Jackie Gillard with her daughter. Photo: Jackie Gillard
Waking up my daughter is my sacred time. She’s still half asleep when I gently lift the duvet, curl around her warm body and kiss her soft face. While sleepiness clouds our eyes, the difference in our races doesn’t matter; we are like any other family enjoying a morning snuggle. But it isn’t quite this simple. I am a white mom to a black girl adopted from South Africa, so life is a little less straightforward.
There’s a common assumption that adoption is a win-win proposition for all parties: The birth mother takes comfort in knowing her child has a permanent family; the child finds a solid place; the adoptive parents gain the child they’ve longed for. The truth—which my husband and I learned in our mandatory provincial pre-adoption training and have since experienced for ourselves—is that adoption also has a component of loss. Our seven-year-old daughter has lost her biological family and left her birth country, language and culture behind. Nyah feels those losses and talks about wanting to return to South Africa, and I’m grateful she shares her feelings with us. We assure her that her birth mother, though unknown to us, is a member of our family, and we discuss her often, though I have to admit my heart aches a bit when we do. Because while adoption has brought my husband and I so much love and fulfillment, we can’t pretend our daughter and her birth mother haven’t paid a costly price.
It wasn’t a decision we came to lightly. After 10 years of trying to conceive through various fertility treatment methods, I realized that the destination of motherhood was far more important to me than how I arrived there. We felt nervous about the uncertainty and permanence of private adoptions, and domestic adoptions seemed to only offer children with unbearably tragic histories. Little did we know at that time that international adoption was no different. We had always been open to it, and South Africa was our first choice because it was one of the few countries willing to accept my history of childhood cancer (I’ve been cancer-free for 40 years) and didn’t require as much travelling back and forth as some other countries at that time.
I will never forget that day in August 2009 when our social worker called to tell us about an 18-month-old girl. As we spoke, he emailed me a picture of a chubby-cheeked toddler grinning from ear to ear, an impish twinkle in her eyes. Tears sprang to my eyes. Five weeks later, we arrived in South Africa. We drove through a grove of orange and lemon trees to see our gorgeous baby. She was wearing a brown corduroy coat with little bear ears on the hood covering her head. She watched us with a solemn face, curious but showing no fear. I opened my arms and she came without hesitation, wrapping one tiny hand over my shoulder without a sound. Inhaling her scent for the first time was transformative. I was finally a mom.
I cannot fathom how overwhelming and scary this transition must have been for Nyah: a new home in a foreign place, new parents and a nine-year-old brother (my husband splits custody of his son from his first marriage)—and so many questions. I’d imagined some people might take longer looks at us, but I never anticipated how intrusive some questions would be or how uncomfortable they would make our little girl. Many strangers inquired where we “got her,” what happened to her “real” mother and even how much we’d paid to adopt her. The details of her adoption belong to Nyah to share however she chooses, when she is ready.
We live in a diverse community, and perhaps I was a little naive, but I didn’t imagine the colour of her skin would be such an issue. We knew before her adoption that a black child in a white family would invite questions and opinions, which we thought we’d be able to answer with educated, sensitive responses. We accept being an example for the evolving definition of “family” but didn’t anticipate that we (and Nyah) would feel such resentment toward all the scrutiny. She has been called “poop” by some kids in her class and has been told by others that her skin colour is the reason she’s left out of play groups. I feel guilty that she has to deal with any of this; I simply wanted to be a mother. Nyah has told me a few times that she wishes she “matched” her family and has even asked me if I wish I’d made a white baby in my tummy instead of adopting her. We assure her often that we love her because of her beautiful skin, not in spite of it. How can I explain that I only wish I had conceived and given birth to her?
We do our best to educate ourselves on what it means to live as a person of colour, and we seek out books and films to keep the discussion open and her sense of culture alive. But amid all this, we also find ourselves explaining things we never thought twice about before she came along—like why Santa, the tooth fairy and angels always appear as white characters, for instance, or that no, we never owned slaves (after she misunderstood a Black History Month presentation). We advocate for and defend our child as best we can, but I know there will be times when I won’t be able to make it all better.
Answers don’t always come easily, and our daily realities can sometimes be heartbreaking, but bringing Nyah into our family has opened our minds and hearts in a way nothing else could have. I am so grateful to be her mother. Back in her bed, bathed in that early morning light, my heart swells as I look into her big dark eyes—that solemn look has been replaced with smiling love and a growing trust. And I know my dreams have come true.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2015 issue with the headline, “Built on love”, p. 80.