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.”

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Tell Me Your Story: Of Letting Go

Marlyse and her husband’s adoption story began when Marlyse faced the fact that she would not be able to carry a child due to her heart defect. When it came time to choose where they were going to adopt from, they started by looking into domestic infant adoption, but they were surprised at the astronomical fees. They then considered adopting from Haiti, and it made sense.  Marlyse is Haitian born, she still has family members who live there, and Haiti has always been close to her heart.

In Haiti, children are relinquished to orphanages although one or both parents may be living. Orphanages are often used as a type of foster home until parents can get back on their feet. But in the interim of parents trying to get stable, the children often suffer. They may be deprived of individual attention and miss the family bonds they need to flourish. Marlyse didn’t like the idea of group homes or orphanages, and she is an advocate for keeping families together when possible. But she also acknowledges there are some unhealthy family situations where children cannot thrive and adoption becomes a viable option.

So Marlyse and Monty started the process of adopting their two children in September of 2012.  Throughout the process, the couple was frustrated with several things, including the hidden costs involved with the adoption. To Marlyse, it seemed like someone was always trying to make a profit. She explained that the very people who should be protecting children were the same ones hurting them in the long run. But even with all those frustrations, the couple was determined to keep going.

As a first time mother, Marlyse was also dedicated to learning about the adoptee experience. As she waited for the adoptions to finalize, she stocked up on reading material. She read blogs, books, and articles, trying to understand the adoptee perspective. The adoption process “taught her things about a world she knew nothing about.”  Marlyse initially worried if her children would see her as their “real” mother. She was also concerned with how much contact her young children should have with their Haitian families, not wanting to confuse them.  But Marlyse is willing to do what is best for her children, no matter the inconvenience. She plans to raise her children knowing that they have two families and bring the children back to Haiti every three to four years. She also plans to speak Creole to them at home, so they don’t lose their language. They will also reap the benefits of a mother who will cook them Haitian cuisine. Marlyse is intent on having her children stay in touch with their relatives so they don’t have to do through the pain and heartache of not knowing who they are or where they come from.

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Marlyse and Monty with their two children in Haiti

Marlyse and Monty started the adoption process in 2012, and just finalized the adoptions of their now 3 year old daughter and 2 year old son in October of 2014. They spent more than four times the amount of money they had originally planned to spend. Marlyse recalls the day she walked through the airport in Port-au-Prince. It was a bittersweet moment not just because her children were now out of the orphanage, but because there was a time when she didn’t think the day would come. A long await dream finally became a reality. When the plane finally landed in Miami, Marlyse choked up, the tears a symbol of two years of struggle.

Marlyse invited me to meet her family in Miami, and I had the pleasure of meeting her and Monty, and her two beautiful children. I held her daughter, who was so quiet, taking in her brand new world. At one point, her son curled up in my arms and almost fell asleep. They reminded me so much of myself, so many years ago, beginning a new life with a new family. I later watched Marlyse lay the children on the hotel bed to take a nap. Their little bodies were exhausted, and both were asleep within minutes. The afternoon sun streamed into the  windows, carrying them into a sweet slumber. It seems like an odd thought, but as Marlyse begins her life with her children, she must learn to let them go. They may someday want to have their own relationship with their Haitian families, and the best thing for Marlyse to do as a mother is let them. Her children need the freedom to explore a relationship with both families, a safe place to discuss their feelings, and a mother who strong enough to let them go. And for that, they will one day be grateful.

 

 

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

On Mother’s Day

As this time of year approaches, I always start wrestling with my emotions about my birth mother. Growing up, my longing for a connection with her always intensified on Mother’s Day. It was a feeling that I tried to avoid the rest of the year, but on Mother’s Day, it was was inescapable.

marion-bolognesi4On Mother’s Day, my siblings and I would make cards, buy flowers, or offer up whatever art project we had made in school. I was happy to show my appreciation, but inside I felt much differently. The days leading up to Mother’s Day always filled me with an overwhelming  anxiety, and on Mother’s Day I always felt awkward and uncomfortable, despite my outward display of gratitude. I mostly hid my true feelings about my birth mother. She was the woman who thought she had given me up for a better life, and I felt there was no room for anything but gratitude.

On Mother’s Day, I was celebrating the mother I had, but I was pushing away feelings of hurt and anger for the mother I lost. To express these feelings meant admitting that I was missing something. That I wasn’t entirely satisfied when everyone around me had done their part to ensure my success. I had no idea how to verbalize my conflicting emotions. And so Mother’s Day would come, and I would grin and bear it. A week would pass, then a month, and the sharp pain became a dull ache for the rest of the year.

These are feelings that many will have on Mother’s Day, despite having loving families. I have many people in my life who love me including my adoptive parents, siblings, and extended family. I have a close group of loyal friends, and a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. And still that will never be enough to fulfill this longing.

We all have a different story, so there is a danger in saying that every adopted child feels this way, because some do not. I’m no expert, but I do think there is a certain healing effect when you can acknowledge the loss. Discuss it. Cry about it. And know that it doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful.  Some of us will find closure in this lifetime, while others will have to learn to accept the unknown. So this is for anyone suffering from the loss of a mother, any mother, on Mother’s Day. Today you are not alone.

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.