Birthdays and Adoptees: Finding Power in Both

My sons were adopted as babies; my twin daughters at six years old. When they were little, we had the mad abundance of birthday parties, at the pool, the soccer field, the grandparents’ front yard. The parties were full of presents, friends, family, ice cream, and cake.

Who was missing at these birthday celebrations? The women who gave birth to the children. The people (fathers, siblings, grandparents) who are biologically related to them.

I can’t help but wonder what those birth days were like for those family members.

Birthday parties evolve over time. Some adoptees have a rough time on their birthdays. In our family, we have all grown in our understanding of how a child’s beginnings can affect the child, and how powerful memories can be. We have seen how longing for what is not conscious can be quite deep. We have lived watching the ways that trust can be broken and losses felt, and how hard it is to heal that broken trust. My children’s birthdays are still celebrated, of course: they can count on receiving socks every year. And other stuff too. But they are in their late 20’s now. Still very young, but hardly children–except in the sense that they are always my children.

They are also the children–always–of their first families. Each child has had a different approach to connecting with their family of birth, and those stories are theirs alone to tell.

Today is the 27th birthday of my twin daughters, Adanech and Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia in 1994. Aselefech has been actively involved with the adoptee community. She wrote a wonderful post today at Lost Daughters, a writing collective of women adopted in the US or internationally as children. In it, she celebrates her connections with other Ethiopian adoptees whose hearts are in the country of their birth, their mother land, their home country. These young people, part of the diaspora, are actively working to help their younger selves in Ethiopia: children who witness their mothers die, children who are deeply loved but whose families are horrifically impoverished, children who beg on the streets, children who are unable to walk or to see, children who never go to school.

Happy Birth Day. May all children know safety, love, education, and hope. May these adoptees bring light and healing to each other and to the children. May all the voices be heard.

My daughters, my granddaughter, and me. © Maureen McCauley Evans

The Conflict of Love and Ethiopian Adoption: “Girl, Adopted”

Update: On January 21, Girl, Adopted will be available on PBS World Channel at 6pm est time. Click here for information.

Girl, Adopted is a new documentary about Weynsht, adopted from Ethiopia to Arkansas, USA. You can learn more about it on the Facebook page here, and on the website (where you can download it) here.

From the trailer

From the trailer

It is powerful, accurate, and potentially very triggering for adoptees.

Love, loss, confusion, resiliency, hope, struggle, ambivalence, and grief are all rolled together. Weynsht was adopted from Leyla House, AAI of Washington state’s orphanage (coincidentally the same agency as Hana Alemu Williams), and adopted to rural Arkansas when she was about 13, in 2006.

The film shows her in Leyla House, lively, dancing with friends to American music, happy yet hoping to be adopted. Her adoptive mother talks about having seen news when she was 10 years old about famine in Ethiopia and wanting to help, having “a dream of a little foreign baby.” The adoptive dad talks about being motivated by religious faith to adopt. They see a video of Weynsht at the orphanage, feel a connection to her, and travel to meet her there, spending some time at Leyla House and in Addis. The sound of children crying when Weynsht leaves is powerful.

Weynsht’s life in Arkansas shows her struggles being (what looks like) the only person of color in her school and community, of being habesha on the inside but American on the outside. There are fights, disappointments, confusion, and misunderstandings all around. At one point, she says she hates her hair, and goes through a lot of changes with hair and makeup. She begins to love her adoptive family, but struggles with being different, saying something like, My mom says it’s no big deal, but to me it is a big deal. It makes me sad.

She talks a lot about returning to Ethiopia, and after a few years in the US, she does so, with her adoptive dad and a couple of her adoptive sisters. This journey too is hard: she has lost most of her ability to speak Amharic, and Ethiopians are puzzled about how she could forget. The many children begging along the streets: how to help them? The children at Leyla House ask if she’s more American or Ethiopian now. They ask about her hair, her jewelry. She has no easy answers for who she is.

She visits with the woman who cared for her before the orphanage, trying to understand the truth of her past.  Her adoptive family had been told that Weynsht had no family, but she had memories of an older brother, and indeed she learns more about him, a young man named Mesfin. They meet, and it’s confusing and uncomfortable and good at the same time. She learns about her birth father. Her Ethiopian caregiver tells her, in Amharic, “So now everything has worked out perfectly for you, right?” Weynsht’s face and words give way to her inner conflict and ambivalent losses.

When she is about to leave, she says she doesn’t want to, and an Ethiopian family friend takes her aside, saying that if she could send her children away like Weynsht, she would. You’re luckier than anyone, she tells the teen. If I had the chance, I’d just say Go!

Back in the US, Weynsht begins to deal with all the emotions again: I thought everything would be nice. But it was hard. Everything happened so quick. I don’t know my brother. I hope the best for him. I feel guilty my (adoptive) family sends money to Mesfin. I feel guilty they paid a lot of money to get me here.

How can my heart be broken? I have lots of people who love me, my mom and dad, my brother. My heart’s still not perfect. I don’t think I can find the pieces to put it together. God, Mom and Dad, my brother, they can’t do that. It can’t ever happen.

The film closes with a speech contest in which Weynsht talks about being adopted, how hard it can be, how children in Ethiopia pray to be adopted thinking that America will be heaven but it’s not. She doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her, and she loves her American family. Her high school graduation shows beaming, tearful parents and proud siblings.

Her dad reflects on the fact he used to think that everyone should adopt, but that was an idealistic view, and things get hard when the details are filled in. It’s clear he deeply loves all his children, including Weynsht, and that he grieves and struggles for her losses at the same time. “It’s worth it,” he says, “even if it’s hard.”

Weynsht is now finishing cosmetology school, the film says, and plans to remain in Arkansas near her family there.

The film trailer info says this: “Weynsht’s story offers a real-time, child’s-eye view of being adopted across race and culture. Without taking a pro- or anti-adoption position, it acknowledges the complexity involved in this increasingly common experience. The film revolves around the central question: what is it like to get everything you need but to lose everything you know?”

That is indeed one of many questions, and the answers can take a lifetime.