Up Close and Personal: Adoption Motherhood

What do we take? What do we leave? What do we publish and invite the world to disparage? Before I was a mother I was a writer for 20 years. And then I met my most challenging topic, motherhood and transracial adoption. 

With my husband I raised three children, who are now grown. Two of our kids were adopted from Korea, a one-year old, and an older child adopted at age 10. We waded into uncharted territory, as not only were two of our children adopted transracially (I'm mixed blood American Indian and my husband is white), but we adopted an older child changing the birth order within our family. We had a birth daughter who became our 'middle child.' And shortly after we adopted our oldest daughter, our old son, then age 7 (and also adopted from Korea) was diagnosed with a brain tumor—an event that changed all of our lives and taught me to let go of expectations and to forge a new identity.

When I began assembling a collection of my previously published essyays to include here, I found that each one begged for revision. A number of my feature articles were too magazine-y in tone and needed to be reshaped into memoir. Others, when further examined with my poet’s eye, had become too pretentious after being culled by careful editors and gave off the full-bodied notion that as a mother I had things all figured out, which of course I don’t.

Next I contemplated my gloomy stories. Although
 my memoir Pushing up the Sky, A Mother's Story and a number of my feature articles are best known and remembered for the difficulties I've faced, there has also been great joy within my journey through motherhood.

Today as a mother and grandmother my life in no way resembles what I had hoped for, or expected it to be, and yet I am deeply thankful for where this journey has led me. I enjoy seeing how my perspective has evolved and changed over the past four decades.

My special thanks to the editors where these essays originally appeared.

Southwest Moonlight and Making Babies

Fall, 1972. “I want to cancel my appointment,” I told the woman at the front desk. “Instead of birth control counseling I need a pregnancy test.” The doctor at the Clinic rubbed his beard. “If you are pregnant and don’t have any money you’ll have to apply for welfare.” He scribbled an address and phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.

The next morning at the social welfare office, under bad fluorescent lighting, I filled out the forms. The clerk took my paperwork and motioned for me to sit down.

“Number thirty-two,” the social worker called out. I was number fifty-six. My shorts were soaked with sweat, and my bare legs stuck to the orange plastic chair. The room was filled with women and crying babies. I thought of my mother at age fifteen, pregnant with me. Finally my number was called. I was led into a windowless office. The social worker lit a cigarette, and smoke poured from her nose like a dragon.

“Are you giving the baby up for adoption?” She asked. The question unnerved me. She eyeballed me up and down and hissed, “You’ve written down that you’re Indian—if it was going to be a white baby it would be easier to find a family to adopt it.”

I clenched my jaw to stay calm. Brown haired and green eyed, most strangers didn’t place me as Indian. I'm a mixed blood and the baby I hadn’t meant to create was more Indian than white; the father of my child-to-be was a full blood. This was my first glimpse at the way race and culture collided in adoption. For the first time I realized I'd been passing as white whenever it suited me, and that my baby was not white, and that I'd never be white again.

The social worker looked at my stunned face and shook her head. I was a nineteen-year-old, unmarried college student, and pregnancy caught me unprepared to become someone’s mother.

Though we spoke occasionally on the telephone, my relationship with R. was over. It had ended weeks before on a windy night in Arizona under a climbing moon. The next day I headed home to California. Underneath my embarrassment about repeating the family cycle of unplanned teenage pregnancy, especially when I’d been so determined not to, there were moments when I smiled as the baby swelled within me. But I was certain I was not ready to be a mother. Or was I? Before I made a decision, however, I miscarried. At least I did not have to surrender my child to another. Or so I’ve always proclaimed to protect myself. But what I know for sure is that there is no way I would have attempted to keep the baby. If that baby had been born to me, then I would have made an adoption plan in an effort to offer my child a better life than the one I was born into as the result of an unplanned teenage pregnancy.

Afterward, I went back to school and tried to pretend my pregnancy never happened. Instead, I switched my major to early childhood education, and did an internship at a preschool. This was during “Operation Babylift” and I grew close to an adoptive family whose child was airlifted out of Vietnam.

Twelve winters later, in 1984, I sat in the lobby of Holt International Adoption Services. The room was decorated in pastel wallpaper, with a nubby textured sofa. This time I was married and on the receiving end of adoption. Within the next twenty-four hours my husband and I were due to become the parents of a one-year-old Korean boy. As our son grew up I knew he would wonder about his Korean mother. I might never get the chance to meet her, yet I know she must be generous, patient, joyful, and loving because our son turned out to be all those things. I like to think his mother is a lot like me, but was forced to make a decision that I did not have to make.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Initially, after my poor judgment, which ended in unplanned pregnancy I decided not to have children, and I vowed never to get pregnant again. How could I keep my second child when I wanted to give away my first? While I didn’t go out of my way to remember, I also didn’t keep the fact that I had been pregnant a secret. I also did my best not to fall in love with anyone. Instead three years later I met the man I would eventually marry and my resolve melted away. A year before we married I told him I didn’t want to have children. He said that having kids was not a big deal to him. We agreed to lead professional lives, travel and raise dogs.

But shortly before turning thirty I changed my mind; I wanted a chance to be a mother. Just one child, and either by birth or adoption, I was open to the possibility of a child coming into my life in whatever way providence chose. When I shared this with my husband to my surprise and relief he was delighted. He too had changed his mind and wanted a chance to be a father. Once we began talking about a baby, somehow the conversation moved right over to adoption, but within a month I was once again instantly pregnant, resulting in the birth of our daughter. Three and a half years later we adopted our son as a one-year-old with special medical needs, adopted from Korea.

Having a family was so wonderful that we decided to adopt for a second time and added a third child to our family. In 1987, when our daughter was six, and our son four, we adopted a ten-year-old girl, and that is a whole other story.

Since my mother was now an adoptive grandmother, and deeply in love with my kids, I dared ask the question— I asked her if back when she was fifteen and pregnant with me if she had considered letting me be adopted. She blinked in surprise and avoiding my eyes said, yes, but her parents forbid it. “Don’t feel guilty," I said. “It would have been OK if you had.”

Jump cut to 2005, when I attended an adoption conference and found myself surrounded with birth/first mothers and adoptees. Their discussions, their generosity and willingness to include me allowed me to view my life as a whole and explore parts of myself that aren’t usually encouraged to surface within the adoption parenting community. But the flip side is that my mother did keep me, and the child I would have surrendered for adoption was never born. Truth is I don’t know what it is like to be an adoptee, or a birthmother and to call to life the lost past that is so wanted. That’s when the sky crashes open for me and I feel the yin and yang of what it means to have become an adoptive parent.

This piece contains excerpts from Pushing up the Sky, a memoir by Terra Trevor, and portions of this essay was first published in Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices on Child Custody and Education, The University of Arizona Press.

© 2008 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

Journey of a Thousand Miles

While riding on a bus in Korea, my friend Mark bent his face close to mine and said, “Adopting children transracially is a journey of a thousand miles.” My friend Mark was adopted from Korea, he is a father, and he is one of the most endearing and wisest people I know. It took me about ten minutes to realize that he was talking about “my journey” and not the one my daughters and my son are walking. Just being a parent is enough to send anyone on a journey searching for answers. Add the dynamic of transracial adoption braided in, coupled with the dynamics adoption brings. But those are things I have plentiful hands-on experience and much book-read knowledge of. Except these things came to me packaged with an emphasis on how I can produce a well-balanced child. But not on how I could become well balanced and how my identity as an adoptive parent would grow and change over the years as my children grew into adulthood.
The more I learned about being an adoptive parent the more I discovered the need to let myself feel vulnerable, ambivalent, and admit that sometimes my behaviors in the area of adoptive motherhood were thwarted and of self-interest. And sometimes I just plain didn't know how to move in those areas where the line between being mom to a son and daughter adopted from Korea, and being mom to a daughter who is not adopted, became blurry.
I thought I’d learned all of this when my kids reached adulthood, and I was willing to listen, and really hear what their peer group of adopted adults had to say about the throng of us who are known as adoptive parents.

It's occurred to me we must renew our vows and pay attention, for the times they are a changing—as the song goes. Our children must own the rights to their adoption information and story. This is not a new concept. It’s a line of thinking that has held fast for years. But sometimes parents are slow at catching on, delayed in understanding the harm we bragging adoptive parents unintentionally cause.

Now I know plenty of parents who claim their young children have given them permission to tell or write their story. I made this mistake when my kids were young. And when they reached adulthood, when the time came to publish my memoir, Pushing up the Sky, we sat nose-to-nose agreeing on which version of the book manuscript to place in the public domain. Some of the things they had given me permission to publish when they were ten, eleven and twelve were no longer up for grabs.

We need to remember that children are still children, and they do not yet have the maturity to give up custody of their history and grant us permission to become their voice. Therefore as responsible parents we hold our children’s adoption story in trust. That’s when the real work began, when I had to stop hiding behind my kids and find my own voice, and meet the side of myself that is separate from my children.          

Since my daughters are adults now and live on their own, and my fifteen year-old son died from cancer and joined his ancestors in Heaven in 1999, I’m alone more often, and I continue to meet myself each day in surprising situations that force me to do more growing up and confront my changing adoptive parent identity. 

Something else I stumbled across on the bus ride through Korea is that some of us (myself included) spend a great deal of time thinking adoptive parent thoughts. Those words—adoptive parent. It has a joyous ring to some of us, though not to everyone.

Maybe its something about the term adoptive parent that keeps some of us stuck. After all, we worked hard to become parents and we want it to sick. Still the word parent is an identifier best describing those who are still parenting children under the age of 18 or 19.  Or 20 and 21, for those of us who are late bloomers and slow at letting go. Who ARE we when we aren’t busy being an adoptive parent?

Parental, fatherly, father like; maternal, motherly, mother like. Thankfully we will always be a father or a mother. But if we will always be viewed within the adoption triad only as adoptive parents, even when our sons and daughters reach adulthood and are living independent lives, will it allow us to stretch, to climb beyond the boundary and further grow as people? Is there a point where we can perhaps graduate to alumni adoptive parent, and move eventually to retired adoptive parent status?

If we took a step back would it be easer for our sons and daughters to feel the clout to move into adulthood without feeling a need to fight for the right to grow up? Or maybe growing up is hard to do no matter what. I’m plenty old and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. 

Meanwhile, while I’m falling back into an active adoptive parent thinking mode, and momentarily voicing the opinion of others—something else I became aware of in Korea after walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is that all of the adopted adults I know find it difficult to be seen as a charity case. It wore on their spirit while growing up, and it is time we adoptive parents tossed the rescue model. Parenting is a selfish act. We didn’t become parents because we wanted to save an orphan we become parents because we desperately want a child. It’s unhealthy to allow any kid to live with the pressure of believing their parents saved them. Much the same as it’s not necessary or helpful to tell a child with a cancer he is lucky to be alive.

My mind raced as the bus rolled along in Korea, across the motherland of my children, and it continued to race until I reached Colorado, the land of my ancestors, and the land where my grandfather’s 94-year-old twin sister still lives, I could feel something settling inside me.

Truth to tell, early in our friendship I made the comment to my friend Mark that I was old enough to be his mother. I’m not of course, and he nailed me on it. Few eight year olds give birth and eight year olds don’t adopt children. Yet being a parent is how I’ve learned recognize myself. My parenthood status stands sacred and cherished above all else. When a needy child who is not my own cries, I want to help and I’ve caught myself saying, “once a parent always a parent.”

Now I realize there is another way I can enrich my life as a mother, and that is to step out of my parenting mode whenever I’m in the presence of anyone over the age of 18 and meet them women to women, friend to friend, colleague to colleague, instead of parent to child. 

I can even offer to help; yet I’ll have to ditch the adoptive parental thing of being all-knowing with a take-charge attitude. Because it was the thing that drove me batty on our 14-day trip throughout Korea; all those parents, parenting day after day. They even parented each other, and they parented me, when their kid/teen/adult sons and daughters were off doing kid/teen/adult things.

And I’m not sure how, but I figured out the best way to become a better mother is to give myself the gift of sometimes not looking at the world through my parenting lenses, and I made this discovery while walking the good Colorado land my grandfather calls home.

First published in Adoption Today. 
© 2007 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

Coming To Terms With Adoption Loss: A Mother Reflects

I used to believe there wasn’t much difference between being a mother to my adopted children and the one I gave birth to. Because I’d given birth in 1981 to a daughter, then adopted my son in 1984 when he was a year old, and treasured my kids equally, in my mind, it was the same. And then, in 1987 when our third child, a ten-year-old daughter, joined our family through adoption, I thought all adoptions, even an older child adoption, offered the same opportunity for parenting. An older child adoption required gaining knowledge beyond having a sense of humor, a flexible lifestyle, and being able to handle negative feelings from kids. I would need these skills anyway when my kids became teenagers, so I was glad to get a jump on learning, and worked hard to let go of my expectations.

In my early adoptive parenting years I thought my daughter had more losses to endure than my son, because she was adopted at an older age, and came with so much baggage. Only now I know better. Long before my tiny one-year-old son arrived, my heart and mind was filled to the brim with how I wanted things to be, and I endowed him with my hopes and longings. Truth to tell, back then I was the one with all the baggage.

Being an adoptive mother turned out to be completely different than I had expected. Yet before I dig into the recesses of my mind where my losses are stored like clothes in the back of my closet that I’ve outgrown but haven’t tossed out, first I want to tell you about a wonderful weekend with my oldest daughter; the livewire pixie I adopted at age ten, and who is now well into adulthood. We were in Las Vegas, where she treated us to a night at the Bellagio, and I treated us with tickets to a show. I had the good fortune to become her mother. Except all the good fortune in the world cannot change the fact that I am her adoptive mother, and the only reason I was her mother at all is because her first mother, her birthmother, her flesh and blood mother—had to let go.

Given that she lost the opportunity to grow up with her birthmother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I lost my hopes and dreams to fill up her emptiness, to make up for her early wounds. What was taken from her can’t be replaced. Since I never glossed over the factor that two of my kids were first born to another, an open dialog has guided me on an alternating smooth and bumpy path of doing my best job of holding on tight enough so that my kids knew their life brought me great happiness, and slacking my grip enough so they could explore their all of their feelings, even dark ones.  

In our family adoption loss and grief is not now, nor has it ever been something the casual observer can witness. My kids did not dwell on it. We reap the benefits of a grand life, yet loss and grief is there. We are like ducks gliding on a pond. Under the smooth surface of the water we paddle to get ourselves to where we need to go.

No matter how wide I stretched to wholeheartedly provide that all-important sense of being truly wanted and loved, I will never be able to ease the pain my kids felt about loosing their first family. It is a sadness I cannot mend or make better. What I can do is allow it to exist, without feeling the need to fix it.

In quiet moments alone late at night sometimes I can admit to myself that not only is adoption a searing loss for my kids, it is also a loss for me. My oldest daughter took an instant dislike to her new younger sister on the very first day they met. Her feelings softened over the years, yet somewhere along the way we lost each other. In adulthood they felt obligated to make nice at family gatherings for my sake. It was my cross to bear. All right, I’ll admit plenty of biologically related sisters have no interest in friendship with each other. But since one of my daughters is adopted, the loss and grief I feel is without a doubt an adoption related sorrow. Or did I make too many non-adoption related mothering mistakes? I’ve wasted too much time wondering if I had given birth to both or neither, would they go out to dinner together, talk on the phone and give each other goodnight hugs?

I longed to be one of those mothers whose children were emotionally committed to each other and could provide a sense of identity, history and unconditional love. And I got my wish; both of my daughters adored their brother, and he cherished them. But I also wished for daughters who could be angry one week, and friends the next, with a relationship that would outlast me. Yet when the dust settled and my youngest daughter, the child I gave birth to, reached adulthood, she emerged with as many adoption-related fragile emotions as her sister and brother purely from growing up in an adoptive family. If her brother and sister’s first mother’s could disappear, then it could happen to her too. In some ways when her older sister joined our family she did loose me.        

Then my heart folded over like a candle melting in on itself when I first discovered that many in my son and daughter’s peer group of adopted adults, found me irksome not simply because I am an over the hill, half American Indian, half white mother, with a quirky personality. Instead so many found me irksome without even knowing me, because I have this tag title of AP, adoptive parent, shadowing me. And it saddened me and rocked my world when l discovered why. Too many adoptive parents deliver disrespect to adopted adults in the form of insensitive and rude dialogue, and I must reap what they sow, and my heart aches.    

It used to be easy to slip into my pain groove, and take inventory of all the ways I hoped adoptive family life would be, and isn’t. Then my friend Eyoungsoo said something that sent me on a far better journey. He said, "Our beliefs make up our reality." Every day since I've reshuffled my beliefs and found new ones. Now I’m allowing myself to be open to new ideas of family, and ways of thinking and being. My new reality is wider than the sky, filled with so much more possibility, and more friends. Today some of my closest friends are adopted adults who doing their best job of helping me continue to learn and grow and change. Learning doesn't stop when we become a parent. Actually, this is when the learning curve becomes steepest.

Giving up my silly notions of how I used to think things needed to be in order for me to feel fulfilled is having a glorious trickling down effect on my daughters. When their mother isn’t disappointed, and adores them just as they are in the moment, it sets them free.   

First published in Adoption Today. © 2007 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

To Say Mother: Adoption Community Labels and Language

The word mother is a slippery concept within the adoption community, and one that leaves me often wondering where I fit in. Oh, just call me a mother. Because I was once a first mother, briefly. I was an adoptive mother for 14 years, and I’m the mother of a child I gave birth to and raised to adulthood. 

I hold close to my heart first mothers. My mom was 15 when she was pregnant with me, and I was once a pregnant teenager with a baby to be surrendered for adoption. I hold close to my heart adoptive mothers because for 14 years I was an adoptive mother to a son, and the only reason I’m not still his mother is because he died. And for 8 years I was an adoptive mother to a daughter adopted at an older age, who decided she did not want to be adopted, and chose to leave. Which is why I hold adoptees who have had hard, hard journeys close to my heart.

They say that the oldest child has the worst of it in most families, suffering from all the mistakes his or her parents don’t have enough experience to avoid. It struck me in later years when the mission was completed that my oldest daughter had two rookie mothers to contend with; the mom she had for the first 10 years of her life, and then she had to start out all over again with me for those last 8 years. While I was busy planning out the kind of life I hoped we would lead, she had her own hopes and her own dreams. 

This is yet another reason why I wish more adoptive parents would show more respect, more compassion, both on the internet and in person, to adoptees who have reasons to hold strong opinions. Because after all, what if their child grows up and has something he or she wants to voice. Won’t those parents someday want their own adult son or daughter to be spoken to kindly, treated with benevolence?

When I hear the word mother, I know that even when they are trying to divide us with a  motherhood label to describe us, the one common thread that is embedded in all of us, in first mothers, adoptive mothers, and in all mothers worldwide, is that we want our sons and daughters, the children we gave birth to, or have raised, to be treated with kindness.

The thing is, the word mother is an identifier best describing the sacred clan of us who link our own personal identity and have journeyed into the realm of motherhood in one form or another. It is made up of women whose children live within our current lives, or are alive within our heart. 

Considering a Transracial Adoption?

You are waiting to adopt a child and your heart is soaring like an eagle. If you are a white person and if you are living in a predominately white community, the moment you make the decision to adopt a child of color it's time to build a multi racial family lifestyle.

While it’s important to till a love of the ethnicity and the people our children are born from, we don’t always have local access, and a lot of living gets postponed. Any ethnic community you feel drawn towards is the right place to begin.

Get off your beaten path. Become the minority. Locate the ethnic neighborhood you most want to absorb. Find the city library. Go back week after week. Keep an eye on the bulletin boards. Attend community events in the area on a regular basis, and allow yourself to soak up images and impressions. 

Is there a barber, and a market nearby you could begin to frequent? If you are ignored, show kindness. Being ignored is sometimes what it feels like to be a person of color.

How then do we go deeper? By participating regularly and steadily. The difference between embracing and exploiting a culture and its people is that when we are authentic we feel ethnicity in our bones; it feels calm, safe, centering. It’s listening process, more about seeing and feeling, than it is about thinking. Let the changes take place inside of you. Don’t look for success and don’t quit. That’s how a multi racial lifestyle is built. Some of the best things in life take a long time to achieve.

You might: begin attending a racially mixed church. Or a Sunday Intertribal Powwow. Surround yourself with Native families as they exchange news, ideas, song and dance, and reflect on traditions.

How do I know? My earliest memories encircle me; watching Grandma sew beads on Uncle Elmer’s deer skin leggings. Realizing I’m white and Indian and what that meant. Listen to my mother and you’ll hear stories about me in diapers moving to the heartbeat of the drum.

Talk to me and I’ll tell you that fusing a multiracial way of feeling and being does not happen with a few social outings; it’s a life process, a series of small steps gained over years. It is challenging at times, and requires us to use the same perseverance we needed in the adoption process that brought our children to us.

I believe the single most significant thing we’ve done is the comment to racial diversity my husband and I made early on in our relationship. The moment we decided to become parents we began working towards building the kind of multiracial lifestyle we wanted our children to be surrounded with. This along with the prep work and preparing we began the moment we realized that it wasn’t going to be easy. 

My husband remembers how uncomfortable he felt when he first met me and found himself the only white man among American Indians. I spent my growing up years in a mixed race area of Los Angeles, and my husband had grown up in an all-white community. Blending our lives allowed us to realize we each needed to give ourselves the opportunity to be in frequent situations where we would be in the minority race and culture.

We built new friendships within our local Korean community around a campfire, maintained them by hosting gatherings in our home. These relationships grew over late night bowls of naengmyon noodles and were strengthened when we let down our guard and allowed ourselves to be absorbed, supported when our teenaged son was diagnosed, then died from a brain tumor. Anglers of every race, in every culture, will always find each other, thus my husband continues to find his connecting point on the ocean, fishing, grieving, and making friends in the process.

We had three kids, two adopted transracially. Our children’s childhood ran through our fingers like water as we lifted our hand to capture a moment with the camera. Turn around; they are adults, miles and miles on their own. Will the foundation we built support them on their journey in an integrated world?

Our culture comes first from the family and community we are raised in. It is not our children’s job to piece it together. We must begin the process. And while those who are white cannot ever know what it feels like to be a person of color, the choice can be made to live diversely, with the freedom to ingest the beliefs that shape the perceptions of groups of people whose racial heritage is not the same as our own.

But is ethnicity important only for people of color, or for those who have adopted transracially? I believe ALL families benefit from a wide scope of ethnic diversity. When we spend most of our time in wholly white enclaves with little or no access to mingle within ethnic communities, or are too threatened by its values to explore it further, we are coached to feel safest within the confines of a Caucasian boundary, and then we develop all sorts of silly notions that will keep us locked even further away.

Life is not orderly. It’s a bit scary at first to traverse into unexplored racially diverse territory, but it’s not impossible. Wherever we are is a good place to begin, starting in this moment— stretch.

First published in Adoption Today. Reprinted by Tapestry Books and in a number of other venues. 
© 2004 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.
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