dealing with loss

On Losing a Mother…and a Mother Culture

I saw them the moment we entered the restaurant. The dad was suited up, ready for Mother’s Day at our favorite Indian buffet. The little girl, her black hair chopped in the “orphanage bob,” sat safely strapped into a high chair. The mom wore a salwar kameez, blond hair hanging loosely about her pale neck.

They sat close to the door, but that is not why I saw them. I saw them because once upon a time, we were them, a white man in his Sunday best, his wife trying to make her child’s birth culture part of her own–or was she appropriating it? As we waited for our table, the memories flooded back. I am increasingly convinced that few, if any of us understood the implications of what we were doing at the height of international adoption in the early 2000s. We talked a good game about honoring our children’s birth cultures, but I don’t think we had any clue as to what that really meant. Having lived overseas for part of my adult life, I thought I’d figure it out. I found adding the food and films, the music and clothes, relatively easy. But would that be enough? Only time would tell…

As we finished our meal, one of the servers came over to chat. I wasn’t really surprised; this happens to us a lot in Indian restaurants. We were mostly used to that by now. The rest of the interaction was a lot more awkward, as I became acutely aware of how Americanized–how whitewashed–our children had become.

I wish I could see the world through my children’s eyes. Like so many adoptive parents, I embarked on this journey with what I thought was a simple plan to love a child. I did not comprehend all that would entail. I knew that my children would grieve their first mom. During the kids’ first years home, our church handed congregants flowers on Mother’s Day – one color if your mother was living, another if she was not. With no sure knowledge of their birth mothers’ fates, my children took one of each.

What I didn’t get till later, what I’m really getting just now, is that with that loss came another. Internationally adopted kids have lost not only a mother, but also a mother culture. I have gotten a lot wrong in my approach to this. I need to keep listening, hear with my heart, hold space for grief.  I’ve not had the life experiences I need to be their guide, but with a little grace and their permission, maybe I can join them on the journey.

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