I wrote this essay hopefully to encourage a reader somewhere to consider cross-cultural / trans-racial adoption. In our country thousands of orphans are in need of mommies and daddies. And I don’t know – thousands? – of couples are desperate to have children. Can’t these people find each other somehow? My husband and I are white South Africans, of German and Scottish stock, and we adopted two Zulu children: a 3-year old girl, and six months later a 2-year old boy. Another six months later we were discussing when and how to adopt a third child, but by then – surprise! – I was already pregnant with a little boy. The way it all came about is a long and lovely story. I can’t possibly tell it all in this letter, but want to answer some questions we are often asked, relating to the cross-cultural aspect. Perhaps it will encourage someone somewhere to seriously consider adopting a child of a different skin colour.
Our children are now 8, 7 and 3 and we are enjoying daily the delights of a delicious kiddie pudding: M (no1) is milk chocolate, P (no2) is liquorice, S (no3) is vanilla. Excellent combination! Yum! So consider this is a sales-talk by a satisfied customer.
How did you make this decision?
From early in our marriage we talked about adopting children later on in life. We casually planned to have some kids of our own, then to adopt some. But after years of “trying” we still had no child. We realized that if we waited too long we could end up with no children at all. This was not an option. So adoption was the next step.
In faith we believed that God had called us to adopt, confirming it by not giving us our own children. We also believed that God had a particular child (or children) in mind, whom he wanted us to parent, and we expected Him to make it clear to us. So we consciously avoided thinking in terms of a particular sex or race or age.
We thought it would be nice to start off with a baby, but we didn’t want to limit God in that way. We felt deeply moved when we a friend of ours adopted two siblings 5 and 7 years old, in difficult circumstances, when their mother died. We asked ourselves “Would we have done it?” and the answer was “Yes, by the grace of God!”
The decision to adopt black children in a way made itself. Sure, we did think it through. But ultimately there was no reason not to. We were in our 10th year of marriage, and we saw no point in possibly wasting another couple of years on some waiting list for a white baby. There are thousands of orphans alive now, in desperate need of homes. And it made no sense that race should be a stumbling block when it came to loving a child.
“Taking care of widows and orphans” is true faultless religion – according to the Bible. So there was no question of “Is this God’s will?”. Of course it is! Has been and always will be. “And for us? Now?” – “Yes! Of course yes! Now, later, whenever! Yes!” And if something is God’s will, and we obey, then he will give us what we need. So ultimately the decision made itself, because we wanted children now, and the surest way was to adopt a child already waiting for parents.
We have never once regretted our decision. We have had problems, heart aches, worries, stress, but we have never doubted that we made the wrong decision, or adopted the “wrong” child.
Are these your kids? Really??
Yes, really, duh! They call us mommy and daddy. In the SA birth register we are listed as their parents. Nobody can come and take them away from us. Ever. They are ours. I mean, can’t you see the resemblance anyway?
P (the liquerice one) is completely my dad’s grand-son. Same nature, same deep philosophical character, patient, studious, internalizes, ponders deeply, same stubbornness. And M (the milk chocolate one) is entirely my daughter. We like the same food, have the same sleeping patterns, the same interests. She takes after my mom when it comes to emotions – wants to please, wears her heart on her sleeve. And little S (the vanilla one) takes after his dad – same sunny, friendly, funny, easy-going nature. He looks like nobody we know, and we sometimes wonder if there was an accidental swap at the hospital.
P once expressed the wish to be “White like you” – “Why?” I asked, worried that somehow the seeds of racism had germinated in his pure little spirit. But no, “Because people don’t believe me when I say you are my mom,” he explained. “Ah man. Yes, people can be really dof,” I said. “Just you tell them!” – “I do mom, I tell them you are really my mom, and then they don’t believe me!” – “Next time someone doesn’t believe you, let me know, and I’ll explain it to them. Ok?” – “Ok mom. Thanks.” I had to explain to a couple of kids at his school about adoption, and they were suitably impressed. No further problems in that regard.
M still stuggles with the fact that she will never have long, flowing, straight hair like me. But it seems half the African populace – and many whiteys with curly hair also – struggle with the same issue. “Aren’t we all too stupid for words?” I ask her. “People with curly hair go and get their hair straightened. And people with straight hair want perms.” And hair dressers the world over rejoice. But somehow I don’t think that has anything to do with cross-cultural adoption.
Was it difficult to bond with a child of a different race?
In the beginning it was difficult to bond. Period. We had adopted a 3-year old with a sad past. It wasn’t easy. She was lost and scared and desperate for a mommy. We were clueless first-time parents, desperate for children. Interesting combination. However, nothing to do with skin colour.
After about the first 30 sec we didn’t even notice skin colour. All we were dealing with were issues common to 99% of parents world-wide: “eat your greens, wash your hands, go to bed now, don’t back-chat”. There are so many issues raising a child, skin colour dropped to number 549 on the priority list almost instantly.
There are moments when I actually get confused about the whole skin colour issue. Once I looked at myself in the mirror and for a moment I was surprised that a white face looked back at me. Once I caught myself thinking, shame, that little Indian girl is the only “different race” child at the birthday party, forgetting my own two and the three other black kids. Somehow black and white had become ‘the same’ to me, and Indian was ‘different’. Sometimes I kind of stumble mentally into thinking “Oh well, P obviously inherited his bad sinuses from my husband,” and then I have to remind myself that we don’t actually share any genes! It is really weird.
Do you feel strange having a colourful family?
Actually, I feel proud. We have a rainbow family. Our family resembles God’s family more than monochrome families, because one day, in heaven, all the nations of the earth will find themselves sharing a home with their one heavenly Father, one big happy family. Get used to it! God’s family is multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual, just plain multi.
I love advertising – as a family – the fact that it doesn’t matter what skin colour you are. It really doesn’t. People are all the same inside. And you only find out how very true that is in the context of close personal relationships. Until you have a real, true, close relationship with someone of another colour – a friend say, or a child or spouse – I’m not sure you can fully appreciate how true this is. There is no difference between us. Really, there isn’t. People differ in character, culture, back-ground, social stratum, education, etc, but none of these differences is linked to skin colour. Seriously!
How do people react to your situation?
Oh, we have had all kinds of funny reactions. People respond with enthusiasm, interest, admiration, confusion, sometimes ignorance, and occasionally a little insensitivity. But we have never had any negative or racist comments. Not once. If anything, people ask polite questions about our children. They show genuine interest and make positive remarks. Mostly people just let us be.
Often African people will start talking to our kids in Zulu. Then my children have to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Zulu.” – “Why not?” the person may demand. – “Because my parents speak English.” – “What??” And then my poor kids get engaged in conversations where they have to explain what is going on. They don’t like it, and I sometimes have to rescue them. We want to learn Zulu, together, as a family. But not because they are black. But because we live in South Africa.
Africans tend to find our situation more difficult to understand. For various reasons adoption of non-relatives is not a common practice. A labourer once asked us how much we had ‘paid for the girl’.
But in general we get many happy smiles and encouraging nods and thumbs-ups. I guess we stand out. People remember our family. Car guards, shop tellers and petrol attendants greet us happily as long-lost friends. I don’t know who the heck they are, but they know us, by sight, and are happy to see us again. It is quite amusing and touching.
White people in general tend to be more aware of adoption, and sometimes show interest in our situation, the children’s background, etc. And that gives me an opportunity to promote adoption. It is something I feel strongly about and wish more people would opt for adoption. It may seem like such a scary and brave thing to do. But it isn’t really such a big deal after all. I don’t think it is much more difficult than having children in the first place.
My favourite comment of all time came from a dear, elderly and dignified black lady at Checkers asking me if M was my first-born. Ah. Now there is a heart, hey? “Yes! Yes she is! She is my first-born,” I laughed. – “Do you have other children?” she asked. – “Yes, the boys are at home.” I actually went back to thank her for her wonderful comment. “You have made my day!”
However, I confess that I have developed a very thick skin. Mostly I ignore the people around us and don’t notice whether they are looking or not. I phase them out. It is probably a form of self-preservation. I don’t like being noticed, so I pretend that I’m not being noticed. We just carry on with life.
How do your children get along? Are there any problems with jealousy for instance?
Honestly? No. Not even once have I had the impression that there was a single issue – neither racial nor adoption-related – among our kids. M, the oldest, is besotted with her baby brother. She dotes on the little chap. P is cool, easy-going. He lets his little brother get away with murder. Little S, at 3, doesn’t even know yet that there is anything to notice. He loves his big sister and brother, hands out hugs and kisses as if they are going out of fashion, teases, laughs, giggles, irks, irritates. The little rotter makes nonsense just like any little sibling. M and P have known each other longer than they have known us. They love each other and get on like a house on fire. They also squabble and fight, like typical kids that are 18 months apart in age. No. Definitely no problems. All we have to complain about is that it sometimes gets too loud and too raucous as the kids scream through the house at full tilt.
How do you see a mixed-race family in a race-conscious society? What about culture?
The fact is, children are born colour-blind. The best we can do for a child is not to destroy this. Racially mixed families are becoming more common. It is not such a big deal any more.
Of course if you have some unreformed racists in your immediate family circle, this could bring some challenges. Past AWB-membership however does not disqualify you from adopting a black child. One of our dear friend’s brothers was an ex-Afrikaaner-Weerstands-Beweging-boetie, and is now the proud and happy father of a little black girl. I wish I knew if there was a black family in South Africa with a white child. That would be nice. It would be wonderful if that kind of distinction simply didn’t matter any more. Unfortunately there is still certain reluctance by state social workers to place black children in white families, but there is no legal obstacle.
Above all else we believe that the best culture we can teach our child is Bible culture: loving God, loving mankind, being humble, patient, kind, merciful, not casting judgement, not being rude, deceitful, celebrating the Christian festivals in memory of all that God has done for us, honouring our elders and betters, being generous, hospitable, long-suffering, wise. One can go on and on. As the Bible says, against such things there is no law. We believe that true Bible culture breaks down all barriers between people, and embraces anyone across all differences. There is no better culture to meet the world with.
How do you cope with having both adopted and biological children? Do you feel different towards them?
A friend of mine who also adopted a child, told me that her sister has just had a baby and told her “You will never know what this love feels like. It’s a blood-bond you just can’t experience any other way.” Of course this made my friend feel absolutely fantastic, sorry for the sarcasm. “Is it really like that?” she asked me. “Can I never have what my sister has?”
This is quite a sensitive issue that people worry about a lot and I’ll try to answer as honestly as I can. Yes, I do feel different toward my children, and at times this has troubled me. And I won’t deny that there is something very special about giving birth. But here are some qualifiers (in no particular order):
1. Not every mother feels the same way about her baby. This supposedly ‘natural’ super-duper-bonding that some mothers are fortunate enough to experience, does not always come so ‘naturally’. Sometimes it fails. A friend of mine struggled to feel any bond at all with her biological baby for the first year. It troubled her deeply. That’s why you get baby-battering. Because for some mothers the strains of motherhood overwhelm that loving bond.
2. Regarding that blood-bond-thingy, I said to my friend “Ask your sister how she feels toward her mother.” Well that immediately put a hole in her argument. Because that special love a mother feels toward her new-born only goes in one direction. My little S has no idea how I feel toward him, blood or not, just like I had no idea how my mom (perhaps) felt toward me.
3. Further, regarding this blood-bond-thingy: what of the fathers. My husband took a long time to bond with our blood-baby, even though we had been waiting for this miracle for years. For a long time he felt a closer bond with our two adopted kids than with his own ‘flesh-and-blood’. Because he knew them. And he still had to get to know this little bawling addition.
4. The most helpful thing I have been told is this regard: Though I may feel differently toward my various children, they don’t know the difference. All they know is that I love them. Nobody in the world loves them more than I do, and that is all that matters. That is good enough. Children cannot compare what they feel with what their siblings feel. This holds true in all families though. A child psychologist told us “Children need good parents, not perfect parents”. They need love. They don’t need perfect love.
5. Parents often feel (and act) differently toward their different children. This is not right or wrong, it is simply a fact, and is affected by factors like the parents’ and children’s character. You may feel special affinity with one child and clash horribly with another.
Clearly, spoiling one child and neglecting another is damaging and can cause a child to feel unloved and rejected. This is a danger in all families and has nothing to do with adoption. However, what you feel inside, and how you react to that feeling, is within your conscious control. Though you may not be able to change how you feel, you can decide how to act.
If you have something against adoption, and you believe that biological children deserve to be treated better than an adopted child, then it would probably be better that you didn’t adopt.
6. What I felt toward my newborn was really something very very special. I am glad and thank God that I got a chance to feel that feeling. It gave me an inkling of how God feels toward us. But, having said that, I also get defensive about my love toward my other children. And other people in general. Mommy-to-baby love is not the only valid form of love in this world. What about our love for husbands, parents, friends. I didn’t give birth to all of them, yet I love them all dearly, passionately, often sacrificially. Those other forms of love are in no way inferior, they are just different. In fact, the love experienced by any two loving individuals is unique. Because we are all unique.
7. Also, this super-duper-mommy-baby-love actually changes. Directly after birth I felt toward S such a powerful attachment it was actually painful. For goodness’ sake I felt such separation Angst (hormone-induced probably) that I cried my eyes out when we moved his cot 2 metres from next to my bed to across the room.
‘They’ say a baby at first thinks itself a part of its mother. I think the mother also thinks of the baby as a part of herself. Just like you feel very attached to your own arms or legs, and the thought of being separated from them fills you with dread. But soon that ‘leg’ starts walking around and doing naughty things and being rude and having a tantrum. It doesn’t suck your boob anymore or fall asleep in your arms. It hits and bites. And doesn’t do what you tell it.
So this love changes. Three years later my baby has become his own person. I have separated from him sufficiently (emotionally, spiritually and mentally) that I can scold him, give him a smack, and even get really mad at him. This is a steep learning curve for baby and mother. The weaning goes both ways. But you can’t stop it from happening. Three years down the line my love toward my baby today resembles much more the love I feel toward my adopted kids.
8. From the beginning we experienced our relationship with our adopted children much more like a kind of ‘marriage’, perhaps especially because at 2½ and 3½ they were already little people. We are family not by birth but by promise. Just like my husband and I had to get to know each other in order for love to grow, so we had to get to know our children. We started off as strangers, and there was a lot of fighting, and no trust. But like a marriage grows and matures over time, so we love our kids more deeply now than at first, and they us.
It has been a joy watching them warm to us over time, trust us, reach out to us. A while ago my husband asked M “What?? You think I don’t love you??” (not sure of the context). She waved him off impatiently and said “Oh please dad, don’t be silly. Of course you love me. You adopted me!” I heard a quote somewhere, of a biological child saying “I wish I was adopted. Your parents chose you. My parents didn’t choose me.”
9. When people shy away from adoption, they sometimes express a worry about bringing ‘bad genes’ into their home. If find this amusing. It shows that they assume their own genes must be superior somehow. Well look around, ask around. Biological children across the board have problems. The richest, cleverest, most influencial people give birth to brats. What does that tell you? Kids with learning disabilities, addictions, teenage Angst and genetic disorders live everywhere. What do you know – by adopting you might even get better genes than you can supply yourself.
In fact, you actually get a choice! You have no guarantees that you will get on with your own flesh and blood. But you can go to a children’s home, play with the kids, hold them, look in their eyes, and see which one tugs at your heart, which one reaches out to you, smiles at you. You can choose the one you like! Man. Seriously. You can adopt the one you feel attracted to!
10. Finally, from the beginning my husband and I were very clear in our own minds that we might – sorry, will – make mistakes. Like any other parent, we would not get it right all the time. We even accepted the possibility that we would struggle to love an adopted child. Or that the child would grow up feeling not quite 100% accepted and loved.
But is that a reason not to adopt? We thought not. Whatever we would give our child, with all our imperfections and flaws, would still be better than they would get at an orphanage. Infinitely better. We would be giving them at least some form of love and care. They would get a stable home, a good upbringing, their physical needs would be met, they would get good schooling, go to church, have friends, pets, toys, holidays. How many non-adopted kids grow up feeling not quite 100% accepted and loved? Thank you. Plenty. It doesn’t destroy them. They just have a few hang-ups. Like the rest of us.
I have considered adopting a black child. But I’m not sure if I can do it.
Go for it! The fact that you are thinking about it is a sign that you can. Don’t be scared of the race issue. You’ll see – skin colour is way over-rated. It doesn’t take long and you won’t even notice.
If you long to have children, and you are already thinking about adopting, then adopting cross-culturally is not a big leap.
Feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org