The following is a guest post by Kristan Cassady, Kristan and her partner Nichole are a queer Bay Area couple adopting from foster care. They are the subjects in the series THE F WORD., a very personal and sometimes funny look at what it means to adopt a kid in the foster care system. (Check out it out here.)
Most mornings, I wake up to J’s tiny fingers trying to pry my eyes open. “Mama,” He’ll say, “Didas, pease.”
At this point, I do my best to open my eyes on my own and make my way downstairs to the kitchen to get him the vitamins he so politely asked for. Before my foot reaches the first step though, J is always at my side, blanket in tow, asking to be carried down the stairs. He high fives the wall above the stairs as we go down and I imagine him as a teenager, hormones raging and smelling like a mix of BO and Axe. After he gets his three gummy vitamins, he pulls his blanket onto my lap and says, “Mama cuh-cuh.” This means “mama cuddles”. He climbs on my lap, wraps his arms tightly around my neck and lays against me. It’s the sweetest, most tender moment we have all day. It almost cancels out the throwing of shoes and utensils that occurs 10 minutes later.
In these early sunrise hours, I think about how strange it is to hear someone call me mama. I never thought about becoming a parent until I actually became one. For most of my life, I grew up in the South during a time no one actually thought gay marriage might one day be legal. Lesbians were gym teachers that no one wanted in the girls locker room. We didn’t get married and we were certainly never mamas. Yet here I was, on my couch in Oakland watching the sun rise with my son in my lap calling me mama. When this happens, it sometimes feels like an out of body experience. And as my mind wanders, I inevitably begin to think about my son’s birth mom: Is she somewhere safe? Is she watching the same sunrise we are? Does she know her son calls someone else mama?
We met J when he was still in the hospital and fostered him for 8 months before adopting him, when he was almost 10 months old. If you haven’t seen our docu-series, The F Word: A Foster And Adopt Story, now would be a good time to hit pause on this article and watch it. We documented our journey from the moment my wife and I decided we were going to build our family through fost-adoption all the way to our son’s 1st birthday, interviewing birth parents, adoptees and former foster youth along the way.
These early morning thoughts are rough, but in our household we don’t shy away from talking about J’s first parents. We honor them and the life they gave to J. Although my wife and I both strongly believe in open adoption, for the foreseeable future we only have a way of reaching relatives, as opposed to birth parents – specifically J’s biological grandmother. To add to this, when we had our initial disclosure meeting, we were told by the county workers that while J had at least three siblings, they were all in closed adoptions and we wouldn’t be able to meet them unless they came searching for J. This was crushing. From the beginning, we were committed to creating (or preserving) healthy family connections for any child that entered our home.
This is why when we finally got a text back from J’s biological grandmother we were equal parts nervous and excited. We spent months delicately texting back and forth, sharing pictures of J and wishing her happy holidays. Then one day she sent us a video of J’s oldest brother playing in a basketball game. This confirmed what all of our light facebook stalking had indicated – she was the connection to one, and possibly more, of J’s siblings. The next text we sent, we mentioned meeting up at a park in the near future with her and the boy in the video. That’s when the texting abruptly stopped. I felt like I was on the dating scene in my early 20’s again. You ask that special person if they want to leave a toothbrush at your place or come to your little nephew’s birthday party. After a minute goes by and there’s no response, you worry you’ve crossed the line, but you keep checking your phone, playing it cool, not wanting to call or send the embarrassing “did you get my text?” message. Then, you wake up the next day to no new messages and you know it: you’ve been ghosted. This time around, it stung a little bit more, but as the days turned into weeks I remembered a friend in our foster and adoptive community saying, “what your relationship is today with his birth family does not define what it will always be.”
As we waited to hear back, Nicole and I thought about how difficult it must be for grandma to meet her grandchild while he clenched the hands of his white adoptive parents. For someone that grew up in the Philippines, it must have felt like a cruel joke, the ultimate colonization. And it wasn’t the first time. Only this time not only were they white but they were queer, too. While I admittedly had secret fantasies of J’s grandmother teaching me to cook chicken adobo from scratch in our kitchen, I knew that, for J’s sake, the connection we wanted to create would go a lot deeper than family recipes. We were determined to play the long game, be patient, and reach out again when more time had passed.
After two months went by, our patience paid off. She texted us wanting to meet in a park with all of J’s siblings. This was it. The opportunity we had been waiting for to have a more expansive family that truly reflected our son. When we arrived at the park, we searched everywhere for his grandma and other kids that resembled J. As we continued our search, grandma called and said she was running late. She gave us descriptions and names of the other people to look for. It took some time, but once we found them we introduced ourselves, and there was an instantaneous rush of excited hands tickling J and running their fingers through his thick, curly hair. J grabbed his oldest sister A’s hand and pulled her into a field so they could run together. When grandma arrived, she casually mentioned that she hadn’t actually told anyone we were coming. Whoa. We get it though: what if we hadn’t shown up? What if we didn’t want openness as much as we thought we did?
As we introduced ourselves to everyone, we learned that all the siblings had been meeting up every few months for years. We began exchanging phone numbers and emails as pictures of all the kids were being taken. As we chatted with other parents and guardians, in the distance I could see J in the arms of his sister. They were taking selfies together, giggling and soaking each other up. It was so damn beautiful. The kids all came back to the picnic table we had settled at to eat pizza. J stood on the bench close to his grandma. As he put his tiny hand on her shoulder she asked for a kiss and this sweet child leaned right in and planted one on her cheek.
She lit up. “You’re a sweet boy. And you’re very handsome.”
J looked back at her. “Eeeeeee!”. He contorted his face and screeched at the top of his lungs. Everyone at the table laughed.
I know this probably seems like an ending to a modern day “Brady Bunch” episode. And I’m sure I’m leaving out a few awkward moments where J threw a can or three of bubbly water at his brothers, not to mention our own fumbles as we were asked to share J’s birth history with people we just met. Memory is fickle.
J fell asleep as soon as we started the car and were making our way back to Oakland. Nicole and I eagerly shared all the different conversations we had at the park. We were so excited to cultivate these relationships, but we realized we didn’t want to wait a few more months for the next visit. We wanted to normalize these meet-ups with everyone as soon as we could, for J’s sake. After all, we all lived so close. Couldn’t we invite a family for dinner one night? Meet up with another family on a weekend? So we started reaching out, making plans separately with everyone involved.
As summer approaches, spending time with J’s siblings has become one of our top priorities. Two weeks ago, we took A out for dim sum. She and J picked up right where they left off in the park: snapchat filters, dancing to Baby Shark and playing with each other’s hair. Last weekend, his brother and his family were over for dinner. J grabbed his brother’s hand as soon as he entered and pulled him into the back yard to play basketball. This upcoming weekend, we’ll attend his oldest brother’s graduation party.
We know that adoption is complicated. Transracial adoption from foster care is complicated. It’s messy, it’s layered, and it’s also rich and beautiful and transformative. We have ideas about how we want to raise J, but we know we’ll slip up, or get caught in our own routine. Or we’ll just get tired and forget to stay vigilant in all the ways he’ll need us to stay vigilant as he grows and begins to experience racism. But right now, having his siblings be a constant part of his life fills us all up. Both Nicole and I are fortunate enough to come from wonderful families. Families who love us and cherish the time they spend with us and with J. With that being said, we recognize that our privilege of being white is not his. Before Nicole and I started the process to create our family, we were committed to speaking out against white supremacy and racial injustice of any kind, but this takes on new urgency when you’re raising a child of color. We also see how the grief, and often the trauma, that children suffer when they are separated from their birth family is often invisible and goes unacknowledged. I’m grateful that as J grows up, he will be hard pressed to remember a time that his birth family was not a part of his life. My hope is that this connection will help him to hold love and loss at the same time. I recognize the value his birth family will have in his life is great, and it is for me too, because without them there would be no J. This will forever inform my thinking about what family means and what family can mean. In the end, the more people there are in this world loving our son, the more this becomes the kind of world I want to live in.