Makeup Beauty Doll and Other Problems with White Privilege

Originally posted on Pamela Helberg:
Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties…

Mother’s Day 1996–Thank You Birthmothers

I recently came across this piece I wrote some 17 years ago. I didn’t have any way of publishing this then, there were no blogs in 1996, but I strongly believe it is still relevant today. I don’t think adoption has changed much in the past two decades for birth mothers. I am pretty sure making the choice to place a child for adoption is not any easier now than it was then.  I know that adoptees still cannot access their records if they were adopted before open adoption became commonplace. I know gays and lesbians still cannot adopt children in many states. I appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to adopt my daughters in the early 1990s.

I am no longer in a relationship with my partner and co-parent–we split up in late 1996, just a few months after I wrote this. 

Mother’s Day 1996
As we celebrate Mother’s Day at our house, we also celebrate our youngest daughter’s second birthday. The irony is, that two years ago on Mother’s Day, we didn’t yet know that she would even be a part of our lives. Two years ago, her birthmother was in the hospital alone, making a decision to place her fourth child for adoption.
As I look forward to celebrating my sixth year as a mother, I cannot help but think of several mothers who have made such an impact on my mothering.  I would not be a mother at all were it not for Deidre and Cheryl. I would not be a sister except for a woman who made an unselfish choice nearly thirty years ago. Much in my life would be different if it were not for a woman whose last name is Wilmuth who chose not to parent her daughter, my mother. I may not be a good mother or a mother in such fortunate circumstances had it not been for my biological grandmother.
In essence, much of my life is the culmination of the decisions of several mothers whom I do not know, women who gave life and gave life away, trusting more than I know I could, in the kindness of strangers to do what they themselves, for whatever reason, could not do at the time. While I know the circumstances and a bit about the women who gave birth to my daughters, I know very little about the women who bore my brother and my mother. And if I as a daughter and a sister feel this void on Mother’s Day, what must my mother and my brother live with every day? What will my children grow to feel and believe about their birth mothers? And what can I do to facilitate their questioning and understanding of their adoptions and families of origin?
This year these questions seem particularly poignant as Mother’s Day comes on the heels of major adoption law reforms: tax credits for families who adopt, removal of racial barriers in adoption. These laws, like so much about adoption, fall short of doing justice for those who really make adoption possible—the birth mothers. As so often happens, the lawmakers are approaching the issue sideways, at an awkward angle, seemingly unconcerned about the birth mothers and where they will go and what they will do after placing their children for adoption. With the noble intention of placing as many kids as possible in permanent families out of the chaos that is foster care, our leaders have inadvertently promoted adoptive parents as saviors worthy of reward and blatantly disregarded birthparents, especially in cases of transracial adoptions. I often hear from people how lucky my kids are to have us as parents, read these kids are so much better off with us than they would be with someone whom they could only imagine as an impoverished, unemployed, welfare-scamming, drug abusing, teenaged illiterates.
Well, maybe and maybe not. We cannot place a value on knowing our families of origin, of knowing where we came from, where we got our eyes, our funny feet, and our predilection for taking risk in whatever form it comes.
I rarely pause to consider my mannerisms and preferences because I know exactly from which parent I acquired each personality quirk and physical characteristic.  From my mother and my father both a love of reading, from my mother my brown eyes and auburn hair, thin wrists, and a tendency to sometimes overreact.  From my father a disdain for the mundane, my spelling and writing abilities, a preternatural aversion to authority in all forms, and naturally curly hair.  Sure, my kids may learn to love to read because I do, and they may become avid gardeners because my partner is, but in the battle for control of the self, nature wins out over nurture 70% of the time. Where will my kids turn for answers when they excel in science or develop a completely un-nurtured talent for music, or a dangerous attraction to alcohol?
How will my kids cope, not just with unanswered medical history questions, but with the color of their skin, the kinks in their hair, the rich and painful history of their (unknown) ancestors? The partial understanding of their backgrounds, maybe the knowledge that their birthfathers abandoned them, their birthmothers kept some of their siblings but not them? I hope that an open adoption and an ongoing communication with my children’s birthmothers will facilitate an increased understanding for each of my kids of where they came from, from whom they got their talents.  
But who is going to make sure that the birth mothers survive, grow up, get their lives together? If we are going to reform adoption law, we had better start with nurturing the connections between birth mother and adoptee, we had better start honoring the difficult, no wrenching, decisions birth parents make when they plan an adoption for their child.  We had better put out a safety net for those who can’t pull themselves up and carry on.  We had better think about offering something to the women who can’t afford to keep their children rather than to adoptive parents who have the wherewithal and resources to negotiate the adoption process and to afford agency and lawyer fees.
Just yesterday we received our first ever communication from our two-year old’s birth mother. For two years we have been sending letters and pictures off into space, an act of faith that imbues the postal service with godlike qualities. Yesterday came the confirmation that our faith was well placed. Yesterday too came a whole new conundrum and set of questions when we received two letters: one was very sweet, telling us how much she enjoyed the pictures we have been sending, how she is still glad she chose us to raise her baby, that she and our daughter will talk one day, that she is a good mother. The other letter asked for money so she wouldn’t lose her house.