Short 'n Sweet Intro: Jana Wolff is an adoptive mama and a writer, who put the two together and composed one of my favorite adoption books: Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother. Read more about Jana, by Jana, here. Also, visit Jana's Q and A section on her website.
Rachel: An online friend suggested your book to me, and I found your book to be humorous, honest, and heartfelt. You say what every adoptive mom thinks---but we are too scared and embarrassed to voice those thoughts. Why did you decide to write the book? What has the overall reaction been from readers?
Jana: I wrote the book I wanted to read but couldn’t find. Throughout the adoption process, I had burning questions I felt too ashamed to ask: What if I don’t like the kid I get? Will my child ever really feel like mine? What if the birth mother wants her child back? Even thinking about these sorts of issues made me wonder if I had what it took to be a good mom; I wasn’t like those blissful, eternally grateful adoptive mothers I had heard and read about.
When our son came along, I sill had a mixture of feelings I had never heard anybody else describe. This time, my unvoiced questions boiled down to: What have I done? I don’t even know how to be a mom and now I have to teach this kid about his race and he doesn’t sleep very much and people are staring and I think he prefers his birth mother and he’s really dark. (Wince.)
I’ve been rewarded for my candor in writing Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother by hearing from thousands of people around the world, whose secret thoughts are now less so. The overall reaction has been gratitude—“Thank you for saying what I didn’t dare say”—but I’ve also heard from people who think I am the devil. Here’s a sample: “You are an ungrateful bitch and completely unfit to be a parent. That poor child.” (Ouch.) I always answer my mail—even the venomous kind—because someone has taken the time to write. I may be irreverent, but I’m not rude.
How have you evolved as an adoptive mother since your son was born?
I started owning the role of Mommy little by little: my son taught me what his different cries meant; I became the one who knew him better than anyone else; and I gladly morphed into his love slave.
I stopped feeling like I had to tell our whole story to anyone who asked. I reminded myself that my son’s birthmother chose us to be his parents; even if I wasn’t always confident, she had been. I dropped the mantle of ADOPTIVE mom to feel just like MOM … though with a transracial adoption, reminders of adoption are never far away.
Adopting a child of another race fundamentally changed the way I saw the world. It awakened me to racism, forced me to figure out where I stood, required me to reach for help, and empowered me to speak out. In the process, I become bolder and more humble at the same time.
The humble part came when I began to realize that, no matter how much I knew about adoption, no matter how well I/we parented my son, there is so much that is out of my reach. I honestly can’t sort out how much of a role adoption has played in my son’s personality or choices (or mine, for that matter). So while adoption still lurks as an explanation for everything or nothing, the influence of genetics becomes clearer as time goes on. Parents of younger kids don’t like to hear this. They like to think that their wonderful parenting and intense love will trump everything else.
I think it’s hard to be a parent.
I think it’s even harder to be an adoptive parent.
I think it’s hard to be adopted.
I think it’s even harder to be adopted transracially.
Harder doesn’t mean bad; it means more complicated. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t imagine loving my son more if I had given birth to him. But if I had given birth to him, he might not be the person I love so much. Does that make sense to anybody else?
What has your son taught you recently?
My son has taught me that my influence goes only so far. It’s humbling to have put so much of myself into him and finally understand that he gets to take it from here.
How do you handle questions about your son's adoption and/or race now that he is older and is listening to your reaction?
I tell the truth, just like I’ve always done.
Two decades into the experience, my family doesn’t think much about adoption these days. What once felt like a new outfit now feels like a second skin. We are a non-issue to relatives and friends--a luxury that came with time.
We spent years talking about adoption--"Not that again," my son used to grumble--and years trying to boost the racial identity of a black child with white parents. We sought enrichment in all the recommended ways: culture camps, a multiracial neighborhood, books, role models, friends of color, frank conversations, travel, and a family holiday we called Kwanzukkah.
It’s hard to say whether any of these had a lasting impact on our adolescent son, though we certainly have some great family memories. We hope that the values took hold at some level; they certainly did for my husband and me. Transracial adoption changes the world of our children and the world-view of their parents. When racism becomes personal, as it has for us, introverted personalities become outspoken, as we stand up against inappropriate comments. Thousands of tiny corrections hopefully have a cumulative impact on breaking down stereotypes and increasing the acceptance of unmatched families like ours.
But our son’s life is not about promoting global tolerance. Being black is much more an issue for him than being transracially adopted is, especially as he spends less time with his white parents. The sight of a six-foot-tall black youth evokes a racist reflex sometimes--in a store clerk who follows him around or a suspicious security guard at his own high school. When he seems detached about the country’s first black president, when he himself embodies ethnic stereotypes about dress and language and definitions of success, our son is choosing a world that is more limited than the one we had hoped he’d internalize.
But he is still young, and he has a lifetime of chances to embrace his potential. So for now, where he is going is more important than where he came from.
How old is your son now, and what adoption-related issues or questions is he facing?
My son is 19 going on 16 (not a typo). After growing up in Hawaii, he is a snowboard fanatic. (Go figga.)
Now that the relationship with his birth mother is in my son’s hands and not mine, he is much less gung ho to pursue it. Truth is, he’s not too jazzed about relationships with any adults these days; I think that has less to do with adoption than it does with the friend-centric existence he’s living.
Having said that, you never forget about adoption—and when things go wrong you tend to look to adoption for reasons. But once the family cement has completely hardened, you don’t give it the energy you once did.
Adoption is never far away, though. It comes up when adoptees date; when they start thinking about starting their own families; and when new people are introduced to the family.
What are you up to (professionally) now? Can readers expect another book from you?
I’ve lived in Hawaii since 1989, where I work as a professional writer and ghostwriter, having authored five published books (not about adoption) and over 100 feature articles. I’m also a senior mediator at Mediation Center of the Pacific.
I am working on another book; though I’ve taken a long break from writing and keynote speaking about adoption, because I didn’t want to infringe on Ari’s privacy. If you’re really into reading more, check out my website: http://www.janawolff.com/.
Thanks, Rachel and friends, for the chance to think about some of the topics your thoughtful questions posed.