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Adoption is Hard (or Why I was Watching Buffalo Videos Today)


In hindsight it’s easy to see the signs that today was going to be a difficult day.  For starters, instead of bringing his usual stuffed dog to breakfast, my son brought his buffalo.  After I put the baby down for his morning nap I noticed some books were missing from the bookshelf.  They were my Native American books.  I found them on the end table where I guess my son had put them after thumbing through them.  Then after doing a couple puzzles together (the usual- dinosaurs, jedis, Spiderman) he got down his big brother’s puzzle of the United States.  I knew it would be tough (60 pieces for a 4 year-old is a bit of a stretch), but we sat down to do it together.  As we assembled the puzzle Danny quietly asked, “Where the other Indian boys, Mommy?”  I wasn’t sure how to respond, but over the course of finding the right spots for those 60 pieces he repeated the same question in different ways while I tried out different answers.  Finally when we got to the South Dakota piece I said, “This is where the reservation is for the people in your tribe.”  He said, “I from there?”  I tried to explain how he was born in Nebraska, his birth family lives just 15 minutes from us, but his tribe is in South Dakota.  That’s when he broke.  My precious son who has been with me since he was just a few days old sobbed, “I can’t find my family.  I can’t find my family.”

Adoption is hard.

Adoption is a beautiful Plan B when something goes wrong.  Children are supposed to be raised by parents who are ready to love and nurture them.  That isn’t always the way life works.  I have NO doubts about the rightness of Danny’s presence in our life.  He was meant to be with us.  I have so much love and respect for his birth family, but it would not have been a good environment for him to be raised in, especially with some of his unique issues.  And this isn’t just my opinion.  This was the finding of the State of Nebraska who had a representative of his tribe look into the situation to decide what was in his best interest.  Everybody agreed, including his birth mother who has graciously been a supporter of his life with us.  But that doesn’t mean this journey is easy.

In generations past families pretended the adoption never happened.  Transracial adoption doesn’t really allow for that level of denial.  So we do our best to speak positively of our child’s birth culture in ways they can understand.  For Danny I know that has created some tension.  What four year-old boy wouldn’t like to live where they sleep out under the stars, eat buffalo they shot themselves, ride horses, wear beautiful beads and feathers (or just about nothing at all), and spend each day with people who look just like you?  It’s hard to balance the elements of beauty and history in the Native American culture with what reservation life looks like today.

You don’t have to be much of a researcher to find out poverty is high on the reservation. Alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant.  A nonprofit that does work on the reservation of my son’s tribe quotes statistics that say the suicide rate there is the highest in the world.  Did you get that?  In the world.  Infant mortality, school-drop out, rape- all of the percentages are drastically higher than what you’d find outside of the reservation.  The problems are heartbreaking and the solutions are complex.  We randomly met a woman from Danny’s tribe at the State Fair a couple years ago.  She told us to think about adopting Danny just like we think about adopting our son from Liberia- this is a child rescued from a third-world environment.  While I find that a really harsh way of looking at it, I also know I have the benefit of thinking that because I haven’t lived it.

Native American kids in foster care come under the Indian Child Welfare Act.  I’m not a lawyer, but I know the practical application is that it is one step harder to adopt a Native American child if you are a white family.  The government works harder to keep them in culturally consistent placements.  This means some children who are legally free for adoption will wait for a family simply because there isn’t a Native family available to take them.  It means whatever decisions are made by your state have to be supported by the child’s tribe.  We knew up until the moment Danny was adopted it would be possible for his tribe to decide they wanted jurisdiction over what happened to him (and in some situations even after the adoption if the tribe isn’t properly included in the proceedings).  It was scary, but I also understand the necessity of allowing the tribe to have a say.

As part of our adoption process we had to file a cultural plan with the state.  We had to explain what we knew about our child’s birth culture and how we planned to keep him connected to it.  As part of that plan we had to research Split Feather Syndrome.  For some Native American kids who are raised in white homes, this cultural divide becomes a source of great trauma.  This is why we educate our kids, we talk to them about where they come from instead of making it feel like a shameful thing. I know it may be hard for Danny as he grows up outside of his birth culture, but I also know he has a better chance at success by being raised by two loving parents who are focused on helping him heal.  We will give him the best start we can and then the choices are up to him.

So what did we do today?  We looked through his Indian books together.  We watched youtube clips of buffalo hunts.  He told me he wants some “shoes with beads”.  I held him and told him I’m so glad he’s my son and I’m so glad he’s Sioux.  I told him he can talk to me about this any time he wants to and we’ll keep looking for new books and movies we can watch together so he can learn more about it.

Maybe if we didn’t talk about these things he wouldn’t have cried today.  But maybe he would have felt all the same sadness feelings without words to describe them and without knowing Mommy wanted to listen.  I can’t say we’ve got this all figured out, but I know my son knows he’s loved and valued for who he is- spiritually, physically, genetically, ethnically.

Adoption is hard.  But it’s still the right thing to do.

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  1. Beautiful post Maralee! Love this, so touching!!

  2. Wow, Maralee. For those of us who want to support adoption and adoptive families, but don’t live the reality of it personally, this is very eye opening. To think of a child as young as four feeling this sense of loss so keenly already is sobering. I get that perhaps his loss (and yet probably eventually his healing) is magnified by being so open about it, but it’s still astonishing to me to realize that the hurt is so, so real that it is felt so deeply in one so young when he is with the only family he has ever truly known–a family who is loving and deeply respectful of his heritage. I am not trying to minimize this! I’m saying that it is a new and deeper glimpse of the pain that all adoption springs from. The reminder that adoption can be truly redemptive, but that it doesn’t erase the truth that it isn’t perfect, or ideal, or Plan A.

    You are a good, beautiful mother. I’m so glad that Danny is in your family. I am so happy that he will have some shoes with beads.

  3. Maralee – This is very good. Out of curiosity, do you guys ever eat meals from your kids’ birth cultures? Not sure if that’d be helpful or not, but it could be a lot of fun. There’s several African markets in town and obv. tons of Mexican markets. Not sure what you’d do if a Sioux dish involved unique ingredients, but you could probably figure something out. (Actually… you can get bison at Open Harvest, for what that’s worth…)

    • Jake, that’s a really great question. I make a traditional Liberian dish every year on the anniversary of the day we met Josh. He likes it, but I know most African food is on the spicy side, which none of my kids really prefer right now. I’m hoping to take him to an African restaurant when he’s old enough to enjoy the food. I make fry bread at Thanksgiving which is a “reservation food”- not traditional. We all love it- who wouldn’t? It’s basically a flat donut. And now I’m really tempted to get bison! I had no idea they had it at Open Harvest. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Maralee, this is beautiful and heartbreaking, and then beautiful again. Thank you for your honesty.

  5. Even at a young age, when you know that you aren’t being raised by your birth parents… You will always have questions concerning them and how at times you may feel different than those raising you. In my case I was raised from age 3 by an aunt and uncle, never adopted so I had a different last name. As my name was different and I was treated differently I couldn’t help but wonder about my birth parents even though I knew my dad was “evil”. I am sure this is just the beginning of the curiosities that your children will wonder regarding where they are from. I praise you for loving them and sharing with them, things about where they come from rather than avoiding such deep questions. They need to have answers to what they can handle at the age they are and yet they also need to know that you love them and that you are a place of comfort that they can rely on you to help them understand these things.

    • Thanks for your wisdom on this, Dena. I know it comes at a heavy price. We hope we’re doing right by our kids, but it’s hard to know when you can’t live their experience.

  6. Oh. my. goodness. That is all I have to say! If possible, I admire you even more, Maralee – oh, and Brian, too.

  7. A beautiful post from a great mom~ such a beautiful picture to see the Lord bring your family together and give little Danny a mom who takes the time out of her day to watch a buffalo hunt… Brian better figure out how to hunt real soon 🙂

  8. it is such a gift to hear your voice and to know your family. thank you for sharing this…as i pictured you sitting with danny reading the books and looking at the photographs, i was overcome by the love. <3

  9. As an individual that was adopted, I understand the difficulties of feeling apart of a new family. At first Everything was normal but as I hit adolescents I felt extremely disconnected and didn’t picture my family as my ‘family’. I pray that if your children go through that you will be as loving as possible and that you will not in any way feel hurt. I was also a bit older when I was adopted, 5, and we realized I had experienced horrible trauma as a young child. Thankfully God placed me in a loving home and with parents that were willing to go through it all for me!
    Love your blog!

  10. I love Danny so much it hurts! He is so special, adorable, playful and huggable. I will be praying for him while he begins to process these things. I’m so glad you guys are being so open and supportive of him. He will come to understand in time more of why he is where he is and how much he is loved by all of us, and more importantly, by God. As Christians, we are all adopted as daughters and sons of God through the work of Christ, the only “bio” kid in the family!

  11. Hi. I found your blog today through a friend. I feel like a kindred spirit. I also have 2 children adopted through foster care. They are 5 months apart, boys, age 3. one is black and the other Mexican. (I am white). In addition i have 2 bio daughters and a step daughter. I am really looking forward to connecting with you. Adoption is hard in so many ways.

    • So glad you found me, Jeannine! And I’m so glad I found you! I loved looking through your blog today- definitely kindred spirits. Homemade toothpaste? Using coconut oil? Exactly.

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  13. Are you familiar with the book “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Newton Verrier. I found it very insightful. I am Caucasian with four birth children and four adopted African American children (ages 16, 13, 12 and 10). My youngest two were foster children who were not able to return home. The best advice I have ever received was from an adoption trainer for DCFS. She explained that if a child has contact with their birth family while they are young, then their family can guide them through the process and be a support for them. My four youngest have all met members of their birth family. It is challenging … and healing. Best wishes. (My oldest found this blog and suggested I read it; thanks Shan:)

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