105: Between the Pain of One Set of Parents and the Joy of Another: An Interview with Angela Tucker Transcript

Episode 105 Podcast > Full Transcript

Angela Tucker is on a mission to center adoptee voices -- which have been historically marginalized -- because she considers adoptees the experts in the adoption experience. That’s a great point, and adoptive parents are wise to listen, to understand. In this episode, Angela talks about what it’s like to be wedged between the great pain of one set of parents, and the great joy of the other set of parents. She’ll tell a story about what can happen to an adopted person when they repeat oft-used adoptive parent explanations like “born in my heart.” I know you’ll enjoy this illuminating conversation with Angela Tucker -- and stick around to the end because there’s a special gift for the first 25 responders to Angela’s generous offer.

Lori Holden:

Hello and welcome to this episode of Adoption: The Long View, a podcast brought to you by Adopting.com.

Whether you've been married or not, you probably have an opinion on this question: is a wedding the ending, the happily ever after ending? When I ask that in workshops I lead, people laugh and say No. Sure, they say, the wedding is the end of the journey to the altar, but it's just the beginning of the journey of the marriage

And that's the focus of this podcast. Once you fill the crib and are legally joined to your beloved child, your journey is not over. It's just beginning. We cover many of the things you need to know to navigate adoptive parenting over the long view. Starting with things you need to know now, perspectives you need to hear now.

I'm your host, Lori Holden, the author of the book The Open Hearted Way to Open Adoption and longtime blogger at LavenderLuz.com. More importantly, I'm a mom through domestic infant adoption to a daughter and a son, now in their late teens. Let me tell you, it's been a ride. Think of any road trip you've ever taken. There are ups and their downs and it's always an adventure. You're always glad for the trip and afterward, you might on occasion, thinking, if only I knew then what I know now. Regarding your adoptive parenting journey, we aim to help you know now.

I'm so excited for our guest today, who is Angela Tucker. Angela is a thought leader and a change agent in the field of adoption. If her name or her face seem familiar, maybe it's because you have seen and heard Angela as the subject of the documentary Closure. Or maybe you've heard her on CNN or NPR or Huffington Post or The Root or Slate, or Red Table Talk with Jada Pinkett Smith.

Angela, a transracial adoptee, was born in Tennessee and immediately became a ward of the state diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia and labeled a failure to thrive. She remained in foster care for over a year, eventually being adopted by a white family in Bellingham, Washington, a city where just 1% of the population is black. Angela has seven siblings, six of them also adopted and she's had many foster siblings, foreign exchange students and extended family who also lived in their childhood home. This unique upbringing has encouraged an expansive and inclusive definition of family and has led her to this mission to center adoptees.

We're going to talk today about some of the ways that she's doing that. We also want to let you know that through the generosity of Angela and her filmmaker husband, Bryan Tucker, we have a special gift for 25 listeners. So stay tuned to the end of this episode.

Angela, welcome. So glad to have you here.

Angela Tucker:

Hi, Lori. So glad to be here.

Lori Holden:

Tell us briefly about your story and how you came to be an authority on the adopted life which is also the title of one of your projects -- with both your lived experience and your research.

Angela Tucker:

Whoo, authority. I like that word.

Lori Holden:

You are.

Angela Tucker:

Well, I do think that adoptees are the experts of the adoption experience. And I don't think that is something that adoptees even know until we -- until someone else tells us that specifically.

For me, it was another adult adoptee who had been a professional kind of speaker. I think I was doubting myself before I got on stage. And she's like you are the expert of your experience. And it didn't set in. And I think that's because growing up, you know, I was adopted young I was in a closed adoption. And living in a predominantly white city meant that I was always educating others, like no matter where we went, because we were so visible as an adoptive family, that people had a lot of questions about how we came to be here. And I did feel it to be a responsibility. And my parents also really prided themselves on educating others.

And so it wasn't until I came into my adulthood that I started to understand that I don't have to educate everyone every step of the way. But I can choose to and I can choose which elements of my story I want to share. So, um growing up in a closed adoption and being like an insatiably curious type of person is a difficult combination. There were so many questions in my head I had about where I came from and why I had to be adopted.

And the questions didn't have answers until I was about 26 when I found my birth family, which is documented in the film. And even then I'm seven years out from that reunion with my birth mother, my birth father who didn't know he had a daughter, and all of the birth, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them -- even now being in relationship with so many of them. It doesn't mean that all my questions have been answered, which is, I think what I thought would happen, but they're humans, humans with complex stories.

And so I think that has led me to just doing a lot of professional work in the adoption community that has kind of scratched that itch for me really learning why really getting deep into the fragmented world of adoption and the triad. And so it helped to help me to understand why all my questions can't be answered, if I can really get to the root of the systems of adoption, the institutionalized racism within child welfare.

So I'm doing a lot of work within the field as the director of a post adoption program at a foster care agency in Seattle, and always trying to center the adoptee perspective, as well as on the side I do like to try to give voice to birth parents where I can because adoptive parents are loud, and they're heard. And they are believed. And that is not the same for adoptees and birth parents. So that's a kind of a meandering overview of what I'm up to.

Lori Holden:

And I'll attest to that. When I first entered Adoption World by becoming an adoptive mom, I thought that was The Voice . Adoptive Parents were the voice that I was able to find.

And then I found a forum and I heard Birth Parent voices. And it was all new to me, I had no idea that the experience was the way it actually was, and not what I had heard from through the adoptive parent filter, and adoptive agency filters before. And then after I got into the birth parent perspective, then I started hearing the Adoptee perspective. And you're right, that is kind of where it all converges and where it all matters.

One of your projects is called the Adoptee Next Door. And that's the title of your new podcast, as well as your book that's coming out soon. It's for teens and adults.

And I see this on your books website, and I think this is I think I've heard this on your podcast as well, you say that there's something temptingly tidy about the idea of adoption. A family with extra love and resources meets a child in desperate need of both. being adopted typically begins at the intersection of grief and loss for our birth parents. And great joy for our adoptive parents. adoptees are wedged in between that pain and joy.

Whooo, that's a big thought. That brings up in me a lot of emotions to be wedged in between those two big emotions. Could you talk a little bit about your experience being in that in-between space and why it's important for adoptive parents to be able to understand maybe even enter into that space and understand it at least a little bit?

Angela Tucker:

Yeah, it's just this. The word wedged was really important to me, because that's how it feels. Because the societal pressure that is more on the adoptive parents side of the great joy and gain. It's like, it is so strong that pressure it just feels like it's like a gale force wind that I'm trying to press back on.

And then on the other side it is not a gale force wind. It's like this simmering. It's like a simmering boil of something that is ambiguous and is a loss that nobody's really addressing. But you can feel deep within your heart and bones that like I was abandoned. I was left by the person where all around me I see non adoptive families and they show in every way possible how important and sacred that mother daughter bond is. I don't have that. And I'm sad about that.

But I don't have any space to feel sad or emote the sadness about it because why would I be sad to lose something that was maybe bad or harmful? Or people told me it was bad or harmful? You know you were adopted because your birth parent couldn't take care of you, you were adopted because you were neglected. That is bad, right? So why do I miss it? And there's no place to explore that.

So that's really why I talk about adoptees being wedged in between those two things. And then starting off with it being a temptingly tidy solution. Adoption does seem to fit a lot of people's desire for it to just make the story be wrapped up in a bow, like, oh, my goodness, this child doesn't have what they need. This person over here can fill that bucket. So let's do that. And that's it. And then Yay, everything is great.

Lori Holden:

and tidy.

Angela Tucker:

It's tidy, it works. And in talking with so many adult adoptees, that's where I hear the narrative start to fall apart. It doesn't fall apart --well, also with teens --but not so much with kids. Because we don't have language yet to say like, this is confusing, even though we may be acting out our behaviors, may be saying something, but we don't have language to say, I think I'm missing my biological family. But the work I'm doing with teenagers is really enlightening and unfiltered in a way with me that is so powerful. And getting to the crux of that.

Lori Holden:

But that sounds like a good entrée to start talking about that. Will you tell us about the work you're doing with teens right now?

Angela Tucker:

Oh, I love working with teens. I love working with adoptees period, because there is something that happens when adoptees are in spaces with other adoptees alone, without our adoptive parents nearby. Because we have a sort of kindred connection. And especially teenagers when we speak with even if we have really loving open adoptive parents who are understanding the complexity that comes in being an adoptee. That adoptee still may not feel comfortable speaking with their adoptive parent about adoptee stuff. Because we really fear another abandonment. And the word abandonment feels really big and it can feel like the only definition is leaving the child, but to adoptees, a lot of times our trigger abandonment trigger comes up even when our parents just emote.

And so when adopted teens especially might say something to their parents, like, you know, I wonder what my birth mom is doing or something like that. If the adoptive parents response is emotional in any way, even if it's positive, but if there are tears, and it's like oh my gosh, that makes me think about how hard it was to adopt you -- what we had to go through -- that is going to stop an adoptee in its tracks in saying anything else because we don't want to hurt you. We don't want you to leave us.

And so when adoptees speak with other adoptees, we can have these conversations without that fear. We know we're not going to hurt the person who we are clinging to most dearly our adoptive parents.

So I host what I call Adoptee Lounge Sessions and I mentor adopted teens, tweens as young as 12. I just love this time right now for COVID. It is all on zoom. But even pre COVID I did a lot of zoom meetings with the teens. We vacillate between talking about hobbies and crushes and you know, gaming to adoption and the wisdom of these youth is so far beyond what we've given them credit for in the public.

I remember talking with this black transracial adoptee who was 13 or 14 and she said my adoptive parents have had “The Talk” with me about police brutality. And they were trying to articulate that I needed to be really careful if I ever got pulled over once I learned how to drive. And she's like, but they were really apologetic about it like I'm so sorry. You're gonna have to deal with this. But you need to be really careful because you're black.

And, she said, then I went over to a friend's house, a black girlfriend's house, who has black parents, she's not adopted, and those parents were also giving their child the talk and she was there. She's like, those parents weren't apologetic or sad. They were just like, fierce and there was no room for sadness. They were like, not angry, but really direct in talking with her. And she went back and she called me and it's like, I don't know, if my parents are teaching me everything I need to know about what it means to be a black woman in America, because I didn't get that lesson that my friend's parents gave.

And I thought that was so bright, so enlightening. And that's one thing that's tricky... For white parents of brown kids, some stuff does have to be outsourced, because you haven't had that lived experience, to where the passion really comes through. And instead, you have an experience that is, if you haven't done your work, and you don't know what implicit biases you hold that it can come out kind of sideways and not have the intended impact. So I thought that was really interesting.

So I just love having these conversations. I also have a scholarship fund for teen adoptees who want to work with me, but aren't letting their parents know. So therefore they can't pay my fee. This has become a big deal in the wake of the George Floyd murder that I've heard from really brave 14 -- as young as 14 -- year olds, who've written reached out to me and said, I don't think my parents believe Black Lives Matter. But I know they love me. And I'm really confused. And I need someone to talk to about it. And so that's heartbreaking. And I'm just so delighted to be able to support those youth.

Lori Holden:

I've seen that you have a scholarship fund set up. And I would encourage anybody who is interested in donating to help promote your efforts and to reach teenagers who need who are seeking that kind of support.

You did quote a 15 year old adoptee in your book, and this 15 year old was saying my parents would often say to me, you didn't grow in my tummy you grew in my heart. I know that my parents were trying to tell me that I'm special. However, they forgot that lurking in the back of my head is always the very real proof that I'm not. In order to have been adopted, I had to be rejected first.

That's a really hard thing for an adoptee to feel but it's also a hard thing for adoptive parents to hear much less accept. What would you suggest that parents do with that?

Angela Tucker:

Tell me more about why it might be hard for adoptive parents to hear and accept that.

Lori Holden:

We don't want to have anything to do with our child having pain. We only want to be part of the relief of pain but not the pain. So I think for me -- I didn't realize that there was going to be pain for my children just from being placed. I thought everything was going to be better. Because their birth parents weren't in a position to provide for them and raise them at that time of life. So the fact that they were going to have that anyway, despite my best intentions? That was a hard pill to swallow that I participated in this process that caused them a grievous wound.

Angela Tucker:

Yes, yes. It's so painful.

And whether adoptive parents identify with this or not, they have gotten away with being the Savior, being the rescuer. And I know a lot of adoptive parents are like I abhor that. I do not think of myself like that. My mom, too, anytime someone would say like you are a saint for what you've done adopting all these kids. She recoiled it just pained her. She said, Oh, my goodness, no, I just love my kids

But at the same time, inherent within how this is set up adoptive parents are looked at as the saviors as the rescuers. And I think that puts the pressure on these adoptive parents to fulfill that. And in order to fulfill that, you create these little kitchy slogans like, you didn't grow in my belly you grew in my heart, and like that just makes things feel better. And the hope is that the kid will ascribe to that and be like, Oh my gosh, that feels so good to know that I was wanted by you as well, even though you didn't give birth to me.

But the reality is, it's not true. And actually, this is kind of a funny chapter in my book (which, my book is not out yet. I'm doing a little work on finding a publisher). It actually turned into a funny and frustrating conversation because this youth believed that and took that to her science class and said, My mom said I grew in her heart but not her belly. And what does that really mean? And actually, instead of the teacher being like, Yeah, no humans grow in the hearts.

The other way around, the classmates were like, nobody grows in anyone's belly, we all grow in the uterus. Anyway, this is so funny because this girl is like hit on all sides of how this is, it's just not possible. And it is not a true statement ever. I really advocate for telling the truth always. And part of telling the truth is recognizing that yes, you are complicit in a system that removes their children, these children remove people like me, from our birth culture, our birth family, our birthplace. And it is a difficult pill.

Because it's not a direct correlation, like you didn't cause your child's birth parents to make certain decisions that they made. However, if you're a white adoptive parent, white supremacy did cause a lot of the reasons why people are adopted, you know, if you boil down, it's usually a result of classism, racism, structural racism. It's a result of laws and societal norms that have been put in place that hold people down. And so it's a lot of like, I appreciated growing up knowing that knowing the loss really early on, and being able to talk about that.

I asked my parents, why couldn't a black family have adopted me? And I appreciate that to me, they didn't show hurt and pain by my asking. They knew that I loved them. I consider them my parents. But I know that's not true for every family, that that question type, that type of question can be too scary, too hurtful, too painful to even field.

I was also able to say, Do all poor people not love their kids? Because that's what I was seeing. So many of the adoptees I knew were adopted, in some shape around an issue of poverty. And so I appreciated being exposed to poverty, for my parents had a purpose of helping me humanize people who are impoverished, instead of thinking that all people impoverished abandon their kids and don't love their kids. And I'm so glad I had that opportunity to meet people who were poor.

Because then when I met my birth mother, I didn't go in thinking that she didn't love me, or abandoned me. That instead, it was so many other factors. And that's really helpful. But I wouldn't have gotten that if my parents stuck to like, the little slogans that were made to help people feel better about this predicament.

Lori Holden:

Because it didn't actually make the adoptee feel better. It was more designed for making adoptive parents feel better.

Angela Tucker 23:42

Exactly. Yes, it actually only reinforces the silencing of us. Mm hmm.

Lori Holden:

I want to talk about the movie Closure, which features your mom. This is the project that first landed you on my radar -- when I first saw the documentary Closure. It chronicles your quest to identify and find your birth family. And I have to tell you it had a huge impact on me. I teach so much about adoptive parents making the shift from an Either/OR mindset to a BothAnd heartset in their foundational view of adoption.

I call that Don't Split the Baby. You know, either We're your parents or they are and so we have to like totally deny them. And the adoptee at the center has to split their loyalty. They may not even feel free to ask questions or wonder out loud.

But you were very curious. You were driven to know. You wanted to know. And although your parents had long been pretty open to anything that they thought would benefit you, their beloved daughter. You can see in the film that when it came to searching for your birth parents they do start a little bit with the Either/Or. Your mom says something like I did worry about being replaced as a mom because I wasn't sure I could handle that because she was my daughter.

But also later on, she says, I realized I wasn't going to it wasn't going to change my status as being her mom if she found her birth mother, and I became as curious as her. I love that word “curious” there. Your mom made the math shift from subtraction to addition. And she ends up on your journey with you. She actually gets into the van with you. Your dad does, your husband does, some siblings do -- and they’re along with you to see what happens. You're all curious.

How important is adoptive parent curiosity? And that support that comes from that curiosity for adoptees?

Angela Tucker:

Oh, my gosh, it's everything. It turned this from being like, my obsession and pet project to find my roots, which felt at times like I was like, Am I being selfish? Am I you know, Do I really need to do this? Like it turned that feeling into, like, wow, this is so loving to know, that my parents, them being as curious about my birth family as me, it helped me to feel like they really love all of me. Like, if they want to know about who my birth parents are, then that must mean that they love these parts of me that I get from them.

Lori Holden:

And validation

Angela Tucker:

Yeah, huge validation. And I, I needed them, you know, in the same way that I needed my parents' support when I had a bad game in basketball, and would want to be like, I'm done. And they came alongside or like, Oh, no, you know, you gotta keep doing it. You're good. It's okay.

And all those typical things like parents do after any hard time. Like, why would this be any different? is how I felt. And so for them, if they would have removed themselves, it would have felt very confusing. You know, like, you're gonna support me in every other aspect of my life, and of my child rearing, but not this.

So that was, it was interesting, because I actually hadn't heard my mom say that she was worried about me finding my birth parents, until I watched the movie for the first time. I'm so grateful that she never told me that she was afraid that she worked on that somewhere else. And that was honest to the camera, which is lovely.

But I think, had I known that she had that fear. I don't know if I would have searched even though my heart like my whole body was aching to know where it came from. I may have felt like that would be too hurtful to do to my adoptive parents to my mom, if she felt that way.

Lori Holden:

That split loyalty.

Angela Tucker:


Lori Holden:

Between what you're driven to do and what your parents’ needs.

Angela Tucker:


Lori Holden:

You are working at an adoption agency in Seattle. And I do find that a lot of birth mothers and adoptees end up working in adoption research or agencies, I think you pointed that out on your recent podcast, which is another issue. But you've got some really exciting projects going there, such as the inclusive family support model, and Project SEARCH and reunion. Tell us about those and why you're so passionate about those projects.

Angela Tucker:

Project Search Reunion is an initiative where at my agency, we've been around for almost 100 years. And so we've collected a lot of adoption files of adoptions that we've done. And historically, adoptions were completely secretive. And yet there's a law that says agencies need to keep adoption files for 99 years in a fireproof waterproof boxed area.

Lori Holden:

Isn't there a joke in adoption circles about how many of them have been burned down or lost in floods?

Angela Tucker:

Yeah, people, all these agencies have, quote, had fires or floods. And lost the papers.

Learning about my adoption file and learning about the laws that prevented me from having certain information in my file, like my original birth certificate, or there was a lot of redacted information. I know how vital those files are, and they're filled with information, even if it's non identifying information. That belongs, like my file, which is in Tennessee, I firmly believe belongs to me, but I can't have it.

And so looking in this file room at my agency, where there were thousands of files made me sick, thinking there gotta be stuff in here that doesn't belong to us. So as we started going through some of the files and we find jewelry that a birth parent has asked for the agency to pass along to their child, when they turn 15 or 17. And it's here and it's been in our file room for 50 years, my heart broke, it sank.

And so I thought, you know what, we've got to go through every single file from 1950, to 1999, when more openness was starting to happen, and return items that maybe we never got there, because of how society felt about adoption and stuff.

You know, for example, the when we have found gifts that birth parents have wanted to get to their child, there have been corresponding case notes that say things like, you know, the birth mother gave us this necklace, but we're not going to forward it along to the adoptive parents because we don't want to confuse the adoptee about who's who.

And so therefore, the beautiful gifts sat there. Birth parent never knew it didn't get there. And so this Project Search & Reunion, we're aiming to basically, like make reparations for wrongs that we've done as a social work field. And it's been magical, we have had some really beautiful stories come of it. And there's ethical quandaries up the yin yang, like, all the time, how to move forward and proceed with some of the cases that we're finding. So I'm very proud of that initiative.

Lori Holden:

Wonderful that you're able to help people put together the pieces of their puzzle that they've been missing, and that maybe they didn't even know they were missing it. I can't even imagine what it would feel like for somebody to suddenly get a piece of jewelry that came from the time that they were born.

Angela Tucker:

Right, smaller things to like. There are case notes sometimes from social workers about their first interactions with a birth mother, for example. So I know this one case, which I can share because it was shared on local TV, but a birth mother was saying, you know, I love horses, I love horses, everything about them.

We found the adoptee years later for an unrelated reason and she's now in her 70s and she was telling us you know when I was younger, like I loved horses and my parents my adoptive parents couldn't figure out wh. But eventually they moved out to a farm so I can have horses and it just made me so happy. And now this adoptee is 70 years old. We are able to say in your file, there are case notes that talk about your birth mother as what she calls herself, a horse woman. And this adoptee was like I thought I was crazy my whole life. My parents didn't have any interest in this but they made this big sacrifice moving to a farm so I could have... but to know that my birth mother also -- i has helped her feel more whole.

Lori Holden:

What a gift time to make sense of themselves in that way. And I know that the agencies weren't meaning to withhold or do any of that. But they didn't know better. Now we know better. Now, with your efforts, we're trying to do better. Adoptive parents, also -- we are knowing more. We are...we need to do better. Know more, do better.

So this is one of the questions I ask all of my guests. Boil things down to your best piece of advice for adoptive parents about the long view. What do you wish more adoptive parents knew about raising an adopted person?

Angela Tucker:

My biggest piece of advice really comes down to my mission to center adoptees. I'd really love for adoptive parents to listen to and take seriously the variety of adoptee voices that are out there, vulnerably and courageously speaking out.

I find that so many adoptive parents kind of pick and choose which adoptees they want to listen to once they've found our voices. And that is harmful. It seems like if an adoptee doesn't start a sentence with I love my parents. I'm grateful for them, then anything else they say is null and void. That an adoptive parent is no longer listening and is only concerned with or only kind of thinking they must have had a terrible upbringing and that's why they are expressing this or that.

That is unfair. It actually isn't centering the adoptee. It's centering the adoptive parents’ feelings and their needs, before allowing us to speak. And so I really would encourage adoptive parents to listen with open ears and allow every adoptee story to be valid and true for what it is.

Lori Holden:

And I think sometimes the growth opportunities come in the discomfort. They don't come when you're hearing what you already believe. They come when you're hearing something that challenges you, makes you a little uncomfortable. Maybe even triggers you because if you've got a trigger, then maybe that's something that you need to address so that you can...

...one thing I hear you saying is that your parents made space for your feelings, because they were dealing with their own feelings. You didn't have to navigate around their spaces because they were doing their work.

Angela Tucker:


Lori Holden:

And so that listening, even when it's hard --

Angela Tucker:


Lori Holden:

-- and recognize when you get it when you're triggered, and maybe then spending some time on that. Some private time on that.

There are so many other things I'd love to talk with you about. But we're just about out of time.

Can you give us briefly how people can reach you will also have this in the Show Notes?

Angela Tucker:

Sure. AngelaTucker.com is my website. I would love for folks to check that out. I have a section with all of the documentaries or short films that I've created, which always amplify the adoptee's voice and perspective.

I have a manifesto there which people can purchase for any adoptee in your life who you love. And it just serves to reinforce that adoptees can love both. Maybe both isn't the right word -- can love all of the parents in their lives. And I love when adoptees receive these and have it feel like their truth, their Manifesto. So you can buy that on my website.

You can also find my podcast, which I'm just releasing. I'll release an episode tomorrow every Tuesday. And I also will be sharing about my upcoming book and when and where that will be available. So AngelaTucker.com is where to start. And then of course I'm also on social media, Instagram @AngieAdoptee or Facebook @TheAdoptedLife.

Lori Holden:

And I will second what you said about listening to adoptees. That has helped me be a more attuned parent to my own kids. Who can better help me understand their world than somebody who has experienced being adopted? That's not my experience, but I can listen to those who have had it.

We do have a special gift gift that you've made available -- you and Bryan have made available to the first 25 people who access the movie Closure with the link that we're providing in the Show Notes will be able to access that for FREE and I highly highly, highly recommend this film. It is an incredible journey in so many ways. So please grab that while you can.

With each episode of the adoption the long view we bring you guests that will expand your knowledge of adoptive parenting. Please subscribe, give this episode a rating and share with others who are on the journey of adoptive parenting. Thanks to each of you listeners for tuning in and investing in your adoptions Longview. May you meet everything on your road ahead with confidence, capability and compassion. Thank you so much for joining us, Angela.

Angela Tucker:

Thank you