Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Thenedra - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Thenedra.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, thanks for Asking.”

And before we start today’s episode, I want you to think about the things that make you … you.

I want you to think about the elements that formed you — the relationships, the places, the experiences that created the version of you that is listening to this episode today. Our selves are hard to define and hard to calculate. We are who we are because of some kind of mostly unknowable formula, a sum total of our relationships and experiences and DNA.

But for some of us, there are obvious elements. Unexpected arrivals, unmet expectations, points on our timeline that we can identify as something important, a necessary ingredient for who we are.

And today’s guest has that kind of story: a story about an identity that was shaped by what was present, what was missing, and what came to take that place.

This is Thenedra, who grew up in Mankato, Minnesota.

Thenedra: So Mankato is what I would call rural. It's small. It is predominantly white. You know, I think that most of the people would fit into white, middle class families. I know that my Black family was definitely the minority in all of the neighborhoods that we lived in. And it was my mom, myself and my three brothers. And we moved around quite a bit throughout Mankato. There are four elementary schools in Mankato, and I attended all of them at one point or another. And the moves were due to, you know, lack of payment of rent, my mom's mental health and substance use. And I took on the parenting role for my younger brothers for the most part, because my eldest brother was old enough to be off with friends and kind of doing his own thing. But it was mostly me and my two younger brothers on survival mode and taking care of ourselves as my mom was in and out of the house.

You know, when the sun was up, she was never in the house. And I do not have any memory of her ever working or having a job. And I don't think I've ever reflected on that until this moment. But I don't remember her ever saying, “I'm going to work,” or talking about work. And so I think her time out of the house was spent using or obtaining drugs and alcohol. And so the days typically looked like, you know, I missed a lot of school trying to take care of my brothers and ensure that they were safe. I spent a lot of time going to stores and stealing candy and other food because we did not have food. We didn't have a lot of resources. And so those days were kind of like, all right, let's see what kind of what mood mom would be, in if she was going to be in the house, if she is going to be out of the house, who would she bring into the house. And I just kind of buckled up and took my brothers and either made sure they got off to school. And, you know, the days that I would go to school would be days of kind of like a vacation for me. And then school would get out, and that's usually when things kind of got, you know, scary. Because that's when she would return home, usually heavily under the influence, usually with complete strangers. And I know that was the time that got very tense for us until we could go to bed.

I just would imagine she was out doing whatever. But then when she would come home, and you would see the state that she was in, you know, for being 9, 10 years old, it was always confusing because I didn't understand what drugs and alcohol were and what they did to a person. I just saw my mom leave in one state and return in another. 

Nora: What state would she return in?  

Thenedra: Just someone very unrecognizable. Someone who was angry, someone who was erratic. She also brought those same types of people in our home that were also angry, erratic, irritable, like you just didn't want to be in her way. Sometimes she would be, like, overly joyous. You know, she wanted hugs and kisses and wanted to be fun and everything. But it was very scary for all of us, because it was just a different level.

Across the street, or at her school, Thenedra saw other kinds of families. Families with parents who picked their kids up from school or who played outside with them. Families that seemed to be happy.

Thenedra: I wouldn't even say I was embarrassed by my situation. I just knew that it was very different. And I just assumed, like, hey, some people have parents that are, you know, want to play and engage and that sort of thing. And some people have parents like mine, that are disengaged and out of the house and not responsible for their kids. I just assumed that there had to have been someone else that also had a mom or dad like I did.

And maybe they did — all families are different, and all families have their own problems. But Thenedra didn’t know any other families like hers, and she didn’t have the time to sit and think about who had it worse or better. Someone had to take care of her brothers, and that person was Thenedra. And this is the kind of kid she was:

Thenedra: Too serious for being so young. That's for sure. Internally wanting to have the silliness that my classmates did, and the joy, and the giggles, and the secrets, and the experiences. And I also built up this exterior of just survival. I felt like I couldn't let my guard down. I felt like I always needed to be on. And I felt like I always needed to be of service to my brothers to protect them. And so, you know, in the moments of being invited places or engaging in after school activities, the answer was always “no,” because I knew I had to be there for my brothers. 

Even though Thenedra and her brothers changed schools a lot, teachers and counselors noticed that something wasn’t quite right … and they started asking Thenedra questions.

Thenedra: There was always lots of questions after the weekend. “Did you guys have food? What did you do? Where was your mom? Did you have, you know, parental supervision over the weekend? How alone were you? Did you have meals over the weekend?” And I would explain, like, you know, no, we didn't have any food, but I went to the gas station and got us some food, or I don't know, I didn't see her all weekend or we didn't do anything with her, just our brothers, that sort of thing. And so to me, it wasn't anything scary. You know, I welcomed the conversations and the inquiries into kind of our life. And I was always that kid that would just blab out whatever you wanted to know. 

It felt good to have grownups notice her, to have them show concern and interest. 

Thenedra: But I remember specifically one time I'd come home from school and my mom had just, like, went off on me. Like, “You don't tell those white people anything about our family, you don't speak to them.” And after that, I stopped talking about it because to me, it was just they were asking questions and I was answering them honestly. But obviously, you know, that information got back to my mom, and who knows what was said to her about what would happen to us. 

Here’s a good moment to remind ourselves that more than one thing can be true at once. 

What’s true is that Thenedra’s mom is not a responsible mother, that Thenedra and her brothers are being neglected, that their basic needs are not being met. 

And what’s also true is that Thenedra’s mother is a Black mother in a very white town in a very white state, where, even as recently as 2020, children of color are disproportionately likely to enter the system. Even a negligent mother loves her kids and wants them with her, even if she’s incapable of parenting them.

So Thenedra stops answering questions about her family, about her mother. But still, one day … there’s a knock at the door. Thenedra’s mother isn’t there, and they don’t know where she is.

Thenedra:  It was definitely a day that we should have been in school and we weren't. I'm not sure what the reason was, but we were not in school. And I thought that that's what the knock on the door was, was them wondering why we weren't in school. And, you know, I always would peek through the window before I'd open the door, because you never know if it was, you know, my mom returning or one of her friends looking for her or somebody else looking for her. And I didn't recognize the people on the other side of the door, but they had said my name and so it felt safe. And so I opened the door and they just explained, like, “Your Mom's going to be gone for a while. Because of that, we're going to place you in this home. You're going to be here for a while, and you guys all need to come with me.”

I have always been told, like, I'm an old soul and I think my situation forced me to grow up obviously faster than I would have liked to. And I just remember, like, yes, these people are strangers, but I also had that understanding of, like, how my mom wasn't like all the other moms or like the other parents. And so to me, it felt like, scary. And also, for whatever reason, it felt trusting. And we didn't have much belongings to bring with us, and so it really was like what we had on, you know, maybe packed a few more outfits, but we didn't have, you know, toys we were attached to, or stuffed animals, or blankets or those sorts of things. And so it really was just me throwing in some dirty clothes, probably into a bag and hopping in the car and leaving.

My brothers were crying. I spent a lot of time comforting them. And just like, “It's going to be OK,” you know, trying to create this hopeful image in their head of like, “This is going to be fun.” But I mean, it was quiet. They didn't speak to us during that time. We just kind of sat in the back and, you know, my brothers were just, “Where's Mom?” You know? That's kind of what they were asking over and over is, “Where's Mom?” You know, “I don't know.” And I really didn't know. I just kept saying, like, “We're all together. It's going to be OK.”

We’ll be right back.

We’re back, and Thenedra and her brothers have been picked up by some strange adults, and told they’re leaving their home ... and their mother. They drive through the town of Mankato, with no idea where they are heading or why.

Thenedra: The other side of that car ride is us pulling up to this house that seemed very big to me. And there was a woman, and there were three other kids that were also, like, in the yard when we pulled up. And I remember just feeling like, “OK, like, she looks nice. There's other kids. That's good. That feels safe.” And I remember just, like, looking at my brothers, and they just had this look on their face of like, you know, what the hell is going on? Like, what is this? You know. Is this a new family? Like what is happening? Because it's hard to take that all in when you're so young, and it happened so abruptly, and you don't have time to process it.

Thenedra and her brothers are in foster care, though they don’t know this at the time. This is why their mother didn’t want them telling their family’s business. Because now,  Thenedra and her brothers have been placed in the temporary custody of a foster family, who agrees to take in children in need of temporary parental care.

This foster family is a group of complete strangers.

Thenedra: And so just pulling up, and the mom saying hello and bringing us into the house and showing us where we were going to sleep. And I remember being excited because I was going to share a room with her daughter, who was close in age with me, and she had bunk beds. And I thought that was really cool, because we slept either on the floor, on a mattress on the floor, and we didn't have, like you know, actual bedding. And I just remember she had this really pretty pink matchy-matchy bedroom. And I was like, oh, this is really like this is really nice. Like, I get to sleep here? But then I also really felt myself like, kind of retracting that feeling and feeling a little bit guilty with finding a little bit of solace in this environment. Like I remember feeling like, “Don't get too comfortable, don't get too excited,” like, “We're going to go back home. This isn't our home. Mom's going to come home soon.” You know, that kind of thing. 

But Mom doesn’t come for them, and Thenedra and her brothers are expected to just conform to family life with a group of strangers. A white family that doesn’t look or act anything like the family they’re used to.

Thenedra: You know, my home with my biological mom, I was in charge. I dressed my brothers. I prepared the meals. I helped them brush their teeth. I did all of these things for them. It was challenging. I got in trouble a lot for, you know, not staying in my place and being too hands on with my brother, and what was lacking was an understanding of this was all that I knew. This was my job. And it was very different because I wasn't used to sitting down at a table and having like a meal made for me and that we all sit down at the table and eat and talk. Like I remember that, just being so uncomfortable for me, because, you know, I would gather what we had to eat, and we would go sit in front of the TV or go sit in our room and play and eat or something like that with my biological mom. And so being in this foster family and all of a sudden being expected to just conform to their family norms was very just very uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable, and I felt very powerless in a lot of the situations, because I was not allowed and often reprimanded for taking care of my brother and, you know, wanting to sleep with him, because we were in this big house, and we weren't in the same room, and he was young, and he wasn't used to that. And so it just was a lot of conflicting information. It was a lot of conflicting experiences. It was the complete opposite of what I had left and known and normalized. And, you know, there just wasn't a lot of understanding and grace given to these two children who just left a very traumatic home environment and just placed into not only a different home culturally, but like a different world, you know? 

And, yes, they were the family that I saw from across the street, present and available and engaging with their children. And it's funny, because as much as I, like, wanted that and was interested in that, when I was in that moment, I remember how it just felt uncomfortable. It just didn't feel right. Like as much as it's fun to sit and do chalk and play in the sun and whatever, it also just didn't feel right because it wasn't my mom. It wasn't my complete family that I was doing those things with. And so I never settled in. It was never comfortable. 

That wasn’t the only change. Thenedra and her brothers were eventually split up. Her older brother went to live with the biological father they both shared. It was never explained to Thenedra why only he went to their dad, but off he went. And one of Thenedra’s brothers went with his own biological dad. And so it was just Thenedra and her youngest brother.

Thenedra: And so I was terrified, I was mad, I was scared. And it was also a moment where I thought, “Well, if they're going to live with their biological dad, then my guess is our chances of going back to our mom are off the table.” And that was really confusing, because no one had said that to me, but again, I was wise, and I could definitely see the bigger picture and through overheard conversations and those sorts of things, I could see what was happening. 

Nora: And what was happening? 

Thenedra: They were preparing us for long-term, permanent situations that were outside of the care of my mom. They were trying to find a more permanent, stable situation, because whatever had happened on that day that she was out of the house was obviously severe enough where they saw her as no longer capable of being a mom.

I just felt like I was in this constant space of, like, floating. Obviously I lacked stability, even though I was placed in a stable home. You know, mentally, there was so much that I didn't know, and so much that I didn't understand, and so much that wasn't told to me, that I just felt like I was just going through the motions and trying to survive every day and make sense of every day, and even though I had an inkling that maybe this was forever and I wouldn't live with my mom anymore, I’d always hope that I would. Even though the environment and the situation that I was in with her was horrific, it's all that I knew. And she was my mom. And I could rationalize, because although she was unstable and had her issues, me and my brothers were OK in my eyes. I thought that our situation was normal. I thought that that was OK. 

We’re wired to love and accept our parents, even when they’re harmful to us. And Thenedra and her brothers still love their mother, even though the home they lived in with her was dangerous and neglectful. They don’t see much of her while they’re in this foster home, and Thenedra doesn’t remember her foster parents ever talking to her about their mother. But occasionally, they would get to see her.

Thenedra: And so we literally went somewhere — I don't know if it was like a courthouse or something — and we sat in a room, and we visited with my mom while someone was there, you know, observing. They weren't right next to us, but they were in the room. And she would just ask us so many questions about, “What are those people like? What are you eating? Where do you sleep?” Never asking how we were doing. Never shared or explained what was going on with her. Never met with any kind of loving care and concern, “I miss you guys.” It was just more of, like, an interrogation of what we are doing or what we were saying to those people. You know, it just felt like we were a little bit in trouble or ashamed for that situation. 

Thenedra and her youngest brother spent about a year with that foster family, away from their other brothers and their mother, the only two Black people in the home or in their social circle. She never sees her older brother, and sees her younger brother just once.  

Thenedra: I remember them telling us that they had found a more permanent foster home for us. A more permanent family, long-term family. And I remember just thinking, like, “Well, what does that mean?” Like, this felt very long-term, like we were here for a year. How much more long-term can we get? And just like, I remember asking a lot of questions and getting a lot of like, “We're not sure. We'll let you know. It's still up in the air.” Just a lot of vague responses to that. 

Nora: And who tells you this, is it your foster parents or...? 

Thenedra: It's my foster parents, but we also, once you go into the system, you're signed like a guardian guardian ad litem, and they're essentially, like, your person that oversees your case and is facilitating, you know, going to foster homes or visitations or that sort of thing. 

If it sounds cold or clinical, it felt that way for Thenedra, too. Thenedra is now 31 years old. And if people were talking about children’s social-emotional well-being 20 years ago when she was in the throes of this experience, they weren’t doing it with her and her brothers. 

Thenedra: There wasn't any point in time where anyone sat down and explained to us in the best way you could with a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old or a 5-year-old. 

Instead, one day, her foster parents tell her that she and her youngest brother are going to a new house. There is no big good-bye. No emotional send-off. No party, no transition time. She and her littlest brother are put into a car, just like they were on that first day, and they drive. And they drive. And they drive.

Thenedra: And I remember the longer we drove, the less I saw. I’m like, OK, I'm not really seeing any houses, and like, I'm seeing a lot of fields, and there's like tractors in the field. And I don't see any parks, like I don't really even see people. It's just like roads and houses really far apart. And I remember we turned onto this dirt road, and it was summer, and so, you know, the road, the gravel road was dry. So as you're driving, if you've ever driven on a gravel road, there's just dust that billows like, around your car. You can't see in front of you or behind you very far, because it's just dusty. And I remember being like, “This looks like some shit from a scary movie.” Like, this looks like some environment that I've seen on my brother's movies that I weren't supposed to watch. It's dusty, there's not houses around, like I remember I was just, like, scared. 

And we pull up to this house and this dog comes running through the yard and up to the house or the car, and it’s barking and my brother is just terrified, like he's crying. It was all kind of a blur. And then they were on their way. And I remember watching the car just drive away in another billow of dust and being on this farm.

There they are, out on a farm. With a new foster family. Thenedra’s new foster mom shoos the dog away, says hello, and brings Thenedra and her brother into their new home.

Thenedra: But I remember the inside of it felt like something out of a movie movie where you'd go and visit like, your grandparents. You know, just the curtains and all of the knickknacks all throughout the house and how everything had a place and everything was together and like, it smelled like, you know, you had just baked a pie or some food. Like it just had that, that grandma feel to it. Like you had just walked into, like, your favorite grandma's house.

And in this house, there are unexplained norms she has to adjust to all over again. Thenedra’s new foster parents are older: They have four biological children who are grown and out of the house. They have an adopted son who is a year younger than Thenedra, who has mental health and behavioral issues. And they have a lot of rules.

Thenedra: The rule of making your bed every day. Like that doesn't seem like such a ridiculous ask of a parent. But when you're coming from a dynamic and situation like mine, being asked to create this order when you've come from a place of such disorder was challenging. It wasn't something that I thought about. It wasn't something that crossed my mind. Like, I'd open my eyes and was ready to jump and seize the day of what I needed to do to take care of my brother if we had school, or or that sort of thing. And so I remember that was something that caused a lot of tension, of not keeping my room orderly and not making my bed. 

Nora: You're like, “Ma'am, I didn't have a bed before. Why would I make it?” 

Thenedra: Yeah! Like, what? You mean, you make your bed? Like, it just, it was so just not a thing for me that when it was met with, like, that expectation, I was just kind of like, what the hell? Like, I don't get it. I didn't understand it. And there wasn't a time where it was like, you know, “Typically, this is what we do. We sleep in our beds and we make our beds.” There wasn't any of that. It was just like, “You need to make sure your room stays clean and your bed's made and all those things are tidy.” And you really just can't go from zero to one hundred. And those things that seem very basic to most people. But again, when you're a child who's come from an environment such as mine, like that's a really big ask. And I think, like, there's a lot of things that were asked or a lot of things that were expected that just didn't come from a trauma-informed place. And that's just the reality of it.

Any change in our daily environment can be difficult. And children are often seen as being more adaptable, but they can also be highly affected by change. When you are pulled out of the only environment you’ve ever known and thrown into a new one with a stricter, more rigid set of parameters, you’re bound to need time to adjust. 

And Thenedra and her brother have been through this TWICE. And yeah, sure, kids are resilient but also … the burden of responsibility to teach and develop these new parameters in children is on the adults creating them. The responsibility to understand where a child is in their development in any given area of life is ON THE ADULTS raising them. 

And the burden of understanding the trauma of the children we parent is also on those very same adults.

Unfortunately, Thenedra’s new foster parents aren’t very trauma-informed. They parent the way they know how to parent. And that’s it.

And moving to this new community means that Thenedra switches schools again. And in Mankato, as white as it was, it wasn’t ALL white. Thenedra had never been the ONLY Black kid in class or in her school. But here in the country, she is.

Thenedra: It was very small, and it was a combination of a lot of different small farm towns that attended this school. But it was major culture shock for me, major. I was used to being around a mostly white community, but I definitely was not used to not having any sort of ally — especially since, you know, I had brothers that would go to the same school as me. And here, we were in different schools. I was in a middle school, and he was in the elementary school. And so it was very uncomfortable. And again, like, my job, my responsibility was to protect and look over him. Like, that never went away and it still hasn't gone away. And so the fact that we were in different schools, and I had no idea like it was definitely hard to focus. It was hard to concentrate. It was hard to just be present. You know? I just felt like I just spent a lot of time just disassociating and not really being there. 

We’ll be right back.

We’re back, and Thenedra is now in a mostly white school, in a mostly white family, in rural Minnesota.

Thenedra: I just never felt like I could be my whole self. But you would never know that looking from the outside, because I did my best to adapt. I did my best to adapt and go along with whatever joke was being made or whatever insinuation was being made in order to just kind of survive. And by the time I was in high school, we had been adopted by this family by then. And so I felt like there was like, a level of acceptance from my peers, of me being the Black girl, like being cool because, you know, I had white parents. I heard the jokes of, like, “You're the whitest Black girl we know, but you're not really a REAL Black girl. You're like an Oreo.” And so that commentary from peers was my indication of like, “We accept you because you're not like the other Black people and you have white parents.”

This conditional acceptance is dangerous for Thenedra. Not only because there are terms she has to meet just to be “okay” in the eyes of her classmates. But even more because those terms require that she never be herself. The condition of her acceptance is literally that she has to virtually be the opposite of everything she IS, both culturally and genetically. Which means that even if Thenedra perfects her speech, home life and lifestyle to appease what author Toni Morrison calls the White Gaze, she will still be 50% wrong 100% of the time. 

And what is even more dangerous for Thenedra is that the conditions of acceptance she endures at school don’t stop when she gets home every day. Because her foster parents aren’t just unprepared to raise a traumatized child … they’re unprepared to raise Black children.

Thenedra: My needs were met in the sense of food on the table, roof over my head, you know, not worrying about my next meal, clothing, et cetera. But my experience of existing as a Black girl turned Black woman in a white community was traumatic. 

Nora: And not even just in the community, but in your home.

Thenedra: Yeah, you know … I think even like even from the beginning, when we first move there, my dad especially would just make just … the most inappropriate jokes about us being Black. Like I remember we were getting ready to go to Duluth, and we were giving my parents’ friend’s child a ride up there, because she had gone to college up there and we're giving her a ride back. And I remember my brother and I were sitting in the back, and she was getting in. We had a van. She was getting in the middle row. And I remember my dad making a joke to her saying, “Blacks in the back.” And I remember seeing the look on her face, of my dad saying that, of like, “Holy crap, like this is not OK,” and my dad just doing what he usually does, just like laughing it off. There were always jokes about my hair feeling like a Brillo pad or sheep's wool comments made by my mom. For my entire middle school, high school, even through young adulthood, jokes about how big my butt was, just never-ending jokes about that. Jokes about, you know, me wearing sunscreen and how I can't get darker. Being called Chocolate Drops by my dad. Like, I mean, it just was ongoing, and it was always framed and shaped as a joke. And most of the time, I either kind of laughed and just shook my head and rolled my eyes. But a lot of times, like, I went along with it and like, laughed as though it was funny, because what else do you do? There was not only a racial difference, but there's a power differential. And as much as, you know, these two people had chosen me and my brother to be their children, like ... we were not their children. We were completely different. And that's kind of a scary thing, especially when there's jokes about those things, and I experienced some pretty awful comments by people in high school, like there's still a lot of fear that goes into it. So what are you supposed to do when you're the child and you still live under their roof? 

Thenedra isn’t just a child. She’s a Black child. And we all know that there are power dynamics that come with age difference. Kids just have to listen to adults. But even more, she’s Black in a white household under that white authority. And if that same white authority could come to her mother’s house and take her and her siblings away from the only home they’d ever known with no resistance, what else could they do?

Thendera was told that this house was long-term, but nobody ever told her what that meant. And then … her biological mother came to visit. And Thenedra was thrilled. Her mother!

Thenedra: And I remember we were outside, and the rendering truck was coming to pick up — my dad was a hog farmer — was coming to pick up the dead pigs, and I really wanted to show her that. I knew she'd be grossed out by it. And it was really fun seeing her squeal, watching like these dead pigs get lifted by a chain, by their foot into like this truck. And I remember we had come in the house, and she was going to do my hair because my hair was a mess, because I have Black hair, and I had no resources to get my hair done. So she was doing my hair, and I remember complaining that it hurts. And I'll never forget this, I remember my adoptive mom laughing, and my biological mom saying to her, "Oh, just you wait until it's that time of the month, and she's complaining about cramps." And it was in that moment that I was like, “Oh. She's here to check out where our forever home is going to be. She's not here visiting. She's here to co-sign on us being here forever.” Because why else would you use that language of “wait until you experience this”? Oh, I remember just being so angry and so sad and so confused, and I never brought it up to her. I never asked any questions. I just internalized it. 

She internalized it. That her mother was done. That she’d be adopted. And it’s not a big announcement. Instead, her foster parents turn that into a joke, too. They tell Thenedra and her little brother...

Thenedra: “Oh, we found a home for you guys. We found a family that wants to adopt you.” And I was just like, “OK,” and they were explaining the house and they're like, you know, “They have other kids, and they have a boat,” and just saying all these things.

So Thenedra and her brother think they’re going to a new family...

Thenedra: And then my foster brother at the time saying, “We're going to adopt you.” And my little brother started crying. He was like, “We don't have a boat!” Because he was, like, picturing like this yacht, and my dad has this, like, crusty fishing boat. So, like, that was his reaction, which is pretty typical for a 6-year-old, right? 

Nora: He was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. 

Thenedra: Yeah, yeah. Like, he was like, we don't have a boat. And I just remember being like, “OK, like, thank you?” Like, thanks for letting us know that this was even an option. And I remember my mom saying, “There were so many other families that we talked to and we visited, and we just didn't feel really comfortable with any of them. And so we just decided to do it.” And it was just like that was the conversation and we just went about our day. 

That was it. That’s how they became a family. Thenedra never saw her biological mother after that day at the farm. She joined this new family, where she was taken care of and also objectified for her hair, her skin, her body. 

She went to high school and was called an Oreo … and then she got out. She went to college. She got married. She built a career.

Thenedra: Funny enough, I work as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. So you could say that my biological mom's addiction, alcoholism, mental health definitely shaped my profession that I chose. I went to school, and I had this awesome adviser who also was a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, and she was telling me to try a couple different internships to see where I wanted to go in the human services field. And one of the internships that I landed was a treatment center for women and their children. And it was just an eye-opening experience working alongside these moms that were exactly how my mom was, who were trying to get their footing while also take care of their children, and how challenging it was for so many of them. And so the more I understood addiction and alcoholism and mental health, the more compassion I had for her, the more understanding I had from her, of like yeah, she was a very shitty mother, and she was also very sick and she was also very unwell. And given the things that we experienced and the things that we saw and what we had to go through, she really did do the best that she could. And I think her choosing to give us a better home, a better environment for whatever she could understand that to be, really was the best thing that she could have done, because I don't know what our lives would have looked like had we continued to be in that environment. I know that my life would be very different than where I'm at now. 

It would be very different, and not necessarily better; Thendera’s brothers who were taken in by family members had their own problems, their own struggles. 

And the system that Thenedra went through has changed some since her childhood. Potential foster parents in Minnesota go through trauma-informed training and education about race and trans-racial adoption.

And there are lots of kids who are in need of fostering or adoption. Kids who need stable home lives. So the bigger thing to think about is … why? What support systems are their parents missing, and what could be the alternative? Because nothing — not adoption or abuse or substance use disorders or mental illness — happens in a vacuum.

But we asked Thenedra...what would you say to white adoptive parents, particularly those who are adopting or have adopted Black children? 

Thenedra: And I think, like I mean, the system is broken. I think we can all agree on that. Because the point of foster care was to provide a temporary solution for the children while the parents, the mom, the dad worked on getting themselves stable with the intention of the children returning to the home. And it just is not how it's been. And, you know, we could talk about systematic racism and how there's a higher number of BIPOC children that are in the system and that sort of thing. But I would start with the question why? And asking, you know, do you understand the responsibility of this? Do you understand cultural competency? Are you trauma-informed? Like, do you understand that you're not just getting a Black child? You are getting this Black child’s historical trauma with racism, with discrimination, with, you know, ongoing issues, with the very basic necessities of like, hair care and skin care and all of those sorts of things. I would say: Have you done your research and homework and fully prepared yourself for what it looks like? Do you have Black friends? Do you have a Black community that this child would be able to integrate with and have people that look like them? Have you considered where you live? Where they'll go to school? There's so much to consider. And I think that, I don't say this for all, but I think there's a lot of people that adopt for the wrong reason. They're doing it for themselves, and they're not doing it for the well-being of the child.

At the beginning of the episode, I asked you to think about what made you … you. What were the indelible forces and feelings and experiences that have added up to who you are today? What was absent that you needed, and what took its place?

And we’ve heard about what in her childhood made Thenedra who she is: the trauma of a parent struggling with addiction, of being pulled into the foster care system and adopted into a white family who was unprepared for what trans-racial adoption would mean for Thenedra and her brother.

But Thenedra isn’t a little girl anymore. She’s a mother of three boys when we speak, and when this episode comes out, she’ll have four. Four little people to give everything she didn’t have, and to protect from what she went through.

Thenedra: You know, I'm giving them a voice. I'm giving them experiences. I'm giving them my truth. By sharing my story, my experiences. But I'm also not going to subject them to the things that I was for the sake of keeping a relationship with Grandma and Grandpa. Because they are now old enough to hear, to understand and to internalize those things, and I refuse for them to grow up thinking that they are less than because they are Black. You know, that just- I refuse for that to be their experiences. And I know that all of my experiences, pre- and post-adoption, has shaped the way that I see myself in my Blackness and like, internalized racism and self-consciousness. And I went through the phase of only straightening my hair and not rocking my natural hair and all those sorts of things because of externally what was told to me and my experiences. And I've done a lot of growing and being confident and proud of the skin that I'm in and finding my people that can also be advocates with me and love me in the way that I deserve to be loved. And so that's what I'm doing for them, is I think me healing those parts of me is what's going to help them the most. Because once I heal those parts of me, I can show up for them and find a better way — in an authentic, genuine, safe way for them.

You know, one of the things that has been really helpful for me is connecting with other trans racial-adoptees and like feeling like, oh my gosh, I am not the only one. Like, it's not just me. Like other people have had these experiences. It's not just my parents. It's a culture, you know, it's a culture. 

And so one of the things that I really am trying to build for myself is my own community of Black people. Because it's not something that I've ever had and it's something that I want and desire for not only myself, but for my kids to have Black friends, and I think that's a constant reminder for me that this was the community that I grew up in — it being all white. Because if I had, you know, stayed with my biological family that just would have organically happened because we are Black. And so that's something that I'm reminded of every day, like I think about that, like the place that I work and the people that I work with and just kind of follows me. And I'm hoping that I can get to a place of that not being the norm for me and for my family. 

Adoption is sometimes portrayed as a happy ending, but for Thenedra, it was and is more complicated than that. 

Thenedra’s story is personal, and it’s also...more common than she can possibly know as a child. As an adult, Thenedra has connected with a lot of trans-racial adoptees whose experiences reflect her own. And trans-racial adoption is a topic that is emotional for a lot of people, and COMPLICATED for a lot of people.

In 1972, before Thenedra was even born, The National Association of Black Social Workers issued a position statement on Transracial Adoption where they conveyed their opposition to the practice of placing Black children in white homes, which separated them from their own cultures and communities and raises them in systems that would be incongruent with their lived experience of this wold . There was particular language used in this statement that reminded us of Thenedra’s experience.

This is a quote: 

“Further internal conflict is inevitable by his minority status within his own family. Such status is normal in school, employment and some communities but in one’s most intimate personal group such oddity status is neither normal or anticipated.”

Thenedra was treated like an oddity, and the effects of that status are something she is still working through as an adult and as a parent herself. 

Thenedra: My parents have retired, and so they've moved now, so they live on a lake. And I remember being at the lake Fourth of July weekend with my infant sons, like freshly postpartum, still struggling with postpartum depression and that sort of thing. And we were walking the babies down to the boat, and there was a cotton tree that was in the neighbor's yard that was dropping cotton everywhere. And I made a comment like, “Oh, my gosh, it's like everywhere,” like whatever. And my dad made some comment about, “Well, at least it's not the boys picking the cotton.” Like I said, my children are not even 3, so like, it's not like it just stopped and it was something that happened way back when. Like, I still have these experiences with them, presently.

We had a family gathering where ... my dad was in the service, and he was telling the story of being in the service and he used the term “colored” people. And I was like, “Dad, like, you can't say that, like that's not appropriate anymore to say, like you can say Black or you can say people of color or you can say African-American.” And he laughed and was like, “Well, it's better than saying the N-word.” And he said it, and everyone, like all of my siblings, everyone around, just kind of did their awkward chuckle and moved along. And—

Nora: All of your white siblings.

Thenedra: All of my white siblings. And there was no checking in. There was no holding accountable. I've had moments where I have, you know, talked to them about that. And you know, there hasn't been any accountability, there hasn't been any ownership of those things, nor has there been anything remotely close to an apology for those things. And so since having children, I've definitely put a lot of physical and mental space between myself and them. And I think it's because I spent a lot of time, you know, late teens, early-20s, feeling like I couldn't do that because they had given me this new home and like the opportunity to go to college, and so I just kind of owed it to them to be present and to just kind of like buck up and deal with it. But truly becoming a parent and like doing my own work with my childhood and just like, being able to find my people that can validate my experience helped me feel empowered to say like, no, I don’t have to just deal with this because, you know, I was adopted. Like, it doesn't stop at being adopted. That's actually where the work begins.

This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Beth Pearlman, Jordan Turgeon, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, and our theme music is Geoffrey Lamar Wilson, who you should go check out at geoffreylamarwilson.com. 

We are a production of American Public Media. The P in public stands for pub — what the heck, Nora? The P in APM stands for public. That’s what I meant to say. There are lots of way to support our work. This is one of them: listening to it, sharing it with friends. And we also started a thing called TTFA Premium. It’s a way for listeners to support our show. We make bonus episodes. We put out longer-form interviews and ad-free episodes. Although, a lot of you like the ads. Thank you, we work very hard on them. That means a lot to us. 

So if you would like to support us in that way, you can go to TTFA.org/Premium. Otherwise, thank you so much for listen— either way, thank you for listening to this podcast, no matter what. Thank you. And I hope you have a good day and, oh! You can leave us comments, questions, concerns, compliments and criticisms — we prefer the first ones but you know what, you gotta be open to it all — at our phone number: 612-568-4441. That’s 612-568-4441. Okay bye!