Adopted Why We Shouldn’t Call Adoptees “Lucky”
If all adoptees felt not only safe, but empowered in their families and their communities, I would feel better—but not lucky.
Growing up, I remember worrying that someone was going to try to kill my family. One night, after we went out to eat at a diner in College Park, Maryland, I looked out of the rear window as we drove away, watching to see if any cars were following us. Sometimes the same pair of headlights would appear in my line of sight for miles, taunting me, before sharply making a turn that took their car farther away from ours. After we got home, I tucked my baseball bat by my bedside—just in case I heard footsteps come up the stairs, just in case someone had finally come for us.
I am the African American adopted child of two white lesbian moms, and when I was a child, I was often afraid for us.
I remember a first-grade class field trip in the fall, the smell of tree bark and s’mores by a campground fire. I am relaxing with my friends when I hear a woman’s scream. I race past familiar faces, crunching leaves and pine needles under my feet. My eyes, first scanning the trees, the grass, the gravel path, now fix on one spot, where a crowd of a half-dozen people stand in a semicircle. The scream I hear is full-force.
“They’re going to take Tony!”
Mary, my mom, is in anguish. Her expression is one I have never seen before, full of fear and desperation. Instantly, her emotions become mine. If she is this afraid, it must be true: I am about to be taken away from my moms. From my home. From my life as I know it.
I am the African American adopted child of two white lesbian moms, and when I was a child, I was often afraid for us.
Another family drives me home that day. The three-and-a-half-hour car ride is one of the longest of my life. The car does not contain enough space to hold my emotions, and when it finally rolls up to our driveway, I nearly fly out of the back seat. In our house, I find Janet, the mom who always knows the most important details about my life, the mom who is always there to pick me up from school and help me with my homework. She sits in a blue recliner chair in the corner. I tiptoe up to her.
“Sit,” she says, her voice trembling.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“They’re trying to gain custody of you.”
I was afraid that day, but it would be years before I fully understood that proud racists and homophobic people were not the only people who wished harm on our family. People who were viewed as just, as pillars of our society, often wished for the same. It would be years before I would understand that while a judge’s gavel isn’t the gun I once feared, it can wreak its own brand of havoc.
1995: Men in black robes make a declaration. “A white, same-sex-headed household is not the right household to raise a black child in.” These are the words my mom, Mary, heard repeated to her the day of our field trip. A panel of three judges had overturned my adoption, granting custody to an extended relative of my birth family.
When my initial adoption was granted, my lawyer as well as my social worker told one of my birth relatives that if I was adopted by Mary and Janet, I would never see members of my “real” family again; I would never have any Black friends. They, along with my relative’s own lawyer, told her to appeal the initial adoption in the hopes that it would be overturned—that I would be “saved” from being raised by a white same-sex couple. They did not tell my birth relative that my room was full of books by Black authors, that some of my favorite hats were of Negro League baseball teams. They did not tell her that I had Black friends; that I had read and learned about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey. They did not tell her that I went to a barbershop called EBONY BARBERS. They did not tell her that Mary and Janet knew how important it was for me to see myself reflected in the books I read, in the people we knew, in the community we lived in. They did not tell her that my moms were raising me to be kind, to treat others with respect. They did not tell her that being raised by lesbians does not mean you will grow up to be gay yourself. Maybe they did not know these things; maybe they thought these details did not matter. Maybe they believed that no matter what my moms did, my life would be a tragedy if two gay white women raised me.
But my birth parents were not in a position to take care of me. My birth mom was schizophrenic, and as much as she wanted to, she simply did not have the ability at that time to raise me; to be there for me as I grew up. My birth father did not want to be a part of my life—I had no memories of his face, no letters from him. When asked to come to court to claim custody of me, he declined multiple times.
Knowing this, I wondered why my social worker, the judges, the lawyers were still insisting that Mary and Janet’s home was not the right place for me to live. My birth relative had a chance to raise me when I was an infant, and ultimately was not able to do so. It was not her fault—I wasn’t the only child in the family she had decided to raise, and she was getting older. Still, I would like to think that when she let me go into the child welfare system, she understood that I needed to grow up in an environment that could provide what she could not in that moment.
A panel of three judges overturned my adoption, granting custody to an extended relative of my birth family.
As a child, I did not have baby pictures like my classmates did. I did not know who my birth grandparents were. I did not yet know I had siblings out there in the world. I did not have a “traditional” childhood, a “normal” childhood, a non-traumatic childhood (few do). But I did have Mary and Janet—two people I viewed as my blood, as my family. I wanted to stay with them. Being their son, only to have that ripped away like it was nothing, was crushing. It was a nightmare, much like when I learned my birth father did not want me, or when I learned my birth mother was not well enough to take care of me.
My lawyer, my social worker, and the judges who overturned my adoption knew that my birth family’s circumstances had not changed. They knew my birth family was likely as incapable of raising me as they were when I was first placed in an orphanage. They were willing to risk me entering a group home or foster home rather than letting me stay in the only home I’d ever known and grow up with Mary and Janet.
The judges’ decision made me feel as though I must have been right to stare out of the back window as we drove home. I was right to keep a baseball bat at my bedside. There were people out there who thought ours was an unnatural, lesser family. The judges had not threatened us with physical violence, but by stating that we should never have been a family to begin with, they provided justification and cover for others who might try to harm us.
The day the judges’ decision was made would be the last time I remembered seeing my moms worry about whether our family would be torn apart. They appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was sent down to the lower court in Washington, DC. It was an arduous process, but one that offered a kind of respite—I could not be removed from my current residence during the appeals process. Our family went on road trips, ate pizza on Friday nights, argued about mundane things. We tried to have a normal life, though nothing about our tenuous situation felt normal, and enjoy our time together.
But then one day, Mary, who had been feeling ill, went to the doctor. A few days later, she and Janet sat me down and told me Mary had colon cancer. It was the beginning of the end of our family’s existence as we had known it. Less than four years later, Mary would pass away.
I often overheard her praying she would beat the cancer, remain alive for her son. I could see how afraid my moms were of the possibility of Mary’s death, but I never once saw them fearful or struggling to hold back tears when talking about my adoption case—even though I knew the fear of losing our case was their ultimate nightmare, too. That was how much they wanted to protect me, their son, from constantly worrying that our family would be ripped apart.
Two years after my adoption was overturned, the trial court finally recommended a joint custody agreement between my birth family and my moms. Neither Mary nor Janet would be considered my parents under the law; instead, they would be my legal guardians. My birth relative was also named one of my legal guardians. An unofficial agreement was made between the families, stipulating that I would visit my birth relative’s house on occasion, but I would continue living with Mary and Janet.
I do not remember hearing any of this at the time. Janet has told me I wasn’t informed back then because the new decision “didn’t change your life.” I think Mary and Janet must have wanted to keep me from thinking and fretting about the custody battle, about the fact that we almost lost each other.
But the decision did change my life. It meant that my position within my family was solidified, that my life felt more stable. Adults often make the mistake of thinking children are too young to comprehend nuance. I was able to understand much of my situation, but did not yet have the capacity to articulate what was going through my mind. As more nights piled up with me sleeping in my own bed, I filled in the gaps with facts of my own: My birth family was fine with how things were, and had withdrawn their appeal. The court must have ruled in our favor. Now Mary and Janet were my legal parents. These assurances, even if untrue, gave me what I needed in order to feel safe at the time.
Mary and Janet could not fully celebrate the decision that kept our family intact. Mary had just had her first surgery since her cancer diagnosis. Still, in our house there was a sense of happiness, gratitude, relief. I got to stay in the only place I had ever called home—though I had already learned that to call it my home, to call Mary and Janet my moms, meant hurting others I also loved.
I remember sitting across from a woman with brown skin and almond-shaped eyes. She shifted forward in her chair, and asked the question that would shape the rest of my life.
“Would you rather live with them, or with me?”
“I—I would rather live with them,” I said. I saw tears drift from the corners of her eyes, falling to the carpeted floor. “I still love you, Mom.”
I always hear people say how lucky adoptees are, how lucky our adoptive families are. I wish they were right.
What would it have meant for me to be “lucky”? Maybe it would have meant that when I got angry with my parents, I would feel just like any other child getting angry with their parents, rather than a Black boy who might be intimidating his white moms. Maybe it would have meant I could talk to my moms about some of the problematic things some Black people had said about our family without having to worry about them chastising the Black community instead of the individuals I mentioned. Maybe it would have meant I could describe all of these fleeting feelings to my moms, voicing my experiences as a Black person who grew up in a white home, without having to worry about them thinking I loved them less. Maybe it would have meant my eyes would not water every time I thought about telling my birth mother I did not want to live with her. Maybe it would have meant that a white friend would have refrained from saying I wasn’t “really” Black, before looking at me nervously when his white peer repeated the N-word from a rap song. Maybe it would have meant I could bring up the fact that I had two moms to some of my friends and loved ones without them wondering if I was raised “right,” or without being questioned about my own sexuality. Maybe it would have meant I didn’t grow up feeling the need to explain why my family should not be discriminated against—in the child welfare system, in the workplace, at school.
When we insinuate that an adoptee is lucky, we often invalidate the unique challenges they continue to experience after being adopted, and paint adoptive parents as saviors—when in fact they are simply parents, good and bad and wonderful and flawed as any parent can be. When we point to adoptees as lucky, we may also fail to look for ways to change systems that contribute to the trauma-inducing situations too many children and families experience.
I would feel better if there were more books that featured families like mine. I would feel better if child protective services systems did not investigate and remove children from Black families at a far higher rate than they do from white families. I would feel better if professionals within those systems received more training on how to interact with families from different backgrounds. I would feel better if more families that do not look like mine spoke up for families that do—in our schools, courtrooms, adoption agencies, foster homes, and legislative offices. I would feel better if adoptees of all colors, genders, and sexualities felt not only safe, but empowered in their families and their communities. All of this would make me feel better —but not lucky.
When we insinuate that an adoptee is lucky, we often invalidate the unique challenges they experience, and paint adoptive parents as saviors.
Seven years old. That is how old I was when I told my birth mom that I wanted to live with Mary and Janet. I would be lying if I said I felt guilty for it, or felt that I made the wrong choice.
But there is often a sadness that comes with making the right choice, and I carry this sadness with me every day. Sometimes people ask me if I have any contact with my birth mom today. It’s always awkward, painful, when I tell them “no.” I know she may feel that I do not want her in my life, that I didn’t want her in my life when I was seven, even though this could not be further from the truth. If she reached out to me now, I would tell her that I still love her, and I still want to have a relationship with her. I would love to speak with her and see her smile—people often tell me they love my smile, and I got it from her. My birth mother remains a part of me: the person I try to be every day, the person I hope I will become.
Though my birth mom and I are no longer in touch, I did have the chance to speak with her again, briefly, a few years ago. She told me she was sorry she did not raise me or my sisters; that she wished she could have. Part of me will always wish she could have as well. I think I would have liked growing up with her, with my sisters, if she’d been able to raise us. Before she said that, I had never really imagined all of us together, sitting in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon, talking and laughing. As wonderful as it sounds, it also seems like a scene from an alternate universe, from a lucky someone else’s life.