An adoption story | Jillian Lauren | TEDxChapmanU

Translator: Sonja Wolf
Reviewer: Amanda Chu That’s my son. (Audience) Awww. His name is Tariku. My husband Scott and I adopted him
from Ethiopia in 2009. And I can tell you that adoption
is not for the faint of heart. And Ethiopian and transracial
adoption in particular is not for people
who want to be invisible. Now, Scott and I had a little bit
of a jump on this because we’re a couple
of tattooed oddballs, so we were used to being stared at, but that is a very different
kind of attention than, for instance, we’re living in New York
and Tariku is two and a half years old, and he’s been diagnosed
with post-traumatic stress disorder. So he’s having these violent tantrums
like 10 times a day. And we have to go to a therapist
to learn how to contain him safely, so that he doesn’t
hurt himself or anyone else. And how you do this is lie down behind him on the ground
and hold his head with one hand and wrap your other arm around his arms
and secure his legs with your legs, and you stay there until he calms down. And this looks terrible,
and it feels terrible. And when you’re the only white people
in a subway station in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, (Laughter) and you have to restrain
a screaming African American toddler, that’s a very different kind of visibility
than I had been accustomed to at that point. And because we’re so visible as a family, people want to talk to me
a lot about adoption, and sometimes they say things like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to adopt,
but my spouse would never consider it because you never know
what you’re going to get.” And I think, wow, I mean – I never thought of that
when we started the process because I figured you never know
what you’re going to get anyway, right? (Laughter) That’s just like … life. So okay, I understand,
adoption is not for everybody. But it does have things
to teach all of us. For instance, adoption really highlights
the whole nature vs. nurture thing, like I can always tell when people are studying Tariku
to try to gather evidence for whatever side
of this debate they fall on. You know, “Oh, he’s so fast!” Well, of course, because Ethiopians
win all the marathons. (Laughter) “Oh, he’s so handsome!” Well, of course, because Ethiopians
are all so beautiful. And, “Oh, he’s such a great drummer!” (Laughter) Enough said. (Laughter) But if you look more closely at how adoptees assemble
an integrated sense of identity, we can see that who we are
and where we belong in this world are not just a function
of nature or nurture. Who we are is an act of imagination. We are not just our genetic material
or how we are raised, we are also the stories we tell ourselves. So let me tell you
a little bit about my son now. He’s six, and he’s doing great. There are no more tantrums, except once in a while
when there’s an iPad involved. (Laughter) And the only other thing
you need to know about this kid is this: Airplanes. Airplanes, airplanes and airplanes.
My son loves airplanes. He spends all day every Saturday at LAX
watching the jets take off. He knows every airline, he knows where they’re from,
he knows where they hub out of, he knows the difference
between a 747 and an A – A380. Do you know what those little tips
on the ends of airplane wings are called? No? Oh, someone actually knew it! No. You don’t. (Laughter) Neither did I until he told me
they are called winglets. Yes, winglets. So if you take nothing else away
from this talk, winglets. (Laughter) So this little boy who is being raised
10,000 miles from where he was born is crazy about airplanes. And he has a room plastered in maps, and he wants to hear all the time about his journey
from Africa to California. And he has embraced his journey
as a grand adventurer. I remember when we first
brought him home. After years of bureaucracy and frustration they finally placed
my gorgeous son in my arms. And I was overcome with a sense
of rightness and purpose and calm. And my big tough-guy husband
with tattoos to his eyeballs, former United States marine, was weeping. And it was love at first sight for us. For Tariku? Not so much. (Laughter) He was looking at the sky all the time, and so we picked for him
the middle name Moon. We thought he loves the sky, how poetic,
we’ll call him Tariku Moon. And then we figured out that he just
didn’t want to make eye contact with us. (Laughter) It’s true, he was looking away,
and we were worried. We were worried. We were worried about the eye contact, we were worried
about his motor development, we were worried about his lungs. And so for the first few months
that he was here, we just pretty much held him and fed him and walked him in circles
around the neighborhood. And while I did this,
mostly for a lack of anything else to do, I told him a constant stream of stories. I told him about
how we came to be a family, and I told him stories about Africa, and I told him stories
about Paddington Bear and the stuff I was raised with. And slowly, his eye contact improved,
and his muscles caught up, and I felt him relax into my body. When I say slowly, really, it took years. There were years of night terrors
and screaming tantrums. And it has not been easy for him. But he is doing beautifully now, and he trusts that we’re not
going anywhere. And he sits there with his little hand
in mine and his eyes wide, and he watches the sky, not because he can’t
make eye contact any more but because he loves airplanes. And he asks me all the time;
he’s fascinated about his origins. He says, “Am I African?” and I say yes. And he says, “Am I Jewish?” and I say yes. And he says, “Am I Irish?” and I say yes. And he says, “I’m going to go there.” And I say, “Where?” (Laughter) and he says, “Korea.” (Laughter) And while my son is not yet
consciously creating an identity from all these disparate influences,
that is precisely what he’s doing. Slowly, piece by piece
and with great courage, my son is inventing himself. And he is inventing himself as a traveler, who’s looking toward his journey forward
and his journey backward at the same time. And witnessing this sometimes painful
but often very inspiring process has shed a lot of light on my life because I also was adopted. I was adopted as an infant
in the early 70s. And the rhetoric around adoption
has changed a lot since then. And I still sometimes have differences
with my mother about this because she says, “It is exactly the same. It is exactly the same
as if I had given birth to you.” And I say, “No, it’s not.
It’s not the same.” And that’s not to say
that it’s better or worse or that there’s more
or less love – there isn’t. It’s not a qualitative statement. It’s a fact. Adoptive families
are formed in a different way. And as a result, adoptees have a more complex answer
than most people to the question: “Who am I?” And I think about this
when I tell my son bedtime stories, I think that being adopted, it’s like
being a character in a fairy tale. There’s a sense
of invention and possibility. And I know that when I was a little girl, I used to tell myself stories all the time
to explain where I came from. I was a princess, who had been spirited away
from a magical island by a wicked fairy, or I was a gypsy who fell out of the back of a caravan
and got taken in by kindly farmers. You know, my mother loves that one. (Laughter) And in all of these fantasies
as a result of this dislocation, I had a secret power in me,
and I just didn’t know what it was yet. And I’ve come to realize
that that actually was true all along because all of these hours that I spent
weaving tales about where I came from, these hours were my training ground
for being a writer. And a writer is what I still am today. And whether or not
we are professional storytellers, we are all telling ourselves
and our children stories all the time about who we are and where we come from
and what matters to us. So this isn’t just relevant to adoptees, because in my son’s
kindergarten class alone, we have interracial families,
we have same-sex parents, we have single parents,
we have everything. And all of these kids
are busy using their imagination to cook up who they are. So regardless of your
personal family configuration, adoption can give us all the chance
to reflect on family and identity in a more creative way. And the other thing I’ve learned
from adopting my son is that it’s not just our sense of self
that is a conscious creation. It is also our connection to others. Love is a decision. Love is an action. And I can’t really think
of a more important lesson when UNICEF places the number
of orphans worldwide today at 153 million. There are 4.6 million orphans in Ethiopia. There are half a million kids in foster care in this country
alone right now. And while adoption is not the solution
for the world orphan crisis, it was a solution for my son,
and it was a solution for me. And what I’ve learned from it is that where we belong in this world is not just a function
of the blood in our veins. It’s a choice. It’s a gift we give each other. And with that in mind, I like to think
that all those millions of children living without the love
of a family right now, that we all might be able
to choose a story in which their care
is all of our responsibility. And I don’t know
how that’s going to happen, but I do know that right now
my son is watching the sky. And what was once for him
a place of escape from pain has become a space
of enormous possibility, where giant hunks of steel
that weigh 200 tons, somehow, magically fly. Thank you. (Applause)


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