Who’s following whose lead?

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Paula, crossposted from Heart, Mind and Seoul

Imagine you recently started a job you absolutely love.  The manager to whom you report is kind, friendly, accepting and respectful.  Though you’re not exactly sure of each and every project that you’ll be working on, you feel good about the work you’ve done so far.

As the months roll along, your supervisor has given you increasingly more autonomy in your position, something you find both refreshing but somewhat confusing.  For instance, you have been given several assignments that you are completely unfamiliar with and you’re not exactly sure if what you’re doing is on the right track or not.  Some of the material is a bit daunting as you have never experienced this kind of work before.  This has left an unsettling and anxious feeling in your gut.  You’ve tried delicately to bring up your areas of concern, but do so in a less than obvious way as to not offend or upset your boss; in fact the last time you tried to approach the subject your boss reassured you that you are doing a great job and that everything you’re doing is right.   In your heart you know that your boss truly has no idea of the internal distress that you’re experiencing, but you continue to remain reticent for fear that she and all of your colleagues will think of you as incompetent and a poor performer.  It’s all so mind-boggling to you; everyone is constantly telling you how confident and together you are, while inside you’re floundering and scared by the onslaught of feelings that you’re having – afraid that no one really understands what you’re going through.

Years later you and your former boss meet up for lunch.  She still marvels at how composed, how mature and how focused you seemed to be in your former position.  At long last you feel compelled to say what you couldn’t so many years ago.  “I was so lost.  I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing or who I could turn to.  I tried to talk to you about it, but I don’t think we knew what the other was saying.  As much as I liked working with you, it just would have been nice to have a little more guidance or someone to talk to.”

Your former boss looks at you absolutely stunned.  “I honestly don’t know what to say.  I just thought it would be best to follow your lead and since everything seemed perfectly fine from the outside, I just assumed you didn’t need my help.  I truly really had no idea that you had any questions, apprehensions or concerns about your job at all.”

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I must admit, I cringe just a little bit every time I hear an adoptive parent say they plan to follow their child’s lead when it comes to addressing the different aspects in adoption.  Whether it’s talking about their child’s first family, integrating their child’s ethnic culture, addressing the subject of race and race consciousness, identity, loss, grief, feelings of rejection, fear of abandonment or resistance to trust, I can’t help but think what a tremendous burden it possibly might be on the child to have to be responsible to initiate and direct these kinds of conversations with their parents. . .the people a child looks up to, the authority figures and the ones who I believe should be behind the wheel. 

As a child and even now as an adult, I know in both my heart and mind that I can talk to my parents about most anything when it comes to my adoption.  And still, there are still a few things that I have been – and still am – reluctant to bring up on my own because they have never openly or directly talked about it themselves.  Even as a grown adult, there is still a part of me that is so afraid of hurting or upsetting my parents.  Never would I want them to think that I don’t love them or that my questions somehow imply that I’m not happy or content to be their daughter.  Logically, my mind knows this doesn’t exactly make sense as they have never given me any reason to believe this, but still, there is a part in the deepest place of my heart that cannot take that risk. 

Imagine being a child of 5, 8 or 12 years old and never having your parents approach the topic of your adoption other than saying things like “Be proud of the fact that you’re adopted”, “Being adopted makes you special” or “Other kids sure must be jealous of how lucky you are” without so much as an opening or opportunity to talk about the more complex and often times confusing aspects that accompany one’s status as an adoptee.  Imagine how nervous, anxious and even frightened a child might be to ask their adoptive parents about his/her desire to know more about his/her first family, when it’s never been genuinely brought forth as a legitimate topic of discussion before.  I personally believe that there are already so many responsibilities that many adoptees automatically take on and internalize when it comes to their relationship with their adoptive parents, that to ask an adopted child to be the facilitator of his/her own family adoption-related discussions is just too much of an unfair and unnecessary onus to place upon any adoptee.

Just today my son and I talked about his Korean family.  I strive to find that balance in giving him the security of knowing that he is our son and that my husband and I are the mom and dad who are raising him while still honoring his beginnings including acknowledging the parents of whom he was born; the family who will always be a part of his identity and a part of who he is at his core.  We don’t talk about adoption everyday, but we have authentic and unprompted conversations several times a week – it’s just something I feel very passionately about discussing frequently and openly in our everyday lives.  Some days he says very little and shows hardly any interest and sometimes he has a host of questions about his Korean family, foster family or the differences in appearances between him and many of his peers.  But I make it a point to provide numerous opportunities to talk about the myriad of different aspects pertinent to his adoption and allow him to share as little or as much as he chooses.  And that is where I follow his lead. 

I know certain adoption related conversations can be extraordinarily difficult and incredibly uncomfortable for adoptive parents.  And sometimes, as we parents get swept up in the endless minutiae of everyday life, it becomes all too tempting and far too easy to set aside those conversations or discussions that we know we should be having with our child.  But putting it off doesn’t make the topics go away, nor does it make it any easier on anyone in the long run.  Especially on our children. 

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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