“You should be a mother,” was what my own mother said to me the week before she died. I held her thin, weakened hand across the hospital bed and nodded. I was in my early twenties, and children seemed a far away possibility in an unlikely land that included marriage, mortgages, and other such responsibilities.
But over the years my mother’s words stuck with me. More than a decade later I found myself married, with a mortgage, and starting to think about adopting a child with my husband, Logan, through the foster system in St. Louis. We took the required courses, received our certification, and when the call came one day that a baby had been abandoned in the hospital and needed a home, we rushed to the NICU and found a tiny human asleep in a blanket. We stared at his pinched face and full head of hair, and immediately agreed to take him home with us.
Adoption has been a journey, an unusual one, because it is interracial (my son, Vincent, is Black, my husband and I are white). But how unusual is hard to say.
It is difficult to come up with recent, relevant statistics on interracial adoptions in the U.S. One source (Statista Research) has composite statistics on the ethnicities of adopted children in recent years and from this we know that 17% of all adopted children were categorized as Black or African American. But the same agency does not report demographic information on the adoptive parents, so it is impossible to know how many of the total adoptions reported (of Black children or any others) are interracial.
Another study dating back to 2007 found that, at that time, over 40% of adopted children nationwide were of a different race, culture, or ethnicity than their adoptive parents. Though this seems high, note that only 2% of American households have actually adopted, so that even if 40% of those are inter-cultural, the final numbers still only constitute a small proportion of the overall U.S. population. That said, there is anecdotal evidence, from the proliferation of support groups and websites to be found on the topic, that interracial adoption may be increasing.
As the white mother of an adopted Black son, I can report that our familial experience feels uncommon, though not completely isolated. We do not get outright stares, as I’ve been told used to happen in earlier decades to families like ours, but we do often get double-takes, confusion, and profoundly ignorant questions, from all categories of people: young, old, women, men, white, Black, biracial.
Just a few weeks ago, for spring break, Logan, Vincent and I got on a plane to take our first vacation in more than two years. We were excited to travel somewhere warm and sunny and Vincent, now 12, boarded the plane and quickly claimed the middle seat of our row, in-between his father and myself. When the mixed-race stewardess came down the aisle shutting the overhead bins and checking the floor for in-the-way bags, she stopped abruptly at our row and with pointed finger asked, “Is he with you?”
I was certain she wouldn’t have asked that question had we all been the same color. I replied that yes, we were together, and the stewardess moved on without another word. This was a small incident at the start of an otherwise lovely vacation, but the point is that what happened – this questioning of our belonging to each other, my Black son and his white parents – isn’t at all uncommon, and as Vincent gets older, he’s noticing it.
In elementary school, Vincent was taunted with the epithet “orphan-boy” after his white parents picked him up from after-care and the other children there didn’t believe we could possibly be his parents. A few years later, I took Vincent to a pediatric dentist in Clayton but never made it past the receptionist. Before she would let us see the doctor, she insisted I prove that my son was my own – as if white women were stealing unaccompanied Black children around St. Louis and taking them for free dental care. More than once, with Vincent standing within earshot, I’ve been asked if I had any real children too.
Such incidents have to be affecting my son. I have by now gotten the usual, “You’re not my mother!” that all adoptive parents get at some point in their lives when their children are upset and trying to win an argument. But Logan and I also sometimes hear, “You don’t know what it’s like to be Black!” usually said by my son in a desperate attempt to avoid bedtime. I tell him that he is right, I do not know what it is like to be Black, but that he still has to go to bed at a decent time on a school night.
Every year on Mother’s Day I recognize the blessing that is my son, but my enormous gift was another mother’s outsized loss. When we talk with Vincent about his birth mother this Sunday, we will tell him that life can be inexplicably painful, but that by the grace of god there is also love in this world and that he, Vincent, had the great good fortune of being loved by multiple different mothers and fathers.
Lea-Rachel Kosnik holds a doctorate in economics from UCLA and since 2004 has been a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.