In Season 2 of the I Am Multicultural Podcast & Stories, Julianna shares her heartfelt and candid story of why she and her husband decided to adopt and what it means to be a transracial mother with a beautiful daughter of a different race.
- How and why she and her husband decided to become adoptive parents
- The importance of educating yourself before adopting transracially
- What emotions Julianna had as she and her husband worked through the process of transracial adoption
- Julianna’s first thought when she held her daughter Lorelei for the first time
- The most beautiful and most challenging thing about being a transracial mom
- How people react when they see Julianna and her family
- Advice for people who want to go through transracial adoption & other multiracial families
How and why did you decide to adopt transracially?
My husband and I, when deciding to adopt, did not necessarily decide to adopt transracially so much as we decided that we were open to adopting a child of any race. The unfortunate reality is that children who are non-white are harder to place- in private adoption and in foster care. We felt we were equipped to take on the challenge of possibly parenting a child of a different race. Above all, we knew that we were committed to the lifelong process of education and advocacy required for the needs of a child of color. In the end, we were chosen by a birthmother who was African-American, who felt that we could provide her child with opportunities beyond what she was capable of at the time. This is a responsibility we do not take lightly.
How did you educate yourself before adopting transracially?
We both participated in online classes through a wonderful organization called Adoption Learning Partners. Sadly, our homestudy agency and our agency through which we adopted have no formal requirements for prospective adoptive parents who are considering adopting transracially. I think this is a major issue in domestic adoption currently. In addition to classes we both read a variety of books, articles, and did a lot of late night Googling- well, I did at least! While my husband also loves learning I am definitely the“researchnerd” of the family. When we were choosing agencies, I may have created a color coded excel spreadsheet. It’s just how I roll! After our daughter joined our family I became active as well in many Facebook groups for adoptive parents and specifically transracial adoptive parents. Those groups have been crucial in helping face the reality of parenting a black child in America. Those realities are often unpleasant and often include things that never would have occurred to a white person in terms of how your child will interface with the world around them. We both still work hard to uncover and deal with implicit biases, many of which we did not realize we had before our daughter became a part of our life.
- What emotions have you gone through as you worked through the process of transracial adoption?
Above all else, I have had to come to understand that there is a part of my daughter’s life, a huge part, that I will never be able to relate to. Both her blackness and her status as an adoptee are not things that are part of my own personal experience. I can try to gain empathy and understanding by listening to the voices of people of color and adoptees, but that will never be part of my lived experience. For some people, this makes them feel a disconnect with their child. Some parents want to see their kids as“mini-mes”,an extension of themselves. When approaching parenting, I was never that hung up on the idea of creating a child who had my features or my genetics. Frankly, while I love my family, our genetics are wholly unremarkable! So, I think it was easier for me than it might be for some others to not only be open to adoption, but open to transracial adoption. I also was never that attached to the idea of being pregnant, for example. It always seemed more like an alien invasion or science experiment to me and I genuinely had zero regrets about not experiencing a full-term pregnancy or giving birth. This doesn’t make me better or worse than any other parent but is just my personal reality. While I am her parent, I accept and embrace the fact that she is wholly her own person and while there are things we have in common, there will also be many differences between us. Those differences don’t mean I love her any less or that our relationship will be any less close than any other mother and daughter.
What was your first thought when you held Lorelei for the first time?Our adoption story was unique in that the process happened VERY quickly for us. We began the process in late January 2016. Our paperwork was all cleared and we were“waitingparents” by the end of April 2016. 13 days into our wait we got“thecall”- we were matched, the baby had already been born, and could we get from NC to FL in the next 24 hours? So truthfully, the first week of being her mother was a blur. It seemed very surreal. I like to give my friends the comparison of, imagine you got a positive pregnancy test and then only had a 13 day gestation period. It was a wild ride! Our daughter was very tiny at birth and I mostly remember thinking “how is it possible a person is this small” and “I can’t believe this is real!” It was also overwhelming knowing that just a few doors down in the same hospital, her birth mother was experiencing unimaginable grief. The best day of my life was possibly the worst day of hers. That is an emotion I am still unable to fully describe but that I know many other adoptive parents understand.
- What’s the best thing about being a transracial mom?
I love that my daughter has a unique cultural heritage that is different than mine and I look forward to celebrating it with her. She’s two and a half, so while she understands that her skin is brown and mine is white, that’s really the extent of her understanding thus far. I love that physically she is so different from me and I hope to be able to teach her to love those differences. Her hair is gorgeous, tigh 4c curls and her skin is an amazing mahogany color. Everyone thinks their kids are beautiful but as an adoptive parent I can say, “LOOK HOW CUTE MY KID IS!” without it coming across as a self-compliment on my own looks! I am remarkably unathletic, like, painfully so, and so far even though she is still very little it is evident she possesses more athletic prowess in one pinky than I have in my entire body. She’s very into gymnastics right now and LOVES flipping around on the high bar at her gymnastics class which is something I would never have wanted or even been able to do!
- What are the challenges of being a transracial mom and how you overcome them?
The main challenge thus far has been dealing with the ignorance, intentional or otherwise, of others. Though the area we live in is relatively diverse, there aren’t many transracial adoptive families. So, when we go out in public, we get asked awkward questions a lot. Generally these people mean well, they just have no real knowledge of how adoption works. My favorite question is when people ask me where she is“from”.There’s a good 5 seconds of cognitive dissonance when I tell them“Orlando,Florida” because it’s evident they were assuming she had been born somewhere in Africa and adopted internationally. Also awkward is when people, usually older people, say something along the lines of“blessyu for giving this child a good home”. If there’s one thing I could say to the general public, its to pump the brakes when they feel the urge to praise someone for choosing to adopt. I am not a white savior and she should not be forced to feel grateful for being adopted. I chose to adopt because I wanted to be a parent and all the other ways we tried to accomplish that didn’t pan out. She had no choice in this. As she grows older I know I will deal with new challenges, particularly once she starts school. I was a teacher and currently am pursuing a MS in School Counseling, so I am painfully aware of how our schools treat black children in comparison to their white counterparts. I am hopeful that I will be able to use my position of privilege, as an educator and as a white person, to advocate not just for her in our schools but for children of color in general.
- How do you and Ian bond with Lorelei?
We try to just spend as much time together as a family as possible. I think parents these days have a lot of pressure to create magical experiences for their kids at all times. The pressure of social media definitely contributes to this. I know many adoptive parents who feel extra pressure. If someone hands you their child and says“Iknow you can give her a life I cannot”, it can feel very urgent that you Do All The Things All The Time. I realized very early on I had to opt out of the Pinterest Mom mindset for my own sanity! We spend a lot of time at home, in our yard, with my family who lives nearby, and in our community doing simple things like going to the park. We’ve bonded through simple things: she and my husband love to go get bagels together on a weekend morning. Lately she’s become very interested in watching me do my makeup and in doing her own makeup- which is as hilarious as it sounds. We are lucky that our work schedules mean we can spend all weekend together, and that my husband can be home every day by 4:30.
- What is your advice for others going through transracial adoption?
My first advice would be to take a look around where they live. Would your child be the only person of their race in your town? In their school? In your neighborhood? If so, those might not be optimal conditions for parenting a child of color. Also: how willing are you to put your child’s needs above your wants/needs or the needs/wants of your family and friends? For example, we live in a different part of town and my daughter will attend a different school than my friends and their kids. This is wholly intentional, to ensure she is in a diverse and environment as possible. We even sent her to a different preschool for this reason. You have to be willing to tell people this is my choice, this is what’s best for my child and not feel pressure from others who think it’s“nota big deal”. You also need to take a look at your family and friends. How diverse is your friend group? Do you have any friends or relatives who might have overt or“covert”racist tendencies? Many white people have at least one extended family member who could use some enlightenment in that regard. If Uncle Jimmy still uses the word“colored”,you have to figure out if he can adapt or if he’s getting cut from the Christmas party invite list. I’ve been astounded by some of the stories I’ve heard and personally dealt with about friends or family of transracial adoptive families who say profoundly backwards things. We have been very lucky in that our family and friends have not been that foolish, and that on the rare occasion someone has, other friends and family step in to say“yeah,that doesn’t fly here”. Most of the issues we’ve dealt with have been people who think that“colorblindness”is somehow more appropriate. My daughter and I are not the same just because I love her. White people and black people have very different experiences in this country and have very different cultural legacies. She is 100% a black woman, regardless of the fact that I am not.
When people see my family, they think we look…
That’s a good question and frankly one I hadn’t considered in awhile. When she was an infant I would say a silent prayer before we entered the grocery store or Target that today wouldn’t be the day some clueless stranger would want to play 20 questions with me about her life, but I’ve gotten over that and we just move about the world like any other family. Honestly these days I get more questions about her being an only child, which apparently some people still think is a sin, than her adoption story. The town we live in, while I wouldn’t characterize it as super-progressive, I would say it is probably populated with people who are in general, fairly well-educated. Anyone with working eyeballs and a lick of sense when they see us can answer the question of her origins themselves. And most of them realize it’s impolite to ask strangers super personal questions. So I think most people just see us like any other family of a toddler who is trying to go about their day with their fingers crossed that they won’t have to drag their kid off the playground kicking and screaming because she wouldn’t let other kids use the slide.
- What do you wish people knew about you and your family?
I guess I wish they realized that 99% of parenting an adopted child or a transracially adopted child isn’t any different than parenting a bio child. Any way you slice it we have to deal with the same challenges most parents of 2.5 year olds deal with: potty training, wanting to subsist solely on mac and cheese, and her two new favorite phrases“don’ttell me what to do” and“I’min charge”. I have many friends with kids about the same age and we are all dealing with the same special brand of torture that is parenting a very independent, very smart and very active tiny person. I’m over here washing 99 pairs of Peppa Pig underwear every week just like they are. The fact that I didn’t give birth to my child does not affect that!
- How has race or culture played a part in your relationship with Ian and Lorelei?
My husband and I come from somewhat different cultural backgrounds to begin with. His family is Ashkenazi Jewish, mine is a mix of Italian and Irish and a few other European things and while not particularly religious, is observant of Christian holidays. So, even before our daughter was born, he and I had to weigh which of our family’s traditions we wanted to continue and which we didn’t. While my husband was raised attending synagogue, he is non-observant today, for example, so we don’t do some of the things he grew up doing. Likewise some of my family’s traditions I won’t be observing. My sister does Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf with her kids, for example, and at the moment I am abstaining from both of those things. I might be persuaded to indulge in Santa Claus, but I would rather pull out my eyelashes than half to move a plastic elf around my house all December! We’re creating our own traditions that are a blend of our cultures and our daughter’s. We want to give her leeway to explore or participate in as much or as little of whatever traditions appeal to her, including religion. I will happily take her to a synagogue or a black Baptist church. Whatever interests her culturally or religiously, whether its part of our traditions, her birth family’s culture, or totally unrelated, I am happy to support her and welcome the opportunity to learn more about things that weren’t part of my culture.
- What have you and Ian done to understand each other’s culture and heritage?
My husband and I started dating when we were both 19 and are coming up on 15 years of marriage, so we have spent a LOT of time with each other’s families, immediate and extended. We both have families where there is a lot of conversation, a lot of noise, and a lot of big personalities, so regardless of our cultural traditions we’ve found common ground in that. With some things, we’ve had to come to the understanding that while we may not understand WHY the other person’s family does something that some things just are the way they are.
- What’s the most difficult thing that you’ve both been through as a family?
Before my daughter arrived, I would say as a couple infertility was definitely the hardest. As a family of three, I think we’ve been very blessed to have things thus far go relatively smoothly. One season which was definitely not fun was when we moved from NC to FL when our daughter was 4 months old. Packing and moving from one state to another is always stressful. Doing it with a 4 month old(and4 geriatric pets) is a special kind of Not Fun. As if that wasn’t enough stress, the day after we moved to FL we had to evacuate for hurricane Matthew. Like, literally the day after all our stuff arrived. Again, with a baby and 4 pets. Nothing quite like moving all your belongings into a house that may or may not still be standing when you return, whenever that might be, and cramming all the living creatures into your house into a hotel room watching the Weather Channel obsessively for several days. My daughter also decided all of this would be a good time to go through the 4 month sleep regression. I can laugh now about how insane it was but I am sure that at some point my level of stress was so high I basically left my own body.
- How do you express love in your family?
We do a lot of verbal expressions of love and physical affection which depending on her toddler mood our kiddo returns with varying levels of reciprocation. With our extended family, despite our busy schedules and the fact that many members of the family don’t live near us, carving out regular time to spend together is something we have made a priority.
- What advice do you have for other multiracial families?
My advice would be, honestly, don’t listen to anyone else’s advice! Other multiracial families may have some insights, and adoptees also have a valuable voice, but every family’s experience is going to be truly unique. There are so many“parentingexperts” out there including some in the adoption community specifically. While reading and doing research and being thoughtful is important when making decisions, you know your child and your family better than any“expert”could. All we can do as parents is what we feel is right for our family. Sometimes in hindsight we might question a decision, but that’s the nature of life in general. If you are cognizant of your child’s unique needs, whatever they may be, and whether they may be cultural considerations or otherwise, and strive to focus on making the best choices for each of your children and your family, you are doing your job. As a teacher, I learned that not all parents stop to consider if they are good parents. If you are wondering if you are a good parent, chances are, that means you are doing the best you can.
Get to Know Julianna Mendelsohn