While my husband and I have one son and one daughter, ours isn’t quite the cookie-cutter family. We adopted our daughter Madison in a fully open adoption. And our differences are plentiful. We are white and her birth mom, Jessica, is black. Jessica was raised in a Christian home and was not at all familiar with Judaism. And to make matters more complicated, we are interfaith–my husband is a Christian while our biological son and I are Jews.
Got all that?
We didn’t set out to create an even more complicated family, but when we were looking to adopt, our local agency said that it would be easiest to adopt a black child.
“If race isn’t an issue,” our social worker told us, “then we will place a black baby with you because we have a greater need for parents open to adopting black babies.”
Harder for Jews
The wait, however, she said could be longer because I’m Jewish. In a domestic infant adoption, hopeful adoptive parents create a profile of their family with an overview of their home, their jobs, their values and their religious beliefs. Many of the expectant mothers working with our agency were looking for Christian families. “Many of them don’t even really know what Jewish means,” the social worker explained.
We knew the likelihood of a Jewish mother finding us was virtually nil, but we had faith that the right woman would. And sure enough, nine months into our wait she did.
The agency arranged for the three of us to meet for lunch at a restaurant crowded with office workers hurrying to get back to their desks. Jessica was seven months pregnant at the time. The restaurant was too loud and we were all too self-conscious to do much sharing. It felt like an awkward first date. But I liked the assertive way Jessica handed me her phone number after lunch. She had written her name–first and last–effectively turning our semi-open adoption into a fully open one. It was during the next two months over long afternoon phone conversations that we really got to know each other. We talked about our hopes and worries, our expectations and fears. That’s also when we talked about religion.
My husband, Brett, and I had made the decision to raise our children as Jews because Brett felt more comfortable in a synagogue than I could ever feel in a church. But we are firmly interfaith as a family, claiming our religious pluralism proudly. Jessica appreciated that we would raise our children as Jews while also leaving room for religious exploration. Having felt hemmed in by her parents’ strict religious beliefs, Jessica liked that we would encourage our kids to forge their own spiritual traditions. While some of Jessica’s family was concerned about a white non-Christian family adopting her baby, Jessica was interested in learning more about Judaism.
A Temple Newbie
The first time Jessica came to our synagogue was for Purim when Madison was nearly two. While Madison was too young to effectively swing around her grogger, she was old enough to proudly march around the sanctuary as a princess in a rhinestone tiara and a matching wand with the rest of the kids in costumes. We all applauded while the royalty (and a few super heroes) passed by our seats.
We had a great time. Jessica laughed at the broad, vaudevillian jokes and cheerfully sang along to Help Us Esther (to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Help Me, Rhonda), more on-key than anyone else in the family.
It meant a lot to us to finally introduce Jessica to our rabbi, who had been involved with and supportive of our adoption efforts. He grasped her hand with both of his and smiled.
“It is so good to meet you,” he said. “What a blessing, just lovely. Thank you for coming.”
Having Jessica visit our synagogue meant a great deal to her because she cares about her daughter’s religious experiences. It meant a lot to us too and went a long way in helping our religious community appreciate the unique make up of our family and Madison’s parents’–by birth and by adoption–shared commitment to raising her in the Jewish faith.
An Open, Two-Way Street
Not everyone understands why we maintain a relationship with our daughter’s birth mother. But meeting Jessica always helps our friends and family understand what her presence means for our daughter, who looks to Jessica to see herself, her origins. Loving Madison makes it easy to love Jessica, too. Madison calls Jessica by her first name, but knows she is her birth mama. And people know it’s ok to note how much they look alike—their bright smiles and tilted brown eyes.
In the years since, Jessica has come to other services and events, and she’s been a part of our holiday celebrations at home. While I wouldn’t say she’s a familiar face around our synagogue, the people who are a regular part of our family’s life–religious school teachers, my son’s Hebrew tutor for his bar mitzvah and our rabbi–have met her and understand her place in our family.
In order to make this all work, the acceptance has to work both ways. My husband and I have made a concentrated effort to be sensitive to Madison’s Christian birth heritage. Jessica’s parents are firm in their Christian faith and we have made it clear that we do not expect them to censor themselves with us or with Madison. (If they mention Jesus, we’re not going to flip out.) Because they’re always respectful of our religion, it has been easy to honor their beliefs and display the Christmas cards and angels they send our way, bringing their religiosity into our families’ firmly secular Christmas. This is an important part of my daughter’s birth culture and more broadly, part of her history as an African-American.
We appreciate that Madison’s cultural heritage by birth is not in competition with her cultural heritage by adoption and that ultimately her way to God will be her own. We are fortunate that so far her birth family appreciates this, too.
The Uncertain Future
I do wonder if there will come a time where she will not want to be Jewish. How will I handle this? Considering her possible future, I rely on our family’s interfaith background to shore us up. If I can accept my husband’s Christianity, surely I can accept it if my child needs to find religious succor elsewhere.
But I’m not interested in borrowing trouble. I have always known that my children will forge their own paths, but adopting my daughter has given me a deeper understanding of how much the creation of their lives is their right and responsibility. I do not have a say in my daughter’s history in the way I do my son’s and this underlines that their futures, too, are their own. But for now, my children are both being raised as Jews; that is what is in my control. I have faith in Judaism not to guarantee me a good Jewish daughter or son into adulthood but to give them both a moral foundation, the value of religious study and a commitment to tikkun olam. Ultimately, I want to raise children who will be mentshes, whatever the details of their faiths.