“Don’t you want your own kids?”

As you likely know, attitudes towards adoption vary across cultures. I’ve heard, from a friend with firsthand knowledge of both, that Samoan and Yupik cultures are traditionally adoption-positive, whereas I had a Japanese student who wrote a research paper asserting that abortion is a far better solution to an unwanted pregnancy than adoption. (Yeah, that one stood out among my religiously conservative students’ abortion stances.) American attitudes are all over the place, with Danelle experiencing—as she alluded to—much less understanding than we have had. Even so, I have been asked, more than once and usually by strangers, “Didn’t you want your own kids?”

2014

Ron’s response is, “Yes, that’s why we adopted them.” I’ve usually come back with a curt and more defensive, “These are my own kids.” I don’t tend to add the obvious, such as, I’m the one that’s had to tell them no about a hundred times since we walked into this store, right?

Yes, the question has to do with passing on your DNA, or with the reflexive assumption that human narcissism is the only basis on which we love our children. Yes, it implies that adopted kids are somehow inferior—another version of this question, and I swear to God I have been asked this, is, “Do you have any real kids?”

Nope, just these robot ones.

2014

But it occurs to me now that there are more layers to this question than the ones that raise my hackles. Because it’s also a question about exactly how an open adoption works. Or it’s a good segue to that issue, anyway. There seems to be a concern that if kids know their birthparents, they can’t attach to their adoptive parents. Or that they’ll experience some confusion. I can see an analogy to the fear of bringing up a kid bilingually. Won’t they be confused and never speak either language? Remarkably, no—instead, as research shows, you end up with a bilingual person. And this is where Dr. Joyce Pavao’s terrific phrase “complex blended family” comes into play. (I promise to elaborate on this in a future post.)

It also occurs to me that this same question is an even harder one when put to a birthparent, perhaps especially a birthmom. Not wanting to answer it may be a reason that so many birthparents are not “out” about their experiences. But not having an answer to it is one of the things that makes Dawn’s adoption experience so much harder than my twins’. The twins can find reassurance daily, if they need it, that their birthmother loves them. They can reach out to her whatever their mood. She puts up with a lot of goofy videos via Marco Polo, and she also listens when they feel wronged or misunderstood. (As I may have already mentioned, Danelle is the best listener!)

2013

For Dawn, instead, there is a big empty space, one that no one else can fill. We have repeated the story of meeting her birthmom so many times—just meeting the birthmom even once designates an adoption as “open.” We have told her how much she was loved—how the entire decision (to place her with us) was motivated by love. Dawn has a single, wallet-sized picture, from 2007 or so, of her birthmom and half-sister. It’s in a beautiful frame at the side of her bed.

Every year, we send our Christmas card and letter to Dawn’s birthmom. (We’ve never had any contact from the birthfather, although our lawyer reported an effort from him to disrupt the adoption finalization.) Around Dawn’s birthday, I try to get my act together enough to send an additional letter, just about her. We’ve never received anything back, although we said yes to receiving letters and even gifts. We do know, from the agency, that Dawn’s birthmom has received the letters. Once, I sent her my phone number and email, inviting her to reach out. Instead of hearing from her, I got a call from the agency. “Why would you do that?” demanded an irritated voice. Um, because I want this to be an actual open adoption, maybe? I don’t remember what I did say at the time, but I remember her response: “Well, you just let me know, if you do hear from her.”

2014

Sadly, we still haven’t.

Danelle’s Story, Part 2

Written by Danelle Henden

Almost dying during childbirth isn’t fun. Especially when no one in your family knows you were in the hospital and you don’t get the joy of taking your babies home. Some say grief is like a blanket, but for me, grief was like an ocean—and guess what? I can’t swim.

The 10-day stay at the hospital with the twins was horrific and resplendent for me. I stayed in the hospital with them for two days as I recovered from my blood transfusion. I would trek down to the NICU even once I went home. I would show up and stare at their little faces while nurses whispered and gave advice that I should rethink my adoption idea. Doubt, despair, anger, and depression encompassed me and held me tight. I tried to put on a good face when the adoptive parents were there, but it hurt. The doctors asked me to pump, as it would be good for the twins, so I would go home, pump in secret, and go to the hospital and pump. They would let me hold them with all the little wires coming out everywhere. I got to feed them, and look at those beautiful little faces I created, and cry.

A part of me is still crying and will always cry about the lost moments and missed motherhood. But I know I wasn’t ready emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially. Stephanie and Ron seemed like nice people, but at that time, they were just a countdown for me. It was wrong for me to want my babies to stay in the NICU for longer, but I had no guarantee that I would ever see them again once they left. So, when they left the hospital and communication was scarce, I thought: this is it, this is life now. I was sure that I wouldn’t see my kids again.

I was wrong. I know now getting an adoption finalized, settling in with two newborn babies while already having a toddler, and trying to bond as a family can take a minute. I know that now, in hindsight, but at the time, as I said, grief was an ocean.

We had our first two meetings at the adoption agency. It was very special to me. I got to know a bit about the two people I have picked for Dani and Darnell, and they were great people. After that, they decided to just invite me to their home. We got along great, especially once we found we had things in common. Eventually, I started to come to hang with the grownups more than the kids. It was amazing. I remember Ron had a family member or friend who asked if they were scared that I might kidnap the kids. To which Ron said, “Well, if she was to kidnap them, she’s the best person to do it, as she loves them (true), she doesn’t have the finances to get very far (very true), and she would never hurt them (especially true).” Hahaha.

I have no idea when I truly bonded with Ron and Stephanie. It could have been the frequent photos they sent, the fact that they trusted me enough to let me know where they live, the passion with which they showed they wanted me involved, them letting me bond with Dawn, or the extensive board game collection they have. Who knows what the reason was, but I am glad I have them all. They are my family! I often think I had triplets and one was just older and lighter than the other two, because I love Dawn that much as well. We have all blended so perfectly, and I couldn’t imagine not knowing any of them.

I love quotes, and it was the late, great Tupac who said, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s laws wrong, it learned to walk without having feet. Funny, it seems to by keeping its dreams; it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete.” This situation is concrete: birthmothers are not given a fair shake sometimes. So, this wall, this concrete that people say is necessary for the adoption process to function can be false. Ron and Stephanie planted seeds, despite it being concrete and despite what others said, and they got a rose. We have formed something people like to think is impossible, but it happens. I have heard stories and seen the roses growing. I thought I was losing my babies, but I gained a family, and I’d call that a win.

Getting to know you

There is absolutely nothing comforting about the NICU, the intensive care unit for newborns. At least, not during the ten-day stretch we experienced it, at Stroger Hospital in Chicago about a decade ago. The majority of the infants had been born prematurely, and all were fighting for their lives. Their tiny, fragile bodies were housed in plastic domes, amid cords and hoses and machines, with constant beeps and ticks and whooshes. Put together, Darnell and Dani didn’t weigh even eight pounds, and they were by far the biggest babies in the room. Darnell spent most of his time crying, but you couldn’t even hear his little voice. Dani spent most of her time curled up in classic fetal position—or resting her perfectly shaped head on Danelle’s shoulder.

New brother and sister?

Danelle visited every day. She was clearly exhausted and so heartbroken. I felt awkward and very shy. For one thing, she was younger and prettier—and clearly much cooler—than we were. And her loss was our gain—it was so hard to see her grief and know that we played such a part in it, even though she was making this difficult choice for her babies’ welfare. We seemed to be on opposite sides of this whole enterprise, brought together by these amazing children but not having anything else in common. It turned out that we’d lived a few blocks from each other on the South Side for years, while she attended high school, but we had never crossed paths.

October 2011, I think?

During those first few visits, we focused on the kids. There were awkward pauses. Danelle always brought the sweetest gifts—she even brought me a necklace! She held the babies, played with them, handed them back to Ron or me for diaper changes. Dawn would clamor for attention, and Danelle would happily give it to her. She never stayed too long. The first time she came to see us in Skokie, shortly after we moved in, she looked like she’d stepped right out of a magazine. Striped maxi sun dress, big hoop earrings, perfectly curled hair. Like I said, clearly much cooler.

Happy Third Birthday!

I don’t remember when we finally broke the ice, but I remember how: we found out she likes to play games. Board games, computer games, video games, games on the phone—and roleplaying games. She’d been recently introduced to Dungeons and Dragons, and she was open to playing it again.

Those moments, when someone you like but don’t know well turns out to be into your very favorite things—that’s kind of Christmas for a grownup. So it was Christmas for Ron. And our relationship with Danelle really took off.

On the cool-to-nerdy spectrum, clearly….

Pretty soon, she wasn’t just trekking twenty miles north to see the kids. She was coming to hang out with us, too. We hosted game nights a lot, and we were so thrilled when Danelle would join us. She picks up on games faster than almost anyone I’ve ever met. She’s focused and smart and makes really good decisions—most of the games we play are cooperative, so one person being checked out or selfish can actually tank the whole game. She is never that person.

And she totally fits in with our nerd herd, because . . . she’s a nerd. She loves vampires, Harry Potter, Wakanda, anime, Korean dramas, fan fiction—I could go on, but I’m already worried that I’m in some hot water here.

Las Vegas, 2019

Because if you’re Black, it’s hard to be nerdy. The comedian Willie Hunter quips that he grew up Black and a nerd in Alabama, and of the two, being a nerd is a lot worse. I’m not sure that Danelle is “out” about being a nerd to very many people. I suspect she feels like she has to hide that part of her life from them. Which is true for most of us nerds, until we realize we’re in a safe space—or until someone, in what had seemed a light and personable conversation, unexpectedly out-nerds us. Anyway. The stakes are much higher for Danelle, when it comes to being the nerd she truly is.

That is, to my mind, a way of phrasing the ultimate anti-racist goal: for my kids—and everyone’s kids—to be who they are. And the next step: for that to be true regardless of where they go or who they meet. To be treated as an individual, not a stereotype. To be assessed fairly for their personalities, to be allowed to pursue their own genuine interests. I think, when everyone in this country can actually feel that way, we will have achieved something like liberty and justice for all.

Good in the Culture

One of the many things that Danelle and I have in common is growing up in communities where everyone looked like us. As in, everyone. As in, half of the kids at my suburban-Salt-Lake-County high school were probably sixth cousins. I’m not kidding. But I do digress.

There are some serious limitations to this kind of upbringing. Sure, your own racial identity might never be in question. But you are dependent on the adults around you and the media to fill in your questions—and every kid has questions—about why people look and talk differently from you. So, when we decided to buy a house, we chose the diverse community of downtown Skokie. And I do mean diverse. The village website says there are 90 different languages spoken, which is crazy because I’m not sure I can even name 90 languages. It is also, as a hipster lamented one night at the Skokie Theater, where cool came to die. But again, I digress.

Playing in the driveway, 2014

The community was almost ideal, at least from my perspective. I loved the elementary school, which did not have a racial majority, except among the staff (but nobody’s perfect). I made so many friends who didn’t look or talk like me, at the same time that I took the twins to a kung fu class in Roger’s Park where Dani exclaimed, “All these people look like me!” We connected with a wonderful church and with Danelle’s mom and stepdad. And we relied on a Black caregiver who, having retired from a successful career with an oil company, passed on to us her wealth of knowledge about the Civil Rights era and the correct way to use a real hot comb.

It may have been from this beloved caregiver that I learned the phrase “good in the Culture,” which (I think) describes someone who is involved in the Civil Rights movement. This is an essential thing to pass on to your children—they need to know about the struggle for rights. It was frustrating for me at first because it’s not like the Ethiopian (or Korean or Polish) culture classes that my kids’ friends went to on Saturdays. It has been up to me to find resources to extend what they have learned at school. Fortunately, we live in an era where these resources exist—Danelle will tell you how hard it was to find any Black faces in magazines or books when she was young (and that wasn’t all that long ago). Dawn’s favorite is the film Hidden Figures, about three brilliant Black women at NASA during the space race. Darnell really loves Ron’s Big Mission (by Rose Blue and Corinne Maden) about astronaut Ron McNair as a child, standing up for his rights at the public library. And Dani adores a very special picture book, The Story of Ruby Bridges (by Robert Coles and George Ford), about the girl chosen to desegregate New Orleans’ schools—and the backlash against her. As painful as it is for us white people to look at the realities of segregation and racism, it’s important. It is up to us to talk about race and to pass on the Culture.

This does not mean that all media about, created by, or starring Black people is created equal, nor do your kids need to be exposed to all of it. I feel this is true for a lot of the historical portrayals as well as anything explicit or scary. My kids are not ready for 12 Years a Slave nor Just Mercy. But Marvel’s Black Panther? Or the breathtaking Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? Cannot get enough.

It’s also important to acknowledge that stereotypes will work their way in. Recently, Darnell has been on a kick against hip-hop music, although he takes his hip-hop dance class very seriously. He doesn’t particularly like rap, and he is concerned that there’s an expectation that he should be a rapper. I can’t tell you how he picked up on this—I simply do my best to affirm that he can be who he is and like the music he likes, which happens to be pop music.

In moving to Washington state, we’ve gone to the other extreme—the opposite of how Danelle and I each grew up—where almost no one looks like the twins (there are about a half dozen African-American kids in the entire school). I often worry that my kids don’t have role models, that they are up against overt racism, and that they struggle with their racial identity. At these times, I can’t overstate how amazing it is to be able to reach out to Danelle for advice. And I am humbled by the trust she placed in us when she chose us to parent her children. How did she know that we weren’t racist, or that our extended families weren’t full of white nationalists? How did she know that we were going to keep them safe, from guns and hate speech and police brutality? How did she know where we stood on issues of equity and social justice? She didn’t, but she trusted us.

2011

We are all on a journey of self-discovery. We are growing constantly—if we are open to it. I certainly never thought I’d see Ron join a protest on Seattle’s Capitol Hill or stand with him and the kids at a peaceful rally in North Bend. (And, just to toot his horn for a minute, he’s been taking a knee during the national anthem for the past few years, following Colin Kaepernik’s example.) Not every adoptive parent is going to feel like we do, and not every Black parent is going to, either. But there was a tremendous payoff for me, at dinner the other night, when Darnell said, “Black lives matter! That means my life matters.”

Life is unpredictable.

Written by Danelle Henden. Life is unpredictable! As a birthmother, I can attest to that. Life is unfair! As a black woman, I can relate to that. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” For me and for many others, this is that time. The world has never been fair for people of color (POC). History seems to want to forget atrocities and put a band-aid on wounds too big to cover. Black parents understand the way this country is, and there is a fear for your children.

As a birthmother, you are not always sure of the environment your child is in. You may not even get to see your child often. However, that fear is not lessened — if anything, it’s increased. The guilt can be overwhelming! My adoption is an interracial one so there was an initial fear. There are non-POC who do not even realize the level of inherit racism they possess. You have this inner caution because there are people with spouses, children, and family who still have those inherited biases. The person must want to educate themselves and be open to education to get a new understanding. Luckily for me, I got two incredible people who understood and were open to advice from me.

Age 3

However, as I stated, life is not always fair. The climate on race in this country has not improved as far as we would have hoped. It’s hard to look at the news and not see the glaring truth of how people of color are treated, labeled, reported about, and villainized. It’s discouraging by itself, but when you add the fear for a child in the mix, it can become overwhelming.

Know you are not alone. Know that we are fighting for equality. Trust in your decision and pray, if you can. This country is not perfect for anyone and disproportionately so for some. However, it is home; one day, we will get it right. One day, the fear we mothers (birth or otherwise) of black children have will lessen. We will continue to fight and hope for better days for our children. Let me close with the words of Dr. King again, applied to us mothers: “The ultimate measure of a (wo)man is not where (s)he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where (s)he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 

Silent march, June 12, 2020, Seattle

Danelle’s Story, Part 1

Danelle in 2011

Written by Danelle Henden

The story for me will start at conception. It is a very long messy story up to that point so I will skip the details for now. I found myself pregnant, but I didn’t know I was pregnant for about 4 – 5 months (I was still getting my cycles — it was light and spotty, but it was there). However, feeling things moving in your stomach will make you think twice. When I went to the clinic to check, they told me I was pregnant — also, that I needed to go to a hospital because they could not give me a clear ultrasound for some reason. They said I was either too far along or was pregnant with twins. Turns out it was both!

The level of despondency I felt was crushing. I hadn’t finished college, I didn’t have a job, and I was now living with my mother again. I felt like a failure, the one thing I never wanted to be in life was a statistic. Now I was a single (wrong choice of partner), black, unemployed, non-degreed, plus sized, pregnant woman. All of those descriptors have been taught to have negative connotations in this country. I thought about my options but as someone who has battled depression since the age of 5, I knew emotionally and mentally I was not prepared to handle a baby, let alone two.

I wanted them though, I so wanted them.

Danelle and Darnell, 2011

I remember I prayed for them. When I was in 4th grade, I asked God to give me twins, a Boy and a Girl and my 9 – 10-year-old mind came up with the names Travon and Travona (LOL). So, when I found out I was pregnant with twins, I thought God gave me what I asked at the exact moment when I couldn’t give them what they needed. I felt like I was the butt of a cosmic joke, and it made me angry and even more sad, but I digress.

Since the college I was in before this happened was a Lutheran school, I was given a card to Lutheran Family Services as an option. Meeting with the agency was difficult. It was like admitting to myself that I was a failure. I cried and sobbed over the situation, alone and depressed. I finally went, though, and gave them a run down on what my requirements were. I wanted a loving two parent household, a couple that were open to open adoption, and one who believed in God.

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Scared every day.

If you had asked me, twenty years ago, to name examples of police brutality, systemic racism, or white privilege, I couldn’t have. Sure, I would have agreed that such things existed, but I thought of them as some other era’s problem, or some other nation’s. Coming off of some really ugly experiences with male privilege in Wyoming, I would have taken the conversation in that direction–although I’d seen a lot of racism there, as I worked primarily with immigrants from Mexico. I just didn’t get it.

But then I moved to the South Side of Chicago.

It’s hard to live comfortably in a place where violence permeates. Muggings, break-ins, shootings affected the people I knew, marked the community around me. Sometimes, the gangs seemed wholly in control; sometimes, the police shot men in the back. Many of our friends simply couldn’t handle it, relocating as soon as they could. But for others, including Danelle, this is reality, year after year.

Ron and I accepted that we might be affected personally, and we refused to be intimidated. We embraced the South Side, venturing into blighted neighborhoods in search of good food, a blues band, or just to see what they looked like. We began to interrogate our own racist assumptions. As I may have mentioned, we are unusual.

Even so, I didn’t realize how very scary it is to raise an African-American boy in this country. I didn’t realize how many ordinary things would just be harder for him, from the get-go. Yeah, no one likes to see a toddler let loose in the candy aisle. Guess how much worse that is when it’s a Black toddler. No one likes to see the bully show up at the playground. Guess how hard it is when everyone just assumes your son is the bully.

We thought we had it figured out. Move to a safe, diverse suburb. Make sure we have “The Talk” early and often. Make sure respectful attitudes towards authority are mandated. Point out how not to behave, as when we walked by an arrest being made when the Original Wailers headlined our street festival. Don’t allow toy guns at the park, even when everyone else has them. Don’t allow toy guns in the backyard. Don’t allow toy guns in the house. Don’t pretend you have a toy gun.

But the events of this week, beginning with the murder of George Floyd, have made it painfully clear that there is no safety for my son. I see him in the man lying on the ground, unresponsive. Until he lives in a society that does not judge him by the color of his skin–and does not teach others to fear him–I will be afraid. And thus, I will know something of the fear that Danelle has known her whole life.

But therein lies the rub–how do we get to such a society? It is even possible? The Seattle Times had an article this evening that gave me some hope. They quoted Bishop Reggie Witherspoon Sr., senior pastor at Mt. Calvary Christian Center in Seattle’s Central District: “How we are going to fix it is when white America comes to the table and says this is categorically wrong and we are not standing for it anymore.”

My fellow white Americans, can you join me at the table?

So how does this work, with two moms?

As I mentioned on the Home page, in my experience, people are generally too polite to ask anything super personal about our family. I appreciate that, because we just want to function like normal people (and, naturally, we do consider ourselves to be normal people).

But, despite the general reluctance, the question that has come up, more than once, is: So how does that work, with two moms?

On the practical level, for the kids, I am “Mom,” while Danelle is “Danelle.” This manifests is statements such as, “I hate you, Mom,” and “Danelle, you are the nicest!”

Danelle is also “birthmom,” as in (overheard when talking to friends): “Hey, did you know I have a birthmom? She looks like me, and she gives me the best presents.”

Hmm, upon reflection, it would appear that one mom gets to be “Disney mom” and the other gets accused of being mean (which I own–I’m the meanest).

So, how does it play out? Ron and I make most of the day-to-day parenting decisions, like chores and homework. We reach out to Danelle to consult about bigger decisions, and I always welcome her input on pretty much anything, from hairstyles and books to how to address situations at school. We do our best to keep the channels open.

We also encourage the kids to develop their relationship with Danelle without going through us. Right now, that is taking the form of sending video messages (we’ve been using the Marco Polo app), in which the twins let loose as their goofy nine-year-old selves. (It’s hard for me to not come in over the top on these, but that’s a good lesson in boundary-setting for all of us, right?)

Bottom line: two moms means twice the love for the kids and more support for us all — an extra ear for ideas, an extra shoulder to cry on. For me, what I value most are the insights Danelle gives us, on everything from family dynamics to growing up Black. I can’t imagine navigating this crazy journey called parenthood without her.

A final note: Because Dawn’s birthmom isn’t involved with her, or us, it’s sometimes hard for Dawn to see the closeness we have with Danelle. For her part, Danelle is very aware of how Dawn feels, and she goes out of her way to make sure Dawn is always included. She always has time for Dawn as well as gifts, even when it’s the twins’ birthday. She actively encourages their relationship, and we are so thankful!!

This all started back in 2002…

Where to begin?

Okay, we’ll start with moving to Chicago in August, 2002, right after Ron and I got married. There’s a whole crazy relationship story before that, which I’ll probably share at some other point. But he was in law school and I was finishing up my thesis to get my Master’s degree. We lived in a cramped apartment on the South Side, counted quarters to go to dollar movies, and made great friends. I got to know Ron’s grandmother, one of my very favorite people, and his aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Ron is working at a law firm in downtown Chicago, I’m teaching and studying for a Ph.D. at Loyola, and we buy a condo a few blocks from Lake Michigan. But we are looking at our twenties in the rear-view mirror and really wanting to start a family. Unfortunately, I’ve had two surgeries to fix gyne problems, and fertility issues aren’t covered by our insurance.

So we decide to pursue adoption. We start a program through Lutheran Social Services of Illinois that, sadly, is no longer operating. This is doubly sad because we had such a good experience with them. It was a long, uncertain road, full of hope and heartbreak and every other cliche, but ultimately, we were united with a beautiful baby girl, Dawn.

Time to call it good, right? Not if you’re Ron. One kid was a good start. When she was two years old, we re-opened our search, hoping that lightning would strike again, so to speak.

And it did! On my favorite day of the year, December 21st, I got a call asking if we wanted to be matched with twins that had been born prematurely. I said yes. Our counselor said to talk it over with Ron. He was in the car, on his way to Cook County Hospital, before I could even finish the question.

At first, their beautiful, heartbroken mother, Danelle, thought that she would need to say good-bye to move on with her life–at least, that’s what I’m remembering. She’s going to be sharing her story, too. But when the twins, Danielle and Darnell, were about three months old, we got together at LSSI’s South Side office for a facilitated meeting. A few months later, she came to see us at our house. As we made connections and our friendship grew, we came to realize that Danelle was part of the family.

By the time the twins turned 3 or 4, we were getting together weekly. And there is so much to share about our dynamics and, well, everything. But I have to fast-forward again, because a once-in-a-lifetime dream job opened up for Ron. The super downside was that it meant moving across the country, to the Seattle area, which we did at the end of 2017. It was the first birthday that Danelle didn’t get to spend with her children.

It is still a tough situation for us all, especially with the current global pandemic making our next visits uncertain. But we are keeping in touch electronically and making plans, even if they feel more like pipe dreams right now, to get together in the future. And we are starting this blog!

So how’s that for, oh, nearly twenty years in 8 paragraphs? I promise there will be more–there is so much more to say!