Vol. 19, No. 1 • November 2014

Adult Adoption and My Journey to "Forever"

by Julia S. Charles

"Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."
~ James Baldwin

I'm adopted. Adopted. What a strangely revealing word. It carries a certain meaning that haunts the very soul of anyone who aspires to escape the expectations of the foster care system--or, as we call it, "the system." It tells the world so much about me before they ever get to know me.

For someone as private as I am, the word "adopted" forces my transparency in a frustratingly rewarding way. Frustrating because I prefer to reveal the layers of my identity only to those I trust--and it takes more time to build trust than it takes to write this article. Rewarding because every time I have ever shared my story of adoption with complete strangers, I have walked away feeling a peculiar sort of kinship with the audience.

I can only hope to feel that way here, too. In my writing, I am forced to instantly give you something that I have not given many throughout my lifetime--trust. As fearful as I may be, I am reminded why I chose this journey to forever.

My Journey's Beginning
Where I am from there aren't many adoptions that I am aware of. In fact, it's sort of a taboo word. In my old neighborhood, when bio-parents would fall short, grandparents or aunts stepped in. There was no interference from child welfare. There was no discussion of where a child would be "placed." There was just family.

At first, my family was no different. I spent my formative years with my grandmother in a happily crowded house. It was not until she passed away that I found myself living with my birth mother.

That's another strange phrase--"birth mother." It tells a story all its own. If "adoption" expresses a gain, then the phrase birth mother certainly expresses loss. Such is life.

I remember how badly I wanted to call someone "mom" before that move. I used to dream about it. But what happens when the reality is not as sweet as the dream?

The trouble and the thrill of reality is there is no waking up from it. I could not run from reality any more than I could catch a falling star and put it in my pocket. It just was.

Before I knew it, I was a foster kid and separated from the people I loved most, my siblings.

Adult Adoption
In December 2005--after 10 years in the system, after more than a dozen placements, and after being split up from my siblings--my former foster mother decided to adopt me. I was 23 years old, well beyond the age that most people consider adoption.

She and I discussed it a few times before we moved forward. She wanted me to know that no matter what life hands me, I have a family that was never leaving. She used to always say to me, "you can't control how much I love you." I didn't always understand what that meant, but it resonated with me. It suggested to me that a fight did not signify the end of things.

It no longer feels strange to call her "Mommy."

No Need to Explain
Through Mommy (Lorraine), I have a younger brother. I recall trying to explain to him that I am . . . adopted. In the middle of the conversation he stopped me and asked, "Sweetie?" (That's what my family calls me.)

"At the end of this story, will you still be my sister?"

I responded, "Yes, of course."

"Will Mommy still be your mom and my mom?"

Confused, I answered, "Yes, of course."

He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, "Okay. Well, that's all that really matters, right?" And he walked away.

At that moment I realized how complete I was. It wasn't so much that he accepted my status as adopted. After all, he was only five years old. It was the fact that I had spent the majority of my life explaining my status and unpacking my labels to people--foster kid, adopted, etc.--and this was the first moment that I wanted to explain, but did not have to.

Adoption Takes Off the Masks
When James Baldwin writes, "Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within," he is not talking about adoption specifically. But he is talking about the type of love that many seek and never find. My conversation with my brother forced me to confront what the world labeled as both beautiful and ugly about me. Beautiful because the word adopted indicates choice--it is delicately deliberate. Ugly because, again, it indicates choice--it arguably demonstrates a failure.

Adoption, in both word and action, "takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within." All the labels I attempted to escape were suddenly the ones I embraced.

I used to wonder about significant events. I wondered, Will I have any family at my wedding? Who will be seated as parent(s) of the bride? Will I have a cheering section when I graduate? Will my children have grandparents?

Those questions that tormented me now bring me the most joy.

And, honestly, I almost missed it because no one talked to me about adoption after foster care. I went into foster care when I was in 6th grade. That's just about the time people stop offering adoption as an option toward permanence.

Grief and Gratitude
A few months ago my birth mother died. The days and weeks after I received the news were riddled with unexplainable grief and immeasurable gratitude. There is this place in my heart now that I didn't even know existed. It is a place that only my birth mother can occupy.

Because of her decision, as my sister put it, "to choose life," I have a mother. I have a mother who knows my life's history and chose to love my birth mother. I have a mother who chose to help me navigate the confusing and endless abyss between my adoptive world and my biological world.

Indeed, it was Mommy (Lorraine) who came to my home to tell me my birth mother had passed away. It was Mommy who sat with me and held me as I cried. She never asked me to explain my tears. She's good that way. She's a mother that way.

The thing I love most about being adopted is that I no longer have to hide. I feel safe now. I love that I have room in my heart and peace in my mind for two mothers with very different roles. So, in mourning my birth mother (which I am pretty sure I will do for a couple of forevers), I also celebrate Mommy. Because I love them both.

You know, in foster care they told me that achieving permanency is the objective. Whether through reunification or adoption, a forever family is the goal.

However, they didn't share with me that after you've been adopted you will have encounters with people who do not understand or respect your adoption. There are books about the beauty of being chosen, but where are the books about the other side of adoption?

My grief brings me face-to-face with the reality that of all the kind things I said to my mother before she transitioned, I never said thank you. I never thanked her for letting me have the opportunity to be loved elsewhere, too. I should have said thank you because I am so grateful to my birth mother for this love I have.

Every day that I experience the joy of belonging to this family, I am grateful I never stopped my incessant pursuit of forever just because I was "too old to be adopted."

Julia Charles is a foster care alumna and author of Surviving the Storm: The Life of a Child in Foster Care.


Julia S. Charles' Surviving the Storm

Surviving the Storm: The Life of a Child in Foster Care, by Julia S. Charles, is an easy-to-read, personal journey of the author's life in foster care.

Charles also shares stories of those who made a difference in her life and how they helped her build hope and faith for a better life. Now in her twenties, Charles hopes this book will speak to other youths in care as well as the adults who try to help them.

Surviving the Storm provides deep insight into the world of youth in foster care. It can be best explored through a focused book club or reading group. Training discussion points are provided at the conclusion of the book for professionals, caregivers, and youths. Following is a brief excerpt from the book.

We arrived at the foster home and I walked up to the door. With a trash bag full of my belongings, I rang the doorbell. An interracial couple came to the door and embraced me. I was taken aback by their forwardness. This was uncomfortable. I could not wait for the hug to be over. The middle aged woman showed me to my room. I did not get a tour of the house that night. After the social worker left, my foster mother closed the door behind her and said it was time for me to go to sleep. Everything was so new. This is foster care?

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~