The Joy and Pain of Trans-Racial Adoption
On Motherhood, Otherness, and Family
I first saw my youngest daughter in a magazine. I’d subscribed to Be My Parent, and Children Who Wait, and had a collection by the time I found her photo, a stack of babies, children, and sibling groups, all with smiling photos, short descriptions underneath:
Child A loves Peppa Pig and painting. She is doing well at nursery school with an assistant, and beginning to form attachments to her foster carers. Due to difficult start in life she has benefited from some extra support with speech and language and needs to be the only or much younger child in the family.
Child B is, according to his foster carers, a bundle of mischievous fun. He is very bright and doing extremely well in mainstream secondary school, although there are some uncertainties about his future health, he is robust with good attachments.
Child C is a smiley happy baby with good routines. She has some developmental delay and she suffers with a mild form of epilepsy for which she is well controlled with medication, however she is making remarkable progress. She loves to babble and crawls. She is a delight to care for with good routines and has slept through the night since six weeks!
Flicking through these catalogues of children awaiting adoption in the U.K. system, it was hard not to imagine the sadness and abuse they must have suffered to be removed from their birth families. I looked at the faces and wanted to take them all home.
And then there she was. My daughter. Aged two, looking at me with wide, open eyes. I knew she was mine, instantly. She loved to dance! She loved music! And being outside! I wanted to lift her out of the photograph and hold her, forever. I cried and cried.
The day I met my daughter was much like the day I gave birth: filled with anxiety, and happiness, and love. Those first six months were magical hard work. I tried to funnel care, on the advice of social workers, meaning that I did everything for her. Every nappy. Every grazed knee. Every meal. Every bath. The truth was that this special time promoted attachment and made up for some of the bonding we’d missed when she was first born. We loved our togetherness. She sat on my hip for so many months. We played traditional games over and over and over. Peek-a-boo was our favorite.
There was sadness, too. She would climb beneath my sweater, and pretend she was growing in my tummy and then emerge as if newly born, with slow blinking eyes. How she wished she had grown inside me, and how I wished it too. We communicated our fears, and sadness and joy, through play. We slowly learned to trust each other. We laughed and joked amid the usual routines of life. She started nursery school, and I went back to working on my novels, normal life resumed. But she would only kiss me through glass. A layer of protection between her lips and my cheek. I knew she wanted to kiss me but she needed that pane of glass in the door, protection for her heart. The first six months, I thought about her being adopted almost daily. What she’d been through, how I could help her recover, how we could work as a family. And then the months rolled into years and I thought less and less about the circumstances of her life before me.
But being a single mother of biracial children throws me (and the children) another layer of challenge. I learned to understand the risks are greater, the unknowns. I thought a lot about trans-racial adoption. Another layer of difference. I was glad my daughter had become a part of my multi-faith, multi-race family: Christian, Muslim, atheist, white, black, biracial, Nigerian, English, Welsh, Caribbean. But still, there were real challenges. They first time I was asked if I was their au pair, for example, or where their real mum was. Outside London, people stare at us, my family, looking for a box to place us in. I worried about my youngest. All she had been through already. Another layer of difference.
My children experience a different world to mine. My world is one of privilege. I grew up believing racism didn’t exist. Good parenting means keeping children safe and happy. How could I be a good parent to biracial children without acknowledging and trying to understand racism? How could I foster their sense of identity when it was different from mine? I was learning fast that not only does racism exist, it is thriving. They have had negative experiences already that I never had to suffer as a child. Called names, people touching their hair constantly, asking where they are from. Someone once left dozens of leaflets from a right wing political party outside our house, and all the way to my children’s school, like breadcrumbs from Hansel and Gretel. My youngest daughter was in a buggy and my eldest kept picking up the leaflets, and reading out odd words: “Go home. Hate. Get out.”
“What does it mean, Mummy?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t understand what it means at all.”
When she is older, I will tell her what I have come to think it means: there is hate in the world that most of us, if we are lucky, will never understand. It means that my children need to be strong. To love themselves. To belong. To have role models who look like them. To recognize prejudice and challenge it. We eat the Nigerian food I’ve learned to cook, and English food, Chinese food, Indian food, Swedish food… I surround my family with people from all walks of life. People I hope will be role models. Gay, straight, women, men, transgendered, black, white, biracial, multiracial, poor, rich, friends with disabilities, with mental health issues, young, old, from all corners of the world. Being a single mother of biracial children, both birth and adopted, has proven more challenging than I’d ever imagined, and yet it is in these challenges that I have found the most happiness, the most tolerance, and the most love.
* * * *
As a novelist, I’m forever searching. I often take an observation or experience of my own and then ask the question of it: what if? I’ve had an incredible, positive experience of adoption, and of parenting, despite challenges, but I know the horrors. I had worked for many years as a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit, and seen the best and worst of human nature. I imagined a child, Elijah, loved by everyone he meets… and that’s when my novel, Where Women Are Kings, was born.
Elijah is seven and has a history of disruptive behaviour. He is taken from his Nigerian birth mother, whom he loves as if the world has never known love, and moved from one foster carer to another before finding a home with Nikki and her husband Obi. They care for him deeply and in spite of his demons he begins to settle into this loving family. But Elijah’s past is tragic, and they face challenges that threaten everything, and that could prove disastrous. In exploring the theme of trans-racial adoption I wanted to ask some difficult questions: What if a child has suffered a trauma too great? What if good people doing their best is not good enough? What if we, as a society, are getting it wrong for so many children? It was a heartbreaking novel to write, and emotionally draining. I had to hold on tightly to the idea that Elijah was fictional, and try not to fully internalize the trauma—horror—that is part of the history of so many children in the care system.
I hope that I listened well to Elijah’s voice. I hope that others hear him speak. I was grateful to hug my own daughters throughout the writing of that novel, to reassure myself that most endings to adoption are simply happy beginnings. Every day I count myself the luckiest mother alive.
Adoption is complex. To my family it means unconditional love, and honesty. My youngest has taught me more than I could ever teach her. I am forever grateful. Recently, after telling a friend about the experience of giving birth to my older daughter, I began to try to describe the birth of my youngest and had a moment when I couldn’t remember the experience. “Ha!” I shouted. “I didn’t give birth to her, that’s why I couldn’t remember!” I finally had my moment of kissing her without glass. My heart was unprotected, and completely in love.
Some details in this essay have been changed to protect the identities of the children.