by columnist Deesha Philyaw
The question Jan, a local poet, asked me should not have caught me off guard, but it did. She wanted to know if I would be reading later that evening at an open mic she was hosting as part of a 4-day conference on adoption and culture being held here at the University of Pittsburgh. A reasonable question to ask of a freelancer who for four years wrote a monthly column that was, ostensibly, about being an adoptive mother. But I replied with a surprised “Uhhh…no.” I silently smacked my forward in that big “D’oh!” moment.
Why hadn’t I thought to participate in the open mic? I’d seen it listed amongst the dozens of sessions and topics in the conference brochure, but reading had never been a consideration for me. Only when Jan asked if I would participate did it occur to me that the article about transracial adoption I had been assigned to write for a national parenting magazine was my primary reason for attending the conference. Even though I am a member of the triad—birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees—I went to the conference as a writer, a researcher, a passive observer. Why didn’t I see myself as an adoptive mother?
I fumbled a bit after my initial response to Jan’s question, admitting to her that it hadn’t occurred to me to read. She encouraged me to consider it, and that evening found me (with my daughter Peyton in tow) in the front row of a college classroom, the first reader on the open mic roster. I read a column I had written several months earlier called “The Talk, Part One in a Series” about telling Peyton, who is almost 4, that she is adopted. The piece alternates between being light-hearted and serious, and ends on a hopeful note.
After I read, “Gerri”, an adult adoptee whose birth records are closed to her, took the mic. Her words of sadness and frustration made me thankful for the documents I have tucked away in my filing cabinet, papers which, when the time is right, will answer Peyton’s questions (some of them, anyway).
Gerri was followed by “Lana”, a birth mother in her mid-40s who read about placing her son for adoption when she was an unmarried college sophomore. Aside from both having placed a child for adoption, I could discern few similarities between what I gleaned of Lana and the little I knew about Peyton’s birth mother, “Angela.” The former is white and privileged at least enough to go to college (and to have a mother who was scandalized by the pregnancy); Angela is not. And yet they both know the anguish of surrendering a child. Angela’s anguish is something I have only been able to deal with peripherally lest I begin to feel helpless, and start asking useless questions like, “How could something I did that is so right be in such close proximity to another mother’s pain?”
I listened as one after another, women of the triad, told their stories. And as Peyton whispered and played nearby with Gerri, I began to feel a part of this often invisible community, a community to which I had neither consciously avoided nor purposefully tried to belong. I only recently discovered adoption-related blogs and the phrase “adoption triad.” I have friends and acquaintances who just happen to also be adoptive parents, and in most cases, we were friends before adopting. So I don’t think of us as “a group of adoptive mothers,” just as mothers. But during the open mic, a sense of connection to complete strangers–the other adoptive mothers, the birthmothers, and adoptees who read–began to emerge.
The next day of the conference, I attended a panel discussion featuring three adoptive mother bloggers and a birthmother blogger. Once again, I felt like an outsider looking in. Maybe it’s because the adoptive parents on the panel had adopted transnationally and/or transracially, and I did not. Maybe I felt this way because no one simply looks at my family and questions whether we belong together, or verbalizes assumptions steeped in race- and class-based stereotypes about my adopted child’s birth parents. Maybe because our adoption is only semi-open, I could not easily slide into the shoes of the adoptive and birth mother bloggers who daily face the challenges and revel in the joys of open adoption. I can’t relate because our semi-open adoption feels closed; we send letters, video, and pictures to Peyton’s birthfamily care of the adoption agency, but have not received any correspondence in return. I wish the arrangement were reciprocal, but I respect the family’s preference not to communicate.
A while back, I had imagined a conversation with Peyton’s birthmother in my literarymama.com column. I began writing “The Girl is Mine” four years ago when I thought of myself as an Adoptive Mother (in caps), back when our adoption was young and new. After the first year or so, it became harder and harder to find “adoption stuff” to write about. Peyton’s adoption status is not at the fore of our daily lives; most of the time I forget about it. I commented to a friend recently that, “I think my body’s in pretty good shape for having had two kids.” I “forget” I have given birth to only one child.
I know this will change as Peyton gets older, but I think of these early years as doldrums of a sort, a time when we talk about adoption with her, but the word much, less the experience, does not hold enough meaning to upset her boat. As far as my boat is concerned, I am bracing myself for the rough waters that likely lie ahead.
The conference sessions led me to the realization that looking at adoption strictly through the lens of our personal lives (and my professional efforts) has kept me from an active awareness of what author and law professor Dorothy Roberts calls the “politics of adoption.” It’s not that I didn’t know about racial disparities and incompetence in the foster care, adoption, and social welfare systems before the conference. But there is much I did not know, and I have surely not, before now, taken up the mantle that Roberts, in her presentation at the conference, calls adoptive parents and others interested in child welfare to take up. She urges us to fight for justice in a flawed system and to fight against the poverty that is at the root of most children’s placement in system. I have not, until now, thought about how voluntary my private, non-system adoption really is, given that Peyton’s birthparents’ stated reasons for placement were “financial.”
I have not, until now, given more than a passing thought to the possibility that our semi-open adoption has been a one-way street because Peyton’s birth family is not receiving the letters, pictures, and videos we send. “What if,” a child advocate I met at the conference asks me, “the reason you don’t hear from them is because the agency, for whatever reason, hasn’t been diligent about sending the packets. What if [Peyton's birth mother] is wondering why you aren’t keeping up your end of the agreement?” What if the system—even the private component of it—charged with serving children and families has failed my child’s birthfamily?
And so it goes. From the personal, to the political, and back to the personal.
So I thank the poet, Jan, for asking the original question, for opening the first door. We should always thank the poets.
Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.