Finding the Happiest Place on Earth: Our journey to multiculturalism
The Mashal family with Shai’s birthfamily and Steve’s mother.
My husband Steven and I met through mutual family friends and married in 1997 at our San Francisco synagogue. By 1999, we were exploring avenues for adoption. Like many IAC families, we investigated County adoption, international adoption, surrogacy, attorneys and agencies. We were most interested in County adoption as the need was greatest there. However, we decided to go through an agency so that we could adopt an infant before we got “too old.” We found out about the IAC through a Maybe Baby meeting, where we met another gay couple that had just adopted a baby girl through the IAC–thank you Davidson and Thomas!
We attended the Information Session in June 1999 and knew that this was everything we wanted in an agency–the only agency that treated us as equals among potential adoptive parents. We wanted openness and loved the warmth and support offered to birthparents and adoptive families. In particular, we noted how many agencies and attorneys were not respectful of birthparents, spokeof them in a patronizing manner and referred to them in a way that made it feel like they were vessels for adoptive parents. We wanted an agency that understood birthparents’ difficult choices and used counseling as an essential element to fostering an open relationship between all parties. We signed up immediately and by November, we were “in the books.”
Our decision to adopt transracially was a gradual one. While we were both open to any ethnicity, Steven was more fearful about handling the challenges involved. I felt we had the skills and knowledge to adopt transracially, but we both needed to be ready. Steven used to say to me, “Will our Black child want to bring his Black friends home to meet his two White Jewish daddies?” So, our profile was submitted as “Caucasian only” to start.
We averaged a contact a month, but no matches resulted. We discussed opening up more. Finally, when attending one of our many support groups, a Caucasian family who had also been attending regularly, showed up one month with their new baby, who was African American. There in front of us was this happy family, and we saw how it could be for us. In our search for what would work for our family, we asked African American women and men around us, often strangers, what they would think if we adopted an African American child. We wanted to know if the African American community would accept our child. Then, we presented the news to my parents. They worried about the discrimination that their grandchild would encounter due to anti-Semitism, homophobia and racism, but offered their full support and would be our fiercest advocates. Though, they still worried – as did we.
We started to get contacts from Black women and were surprised that some actually liked us because we were Jewish. Many asked what we knew about raising Black children in our society. We responded that it would be alearning experience, but we understood the support that our child would need through education, peers and role models. We also pointed out the fact that we both have spent our whole lives in two minority groups and know what it is like to encounter discrimination, ignorance and hatred. We were confident about our abilities to be proactive in helping our child to learn how to educate, rather than get angry. We matched with an African American birthmother in the Bronx who was widowed during her pregnancy (with 4 boys). Her 13-year-old son picked us out of the letter packet that they got. Unfortunately, she decided to parent when she gave birth to a girl. We tearfully returned the winter clothes we had bought shortly thereafter.
On March 5th, 2001, while I was working as a Special Ed Teacher’s Aide just finishing up recess, I was paged to the school office. An IAC Open Adoption Counselor, Colby, was on the phone and asked, “Do you want a baby?” My heart raced and of course, I said yes! She told me all about the baby and said we should come to the hospital in an hour and pick up our baby son. We were told that the birthmother did not want to meet us, but Colby said she’d try to convince her otherwise. When we got to the hospital, the baby’s birthmom did agree to meet us. We talked for only about a half an hour as she was soon to be discharged. She was shy. She told us that she had named the baby Jonathan Israel, the same names we had picked out in the car on the way to the hospital. This remains a goose-bump memory to this day. Our son’s birthmom was African American and the unknown birthfather was Hispanic. Unfortunately, we have never had contact with Yoni’s birthmom again. This began our journey as a multiracial family, with no connection to our son’s birthfamily or heritage.
Before Yoni was born, we had bought a home walking distance from Steven’s office. We pondered what our predominantly White community would be like with a child who stood out. The only other people of color in our community were nannies for some of the children. While we encountered nothing negative in our time living there, clearly Yoni was the token child of color in town – and we were the only gay parents. So we decided to find a community where diversity was part of the fabric of the neighborhood and schools.
Since moving to our current neighborhood (only a few miles away), the schools are like little United Nations communities, where each ethnicity is celebrated and taken for granted, rather than an oddity. Yoni and Shai (our younger son) are known by their names, not by the color of their skin. The diversity of our social network has expanded so that our children have African American and Hispanic peers and adult role models. This grew naturally as we befriended other families in our community. The children make friends, have play-dates and the adults become friends as well. For those of you who do not yet have children, you’ll see how much of your life as a parent revolves around school and extracurricular activities of your children, and their friends’ families become the core of your social network. While adults can drive wherever they want and socialize with whomever they choose, your children’s world is limited to those people in their neighborhood or school that you choose. Our choices have been essential to our children’s development. They feel that they are just one part of their diverse world and not the only representatives of an alien culture.
As you will learn during your adoption process, there are many coincidences and things that you realize were somehow meant to happen. When we signed our 2nd adoption contract, we realized it was March 5th, 2004, exactly 3 years since we brought Yoni home from the hospital. Colby, who we had never met before that first Last Minute Hospital placement, was now our Adoption Coordinator. We wanted to ensure that our next child was of an ethnicity different from ours so that Yoni would not be the only child who didn’t look like his daddies. Our profile now read “open to any ethnicity except full Caucasian.”
We received a call from birthparents the first day our website went live. They were both Caucasian graduate students. We turned them down and reflected on how our perspective had changed in five years. We wondered, as do all waiting parents, if this would be the only call we would ever get. Of course we got other contacts and matched/unmatched with a birthmother who turned out to be a scam. As it turned out, we got several calls from birthparents of various ethnicities (including Caucasian birthparents) who were all interested in us because they saw we were already raising a biracial child and felt that they wanted their child to be raised in a diverse and tolerant environment.
Many things change when you adopt a second child. Of course, our “only” child was now a big brother. Our son’s identity, who others saw as “mixed” or “biracial” before Shai came along, became African American because of his new brother, whose features were more typically African American. To this day, we often hear how “they could have been biological brothers.” We always marvel at this as they have distinctly different features. Is it that White people cannot see the distinct difference in people of color? Is it the general feeling from others that adoptive parents want to hear this to make them feel better, as they can’t say that the children look like us? I point this out because your family becomes to some extent what people perceive you to be. This is something that President Obama has written about. Though he is biracial and was raised primarily by his Caucasian mother and grandparents, he was perceived as black and that became his identity.
Our post-placement adoption story with Shai is the extreme opposite of what it was with Yoni. Shai’s birthmother lives 20 minutes from us, as do his grandmother and great grandmother. We see them frequently, usually once every month or two. Shai will always know them, and they have the joy of watching him grow. They have truly become part of our extended family. This has also been a benefit to Yoni as his birthmother’s story was not dissimilar to Shai’s. We have had talks with Yoni about why his birthmother chose to place him with us. She was 19, with no high school degree, living with her grandmother. She wanted a better life for him and to be able to finish school. It has been difficult for Yoni to understand why his birthmother has not been in contact with us. Fortunately, the connection with Shai’s birth family gives him a tie to his heritage and the chance to know another birthmother.
We have found that there is no one place to live, nor group to join, which can satisfy the needs of our children (or any children!), but giving them options and providing them with guidance will help them build self-esteem and a healthy identity. We have joined many organizations, such as PACT (a multiracial adoption group—see: https://www.pactadopt.org), the Jewish Multiracial Network (who knew?), the South Bay Adoption Group, South Bay Families Together, and PopLuck Club, these last two for families with gay parents. Our children go to religious school at our synagogue to embrace our Jewish religion and culture. Who could have predicted 10 years ago that my son’s Christian, African American birthmother, grandmother and great grandmother would be guests at our yearly Passover Seders? If only my mother were still alive to see her African American/Hispanic grandson reciting the Sabbath prayers and singing in the synagogue choir. This is just part of the richness that diversity brings to our lives and the lives of those around us.