Monday, February 6, 2023

Books: "Choosing Family" by Francesca T. Royster

Choosing Family: A Memoir of Queer Motherhood and Black Resistance

By Francesca T. Royster

Abrams Press; hardcover, 288 pages; $26.00; available today, Tuesday, February 7th 

Francesca T. Royster is a native of the South Side of Chicago, and a professor of literature at DePaul University. She received her PhD in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of three academic books, Becoming Cleopatra, Sounding Like a No-No, and Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions.

Choosing Family is a lyrical and deep exploration of Royster's unit of three - herself, an African-American woman; her partner, Annie, who is white; and Cecilia, the Black daughter they adopted as a couple in their forties and fifties. 

Told against the backdrop of Chicago's North and South Sides, this memoir recounts Francesca's complex journey to her queer identity formation and adoptive motherhood in an interracial home. She calls upon famed feminist theorists like Audre Lorde to argue how many Black households have a "queer" attitude toward family, far different than the "White normative experience," and are richer because of their flexibility and generosity of spirit.

Race is at the core of Royster and her multiracial family's world, which includes everyday acts of parenting on the North Side, as well as challenging the definition of family. She examines her journey to motherhood while examining how complex and messy the adoption process is, as well as parenthood from a Black, queer, and feminist perspective.

Royster also explores the memories she has of the matriarchs of her childhood and the homes they created on Chicago's South Side, which is itself a dynamic character in the memoir, where "family" was fluid, inclusive, and not necessarily defined by blood or marriage. Her story is about seeking joy, the kind that society did not intend for you, or those like you, and claiming it as your own.

In this excerpt, Royster writes of when she and her partner entered motherhood: "The Friday we began to think of ourselves as mothers started with a series of signs and wonders: A Banksy-style painting of a child lifted by a red balloon stenciled on the wall of a downtown construction site as we walked from the El; a toddler in a spring-green knit cap who popped his head over the back of our yellow booth at our favorite breakfast place, waving at us shyky. Chicago Aprils could give you anything - rain, hail, fog, snow - but the day was miraculously warm, with a steady sun.

I had an important meeting that morning with the promotion committee at my university to consider my application for full professor, and my partner, Annie, had come to hold my hand. Despite the years of hard work and preparation for that day - teaching, researching and writing books and articles, volunteering for hours of committee work - my mind was preoccupied with what I hoped would be a much bigger milestone.

Four months previously, Annie and I had turned in our photobook so that birth parents could consider us to become adoptive mothers. In that photobook, we tried our best to represent our strengths: two seasoned older women, one Black, one white, who loved each other and wanted to raise a child and to bring that child into our community of family and friends - our chosen family. We tried to present ourselves as we are: caring and goofy. We wore our hearts on our sleeves. Somehow, we hoped, the book would communicate our passion to become mothers. Then, three weeks before my meeting, we got a nibble. Our social worker, Wendy, showed us a photograph of a beautiful baby girl who had just been born, her face mostly cheeks and shining eyes. Her birth mother was considering us, among others. At a giddy breakfast brain-storming session, Annie and I gazed at the photo and came up with the name Cecilia, if we were chosen. (At first, I really pushed for the name Jesse. No one would mess with Jesse! I pictured her leaning against a brick wall, thumbs in the loops of her jeans. But in the end, it had to be Cecilia, graceful ringing, and true.)

Before my promotion meeting was scheduled to start, we quickly ducked into Walgreens for last touches: a bottle of water, lip gloss, and breath mints. Standing in line, we heard Simon & Garfunkel's song "Cecilia (You're Breaking My Heart)" playing on the loudspeakers. 

'That has to be a sign! We're going to hear something about the baby, for sure!' Annie called out, doing a little dance.

The promotion meeting floated by seamlessly. Afterward, we planned to unwind at our favorite cafe and meet up with our niece Allie to talk about her post-high school plans. At seventeen, Allie seemed to be growing out of the need to hang out with her aunties, so the chance to spend time with her that day felt like a good sign, too. We headed to the cafe, ordered our tea and coffee, and sat down to wait. In a moment, I heard my phone buzz in my book bag. I answered, expecting to hear Allie's voice. 

'Franceca, where are you right now? Is Annie there, too? I've got some exciting news. Are you sitting down?'

I put Wendy on speaker, and over the din of the crowded cafe, we listened to the details. K., the baby's birth mother, was a single African American woman in her thirties from a small struggling town just to the south of us. She was already raising several children, juggling work and school, and taking care of an ill mother when she found out she was pregnant and made an adoption plan. We had no clear information about the birth father. She had made an adoption plan with our agency for two children before this one and was almost sure that she was ready for us to be her new baby's mothers. Almost sure.

We whooped and hollered, hugging Allie, who had wandered into the middle of the excitement, and spent the next hours celebrating, texting, and calling our loved ones. But somewhere beneath our glee was caution. We had been told the statistics. As of that spring, there were seventy families waiting at the Sayers Center, the Cradle Adoption Angency's program for the adoption of African American children. Most of those families were between thirty-five and forty years old. Only 8 percent were older than forty-five, which we were. And only 15 to 20 percent of those couples were gay or lesbian, and most of them had been waiting for a child for three to four years. And, hardest of all to face, we were told that one in five birth parents change their minds about adoption.

Setting aside our worries for the moment, we spent the next few days preparing. We went to Target and piled our cart high with all the things that we knew we'd need in those first weeks of motherhood: diapers and wipes and onesies and formula. The agency required that we have a new car seat to take the little one home safely from the nursery when the time came. Friends began dropping off stuffed animals and toys at our home and our offices on campus. And we made our first visit to the Cradle to meet the baby, to hold her, to feed her bottles of milk, and to imagine ourselves as mothers. It was irresistible not to.

But then, a week later, Wendy sent us an email that began: 'We've run into a wrinkle. But please don't give up.'

Wendy wrote that K. went to a graduation party for a cousin and told her extended family for the first time that she had recently given birth and was in the process of making an adoption plan for the baby. They begged K. to reconsider and promised to support her if she kept the baby. K. told the social worker that she needed more time but for us to keep close.

We had chosen the Cradle because it offered a program that focused on African American children and an open adoption, a process in which parents and birth parents work together to shape family. But this also meant that we'd have to live with the possibility that the parents who chose us might change their minds.

At first, we didn't tell anyone about the potential change of plans. We were afraid if we said it out loud, we might lose the baby. But slowly we admitted the truth.

Our friends Laura and Erica cooked meals for us. Annie's sister Laura instructed us to keep working on the baby's room. 'That baby is coming. You've got to be ready,' she said. Allie reassured us, 'I'd need more time to make this decision, too. She needs you to hang on for her.' Our friend Misty reminded us that we needed to hold ourselves with tenderness as we waited. Lourdes and Amina encouraged us to lean into our teaching while we waited.

We spent our evenings wrapped in each other's arms on our red velvet couch, eating animal crackers and watching old episodes of Friday Night Lights, trying to breathe. Finally, I broke down and called my father.

'It hurts so much,' I told him.

'That's how you know you're her mother,' he said."

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