I had the privilege of interviewing Michelle Madrid Branch a few weeks back. She is an author, a mama, and a foster care/international adoptee. Michelle’s life work is to advocate for marginalized children and women.
You will find more of our interview on Adoption.com, but because she shared so much gold with me, it was enough for two separate articles/posts. We talked a lot about creating safe spaces for conversations regarding our children’s histories and biological make up, about setting aside insecurities and jealousy out of love. Be sure to check that article out.
Michelle was adopted out of the England foster care system and into an American family.. She shared with me some labels and stigmas that clung to her identity, and how she had to face them in order to pursue healing and greatness.
What was the hardest thing for you growing up as an adoptee?
She shared: “Feeling so different. I felt really different. I don’t look like anyone in my family; I am of Spanish heritage with brown almond shaped eyes and olive skin tone. My family was white, light skin, blue eyes. I was always asked, ‘Where did you come from?’ as people tried to make sense of seeing something they weren’t used to seeing.
“As an international adoptee and someone who looked very different, I didn’t like that feeling of being so entirely different. It felt as though somehow I had done something to cause all of this. I was a product of an affair and maybe I wasn’t with my biological mom because I didn’t look like her; if I had looked more like her. Themes of being different and turned away ran amuck in my head growing up. It was painful.”
I asked her what her greatest blessing would be as an adoptee.
“I have such a capacity to love beyond borders. People always ask ‘How can you love someone that’s not your blood?’ I cannot fathom how people do not understand this. How can we not come to a place as a society, as PEOPLE, that love beyond borders? How can we not come to a place of realizing that love has nothing to do with blood? Blood has nothing to do with family or love. Adoption has given me the ability to love greater.”
Was your relationship with your biological family open?
“Not until I was a teen. I wanted to go and see my birth mother. It was a very real need. I needed it. My mom supported me.
"I traveled back to England in my teens. It was a beautiful and heart breaking experience. My birth mother was wrapped up in secrecy and shame about our circumstance, and wanted to love me in private but was distance from me in public.
“A neighbor came over and asked, ‘Well who do we have here?’ My birth mother looked panicked and said, ‘This is Michelle, she is a relative from the US.’ I wanted her to claim me as her daughter in that moment, without shame, with pride in the young lady who I had grown to be.
“Though this hurt deeply, it began the path of realizing that healing comes from a place of within. Healing comes from being honest. I gave my birth mother too much power to heal me as a young person - so in that moment, I realized she was not the one that would heal me. It was a realization that I needed to let go of the beliefs that weren’t healthy for me.
I have run into parents who have adopted worrying about “exposing” their children to their biological family’s unhealthy lifestyle- what are your thoughts about that?
“If it is a matter of safety for your child, then absolutely that’s a no-brainer. You cannot allow something to enter a child’s life where they can be hurt or traumatized physically.
“If someone is struggling... we are all real and broken people. Loving someone in their brokenness is something children are able to handle - we don’t give children credit for what they are capable of.
“I see families beautifully navigate where the birth parents come together with the child, adoptive + birth family all together and the child sees this gesture of love and inclusion. The ability to love and not expect someone to be perfect. Being open and honest with your child about their first parent’s struggle. We are called to love deeply, in the brokenness.
“I have not had to deal with that directly - my children were adopted out of orphanages. Honesty is key, truthfulness, things presented in an age appropriate and loving way will always be best.”
How would you encourage foster/adoptive parents to deal with any jealousy they have of their child’s biological family? What if their child is constantly throwing “I wish I lived with my bio parents!” in their face when they’re upset?
“That needs to be put aside for the health of the child. Adoptees have an incredible ability to love both sides and not pick sides. My birth mother gave me life but my adoptive mother put the bandages on my knees, was there for graduation, always picked up the phone when I called - that’s my mom. Mom who did the daily walk with me was my mom. I have this beautiful birth mother who birthed me and they are both such a blessing and I see the sacrifice of each.
“I do know that my mom struggled with that - with me talking about my birth mother. That is why I didn’t feel safe growing up. I sensed her tension. If you can check yourself when feeling hard emotions, share them with your child, and be honest: ‘I am so sorry I am feeling this way, but I want to recognize that you have another mom and by golly I love that she birthed you.’
“Let your children [foster/adoptive] talk about missing birth family; show up as equally as vulnerable as your children so we can have healthy dialogue: ‘Oh gosh my parents have these same struggles and we can work through these hard feelings together.’
“I wish you never adopted me,” I wish I was with them” -- for me as an adoptee, these statements were always rooted in: “If I say this, will they stay? Will they keep loving me?” I was testing to see do they really love me? Is this really the kind of love that’s not going to go away, even in the face of me being nasty today.
“There were moments where I, as a traumatized child, lashed out and realized I was not going back to that previous life. From that place comes rage, a fiery heat of rage, realizing we must let go of something that is no longer going to be a part of our lives. It becomes more of a memory and that is hard to process.
“My son came home from Russia around 12 months. His first two years were filled with fits of rage and I just know it was because he was wondering, was I going to love him and stay, is he safe?
“My dad would say, ‘Just keep loving,’ my dad would say. ‘Love him more.’ I did and a break through eventually happened. All the walls started melting away, creating a very tender boy. We have to be sure we are allowing their safe hearts to be open and real, authentic of who they are.
“Don’t hurt their raw openness. Let’s talk about it.”
Can I repeat that? When their walls start melting away, stop yourself from responding how you’re used to responding, check yourself and your child. Your child may be tender and this may very well be a small window. Don’t hurt their raw openness, invite authentic and real conversation.
“Let’s show up real and authentic before our children so they know they can show up real and authentic before us."
Michelle closed with, “As an adoptive parent/mom, I am a real parent. I struggle like everyone else does. I’m not afraid to go to my kids and say, ‘I am sorry, will you forgive me? I did not handle that the way I should have.’ If I missed a moment to be tender with them and responded poorly, I will go back and tell them, ‘I am so sorry I should have stopped and picked that moment up.’
“Don’t let the moments pass by. Those are jewels. Go back to them if you need.
“Let’s show up real and authentic before our children so they know they can show up real and authentic before us.”
Michelle Madrid-Branch is a life coach, author, speaker, and global advocate for women and children. She is the author of Adoption Means Love: Triumph of the Heart and the children's book, The Tummy Mummy.