leyla and damianWould you ever adopt a child from a country you're not entirely familiar with who doesn't share much with your culture when it comes to physical appearances? Your skin complexion is different than theirs, your hair is a different texture. But you happen to fall in love, and your family instantly becomes connected to her. According to Ellenore Angelidis, it was one of the most rewarding decisions of her life. Ellenore shares her experience.

Introduce yourself, and why you decided on transracial, international adoption.

My name is Ellenore Angelidis. I am a happily married, working mother of three, two boys through biology and a little girl through adoption.  I don’t have a simple answer for why we decided to adopt. One of my best friends was adopted as an infant and other friends and acquaintances either were also adopted or adopted children so adoption was fairly familiar to us. After having two biological sons, my husband and I discussed adoption as a way to continue to build our family.

We liked the idea of helping a child who needed a family. We gravitated toward international adoption since our heritage is multicultural–he was born and raised in Greece and I was born in the US raised by Dutch parents. However, life intervened with a serious illness, loss of job, a cross country move and a medical scare. During those times, our focus was survival and our sons. But the thoughts of adoption remained a consistent. At one point I asked myself, “If we don’t pursue adoption and try to get our little girl, will I regret this later?"

As I reflected, I fast-forwarded to my later life. I imagined my boys grown with their own families. I imagined thinking back to this time and this decision. I felt the searing sting of regret when I contemplated the hole in my heart where our third child was supposed to be. I had my answer.

What was it about Leyla that made you fall in love with her? What do you love about your daughter's physical and inner beauty?

We adored our daughter from the first moment we laid eyes on her referral picture. It was quite a surprise to us that she bore a striking resemblance to our middle son when he was a baby – minus the obvious differences. When we met her for the first time in Addis, she was so serious with gigantic eyes taking it all in.  She is still like that, always observing the world around her. However, she is also smart, fierce, funny and protective.  With two teenage older brothers, she holds her own and won’t back down easily.  But she is also there for a hug or a word of encouragement when anyone in the family needs it.  She is a little “mama” in our house and likes taking care of others from her siblings, her dad or mom, or even her pup. Her brothers joke that she has more friends in their classes than they do. 

interracial familyHave you received any criticism from others?

We have not really experienced significant criticism although we get the occasional rude or uninformed question.  In our earlier days, we did get people giving me suggestions on how to care for her hair which was a little unsettling to me especially when the advice came from complete strangers. It also made me feel judged in a way I had not experienced before. We lived in some pretty open minded, diverse places from Seattle to different cities in Europe so I think families of all kinds are more common.

I find myself aware when people look at us and stare for longer than normal. I wonder what they are thinking. Leyla has a way of winning people over that seems to defy explanation which may be why the criticism isn’t common. The most frequent reaction people have when they see her is to smile broadly. She is such a joyful, energetic child and seems to bring that out in others.

How do you handle these circumstances, or how do you respond to the naysayers?

I generally assume people with questions are genuinely interested and answer openly and honestly unless it would be awkward for my daughter.  The inquiries that still floor me as the ones like: Q: “How did you pick her out?” “It’s a referral process, there is no 'picking.'” Or Q: “Does she need to wear sunscreen?” “Ah, yes. All skin can burn without protection.”

As she gets older, she leads more in how these interactions work. She is quite open about where she is from at a general level. She is selective about when and to whom she wants to share more details. Those conversation are reserved for people she feels connected to in some way.

Leyla doesn’t like it when people make her the center of attention or want to touch her skin and hair. We had a girl at a birthday celebration ask loudly, “Why are you brown and your mom is white?” and she looked at me to answer. My response was, “The same reason that you and your mom are the color you are, we were both born this way.” I didn’t think we needed to have a public discussion on transracial, international adoption at a 5-year-old party. The smile Leyla sent my way as she continued to eat her cake confirmed my answer worked for her.

What is your daily routine for caring for your daughter's Type 4 coils?

Our daily routine varies depending on the hair style.  If she is wearing it loose, we wet it and condition every morning and then work to get knots out.  I am just learning to braid more.  So if we choose a braided style, I will do her hair Sunday night after a bath and keep that style for the week.  I usually put extra leave in conditioner before I begin styling. Then I use a spray-on version throughout the week as needed.  We are just learning to use beads and snaps.  It’s a fun exploration for us.  My daughter returns the favor and likes to style my hair at night while I am reading her a story.  She tells me the same things I say to her, “I am sorry it hurts a bit.  I am trying to be gentle.”  And she loves to make my hair look “fancy”–which to the rest of the family just looks “crazy” with lots of clips.

open hearts family

What are some daily challenges you face being a mother to a child with different hair and skin than you?

I think one challenge is that I can’t draw from my experience.  My hair and skin are very different from hers.  I learned quickly that moisture is the key to her healthy skin and hair.  Then I had a period where I was trying different products to try to discover what would work best for her.   I felt quite inadequate as a mom not to have this knowledge at my fingertips.   I think a bigger challenge is to get her to love and appreciate her hair even though it is different from many of her friends and what she sees on TV and in magazines.

The reality is that caring for it is a lot of work and isn’t always fun for her or me.  I tell her all the time her hair is beautiful. I think she is starting to own that feeling too where previously she wished for my hair which she referred to as “princess hair.” I never really liked my hair growing up so it was odd to me she liked it so much. I didn’t realize one of the things she missed with tightly curled hair was her hair moving when she danced or shook her head. She likes to put a t-shirt on her head and pretend it is hair. She will then flip it around mercilessly. She also loves her Halloween costume wig of long black hair which allowed her to do the same. She also loves her hair in a bath or pool when it relaxes as it becomes soaking wet. I never realized how fun it is to feel your hair swing back and forth until I watched her joy with this simple movement I took for granted. Braids are a fun compromise for us. They allow her to feel movement with her own hair when she runs or jumps. And they allow me to do a style once that lasts for the week. We are experimenting and having fun with different styles. Her brothers always vote for the straight afro but she is more adventurous.

How have you adjusted to these differences?

I really had to  look more closely at my own relationship to my skin and hair before I could help my daughter.  I had to make peace with where I was so that I was credible in giving my daughter advice.  We both wished our hair or skin was a bit different than what it was. I shared with her that I wished I had my one good friend’s hair and skin so my daughter knows this type of wishing is not unusual.

We both also wouldn’t change either of those pieces of who we are.  I remind her how often people say they wished they had her hair and how beautiful it is.  I think it helps her see her hair as others do. I also go on-line and look for natural hair sites where she can see beautiful women who have hair like hers. We also look for them in magazines and as we go about our day. And we discuss if she would like their style one day if it is a fancy one with braids or something else that makes it stand out.  I also realized making it fun and getting at the play part of it helped us bond. We sing songs and act silly while doing hair together. It doesn’t need to be a serious activity.

denver familyWhat words of advice would you give to someone wanting to adopt outside of their race?

I would tell these parents to see it from their child’s perspective. And then get advice and counsel from adults with similar hair and skin to their child’s. I was worried that my daughter didn’t like her hair because she was always pretending she had long hair. I asked a friend with similar hair and skin. She laughed and said not to worry. She did the same as a child as did most of her friends.

Sometimes you worry about things your shouldn’t so it is good to calibrate.  I also would advise joining on-line communities or visiting sites that show you how to care for your child’s skin and hair. And lastly, never forget your instincts in knowing your child will also help guide you through what of the advice and information you receive you should apply.

I find my child is becoming a better guide as she gets older so we can work together and talk opening about these differences. You love your child and that is the most important. The fact that you are trying is what matters most and as with anything, practice really helps. And a healthy amount of laughing together and at yourself doesn’t hurt either.

What is one thing that you wish everyone knew about you, your family, and your love for Leyla?

Leyla completed our family and brought with her an amazing light and laughter and depth. Not one of us can remember life clearly before she joined. And through her coming into our family, our world got both bigger in that it included another country and culture and smaller in that we can see how we are all connected and similar even when we have such visible differences. She has the hardest role in that she has to navigate being part of a family and culture different from the one of her birth.

We are committed to helping her on that journey no matter where it leads us. She has an amazing heart and she has stolen all of ours. We are excited to see where her path leads her. 

Folks can find me on my blog Ethiopian Ties, on Twitter or PinterestI also have two FB pages about our work in Ethiopia, Open Hearts Big Dreams and Create Libraries for Ethiopian Children

I also write for these websites Adoptive FamiliesWorking Mother and InCulture Parent.