropriately, at other times inappropriately—as the universal explanation for all of their issues of “not belonging.”
This does not mean that transracially-adopted kids do not experience adoption-specific issues around loss, rejection, guilt and shame, grief, identity and intimacy. But it often means that those issues are racialized. For children of color with white parents, loss can look like separation from other people of color, shame can feel like being ashamed of being the race that they are, and identity questions become focused on race and so on. Racial identity formation is already complex. Adoption identity formation is complex. Add these two together for children and the waters of self-identity and self-esteem become even more muddied, making the journey of finding oneself that much more challenging.
Just as we cannot prevent our children from experiencing the loss of their birth family, we cannot prevent them from experiencing the loss of growing up in a same-race family. No one can live in an environment “diverse enough” or “friendly enough” or “good enough” to protect children from the hurt of racism. Does it matter whether we live in a diverse area? Yes. Does it matter whether our children have mentors and role models who share their experiences as people of color and transracial adoptees? Yes. Will these life choices allow us to protect our children from the pain and hurt of having parents who can never fully understand their racial experience? No. What we can do to take care of our children is confront our own blind spots and biases and work to become effective anti-racist allies.
What I believe is that James’ walk along that school yard fence is just one example of the mighty forces at work in the experience of our children. James’ long walk between his black friend and his white father, between races, between being born to a family and adopted by a family: this is the journey of transracially adopted children. Caught between parents they love and people in the world with whom they want to feel a connection, we adoptive parents need to walk with them as they navigate the complexity of having to explain themselves and their family situation to everyone who asks—without ever asking them to choose.
Beth Hall is an adoptive mom, co-founder and co-director of Pact, An Adoption Alliance—an organization dedicated to providing adoption services to children of color and co-author of Inside Transracial Adoption: Strength-based, Culture-sensitizing Parenting Strategies for Inter-country or Domestic Adoptive Families That Don’t “Match” 2nd edition, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.