By April Dinwoodie
I took a long, slow, deep breath when I heard Amy Coney Barrett, the adoptive mother of Black children, describe adoption as a “frictionless alternative to abortion.” As a Black/bi-racial transracially adopted person in mid-life, adoption has been and continues to be many things, but “frictionless” isn’t one of them.
On the contrary, being adopted into a white family and raised in a majority white community has been filled with the tension between the realities of what I was experiencing and feeling, and what others thought I should be. For me, Amy Coney Barrett ridiculously over-simplified the most intricate experience of identity one can have, being born into one family and raised by another. This is especially complex when the separation includes differences of race, ethnicity, and culture.
What I have learned over time is that Amy Coney Barrett is not alone in her desire to categorize adoption as uncomplicated and a good solution for everyone connected to the experience. What I have also learned is that this kind of thinking more broadly is unrealistic and often results in gaps in services and support for all parents (expectant, birth, and adoptive) and leaves adopted persons without the tools they need to navigate this lifelong, transformational journey.
In 1971, a few days after I was born, my mother of origin voluntarily placed me in temporary foster care. After about eight months in care, I was placed with a foster-to-adopt family. While many of the legal and transactional elements of the adoption process were attended to, there were two big things that received little to no attention — the traumatic impact of being separated from my birth mother, and the fact that I was Black/bi-racial, and my prospective adoptive family was not. There were no practical conversations about what my white adoptive parents needed to do in order to adjust and expand their lives, and, in turn, the lives of my brothers, sister, and extended family. My parents were not encouraged to do anything more than to love me and to use the word “adoption” in their daily language.
When it came to differences of race, my adoptive mom and dad did not “see color” and felt they could love any baby placed with them. It’s absolutely true they had an abundance of love for me — I felt it then and I feel it now. It’s also true that their color-evasiveness would often leave me unprotected in a majority white community. Along with this, their lack of understanding of the trauma of my early family separation meant we were all left ill-equipped to sort out the extremely complicated realities and emotions that would surface throughout the ages and stages of our lives.
Through much of my early life, I remained confused about where I came from, who I was, and where the other pieces and parts of my identity were. More often than not, a steady drumbeat of sadness that I could not name would hover just below the surface of my skin.
I was trying to sort out being different. I was searching for other kids who were like me and other families that looked like mine. I wanted desperately to be like so many of the other girls with long straight hair and families that looked alike. I felt sick when kids would tease me about being unwanted by my “real parents” and I daydreamed about if and when those so-called “real parents” would swoop in and try to reclaim me “little Orphan Annie-style.” I ran in terror as kids at a campground chased after me calling me the “n-word” until a family friend stepped in like a super-hero and scooped me up and out of there. There was hurt, there were tears (lots of tears), and yes, there was plenty of friction.
In my early twenties, I decided to seek out my biological family. At the time, records were sealed in the state I was born and the state I was adopted. I was able to receive my non-identifying information and with the right amount of luck and paperwork, I ultimately located my mother of origin. While she was fairly easy to find, creating a connection to her after all of these years was another story. I was a secret. No one knew about me then, and no one was to know about me ever. After a brief exchange of some letters and two phone calls, she made it clear that there was nothing more for me and I was to cease any further communication with her and anyone else in the extended family.
I was gutted. I believed what I had been told: that my mother of origin loved me so much, she wanted me to have a better life. I was confused when I presented myself as an adult and she rejected me. I had parents who loved me; I saw myself as a decent human being who was doing good in the world. In the swirl of emotion, I began to think about how I might be able to use the energy that came from my pain to help others.
I was spending time mentoring youth in New York City, and I noticed that many of the young people had family challenges or were engaged with the child welfare system. I began to realize that while we had very different lives, we shared in the impact of separation from family of origin and the complexity of being different from many of our peers in school. Before long, I was piloting a new, specialized mentoring program called Adoptment for adopted adults to mentor to youth in foster care.
I underestimated the personal growth and evolution I would experience as a result of creating this program. I witnessed so many magical moments of connection and validation between mentors and mentees and a kind of group cohesion that I had not expected. Every one of us was hungry for understanding and to feel as though we were not alone in our feelings. Spending time in foster care agencies, I also began to learn more about child welfare systems. Systems that were a part of my life but I had no clue how they worked. I made it my business to get educated on the laws, policies, and practices of adoption and foster care.
Today, we know from research and the experiences from members of the adoption community that we do a disservice to those impacted by adoption when we view the process as a transaction leading only to a final decree issued by a court. In order to best support the extended family of adoption, we must educate families and ensure the proper supports are in place throughout their lives. When we understand adoption and differences of race, culture, and class that are part of it, as the transformational experience it truly is, we will best be able to serve the needs of children and families and ensure their healthy identity and development over time. It is only when we resist the urge to package adoption as frictionless and run toward the hardest parts offering access to quality support and services, that we can truly honor the best interests of children.
April Dinwoodie is an Adoption Activist, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Consultant, and Parent Coach. Dinwoodie’s podcast Born in June, Raised in April: What Adoption Can Teach the World! helps facilitate an open dialogue about identity, family, and differences of race, culture, and class.