‘They bluntly asked, ‘So, where is your real Mom? She didn’t want you? Is there something wrong with you?’ Everywhere I went, I stuck out like a sore thumb.’: Transracial adoptee says ‘it’s okay to grieve the loss of your birth family’

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“My adoption journey began before I was born. My birth mother was not able to raise me and chose adoption. I was discharged from the hospital to a foster home where I spent the first four months of my life until my adoptive family came and made me a part of their family.

I am a transracial adoptee. Transracial adoption is when a child is adopted by a family of a different race. Most commonly a Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color (BIPOC) is adopted into a white family, which was my case.

Courtesy of Lydia Berkey

Growing up, from the time I could speak, I would talk about the difference in my brown skin from my parents and older brother’s white skin. My parents embraced and celebrated me as their African American child. My mom learned how to do braids and cornrows and always had me looking fresh with barrettes or beads in my hair, which I loved! I loved having color-coordinating beads and loved the sounds of them clicking as I walked.

Courtesy of Lydia Berkey

I didn’t encounter many people that looked like me growing up. I went to a predominantly white school, church, and all of the kids on my street were also white. The older I got, the more this bothered me. I felt detached from my race. Due to growing up isolated from most people from my race, I didn’t have a sense of blackness, and I felt like I was missing that part of my identity. The only place where I truly encountered other black kids was at dance. My parents intentionally enrolled me in a dance program where I would have interactions with other children who looked like me. It was great! It was the highlight of my week because I loved dancing, but also because I felt comfortable in that space.

Courtesy of Lydia Berkey

Growing up, I presented myself as very happy and goofy. For the most part, I was, but I was also dealing with an immense amount of internal turmoil. Many times, adoption is looked at as this beautiful act that adoptees need to be grateful for. The word ‘chosen’ is often used to describe the act of adopting a child. The thing about it is, to be ‘chosen,’ I first had to be rejected. I was unchosen before the part of being chosen came about, and that is nothing I need to feel grateful for. The truth is, adoption begins with loss, and adoptees are many times not given the space to grieve for our birth family. These were feelings I carried with me throughout my life. From a young age until I was about 15, every holiday and birthday, I cried myself to sleep. I thought about my birth mother and wondered if she thought about me on my birthday. I wondered if she missed me during the holidays.

Courtesy of Lydia Berkey

I sat with the feelings of grief and loss. Why me? Why was I the one she ‘gave up?’ Not to mention, kids at school knew I was adopted and would very bluntly ask about it.

‘So, where is your real Mom?’

‘So, she didn’t want you?’

‘Is there something wrong with you?’

And, although my parents were telling me how much they loved me, my deepest worries and concerns were being validated by my peers.

Being a transracial adoptee added another layer of complexity to my life. While it was all I had ever known, it always felt unnatural. Everywhere I went, I stuck out like a sore thumb. When I was out in public, I would notice people staring at my parents and I. People tried to figure out who I belonged to and sometimes were bold enough to ask. I would be in line checking out with my mom and cashiers would remind me to put down the grocery dividers, even though I was standing right there with my mom. While these things may seem minuscule to most people, it was a constant reminder others didn’t see me as belonging to my parents. I wanted someone to just know this was my mom and dad and I wasn’t the next person in line.

When I was in Elementary school, there were minimal encounters with racism I can remember. As I entered middle school and high school, however, I started to feel more uncomfortable with the things I overheard or that were directly said to me. High school came around and I was genuinely excited about it. The movies made high school seem like it was going to be the best four years of my life! That changed within the first several weeks of high school for me. During my freshman year, I participated in marching band. Band practice was before school started. We had finished marching and I was walking to my locker to get my binder for class. There were a few boys I passed on my way and one called me the ‘N’ word. At first, I thought there was no way he really just said that. I looked at him and his friends and they were laughing at me and I knew I heard him right.

It wasn’t the first time in my life I was called the ‘N’ word, but for some reason that time stuck out and really stung. My senior year, there was a kid in my first hour I knew didn’t like me. One time I said to some friends in the class he gave me racist vibes. He hadn’t said anything racist, but clearly didn’t like me. It wasn’t until we got a new seating chart that it was clear he was racist. He thought I was in his spot and he told me to get up, then told the teacher ‘that colored b*tch is in my seat.’ The teacher asked both of us to leave and go to the principal’s office, due to the disruption. I refused to go to the principal’s office but went to the bathroom and cried. I was hurt I was also asked to leave and was hurt that none of my friends in the class said anything or stood up for me.

It was a very lonely feeling and reminded me why I never shared negative racial experiences with people in my life. My friends were white, and my family was white. They wouldn’t understand or be able to have shared experiences. Since I never addressed these experiences when I started talking about them after I graduated, some people didn’t believe me. It seemed unlikely I would be bullied. I was super involved and relatively outgoing. I wasn’t getting beat up or slammed in lockers, but we forget racism, microaggressions, and intimidation are also forms of bullying. I didn’t know how to navigate these racial encounters and feared conflict, so I would try my best to brush off those experiences.

I just wanted to fit in, and I didn’t, which was made clear by the things my peers (and sometimes even friends) would say. I was categorized as an Oreo. People made it clear to me I was black, but not black enough to their standards. I struggled with these feelings of racial imposter syndrome. I wasn’t white enough, nor did I care to be, but I wasn’t black enough. Throughout my life, I became sad, but also angry. I resented the fact I had to grow up in this town and around people that didn’t like me. Most of the people around me weren’t allies but accepted me because I was an Oreo and was the exception to my race.

Courtesy of Lydia Berkey

Leaving my hometown and going away to college helped me find redemption. I went to a predominantly white college and still had negative racial encounters but was able to find a mentor and spaces where I felt uplifted and confident in my blackness. I began to realize that black people are not monolithic. I refused to let other people be the gatekeeper of any dimension of my identity, especially race. While in college, I became open to the idea of counseling.

Courtesy of Lydia Berkey

Counseling helped me realize a lot of my fears. Fears of rejection, not being loved, feelings of not being worthy, and realizing my anger was rooted in my adoption. Even after crying on holidays and birthdays, and knowing I had these fears, it was still hard for me to accept this one event that happened so early in my life was still sending waves through my life at 20 years old. It took lots of self-reflection and self-love to come to terms with that. Adoption is often looked at as ending the day a child’s adoption is finalized, but adoption is a lifelong journey.

I have accepted it is okay to grieve and continue to be sad about the loss of my birth family, but I can’t let it determine my happiness. I learned and continue to give myself the time and space to heal. The ‘why’ behind my adoption is still a big question mark for me, but I have had to come to terms with the fact I may never get those answers. My feelings regarding my adoption are real and valid, my love for my adoptive family is real and valid, and my pride in myself as a black woman is real and valid. These are things I carry with me and I have learned to love about myself because it’s what makes me, me!

Courtesy of Lydia Berkey

To adoptive parents: Set aside your pride and be willing to sit in these hard truths of adoption and race. Cultivate safe spaces for your child to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. If you are raising a transracial adoptee it is crucial for their racial well-being they have exposure and experiences to their culture. Representation matters!

To adoptees: Your trauma is valid, you are worthy of love and healing, and your story matters! The road to healing is a lifelong journey. Be kind to yourself and know you are resilient.”

Photo by Maria Silva-Goyo @mariasgphotography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lydia Berkey of Pennsylvania. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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