A Year of Stories

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 12.44.43 PMA year ago today, I clicked “publish” on my first blog post. As I’ve told others, I started the blog as a New Year’s goal. For the past few years, I’ve always put “publish my writing” as a goal, but I would never get around to doing anything about it. Work kept me busy. My two kids kept me even busier. I kept making excuses, but at the end of December in 2013, I just decided to go for it. I had been kicking around the idea of a blog about adoption for years, and I don’t know if there was any single thing that made me do it, but for some reason I decided I was ready.

My first post was an interview I did with my sister about her time spent with Invisible Children and the connection she felt with being adopted and giving back. After that first post, I didn’t really have a plan for my next post. Looking back, I realize how crazy that sounds. The week after I published the first story, I started reaching out to people on social media, and so many responded, eager to share their story.

Without a doubt, I am a different person today than I was a year ago when I started. I wasn’t really active in the online adoption community, and the only adoption stories I knew of were my own, my siblings, and a few other Haitian adoptees that we grew up with. My views of adoption were pretty limited, and this year I was able to meet people who broadened my view. I met adoptive moms who opened up their hearts and homes to foster children. I interviewed book authors, filmmakers, and vloggers. And I wrote about adoptees, who like me, struggled with the loss of their birth families.

These conversations helped with one of my hardest posts, the Mother’s Day post.  For years, Mother’s Day has always been difficult for me. I didn’t talk about it or share it, but I knew I had a platform to help someone else who might be hurting like I was. So I sat down and wrote a draft. And deleted it. And cried. And wrote another draft. I was shaking when I finally clicked “publish”. It was a turning point for me. For the first time, I made myself completely vulnerable and let my heart bleed. It was a weight lifted off my shoulders when it was finally published. And something in me shifted too. I started to actively seek out other adoptees online and communicate with them. And guess what? I wasn’t alone.

Over the next few months, I shared my hesitation to search for my family, but I received so much support that I decided to finally go for it.  With the help of so many people, something that I had never thought was possible came to life. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that starting this blog would lead me to my mother. As I’ve shared before, it was nothing short of a miracle, and I owe it all to the generosity of strangers.

I knew going into it that this blog would be a short term project. It has helped me focus on what I want to do next. 2014 was a big year, but I am even more excited for the year ahead. God willing, I will meet my family in Haiti. In addition, I’ll be writing for a few publications. You can keep up with all my happenings at www.mariettewilliams.com. I also started a group for Haitian Adoptees on Facebook, and we welcome all Haitian adoptees to join the growing group. I hope that it will grow into a community of adoptees who support each other and the next generation of adoptees.

I have a lot of “thank yous” for everyone who made this blog possible. My dear husband was a silent partner in all of this. He would often take the kids to the park for a few hours so I could send emails, watch documentaries, and write blog posts. Another big thank you goes to everyone who let me share their story. Each person was so gracious in my request for more information, accurate dates, and personal pictures. My understanding of adoption and of myself has deepened over this past year, and I will take each one of these stories with me for the rest of my life. I cannot end without giving thanks to God for giving me the vision and ability to write. And finally, thank you dear reader for taking this journey with me. Thank you to everyone who supported me from day one.

And if you’re here for the first time, I hope you take some time to read these special stories. There are 29 of them in total from birth moms, adoptive moms and dads, adoptees, and adoptee siblings. Hopefully each story will help you understand both the beauty and heartbreak of adoption. You know I love a good quote, so I’ll end with this:

“Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet. When we lose stories, our understanding of the world is less rich, less true…after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Tell Me Your Story: Of a Boy Who Changed Your Life

Adopting with a partner is not easy, but adopting as a single parent is even harder. As a young social worker, Tia saw a need that needed to be filled, and at just 27 years old, she became the parent of a 13 year old boy. She quickly learned how difficult it was to provide structure to a child who had never been given any. She also realized how important it was for a boy to have a father figure. But through their difficult struggles, Tia was able to share moments with her son that they will both never forget. In her own words, Tia tells her story of a boy who changed her life.

My story is not a common adoption story.  I was a social worker for the Florida Department of Children and Families for 12 years.  It was during my tenure with the Department that I was introduced to a very lively and active 5-year old boy.  This child was not on my caseload, but he was in the office on a daily basis due to being kicked out of his biological relatives’ home for behavior issues.  My son’s story is all too common of a child born into the foster care system.

My son and his biological brother bounced from one relatives’ home to the next until there were no more relatives willing or able to care for them.  Once this happened both boys were placed in foster homes.  The brothers would be separated due to the lack of available foster homes with two beds open to keep the boys placed together.  This is a sad reality of the system.  The children are first traumatized by the removal from the birth home/family, and then often despite the best efforts of caseworkers the siblings are placed in separate homes rarely, if ever, to be reunited.

Once my prospective adoptive son began going from foster home to foster home, his behavior continued to become increasingly difficult to manage.  He was scared, confused, hurt and myriad of other feelings that I will never be able to fully wrap my head around.  I was one of the only two social workers that was able to connect with him and to that end began a 6-year journey that would result in adoption.  You see I eventually worked with his case and got to know his biological mother.  I will not disclose the reasons why my son came into the system, but I will say that his entire biological family continue to battle the same issues that many of our inner city families are experiencing.

His biological mother loved her children but could not seem to overcome her circumstances in order to be a parent to her children.  I saw her struggle, and I personally made a promise to her ‘woman to woman’ that I would do my best to watch over her boys until they turned 18 or became adopted.  Did I mention that at this time I was a single woman and only 26 years old?  I really had no concept of what I was getting myself into, but I am a person of my word.  From that moment on I made sure that both boys were in good foster homes, and I would be sure to visit them on weekends to be sure that all was well.  My son’s brother was eventually placed with a foster family that committed to keep him until his 18th birthday.  My son was still not able to maintain in a stable foster home environment and was moved into a local group home facility.

At this point, I was taking him out every weekend for church and lunch.  It was one day after church that he asked me if I would adopt him.  I had never considered adoption.  So after careful prayer and discussions with my parents, I decided that it was something that I wanted to do.  I loved this young man, and I had become vested in his future.  The process was not easy because I had worked with him and his family on a professional level.  Since the time that I worked on his case I had been promoted and transferred into another division, but still careful consideration was taken before they would allow me to adopt.

As a single woman, adopting a teenage boy from foster care it was probably the most challenging thing that I have done.  The process of adopting from the foster care system is fairly painless because the need is so very great.  They prepare all prospective foster and adoptive parents in a lengthy training program, Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP), that allows you to become familiar with the ins and outs of foster care and adoption.  However, just as most people will say to that first-time pregnant mother, nothing can really prepare you for bringing home your first child.

 My son first came to my home at the age of 13 years old.  He came with his clothes in one very small, dirty suitcase with the remainder of his belongings in a black garbage bag, and his defenses were up.  No matter how much he wanted to be adopted by me, his life experience told him that no home is permanent.  This would be my struggle for the next three years.  In retrospect, I feel that having a husband to share in the parenting would have made it easier for my son and me.

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photo credit: Weldon Ryan

I am sure that my next statement will be very controversial, but I must put it out there.  I firmly believe that there are aspects in raising a male child that can only be effectually addressed by a man/father figure.  I look back on a few parenting and disciplinary issues that arose during his teenage years knowing that if a man were in the house we could have avoided some major issues.  There is a certain energy that a dad brings to the equation that offers balance in the home.  Of course I am only referring to dads who are emotionally and physically present in the home.

As a social worker, I thought that I knew all that I needed to know.  I was certified to teach the MAPP courses to prepare families for fostering and adopting, I had worked with hundreds of foster kids and their families, and I knew my son since he was 5 years old.  I thought I had everything under control.  That could not have been further from the truth.  Yes, I knew my son’s background better that any other non-familial perspective adoptive parent of a foster child.  However, all of the training and working experiences with foster children could not prepare me for the daily reality of being a parent.  The first day that I brought my son home was nerve wrecking!  My son was already a preteen when he came to live me!  I think the honeymoon period was about a week, and then it was time for me to learn how to be a mom and prove to my son that I was not going to be another adult that let him down.

It was very important for me to have established my support system prior to making the decision to adopt.  I knew that adopting a teenage boy that had been in foster care for his entire life would be challenging and that I could not tackle it on my own. Thankfully, I had the support of my parents, prior foster parents and my neighbors.  We worked as a team for my son.

Before adopting I did not realize how much my parents did behind the scenes for me as a child.  My life suddenly became more about what I could do to reach my son.  However, in my situation I felt like I was in a race with time because I only had five short years to prepare him for adulthood.  He had missed out on so much parenting from birth to 13 years of age.  Simple things that those of us who grow up with the same caregivers take for granted became critical to impart.  My son basically did not know what it was like to be apart of a functioning family where people do things for one another because it benefits that household.

My advice to anyone interested in adopting an older child is to make sure you obtain and understand the child’s background.   Take an inventory on how you were raised and how that environment has shaped you as a person.  What expectations to you have on adoption?  Talk to your close friend and relatives and ask them how they feel you would be as an adoptive parent and if they are willing to be your support network.   Set up your support system, as well as your child’s support system, because they are not always the same people.  Lastly, don’t forget to have fun!!  Teenagers can be a lot of emotional work even in the best of situations, but they can also be a lot of fun.  You don’t have the luxury of time when you adopt an older child.  The best lessons are learned through laughter.

One of the best memories that I have with my son was when I took him to my childhood home in New Jersey for Christmas.  As a foster child he had never left the state of Florida.  He really had never left the tri-county area.  Taking him to the airport for the first time was magical for this 15-yr old boy.  The trip was marked with so many firsts for him.  He had never experienced freezing temperatures, and although there was only a dusting a snow on the ground he was just hypnotized by it all. He was just so happy and thankful that entire week that we spent at my grandmother’s home.  I think the best thing about the trip was that he got to experience the love of family that I had known my entire life.

Where Are You From?

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This simple question is usually meant to start small talk or find out if you have something in common with a stranger, but for many adoptees, including myself, this question is anything but simple.

I grew up in Canada and being a part of a visible minority, it seemed as if people felt they had the right to question your family history. The summer after my first year in college, I was working at a convenience store in the small town that my family had just moved to.

“So, where ya from?” The unblunted words shot out from underneath a dirty baseball hat, as the customer dumped his wares on the counter. I slid the cigarettes and beef jerky over the scanner, praying that if I ignored the question maybe he would forget that he asked. He didn’t and tried another way. “So how many of you guys are there here?”

I didn’t take my eyes off the counter and politely said through a forced smile, “I moved here recently.” And I offered nothing more. He paused, clearly not satisfied with my answer. He then scooped up the cigarettes, shoved the beef jerky in his back pocket, and moved on with his life, the tiny shopkeeper’s bell signaling his departure.

 These instances were not frequent, but it was enough to make me feel on guard around strangers. When someone asked me that question, it didn’t feel like they were asking where I was born or where I grew up. They wanted to know who I was and where I belonged. And after while, after being asked so many times where you belong, you start to feel that you don’t.

Over the years, I’ve come up with some creative ways to answer the question because there is always a follow up question. When strangers find out I’m from Canada, they ask,“But where are you originally from?” And then their line of questioning leads to adoption, my siblings, my family, and if they are feeling really brave they will ask me if I’ve ever met my birth mother. Questions that I don’t feel like answering when I am making minimum wage selling lottery tickets and stale donuts.

At the end of that summer, I transferred down to a small college in Florida. Over the next few years, I finished my degree, met my husband, and started my teaching career. Moving to Florida has made things easier in many ways. I’m no longer a visible minority in my community, and most of the time I can enjoy a certain amount of anonymity.

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It took me awhile to get to this point, but I now know I don’t owe strangers an explanation for my accent, my complexion, or my last name. When I feel like telling “my story”, I do. I am not ashamed of who I am and where I am from, but there are days when I just want to “blend in” with everyone else. And the truth is, telling someone where I’m from is just one part of who I am. If you really want to know me, ask me where I’m going.