I am going to do two things I rarely do:
1. I am going to talk out loud about how my adoption experience has made an imprint on what romantic love means to me and how I experience it.
2. I am going to articulate exactly what I need when it comes to romantic love.
It’s February and as a trans-racially adopted person, the convergence of Black History Month and Valentine’s Day is powerful and punctuating all at once. As an adult, I have come to understand that any shot I have at truly deep, romantic love is wrapped up in my ability to understand my full identity and love my whole self.
As an adopted person, my ability to understand my full identity and love my whole self was complicated from my very beginning. Based on the limited information from and about my birth mother Helen, I was very much unplanned. The exact circumstances surrounding my conception and birth sadly left the planet when she did and many of the intimate details I will never know.
What I do know is that what many expectant mothers and parents usually have in terms of joy and anticipation surrounding their pregnancy was not likely the reality for my biological mother – she hid her pregnancy and she hid me. There was no sharing with close friends or family-like swapping stories with her sister-in-law who was also expecting my cousin at the same time my birth mother was expecting me. There was no baby shower with cupcakes, games and giggles. I know this to be true because no one living throughout the extended family ever knew about me.
Based on the hospital social workers’ intake evaluation notes in my birth records, I know my biological mother was not counting down the final days before my birth with great exhilaration. The notes read as follows:
“Patient entering 9th month of pregnancy – came from Rhode Island with no plans except wanted to place baby. She tried to deny pregnancy until now, and is currently immobilized by anxiety. I found a boarding home for her to stay at and made a clinic appointment for her. Will continue to see her throughout the pregnancy and help with planning.”
Four simple sentences, stating a complicated reality…
Every time I read these words I wondered whether Helen could also carry love for me on top of her stress and anxiety. Could those two things live together in her for me?
For as long as I can remember, the narrative I heard was that my birth mother loved me so much she wanted me to have a good life. Perhaps what she thought would be a better life than I would have had with her. For as long as I can remember, the narrative was that my adoptive family wanted me so much and loved me so much, they chose me. While I absolutely felt deeply loved by my family at the same time, I felt the deep pain of being left by my biological mother.
How could the first person that is supposed to love me leave me?
How could I be so wanted and loveable and yet so “leavable” and unlovable?
If my biological mother loved me so much and she left me, won’t everyone who loves me that much ultimately leave?
While I had all of these questions, for a long while, I actually believed the narrative that my birth mother loved me so much she wanted me to have a better life and I certainly felt deeply loved by my adoptive family and that I was special. But the two things seemed always to be at odds. Somewhere around middle school I began to believe the darts kids had thrown right to my heart:
“Your parents did not love you, they gave you up.”
“No one ever wanted you…you’re adopted.”
“You don’t even know who your real parents are.” (my all-time favorite)
This all stung and the questions kept coming. “Did I have ‘real’ parents other than the ones that I knew, the ones that I loved and loved me?” And, “If I did have ‘real’ parents who were they, where were they and would they ever come back to get me?” I saw “Little Orphan Annie” and wondered how much of her story was my story and fantasized about being adopted by Daddy Warbucks.
Even more complicated was the element of my race and being different from my family. When the “n” word would come my way, on top of feeling bad about being adopted, I began to feel bad about myself for being different and for being brown. I became pretty good at hiding all of this. I had lots of friends, I was popular and I did well in school.
Like most tweens, heading into middle school, things were getting intense, in my body, in my brain and with my hair. Along with my girlfriends, I was becoming “boy-crazy” but for me not seeing boys that looked like me made things confusing. It is not that I did not like some of the boys around me and find them attractive but it was different and I longed to be around boys that were brown like me.
My brain was moving a mile a minute about everything but so often about my adoption and my identity. I was starting to understand a bit more about adoption in general and my questions began to shift. “Did my biological parents love each other?” “Did they stay together and just leave me?” ”Did I have other siblings?”
And then there was my hair. Having hair that was very different from many of my girlfriends and not really knowing how to take care of it was not just challenging – it was embarrassing. I really began to think I was not pretty and I certainly did not feel pretty. This impacted me more than I ever really care to admit or acknowledge.
Acknowledging all of this and bringing it up as a child and young person was not an option. First, would/could my family understand being adopted or brown because they were neither? And second, everyone was always saying how lucky I was for being adopted and somewhere deep down I never wanted to do anything to jeopardize staying with my family. Even with my family loving me intensely and never threatening to leave me or give me back, I still often felt that just as easily as I got there, I could just as easily be sent back. And if the first family did not want to keep me, it was only a matter of time before this one would feel the same so I better not do anything to rock the boat.
Acknowledging all of these very intense feelings and realities now as an adult is liberating and healthy but always feels like an indictment on my parents and family. And even today, there are times when I think they may not be there when I get home. This makes perfect sense and no sense at all. Perfect sense because I feel I was hard-wired to think everyone who loves me leaves and no sense because my family is ALWAYS there when I get home and as challenging as things can be, I really do know they will truly always be there and always love me.
As I moved through high school I think of the proms and dances that were certainly fun but also filled with stress about how I looked and who I would go with. Then something magical happened – LA Beach Club - an under 21 club in Misquamicut Beach that drew in a diverse crowd from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It was heaven for me and hell for my parents who really did not like me going there. It was a place where I felt happy, free and comfortable in my skin. I met young men that were brown like me and had my first real boyfriends. Boyfriends that I felt truly saw me and in seeing me they liked me and grew to love me. These first true romantic loves were transformational and for my family as well who embraced anyone I have ever chose to welcome into my life (until they hurt me and then it was game-over for them even if it was not for me).
College was a hot mess when it came to boys and I will spare myself and everyone the details. But what is important to note is that – not unlike many college experiences – I was pushing boundaries, trying to figure out who I was as a young woman, aching to be accepted and completely boy-crazy. The mix of independence, a complex forming of my identity and alcohol made it the best, most challenging part of my life up to then.
During college, I began dating someone who had been adopted – he was also brown and I immediately and I mean immediately loved him and then I immediately and I mean immediately thought he’d leave me. To this day, he is someone I treasure having had met and gratefully we are still in touch. Unfortunately, in college I also learned about and experienced physical intimacy without love and it would take me a long time after college to rectify that finding that out was ok but ultimately it was essential for me to have both.
Throughout my twenties and into my thirties, love and intimacy came to me in all shapes, sizes, races, ethnicities and varieties. Safe love with my hometown boyfriend that I loved deeply and purely, and while it ended with a painful breakup, I know he loved me just I as did him. Exciting love with a slick New Yorker that truly made me feel as though I was beautiful, sexy and somebody. Profound loves with a guru[HS1] , another adopted person and a single father. In all of the break-ups, we both played a role and some of them we could both chalk up to bad timing, but for me I’d push and pull so hard (sometimes at the same time) they would have to leave me. Very rarely did I ever really leave and a true separation would take months and sometimes years to get past. In between, I would always get used to being single and sometimes there was easy love. Flings with men I might never date and usually did not but I always learned something about myself. They were not easy lessons but necessary ones.
During this time, I was also searching for the missing pieces of who I was and looking for my biological family. Just when I was getting better with relationships, I found my birth mother and very swiftly she rejected me for a second time. If it had not been for the deep love and safety of my family, I am not sure how I would have made it through and done so without it leaving a big a mark on me and my future relationships. Being rejected twice was almost too much to take, and at the same time, the love I had always been given filled me up and settled my spirit.
My identity as an adopted person and my racial identity were always impacting my relationships in big and small ways. There was pushing and pulling and the testing to see whether or not my mate would really stay. There was the jumping into relationships full force without thinking, there was the deep-seated fear of being rejected and there was the jealousy. Then there were the “I don’t need anyone” very angry and independent times where I swore I would never let anyone love me ever again. All pretty standard human conditions when it comes to love but made more difficult by being adopted.
My racial identity usually made it imperative to date men of color. I was drawn to them and it almost always felt like home when I was with them. When I did not date men of color, I had to be even more hyper-vigilant than usual and that was exhausting for them and for me.
All of this brings me to today and what I have learned (and am still learning) about being authentically loved and loving authentically. Here is my very self-serving list of advice for anyone who is brave and lucky enough to love me – a transracially adopted woman.
1. See me as the strong yet vulnerable adopted woman of color that I am and understand that I am still realizing my full identity and that includes my racial identity. Realize that really seeing me means that you must also see and know yourself. Whether you are a person of color or not, know that I am still plugging into my racial identity and it can get messy and complicated especially these days. If you are a person of color that was raised by people of color, help me learn what you know more organically. If you are not a person of color, understand your privilege and what it means to be in the world with and without me by your side.
2. Understand that I will always be working overtime to prove myself as a woman, as a person of color and as an adopted person. Most days, it is all three at once and it is exhausting. Please also try to help me take breaks somehow even if I deny that I need one.
3. Know that once I love you in that deep familial way, you are stuck with me for life even if our romantic love ends. Also know that anyone I have loved in a healthy way occupies a place in my heart for life. While you will be the center, I will continue to care for those I have deeply loved and rarely do I amputate people.
4. Don’t ever leave! It is devastating, deep and totally impractical. I have always hated goodbyes. Even when I know I am going to see the person I love again very soon, my body hurts when it is time for either one of us to leave. In these moments, my behavior can range from being totally cool and cavalier to being clinging and impossible. I do love my own company and cherish “me time” but it is the symbolism of someone leaving me and the pit in my stomach that leaves me wondering if he is really coming back and that never really goes away.
5. Know that withholding vital information that impacts me from me on purpose is never an option. Being left out of the loop and denied so many basic elements of my identity makes it difficult to manage any situation where I am being left out of vital conversations that pertain to me. And if you think you are protecting me, please rethink this and understand the mark that has been made on me based on being denied information and access to things that so many non-adopted people can easily have and is their right to have.
6. Be unflappable and realize that the barricade surrounding my heart and I is penetrable. Even when I am at my worst and pushing you away, it is my deep abandonment rearing up. Don’t fall for my tricks and be steadfast in your commitment to me.
7. Answer your phone. When you don’t pick up, I immediately get anxious. I think you might be gone for good, not love me anymore or be on to the next person. This is true even in the sturdiest relationships. And please don’t ever send me straight to voicemail – again, very impractical but it can feel like a dagger.
8. Understand that my birthday and holidays are extremely tricky times and trigger many complicated emotions. I want a birthday party. I don’t want a birthday party. I am happy to celebrate my day. I am too sad thinking about the day I was born and my birth mother that did not keep me and all that I do not now about my birth father. This goes for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and so many of the celebratory days throughout the year that for an adopted person bring about layers of joy, sadness and confusion.
9. Help me balance my extended family of adoption and help me create my very own family to extend it even further. It has never truly felt safe for me to create my own family – whatever form that takes. While I have always wanted to be a mother, deep down I always felt that I had one family and that is all I deserved. How dare I want more and to actually be so bold to create my own? And what kind of mother would I be? With or without children, I ache to build a family of my own that can further connect me to my extended family of adoption.
10. Keep loving me. It is a complex and amazing journey if you are up for it.
When the one that was supposed to love you first and best does not keep you, it is difficult to imagine she loved you. It is hard to imagine you are lovable. Then the Dinwoodie family adopts you and you are loved so deeply and it feels so good, you never want to do anything to jeopardize it. You go ahead and do things to jeopardize it anyway and they still love you. You push your mother away and she still loves you. You think that your “real” mother would love you more and you may even say that out loud to your mother and she still loves and she never EVER leaves you.
All you need is love? Love is all you need?
So often in adoption, we hear that love will be enough and that all of the other tough stuff that comes with adoption will melt away if you simply love your adopted child. While love is indeed the most important ingredient for all of us in life, really loving a transracially adopted person means you need to really see and know all of them – to do this, you need to help give them the tools to know their full identity and this means you need to know yourself.
Really loving a transracially adopted person means being fiercely dedicated to understanding all you can about what it feels like to lose your first family to gain a new one and understanding that loss of the family of origin can mean a loss of connection to his or her race and culture and that needs to be rebuilt.
Listen to April’s February podcast here.