Published on April 21st, 2015 | by Deesha Philyaw0
The Sometimes Messy Truth: DEESHA PHILYAW Interviews Her Children’s Stepmom About Adoption
Last year in Mutha magazine, I wrote about breaking all the rules that stepmoms and moms are supposed to follow for peaceful family “blending,” and actually loving Sherry Thomas, the woman who is married to my ex-husband. Recently, I reached out to Sherry get her thoughts about #FliptheScript, a social media movement that had taken during National Adoption Month last November. Sherry is an adoptee, and so is my youngest daughter, Peyton. I came away from our conversation (excerpts below) with a renewed understanding of how the idea of “story” can be significant to someone who is adopted. What is their story? Who gets to inform it? I also fell in love with Sherry a little bit more for telling the sometimes-messy truth about being a mother and stepmother.
MUTHA: There was a social media movement called #FliptheScript in which adult adoptees challenged the “single story” of adoption as “a good thing,” and raised awareness of what a diverse and complex experience it is.
SHERRY: I have to admit…I’m still a little stuck on the “single story” of adoption myself. I’ve never thought about adoption as a “single story,” nor was it ever presented to me as such. Maybe because I had my bio sister with me, and other adopted sisters, growing up. I knew my bio mother and the lies she tried to sell as hope. There was never a “single story” that had been given to me. I alway knew that my story was complex and interwoven, and I told people as much. But once I was asked by the city’s children’s services agency to speak to potential adoptive parents. I was extremely nervous about the message that I wanted to share, and when it was my turn to talk to this panel of prospective parents, I just stuck with the mantra that adoption was beautiful, and confusing.
MUTHA: How do you want to flip the script?
SHERRY: If I had to flip the script on adoption stories, my message would be this: adoption is complicated. It’s sticky and can be hurtful, but it is also beautiful and saving! It is a prism with many, many facets, some of which can take a lifetime to see and understand.
MUTHA: What ill-formed ideas about adoption are you tired of hearing or seeing portrayed in the news or in other media?
SHERRY: I will say that I tire of people thinking that no one wants African American children. Another ill-formed idea that I tire of hearing is that adoptive parents shouldn’t tell children that they were adopted. The damage done when a child finds out later in life that he or she was adopted can be life-altering.
Also, there’s the [false] idea that in order to have a healthy outcome for an adoptive child, you must be in an intact, traditional, heterosexual family.
I’m tired of hearing negative stereotypes about children who are adopted from city agencies, that they must have had young mothers, or a drug-addicted parents. I’m tired of the assumption that the child who was adopted via a private or semi-private adoption doesn’t suffer abandonment issues as deeply as the adoptee that was placed via an agency.
I reject the idea that I as an adopted person have two mothers. I don’t…I have one mother and a woman who made the decision to bring me to term.
MUTHA: What else do people typically get wrong about adoption?
SHERRY: The assumption that there was some horrible, unspeakable tragedy in the lives of the adoptee and person giving up their child for adoption, that led to the adoption. I know one case where a woman and man felt that they were called to not have biological children. They believe that adoption was the way that they were going to do God’s work. There was nothing medically wrong with them. And the children that they’ve adopted–four girls and two boys–weren’t laying in some ditch waiting to be rescued. The parents of these children weren’t found in a crack-house. Deliberate choices were made by all the adults for the betterment of these six children.
MUTHA: What do you wish people will stop saying to adult adoptees?
SHERRY: Have you met your mom and dad yet? My mom and dad were the people that raised me, not the people who contributed to my DNA.
MUTHA: What do you wish people would stop saying to adoptive parents?
SHERRY: Awwww, you couldn’t have children of you own? Was something wrong? Do you love your biological and adopted children the same?
MUTHA: How has being a stepmom to an adoptee impacted your experience as an adoptee yourself?
SHERRY: The first thing that learned being a stepmom to an adoptee is that I don’t have all of the answers to adoption issues. I was prejudiced in my views. Because my sister and I had been adopted a little later in life (ages 3 & 4) and because my stepdaughter was adopted from birth, I thought that I had all of the answers on feelings of betrayal and being displaced. I don’t. I used to think, “You can’t miss what you’ve never had, right?” Not always.
MUTHA: What experience or revelation might you not have had if you hadn’t become a stepmom to a child who is also adopted?
SHERRY: The biggest revelation: Being adopted gives me some special insight to her hurts, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to share them with me or have me embrace her when she’s hurting. It doesn’t even mean that she wants me to address her hurts. I thought that I could come in and save the adopted day, but that’s not the relationship that she and I have. I’ve learned from her that while different people’s adoption issues can be very web-like–intersecting, criss-crossing–the paths can also be parallel. I’ve had to learn to wait for her to lead the discussion and take my cues from her on when to stop.
MUTHA: What is one thing you wish you could help your stepdaughter who is adopted understand or embrace?
SHERRY: I would like her to understand that her story is a little bit of her birth parents, a little bit of her parents, and a whole lot of her. Others and their choices don’t define who she is.
MUTHA: I say “mother”… you say the first three words that come to mind. (No censoring.)
SHERRY: Disappointment, giver, bitch.
MUTHA: What’s the most challenging part of being a mom to your biological daughter? Of being a stepmom?
SHERRY: The most challenging part of being a bio mother is not “gifting” my daughter with the dysfunctions that were “gifted” to me. The crazy that was passed down to me, abandonment, the inability to say I love you, the addiction issues–all given to me to wear like an ill-fitting dress, that was never mine to wear. As soon as I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter, I started thinking about my relationship with her.
The most challenging part of being a stepmom is trying to figure out where my step-mothering ends and being a mother begins. My two stepdaughters are 16 and 11, and there was so much that I wanted to do with them…eyeliner, lipgloss and hair, high heels, conversations about boys and first crushes…
MUTHA: If you had 3 do-overs as a mom and/or stepmom, what would they be?
SHERRY: Being harsh, not listening to the kids’ unspoken words, and choosing anger when I could have chosen love.
MUTHA: Nobody told me that being a mom means______________
SHERRY: Being transparent to your child/children, whether you want to or not. Kids need to know that you’ve nothing to hide.