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Family, Nonviolence, and Social Class in Adoption: One Family's Story




"You're going to have to face it, Mom," my daughter taunted me. "Me and my friends are just white trash. And we do white trash kinds of things."

She was fifteen and had only lived with us since she was eleven. I was explaining to her why we wouldn't allow her to go with her friend's family to a casino. I had a pretty good idea what went on there. The other parents both drank and played the slots while our two 15-year-old kids did what they wanted – which included drinking, smoking, and sex in the bathroom. My husband Doug and I held dramatically different views on appropriate activities for teenagers. Our management of the teenagers' time seemed excessive to the other set of parents and unreasonable, just as their lack of oversight seemed bizarre and inappropriate to us.

Barbara said this, knowing exactly how I felt about the names and labels teenagers place on each other: slut, whore, white trash, towel head, and worse. We had those conversations from time to time. These aren't words I use, not words that I want to hear, and particularly not by my teenaged daughter – not even about herself. Especially, not about herself.

At a deeper level, she sensed that I harbored anxieties over class differences, along with a lack of understanding, an inability to navigate the class lines that divide our society. I believe she knew, albeit subconsciously, that I was not only bothered by the term "white trash" but also by the fact that it was being used by and about my own daughter.

E. Kay Trimberger, professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University, writes about her experience as an adoptive mother who had to navigate those boundaries of race and class for the sake of her son. Much like my daughter, her son accused her of being classist, even if she might not be racist. Trimberger admitted, "I didn't know how to relate to people who lived in small, cramped apartments, whose incomes were irregular and precarious, who sometimes didn't have food in the house, who didn't have regular meal times together, and who had family members who were in jail and/or drug users."[1]

As my children became adults with their own circles of friends and in-laws, I was drawn into interactions that have carried me far outside my comfort zone. My sole frame of reference prior to adopting Barbara and Matthew was my turbulent relationship with one sister-in-law who came from a welfare-class family. We loved each other, but we struggled in our relationship. My children, on the other hand, always lived between social worlds, crossing the boundaries and never of their own choice.

So when Barbara flung out her self-denigrating claim of "white trash" she prompted me to reflect on something that I should have (perhaps) considered when she was eleven and arrived in our home after five years in foster care. We had received extensive training on the difficulties of adopting older, hard-to-place children who had wandered through the foster care system, frequently for years. But no one had suggested that the hardest part might be the way it forced me to face my own prejudices and biases.

***

Over the years of watching my children grow to adulthood, I searched for anything written about social class in adoption. There was almost nothing in the literature that I could find. Much has been written on social class in marriage, or in parenting styles, or in society in general. There was also an overwhelming sea of information about the many issues in adoption, from behavioral problems to race and ethnicity, but not social class. It made me wonder if I was the only one that found this difficult, or why class theory was never applied to adoption.

Recently, in the continuing near-absence of such literature, I turned to my son Matthew. As an adult, now in his 30s, he enjoys talking about things like this, sifting through memories, comparing notes. I barely got the words "adoption" and "social class" out of my mouth when he dived in. "Do you want to know what those differences looked like to me when you adopted us?" He was eight when he and his sister arrived in our home. They had spent five years in foster care. "Here are the broad categories where I noticed class differences: food, discipline, toys (both what children and adults play with), and parental expectations."

I began with parental expectations, considering my own experience of relinquishing many of my hopes over the years. I have not, for example been able to impart to Barbara and Matthew the value of an education, or of saving money, or of planning for the future. But Matthew had something else in mind. "Our birthparents had no expectations except that we stay out of their way. Our foster parents weren't too strict with me, but they expected Barbara to be their Barbie doll," he told me. "Soon after we came to live with you, we got really muddy when we played in the creek. When we came home for lunch, Barbara was scared to go in the house. I told her it would be okay, but she was sure you'd be angry that she was muddy. You asked her 'Matthew's muddy, too, so why are you worried and he isn't?' But we both knew that girls were supposed to stay clean and be quiet. And you told us to get as dirty as we want and that's what the bath tub was for."

My children experienced three distinct social classes by the time they were eight and eleven. They were born into the welfare class, where they alternated between the streets, homeless shelters, and an occasional apartment. In foster care, they were in a lower working-class home where the foster father was a janitor, the mother a permanent foster caregiver. They were members of a southern Assemblies of God church. Then at eight and eleven, they came to our home. We were both college-educated, worked at Cornell University, and were part of a house church where everyone was educated and middle-class. While not wealthy, we could easily meet life's needs beyond the basics.

Some of the differences Matthew went on to describe were superficial, but important to children. They were used to canned spinach, pudding snack packs, and pop tarts bought with careful planning and coupon snipping. We shopped for organic apples, tofu, and green leafy vegetables. They had never had a story read to them and we had more books than toys. We expected them to play with sticks, wade in the creek, and (yes!) get muddy. They were used to toys with motors (dirt bikes, go-carts) while we went canoeing, hiking, and fossil-hunting.

Other differences, however, were much more substantial and became clear over time, particularly into their adulthood. This included things like how we manage resources (time, money, even emotions) and the emotional capacity to allow us the space to engage in activism and social change.

There is something quite prescient in a child's view of the world. One of Barbara's first questions after adoption focused on being Mennonite ("You won't make me be that, will you?") and the second one on nonviolence ("What kind of crazy is that?") Their experiences in their family of origin were such that a term like "nonviolence" was irrational and pointless. Their foster family would have found it to be unpatriotic and useless. Their earliest collective memory involved knives and excessive amounts of blood. At ages 3 and 5, they were the ones who called 9-1-1 to salvage a bad situation. The disconnect between that as one's earliest memory and our vision of nonviolence was glaring.

After numerous times hearing them relate this event to us, I began to understand that the story and the violence was no longer their story alone. Our family story had become steeped in violence. We had to look for different ways to define and live nonviolence. Our collective story shared this single, horrifying event. How do you teach nonviolence, how do you live it when the collective experience belies even its possibility? All we could do was let them tell their story as often as necessary.

Like so much of life with children who have resided in foster care, we began to rearrange our lives and redefine our beliefs, a decidedly unsettling process of our daily lives.

***

Soon after we moved to Reedley, a small central California town, Walmart attempted to open a store. I don't care for Walmart and its methods, a sentiment shared by others in our community. The process to barricade our town against Walmart began. Many of the opponents included members of the Reedley Peace Center, a progressive group to which my husband and I belonged. Walmart, they said, was unjust. I agreed. Except that, like Liza Featherstone, a writer for The Nation, it wasn't quite that simple.

Writing for The Nation in the early 2000s, Featherstone described her investigation into Walmart, it's employees and practices. She concluded that, while she finds much wrong with the company, there are people who benefit from its presence. Barbara was newly on her own, and her friends' families, most of whom were struggling to get by, had no place to shop in Reedley. They would save pennies to fill their gas tanks to drive twenty miles to a Walmart to afford a few basic necessities: underwear, shampoo, aspirin. I didn't want to come down on the side of Walmart, but the issue became a bit muddied when I weighed the potential presence of Walmart alongside the needs of a different set of Reedley citizens. When I wanted to talk about this at the Peace Center, I was cut off mid-sentence with statement, "But we're doing the right thing. Walmart would hurt Reedley if we let it come here." My daughter's experience was, in short, irrelevant to The Cause. Walmart withdrew its attempt and my daughter continued to struggle to buy daily necessities.

***

Soon after the Walmart debacle, a dinner table discussion with Matthew (who was 16) focused on some 1990s political event. He stopped us. "This is the difference between us," he said. "You look at the world and you're always asking questions, trying to figure out how to change things. I hear the same things and I just see the way things are."

Whether this is a product of the differences in the way social classes view the world, or of Matthew's life experiences is a bit difficult to say – it's some of both, I presume. There is a resignation in my kids toward what happens in life, personally or politically. What is, is. And they believe there is little they can do to change it.

***

In studying cross-class marriages, sociologist Jessi Streib determined that the middle-class spouse, in keeping with how s/he had been raised, took a managerial approach to decision-making and to life. They tended to carefully schedule, monitor, and organize as much as they could: career and work, money and savings, children and parenting, housework, time, leisure, emotions. The working-class spouse, on the other hand, sat back and allowed things follow their own course. They did this even though they had obtained an education and entered the marriage that, in effect, provided an entry point into a different social class. Strieb writes, "Just as taking the person out of the class did not take the class out of the person, a marriage was not a new beginning that removed the imprints of each partner's class past."[2]

Over time, I have had to reconsider the emotional space needed to plan and manage one's life or to have the ability to consider issues of justice. When I plan my retirement, for example, or when I walk through the world muttering about this or that injustice, I now recognize that these things are a luxury that not everyone has. As adults, my children find it difficult to save for the future or to make long term life plans. They do not feel connected to broader social and political forces. Their experiences keep them a permanent part of that segment of society for whom planning and management, even for connection, is outside of their scope of being.

***

Early in the fateful U.S. 2016 election campaign I entered a brief, passionate stage of trying to understand the people flocking to Trump rallies chanting "Make America Great Again" and "Lock her up." I read Arlie Russell Hochschild and J.D. Vance, and any news analysis I could find. I saw misogyny and racism and hatred and fear as I tried (initially) to understand.

My desire to understand ebbed and flowed throughout the campaign, as I moderated my own anger in response. This desire slowly died in a fit of anger and deep, abiding sadness. At the beginning the pundits spun theories based on class, gender, race, and education levels. Over time, the revelation came that it was, in fact, not a straightforward case of a specific demographic, not limited to uneducated, under-employed white males. But even so, class clearly played a role.

Woven through the warp of 2016 and beyond, was our own personal pathway through the perils of cross-class relationships. For all her adult life, Barbara harbored a reluctance to become politically aware or involved. Prior to the 2008 California primary, she surprised Doug and me when she asked us to help her register so that she could "vote for a woman."

Then came the 2016 presidential campaign. In the summer, as I watched the Democratic National Convention, Barbara sent me a text to ask what I was doing. I asked if she was watching the convention and she texted back, "Oh Mom! It's all I can do to go to work, take care of myself, and look after my dogs." Before I could answer, she sent another text, "Politics doesn't have much to do with me." I suggested a few ways that it might affect her (health care or taxes, for examples) and her texting stopped. I figured I had scared her once again so I let it go. Then came her final text of the evening, "I may not care about this Mom, but I'll be really happy for you if Hillary wins."

Through our most difficult times, Barbara and I have made an art form out of our use of social media to communicate. We both need and love each other deeply even when living our relationship is problematic, but we have found an avenue in careful texting. By November, the day after the election, our exchanges took on a different tone, one more reflective of the general atmosphere in our country.

With a Facebook taunt making the rounds of Barbara's husband's family ("Suck it up, Buttercup. We had to put up with Obama for eight years.") Doug and I decided we couldn't let it go. Both of us attempted to explain the racism inherent in that statement. We kept it brief and hoped for the best. What we got in return was a rage that we have rarely experienced in her adult years. "Me and my friends aren't stupid," she ranted. "And we can believe what we want. I've always been a disappointment to you. I'M NOT LIKE YOU AND I NEVER WILL TO BE."

As the mood of the United States has deteriorated since the election, we spent the following year mending our own family rifts.

***

There are many issues in adoption, many of them leaving families adrift, alone, and bewildered. Issues of social class and differing values may not seem like the most important ones when raising a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder or who has been abused and neglected. But for me, at least, it has been these issues that have left me (and my children), at times, in a state of permanent displacement, forced to navigate some of the most difficult and nebulous societal boundaries at an intimate level.

With all our struggles, we've seen our children become reasonably functional adults, holding jobs and finding their own meaning in life. I am uncomfortable at family gatherings that include my daughter's in-laws, but I've come to look forward to our annual Easter dinners together at Barbara's house, sharing a meal while steering clear of political discussions.

Our daughter finds some satisfaction connecting to her Mennonite grandmothers in ways I never could do. She attributes her finesse at quilt design and jam making to both grandmothers. To be sure, her grandmothers would never have considered making mango-habanero or strawberry-jalapeno jams, but they taught her these arts and she loves it. Our son enjoys a good political discussion even while resolutely claiming that such things are beyond an individual's influence. He is ambivalent about environmental issues, and yet he is helping us turn our California drought-weary backyard and orchard into a xeriscaping oasis. He prunes and tends our peach, persimmon, and orange trees with tenderness.

Over the years, and with continuing stumbles and scrapes, we have carved out a corner of the world where we can communicate with and love each other in our own bumbling, fumbling ways. In an article about writing ecstatic essays, Rachel Yoder states that we are "inexorably altered when we are thrust into the world of the real..." My children have thrust me into that real world. They have given me a profound sense of and appreciation for the many stories that people carry. They have altered and reshaped my values: nonviolence and justice, community, activism. But most importantly, perhaps, they have helped me understand the disjointed nature of loss, anger, and pain. I have learned that I can live with a level of discomfort that I once would have considered unbearable and unmanageable. I have learned (I hope) to listen a little closer while speaking less and I have come to recognize how pain lingers for generations. I've learned to manage my own expectations and loss.

And even this last paragraph illuminates my privileged, class-based space.



[1] E. Kay Trimberger, "Adoption and Class Differences," Psychology Today, guest blogger

www.psychologytoday.com/blog/adoption-stories/201405/adoption-and-class-differences, accessed 4/10/2017

[2] Jesse Streib, "Marrying Across Class Lines," Contexts 14, no. 2 (2015): 40-45.

About the Author

Hope Nisly

Hope Nisly is a librarian at Fresno Pacific University, and a writer living in Reedley, California. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming from DreamSeeker Magazine, Journal of Mennonite Writing, Fredericksburg Literary and Arts Review, Mojave River Review, Esthetic Apostle, and others. Her stories have aired on Valley Writers Read, a program of the local NPR-affiliate station.