So, I’m on the downhill side of this mental health counseling degree I started three years ago. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel—but before I can emerge victorious from the darkness, I must complete a … Continue reading
Last week I had to write my Spiritual Autobiography for the Spirituality and Counseling class I’m taking this quarter. This particular assignment scared me a bit. More than a bit. In fact, just thinking about this assignment made me itch. … Continue reading
We would-be counselors all must take FOO (Family of Origin) before we take any other coursework in my graduate program. This class is the one in which we must sort through all of our personal Family Issues before we move on … Continue reading
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…
I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up.
Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me. For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses. While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be. As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.
As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys. They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement. Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.
A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak: fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.
So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994. Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me. I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters. I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old. They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom. I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves. I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me. We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children. I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie. We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.
We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in. The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition: cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter. Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered. My mother came to coo over her granddaughters. We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great. I love your dress Pam.”
“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling. “I love it!”
“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand. “Merry Christmas!” He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek. “How are the girls?”
“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great. Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”
I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors. They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny. Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it. Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.
“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”
“She’s so dark!”
“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained. “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”
“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”
“Anna! How do you like being a big sister?”
Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.
“She’s still adjusting,” I say.
“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”
“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.
Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt. “Pamalamala?” She laughs. “That’s funny Mommy!”
“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain. “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”
Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears. I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety. Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove. I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t mind.
Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells. The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa. I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.
“HO! HO! HO!” Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder. “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!
“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree. Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year. Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash. The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same. I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.
Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie. We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats. After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.
We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences. No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm: being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance. Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace. We drove a Volvo. I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms. I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.
I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself. It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.
As I’ve written and rewritten this blog post, I’ve become hyper aware that mine may be a controversial stance and that I harbor very, very personal opinions on this topic. What is right for one family may not be right for another. I get that. I also need to disclose up front that I am the adoptive parent of two children who were born here in the United States. Both of my girls were adopted as infants through open adoptions. Both girls’ birth mothers chose my former partner and me to be the adoptive parents. Both of my children have reconnected with their biological families. In both cases, the birth fathers were out of the picture, though one of my children has a relationship currently with her biological father.
Also worth noting as relevant—my mother was adopted when she was three years old, and my parents adopted my little brother when he was an infant. Both of these adoptions were closed adoptions, meaning the records were sealed at the time of the adoptions and remain closed still.
Given my history with adoption, the fact that my families—both my family of origin and the family I later created with my former partner—would not exist without adoption, I have some strong feelings on the topic. To whit, whenever I hear about a couple’s struggle with infertility and how they are spending gazillions of dollars on in vitro and fertility treatments because they don’t want to consider adoption, my heart breaks a little. In my experience, people’s reasons for pursuing IVF vary, but generally fall into two camps: I want my own biological children and I’m afraid of losing my adopted child.
As a woman who never quite heard her own biological clock ticking, I’m the first to admit mine is not a very sympathetic response. As a mother who came to parenthood slantwise, my point of view is likely uncommon and perhaps unpopular. But, as a parent who, over the years, has worked very consciously to be a parent and to remain a parent in the face of some very daunting challenges, I think I have something valuable to add to the conversation.
First of all, having kids is a crapshoot. It doesn’t matter how they come into our lives. I think the single most important thing potential parents don’t realize is just how little control they will have once that child is conceived and/or born, bundled and placed in their arms. All bets are off. Who gets sick, who lives, who dies, who has disabilities, hidden or otherwise—there is no biological magic bullet that will protect you.
Second of all, children are not possessions with which we are to adorn our lives. Your dreams will not be their dreams; their achievements will not be yours. Their lives are their own. It doesn’t matter if they spring from your loins or from someone else’s—kids are individuals with every right to grow into themselves, whatever they may be, without unrealistic or narcissistic parental expectations, adopted or biological.
We seem to be smack in the midst of a sort of cult of childhood—our culture demands that we dote on our kids, lavish them with opportunities and options in ways our parents never dreamed of. I’m not sure where this urge comes from, but I suspect it springs from our own needs to be seen and doted upon. If our kids look like us, so much the better—it’s that much easier for us to infuse them with our own dreams and ambitions.
I’m not saying that adoptive parents don’t engage in this behavior, but I believe that some people may choose not to adopt because they can’t imagine investing themselves like that in a child that is not biologically theirs. And the world has plenty of children who need families, so it’s unfortunate, I think, that they are overlooked.
As for this notion that adoption is a process fraught with boogeymen who will at any moment demand the return of an adopted child, let me just say this—it’s not that common. In spite of the occasional heart wrenching media report (and very real heartbreak on the parts of all parents involved), the rise of open adoption in the past two and a half decades has gone a long way to deter adoption going off the rails.
I’ve also always been puzzled by adoptive parents who choose to go overseas to adopt. And one of the biggest reasons these folks give is that the chances of the birth parents coming for the kids is slimmer with international adoptions. Given that numbers of kids in this country who need homes, my bias is that we should start here, with our own kids first. And besides, if a birth parent changes his or her mind about placing their child for adoption, shouldn’t they have that right within a particular time frame? Don’t the birth parents deserve the dignity of an open adoption and ongoing communication with the adoptive family?
I have so much more to say on this topic, but it is going to be a long month of blog posts and I’m going to try to keep these things under 1000 words. The A to Z Challenge folks recommend 100-300 words, but I’m just not that good.
If you are considering adoption or want more info, check out these sites:
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 (you will recognize them when … Continue reading
Twenty years ago I spent a long weekend at a workshop/retreat that fundamentally changed my life, or at least served as a pivot point in my journey. I had one incredibly emotional moment that weekend—a moment that has stayed with me all these years, through tremendous changes and ups and downs in my life.
One of my favorite parts of this retreat was that it was silent, a fact the participants did not know going in. We could talk only during the workshop sessions, and not with each other, but to the group as a whole. The food was intentionally less than optimal for those few days as well. And every morning we had to run a mile.
But, I digress. One evening, the retreat facilitator led us through some guided imagery and we were to be constructing our future home. What would it look like? Where would it be? Who would be there?
And here’s the part where I burst into tears: My future home was warm, with dark wood and candles, and inviting comfortable furniture, and it was full of many, many children, children that looked like my children.
At this point, the imagery had taken over and I was just a recipient of this vision. I wept for probably a good fifteen minutes, maybe more (it’s been twenty years—details are fuzzy), but I know for sure that tears and snot rolled down my face uncontrollably.
I did not understand then why I had that vision nor why I reacted so emotionally to it. The tears were neither sad nor joyous, just bursting with raw and uncontrollable feeling. Looking back now, I understand I was weeping because my vision was so radically, radically different from my reality. I wept for the pains and joys I had yet to experience on my path to my vision.
Writing my memoir these past 18 months has prompted all manner of self-reflection (the cynics among us might say navel-gazing—there’s a whole other blog), and I’m finding much of that reflecting to be awkward, if not downright painful. So, I was sort of happy when recent events coincided to prompt me to remember this image.
My youngest daughter’s biological brother (both of my kids are adopted) recently moved to our home state and last weekend came to have dinner with us—he and his wife and their four children. This was the first time I’d met her brother, though she had spent time with her biological family (including her birth parents) over the past few years.
As the day of their visit drew closer, I grew calmer—which is not really my MO. Usually I ramp up into a bit of a frenzy before such events. There were going to be ten of us, including four children, going out to dinner. I remained calm, grounded even. Even as the day grew closer and we had to redo the plans, I rolled with it, strangely confident that dinner would be what it needed to be.
And it was. I was home, surrounded by children that looked just like my daughters, surrounded by family new and old and new again.
I just finished reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree. I managed to get through the 700 pages in a couple of weeks and right up to the last chapter, I found it engrossing and revelatory. As the parent of two adopted children, the sister of an adopted brother, and the daughter of a mother who herself was adopted, I know a bit about horizontal relationships in parenting. As a lesbian, too, I know a bit about falling far from the tree.
That said, I have some serious issues with what seems to be his bias toward creating a family biologically rather than via adoption, as well as the notion that it is better to breed than to adopt, even when biology is clearly flawed. On page 678, he writes that “the right to reproduce should be among the inalienable ones,” and later laments with one mother who didn’t consider adoption because it would be heartbreaking not to be pregnant or give birth (even though she would have a handicapped child).
As he continues on with his own quest for a perfect bio baby, I fail to understand how one person’s desire to be pregnant and birth a biological child, even though the chances of said child being profoundly handicapped, trumps creating a family through adoption. As a gay man, Solomon should know the value of creating a family of choice. I find the selfishness and narcissism rampant in his final chapter sufficient to render the preceding chapters nearly meaningless.
My mother was placed in a children’s home when she was about a year old by a single mother who couldn’t both work and support an infant. The people who became my grandparents adopted her when she was three years old, even though her birth mother came to visit her regularly.
My little brother (my only brother, my only sibling) arrived with only a week’s notice the year I was four, right around Thanksgiving. One day the phone rang and my mom asked me (rhetorically, I’m pretty sure) if I wanted a little brother. Seven days later, I’m at the hospital with my parents picking him up. I cannot imagine life without him.
Nor can I fathom the possibility of life without my daughters, children born into and then given into impossibly complex circumstances. I may have once been ambivalent about motherhood, but their arrivals in my life eradicated any indifference I may have ever had about being a parent.
I wasn’t one of those women who felt incomplete without children, or maybe I should say I wasn’t a young woman who felt that my life wouldn’t be complete should I not ever have children. I just didn’t think about it that much given that I was a lesbian. I figured that kids just weren’t in my future, and this realization did not cause me any angst.
Then I met and fell in love with a woman for whom having children was critically important, an imperative, even. Myself, I didn’t really understand how much I valued my role as a mother until I faced losing my children when my relationship with my co-parent went south. At the point where I could choose to remain a parent or walk away, I decided to stay. I guess in this way, I am like some of the parents in Solomon’s book.
My eldest daughter came to live with us three days after she was born. Her birth mother had decided to place her for adoption and had chosen my partner at the time as the person she wanted to raise her as yet unborn child. Given the times (1990, pre-Will and Grace, pre-Rosie, pre-Ellen, pre-gay marriage, even pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), it made sense for my partner to adopt as a single parent. I was a willing, if somewhat ambivalent, participant in this process, until I held Anna. Once that baby was in my arms, any uncertainty melted away.
One of my greatest pleasures is wearing a sweatshirt my daughter Anna got for me one year for Mother’s weekend at her university—the sweatshirt has a large pink apple tree on it and says The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree. I love the irony. I take certain pride in the fact that Anna is more like me than I ever could have imagined. But I didn’t adopt her so she would reflect myself back to me. I adopted her because I fell in love with her. I parented her because I loved her, from the moment I first held her.
Taylor, my youngest, found her way to us from Philadelphia. At the very moment I got the phone call as I was sitting at my desk at work, she became my precious and beloved child. When I first saw her tiny (and she was very, very tiny—a full term 4 lb. baby) little person, I had no doubts that I would love her with all of my heart and soul. She couldn’t be more different from me, and I love her fiercely. Taylor’s adoption got all kinds of complicated before it became final, but she was as much my child before the birth certificate arrived as she was after.
The paperwork is a formality—it doesn’t make my love or support for Taylor and Anna any more real. In that way, adoption is a bit like gay marriage—the paperwork grants us privileges under the law, but we are already a family without the judge’s decree.
I suppose Solomon is to be admired for not hiding his fears and feelings in the final chapter of his book, but I find his quest for the perfect child completely antithetical to the notion of parenting. As his book so profoundly shows us, there is no guarantee that our actual children will even remotely reflect our ideal child. And I would go so far as to say that the greater our expectations are that our children will arrive and fulfill our dreams for us, the greater our disappointment and the greater damage we as parents will inflict upon them.
Becoming a parent is a crapshoot any way it happens, but I do believe the children we need find their way to the families they need. May we all be able to accept these gifts with grace.