Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): Please describe some of what lead up to the major decision you and Brother Darius made in adopting Sasha and Sherrell.
Ava Muhammad (AM): Actually it was Minister Farrakhan who suggested it. Back in the mid 90’s we were visiting him at the farm, and I forgot the occasion that brought us there, but we were blessed to have a little bit of time with him while we were there. He said to us that he actually had a vision of us with a little girl and he said, “You know, the two of you should adopt”. I’m a breast cancer survivor, and I was on chemotherapy for two years. Although this was in my late 20’s, it led to the onset of early menopause from the chemicals, the poisons of the chemotherapy. I have to say that it saved my life in the sense that I had a very aggressive form of cancer. I lost two parents to cancer. I had a genetic predisposition. Bro. Darius and I got married in 1989, and obviously we wanted a family. That was our desire and intent, and it did not happen. Yet we have a deep, deep love for each other. We pondered over it. It took about six, seven years of trying to recognize that this probably isn’t going to happen. So with the Million Man March and with the Minister calling for us as a community to adopt, coupled with him personally talking to us, we really took it seriously.
We got involved with the process. I understood it to be very difficult, but it’s not as difficult as some people think. That’s one of the things I want the readers to know. There are literally tens of thousands of children that need and mom and a dad or even a mom or a dad, because they have no one; particularly older children. When I was appointed, in 1998, as Southern Regional Representative of Minister Farrakhan, I got caught up in a whirlwind of activity. It was only when I was made National Spokesperson that it kind of settled down; you don’t have that day-to-day mosque administration. So as a result, that’s when we looked at it (adoption), plus the clock was ticking and time was marching on. We agreed that we needed to go ahead and do this. So we got in touch with an adoption agency in Atlanta called Roots. Their specialty is African-
Americans, what they called Black children, with problems who are in need of adoption. Most of the children are older. By older we mean past the age of two. A lot of people who want to adopt want an infant. They feel that they can bond more easily, and they want that experience of parenting a child from the beginning. However, there is so much value in looking at older children and recognizing that they can love also, and the joys and the trials are equally intense.
We went through a ten week course in parenting, and we were told that it was going to take about a year or so. Almost a month after we finished the course we got a call. We were told that there were these two little girls in Ohio, three and four (years old), desperately in need of adoption. We hadn’t even seen them, yet we jumped in the car, drove in the night from Atlanta to Akron, Ohio and got our babies. That was in 2002.
EM: I’ve heard this misconception that a woman isn’t a real woman unless she is able to conceive a child. Can you address that?
AM: Yes. Obviously it is one of the major, if not the major, life experiences of being a woman. You are able to go through the joy and the nearness to the Creator of your womb being the home for a new life that comes in, but before life was physical it was spiritual. The ultimate satisfaction of being a mother is not being pregnant, it’s being a mother. The pregnancy is nine months, and it’s a biological and physical process. It carries a lot of satisfaction not the least of which is the idea that you and your baby’s father’s genetic pattern is passing on and you’re leaving a little bit of yourself here when you go. Yet, there’s nothing stronger than the spiritual bond. As I was saying earlier in today’s lecture (April 18, 2010) on the subject matter of geographic boundaries, we have none. We’re not connected to a land mass; we’re connected to our Creator and to the nature in which we are created. The real satisfaction is rearing a child is for them to know and love God. That’s what makes a woman a mother.
EM: Do your daughters understand that they are adopted?
AM: Oh absolutely. Merely because of their age they know. There was a sister who ran the class who was really blessed with a lot of “mother wit” and common sense along with her degrees in social science, but she said something very powerful. She said, “Always tell your children, because if you don’t someone else will”. Someone else will. Almost eventually that happens and sometimes in a very tragic manner. I know a family in Atlanta where one of their children was adopted. They never told her (the child). Around the age of 13 or 14, when they were at a family reunion, an elderly distant aunt told her. She didn’t tell her with a wicked intent. She was just talking to her as though she already knew, and it created such a breach in the relationship with the mom and dad. Not because, “I’m not your biological child”, but “Why didn’t you tell me”? And because of ours being four and five they knew. They came from a very traumatic experience. They had both been taken out of the birth home and put into two foster homes in that little short time.
EM: At what age do you believe, if a parent adopts a child as an infant, they should tell their child they are adopted?
AM: Generally when they reach the age of comprehension, which is probably around six. You definitely want them to know before they get too deep into the school environment. As they get five, six, and seven years old their world enlarges and they begin to interact. Those first five years are pretty much within your control as far as who they interact with. You don’t know what kind of questions people ask children. Sometimes it’s ignorant, sometimes it’s nosy. “You don’t look like your father”, and you know stuff like that.
There have been cases where sometimes there is a biological connection that may not be there, and it depends on the closeness of the family itself. This is the case a lot of times if there’s not a resemblance between the adopted child and the parents. You want to let the child know as soon as possible, because people are going to continually comment on that fact. Then another thing is that they (children) are going to ask you some questions about grandparents or something else that’s going to put you in a situation where you run into a brick wall.
You’ll wonder, “How do I answer that? If I tell them the truth it’s going to reveal that there’s not a connection”. Amazingly one of my sisters has an adopted son. They got him when he was two weeks old, and they told him when he was about five or six. His response was, “Oh-okay”. By that time he had been with them for so long, they were all he knew. So it becomes more like an intellectual thing, it’s a concept. To them it’s, “Okay, I’m adopted, so what? It has nothing to do with my reality”. He’s fourteen now, and he is very close to his parents. I think when he was about twelve he asked my sister, “Well what happened? What was wrong?” He was actually the offspring of an affair. Both of the parents were married to other people. One of them was a Ph.D. in something. She couldn’t keep him. She was not, thank God, willing to have an abortion. The husband knew about the affair and all of that, but he couldn’t deal with it. So he (the baby) was put up for adoption. So there are almost as many different paths that lead to it happening as there are children.
EM: What should parents, who are contemplating adoption, look for in an agency and in a child?
AM: It’s interesting that you’re interviewing me about this, because my husband and I are going through something right now with our oldest. She was actually diagnosed with something called Reactive Attachment Disorder. We got her when she was five years old. Well Reactive Attachment Disorder is a condition that is generally suffered by orphans and adopted children who were older than two. It stems from severe loss early in life involving neglect or abuse or both. The child develops a world view of adults that is very negative, because they were not there when the child needed them for protection.
When we got them, my children, they couldn’t even talk. You’d never know it today, but we had to put them in speech therapy. We don’t know what went on in the birth home or either of the two foster homes that they may not be able to express. If it happened when they were two, for example, they may not have a conscious awareness of it. It’s very interesting, because my younger one has bonded with us completely. I heard her tell a classmate, because she’s tall, “I got my height from my dad”. She was talking about my husband. That’s how close it is. However, the other one is distancing herself. I asked him, the psychologist, “Well why now? Why wasn’t this apparent when we first got her”? He took me through some symptoms and made me revisit those early years, and looking back I realize now that there were signs. One example is that she is always willing to let you come and hug her or give her a kiss, but she’ll never come to you. It’s little things like that. She’s very quiet, very charming, and polite with outside society, but rebellious in the house. She was even reported as having temper tantrums at three years old when she went to the first foster care out of the birth home. So something happened to my daughter in the early months or years. It could be neglect, it could be the idea of somebody left her wet.
They have six other siblings, and the whole family just disintegrated. The father was a drug trafficker. He’s incarcerated to this day, so God only knows what went on in that house. Their mother–and it’s interesting that you’re dealing with young women–was a woman who at a very young age fell in love, or thought she was in love, with a man who meant her no good. It just led her down the wrong path, and she died at the age of 37. She had eight children from three fathers. Sasha and Sherrell are the two youngest of that. So my point is where was her ability to mother when she herself was lost? Who knows if Sasha was hungry? People were coming in and out of their house, we don’t know, but at some point she experienced trauma. What happens is a lot of times it’ll remain suppressed in the early years as they get older, and their boundaries get wider and the natural teenage rebellion kicks in. You get this conflict of control. The Reactive Attachment child wants to control everything, because their early life was so powerless and out of control. Their posture is, “I’ll never let anybody dominate me the way I was dominated”, by whoever shared their life in their early childhood years. There’s a disconnection that takes place.
They are so acutely aware that you are not the birth parent, and it angers them. They’re angry at the birth parent, but the birth parent isn’t there so they act out as if saying, “How dare you”, instead of looking at it like my younger daughter. Her attitude is “I’m so glad you came and got me”, whereas my older daughter is going through a, “How dare you? How dare you come and interfere”? So it’s a battle, and she’s in therapy for it but it is very, very difficult.
The reason why I’m bringing all of that up is to say that adoption is nothing to play with. It’s not like going to get a puppy. You have to be committed, but the satisfaction is 1) being a parent and 2) you’re performing a service for society. Not only are you saving your own children, but no matter how bad it gets they’re better off with you then where they were. That’s what you have to tell yourself. At the end of the day, whether you have children or adopt them, you never know what life is going to bring. Parenting is a commitment. I remember I heard somebody say, “You can either be a parent or have a life, you can’t have both” (laughing). Another saying is, “We are all perfect parents until we become one”. I know I was. Before I became a parent I was perfect, I was set. I would look at others saying, “Oh this is what I would do” or “Why are they letting her do that” or “Why are they letting him…oh if this was me, this is what I’d do”. It’s only when you become one…
EM: With that being said, how much information should an adopted parent have of the biological parents?
AM: As much as possible.
EM: I know that some adoption agencies don’t offer that much information.
AM: Well, that’s something going on right now in the adoption world. The demand of parents is increasing. Back in the day, you didn’t know anything. It was all sealed. You had no idea what you’re getting. Now you’re getting information, but it’s not complete. I don’t believe we were given everything. I think that what happens with these agencies is that they fear that if too much is known, it’ll turn the perspective parents off particularly with older children. It’s hard to find people who want to adopt older children anyway, so they withhold information. You want to find out as much as possible and demand to know. Ask the agency, “Are you representing to me everything you say you have, because I just want to make sure….for medical purposes, and also for the child’s sake”. Who wants to wander throughout life? My babies have no baby pictures, and I just weep over that. That’s something that’s lost, and I can’t regain that for them. To the degree that I can and the time comes when they want to locate their siblings or whatever they want, I will.
If you’re adopting and you don’t want the child to know who they are actually, then you’re adopting for the wrong reasons. You’re trying to compensate for something, and there is a difference. It can’t just be about compensating because you didn’t have children. That’s obviously a real, valid, and natural piece. However, if that’s the only reason and you want to run around pretending this (child) is yours, then you’re dealing with the most superficial aspects of parenting and you’re really not ready to parent. That’s not what it’s about.
It’s about building human potential and the life satisfaction of that child. Knowledge is satisfaction, and let them know. Let them have relief. Don’t hide anything from them and take the same posture with these agencies. Tell them, “Don’t hide anything from me. Don’t let me find out something later on that you could’ve told me and you didn’t, because I’ll be back and it’s not going to be pretty”. You have to tell them that, and do that toward the end of the process. Don’t come in the door saying this (laughing).
EM: Can you touch on the reluctance of adopting older children, because I hear that as well. Can you touch on the value, which you mentioned before, in adopting older children? CPS (Child Protective Services) attended a meeting that I was present for, and spoke about how many older children are out there that stay in the system until the practically grow out of it.
AM: And so many are. Many of our youth are actually foster children who grew up completely in foster care. They were never adopted. At the age of eighteen they got a few dollars, their toothbrush, and they were told, “Well it’s the end of the road”, and to me that’s a tragedy. What you would be providing for a young person by taking them in is a family. Being a parent is so much more than, “Oh he’s so cute. Look he learned how to walk”. What about the family reunions? What about the weddings? What about getting a call at night or to make a call and say, “I need your help”? Your children can say, “These are my cousins, this is my Uncle Joe”. Don’t let them languish. God will bless you. He will bless you, and they will love you. It doesn’t take a long time for children to love you. Even if they’re talking back and acting crazy, they love you never the less.
Again I can’t stress it enough, whatever you offer is so much better than what they had, because you’re not just giving that child just you. My children, they’re at their cousins’ house right now. They have cousins. They have aunties, they have uncles…you see?
My nephew just had his first child, and they have a second cousin who just had his one-year-old birthday party, which was ridiculous of all that they did for this baby. Oh my gosh, it’s absurd. Everybody was asking, “What are you doing to do when he turns sixteen if you’re doing this now, it’s like ‘platinum birthday’!” The point being is that they need that, they need that. Don’t leave them out there.
EM: Another thing CPS mentioned was that a lot of Black parents come in and they adopt Caucasian babies or Latino babies, but they refuse to or are turned off by adopting their own Black children. Can you please respond to that?
AM: It’s similar to what I was saying earlier today about the residual effects of slavery and our self-hatred. Our dislike of self, that’s what that is. It’s, “I don’t love myself, I want something lighter. I want something with a certain ‘grade of hair’.” That is a rejection of self, and you probably need to work on that before you go and try to bring a child in. I just don’t think that an adopted child does well. If I was with CPS I would actually go to them and say, “You know what? I think you’re going to need to go into a therapy, yourself, or counseling”. Particularly when you have so many black children that are in need of a family. Yet, that in my judgment is self-rejection, and I would just say to that go get your own.
EM: Thank you so much.
AM: Yes ma’am.
Dr. Ava Muhammad is the National Spokesperson for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation Of Islam. You are welcome to follow her on Twitter @DrAvaMuhammad