Issue No. 4: Black Maternal Health
Words - Sarah Cuddie
Illustration - Niki Dionne
Adoptive families, especially Black adoptive families, can face unique challenges that get left out of conversations about maternal health and parenting.
Womanly Magazine spoke to five Black women who built their families through adoption, and got some advice for people considering or pursuing adoption.
Michelle Hughes, adoption attorney and mom, says to start the adoption process with research so that you know what to expect. “Adoption in 2019 is not adoption of 1975, there is no such thing as a permanently closed adoption with openness and DNA technology and the internet.” You’ll also need to be prepared to do a lot of learning about a complex process. “When my spouse and I spoke with our agency about the process, it seemed so straightforward,” said Dr. Shanna Benjamin, mom and professor at Grinnell College. “Being "matched" was the difficult part, and since we were the only Black family within the agency's Iowa network, everyone thought that we'd have a baby in no time at all.”
While the length of time the adoption process can take varies, Beverly Clarke, Senior Director at the Barker Adoption Foundation and mom, says the “adoption process can be anxiety-producing. The waiting can seem endless. It is important to continue to live and enjoy your life during this time.” This anxiety can be hard to manage because, as Dr. Benjamin points out, “prospective adoptive parents don't always share their plans with others.” Blogger Adoptive Black Mom says, “this journey will pull you, push you, and make you reconsider/reframe everything you thought you knew about life,” so be prepared to ask a lot of questions of the people that you’re working with, and of yourself.
All of the moms we talked to said that maintaining their health through the adoption process was a challenge that continued after their kids came home. “I assumed that since I wasn’t pregnant that I would have energy,” said Nefertiti Austin, mom and author of Motherhood So White. “Instead, I was falling asleep in my clothing, sitting on the couch at 7:30 p.m. in front of the television.” Dr. Benjamin brought home her son eight months after adopting her daughter, which made sleep difficult. “As an academic, I had the most flexibility so I shouldered the late-night parenting duties. This was a mistake. When my sleep suffered, so did my overall wellness.” Austin worked to maintain some physical activity, even when she was tired. “I have always been physically active and used daily walks to re-center. I also took Pilates, when I had extra money. Spending thirty minutes just focusing on myself always made me feel good.”
For mental health, Adoptive Black Mom recommends going to a therapist familiar with adoption both before and after your child comes home. “Learn about post adoption depression. It’s a thing. It’s real. It’s hard.” Clarke emphasized making “your self-care and relationship-care a priority,” especially if you are adopting into a two parent household. “It can be easy in those early years to lose sight of the need to stay connected and on the same page.” Benjamin agreed, saying “I think it's important for partners to discuss the physical and emotional costs of child rearing, and to figure out a safe word. Seriously: I feel like if I could have just said ‘Peanut butter!!!’ and that would have conveyed that I was in crisis mode, things would have been much better for me.”
Regardless of whether you’re parenting with a partner or on your own, you’ll need support from your community. “As a new parent, I had to lean on my support systems heavily during those early years! Parenting can be exhausting and having people in my corner to help with my kids was of utmost importance,” said Clarke. Hughes looked forward to people stopping by in the earlier days because she “actually appreciated adult conversation.”
These relationships were important not only for their health as parents, but for their personal sense of self as well. Austin has an amazing group of girlfriends that she counts on. “We hold each other up and keep each other accountable, whether it’s a fitness goal, self-care, or passion project.” Adoptive Black Mom points out that there is preparation to do with your family and friends as well. “Prep your family and friends for the child’s arrival. They will have expectations and misunderstandings,” especially if you are adopting an older child as she did.
At the end of the day, “‘Adoptive parenting’ is still parenting, and parenting is hard; adoption just adds an additional layer of complexity,” says Clarke. Hughes points out that there can be some hard differences and that it can be “complicated for everyone involved.” Adoptive Black Mom says, “adopting an older child means that they’ve lost so much to be in a position where adoption is even a necessity,” and regardless of age, there is always some trauma associated with adoption. “It can be happy and joy-filled, but it is important to acknowledge and leave space to honor the pain as well, so that your child can fully explore and express those feelings.”
All of the moms emphasized the importance of being open with their kids. “I retell the story of their adoption whenever they ask,” says Austin. “I always answer their questions with simple truths.” Given that so many adoptions are open at least to some degree now, Benjamin tries to include her kids’ birth families in their everyday life. “We regularly call out their [birth] mothers' names,” says Benjamin. “I'm not in the business of erasing mothers of color from the picture because they chose to allow someone else to parent.”