By Deputy Editor Thea Lim
Note: This post isn’t about Buffy Sainte-Marie, but her photo seemed like a good one to meditate on while I wrote this harrowing piece. See my endnote for more info.
I get a little sensitive when it comes to how transracial parents represent themselves and their families.
So when reader Carleandria sent us a tip about Anita Tedaldi, the white adoptive mother who 1) terminated an adoption (i.e., after 18 months with her adopted South American son, she put him up for re-adoption) 2) wrote about it extensively for the New York Times AND 3) in early October went on the Today Show to talk about it, my stomach turned. It was like watching a car wreck. I couldn’t stop myself from following the links to ingest more and more about this woman, and the portrait she draws of herself.
A little backstory: Tedaldi was already the mother of five biological children when she took on the baby she calls D. D. had a host of physical and emotional issues, Tedaldi writes, all the result of being abandoned by the side of the road. When D. came to live with her, Tedaldi found that D. was not forming a bond with his new family. And Tedaldi’s family did not really take to him either. So Tedaldi found a new home for D.
Now. I should make it clear that my issue here is not that Tedaldi chose to give up the baby. She chose to adopt a special needs baby when she already had five kids and a deployed husband. That seems like a pretty bad choice, but I’m glad that Tedaldi was able to admit to herself that she was not fit to parent D.
What really disgusts me is the way that Tedaldi is trumpeting this story all around town. And while very little has been made of race in this story, I wonder what Tedaldi’s white lady privilege has to do with her apparent total lack of guilt. Or let me correct that: Tedaldi doesn’t just seem remorseless. She seems proud of herself.
Like everyone, I have some skeletons in my closet. But I wouldn’t have Matt Lauer interview me about them. I might write an essay about the things I’d done if I wanted other people to learn from my mistakes, but I’d probably publish it anonymously. Why? Because I am ashamed of my skeletons. Isn’t that the regular human response when you realise you’ve really messed up?
Yet in Tedaldi’s essay, she doesn’t show self-reproach. She shows herself to be distraught, she writes extensively about how bad she feels; but she does not once use the word “sorry,” for example. Or “regret.” Or “I was wrong.”
And sometimes, she recounts horrifying details with seemingly no self-awareness at all. Behold the moment in Tedaldi’s essay that gave even the gushy and fawning commenters on the NYT some pause. Describing the moment that D.’s new mother came to take him:
My daughters were watching SpongeBob and said goodbye to their brother almost nonchalantly, as if he was just going out for a bit and would soon be back.
When I was 8 I adopted a bunny. After about a week my parents decided it just wasn’t working out, and we gave the bunny away. I remember trying to talk to the bunny and say goodbye to it. If I was more concerned with my week-long bunny companion than Tedaldi’s children are about their adopted brother, then something is really really wrong.
Yet Tedaldi doesn’t say so. That’s all Tedaldi tells us about her daughters’ reaction. She doesn’t say that she needs to address this pretty shocking callousness in her children. She doesn’t worry that she did a dismal job of creating familial feeling between her bio children and her adopted child. She includes this scene, but it seems more as a means to illustrate 1) how hard it was for her and how alone she was 2) how justified she was in giving the baby away because clearly her family didn’t like him.
It almost feels like Tedaldi is on a mission to represent her behaviour – which deviates pretty wildly from the regular mothering narrative (at least I hope so) – as natural. Or she wants her actions to be viewed as a symptom of the complex nature of human life. The copy on the NYT article states that Tedaldi wrote the article in the hopes that:
it will trigger a deeper understanding of how fragile and fierce the bonds of adoption can be.
The tagline on Tedaldi’s blog says:
Beware, by coming here you may be exposed to the frailty of human nature and to the many contradictions that permeate our existence
In the comments section of an adoption blog criticising Tedaldi, Tedaldi chimes in:
I chose to share the inconsistencies and the human contradictions in my own life in a public forum precisely because I believe we are all made up of good and bad
There’s something of an obsession here. When faced with her own horrible mistake, instead of examining her actions, Tedaldi starts waxing philosophical. Hey, it’s not that she messed up by taking in D. when she had no business doing so, it’s that the whole world is messed up! It’s that adoption is just so complicated! It’s that human nature is just so frail!
In the material that I read about Tedaldi and D., there is no mention of race anywhere, or that this was a transracial adoption. Yet to me there is something here — if not particularly of white privilege — then of massive gargantuan privilege of some kind. Because the more privilege you have, the less likely you are to feel guilt.
This is because people of privilege are encouraged to think that it is logical they should have better Everything than people without privilege. As people of privilege they are entitled to almost anything they want, even when what they want is a very sick baby that they do not have the means to care for. People of privilege are also strongly discouraged from feeling compassion and connection to the world at large. And people of privilege are discouraged from taking on responsibility or guilt.
Just look at said NYT comments section (and hang on to your lunch):
Anita – thank you for sharing. It really was courageous
I admire Ms. Tedaldi’s honesty
Thank you Anita. You are one courageous woman.
You did your best
God bless you.
This is a cliche, but has the whole world gone mad?
Why is this woman seen as being brave, why is she getting spots on primetime daytime, simply for admitting a grotesque mistake? Apparently because she was honest enough to admit she made a grotesque mistake. But where do you draw the line between honesty and shamelessness?
And not everyone who admits to wrongdoing gets a hug from the internet. See, for example, the stark difference in the way the internet treated Britney Spears, another unfit mother. So why the Tedaldi love haze?
I guess because her story comes under the rubric of the mommy industry. But I figure most of all everybody loves Anita because the one she let down is not really human. At least not according to her.
Nowhere in her tear-stained narrative does Tedaldi tell us enough about D. to turn him into a human being. Most of what she tells us about him has to do with his health problems, the quiet implication being that no one would want such a difficult baby:
The first few weeks at home, people often asked me if he had experienced a brain injury. D. also suffered from coprophagia, or eating one’s own feces, which my pediatrician assured me the majority of children outgrow by the age of four. Most mornings, when I went to pick him up from his crib, I’d find him with poop smeared on his face and bedding.
Instead of details about what D. looked like, or what made him smile, or what kinds of things he liked to do – or even some unique ways he acted out! – we get this heartless description.
Why didn’t she just say “he had coprophagia,” explain what that was, and leave it at that? If we love someone, we usually try to describe their moments of sickness with the most dignity and respect possible. But Tedaldi gives us this extremely graphic image and does not say anything like “but obviously it wasn’t his fault” or “but it was ok because he was my son and I loved him.” For all her faffing about the intricacy of human nature, Tedaldi does not give D. the chance to be human.
If she thought of D. as human, would she be telling everyone who wants to listen the story of how she rejected him? The fact that D. might one day come across these articles and interviews of herseems like reason enough for Tedaldi to freakin’ shut up.
But she doesn’t. And the print/TV/internet circus around Tedaldi accepts this dehumanisation because in the age of Angelina and Madonna, this is how we have learned to treat transracial adoptees. D. is just another news item about a body of colour who needs to be rescued by white people.
At the end of her article, Tedaldi describes what D.’s new mother said to her:
Samantha squeezed my hand and reassured me that D. would know I had loved him and that I had done a good job.
And then Tedaldi to Matt Lauer:
“I’m not sure that I failed him. I loved him and I tried my best — in that respect I didn’t fail him,” she said.
When a person of privilege is accused of having been negligent (or racist, or sexist, or…), a classic move we often see is the accused dissolving into sobs. They will berate themselves, they will proclaim how terrible they feel, they will soak your t-shirt with their tears. In other words, instead of owning up for whatever they did and focusing on the pain they caused – and how to reduce it – they completely focus on their own pain. In fact, they revel in it, Tedaldi-style.
Discussing Tedaldi’s article in the context of their own adoption process, AfroSpear states:
The one thing that has stuck with me is the words of one of the [adoption] counselors that impressed upon us that once you adopt a child, it’s no longer about you! Once that child enters into your care, their well-being is now are your primary responsibility and you must be committed to deal with “the good, the bad and the ugly”. They are not disposable, like a family pet that is returned to the pound after a few months because no one wants to be bothered to care for it…This [adoption] is not about her, although I did find that her article is all about her and her feelings.
Tedaldi’s article is one of the most grotesque manifestations that I have ever seen of the way that privileged people make EVERYTHING about themselves.
Tedaldi describes her feelings as “grief.” Grief is what we have when we lose a friend or a family member to death, or to the vagaries of life. Grief is not – at least not mainly – what we have when we utterly fuck up and totally let someone down. That is called guilt.
Grief is also what we have when we lose a dream. But D. is not a dream, not a realisation of the adoption fantasy Tedaldi admits to having had her whole life. He’s a human.
This is not a story about a mother and a child. This is not even a story about a woman and a baby. It’s a story about two humans. But that keeps getting lost in the mix.
So why is there a picture of Buffy Sainte-Marie on this post? I have zero desire to contribute to Tedaldi’s pity party by perpetuating images of her. I wanted to put up a photo that represented D., and not Tedaldi. So I looked up the internet for well-known POCs who were also adoptees, and Buffy Sainte-Marie popped up.