Searching

This past May, I wrote about my difficulty on Mother’s Day. Several people reached out to me and asked me if I wanted help with searching for my birthmother, and I was grateful for the genuine desire to help. So first and foremost, thank you! For anyone from the outside, the solution seems simple. If you are searching for something, go find it. But it’s not always that simple.

Although I’ve been thinking about searching for my birth family for many years, I haven’t. I attempted a search almost ten years ago. I was starting my first year of college. Away from home, the combination of curiosity and independence made me believe that it might be possible to find my family. So I asked my mother to mail me copies of all of my adoption papers. About a week later, I enthusiastically ran down to the mailroom and was handed a thick package. But when I sat down on my bed and spread everything out in front of me, the task seemed insurmountable. Doubt crept in. I had no idea where to start, who to contact, or what I wanted to find.

This was just before Myspace, and years before Facebook and Twitter. My online presence was limited to a few email addresses and MSN Messenger. I didn’t have the money to work with an agency, and I didn’t know who to contact in Haiti.  I just didn’t see how I was going to find them. I felt foolish, tucked the papers back into the manila envelope, and hid the envelope at the bottom of my desk drawer. The envelope stayed there all year, untouched, until I packed up my things to move back home for the summer.

Today there are few excuses, but I’m still hesitant for several reasons. First, I don’t know if I’ll like what I find. It’s easy to avoid reality and build up this idea of what someone is like. For now, my family can be whatever I want them to be. They can be good and kind and selfless. My birth mother is still alive, just waiting for me to “come back.” But once I begin searching, I can never go back to this fantasy in my head.

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photo credit: Ali Kay “God’s Children” Series

In addition, searching for a family member in Haiti is much different than searching for family in the United States or Canada. Haiti’s system of  recordkeeping is not reliable. It’s not a Google click away or as easy as searching for a name on Facebook. The orphanage I was adopted from no longer exists. My adoption papers stated that my birth parents cannot read or write, and today they may not have access to modern technology. But Haiti is a small country and does have a good system of word of mouth. I have been told that my best chances would be to actually go to Haiti and look for them.

In the last few months, I’ve watched three different documentaries about adoptees searching for their family members. Each story was so different, but I noticed one theme throughout: each adoptee was surrounded by family. It was not a solo search, but a team effort. Their adoptive families were there to walk with them, offer words of advice, and give emotional support. As I’ve shared before, I live in Florida, while my family still lives in Canada. As independent as I seem, a search for family would be better with my family.

So these are the excuses I’ve told myself over and over. These are the things that are holding me back. Or protecting me, depending on how you look at it. If I’m honest with myself,  I just want to meet my family members to let them know that I’m okay. I don’t know if a relationship with any of my family members is possible. There are linguistic and cultural barriers. And I am not the little girl they said goodbye to over 30 years ago.

Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Time did not stand still. Our lives have gone on without each other. But even with all these realities, the yearning remains. If and when I decide to search for my birth family, I know that it doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t change who I am. But I would like to someday meet my birthmother again and tell her I love her.

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Tell Me Your Story: Of a Modern Family

Nick King is a former business man, a successful politician (he missed out on a seat in Parliament by just 270 votes), but most importantly a proud father of  two. In his own words, Nick tells me how he and his partner adopted and changed both of their lives forever:

Our adoption journey began almost seven years ago. On a beach. On holiday. In Spain.

In 2005 the UK enacted legislation allowing same sex couples to apply to adopt children.

unnamedMy husband, J & I had been together for a number of years.  We’d talked often about our view of family.  One of the things that had drawn us together was a common view of what family was and meant to us both.

And so, lying on a beach in Spain, looking out to sea on neighbouring sun loungers, we spoke honestly and openly about our hopes to create a family of our own and agreed, when home, to investigate how we could work towards that goal.

Adoption in the UK is in essence a state sponsored activity.  Managed through our Local Government, prospective adopters need to apply to, and be approved by, a Local Adoption Services department.

The recommendation is not to apply to the Adoption Department covering the area in which you live.  The reason for this being the likelihood that the child(ren) with whom adoptive parents are matched will come from the same Adoption team.

The vast majority of British children placed for adoption are  removed from their birth families by the State.  The birth parents having been deemed either incapable or unable to care for their children.  Contact, other than an anonymous annual letter, is broken off with the birth family upon the child’s adoption.

Consequently, it’s deemed advisable they are adopted outside of the County or Borough where they have initially been taken into care.

The process of obtaining approval to be prospective adoptive parents took over eighteen months.  Months during which we met our designated Social Worker at least twice if not three times per month.  The questioning was rigorous, detailed and at times intrusive, but always we felt appropriate to the eventual outcome.

Approval came in front of a panel of independent people in the early Summer and by that autumn we had been matched with our son, then three, who had been removed from an abusive and violent family about a year beforehand.

Our son came to us scared, hurting, damaged by both his past with his birth family and his journey through the care system.

A transition week flew by, as we slowly assumed care for him from his foster parents and moved his (very few) belonging and eventually him to our home.

Nothing prepares you for that first night with a child under your roof, for whom you are entirely responsible.  We were both terrified that first night.  Although our bedroom was just next door we set up a baby monitor in order that we could hear him in case he awoke.  We expected he would wake, would be confused and would be frightened as he found himself in an unfamiliar bed and bedroom.  We wanted to make sure we were there as quickly as we could be, to limit the fear and to reassure him if that were to happen.

We tried to sleep, but couldn’t.  Listening in to his room on the baby monitor wasn’t enough for J.  He moved to sleep on the landing outside our son’s bedroom, while I lay awake listening in on the baby monitor.  We both slept fitfully, J much less comfortably than me.

Of course, our son slept for twelve hours solid, so was bright and breezy the next day, while we got through it solely due to high caffeine intake.

We were very lucky through those early months.  J is a doctor at one of our local hospitals.  Working in the National Health Service, adoption is treated in the same way as maternity.  He therefore was able to take nine months, paid leave for the adoption of each of our children (we adopted our daughter separately two years ago).

I had run my own businesses and also had a political career, both of which allowed me to be flexible around working from home and assuming the role of primary carer for the children once J’s adoption leave came to an end.

For an American audience, I realise the thought of same sex adoption must seem strange, perhaps for some even unnatural.  We test ourselves with the same questions many of you may be asking, often.

Was our decision to adopt purely for our own benefit?  Were we so arrogant as to think that we could offer our children a stable and happy new family, when the ‘family’ we offered them was one so different to the traditional concept?

Who has creating our family really benefitted? Our children? Or is it that we are just fulfilling a desire for societal ‘normality’ that our sexuality wouldn’t otherwise have offered?

Each time we come to the same conclusion.

Our son had an awful time through the first three years of his life.  His birth family were abusive and neglectful to one another and to him.  When he was taken into care he was placed in a foster placement that very quickly broke down and ultimately did more damage.

Finally, in the few months before his adoption he was placed with a foster family who provided the love and stability he needed.

There our little boy began his process of healing.  Not least by receiving love and kindness from his foster mother and thus beginning to combat the negative memories he had of both his birth mother and his previous foster mother.

Our son had been a victim, that’s beyond doubt.  But he had also learnt from those experiences.  He’d learnt how to manipulate a situation to his advantage.  He’d learnt how angry and demanding behaviour was the only way to get attention. He’d begun to learn to be like his birth parents.

So whilst he desperately needed stability, love, tenderness, compassion, he also needed to unlearn many of the behaviours he had witnessed and considered normal.  That meant boundaries and consistency.  It meant being kind yet resolute.

We were able to set those limits.  To provide both security and structure.

Knowing his past.  Knowing the pain, hurt and confusion he had faced, the instinctive reaction to our little boy was to smother him with love.  To forgive his misdemeanours.  To explain his challenging behaviours as purely the consequence of his past and to treat that only with compassion and tenderness.

Figures show that, in the UK, one in five adoption placements break down.  Anyone who adopts children faces challenges.  Ours have perhaps been no different to most and, quite possibly, much less than many.  When reflecting about the last few years we feel that both being male added something intangible but still positive to the task we faced.

Our daughter was younger when she was taken into care.  She carries less ‘baggage’ from the past.  She can though be very challenging in her own right.  The same still applies.

We won’t know for many years, perhaps ever, if we have been successful.  We do feel that both being male made this task somehow easier.  That knowledge at least has provided an antidote for our own anxieties.

In conclusion I would just say this.  As a couple and as individuals we have been blessed with extraordinary lives.  J has a very successful and well noted career in medicine.  I have built and sold a number of businesses, creating a situation where I have effectively retired with independent income in my 40s.

We’ve mixed with business leaders and celebrities.  I ran for Parliament and have had a successful career in local politics.

None of this has been as amazing and fascinating as adopting our children and building our unconventional (and rather dotty) family.

Families come in all shapes and sizes these days.  Those with two Mums or two Dads are increasingly familiar.  We have met with nothing but kindness, tolerance, support and, sometimes, admiration.  The number of children needing new, loving, strong, stable ‘Forever Families’ grows daily.

Regardless of your sexuality, gender, colour or background if you’re reading this, haven’t taken the step towards considering adoption but think you may then please do so.  The opportunity to change a life for the better is a blessing.  My experience has been it will change your life immeasurably for the better too.

Nick King lives in the UK and blogs about his modern family at www.nickkingsworld.com

Interview with Catana Tully

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Split at the Root by Catana Tully is a memoir that spans many years and several different countries. Catana was born in Guatemala in the 1940s and was adopted by a German family. Her German mother, or “Mutti” as she called her, raised Catana to speak German, Spanish, and English and introduced her to a world of privilege, including boarding school in Jamiaca and studies at Cambridge University in England.

After Catana earned a certificate from Cambridge, her plan was to work as an interpreter in Germany. But her plan suddenly changed when she was discovered  at an international craft fair.  When Catana realized how much money she could make posing behind the camera for a few hours, she quickly enrolled in modeling school. Once Catana finished modeling school, she was immediately booked for fashion shows and landed her first acting role. Catana’s detour into modeling and acting turned out to be a successful career move.

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Catana as a model

While she was living in Munich, Catana was set up on a blind date by a friend. She met Fred Tully, an American actor, and they eventually married. When Fred and Catana welcomed a son, and the couple decided to move to California. In America, Catana had to face new issues of identity. She felt accepted by neither blacks nor whites, and her life of privilege suddenly didn’t mean anything in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Living in California, Catana began to question everything she thought she knew about herself, including her marriage and her upbringing.

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Catana and Fred

Catana started to sort out her feelings through counseling and began examining the relationships she had with both of her mothers. Her counselor encouraged Catana to find and connect with her birthfather, which answered many of Catana’s questions, but also revealed painful family secrets.  In the end, Catana became aware of the tremendous pain caused by her adoption and started to understand her identity as a mother, daughter, and black woman. Read on for our interview!

You begin Split at the Root with a picture of you as a baby with Mutti, your German “mother” and end the book with a picture of you with Rosa, your birthmother. How did these two women shape your own identity as a mother?

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Catana with “Mutti” & Rosa

Very interesting question! I don’t know about shaping my identity as a mother, but I, too, was very protective and controlling. Mutti, had been super protective of me and, until she left me in Munich, controlled all my decisions. I sometimes jokingly tell my son that he probably needs a shrink, being that he had been so closely watched as a child. But he says that it was great because he always felt very secure and protected.

So I figure this over-protectiveness came as a result of having always been under supervision myself. I must have internalized Mutti’s and Rosa’s fears. Mutti feared Rosa might steal me, and I must have somehow absorbed Rosa’s anguish at having “lost” me. So, yes, both women shaped the fear aspect that translated into the way I raised my son.

I appreciated that you included your counseling sessions. You shared valuable conversations about your healing from being raised apart from your birth mother and from the damage caused by secrets that were hidden from you growing up. Your search for identity was inspiring and showed that it can a lifelong process. What was the hardest truth you had to confront in your therapy sessions?

Another good one. I still struggle with my identity but I know it, and so am able to identify the insecurity. The good thing is that my self-image is no longer bruised. One of the hardest things was having to recover lost memories of Rosa. Another was hearing from my sisters how much my mother suffered at having lost me. Also, of course, my having rejected her in such a heartless manner. I find it is an interesting thing with adoptees: I believe we are quite insensitive. Perhaps because of the injury at having been separated from our mother.

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You described playing the role of Eliza, a slave, for the German production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You wrote that you struggled with that role because you had no idea how to “portray an enslaved woman, had a vague idea of modern slavery, and had no Black heroes, role models, male or female.” Who are your black heroes and role models today?

Today, there are too many to count, but here are a few that come to mind immediately: Ivan van Sertima, was a history professor at Rutgers, whose books They Came Before Columbus, and Africa and Europe in the Middle Ages impress me tremendously. Then Cheikh Anta Diop’s work is fascinating to me. Among the young writers whose works I admire: Edwige Danticat, (Haitian American) and Chimamanda Adichie (Nigerian). Add… all the African American classic writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians… There are a lot!

I was fascinated with your scenes of moving to LA, and experiencing what it meant to be Black in America. You wrote that you “knew nothing about the African American culture, where being Black was infinitely more complex than simple being dark.” Why do you think being Black in America is so complex?

The complex aspect of race in America lies in the fact that the dominant American society wants it to be that way. Racism in the US is an institutionalized phenomenon. On the surface it might appear that things have improved since slavery. However, a huge percentage of the Black population continues to be excluded from what purports to be a democratic society. I mean the fact that huge numbers of young Black men are incarcerated for petty crimes that do not affect other ethnic groups. Once they are released, they continue to be ostracized for having been incarcerated and are not allowed to vote. This is clearly institutionalized racism. And, it’s a huge problem that’s just not addressed. The important ones in our society (the ones that could change the laws) seem to have a blind eye to this tragedy.

You discussed how Mutti colonized your mind. She taught you how to dress, speak, and act, and you internalized her European ideals. Do you think her colonization was intentional? Can colonization ever be unintentional?

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Mutti was a product of her times; and those were Victorian. Dark people were seen as inferior and powerless. (Has not changed that much, really.) She expected me to assimilate into European society thus, absorbing European culture, she figured (correctly,) would facilitate my inclusion into the dominant White society. (That is also what White parents of dark adoptees feel today.) What Mutti did not realize, is that had I been given access to my mother and her people, I would have gained respect for my race, understand what my family’s struggles were, respect their values, and be pleased that they were poor, yet noble people. That would have been fair, and would have helped me gain a balanced sense of self. Most important: I would not have had the damaging issues related to a bruised and negative self image.

Do you anticipate writing any other books?

I plan to write essays addressing issues adoptees grapple with that no one seems to appreciate… including adoptees. I [also] have a children’s book in mind. It’s about history. I’ll feel blessed if I can start researching for it by the end of this year!

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 Dr. Catana Tully is an author, a retired professor, and adoption counseling expert. She offers to help both parents and their children tackle the complexities of adoption. To find out more about Catana’s services or read more about Split at the Root, visit www.cantanatully.com