Transracial adoption: Thoughts of a South African Adoptive Mom
Laura, a white South African, is the mother of two boys (her biological sons) and Megan, her black adopted daughter. I asked her about the challenges of raising a black child in a white family. Her response was so moving I had to share her words…
A few times I have had people ask me whose daughter my two-year-old Megan (name changed) is. When I respond that she is mine, and explain that she is adopted (as they look at me strangely), a few tell me very firmly, (sometimes aggressively) that there is no way that she could possibly be mine. Although this kind of ignorance is hurtful, I can handle it for myself, but my heart aches for Megan when she is old enough to hear and understand them. I think the deepest issue for me has been simply the aching that every mother has in her heart when her child is wounded and she cannot mend the wound herself.
I see this pre-language stage of Megan as our honeymoon time during which she will not be aware of the comments of others or their uninhibited staring. I truly believe that she is, and will be a happy and well-adjusted person, and I don’t in any way see adoption as a negative word or concept, but I do know that she will have to face the reality of it and the rejection of it when she is ready.
My prayer is that God will enable her to have a strong sense of who she is, as well as where she originally came from, even though it may always hurt her. I believe that she will become a child, and eventually a woman who is not afraid to stand up and be different when it is the right thing to do, or the loving thing to do. I trust that the challenges and issues will shape and strengthen her as they already are doing in our other two children and our marriage and our extended family. We pray that although adoption may be ‘a narrow path that few will take’, it will have a ripple effect on those who are touched by it, challenging stereotypes, prejudices and racism, and calling individuals and families to positive action in whatever area is right for them.
Once in particular I experienced quite overt racism towards Megan through a derogative comment that a man made about her in my presence (she was less than a year old – can you believe it!). My initial response was to immediately withdraw from the group I was standing in (they all heard the comment), and walk away before anything else could be said.
Usually, I can be quite verbal in these kinds of situations and would have given him a mouthful, but somehow when it is your own child they are talking about it is like being punched in the stomach and knocked down. It winds you mentally and emotionally, and the response in a mother to fight for your child is, I think,one of the strongest emotions there is.
I had some time to mull over this during the church meeting we had all just gone into. (church meeting, can this happen in church?) I was so angry on Megan’s behalf I could hardly breathe. How could anyone say something so rude as a joke, and to what purpose? I realised that this was probably a common way of speaking in his circles, and that those usually in his company either agreed with him and laughed, didn’t really notice what he had said, or quietly ignored his word. I also realised that he had probably hardly ever had someone of another colour skin in his social company, and therefore didn’t actually consider what he had said as offensive, until he saw me withdraw from the group.
I thought of all the things I could say to him after the meeting, but it all melted into nothing. I realised that nothing I would say to him would change him, and I surrendered my rage, asking God to deal with him and convict him in a way that only God can do. I realised that my anger would only elicit more hurt and resentment, possibly hatred in me, and I felt that my immediate withdrawal from the group as he spoke was perhaps statement enough of my feelings.
I began to feel pity instead of hate. After the meeting he came straight up to me, and although he did not apologise, his whole demeanor had changed, and he began asking me about Megan and the adoption process, saying how wonderful it is that we have adopted her and that she is a beautiful baby. I was speechless, and decided to try to extend grace to him. I hope that the experience challenged him, and continues to challenge and change him for the positive.
So I guess there are many issues that arise out of stories such as these. Firstly, the pain and sense of helplessness tied up in the awareness of my child’s future hurt, and secondly, the daily choices to either bow to the hurt, resentment and hatred of others who are ignorant, nosy, or simply nasty, or to surrender to grace and be set free to love again. I think I’ve learnt that when you love truly deeply, there is ironically a wide open gap for hate to creep in – when those you love are attacked in whatever way. Pity is also a great replacement for anger, because you can begin to love someone if you pity them, but not if you remain angry with them.
On a lighter note (and there are infinitely more wonderful moments than these few dark ones that unfortunately stick in the memory), I will mention some of my thoughts and our experiences as a family.
Because we have chosen to adopt transracially, our adoption is ‘public’. Strangers cannot help but notice, and often stare or, better than staring, ask questions. Although I appreciate peoples’ honesty and would prefer questions to whispering behind our backs and possibly coming to incorrect assumptions about us and adoption, sometimes it can be tiring and draining to feel ‘watched’.
For example, when my daughter is misbehaving in public, throwing a tantrum, or crying, I feel that I am being watched and ‘assessed’ much more than with my two biological children. I feel (and this is just my perception), that if I am having to tell her off or she looks unhappy, people make the assumption that she is not happy, or that she is a difficult child or that I am not as good a mother as I would be if we were from the same people group. Perhaps that I am not really able to care for her needs well enough, or bond with her sufficiently. I feel that whatever some people observe in that small time frame will be used to judge the overall success of adoption, and although I acknowledge this as only my perception, I do feel it as quite a pressure some days.
I could not be more pro- adoption than I am. This is something I can give my life to, especially being an African (I am South African), with all the need for parents and homes here. My heart aches for our South African past and I grieve for all the injustices and cruelties. It’s difficult to ignore the aftermath of all of this, which still remains extremely visible here, especially in the recurring poverty cycles around us.
Partly my heart for adoption comes out of this sense of trying to make a difference and to right wrongs. It’s overwhelming to think of how massive the task is of changing a nation, but more manageable sometimes to think of making a huge difference to one life instead of a small difference to many lives.
And this is the path that we have been led into and chosen. When we attended the preparation course prior to our adoption of Megan, one of the things that really struck me was someone’s comments about ‘being a hero’. The social worker stressed that we cannot adopt only to ‘do something good’ or to be a ‘hero’. Although this seems very simplistic, I have grown to see it as extremely key in all adoptions, but especially transcultural adoptions. If I, even on a sub-conscious level, see myself as some kind of ‘rescuer’ of my child, I have to be very careful not to cross the very fine line of self-importance and white supremacy. Also, my child should never feel that she owes me anything for what I have done. I must operate out of love, which seeks no reward or congratulations.
This I have found to be difficult because often people’s first response when asking about the adoption is: ‘You are such wonderful people to have done this selfless thing’. But how does this portray my daughter? That she is lucky to have received our charity? No! I always try, no matter how short the interaction is, to put across the blessing that we have received through Megan, and that adoption perhaps begins as a selfless idea, but plays out as mutual love and blessing upon blessing within a family that just looks a little different.
Many people I have spoken to perceive that many adoptive parents have concerns that their child will one day leave them and go to live with their biological family when they find them. This has not at all been a concern for me. Megan is an integral part of our family and takes on the culture of our family as she grows and learns, just like the boys have. We met her birth mother on the day she was given to us, and that was truly an emotional and amazingly intimate time. We felt that we were really able to connect with her and we hope that when Megan is old enough (legally from the age of 18), she will seek her birth mother out.
I believe this will be part of her healing, although I know it will bring pain as well. I don’t feel threatened by my daughter’s birth mother because I know that in every way I am her real mother and I will always be that to her, even if her birthmother becomes part of her life one day. We portray Megan’s birth mother as a brave, very young girl who chose to release Megan as the most loving and selfless act of her life, because this is what we believe to be true.
One of my close friends was passionate about adoption, but had some concerns prior to our adoption. She asked me: “How do you know that you won’t favour your biological children over you adopted child?” My response surprised but moved her deeply. I explained that I was, on the contrary, concerned that I would favour my adopted child over the others because she has already been wounded by life.
We have been amazed to see our boys interact with Megan from day one in their absolute protective adoration for her. I was initially worried last year when my son, aged six, made a comment out of the blue about Megan being ‘more special’. Obviously, babies by nature are more demanding than slightly older children. I thought that he was perhaps feeling left out or jealous, yet we hadn’t observed any jealousy at all from either of the boys.
As I began to discuss this with him, he stopped me short. ‘It’s totally fine, Mom. Megan is more special because she is adopted.” This was clearly not said in a negative way, but he was expressing that he sees that Megan was chosen to be part of our family when she wasn’t before. I was so proud of him that he had grasped not only that she was more needy because she was a baby, but beyond that, we have to take special care with her because of her adoption. That’s not to say we treat her differently to the other children, but her beautiful rich skin is a constant reminder of the gift that has been entrusted to us, the gift of our little Megan.
Some of the really stupid questions people have asked me about Megan are: what does she eat? She must eat different food because she has dark skin.
Is she clever? Implying that she may not be – this is their concern about adoption. It makes my blood boil!
Does she speak English? We brought her home at when she was two months old!
Will we raise her in English? We don’t yet know an African language, although we will probably embark on learning one as a family in the future.
Although I call these ‘stupid questions’, as I said before I would in some ways far rather people come out with their questions to my face than come to their own conclusions behind my back. However, the difficulty comes in when these conversations happen in front of the children and can be extremely hurtful. I have sometimes, in severe cases, felt I am justified in going into attack mode verbally on behalf of my child. She must always know that I will be willing to stand against anyone or anything to defend her. Yet there is a fine line between righteous anger and going overboard emotionally in a way that is destructive, so I am constantly seeking wisdom for each particular situation.