Thursday, July 23, 2015

We Were All Good Adoptees ... Once

I am lucky. I have good adoptive parents who love me. I am grateful for being able to experience the life I have. So many people have it so much worse than I do. Adoption isn't a big deal.

Except it is.

There is trauma in being separated from your roots, to be relinquished by your original families.

We are strong. Hell, yeah. We can take it.

Until we can't.

I was the perfect adoptee. I had to be. My brother (also adopted) was the one who acted out. He was angry, for no apparent reason.

There must be some psychological test out there that examines what happens when you tell someone who has experienced trauma, that no trauma took place. It means they're crazy, right? It's telling the person that there's something wrong with them. There's nothing wrong with the situation, so it must be them.

Society is telling them nothing is wrong - you are in a loving family, it doesn't matter that you are not with your people. You're fine.

Except you're not.

Imagine telling someone whose parents have died, who have been taken in by strangers outside of their family that no trauma took place. Who would be the crazy one?

You can argue that, in that case, the parents are known, so it's different.

Imagine that it is an infant, new born, and the parents have died. Would you tell the infant that no trauma took place at the loss of their family?

No, you wouldn't. You would acknowledge their loss. It would be tragic. You would tell stories of the hero who lost everyone he was ever connected to.

I was fine with being adopted. It was not a big deal. I had parents who loved me, a family, a community, why should it matter that I'm not being raised by my actual kin?

When I turned 18, I met my birthmother. Then her family. I had a glimpse of who I was meant to be.

But wasn't.

And won't be.

Ever.

I'm fine. I am who I am. And, I am who I'm not. Both; together, somehow.

My brother though, not so much.

He died.

Suicide.

No one knows why. He had the same family I did. The same world.

Only, maybe, he saw it a little differently. He didn't see anyone who looked like him. No one that was quite like him. No one that could understand what he was going through. Because, there was nothing wrong, according to everyone else.

It should've been fine.

It wasn't.


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Cathy Heslin is a reunited adult adoptee of closed domestic adoption in New Jersey. She met her birthmother when she was just 18 and moved out to Portland after graduating college to live with her birthmother. She has been in reunion with her birthmother for nearly 25 years, and with her birthfather for 15 and has a complicated extended family that includes all sides.



She writes about adoption with a focus on long-term reunion. She has written a memoir in partnership with her birthmother called Kathleen-Cathleen where she and her birthmother write alternating chapters sharing their experience of reunion from both the perspective of the adoptee and the birthmother (not yet published). They also write parallel blogs on shared themes: Cathy's blog is reunioneyes.blogspot.com. Follow Cathy on Twitter @CathyHeslin.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Whitest Black Person I Know


Angela's tank top says: "I Met God. She Has An Afro."
I recently led an audience consisting primarily of Caucasian folks through an exercise where we identified common racial micro-aggressions. We discussed what behaviors, language cues, social skills etc. hobbies etc. constitute receiving the label of an ethnicity as an adjective.  Upon finishing the session I was greeted by an attendee who gushed; “I just love how you break down tough, controversial current topics on race relations. I was really challenged by your words, and was surprised by how comfortable I felt around you. You are, like, the Whitest Black person I know!
I won’t spend time delving into the personhood and personality traits of the person behind these specific comments, because this is not a singular incident. I hear this sort of sentiment quite frequently, and after having conversations with others, I know that I am not alone. It is worth noting that the great majority of folks who have made statements like this are the type of “good white people” Brit Bennett describes in her article. I shall also frame this blog post around the truism which is that we all emit unconscious stereotypes via microagressive comments, and the great majority of us are certainly not seeking to offend others.
However, even when microagressions don’t consciously seek to offend, they still hold weight and have far reaching implications for those on the receiving end. The various ways I’ve been tagged as the Whitest Black Person has left an impression on me. For example, during my high school years, the comments actually prompted feelings of pride and relative success – I felt it to be a compliment to fit in with my predominantly Caucasian peers. During early college, comments alluding to my “articulate nature” encouraged a feeling of positivity around perceived academic success. Within the work force being told that I made my clients feel “surprisingly at ease” resulted in feelings of self-adulation as I took it to mean that my work ethic and professionalism was noted. A black friend with whom I’ve recently conversed about this very topic concurred in stating that some micro-aggression's made him feel a similar sense of haughtiness, even conceit as well.
I generally give people the benefit of the doubt and offer an understanding affirmation of their well-intended comments, rather than to address the qualms in suggesting a betrayal of my own culture. During times where I have felt clear headed and rational enough to push back (thus effectively speaking out against the effects of marginalization), I’ve found that there is no inverse. That when folks state that I am the Whitest Black person they know, that this does not also mean that they have interacted with someone and deemed them the “Blackest White person” ever. This discrepancy (and others) leave me wildly curious. I wonder which aspects, in addition to the obvious implicit racial biases, are at play during these moments.
My incessantly curious brain can’t help but to wonder about the antithesis of these statements. If I’m “surprisingly safe” and “put people at ease” then what wouldn’t be surprising?  If others are shocked that they are able to have difficult conversations about race, this automatically implies that other black, young adult, female, transracial adoptees have shut them down in the past? Similarly if acting more professional equals acting White, wouldn’t that suggest that Whites are the status-quo and the basis for which we measure white-collar jobs (no pun intended)? It seems that this could explain the sense of pride and conceit that I sometimes feel after receiving a comment like this. It makes sense to me that any compliment favoring the status quo may be initially perceived as a positive trait.
Inserting other ethnicities as adjectives have also helped me to put the pejorative sentence in to perspective. I’ve asked myself if a comment such as; “You’re the Asianist Latino I Know!” would be met with a rational understanding, or a sense of positive self regard? It’s unlikely. Most would feel a knee-jerk reaction to the overtly racist and offensive nature of the comment. Why then wouldn’t being the “Whitest Black Person” around come with the automatic visceral reaction of disgust?
Can I posit the idea that no one is born the stereotyped adjective that currently personifies their race? People are born with a certain amount of the melanin chemical that colors our skin, but we have learned how to act like our specific race within the social confines of the region in which we live. Herein lies the racial training that must occur for Whites raising Blacks, and vice versa. For transracial adoptees, learning with which adjective that we will align is a lifelong and formative process.
To some, I may be the Whitest Black person they know, but I know that having Black skin cannot equate to that specific person’s definition of what it means to act Black or White.

Angela Tucker is a transracial adoptee and the subject of the documentary, Closure (available on Netflix, iTunes & Hulu). Angela’s unique worldview, passion for equality and justice combined with her education and work experience in the social work field combine to form powerful and engaging presentations and transformative conversations while maintaining great respect for the topics.  Angela has been featured as a commentator on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, mentioned in articles on Huffington Post (Black Voices)The New York Times,Washington PostSlate MagazineInternational Business Times and was the catalyst for #NPRGate.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Transracial adoptee, Ethiopian adoptee or just Ethiopian?: Navigating identities



 Africa Is The Future. Photo by OkayAfrica  



A friend sent me this article about transracial adoption and asked what my thoughts were. I agreed with everything that Angela and Lisa Marie said about transracial adoption, but it also had me thinking about how I identify myself as an adoptee. In North American adoption circles, I identify as an Ethiopian and transracial adoptee, but with the French-Ethiopian community, I (we) identify ourselves as Ethiopian adoptees only (we barely talk about race). With non-adoptees, I simply identify as Ethiopian. I think there are a few reasons for this. First of all, the term “transracial” is mostly used among English-speaking, mostly North American adoptees who are more familiar with adoption jargon. Another reason is that, the U.S. has a different history of slavery and racial oppression, therefore issues of race and racism are more openly discussed and paid attention to compared to Canada or in Europe. Still, I think the other reason is that, most of us, such as myself are more interested in connecting with our Ethiopian-ess than the transracial aspect of our adoption.

While I carry my Ethiopian identity within me, I've felt less Ethiopian because I did not grow up there, do not speak my language and I'm not very familiar with my culture and customs. I felt like I'd lost part of myself because my white parents completely underestimated the importance of me knowing my culture, country of origin and having contact with other African or black people. I am trying to reclaim my "lost" identities now as an adult, without resenting them, but it’s hard. Because I do feel like I missed out. Big time. But while my identity was shaped by having grown up in a transracial family, I want to move away from my “transracial” identity. I’m not trying to deny it, instead I’d like to explore and deepen my knowledge and understanding of other identities that I felt I'd I lost because I never had access to them. To put it bluntly, I feel like my “transracial” identity gives too much credit to my “white” experience by shifting the attention away from what I am in the present, which is that I am just another African (Ethiopian) woman living in the diaspora, navigating black womanhood in a white, male-dominated and hetero-normative society which both marginalizes and negates the complexities of Africa and my blackness.

While I do have a particular transracial adoptee experience, most of my friends are immigrants or people of color from Canada, South America or Africa. We can relate in many ways and on many different levels because we share similar experiences as “exotic others”. Obviously, we share vastly different family experiences and connections to our countries of origin but our daily experiences are the same. We all get stared at, exoticized, asked ridiculous but innocent questions, get discredited for our work and talent but also appreciated for being “different” and bringing diversity and culture, get refused jobs because of our appearances or our accents or lack of Canadian work experience...the list goes on and on. 

But being a transracial adoptee certainly has benefits. It has made me highly adaptable and capable of “fitting in” (if I want to) and navigating very white spaces with ease but sometimes with discomfort.  Of course I’m most comfortable in diverse and culturally-aware environments (luckily I live in a great city for that, Montréal). Still, when people ask me if I’ve gone back to Ethiopia to connect with my roots—they are surprised when I tell them that it’s more than that: Africa is home to me and I’ve always known that it'll be part of my life somehow.

Africans living on the continent and those in the diaspora are doing amazing things all over—from Ghana and Nigeria to Uganda and Ethiopia to South Africa and beyond. We are creating and building, launching new projects in the arts, sciences, culture, business despite living amidst war, disease and poverty, political instability (in some places). These things co-exist in Africa. It’s a place with a million contradictions.

I hope to be part of the wave of Africans who return and surprisingly, many Ethiopian adoptees I’ve spoken with feel the same. I’ve noticed that as Ethiopians, adopted or not, we are extremely connected to each other, our culture and our country, even if we’ve lived outside of Ethiopia for many years.

With Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, Aselefech and I want to help bridge the gap between Ethiopian adoptees and the broader Ethiopian diaspora communities living in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia perhaps through helping Ethiopians (adoptees and non-adoptees) return access to work or volunteer opportunities in Ethiopia. There are so many possibilities. We will see what the future holds.



Photo credit:

How to Respond to a New Adoption?

The Image of the Stork we see in society related to birth and adoption

I was at a party this weekend when I was introduced to a new mom and her baby. A person next to me commented to the mom on how fit and trim she was so soon after birth. The mom responded that the baby didn't come from her body, that she was adopted.

While the conversation continued happily while I looked on silently, my thoughts reeling. Where was the mom? The original mom? Where was the family? Why did they decide to relinquish? Were they pressured? Did the birth dad have a say in the relinquishment? Does the adoptive family understand the issues that adoptive children face? Will the adoptive family understand and honor the original families?

These are not questions we are allowed to ask. We are not supposed to show sadness or sympathy for the baby who has just lost her original families. We are supposed to show only joy, as if the baby has suffered nothing. I'm sure it's hard for the onlookers to see anything other than beauty and tranquility as they watch the new baby sleeping peacefully in its new adoptive mother's arms.

But there was so much more that I could see.

What a stork really looks like

Invisible to the other guests who only saw the present, I could see the past and the future. In the past is the original family, now torn apart. In the future, is the adoptee who bears the scars from the tearing.

I could see the present as well, but very differently than those around me. In the present I see a society that pretends that there is no loss in adoption. I see a world that supports the facade that a person will magically transform when you take her from her family and put her in another one.

I imagined a different future. One that acknowledges the truth of adoption.

Hearing that the baby was adopted, I would have responded somberly, wordlessly acknowledging the loss the baby had experienced, was experiencing and would experience.

I would not have asked about the relinquishment, because clearly that is none of my business.

However, I would have asked about the baby's original families. What was her nationality? What are her parents like? What are her families like? Did she have siblings? What were her original families traditions and talents? What is her name (assuming a link to the original families)?

That future isn't here yet. Had I responded that way, I would have offended the adopted mom, shocked the other guests and embarrassed the host.

Instead, I stayed silent. Not pretending to feel the joy of the others, but not speaking my mind either.

The host then explained to the adoptive mom that I was an adoptee and blog about the experience of reunion with my birth mom. The adoptive mom had a moment of a look that I would describe as defensiveness cross her face as she said that the baby was an open adoption. "It's different now," she said. That was her response to hearing I wrote about adoption.

"Yes, it's different now," I said.

Only my "different," was not the same as hers.

Adoptees have a voice.

It's time we use it to change what adoption is and how society sees it.

Let's make a different future.


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Cathy Heslin is a reunited adult adoptee of closed domestic adoption in New Jersey. She met her birthmother when she was just 18 and moved out to Portland after graduating college to live with her birthmother. She has been in reunion with her birthmother for nearly 25 years, and with her birthfather for 15 and has a complicated extended family that includes all sides.

She writes about adoption with a focus on long-term reunion. She has written a memoir in partnership with her birthmother called Kathleen-Cathleen where she and her birthmother write alternating chapters sharing their experience of reunion from both the perspective of the adoptee and the birthmother (not yet published). They also write parallel blogs on shared themes: Cathy's blog is reunioneyes.blogspot.com. Follow Cathy on Twitter @CathyHeslin.

Friday, July 10, 2015

When mothers lose their powers …

This post is dedicated to those who have wished for mental healthcare and been told there is none for adoptees unless you are the “child” or the “adoptive parent.” There are professionals available who are adoptees! The road to finding a clinician is just as difficult as the struggle, but the search is well worth it. Resources from our trip to KAAN are listed below. Seek them out. 


© N Sleeman

My pangs of loss came at the moment my son’s bones pushed through my stretched skin. I imagined my own birthmother feeling my bones as I traced her hand from my warm, watery sphere.

That moment was only a glimpse of the indescribable beauty of seeing my son emerge with the same square-mouth cry that I had been told I had since my first memories. I had never seen myself reflected in another human being, though I was 32. Until that point, my world consisted of red-headed women, Gonzo girls and the Cocke County Fairest of the Fair.

At fourteen, I locked my adoptive mother out of my thoughts. The world and its realities came crashing in, and I was ill-equipped. Therapy in those days was taboo. Asking for mental healthcare was admitting failure and in the South, telling our small town I was “downright crazy.” My mother had been “locked up” for a couple of months, and pity visited our home.

As afternoons of Depeche Mode, journaling and sleep continued, my mother fretted. She read articles on depression and watched me closely. Teen suicide graced the covers of magazines and became the subject of afterschool television; I learned various ways to end the pain … pills and cars in closed garages.

Yet, I found solace in my writing. My pain poured out on the pages of Sanrio notebooks, but my adoption identity vocabulary was lacking. The pages filled with anger and bitterness. I wrote my mother a letter saying, “I wish you had never adopted me.”

We push those we love away when we are injured.

In my children, my life unfolds in reverse. Their joys are mine; their losses are mine. Their experiences often play out for me as if in déjà vu. With them, the umbilical cord was never severed … and that is where my yearning for my birth mother resides.

As my son approached his teens, his safety was compromised. He spoke with me only about the isolated incidents. But as they became more noticeable and overwhelming, I was unable to insure his safety. We worked diligently with mental health professionals to gain sweet weekends … only to see the fear and anxiety creep in as the school week loomed on Sundays.

Over and over, I heard, “Kids can be cruel. If it weren’t his race, it would be something else. Everyone is picked on.” But as Robert O’Connor, MSW, recently stated, “What if you cannot melt because of your skin color or the shape of your eyes? Identifability makes the difference in being able to avoid harassment.” Our hyper-visibility is our weakness in these social settings where power games are at play.

As my son entered high school, I finished my first return to Korea since my infancy. My soul was suffering from the lack of connection to my biological family. Loss and jetlag consumed me. Meanwhile, my son was struggling with hallways full of larger kids, meaner kids, competitive kids.

We push those we love away when we are injured.

One evening, a simple question became a trip to the hospital. A professional who did not know us, took away my powers as a mother.

Decisions were taken out of my hands, and in a quick 24 hours, I entered a room with a padded door, a small window and a bed where my son lay sobbing. I caressed his head as I had many times throughout his life. I only had a few minutes with him. Through his sobs, he begged me to take him home and assured me I could keep him safe. I explained that he must be brave and cooperative, and that I would work tirelessly outside that room to get him released.

As I walked away, I felt weak and clammy. My heart was being ripped from my chest. No mother wants to give the care of her beloved child to strangers.

In walked my birth mother. I felt that pain that I imagined she owned to this day. Slowly, I walked toward the door, my back became her back as I attempted to hide my sobs of sorrow and shame.

All the years of thinking I was doing a great job as a mother were tossed and broken. Never will I be able to give advice to another parent. The confident days of toddlerhood are over, and his adolescence reveals behaviors that I exhibited too. While they may seem like “normal” teenage behavior …

… dying his hair
… joking uncomfortably
… carrying a pocket knife.

I remember my behavior …
… dying my hair
… laughing uncomfortably
… carrying a pocket knife for protection.

But inside, I was seething and hurting. Inside, I wanted to stop living. Inside, I wanted the pain to stop.

In moments of anger, all teens will say hurtful things. As I used, “I wish you had never adopted me,” my son has blamed our unknown biological family for his insecurities.

We push those we love away when we are injured.

He is searching for his place in the world and his identity in it. I am reformulating my place and identity as well.

My daughter worries as I exhibit the telltale signs of identity search … “you, and your loud music and tattoo shopping” she says. I am not the mother either of my children once knew.

My year has spiraled, but I am still here. Shaken, but supported by a therapist, despite the loss that adoption has given me, despite my loss of control as a parent, and despite the loss of my remaining parent.

This coming year promises new discoveries as we venture as a family to Korea for five months. Those connections I lost long ago reside in Korea. If I cannot quench the desire to find my biological family, I can at least satisfy cultural curiosities.

Please refer to these clinicians, who are adoptees, for more information on adoption loss in children and adults.

Melanie Chung-Sherman, LCSW-S, CTS, LCPAA at www.mcadoptioncounsel.com        

Joy Lieberthal, LCSW at www.adoptionechoes.com

Katie Jae Naftzger, LICSW at www.adoptiontherapyma.com


Feminist columnist, Rosita González is a transracial, Korean-American adoptee. She is married to a Brit who refers to himself as an Anglo-American and is a mother to two multiracial children. Rosita was adopted in 1968 at the age of one through Holt International. Her road has been speckled with Puerto Rican and Appalachian relatives and her multiracial sister, the natural child of her adoptive parents. While quite content with her role as a “Tennerican,” her curiosity has grown recently as her children explore their own ethnic identities. She considers herself a lost daughter, not only because of the loss of her birth family, but also because of the loss of her adoptive parents. Rosita embarks on a five month stint in Seoul, Korea in fall of 2015. Follow her adventures as an adoptee on her blog, mothermade.



Thursday, July 9, 2015

Needing Space in Reunion

Reunion is never easy, but it's more complicated when your birthmother lives down the street, and your adoptive mom lives at home with you.



My 9-year old took this photo last week. This is the view of Mt. Hood from the airplane as we were coming home to Portland, back from Florida, with my 84-year-old adoptive mom who is living with us for the summer.  My birthmom also lives in Portland. 
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I've been in reunion over 25 years, since I was still a teenager. After I graduated from college in my home state of New Jersey, I came out to Portland to stay with my birth mom in Portland, Oregon for the summer. Summer turned to fall, which changed to winter. By the time Spring came, I had moved out of my birth mom's house, but I'd found I was staying in Portland. It wasn't planned. It was something that evolved. 

In meant that I was living in the same town as my birth mother. It meant that I couldn't easily retreat, as I had done previously in our relationship when things got hard or confusing. It meant we were entwined in each other's lives.   

Since then, my birthmother has been part of my life. I found my birthfather. And, for the most part, both their families accepted me as their kin. And my adoptive parents are okay with my birth families being part of my life and my birth families are comfortable with my adoptive family. 

But, somewhere in the middle of all that is ... me. 

Who am I? 

Reunion caused a seismic shift in who I was. I would no longer be the independent, feisty Jersey Girl I was before reunion. I would find I was the artistic altruistic love-child of my birth families. 

But, I was still the Jersey Girl. 
And I was the Love Child. 

How is that the same person?

I feel like for the last 25 years those two parts of myself have been coexisting peacefully. When I was with my family and friends from Jersey, I have been the Jersey Girl. When I was with my birth family and those who were a part of my Portland life, I was the Love Child. 

But, I feel like the Jersey Girl and the Love Child aren't getting along anymore. It seems they're both vying for power. 

Something about my adoptive dad's death and taking care of my adoptive mom has made me reconnect with who I was before reunion. It's made me retreat from my birthmom. Any retreat makes her freak out for obvious reasons. But, I can't help it. 

I need space. 

I need to figure out - 25 years into reunion - who I am. 

I miss the peaceful coexistence of the two sides of myself. I wish they would just get along. 

But, I don't think they will anymore. 

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I'm reading Percy Jackson to my two sons. We're on the fourth book, The Battle of the Labyrinth. I find the process of reunion similar to the challenge of the journey of the hero going through the labyrinth, which I've written about before. What is interesting to me now, is that I find myself relating to Janus, a two-headed lesser-god. His two heads argue with each other, yet they are the same person. He guards the gate - looking into the future and the past. The doors are open during conflict, closed during peace. 

After decades of peaceful closure, the doors are wide open. Conflict is afoot. But I am ready to cross the threshold into what's next.





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Cathy Heslin is a reunited adult adoptee of closed domestic adoption in New Jersey. She met her birthmother when she was just 18 and moved out to Portland after graduating college to live with her birthmother. She has been in reunion with her birthmother for nearly 25 years, and with her birthfather for 15 and has a complicated extended family that includes all sides.

She writes about adoption with a focus on long-term reunion. She has written a memoir in partnership with her birthmother called Kathleen-Cathleen where she and her birthmother write alternating chapters sharing their experience of reunion from both the perspective of the adoptee and the birthmother (not yet published). They also write parallel blogs on shared themes: Cathy's blog is reunioneyes.blogspot.com. Follow Cathy on Twitter @CathyHeslin.