506: More Facets of Adoption Math with Adoptee Torie DiMartile (Part 2) Transcript

Episode 506 Podcast > Full Transcript

Lori Holden, Intro:
As you may recall, in our last episode, we stopped partway through our conversation with adoptee and doctoral student, Torrey DIMartile to save the rest for later. Well, later is now here. We'll repeat our introduction of the episode and of Tori. So, if you listened last time, the next 4 minutes may sound familiar to you. This will orient you where we were when we left off talking about the adoption math that adoptees face and must navigate, and what their parents need to know to support them along the way.

We all know from First Grade math that a half plus a half equals One. But for adoptees, the math doesn't always add up the way we think it will, and the way we hope it will. At one time, I thought that if I could just incorporate my children's first families into ours, Ventessa and Reed having access to both their halves, all their pieces, would make them feel whole. I even subtitled my first book along those lines, The Openhearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole.

But the more I listen to adoptees, the more I understand that there is not just one time the math doesn't work; one split between the family of origin and the family of experience, to use the language of April Dinwiddie. There are a lot of splits in which an adoptee needs to span distances; lots of ways an adoptee feels like they are not something enough on either side, no matter what we adoptive parents say to them.

Adoptees are always navigating two tracks: how their 2 sets of families feel about them, and also how they, themselves, feel about their 2 sets of families; the most integral people in their lives and for their survival. Besides all adoptees being transfamiliated, some adoptees are also intercountry or transracial, like today's guest. These adoptees also live with divisions between race, culture, and sometimes language, trying to figure out how and where they do and don't fit in.

Back to adoptee math. There are times for adoptees in which a plus and a minus don't zero each other out. Many adoptees have told us that the easy emotions, like love for one's adoptive family, don't simply take away the harder emotions, like the loss of one's birth family.

This is what we'll talk about today with Torie DiMartile, a biracial and interracial adoptee and doctoral student who has been in an open adoption since her very beginning, more than 30 years ago. I know you're going to want to hear about how Torie is bridging all these gaps in her life and the way she coaches parents to support their adoptees in doing so as well. So, let's bring in Torie DiMartile.

Lori Holden:
Tori, thanks so much for being here today.

Tori DiMartile:
Thank you so much, Lori, for having me. I'm so excited to chat.

I've been really excited to dig into this with you. Let me tell you a little bit about yourself so we can, have some context for what you bring today. Victoria Tori DiMartile is a speaker, consultant, and cultural anthropologist. As a biracial, black, transracial, and adoptee – and let me just break that up a little bit: biracial and transracial are 2 different things. Biracial, meaning who you are in relation to your original family. Transracial; about the constellation of you in your family of experience.

So, Tori was raised in Kentucky in a white Italian-American family. She's the founder of Wreckage and Wonder LLC, a small business that educates perspective white adoptive and foster parents and provides webinars and training to adoption and child organizations. Tori's been featured on podcasts such as the Honestly Adoption podcast, the Adoptee Next Door, and participated on panels and given presentations at conferences such as Replanted conference, Insight conference, and the Families Rising conference.

Tori is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at Indiana University, working toward a dissertation titled Transracial Adoption in the Age of George Floyd: Race and Kinship in US Adoption. Tori's personal life and academic pursuits have made her passionate about addressing racism within the domestic and international adoption industries and advocating for family preservation and reproductive justice. She was recently named an Indiana University Griffin Graduate Pathways Fellow for Summer and Fall 2023, where she worked with adoption agencies and post-placement organizations to improve adoptive family education and create adoptee and birth parent centered programming. She currently coordinates the activism and adoption speaker series for On Your Feet Foundation (Love them) and volunteers locally in Bloomington, Indiana as an expert witness in family court cases and a consultant for small family-centered nonprofits designing staff trainings around race, adoption, and foster care. In Tori's free time, she likes to go on walks with her rescue dog, Rowdy (who you might hear today) drop portraits, and play with her 3 nephews.

So, once again, Tori, welcome, and I'm so pleased that you bring all of this experience to us today.

And now we resume the second half of our conversation with Tori DiMartile.

Let's talk about the worlds that adoptee straddle: this family or that family, this culture or that culture. And I'm saying the ‘or’ in between, which is what makes it a split – This race or that race. What is the adopting math like amid these dualities?

I think that goes back to when I said adoption is experienced daily in these micro moments. And especially as a transracial adoptee, we experience compounded loss. So, there's the first loss of being separated by biological family, and then there's the loss of connection to racial ethnic community, the loss of racial mirrors and relationships with people that share your identity. There's the loss of being understood by those in your immediate family. So, that's why I call it a compounded loss. They're just layered on top of one another.

And when that happens, we often go through the world having to respond to both wounds simultaneously. So, when someone says to me, because I was raised in a white family, I'm not black enough, that doesn't exist singularly. The other side of that, and what that animates, is the adoption wound of I'm not good enough. And that happens as kind of a yin yang in many instances. I experienced rejection in 2 ways; rejection biologically, but then because I was socialized in a white home and I adopted (no pun intended) many world views of my white family, I was often not a particularly safe person to be around for other people of color. And they, rightfully so, had some skepticism. And because of that, I experienced a lack of integration into black community, a sense of not being accepted, and a sense of being rejected.

So, these wounds kind of play upon one another in a way that is constant and painful for a lot of adopted people. And I say that because a lot of times when you have a transracially adopted person, a lot of people think, well, it's either adoption or race; one or the other is the issue. And oftentimes, those two issues enhance one another and exacerbate one another and are entangled. It's very hard to unthread who I am as a person of color from who I am as an adopted person from who I am as an adopted person of color. So, it's not I'm an adopted person or I'm an adopted person of color. It's that I'm both and that my experience of the world is intimately shaped by the confluence of those two identities.

And then you have situations where adopted people are often asked to choose. Well, would you pick your biological family or your adopted family? Sometimes people of color that are biracial, in my instance, are asked to choose; “Well, are you white, or are you black?” And then, “Well, do you identify more with your biological family or your adopted family? Which do you love more?”

So, there's always these questions from the external world that are asking adopted people of color to pick a box and are constantly erasing the complexity of our experience and the duality of our experiences.

So, again, that kind of phrase, I think, is just fundamentally antithetical to being human. You're not this or that as a human. You're not a mother or a sister. You're not a Christian or a teacher. You're not this or that in really any identity. You're always occupying multiple positions, and sometimes those positions are in conflict with one another. And that's part of what it means to be a human. But we just don't extend that kind of grace when it comes to these fundamental issues of kinship and racial identity and biological authenticity and things of that nature.

So, it always, to me, comes back to, again, the wreckage and the wonder. And for me, my whole life has been defined by both-and: I'm both white and black. I'm both biracial and black. I'm both a biological child and an adoptive child. Those things exist simultaneously.

So, again, that just goes back to kind of the core goal of my work is to reveal that nature of adoption and to encourage, yes, adoptive parents and professionals to embrace that and begin integrating it into how they teach parents and professionals to engage in adoption. But, also, my hope is that it penetrates the larger societal narrative of adoption because we often see the this or that, the binary view of adoption reinforced in our social media, our news media, entertainment, etcetera.

So, let's shift from the identity straddling that you just so well laid out, and let's talk about emotions, holding either-or, both-and emotions. Our mutual friend, Angela Tucker, explains in her book, You Should Be Grateful, that an adoptee can be both grateful for the life they have and also sad about the life they might have had; the losses on that side of the equation. How has this been for you (and also for your mom) since you began to be more real with her in coming out of the adoption fog and into your own adoptee consciousness?

Yeah. I mean, it was hard. It was really, truly, deeply painful for my mom and I to undergo my coming out of the fog process. I didn't really have anything to say about adoption as a child or as an adolescent. I may have had dormant emotions about it, but like I said earlier, they weren't well articulated. I couldn't necessarily present them outside of myself.

And when I started to look deeper and ask myself questions and become more aware of the social and economic and political and cultural implications of adoption and see it as something larger than myself. This isn't just my parents made a choice to adopt me. This isn't just individuals. This isn't just personal choice.

There's also these larger systems and structures at play that make adoption an option, that determine who can and who can't adopt, who's a fit parent, who is worthy to parent, what type of parenthood is valuable. Once I started to see, once I started to kind of feel the veil back, and I started to give myself permission to investigate my own experience through the lens of honesty. I started to really have big emotions about adoption and transracial adoption.

And never in that process did I feel less grateful for my parents. Never in that process did I love them less. Even though it was painful for all of us and how I was beginning to define adoption and experience it was drastically different than the way my parents defined it and experienced it, they were still my parents. I still deeply loved them and respected them, even if I didn't respect some of their choices.

And I remember kind of the barrier with them of not being able to understand that just because I'm mad or hurt or feeling grief or traumatized, that doesn't remove or invalidate the love that I have for them; that those things can and do exist simultaneously for many adopted people. And once they began to accept that simultaneity of emotions, my love and respect for them grew deeper. So, it didn't ever go away, but there was a moment when it deepened and expanded because they were able to do the hard, humble work of self-evaluation and of putting their desires second. And that's truly when our relationship moved from one of tension and struggle to one of just truly joy and relief.

I know I've said in many instances that my mom and I would look at each other, and we'd say, “I just don't know if we're going to get through this. I just don't know if we're going to get to the other side.” And the other side was specifically her, as I've mentioned, she and I are the ones in in my family that are doing the most engagement with adoption and race.

But there were a few key moments for her, And one of them was the instance I shared earlier of, you know, “Do you wish you were never adopted?” She asked me that. And I said, “Mom, why would you ask me that? What is the purpose behind that question? Is it because there's a certain answer that you would like to hear? And if there is an answer that you would like to hear, is that fair to me? Because doesn't that put me in a position of choice? And doesn't that put pressure on me to feel a certain way to appease you, even if it goes against my truth and my experience?”

That was a huge light bulb moment for her. And that's when she really began to lay down her pride and to say, “This is not about me. Not only is it not about me, but I need to start getting comfortable being uncomfortable. I need to start getting comfortable having my feelings hurt.” Because her feelings were hurt. I hurt her feelings. And we had to still find a way to the other side through that.

And when she fully embraced that, yes, she has her story, yes, she has adoption experience, but it's not for me to unpack. It's for her to unpack, and that she should be doing that with a therapist or a close friend.

Let's get into that a little bit more. And I just love hearing you as an adult adoptee who's been on this consciousness journey share all of that for me as the mother of 2 very young adult adoptees that you can go through the wreckage and get to the wonder with courage, with self-reflection, and with a commitment to really seeing each other. That goes along with really loving each other. But you have to be willing to go through the hard part to do that.

So, you started your consciousness journey, and it affected your mom, and in a way, you became the teacher of adoption and racial issues, and your mom was the student. Do you recommend that?

No. No. It was exhausting. And I will say that that process was connected with the election of President Donald Trump initially, then the kind of 2020 national racial reckoning. All of these things were tied up together, And I was also deep in my doctoral program studying transracial adoption, so I never got a break. I would go home and take a walk, and I would see militant white supremacist flags in my neighborhood. I would take a break from campus, and I would go downtown, and I would see people with rifles parading around the square to intimidate the Black Lives Matter protesters. So, in my off time, I was still always on. I was always having to think about race. I was always having to experience it. I was always having to protect myself. I could never go home and just put it on a shelf because it infiltrated every aspect of my life; my personal life, my academic life, my familial life.

And because of that, having to pick up the phone and have my mom on the other end to ask a question was just almost always the straw that would break the camel's back. And because of that combined tension and exhaustion, I almost left my doctoral program because I just could not envision continuing to investigate these questions of adoption, race, and identity at a professional and academic level when I was having to do it at such an intense and visceral level at home. For me, I felt like I had to choose because I could not endure both.

And for a while, I took on that role. I answered questions. I gave podcast recommendations. We would walk through and workshop conversations that she wanted to have with a black person. She would want to rehash and experience and try to understand what it would have been like from my perspective.

So, I was exerting a significant amount of labor in our relationship, and I began to feel resentful because this is your job as my parent to understand these dynamic issues. Not only is it your job, but it's a job you should have done 30 years ago. So, it sowed a lot of resentment. It created a lot of unnecessary arguments because I was always coming into these conversations at an emotional intensity of a 10 and she's coming in innocent and naive and eager to learn. And that was a volatile combination because I would often not treat her with a lot of compassion or grace because I didn't have any to extend. And then that would cause her to shut down and feel, like, even more fragile in her exploration of these topics. So, no, I would not recommend it. I think it greatly hindered our relationship as mother and daughter.

And I found when she started to attend a black church, she started to be in community with other black people in organic and natural ways and consistent. This isn't just like I see somebody at my Pilates class once a week. She was going 3 times a week to these deep and meaningful community events with other black people. She was developing relationships. And not to say that the labor was off put onto those black people, but she was able to witness the expansiveness of black life outside of me and being able to do that, not just through a book or a podcast or a webinar. She was able to live it, And she was able to sit down to other people who told her about experiences of racism that they had, who told her about how they felt unsafe, who told her about the moments that they had to navigate their identity. And then suddenly, it gave my experience even more credibility. It allowed her to understand my experience more. And I found that she was valuing these black people for just who they were and not because of what they could give her. She was learning from them about everything in life, not just about what it means to be a black person.

And that really alleviated so much pressure from me. It also allowed me to see that this is not just about me, that she's taking efforts to engage in black community outside of me. It's not like, oh, well, Tory is the exception. I'll talk to her about race, and I'll do what I need to help her navigate this, but that's where it ends. And that's what happens with a ton of white adoptive parents, that their only meaningful relationship with a person of color is with their child, and they only value their child. They do not value other Black people.

And they'll say, “Oh, that's not true. That's not true.” But it's true. Because if you valued them, you'd have them to dinner. If you valued them, you would try to understand how they vote politically. If you valued them, you wouldn't cross the street when somebody's walking towards you. You would have their books on your bookshelf. You would call them up as your friend to tell them about a new medical diagnosis. They would be integrated into your life. And for so long, no black people were in our lives. Not just mine, my parents. And that spoke volumes to me about how much they did not value blackness.

So, I hear you saying do be a student of these things, but don't be a student at the feet of your own adoptee for these things, and do be a student at the foot of people who are either doing this work or through forming actual real relationships and expanding your own comfort zone and getting into other communities that you may not have felt like you could be part of or you should be part of. Is that an adequate– ?


Okay. Okay.

Yes. And I will say that sometimes it is hard to discern for a lot of white folks, I think. You know, if you do develop a meaningful relationship with someone and you begin to build trust, then, yes, you can confide and ask questions. But be cognizant of the emotional labor and time it takes for that person. And if you're trying to pursue some very direct, consistent education, find someone whose job it is to do that.

And be willing to pay for the labor.

And be willing to pay for it. So, that is, I think, one thing that a lot of people struggle with is, “Oh, well, let's say I do befriend someone and we do have a meaningful relationship. Is it okay for me to talk about my transracial adoption?” And I would say, “Think about how you would respond in any other relationship. Have you built trust? Have you built credibility? Have you built a sense of mutual respect enough to have those conversations? And if you have, then yes. But also be cognizant of the frequency and that if you're needing something to go beyond just a friend giving you their friendly advice and you're needing consultation and you're needing sustained education, find somebody who provides that, that is a person of color that is preferably an adoptee and pay them for it.”

Let's talk a little bit more about your labor and your passion. You are a storyteller and a researcher. I'd like to hear more about your chosen field, which is anthropology, and how that fits in anthropology with storytelling and the ways we tell stories about adoption.

You ask such good questions. Yes. So, I did choose anthropology, and I really initially chose creative writing in English because I was such a storyteller. But then when I took an anthropology class and I was reading stories of people from all over the world with all different types of customs and traditions and cultures, that's where I felt most at home. And I quickly realized that anthropology is just storytelling about people and different people, and that seemed to be the best fit to me.

What I would come to find out is that anthropology is a largely white dominated discipline, and it has a history of supporting and disseminating race science. Science that reinforces ideologies about inferiority of black people and people of color. Anthropology has been, over the course of history, very involved in projects of colonialism and imperialism. And I quickly realized that I wanted to be part of this discipline in order to try to make it what I believed it could be, which is truly providing space to tell stories of difference, of resilience, of other cultures, other ways of knowing and seeing the world and experiencing the world. And unfortunately, as an academic institutionalized discipline, it hasn't always done that.

So, I really see my involvement in anthropology as an opportunity to decolonize the field of anthropology and to re-center the people with the lived experience and to really question our ideas about objectivity. We always think about science as an objective field, and it's not. We all come to research with preconceived notions and ideas and world views that we've been socialized in through our society and our families. And so much of that influences what kind of research is deemed valuable and what kind of knowledge is credible.

And that also really inspired me to think deeply about the way not only people of color are objects of inquiry in science but adopted people of color. And that oftentimes our knowledge is not deemed credible, especially as adults. And our experiences are not prioritized in the mainstream narrative of adoption; the dominant narrative of adoption that places adoptive parents at the center.

So, when I entered anthropology as a storyteller, I also entered it as someone who wanted to be a witness to my own experiences because I was seeing such a gap and such an absence of them in the literature. So, so much of what I do is adoptee centered because social narratives don't center adoptees, but a lot of the research doesn't center adoptees. That's changed drastically in the last several decades, but I feel as though we can really push even further to analyze, like you mentioned, the types of narratives we tell in society about adoption. Where do those come from? Why do they exist? Who do they serve? Who are they harming?

And many of those narratives have classist, racist, sexist undertones that are so deeply woven into the public discourse and just how we experience life and the images and things that we're absorbing that we don't often question them. And that's why when adult adoptees do question them, they're often met with significant pushback.

So, my hope is that my work can unveil some of those underlying narratives, the beliefs behind them that are harmful, that perpetuate an inferior position for adopted individuals. And if that can be unraveled and kind of dissected, then the hope is that we create more space for adopted people to tell their own narratives and to exist in a position of agency.

I feel like I want to have you come back and talk with me again when you are doctor DiMartiel because that's such a rich vein that we just tapped into in this load. And I'm so glad that in 2020, you were able to stay in this program, in this field, and navigate all that you were navigating so that you could have the both-and of doing this in your family, doing this in your personal life, doing this in your academic life.

In the interest of time, I just want to ask you one more question before we get to the last one. I'm being really selfish here because I found a quote that you said, and I wanted to make sure I got to be part of this episode. You once said this to adoptive parents. You said, “You signed up for the punch to the gut moments that test your resilience, your faith, and your ego.” What else would you like to say about that, Tori?

I just would like to make it a bumper sticker and a t shirt, and I just would like all prospective and current adoptive parents to hear that. I think adoption has just a very unique way of revealing our insecurities.

To be fair, parenting does too. You know?

Yeah. Yeah.

Your kids are going to find your buttons.

They're going to find your buttons.

In adoptive feedback, we find out a lot more buttons.

Yes. Yes. I think that is 1000% true. Parenting, in and of itself, is going to push you to your limits. And I think we need to be aware of the fact that when you add adoption as another layer to that, the work becomes deeper.

And many people just assume that parenting biological children and adopted children is the same. It's not going to cause any ruptures. It's not going to create confusion or sadness or any type of complex negative emotion. And my hope is that more adoptive parents are given a reality check because that's what that quote is. I've mentioned, you know, dominant societal narratives of adoption, and so many adoptive parents are just drunk off of them and for good reason because it serves them. Why would you want to crack open Pandora's box and deal with the issues that lie beneath? But if you don't deal with them proactively, if you're not willing to face them courageously and with humility, they rear their ugly heads later in life.

I want more adoptive parents to get a gut punch when they're in adoptive parent training. I want them to get a gut punch at the earliest point in the pipeline. Not to discourage them from adopting, but to provide them with the reality of what adoption is going to look like so they can start practicing now.

And it's almost like these gut punch moments are the ticket to having that relationship that you and your mother have developed; going through the wreckage, seeing each other for who you actually are, loving each other for who you actually are. If you're going to always be braced against those moments, if you're going to push away those moments and not expand your comfort zone, you'll be hobbled getting to that place of wonder.

Brilliantly said, Lori, because they really truly are the moments of pain that pave the road to connection. And you can't have a healthy, connected, meaningful relationship with your child while you're being defensive, while you're being insecure, while you're trying to solidify your claim to motherhood. Those put you in a position of distance to your child rather than in a position to, like you've said, kind of peel back that interior to be vulnerable and true to yourself.

And I think what's beautiful about that is as a parent, when you do that, you're providing a model for your child. When you're vulnerable, when you say you're sorry, when you admit to learning something new and having to change your opinion, what a spectacular road map you're giving for your child, especially an adopted child who can learn through that, “Oh, I can have complex feelings. Oh, I can feel different things at the same time.” So, I do think that's a great way of viewing it.

I always think of it as an invitation of, like, having these moments of tension and heartache and difficult communication is an invitation for deeper relationship. You can either see that invitation and say, “No. Thank you. I would not like to attend” or you can RSVP and say, “I'm willing to put in the work, and I'm willing to check my ego and my pride, and I'm willing to show up for the sake of my child.”

Beautiful. Beautiful. I'm sad that it's time for our last question because, this has been so rich, but I'm asking this of all of our Season 5 guests. Tori. What do you wish that all adoptive parents knew from Day 1 or from this moment of hearing you?

Adopted people really need to know you're going to stay. They desperately need to know that there's nothing that they can do or feel or say that's going to make you leave. And I think so many adopted individuals keep their feelings to themselves. They don't reveal that they're struggling or they have questions because they're afraid that their adoptive parents will be hurt, defensive, prideful, and therefore reject them.

So, my biggest hope is that adoptive parents think about adoption like you think about biological parenting. No matter how your child feels about adoption, they need to know that you're going to stay. And, also, no matter how long it takes them to heal, they need to know you're going to stay. I think that's another thing that my mom and I encountered was this concept of when do you think you'll be over this? When do you think you'll be fully healed? And my immediate question was, “Well, what if I'm not? What if I'm dealing with this for the rest of my life? Will you still love me?”

So, I really believe that adopted individuals need from their adoptive parents the space to engage with adoption however they feel, to be angry about it, to be joyful about it, to be confused, to be resentful, to be regretful. They need to know that regardless of how they feel about this thing that happened to them, that the people that chose them at the beginning are going to keep choosing them.

I want to tie something into that that I've been thinking so much as you and I are talking, and that's in tandem of seeing the adoptee, who they actually are. I got this memo late, and so this is coming from my own learning curve, which needed to be pretty dramatic, of actually seeing my children for who they are and not who they thought I wanted them to be. Because adoptive parents can say all the right words, “We'll always be there for you, I love you just the way you are.” But if there is any hint in us of wanting to change them or mold them or wish they were different in any other way, that will come across.

Yes. Yes. They will feel that. And because adoptees want to be loved and accepted, they oftentimes acquiesce or adapt to the desires and needs of adoptive parents in an attempt to maintain harmony and maintain acceptance and being loved.

I do think that's another important aspect is if you are giving your a child reason to believe that they need to potentially change, they may deny themself in order to potentially please you. And that will ultimately create tension in the relationship as they are not true to themselves and begin to create distance between themselves and a parent. So, I think that's a really good point. You need to love them for where they're at and for who they are and to show that in action, not just words.

I am so grateful to you, Tori, for coming here today and talking with us about the wreckage and the wonder and how both have value, and we can walk through both. And we can keep doing it. It's not a one-time tiptoe through the tulips. We're constantly in both places, and it's that courage to be there and courage to be there alongside our counterparts in adoption that really bring the wonder. So, thank you so much for being here.

Thank you so much for having me.

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