“Give your kids the best of all of their cultures.” - A good friend
10 years ago, my husband and I were young grad-school students preparing to bring home twins from Ethiopia. It was the height of adoptions in Ethiopia and after a long journey, they were coming home. Feverishly, I researched how to do hair care and how to cook Ethiopian dishes. We learned to say, “I love you,” “Sit down and stop it,” and “Do you need to use the restroom?” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. We chose to keep the girls' names as yet another way to honor their heritage, Eyerusalem, and Tsion. We desperately wanted to always honor their culture.
Everyone should go through this phase the - “Encyclopedia Phase,” it’s normal. It’s the phase where you research and research and research. I thought my kids would totally love having a mom who knew… it… all… from cornrows to conjo (Amharic for “beautiful”). To my amazement, they rejected it. Soon enough, they didn’t want me to cook, didn’t want me to speak Amharic, didn’t want me to take care of their hair anymore. It hurt, but I tried to remember that a certain level of rejecting their culture was normal.
Cue adoption #2
Our third Ethiopian princess came home around 6 years ago. She came to us from California from a disrupted adoption. Her adoptive parent in California had completely stripped her of her culture. She hadn’t eaten Ethiopian food in 2 years. Her name was changed from Hikma to Simone. She was placed in a French immersion preschool and was also told that her hair was too difficult so it must be kept short, like a boy’s haircut. There was no “Encyclopedia Phase” for Hikma.
I can’t imagine what that was like for her, losing every sense of comfort. Even to this day as a grown adult, I still sometimes crave chicken sandwiches from Burger King when I’m sick because that’s what my dad would get me whenever I stayed home sick from school as a young child. We all have comforts. If all comforts are stripped away, how then do you feel safe?
"These children aren’t always ready for love right away, but safety is a way to establish a foundation for love."
I believe one of the primary responsibilities of an adoptive parent is to provide safety. These children aren’t always ready for love right away, but safety is a way to establish a foundation for love. How can you provide safety if they don’t feel that you fully accept them- who they are? While their culture is not all they are, it is one of the first identifying markers and one of the last connections they have to their family of origin. Everything else has been taken. We can’t take that too, even if they say they don’t want it. We have to hold onto the memory of it for them. They are simply hurt and don’t know what they want. It’s our job to at least make it available to them.
...next phase, “trying-way-too-hard.”
So, there we were with 3 princesses. Quickly, we settled into the next phase, “trying-way-too-hard.” During this phase, I remember specifically getting ready to take the girls to the store one day to get more shea butter and jojoba oil. (Hair care has been a big thing for me in trying to connect with my children’s culture.) As I was waiting in the car for one of them to come out the door, I saw it. I think, somehow 2 squirrels and a bird got in a fight and landed on my daughters’ hair and somehow created the worst mess of chaos I had ever seen. It looked like they had just annihilated her beautiful curls and somehow a headscarf got involved in the process? Imagine my surprise when my daughter got in the car and said, “mom, I did my hair.” I thought to myself, “She did that... that… to herself? No. No. No.” Slowly, I turned to face my three beautiful girls and launched into an academy award-winning monologue about how we were going into the store, into the hair care aisle, and how people were going to judge me because they’d assume I had done that to her hair. When I finished my rather lengthy speech, silence filled the car. Then rolling waves of laughter overtook us. Years of trying to be a “black mom," just erupted all over the place and surprisingly made us all feel lighter. The elephant in the room was gone. I didn’t need to try so hard to be perfect or to be black. I started embracing the voices around me more and allowing room for my own voice as well.
Don’t think I did this perfectly. Insecurities still abounded when two of my girls made the decision to cut their hair incredibly short. Don’t get me wrong, they looked beautiful. But I wondered, what would be said to me about cutting their hair, all that length- gone? A good friend of mine, a strong African American woman responded to my insecurities by sharing with me, “You need to see yourself as a good thing in their life. Give them the best of all of their cultures. Yes, black hair care is a thing, hair-growth is a thing, but many beautiful black women choose short hair. Teach them what parts of their culture and what parts of your culture to claim for themselves and what to reject.”
Her voice in my life gave me the courage to come to the next phase of claiming my children’s culture, the “mom-not-again- phase” or the “talking phase”, depending on who you ask. We talk about it all. We talk about how to respond when someone is watching them in stores because mom isn’t right next to them. We talk about how they may be perceived as not white enough and not black enough. We watch clips from shows like “This is Us” and talk about how that compares to our experiences. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t bombard them with questions and conversations daily, but I do plan conversations and I do use opportunities that present themselves.
"Don’t be afraid to claim with them how they see their culture."
In the life of transracial adoption, you have to go through it all. Claim their first culture for them. Research your child’s heritage- go through the “encyclopedia phase”. Know it for them, so they can have reminders when they may forget. Claim the culture they are living in as well. Don’t be afraid of those seasons when you feel like you are in the “trying too hard phase”. They need to know they are worth it. It is hard and you do have to try to fit into their culture and to help them fit into yours. What’s beautiful is that you are just doing what every other family is doing, creating your own “BK chicken sandwich” memories. Finally, TALK - TALK - TALK. Don’t be afraid to claim with them how they see their culture. Talk about the hard things with them even if they say, “mom, not again.” There’s beauty in claiming your child’s culture, enjoy the journey!
Mavryn is an adoptive homeschooling mom of three amazing Ethiopian daughters and wife of an awesome youth pastor. B.C. (before children), her background was in family ministry and counseling. She loves drama and theater, teaching children and teens, doing 1000 piece puzzles, and cuddling with her golden retriever.