by Abby Hilty, born in Colombia adopted to the USA, currently living in Canada. She wrote and shared this on her Facebook wall for National Adoption Awareness Month.
Adoptees are constantly grappling with a life full of complex dualities.
I am an only child, but I have at least 4 siblings.
I have a birth certificate from 2 different countries.
I had to lose my family so that another family could be created.
I grew up in a middle class family, but I lost my original family because I was born into poverty.
I am very attached to the name Abby, but I know I was named after someone else’s ancestor.
I am occasionally told I look like my mom, but we don’t share the same genetics, racial group, or ethnicity.
I love my adoptive family, but I needed to search for my original family.
I am reunited with mi mamá, but we are no longer legally related to each other.
I am my mother’s daughter, but I am mi mamá’s daughter too.
I loved and lost my dad, but I don’t know who my father is.
I am short in my receiving country, but I am tall in my sending country.
I am brown, but I grew up with internalized whiteness.
I am an immigrant in my receiving country, but I am a gringa in my homeland.
I have lived in the northern hemisphere since I was 3 months old, but my body still struggles in the cold.
I speak English fluently, but my body responds to Spanish viscerally.
I have always celebrated my birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but those have never been easy days for me.
I know how important it is for (transracial, intercountry) adoptees to share their lived experiences, but the emotional cost is high for every NAAM post, every panel, every podcast interview, and especially for every discussion in which my fellow adoptees or I personally get pushback from non-adopted people who want to challenge our lived experiences.
And, believe me, this happens DAILY in various adoption groups. So, if an adopted person that you know and love is slow to reply to your texts or emails or if they seem to sometimes be lost in a day dream or not paying attention, it may just be because so many of our daily decisions have to be run through multiple – and often competing – thoughts and even family systems.
This was one of the nicknames my dad used to call me when I was a young child. Like all children, I had a natural curiosity about life. But as a transracial intercountry adoptee, it was more than just curiosity. In addition to an innate, human drive to learn, questioning everything had become habit.
When a baby is born, it can immediately recognise its mother’s face and her smell. But what if a baby is denied her mother? When a baby is born, the mother’s body is geared up and ready to deliver nutrient- and antibody-rich milk to her newborn. But what if a new mother is denied her baby? How can taking a baby away from his mother the moment he’s born be ok? Is it? How come we can’t adopt a kitten from the animal shelter until it is at least 2-3 months old?
Why does the baby monkey always choose to cling to the soft puppet that looks like a monkey instead of the wire one? And why do they keep doing this test to baby monkeys and the mothers? Doesn’t it make them sad?
Where am I REALLY from? Why don’t I “feel” American? What’s my culture? How can I call myself Colombian or Latina when my verbal command of Spanish doesn’t reach beyond the present tenses and a decent grasp of basic vocabulary? What does nationality mean to me? How do I self-identify?
Can any adoption that involves an exchange of money be ethical? How can society accept poverty as a reason to suggest adoption as a solution to a pregnant woman seeking help?
How do I heal from my losses and trauma?
Do I ask too many questions? What happens if “we” as a collective stop questioning things? What can I do to give back to the adoptee community who have taught and supported me so much?
A few years ago, when the topic of institutionalised racism came up, a woman told me she didn’t need to think about or question the status quo because those are issues “that have nothing to do with me.” She further advised me, “Try to smile at life…” and “… take it with lightness and laughter,” instead of asking hard questions and talking about such a “painful” topic.
Now, anyone who knows me knows I love to laugh and to live life by doing. But I also question nearly everything, my beliefs included. I absolutely do not think it is mutually exclusive to expect these two things to go together – to enjoy life and laughter AND question things, especially systems that hurt or disadvantage people (often people who are already disadvantaged in some way). Both go a very long way to creating healthy individuals, and, in turn, healthy societies.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s (yes, you read that right), that I started making friendships with Latina women. By this I mean Latina women who grew up within their Latina families, language, and culture. Non-adopted Latina women.
Why? Why did it take me so long to be able to make connections with other Latina women? Because from the moment of my adoption at age 2.5 months, my Latina identity and environment were replaced by a white, Jewish one. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a white, Jewish identity – if you are white and Jewish. But what if you’re not?
I grew up with so many truly wonderful people and things around me. There were hard times for sure, but there was always love, friendship, family, educational opportunities, vacations, warmth, food, shelter, etc. All feelings and things that no one can or should take for granted.
Yet, still, something was missing. Not only the figment of mi mami in Colombia, but me, myself. My identity as the Latina I was born to be, thanks to all that had transpired in the lives of my ancestors.
It’s crazy hard to say these things, to say that I got hurt even though I was raised by people who loved me, who had the best intentions, but who wanted me to be – and who were erroneously told I could be – the product of their ancestors and not mine.
Again, it all leads back to the damaging, majority viewpoints that have dominated the system of adoption since the late 1950s. Telling adoptive parents that they don’t need to see color, that they should fully assimilate their intercountry transracially adopted child into their family, along with name change, new language, new religion, new environment, is to tell adoptive parents not to see all of their adopted child. It’s how it was done back in the early days of intercountry transracial adoption, and, sadly, much of this continues today even though experts – the adoptees who have lived this whitewashing – have started speaking up on how the impact has been harmful despite the intent being good.
I speak not to be hurtful but that, hopefully, guardians, foster parents, and adoptive parents of children of a different race and ethnicity than theirs can understand and learn to do things in a way that helps raise racially comfortable and competent individuals.
It took me decades to start breaking down my internalized whiteness. And it is an ongoing process. It started with legally reclaiming my original last name, Forero, about 20 years ago. This was NOT done to deny or disrespect my (adoptive) parents. Absolutely not. It was done to respect myself. To recognize I have always been here, that I have always been Colombian, that I have always been part of another family as well as my adoptive family, and that I have always had worth just as I was and always have been.
My light brown skin has never been white. And that’s OK. My dark brown eyes have never been blue. And that’s OK. Spanish filled my brain from within the womb. And that’s OK. My ancestors didn’t come from Eastern Europe. And that’s OK. I was racially incompetent. And that’s NOT OK. I am still surprised when I look at pictures of myself and see an Indigenous Latina woman. And that surprise is NOT OK.
Recognizing differences amongst people is not problematic. What’s problematic is discriminating against people based on visible and invisible differences. What’s problematic is pretending not to see people fully. When we put our blinders on to others, we put our blinders on to ourselves as well. Every child, every woman, every man has history that is carried in their genes. No one is less than anyone else. Everyone deserves to be seen.
Today, I dedicate I Ain’t Movin’, by Des’ree to my fellow transracial adoptees. May you all walk with dignity and pride.
(Originally posted on my facebook feed during NAAM2019)
“Time’s much too short to be living somebody else’s life.”
If you want a garden to grow, you need to prepare the soil and tend the earth. Removing weeds is essential prep and maintenance work. Without weeding and fertilising, your flowers and vegetables can’t grow properly.
If you want a wound to heal, you need to clean it our before you stitch it closed or bandage it. If you leave debris inside the wound, it will become painful and infected. And it will need to be re-opened, cleaned, and treated further.
Sometimes, when I tell people I attend a support group for adoptees and first moms, they ask why I would want to be around people who just sit there and talk about their sad stories. Aren’t we all just dwelling and being downers? My answer is a strong No. The times in my life when I felt the lowest were the times when I was completely alone in my trauma, before I found an adoption trauma-competent therapist, before I found a local support group, before the internet and the creation of FB groups, before I became active in the intercountry and transracial adoption community. Having a community around me of people who share the same primal wound and learning and working together to move forward in a healthy way, is very healing, though it can be painful.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, post-adoption services are critical for all adopted people. And I’m talking about the provision of FREE adoption-trauma-based therapies; local, adoptee-run support groups; access to OBCs and DNA tests; travel budget set aside for trips back to the country of origin; language lessons and translation services for intercountry adoptees. Without adequate, available, and competent pre and post adoption services, we are expecting lush gardens to grow on unprepared land. We are expecting wounds to heal without first helping to clean them out, or worse – by not even acknowledging them in the first place.
To all of my fellow adoptees who are out there, getting down and dirty in the trenches, pulling out those weeds and planting new seeds, I dedicate Digging in the Dirt, by Peter Gabriel.
…Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being…we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive. Van Der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps The Score. Viking, New York
“Though you may not have direct reports working under you, you are ALL leaders in your project teams,” we were told recently at a work-related strengths finding and building seminar. This got me thinking about what leadership looks like in our community of intercountry and transracial adoptees (ICA/TRAs). Every day I see fellow ICA/TRAs working to bring about change in areas such as the intersectionality of adoption, trauma, race, and loss; family preservation; family reunification; and garnering awareness and even funds for lifelong post-adoption services for adopted people (as well as others in the adoption constellation). If the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, then our community will best be served if we can collaborate with each other, as united leaders. Therefore, I invite all ICA/TRAs to ask themselves a few fundamental questions about leadership: What are leaders? Who are they leading? Are they leading or are they serving? If they are serving, whom are they serving? How can leaders influence in the absence of direct authority?
As an adopted person, the leaders in my life who have resonated most with me are the ones who have listened, validated, felt all “the feels,” and who worked diligently and gently at helping others grow and learn, setting them on the path to becoming leaders themselves one day. I believe that we all are – or have the potential to be – caring, impactful, servant leaders in our family, professional, and community settings.
The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? Greenleaf, R.K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, New York
The concept of servant leadership, in which the main goal of the leader is to serve, was first outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Though an in-depth look at servant leadership is outside the scope of this blog, I hope that the short quote above will speak to many in the ICA/TRA community. It certainly speaks to me as someone who empathizes with those who are harmed by the power differential inherent to modern day adoption: vulnerable women and children.
Following in the footsteps of earlier generations of vocal adoptees, such as Betty Jean Lifton and Sherrie Eldridge, who advocated for adoption reform, some members of the ICA/TRA community who were born and adopted between the late 1960s and the early 1990s have published books, become adoptee-centric grief and trauma therapists, set up local support groups, and initiated DNA programs for adoptees and first families, amongst other noteworthy projects. However, unlike our pioneering predecessors, who were almost exclusively white, same-race domestic adoptees, we are the ones paving the way for critical thinking about intercountry and transracial adoption practices.
Furthermore, our community is in the very unique position of being the first generation of adult intercountry, transracially adopted people who have had time to think and heal AND who are connected globally, thanks to the internet, AND who have access to affordable DNA testing AND whose voices are starting to be heard by local and international governing bodies. Over the past few years we have begun to leverage all of these resources and opportunities, and in doing so, many members of the ICA/TRA community are now devoting their time and energy to serving adoptees and first family members. Whether we realize it or not, we are already practitioners of servant leadership.
The traditional business model of leadership has been about increasing power and profit margins by getting people to do what you want by wielding your authority. This model is not only waning in the business world, but it is wholly inappropriate in the ICA/TRA community: we have neither profit margins to increase nor authority to wield. Therefore, effective leadership in our community, namely leadership that educates, empowers, supports, and influences even without direct power or authority, I believe, will find its strengths in empathy, values of truth and justice, and the desire and ability to knowledge-share that many ICA/TRAs have developed as a result of their unique lived experiences.
There are so many aspects and nuances that are particular to the experience of being adopted from a different country and growing up in a family of a different race. There is often no mistaking or hiding from the fact that the one Black/Brown/Asian/Indigenous/non-white Latinx child in a white family is adopted (the overwhelming majority of intercountry adoptions follow this pattern). The reality of this situation may force the adopted person to “come out of the fog” earlier rather than later in life. Coming out of the fog and learning to take a critical look at both one’s own adoption story and the institution of adoption, and specifically intercountry adoption, are difficult yet incredibly important steps to take in terms of personal growth and working to heal the community. By finding ways to support our fellow ICA/TRAs during these painful and sometimes volatile stages, we can also help lift and heal ourselves, because we will be acting as leaders and creating the next group of leaders at the same time.
We were powerless as babies and children when we were removed from our families and sent around the world to grow up in adoptive families, often with no connection to our original selves or families. As a result, many of us have struggled with our identity and sense of self worth. We paid a very high price for something we never gave our consent to in the first place. Yet, the flip side to all the pain many ICA/TRAs endured while growing up, and often continue to endure well into adulthood, is that we often have specialized knowledge acquired only through lived experience. Many of us also feel an intense desire to give back to our community by sharing that knowledge (with each other, with adoptive parents, and with policy makers) to help ensure that things are done better for current and future generations of vulnerable families and adopted people. To me, that is certainly a big part of leadership.
Finally, it is no stretch to see reflected in the ICA/TRA community most, if not all, of Larry C. Spears’s ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders (Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. Journal of Virtues & Leadership, Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 2010, p. 25-30):
Listening Empathy Healing Awareness Persuasion Conceptualization Foresight Stewardship Commitment to the Growth of People Building Community
Being a member of a group of individuals who exhibit such characteristics is very powerful, and very empowering indeed. If our ICA/TRA global community can harness the benefits of servant leadership by fully owning and exercising all of our inborn strengths as well as those characteristics we have acquired through our lived experiences, I believe we not only help each other heal but can also shape governmental policies in favor of family preservation and post-adoption support. As we move forward as a community and as leaders in the field of intercountry and transracial adoption, I hope we will continue to grow, to learn, and to hold each other accountable as leaders who serve with kindness, and no expectations of glory in return.