I met Mike Morrell during a trip to Atlanta in 99′ or 2000 while visiting an intentional community church he participated in. Since then Mike married his high school sweetheart, Jasmin, had a beautiful daughter, and made the decision to follow his passion. He has been instrumental in furthering the discussion of what it means to be Christian, with an emphasis on love and equality for all.
When it came time to choose Penelope’s godparents, we immediately agreed on Mike and Jasmin. That’s why you’ll often see him referred to as “The Godfather” in my posts
The Morrell’s stay busy, completing degrees, writing, editing, traveling, and raising their daughter, Jubilee.
During Mike’s recent visit to Atlanta we sat down to discuss adoption, connecting with his birth parents, blended families, and fatherhood.
Mike: It is, yes.
J: Recently you had a unique experience among some adoptive people. We’ll discuss that in a little bit. Let me just start out and ask you how sensitive a topic is adoption now versus 10 or 20 years ago?
M: Do you mean how sensitive do I think it is in the culture at large?
M: I would say in most corners it’s way more open now than it used to be. My impression is, and what I’ve gathered, is there used to be a culture of almost shame and secrecy around adoption and now people are far more commonly talking about adoption, either if it’s their children that they have adopted or if they are kids or adult children who were adopted it seems more common now. It’s more out in the open.
J: When did you find out you were adopted?
M: I found out I was adopted when I was, I want to say, 4 or 5 years old. I kept pestering my mom about “birds and the bees” type questions and think I point blank asked her at one point if I grew in her belly. My mom is of the “I will not tell a direct lie” school of ethics, and though it was an uncomfortable topic for her, she decided to give it to me straight. She told me then that I was adopted and that they chose me, my mom and dad chose me, and that they loved me very much because they especially chose me.
J: What were your feelings at the time?
M: I think I thought it was kinda cool. The way they told the story was that I was born in somewhat conflicting experiences, it wasn’t possible for my birth parents to keep me, so I was placed up for adoption, and that out of all the boys and girls my parents could have chosen, they chose me. So it gave it a sort of sense of special-ness or entitlement to it that made me feel unique.
J: And how did those feelings and thoughts evolve as you grew up, as you got into high school, in college, got married. Certainly you didn’t feel the same way the whole time, or did you?
M: No I didn’t feel the same way the whole time. Very early on I received a mixed message from my parents, because though they narrated the story in a rather matter of fact yet touching way, it was also clear it wasn’t something they were very comfortable talking about.
After that initial time, and then another time about five years later it was brought up, it was never brought up in our home. I think that my dad said something to the effect of “we love you as though you were our very own because as far as we are concerned you are our very own”. And the implicit second half of that statement was “so lets not talk about it”.
I always felt a little bit of uncomfortably around the topic. I would measure someone growing up, whom I considered to be a very close friend, if I let them in on that aspect of myself. But sensing my parents apprehension I would always preemptively say “But don’t ever mention this around my parents.”
J: So it was something you instinctively gathered from what they were saying rather than an explicit “Let’s not discuss this.”
M: No, they were never even that direct. So it was always implicit not to discuss it. It wasn’t a topic of conversation. But I still felt positively about it. It never really struck me as something to judge negatively until I think I was about 9 years old when my parents wanted to foster children because they were still interested in adopting further children potentially.
My adoptive mother, or “mom” as I know her, was unable to have biological children of her own so they were still interested in adopting and wanted to foster more kids in the late 80’s. So I think in 89′ the three of us (because they involve the kids too) began training through DFAX for fostering kids. During that time I went through my own training with other sort of peer leaders.
Particularly I remember these two teenage girls who were themselves in a family that fostered kids but they were adopted from the foster system. I never forget that those two girls had such venom and acrimony towards their biological parents, whom I think they did know as very small children before the kids were ushered into the foster care system, for several years until they ended up in the adoptive family they ended up in. But they were just super resentful towards their biological parents, feeling abandoned. It was just really interesting hearing them because at the time I was like 9 and they were 14 or 15 and it had never occurred to me to feel resentment towards biological parents at that point. And it didn’t make me feel resentment but it still introduced a new possibility of emotion into that equation.
J: So you were 9 years old. And going forward was this something that lingered or was it at the forefront of your thoughts as you were growing up?
M: I rarely thought about my adoption growing up. It wasn’t until I was an older teenager, say 17, and dating the girl I eventually married that she asked me if I was curious about my family of origin and if I wanted to research it. At the time I said “No, I never thought of it”. And I think i was unconsciously imitating the tone my parents had set which was “If I’m in a loving home then where I came from doesn’t matter”. So I was profoundly incurious about it.
But slowly that question worked its way into me. I would say that by the time I was in college, by the time I was in my early 20s’ I did begin to wonder where I came from. One of my old college room mates actually had this bizarre theory that I was the bastard love child of Philip K Dick, science fiction author, and had some really crazy, compelling circumstantial evidence to back up the claims in addition to the fact that we sort of resembled each other physically. But as I was to find out years later I am alas not the love child of Phillip K Dick.
J: Oh well.
M: You win some you lose some.
J: That would be some claim though!
M: It would be, it would be. I’m perfectly happy with the birth parents I’ve discovered however.
J: Is there a kinship you feel with other people that are adopted? Does that exist?
M: I would say it’s not like this immediate secret brotherhood or anything. But, it always does spark an immediate kind of potential connection. I think that’s the best way I could put it. If I talk to someone and find out their adopted it could be something that we potentially connect around or that we in general we can potentially connect in a deeper way but it’s not an automatic assumption, not for me.
J: You mentioned you recently connected with your biological parents
M: I did.
J: Describe the emotions you were feeling both before the experience with each of them and how you felt afterwards? What did you go through?
M: That’s a great question. First there is sort of the mechanics of how I managed to do the reunion. And it’s an interesting story. I had a lot of questions. I didn’t know if I needed to hire a private detective or what to do. Finally I got in contact with a man via my mentor, Wes Roberts. Wes is friends with a man who recently passed away due to cancer, unfortunately, who’s a nationally syndicated radio personality named Rich Buhler. Rich was adopted, and among other things he ran he had a talk show. He always had things to say about the process of adoption.
I got to speak to him about 3, 3.5 ago. He let me know that in my home state that I was born in, and adopted in, Georgia, there’s something called the Adoption Reunion Registry and that you can get on that. And if you really luck out your biological parents want to be found, perhaps they are already on the ARR, and then you connect to each other immediately. If they’re not on the registry though there are ways they can have access to otherwise sealed adoption records, which when I was born over 30 years ago, all adoptions were sealed pretty much. They had a process to access those records and then through these mutually double blind, notarized letters back and forth between them they could contact the biological parents to see if they want to be in contact. And if so we exchange letters without signatures, without identifying information, until it’s confirmed that both parties still want to be in contact. And then they make an introduction. That process costs a few hundred dollars. It turned out my birth mother, who’s the primary person I was tracking, was not originally on the registry so I ended up doing that process which is what led to our connection.
But interestingly even though we weren’t supposed to have identifying information about ourselves in the correspondence that we had that was sent beforehand, apparently there were enough clues in there that my birth mother was able to cyberstalk me and actually sent me a Facebook friend request before the official process had run it’s course. I’ve gotta say, I don’t know how many people listening out there have ever received a Facebook friend request with a note attached saying “Hello I could be wrong about this, but I believe I’m your birth mother”.
J: Not many I would imagine
M: Yeah, you know I’ve got 5000 Facebook friends and that was certainly the most unique request that I had received. So that was our initial connection. I was coming back from being away over Christmas and new years and I guess right at the very beginning of 2011 when I had gotten that friend request. Sent a message and got a phone number. We talked on the phone for the first time and it was pretty wild just to hear some of the things we had in common, a few common interest. It was a sense of a long time mystery being solved. It was a really cool connection.
J: That brings me to another question. Did you feel there was a piece of you that was in a sense “filled in” by this connection or did you know it was there, did you not know it was there and you only discovered it when you began speaking to her?
M: That’s such interesting question. connecting with both her, and shortly thereafter my birth father, I did see some aspects in common in terms of they were both very opinionated people, they are both entrepreneurial, and creative. And so there were some cool resonances there but it actually wasn’t as intensely “Oh I found this missing piece of myself” as i think i may have built it up in my mind. I think there’s a bit of allure that develops around adoption that makes you feel like there’s this sort of ache or primal wound or something that once you find these people you’re going to have a missing piece of yourself.
I was very fortunate to have a wonderful reunion experience with both of my birth parents. I know in some cases the birth parents don’t want to be in touch, or they turn out to be co-dependent, or addicts, or there’s all kind of horror stories out there. I’m really grateful that none of that was the case with me.
At the same time i think that what it confirmed that there are some ways in which I am simply unique. So in the ways in which I felt like maybe I didn’t fit in when i was growing up among my parents, my adoptive parents, that maybe if I ever imagined “well I don’t fit in with them but it’s because I’m more like my birth parents” in some ways I’ve discovered that I’m just a unique person on my own two feet. It’s great as an adult to be in a relationship with the parents I’ve always had as well as my birth parents.But I’m relating to all of them really as an adult.
Yeah, its an interesting process. It’s not over yet by any means so I’m still along for the journey in this regard.
J: So in some respects it offers you a larger palate to work from than other people.
J: Not necessarily the way people would choose but it’s the hand you were dealt.
M: Yeah, it is the hand I was dealt. And I think increasingly in this day and age there are a lot of adopted children, and lots of blended families, people who have step parents of one sort or another, I think a lot of us are getting to play with larger palates these days as we’re discovering why we’ve developed in the way we have and what’s formed our identity.
J: Now this particular question is going to be important for me and anyone reading, or for a lot of people reading this. What do you feel adoptive parents should know about their adopted children? Is there something about the experience? For Jennifer and I we can’t relate in some respects to the experience Penelope has. What is it that parents should know in this circumstance?
M: That’s a good question. Now I’m a parent myself of a 5 year old who is my biological child. But I think what I would like adoptive parents to know is that first of all “thank you, congratulations”. I want to say to both birth parents who need for whatever reason or choose for some reason to put their children up for adoption as well as those who adopt I think you all need to give yourselves a round of applause. Because to me there is no blame or shame in deciding for whatever reason that you are not able to raise a child that you’re birthing. There are all kinds of reasons, whether financial or emotional, that you might not be able to raise your child that you brought into the world. Adoption is a very responsible and very compassionate path to choose rather than doing something that you’re honestly not sure you’re capable of doing. That’s to the birth parents out there.
To the adoptive parents “congratulations and thank you” for giving a child the opportunity to grow up in a loving, stable home. You’re not going to be perfect. You have the desire and you have the means and ability to do so. I think that’s an amazing thing.
What I think I’ve leaned from my own experience with reunion and communicating with my adoptive parents it sort of re-realizing unspoken reality that I learned in childhood was that they were not comfortable talking about my adoption. i think that adoptive parents need to give themselves some grace to realize that no matter what kind of excellent, exemplary job they do raising their children their adoptive kids are still going to be curious about their roots. At least I was. Maybe that’s not across the board . But chances are that at some point in your child’s development whether in childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood they are going to be curious about and interested about their family of origin. And that’s no slight on you or your parenting skills. You’ve still done an amazing job and there’s something deep down in a child’s DNA that they want to know where they’ve come from. They are curious about it. And they might even want an ongoing relationship with their birth parents.
But I think that while that’s an unusually familial situation it’s not unprecedented and there are ways to healthily navigate that so your kids will still have a relationship with you forever and they are introducing, if all parties are willing, a new set of relationships into the equation. What I would want adoptive parents to know is that’s OK.
J: That’s a lot to think about!
M: Sure, I can imagine from a parents side there might be all kinds of anxieties involved. “What does this mean, am I losing my special connection, am I losing what I’ve invested and poured out my life into?” But I’d say no, it can be a both/and. It can be a win/win scenario. I’m not sure if that’s the sort of response you’re looking for, as opposed to some day-to-day parenting advice. It’s probably about 95% similar to parenting any child I’m guessing.
J: This question is a bit off course here. In our situations both of our children are racially diverse. I’ll let you discuss that. Jennifer and I have adopted from China. How do you believe discrimination may affect their lives as they get older?
M: That’s such an interesting question. You’ve adopted cross-culturally. I am essentially a Caucasian guy, though there is a wrinkle to that which I might get into in this interview. I’m married to an African American woman so our child is mixed race. I don’t know if this has happened for your wife, Jeremy, but I know that when mine has been at the public library in Raleigh where we live there have been a couple of times when the same librarian, bless her heart, (which is a southern euphemism for F-U if you don’t know), she has said to my wife, because my daughter is considerably lighter skinned than my wife is “Oh, the nanny doesn’t have to pay the overdue charge!”
J: Oh my goodness!
M: So there is a lot of presumption and assumption on behalf of people out there in the world working retail, working in public service jobs, that they have this insider knowledge about how you’re related to the little person that’s beside you. So they will often, I wouldn’t be shocked, as a different race child gets older, maybe as a teenager, sometimes even if the three of you are out for a meal if they will ask “Is this together or is this separate?”.
All kinds of questions that you get when the appearance of a family looks different from one another. It’s a very superficial, judgmental level that people will react on . But I guess thinking about that in advance and talking to your child in age appropriate ways as they grow up about the difference, being open about those differences will be important to help protect and nurture their emotions as they are growing up.
J: Do you believe it was generational? Is this something that you feel in 10 or 20 years will be as much of an issue? That it will be just something that happens randomly and people will look around “I can’t believe that person said that” whereas 20 years ago people would look at you and be like “I can’t believe you’re married to that woman and have this child”
M: I think the inherent racism will go away generationally. That does seem to be what’s happening. But the innocent naiveté may not go away generationally. Even having dated, and then marrying, an African American woman as a white guy I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been asked, we still get asked, “Is this together or separate?” when we’re going out to eat. And sometimes, often times, by people younger than us at the register. And then other times if I happen to be out with a female friend who happens to be white they assume we’re a couple.
So there are these cultural assumptions that are racially embedded. It might be too strong to call them racist or prejudice. I think it would do for any reader to consider, the next time you see a group of people out who are different ethnicity, and especially if they have a child that seems like one of those Sesame Street “one of these things doesn’t quite belong here” games, realize that they might indeed belong and that interracial families and interracial adoption is here to stay and it’s always better to ask a question than make an assumption.
J: In your situation it was an adoption where essentially you did look like your parents.
M: That’s true.
J: How do you feel, as someone that was adopted domestically, how does international adoption fit into the grand scheme of adoption and the future of the way society looks and how we interact with people?
M: I have a few responses to that. One, even though I’m adopted myself I’m not really expert on current trends in adoption per se. I’d be happy to recommend offline a few resources that would be interesting to explore, to get a more educated, global look at how that’s going.
But I also want to back up because I just answered “that’s true” when you said I essentially look like my parents. What’s intriguing about that is all the time growing up, now that I think about it, where people pointed out how I looked different than my parents, mostly in terms of height. I am taller than they are by many inches. So coupled with my parents overall attitude of secrecy around my adopted status, I know it was painful for them often times when friends of theirs or friends of mine would comment and say “Oh wow, you’re a lot taller! How did that happen” or ask jokingly “Are you adopted?”. So that did come up even though we’re the same skin tone, even though with one of them being part Native American and the other Italian there is a bit of a darker complexion in my adoptive family than I have as being half Scotch-Irish.But there was still a tension drawn to difference.
So if there is one thing I experienced growing up was the sense of “otherness” to some degree that was apparently evident to everyone around. And I think whether or not that is traumatic to a child or whether it is a source of pride partially depends on how parents handle it. I think that I had my own sense of ego development where I told myself I was special. And I think that if a family openly acknowledges the fact of adoption, which in the case of someone adopting cross culturally is an obvious given, once a child reaches a certain age, there can be a more healthy ego formation where they realize there are ways they are connected to their family and they realize the ways in which they are unique.