(Photo courtesy of Mezekerta Tesfay; Designed by Lara Witt)

Adoptees Disrupting Adoption Narratives is a series of as-told-to pieces written and curated by Prism’s editor-at-large, Tina Vasquez, featuring five adoptees—Tiffany HyeonBrooksMezekerta TesfayNicole Eigbrett, Rachael Murphey, and Rev. T Sheri Dickerson—and one personal narrative essay by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣. They share in their own words what being an adoptee means to them and how current narratives around adoption are inextricably linked to family separations, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. They also delve into how adoptee-led discussions are necessary for the sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements. You can find the series in its entirety here.

As a young person new to reproductive justice, Mezekerta Tesfay said that she still has a lot to learn, but one thing is certain: the movement has given her a new framework for better understanding her experiences as an adoptee. 

In 2021, while studying sociology and political science at Beloit College in Wisconsin, the 21-year-old was chosen for a Collective Rising internship that places undergraduate students in paid summer internships at reproductive rights/justice organizations. Tesfay landed at Texas’ Jane’s Due Process, which, before Roe v. Wade was overturned, focused on helping young people navigate parental consent laws to access abortion care confidentially. Initially, Tesfay focused on creating social media content for Jane’s Due Process, but soon she was helping with the organization’s hotline and helping teens through the judicial bypass process. Tesfay calls this work her “powerful introduction” to reproductive rights.

There has been no looking back. In the months since, Tesfay has shifted her full focus to reproductive justice, taking it upon herself to read pivotal texts about the movement starting with this list compiled by the feminist advocacy organization Black Women Radicals. What really resonated with her about reproductive justice was the holistic focus on the right to have a child or not have a child and the right to raise any child you have in a safe and healthy environment. 

Her past year in reproductive justice spaces has led to critical moments of realization about her lived experiences as an adoptee. Tesfay said that one day she’d like to carve out a bigger space for adoptees in the reproductive justice movement, but for now, she’s focused on learning. 

A few weeks after attending SisterSong’s Let’s Talk About Sex conference in August and connecting with other adoptees at a session about the intersections of reproductive justice, adoption, and survivorship, Tesfay spoke to Prism about turning a critical lens on her adoption and doing away with popular narratives that harm adoptees. Here she is, in her own words:  

I’m a Tigrayan-American who was raised in central Iowa. I was adopted by a homoracial couple of two Black parents. My mother’s an African American from Detroit, and my father’s a Tigrayan from Adwa, Tigray, a tribe located in northern Ethiopia. Because I have two Black parents, I have the privilege of not being seen as an adoptee. I don’t have to deal with invasive questions and treatment that transracial adoptees get. When I choose to reveal that I am adopted, most people respond with shock and tell me how they never would have guessed it because I look so much like my parents. I’ve always felt like my adoption was a best-case scenario, and I still do. But it was only very recently that I began to connect reproductive justice to my experience as an adoptee and look more critically at my story. 

When I was 9 years old, my mom told me I was adopted. She encouraged me to ask questions, but—to be frank—I didn’t care. After this conversation, I was more concerned with asking her if she would get me a cookie and hot chocolate. (She did.) Around the age of 16, I became more interested in my adoption, and I started asking my parents questions about my backstory. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a lot of answers.

There’s no paperwork for my adoption. I don’t know who my birth family is. I wasn’t born in a hospital. I don’t know my real birth date. So there’s no real place for me to start digging. I don’t even know where I was born; I just know the town where I was adopted. I am a girl who is never going to know who my birth mother was. I absolutely feel like a blank slate. I don’t have some of the basic information other adoptees have. At the same time, I didn’t experience the kinds of issues that transracial adoptees experience. I’ve had a deep connection to my culture because my dad is from the area where I was adopted and because I have a Black mother teaching me how to navigate the world as a Black woman. 

It’s a really bad idea to continue perpetuating this narrative that parents who adopt are always wonderful, amazing people who can do no wrong. They’re just human beings, and they have flaws.

My parents tried to address my questions. I remember asking my mom how much she thought I weighed when she found me or if I was malnourished. I asked my dad where he thought I was geographically from based on how I looked. My parents told me that when my baby teeth came in, they were yellow, which a doctor said was a sign that my birth mother was overdosing on medication while I was in the womb. In my first few months of life, I was severely underweight and had illnesses that were common for a child whose mother didn’t have prenatal care. It was clear my birth mother didn’t have the privilege of a healthy pregnancy. 

My dad studied birth control rates and maternal mortality rates for his master’s and Ph.D. Based on the kind of research he did, he thought my birth mother was a poor, very young woman without the ability to take care of a child on her own and with no real community to lean on. As a teenager, I remember thinking about how difficult that would be. As I learned about reproductive justice and began to work with young women who might have been in the same position my birth mother was, I began to wonder how her life would have been different if she had access to abortion or had more choices about whether or not she became pregnant with me. Would she have turned to these options, and would they have been better for her? How young was she? Was I a product of rape? As these kinds of questions came up for me, I really started to make the connection between adoption and reproductive justice. I am grateful to be here, but I wish that my birth mother had a choice to either have a healthy pregnancy or terminate an unhealthy one. My parents are pro-choice and support me in this thinking. I am lucky about that.

I feel like I’m just now starting to look at my adoption with a critical lens. My parents are professors, and they have always encouraged me to ask the difficult questions—even if it means questioning them. I’m also lucky that I grew up in a family where I could freely debate with my parents. I can question their decisions, and they know it’s not a question of whether or not I love them. I am not sure if many adoptees have the same experience. 

There’s a lot of myths about adoption that I want to complicate. I’d like to challenge the narrative that people who adopt are heroes or are inherently good people. That creates this dynamic where adoptive parents can’t be questioned, and it’s treated as a given that their intentions are always good. No one is perfect, and I think it’s a really bad idea to continue perpetuating this narrative that parents who adopt are always wonderful, amazing people who can do no wrong. They’re just human beings, and they have flaws. Am I glad there are people willing to raise children that aren’t their own? Yes. But do they deserve extra praise? Absolutely not. 

Another narrative I want to complicate is that adopted children cannot have mixed or complex feelings about being adopted. That’s not a healthy expectation. I want adoptive parents to know that if your child questions your intentions for adopting them or questions what their life might have been like if they stayed with their birth parents, that doesn’t make you less of their parent. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you. If you become defensive, it’s hurtful. You have to hold that space for them and allow them to process any complicated feelings they have. Make sure your child can trust you with their honest feelings. It will strengthen your bond.

Adoption as a system and adoption as a personal experience need to be separated. One adoptee’s positive experience does not negate the flaws of the adoption system. Adoption is complicated, and any effort to make it seem entirely good or bad should be questioned.

Also, not all adoptions are a positive experience. This narrative is pushed constantly on social media, where you can find dozens of videos showing adopted kids crying while opening their first Christmas present or getting their first birthday cake. These vulnerable moments should not be used as clickbait for millions of people to consume. Their tears of both joy and pain represent years of neglect. What’s the intention behind posting that online? I think it’s fucked up. There are many adoptees who are abused and harmed by their adopted families and experience trauma from being moved to entirely new geographic locations. Adoption as a system and adoption as a personal experience need to be separated. One adoptee’s positive experience does not negate the flaws of the adoption system. Adoption is complicated, and any effort to make it seem entirely good or bad should be questioned. 

Talking about adoption as a reproductive issue is more important now more than ever as anti-abortion activists have highjacked the narrative on adoption. If learning watered down Black history at my Iowa high school taught me anything, it was that when someone else controls your narrative, you will never get honesty. It’s time for adoptees to openly talk about our experiences and shape the public narrative on adoption. We aren’t a monolith, so it won’t be consistent, but it will be real. I want to make it clear that I think adoption has never [been] and will never be an alternative to anything, especially abortion. And adoption cannot be used to rationalize forcing pregnant people to give birth.

I thank Collective Power for Reproductive Justice and Jane’s Due Process for introducing me to the movement. I thank Tiffany HyeonBrooks for helping me come to the realization that we absolutely need more nuanced conversations about adoption. I thank my parents Kesho and Tesfay for being the best parents I could ever dream of and handling me with such care. And I thank my Tigrayan and American family for nursing me back to health physically and emotionally. 

I want to end this by saying that I am happy I was adopted, but I do not speak for all adoptees. My family and my story are unique to me. To the general public, I encourage you to look critically at your ideas about adoption, especially if they are overwhelmingly positive. Current adoptive parents, I encourage you to hold space for your adoptive child’s honest feelings about your decision. Future adoptive parents, I encourage you to think deeply about why you want to adopt and process whether it’s tied up in toxic positive narratives about adoption—especially if you are going to entirely remove that child from their home country and culture. To my fellow adoptees, I wish you peace, whatever that looks like for you.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.