by Lisa L. Moore, LICSW, PhD
Full disclosure: Writing about adoption from the position of being an adoptive parent is new for me. I find the experience of producing my own narrative around adoption from this position to be one that challenges me for two reasons. First, I am writing from a position of privilege. As I am neither an adoptee nor a first parent, I hold a position of relative power in the adoption triad. Second, I am writing from the position of the marginalized. As a Black lesbian with a very complicated relationship with socioeconomic status, I am not in the majority in the world of adoptive parents. So when I write about adoption, I am holding the ways I sit at the intersections of privilege, complicit with dominant systems of power that have made me a parent, while my very presence and that of my co-parent were contested at multiple points during the process of adoption. In adoption spaces, I am often one of a few persons—if not the only person—of color present. In addition, I am writing this while currently residing in a small, rural-to-me college town that is predominately white, with a strong Norwegian identity, just forty-five minutes outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Here, the majority of the Black and brown children have two white parents. Here, I am one of two Black mothers who became parents through adoption. I am thankful for the presence of this other Black mother every day.
When I made the decision to become a parent by way of adoption, I hadn’t considered the experience of being a Black adoptive parent as one of great significance. Then I went to the pre-adoption classes required by my agency. I wish someone had prepared me for these classes and the time the educators would spend providing white parents with a crash course on how to parent a child of color. Here, I learned how to do Black hair, listened to thoughts on what it meant to raise a child of a different race, heard suggestions of predominately Black and brown spaces to which you can take your child, and then listened to processing of the discomfort inherent in visiting those spaces. I got to hear about all of the accompanying anxieties around having racist relatives and a Black child, about the reluctance to change where or how one lived to accommodate a child of a different race, and I learned about the importance of being sure my child had some friends and teachers who looked like them.
These were two days in which I found myself moving between anger, sadness and moments of sometimes-audible disbelief at what was not known by my fellow classmates—potential adoptive parents to kids of color—despite understanding that this class was created to address that very absence of knowledge.
What I wish I had l been reminded of in these classes was the fact that I would likely return to a space of heightened politicization once I became a parent to a child whose presence was marked by the oppressive and violent nature of systems that would place him in my arms. I wish we had discussed how raising a Black child meant I would get to relive all the “firsts” all over again: the first time someone commented on my skin tone; the first time someone tried to touch my hair; the first time I was called the N-word; the first time I was punished for something I didn’t do; the first time I was described as violent or aggressive; or the first time I pointed out that something was racist and was dismissed. I wish there had been space to discuss what it means to become a (first or adoptive) parent after being parented for survival and resistance.
I wish I had learned how to respond to the comment, “He looks just like your people,” or “Are you sure his birth parents aren’t your people? He looks an awful lot like your brother.” I wish I understood then how my response or lack of response may have contributed to my son’s sense of belonging, while simultaneously erasing a different story he may want to tell.
I wish I had been offered some tips for conveying to a white parent all the ways race has meaning to their child based on what their child talked about in my home. I had not prepared myself for the possibility of living in a predominately white space in a state with one of the highest rates of transracial adoptees (this was not part of my plan!). I had not prepared myself for my son’s Black and brown friends having white parents. I had not prepared myself for the hard conversations I would have with white parents when they would let their kid’s hair “go,” or the moment when a white mom declared that race didn’t matter, that her children just needed to be “loved, fed and educated.” I had not prepared myself for answering questions about race from children who didn’t want to hurt their parent’s feelings. I wish they had given me a booklet of snappy one-liners to deliver to white parents who threw the racial background of their child in my face in a discussion about racism that had nothing to do with their child.
Up until this class, I was certain about my decision to adopt. I knew I had no interest in bearing a child through my body, that I wanted to adopt an older Black child, and that the child I would raise would have a racially and culturally dynamic community of family and friends who would be both adopted and not. In my certainty, I had not considered the amount of energy I would expend navigating my interactions with white parents with whom I shared the experience of being an adoptive parent. In particular, I hadn’t been ready to witness the persistent erasure of my experiences or their children’s, real experiences that seemed to challenge their sense of parental authority and ways of understanding the dynamics of relationships across race.
The interactions I have with white adoptive parents in my town are often initiated through the relationships forged by our children. Our children have found each other and for my son, this means some of his closest friends in the sea of whiteness are Black and brown. This also means our home is the space where some of the adopted children who may identify as “white” or “mixed” when with their parents, suddenly become “Black” in the backseat of my car.
In my realm of parenthood, this means I have become another sort of parent to other people’s adopted children of color. Yet to their parents, I’m not always a parent but a safe Black person whose bodily presence functions as a consumable resource by the white parents raising my son’s close friends. Case in point: I am typically called during moments of crisis, when the longing of their children becomes intolerable. “Lisa, my daughter is desperate to spend some time with you,” or “Lisa, my kid is upset because she isn’t white like me,” or “Lisa, I don’t understand why my son is telling everyone he is adopted,” or “Lisa, why is my son so angry?”
In these moments, I have to decide whose interests I am serving—the parents’ or the child’s. In all cases, I shape my response to serve the best interest of the child, while also challenging parents to do their own work. In those rare instances when I share a story about past experiences with a parent, my truths are often met with, “Wow, that sounds so hard. I hope that doesn’t happen to my kid.” In these moments, it’s obvious that the parent does not recognize the story as a warning, as a foretelling. In these moments I wonder, Why do I even bother trying? And, as is typically the case, it’s because I am genuinely concerned about what I have heard from the child sitting in my backseat.
At some point, like many people who parent, I figured out that the well-being of the child I am raising is dependent on my own self-preservation. While I continue to have friendships with adoptive parents across many dimensions—race, gender, class, ability, etc.—it is in the spaces with other parents of color where I am served best. I find that my opportunities to have deep and meaningful connections with adoptive parents resides most often in the distinct spaces created with other POC and extended/chosen family members of color who have adopted. In these spaces, our narrative of being adoptive parents of color is allowed to exist as a more complicated and nuanced dynamic.
Our stories are not a commodity in these spaces. There is no censuring of the self for the sake of preserving a child’s friendship. We can wrestle with the complexities of the historical traumas associated with our own family histories, and personal experiences of racism in United States, and how all of it impacted how we were parented and how we parent. We can move seamlessly between past and present, tears and laughter within the span of a few minutes, and we don’t have to explain how we got there. In these spaces, we can do the work of ongoing healing that makes it possible for us to care for and love our children, to hold them while they learn what it means to mourn, survive, resist and love.
Lisa L. Moore, LICSW, PhD, is mom to two beautiful sons. She is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Family Studies, and Director of the Family Studies Program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and has a small private psychotherapy practice in Minneapolis.