My son, Kofi, who is 7-years-old, is obsessed with both college and pro football. Most of the time, there’s running commentary from him about this and that player, who’s on what team, and the upcoming Super Bowl. It all sounds a bit like white noise to me, but his recent talk of the San Francisco 49ers’ new star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, caught my attention. Kofi, who I gave birth to, knows that I was adopted and that I am interested in the subject, and was quite happy to point out the fact that Kaepernick was also adopted. “So that’s interesting, right?” Kofi is often trying to impress upon me how interesting football is. “Yes,” I said. “That is interesting.”
Colin Kaepernick, who is of mixed race but has never publicly affirmed his racial identity, was adopted by Teresa and Rick Kaepernick when he was six weeks old. Teresa and Rick are white, as was his birthmother, Heidi Russo. It has been reported that his birthfather is black, but Kaepernick has never met either, despite Russo’s multiple efforts to make contact—most recently by way of a television news story—days before the Super Bowl. You know why Colin Kaepernick has never met either of his birth parents? Because he doesn’t want to, and that’s his call to make. I’m looking at you, Rick Reilly of ESPN.
In a column this week, veteran sportswriter Reilly talks about how odd it was that Kaepernick didn’t want to meet his birthmother, “since many adopted kids are crazy curious about their birth parents,” and how healing and important it was for his own adopted Korean daughter to reunite with her birthmother at 11-years-old. While it is true that many adopted kids are curious about their birth parents, and I certainly was, it is not necessarily true that most are, or that if they are, they are obligated to have a relationship with them. It is a primal severance, particularly between the birthmother and child, that is often borderline irreparable. But it can also feel irrelevant to the life the adopted child has gone on to live, and the person they’ve grown to become.
When Reilly questioned if Kaepernick’s reasons for not wanting to reconnect with his birthmother were out of respect for Teresa and Rick, Kaepernick responded: “It’s not really a respect thing. It’s just—that's my family. That's it." Enough said. I feel a similar kind of uncomplicated clarity when people refer to my birthmother, with whom I reunited like Reilly’s daughter, also at 11, as my “mom.” She’s not my mom. She’s not the one who rocked me to sleep at night, heard my first word, sewed my ballet costumes, and, well, raised me. My birthmother, like Heidi Russo, is someone who as a teenager made what I can only imagine to be an excruciating decision to surrender her child, and who, also like Heidi Russo, was unable to go on with her life after the decision.
Russo told FOX31 Denver last week that for the first few years after the adoption, she waited for pictures of Colin from Teresa and Rick, as well as letters reporting his progress and growth. But she soon realized the correspondence was preventing her from moving on with her life. It’s unclear how many years went by between then and now, but it appears she moved on with her life right to the point where the son she gave away became a huge star. Although Russo insists that her most recent attempt at making contact has nothing to do with Colin’s sudden success, I’m not buying it. Moreover, when she tells the news reporter how proud she is of Colin, I have to wonder why she gets to claim pride over anything he does at all.
As for the healing and importance of a birth reunion that Rick Reilly spoke of for his own daughter—it’s different for every adoptee, because we are all different individuals. Beyond that initial separation, which is arguably life altering, there is not one single universal feeling or experience shared by all adoptees. We each respond to the heartbreak of being abandoned and the joy of being chosen in ways unique to our personalities and circumstances. My mom described it for me once when I was small as being like a knot or wound in a tree trunk—the tree just keeps on growing around it. The decision to meet the person or persons who caused that knot or wound is not an easy one, and should be entirely up to the adoptee.
I was 11, which in retrospect, was too young. But my parents trusted my birthmother and more importantly, they trusted me. I had always known I was going to meet her at some point, so when she wrote a letter to my parents asking if the time was right, they turned it over to me during a “family meeting” (we never had “family meetings”). My brother and sister, my parents’ biological children, then 17 and 14, respectively, thought it was a terrible idea. They didn’t say as much, but you could see it on their faces. I was all in from the get go. My parents had me at “Rebecca’s birthmother wrote us a letter”.
Like Colin, I am mixed—black birthfather, white birthmother—so meeting my birthmother didn’t bear that immediate “I look like you!” impact that many adoptees long for. But that first embrace was from another planet. It was almost frightening how right it felt to be in her arms. I would like to say it all went well from there, but it didn’t, and that’s another story. There’s no way to know for sure, but our relationship may have been slightly less agonizing had I waited until later, like my friend, Sarah Saffian, who wrote about her birth reunion experience in her book, Ithaka: A Daughter’s Memoir of Being Found. Sarah got a call from her birthmother in her mid-twenties, and by then had a clear enough sense of self that allowed her to set certain parameters and decide on her own terms how the relationship would develop.
The point I want to make here is that no one but Colin Kaepernick, in all his well-earned star quarterback glory, can decide when and if he is ready to meet his birthmother. It’s nobody’s business but his own. And from what my son tells me, the guy has an iron will, and is very focused and comfortable in his skin, so he’ll be just fine with whatever decision he makes. Well done, Rick and Teresa Kaepernick.