Day 37: Notes from an Adopted Self, the Prequel

When I was younger, I imagined my baby self in a room full of other Lund babies waiting to be adopted. Rows and rows of plastic cribs filled the room, and everything in the room — cribs, linens, curtains, clothes, even the signs with our assigned numbers — was a sterile white. I imagined my parents coming into the room, looking up and down the aisles at all the babies, and eventually choosing me.

Of course, when I shared this with my mother, she softly laughed and then explained to me that, while she and my father chose to adopt me, they didn’t actually see me until they had signed all the adoption papers. They knew I was an infant girl, that I was biracial, and that I was healthy. Nothing more. When they saw me, I was wearing a green two-piece outfit that they had to leave at Lund. So they dressed me in an outfit they brought with them and gave me my name: Nicole Leta Brittingham.

My parents, Harry and Virginia Brittingham, married after serving in the Korean War — my father as a gunner and cook in the Navy, my mother as a secretary in the Army (more precisely, in the Women’s Army Corps). They were in their early 40s when they got married after seeing each other only once and writing to each other for a year. Snail mail!

After they married, my parents moved to Boston; Jim Crow was still alive and kicking in the South in the 1960s, so they moved North and found jobs. At the time, my father worked at the Chelsea Naval Shipyard and was also in the Navy Reserves; my mother worked as an administrative assistant and also attended a two-year college.

While they wanted desperately to have children, they couldn’t and so they decided to adopt. They contacted an agency in Boston but, according to that agency, they were not considered good candidates for adoption because they were older and working class. My mother was furious. She felt like she served her country and now should be able to adopt a child and raise a family. She even wrote a letter to the White House complaining about the situation.

Then, one day, my mother decided to search the phone book for other adoption agencies. This was in 1971. She saw an advertisement for the Lund Home and called the number. The adoption coordinator at Lund invited my parents to fill out the necessary paperwork. My mother said that the people at Lund seemed excited to have my parents in the pool of adopting parents. Not many African-Americans were adopting at the time (at least not formally; blacks were adopting in the sense that there were informal kinship and community arrangements that involved grandparents or other relatives raising a child. These informal adoption arrangements have a long history in the African-American community. There is a bit of that history reflected in my family tree. Recall from my earlier adoption posts that my biological paternal grandmother wanted to adopt me. My adopted maternal grandmother also raised several of her grandchildren and cared for at least one great-grandchild).

What I learned, too, after my research visit to Lund about two years ago, was that the agency was struggling to find parents for biracial or African-American children; couples were looking for white babies. This period in Lund’s history (1971-1972) is called in several pieces of archive material the “Problem Years.” Lund saw its lowest adoption placement numbers during this time. Not only was Lund struggling financially to keep its programs going, but the agency was also trying to reeducate couples about what and who constitutes a family unit so that they would be more open to the possibility of raising a child that was racially different from them.

Few biracial or African-American infants were adopted in the early 1970s at Lund. All of us were cared for by foster parents until we were adopted. Fortunately, I was adopted when I was just 2 months old — on April 21, 1972. Unfortunately, many children were not. Why me? I don’t know. If not me, then who? These questions are overwhelming. All I know is how — or at least pieces of how I came to be adopted. And who I’ve been able to become largely because of that fortunate start. I returned to Lund only once during my childhood. I was 18 months old and my parents returned to Vermont to adopt a two week old baby — my brother.

On this 40th birthday, I am so thankful that my parents’ desire to have children led them to Vermont — to me.

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