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Most of What I Need in My Adult Relationships Was Taught to Me in My Childhood

by Susan Harris O’Connor, MSW, LICSW, ASQ/CQIA


When Pact asked me to to share what it is I need from people who love me, I thought immediately about the Childhood Relationship Blueprint given to me by my parents and a core group of childhood friends. Born in 1963, and subsequent to living in foster care, I was adopted in 1964 and raised in a predominately white community just 40 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts. I am one of the older, Black, multiracial, adult transracial adoptees in the United States. It was my parents and a small group of childhood friends who gave me the Blueprint that guides me today.

I would ask the reader to think about their own Childhood Relationship Blueprint, because each of us is impacted by what we are taught as kids. Parents, your children will be imprinted by what you teach them. Does yours provide the teachings you need to assist you in forming meaningful, loving adult relationships? Have you had a chance to address any negative childhood messages you may have absorbed in order to help in your own journey toward more satisfying adult relationships? If you are a parent, what type of messages are you sending your child?

I was fortunate that the core ingredients for love and meaningful friendships necessary for adulthood were instilled within me as a child. This is my Blueprint, which helps me navigate and determine what feels right and wrong in relationships, how to screen-in or avoid people.

My Blueprint is a genderless, colorless and non-class screening tool. It doesn’t care about superficial packaging. It is how I assess the depth, ability, capacity, quality and type of connection occurring in my adult relationships. This Blueprint remains in place as I am in relationship with a person. Its sole purpose is to objectively assess the type and quality of the relationship(s) and report information back to my subjective, emotional self.

What follows are some formative experiences that taught me what I need and what I should expect from people I love and care for.

1. A best girlfriend who regularly sat behind me on the school bus on our way to first and second grade would pick the lint out of my unpicked afro. She and the other children who lived on my street were such wonderful friends. While many black women have experienced people touching their hair as a means of satisfying their own curiosity, I have never had people invade my space that way. My experience was always having people come from a place of love and care. My friends never laughed at my hair, my darker skin, or the fact that I was Black. They didn’t think twice about it. They were just a sweet group of kids.

As an adult, I do my best not to have lint in my hair, and on occasion my husband has to tend to this, which he does lovingly.  I expect to be loved and cared for by anyone who is in my inner space; I expect that nothing about my Black identity will be laughed at or disrespected.

2. Once when I was very young, I asked my mother if we could get cooked chicken from a particular restaurant. She looked at me and said, “Susan, we can’t buy chicken there. They no longer hire Black people. How can we shop at a place that doesn’t hire Black people?” Of course as a child I tried to get my mother to change her mind but she wouldn’t budge. Another time, when I told my mom about being teased by some kids because our family was Jewish, her response was, “You are perfect as is. NEVER apologize for who and what you are.” These interactions were by far two of the most powerful things my mother did to teach me self-respect and the respect of people. She taught me not to cower to anyone and to stand firm and stand up for social justice issues.

As an adult, I expect anyone who loves me or is dear to me will respect difference, be inclusive; I expect they will not bully, exploit or intentionally harm people from vulnerable groups including but not limited to Blacks, Jews, immigrants, women and children, senior citizens, LGBTQ communities, veterans, disabled, the poor, etc.

3. My teammates, my parents and my coaches were inclusive and welcoming. My adoptive parents exposed me to a swimming pool as soon as I was adopted. I swam competitively from an early age, joining teams at the YMCA, a country club, and later in high school. I was usually the only child of color on these teams.

As an adult, I expect any true friend of mine to include me in any and all types of activities. I am not friends with those who exclude me from activities due to any area of my identity. My childhood friends taught me how I should expect to be treated by people and by institutions. They also taught me how I am expected to treat others.

4. My parents believed that all six of their children were worthy and deserving. They also understood that each of us would be faced with varying degrees of oppression because of our identities moving through society in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They worked purposefully to ensure that ALL of us were able to follow our pursuits regardless of race, gender, religion and biological vs. adoptee status. This meant they expected their Black adopted kids and white biological kids to have access to all they could financially and physically provide. When I wanted to join a country club to be with my friends on the swim team, my father was able to get me a membership at the country club. When his two adopted sons who are Black wanted to play ice-hockey he made sure that that happened, and kept a close eye on their physical and emotional well-being. When my sister who is white wanted to go to college, they encouraged her while she attended MIT and Harvard. My parents believed that ALL SIX of their children were worthy and deserving.

As an adult, I expect loved ones to be happy for me when I accomplish things and when I have access to things that speak of success. They should be encouraging of me as I am of them.  I do not tolerate the “glass ceiling” viewpoint.

5. In a moment of deep grief following the death of a friend, I sought consolation with my adoptive father. He asked, “Are you walking, talking and crying?” I responded, “Yes.” Then he replied, “Then you are going to be okay. Just continue to walk, talk and cry.”

As an adult, I realize finding people who have the capacity to listen to me and be comfortable with me expressing my feelings can be complicated. However, I have a few key people in my life who are there for me. When I am sad, I expect my loved ones to be there to hold me. If I need more, I will turn to professionals as a form of self-care. My father (who was ironically an impatient man) really expected me to take care of myself on a physical, emotional and psychological level; this was crucially important.

As an adult, I expect any dear friends and loved ones to honor and care for my whole being which includes my spiritual existence.

6. During my first year of college, I discussed some worries about money with my mother. I remember her saying to me, “Susan, I never want you to beg for money. I will send you an allowance regularly. You should never be in a position where you feel as if you have to beg for money from me.” My mother loved me and financial independence was one of many things she wanted for me.

As an adult, I do my best to avoid relationships that place me in a begging position for anything. My mother taught me that kind of neediness is a sign of an unhealthy relationship. She showed me how a caring person with power can give gifts, monetary or otherwise, and still provide love and security without expecting the recipient to feel obligated and grateful.

What messages are your children receiving from friends and community? What more can be said and modeled to continue your child’s chances of developing a healthy self-concept and self-esteem? I invite you to model your child’s Relationship Blueprint with vision and inspiration.

Susan Harris O’Connor, MSW, LCSW, is a pioneer and national leading voice on transracial adoption. A member of Pact’s Advisor Board since 2014, Susan has worked more than 30 years in the private non-profit social service sector as a practitioner and senior administrator. She has won numerous awards for her work, and is the author of a compilation of groundbreaking autobiographical essays, The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee.

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