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Challenge: Share your adoption story

A Letter to My 2011 Adopting Self

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Hey, 2011 Jen! I remember you. In fact, I just went back and read all your writing from that year and the next, and now I want to transport backward and have a glass of wine with you, you frazzled, earnest soul. You were adopting a 5- and 8-year-old from Ethiopia that year to add to the three that came out of your body. We’ve learned a few things in the last seven years, and you’re going to want to hear about it because, I’m not trying to be mean, but you are a hot mess.

Let’s talk about international adoption first. I know, Ethiopia, am I right?? Love that place. (Side note: Your relationship with the kids’ birth country only gets stronger, and you’ll make that hellish flight back every.single.year.moving.forward. But one time your husband will book Business Class and you’ll promise to have sex with him every day for the rest of his living life.)

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In 2011, you had a myopic view of Ethiopia. You had the “orphan version” of the story: poor, dirty, sad, abandoned kids everywhere, goats in streets. Obviously some of this is true (last year, there was a goat casually strolling down the middle of the busiest highway in Addis Ababa), but this is a partial story.

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Imagine someone told you of America: an opioid crisis is ravaging the nation, around 500,000 kids are languishing in foster care, black men and women still earn 20-30 percent less on the dollar than their equal white counterparts, and 41 million Americans experience hunger and food insecurity. That country is a disaster! Someone better hurry over and adopt their abandoned kids and bring some rice! All these facts are true, people over here are suffering, but as you know, there is much more to the story than that. There is also vibrancy and health and progress and Taco and Beer Night. We have some good stuff.

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So does Ethiopia. I wish you could know this sooner, because it would help you understand your kids’ grief better. Adoption for them came with loss; they missed the smell of sizzling berbere and grilled street corn. They missed the casual physical affection Ethiopians constantly show each other. They missed their extended families and lovely language and blaring Ethiopian music by Teddy Afro (note: you will never miss Teddy Afro or the volume at which he is always, always played). Ethiopia is a cornerstone of civilization, and its people and culture are rich, layered, wonderful. A sh*thole it is not. This is your children’s heritage, and it is worthy of honor. You’ll take the kids back in a few years, and it will be the most beautiful, heartbreaking thing you’ve ever done.

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Here is my point: you are not a savior. It has been subtly and overtly suggested to you that you are, that you will be “delivering children from their prison” or some such. And to be sure, no child deserves to grow up in an orphanage or in any system. That’s an incomplete story though. You are not a rescuer making a tragic situation rosy. International adoption is gritty and complicated, and there is more sorrow ahead of it. You are no better or more committed than their first parents; you just have more advantages. This, Jen, this is the thing to go after. Poverty and lack of opportunity is an orphan-maker. (You’re going to spend the next seven years figuring this out, partnering with a women’s empowerment program in Ethiopia, and watching Ben’s mom rise up through it to own her own business and home. You’ll decide that if you expect to raise your own children in health and stability, all the other mamas in the world should get to expect the same. Love your neighbor as yourself and all that stuff you believe.)

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Let’s talk about those two kids. First off, as you already know, they are, in fact, black. Also relevant to this conversation, you are white. You were super sweet about all this in 2011, but you’ll need to yank those blinders off your eyes pretty quickly and get serious about raising black kids in a world made for whiteness. I don’t have time to teach you all you don’t know right now, but you’re going to learn. Your kids will be called names, encounter racism, have to answer for their hair and skin, and in one spectacular case, get in-school suspension for punching a kid who called him a nigger. Your kids will be a gateway into the insidious world of white supremacy, and it will be the most painful education of your life. (Note: you’ll lose a ton of followers over your stand on #BlackLivesMatter and racism in the next few years, but don’t worry about it, Cupcake. You don’t even know the half of what you’re capable of withstanding. Bless you, 2011 Jen. Might want to start carb loading.)

This story is not a simple one. It isn’t “this was all bad and now it is all good” or any of that shiny narrative Westerners love. It unearthed hard, hard things for you like racism, inequality, wealth gap, corruption, and a power differential, but knowing these things is more powerful than not knowing them, and they will set your feet on a new path, one worthy of your life and influence and passion.

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Back to the kids: I’m writing to you from 2018 where you might be shocked to find out that Ben and Remy are both straight-A students who eat more than bananas and avocados now. Their teachers love them, they earn character and achievement awards, they are up to their eyeballs in good friends, and they lotion up without being told. Wonder of wonders! They are the joy of your home. Frankly, in 2018, you can’t even remember who is adopted anymore. All you know is that all five of your children talk at once at all times; it is like they share DNA. Everyone is loud, bossy, and hilarious. Your family will become an honest-to-God miracle of healing, attachment, and love.

You will also deeply respect, support, and visit their first families, even though getting to rural Ethiopia will have you questioning any goodness left in the universe. Those sweet babies who came to you as a kindergartner and second-grader are now in sixth and eighth grade, and out of loss, grief, and fear, you’ve cobbled together a family that extends around the globe, and it will be the greatest honor of your life. Keep going, Mama. Your best days are ahead.

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