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.

    • Karin
    • September 26th, 2015

    Everyone’s stories on this blog so resonates with us. We adopted our two children 16 and 17 years ago, and told them from the earliest months that they were so special because they had two ‘mammas’ (a heart mamma and a tummy mamma). As the years went by, and we all went through the same stares and questions and sad ignorance, I believe these experiences have taken a serious toll on our children – in addition to other challenges. One has learning difficulties and little impulse control – and years of ‘therapy’ and school failure have simply driven him into a dark, depressed corner. Our second child did not speak until age 7, but has coped well enough at school. When puberty struck, everything changed. Both teens are now in a spiral of identity crises, anger, social behavioural problems and extremely low self esteem. I don’t know what it is like to be a biological mother, but I do know the excruciating pain of watching your child sink into an abyss and feeling utterly helpless. We try to show our love and support as best we can – but counsellors, social workers and psychiatrists have pointed out that we are constantly overcompensating for historical and current social ills in our South African society and should have set the boundaries for unacceptable behaviour. And yet, the boundaries they refer to have to do with how it is unacceptable to express your anger through violence or disrespect. Our children have experienced so many explicit and tacit forms of both in the world we live in (we also lived in Europe for 5 years in the early days, hoping we would be more accepted as a multicultural family in a more equitable and diverse city – this was to prove a total fallacy).

    If I had one wish it would be that people think before they speak – the turning point for my daughter was when some idiot in a mall exclaimed loudly ‘OMG, look – here we have our very own Madonna with her %$&# (unacceptable racial epithet) child!’ My daughter was 13 at the time. And that was the straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back! She retreated into what is turning into a very angry shell.

    I have no answers, but only the hope that my children will get through these dark times and know how much we love them.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story, Karin. It breaks my heart to read about how much your children are struggling. I don’t think there is anything more soul-destroying for a mom than to see her children experience pain and unhappiness. My earnest prayer is they will emerge from their pain and know that you love them unconditionally, which comes across so clearly in your writing. God bless.

    • mamma
    • January 11th, 2014

    I believe every word I read, because I have felt them, I have asked the same questions, heard the same remarks, and seen the stares, but- if given a choice, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
    Our biological daughters are 26, 15 and adopted daughter 2 and a half (if under 5 , the half counts!) We did not ever plan or think of adopting- it just happened, a strange accumulation of events- and at he age of 46 we were parents again.
    We are Afrikaans, live in a very small boere dorp with one high school and 2 primary schools, lots of NG kerke and no woolworths. . . .
    I often see her mother wondering the streets, begging on street corners, a beautifull but very unkempt young white woman with long long blonde hair- my daughters father is unknown and very black.
    We have heard:
    you will regret this one day, she is the one who will kill you
    don’t let her touch my childrens toys
    does she smell different than you
    you (me as her mother) are a whore
    she has an African build, she is going to be fat
    can she talk Afrikaans
    and lots lots more, the k#ffir word has also been slung at us/her to which I once replied that if you had any self respect you would not use it, and I regard it as a phrase for people with no dignity or manners- such as yourself! ( not the best option always, but very effective in that particular incident, I left a grown man red with shame)

    When all is said and done, I can only say we love her dearly,
    we promised her since she was 7 weeks old that we would protect,
    care and love her-
    and that is what we do

    • Eleen
    • October 28th, 2013

    I have two beautifull princesses, and will not for one second trade my lif with them, This article really tell it like it is!! My prayer is for people reading this to realize how their actions and words can hurt an innocent child, please, direct your anger and hurtful words to me, I can handle it, muchildren is my prayers answered by the Lord!!!

    • Di
    • September 19th, 2013

    Ignorance is never bliss! People can be insensitive and unkind. May I encourage you to bless all who you come in contact with and ask Father God to direct you with a few words to enlighten hearts whenever He opens a way. He will protect your Megan and when she is able to understand He will ‘make a way where there is no way’. I am blessed to be a grandmother to a child (13 yrs) which a friend of mine adopted, which is obviously not of our race. We have each of us experienced so much joy that we no longer ‘hear’ the comments. Be encouraged that God is never caught by surprise or off-guard, He will guide you…in all, the bad and the good which will come from your obedience to bless another. Blessings!

  1. I’m a dad of two miracle boys. Having been told we’d never have a child we were miraculously blessed with our firstborn after almost 12 years and then almost 3 years later we adopted our secondborn, a mixed race ray of sunshine from Bloemfontein. Together they are our pride & joy!

    We decided very early to be honest with our son about his adoption because like you say it’s a public thing given the colour difference. We realised early on that if we didn’t tell him the truth then others would tell him their twisted version of what they thought the truth might be. The upshot of this is that as a family we’re very open about all subjects, nothing is off limits and we appreciate each others honesty.

    Like you we’re often watched, or rather stared at by the ignorant. When our boys were little it was easy to deal with but now they’re getting bigger they are all too aware of it and my youngest is not far from starting to address the matter for himself. He’s only 7 but the size of an average 11yo and quite capable of handling himself. I’ve already decided that when the day comes for him to act in such a way I won’t stop him, rather I’ll support him so long as he’s not rude. In many ways I look forward to that time.

    I think my greatest joy in all this though is the intimate understanding physical adoption gives of understanding our adoption as sons into the kingdom of God. For me it’s really helped to deepen and strengthen my faith.

    My other great joy is watching my sons and seeing how tight they are together. They’re more than brothers, they’re best mates and that is a joy to behold.

    Bless you for sharing your story.

  2. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing

    • Samantha
    • November 24th, 2012

    I especially liked your comment about being a hero. I have wanted a child for so long and the pain of not having one was terrible. I am the beneficiary in this transaction and my child is my hero, not the other way round. People are very funny in how they see things. I tell people, actually it is a purely selfish act. I wanted a child!

    • Bridgette
    • December 20th, 2011

    Awesome story …hank you for your honesty and sharing so beautifully on a subject I am passionate about. The language of children I believe is love not race/colour or culture. May God bless you and your family

    I pray for more and more people who can financially afford it to get string enough emotionally to embark on this journey to create homes and families for the many many children in South Africa

    • Lesley Schwartz
    • October 22nd, 2011

    We adopted our son in 1995 and reading your letter has echoed our lives over the last 16 years. Ups and downs, highs and lows and we would do it again in a heartbeat.

    He has been a gift and we have had the priviledge of raising him. We have two biological children and they adore him as does my whole very supportive family. He has never learnt a black language and has been raised speaking English.

    He is now 16 and going through some typical teenage moments. I am feeling very emotional as we are preparing our son for the big and sometimes cruel world out there and as much as I want to protect him, I have to start letting him go. I know that we have raised a beautiful, confident, well adjusted kind young man and we do believe he will find his way and make his mark.

    • Debi Linde
    • August 18th, 2011

    Well done! My husband and I manage a support program called Ulutho for families that provide temporary safe care, foster care and adoption. Most are transracial adoptions and apart from the physical support, emotional support, social services and legal advise we give, My husband is a lawyer and our social worker is an adoption specialist, we run support groups. (biggest on eout of east London but others as well). This is an amazing opportunity for parents and the biological as well as adopted children, as they are able to see many families ‘just like ours.’ We are setting these up countrywide and if you would like to know more phone me Debi on 0845498369.

    • sonja
    • August 1st, 2011

    Yes …Thank you! Couldn’t agree more with all you have said! My heart feels 100% the same! Adoption is wonderful and has been the biggest blessing to us – but it does have its challenges – stupid questions, ignorant and stereotypical remarks and the constant staring! We have 2 beautiful adoptive kids – a son of 3 and a daughter who will be 5 next month! A while back, while shopping our daughter asked me “Mommy why is every looking at us?” I smiled and told her because she is so beautiful but I knew that once we got home I would have to explain in more dept what makes our family so special (By God’s grace)!

    • Lindie
    • April 19th, 2011

    This is excellent!!! Thank you! You really did an exceptional job of verbalising the feelings inside one when uninformed people make their cruel and thoughtless comments.

    I am a weekend parent to a coloured boy who currently lives in a children’s home.

    I think you explained the “hero syndrome” very well. I benefit just as much from the relationship with my boy – I am not such a perfect person as people might perceive.

    I also prefer open questions to whispering or staring.

    I believe we will get to a point in South Africa where interracial adoptions will no longer be frowned upon or heroed, but simply accepted.

    I hope and pray that it will be soon!

    • Jennifer Cernades
    • October 14th, 2010

    Wow wow wow !

    You have put pen to paper [electronically] and voiced every single sentiment that we have with our transracial adoption.

    We got our precious little bundle when he was 16 months old. Riddled with Kwashiokor [] and starved of emotional love.

    1989 in South Africa was a turbulent time – turbulent politically wise and turbulent with the masses fighting for their rights. Adoption then was not on our agenda but it happened. Adoption over the colour line was not something that was openly done either.

    I could have – and should have – written a book about what we, as a family, went through while trying to bring up our boy. I will – one day try and put it down to paper – especially for our son.

    Finding Nursery schools who were prepared to take in a little boy who was starved of basic information and learning, was on top of our priority list.

    Would I go through it all again – with hindsight – absolutely !

    Raising an AIDS orphan whose birth mother died at the age of 22 when he was only 9 years old, was an emotional roller coaster that we went through with him. We openly and actively shared in the burial process. He was aware of AIDS and it’s ravages from a very early age.

    Because of the awful law – Apartheid – adoption and name changes could only take place after 1994. Adoption never did take place but we are his parents and always will be. He knows no-one else.

    Our lovely young boy who is now 24 years old is proudly “adopted” by his South African mother and Spanish father is going through a bit of an identity crisis. [note to other transracial adoptive parents – let them learn a black language from birth] He is neither here nor there – a most difficult stage to deal with.

    There are so many AIDS orphans – living in child run homes – or with grandparents who are to old to be bothered – they need love so desparately. We made the difference in just one boys life.

  1. February 1st, 2011
  2. March 2nd, 2011
  3. April 10th, 2013

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