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Cheryl and ZOe

The New Global Family, Ours and Yours

By Cheryl Paley

This month’s issue is dedicated to the “special needs” child.  I knew when I adopted that, on my own I would most likely not be able to give a special needs child what they might need to thrive.  It is a mission for the angels and I tip my hat to those who devote themselves to it.  We should have televised awards ceremonies in evening gowns for them.  But as I contemplate my own experiences as a mother to a trans-racially adopted child, I have found that dealing with stigma is a very different variety of “special need.”   As a parent I have had to come to terms with my own prejudices and work through an outdated notion that I am not my daughter’s “real” mother and that being adopted is somehow second class.

This is a piece I wrote for the book about adoption stigma.  I hope you enjoy, think, ruminate and, above all, hug your kid.

She’s Not Really Yours, Is She?  The language of adoption

I never watched Falcon Crest, but I became Donna Mills' biggest fan. Sitting in my living room a few years back, channel surfing while my daughter took an afternoon nap, I happened upon The Larry King Show.  He was interviewing a group of adoptive celebrity moms:  Valerie Harper, Nell Carter and Donna Mills.  For obvious reasons, I sat spellbound.  "Well, good for you, Larry," I thought – “finally, a show with adoptive mothers.”

            Nell Carter had 4 or 5 children, some adopted through the foster care system.  Harper’s child was a domestic adoption - a white daughter.  Donna Mills' daughter was bi-racial.  It was all warm and fuzzy, and then Larry did it - he used the phrase adoptive families come to expect, to brace against.  "So ladies... how do you feel about their real mothers?  I mean, are you ever afraid they won't love you as much?”  Everybody sat there, stuck in slow motion, not wishing to offend, not knowing quite what to do.  And then Donna Mills said something like "Excuse me, Larry, but with all due respect, we are their real mothers.  Who else is changing their diapers and bathing them and worrying and up all night when they're sick?  We are their real mothers, Larry."  I think I leaped to my feet.  Bravo!  Bravo!  You go girl!  Hallelujah!

            The language of adoption needs an overhaul - desperately.  Because when that is the standard discourse, children learn those messages.  And then they go to school with other children, like my daughter and say things like, "Oh, you are adopted?  Why didn't your real mother want you?" or “Why don’t you want to know your real parents?” I have probably heard that story 10 times in 10 different varieties over the past 5 years from other adoptive parents.

But I have also experienced little miracles that have shown me we can change this.  Coming out of a cast party for a show I directed last spring, the 7 year old daughter of one of my actresses overheard me talking about Zoe being born in Guatemala.  As we left the party she stopped us.  "Zoe, you're... adopted?" she said, devastated.  Temporarily derailed by this outpouring of grief and emotion, I panicked.  But my daughter didn't.  She turned to me, smiling and said, "Yeah, I'm a Mayan Indian, right mom?  I was born in Guadamahwah.  Isn't that cool!"  There was a time warp as the little girl pondered this.  But Zoe was unfazed and so the girl, sensing that being adopted was suddenly, indescribably awesome said, "Wow, that is cool."  And we walked away.  Her chubby little fingers clutched my hand and there was nothing “second class” about it.  In fact, I think it was pretty classy, and very, very “cool.”

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