War Photographer: Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is the loveliest, in real life and in her writing. She may or may not be the next Walter Brueggemann. I asked her to do a special post for this series on how she talks about adoption--specifically with her kids. I have long been uncomfortable with some of the ways adoption language gets tossed around, but Kelley has always shown such grace and aplomb. Plus, she is brimming with wisdom and theological depth, yet she still remains resolutely planted in "real life"--which includes some very challenging, messy, and glorious places. I view her as a friend and mentor, and I am privileged that she chose to share in this space.
While I haven’t birthed my children, I’ve birthed their stories. In the early days our adoption tale felt legendary, laced with Spirit-whispered promises and just in a nick of time departures and a medical miracle for good measure. To tell these stories was to tell my story of deep formation during the adoptive arc, revealing my eventual status as an accidental mother of two Burundian babies only possible in the imagination of God.
I had to tell these stories of how God created a mother ex nihilo, how God healed a baby found on hospice watch, how an adopted child became an adoptive parent. These came from my own belly.
I beamed as I held my browned babies, as I held my glowing stories. Speaking them out was the most natural thing to do, testifying to a great goodness done unto us.
But as my children learned to feed themselves raspberries, turn on lights, unlock doors and move from me at increasing speeds my sense of things changed. They were growing up and already moving away from me, starting that long process of differentiation. I knew they wouldn’t always be mine to corral and control. And neither would their stories.
Before we even celebrated our first Adoption Day together I began holding their stories closer, giving fewer details about how they were orphaned and then brought home. I spoke less of my daughter’s former illness, lest I surrender too much to strangers before she could comprehend her own healing. I began wondering if I’d already given too much away.
I realized that telling our children’s stories is a complex endeavor because they are also our stories. At what point along the umbilical cord does mother diminish and child increase, mother ending and child becoming a separate individual with a unique story? I found it worthwhile to consider where my story ends and theirs begins.
In truth, it will be years before my children understand the fullness of their adoption narrative. There will be many winters and summers before they can give me permission to share about these intimate experiences that happened to all of us. Along the way they’ll discover the details, feel the emotions, construct frameworks for understanding and, if I’m so lucky, share with me how the story unfolds from their vantage point. So I do reflect on this interim period.
I confess some struggle as I cross their storyline now and again. At first it was the adoption chronicles, but nowadays it’s the daily-ness of growing up together. My kids do intriguing things, especially as bi-cultural children straddling fall in the States and spring flights to Burundi. They offer alternatively simple and stunning insights into these cultures and places. And when my son reflects on Jesus stories and makes connections to justice and dreams of bringing equity to Africa – I want to write about it all! I hesitate, though. What I want is a clear easement, to know that I have the right to cross over their story and share some of it alongside my own. I’m constantly wondering who holds the copyright on these tandem stories.
When I write or speak, I do so as a woman who is wife, lover of justice and jubilee, friend to the poor, an adopted child and a mother of two robust babies. My own thinking is shaped by motherhood as much as my seminary degree, recently read books, global friends or my bi-cultural life. Maybe in this season, mothering shapes me most. When I speak about the fullness of my life without mentioning my children my own story feels incomplete. (This is when I feel that phantom umbilical cord still connecting us.)
And here’s another thing – my children are teaching me how to be more human. So if I write about my own plodding transformation, I must mention my young mentors and the lessons they offer. It’s my children who challenge me to be more kind, embody grace, practice forgiveness and let go of anger. It’s increasingly impossible for me to describe my journey without mention of my fellow companions, to speak of transformation sans the catalyst.
But I’ve decided to write with them in the story and in view. I’ve accepted the invitation down this harrowing road, navigating between mine / ours / theirs. Since it will be years before they can offer true permission or input in the telling of these tales I feel the need to tread soft and slow.
So with each piece I stop and think about what to say, what to leave out, what to leave ambiguous. I try and leave room for them to grow beyond my descriptions, to someday annotate them when they’re able. For example, I try not to say my son is an angry child, but to talk about how he’s learning to handle those hot emotions. I imagine him seeing this as a true statement, one filled with a mother’s confidence that he will, in fact, master those outbursts. And I hope he feels I represented him within a redemptive and maturing arc, not locked into forever being an ‘angry child’ by my pen. I pray when he reads my story, it will echo with truth from his own experience. Then the story will truly be ours.
In the meanwhile I must write with a long-term lens. I consider how this story about my son, my daughter read ten or twenty years from now. If I hit it right, then years from now my children will see how I attempted to love them well, learn from them and for them. They will see then how I always believed in them and knew goodness would grow in them with each episode, each season. This means I tend to write these stories in my journal and hold on to them awhile, not rushing to post. I want to make sure each story told can withstand the test of time – a few weeks, some months and then maybe years beyond today.
I hope to write about adoption someday, about the redemptive energy that circulates in and from the company of the adopted. I want to unpack the theology, make some connections and suggest how adoptive people can offer unique gifts to a fractured word in need of our kind of healing. But to write this out will require a bit of honest memoir, describing both what it is to grow up adopted and mother adopted children. I’ve been harboring this in my heart for months, because any words in print have to be written to last. And I’m not sure if I’m ready to write our story just yet, I carry this fear and trembling every time I think about it.
Because as my children grow, this is no longer just my story of bringing Burundian babies home. My story is maturing into our story, something we hold together somehow despite our age difference. And I never want them to regret my written record of our story, to accuse me of misrepresenting them. I hope they never feel I (even unintentionally) exploited their experience. So I wait, because my children matter. I hold on a little longer than I want to out of deference to them. I will write, but only when I sense we are ready.
The question looming – how we do this living, learning and telling together while respecting one another? Obviously I carry the weight of this question now – as mother and chief storyteller. I wonder if motherhood gives me such wide jurisdiction over their unfolding stories or not, at what point do I consider them as fellow humans with a shared history? When do I cede to their copyrights over these jointly held stories?
Yes, I do think about privacy when I write about my kids. I try not to be too revealing, I try to share more redemptive episodes and not create a record of their youthful folly. I consider protecting them, and so try not to use their names often or too many details that would identify them. But most of all I consider their humanity, their own history and their right to own and tell their own stories. I aim to honor them as we (and our shared stories) grow together.
Kelley Nikondeha is a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader, mother of two beautiful children, lover of God's justice & jubilee. She co-leads theological conversations at Amahoro Africa and is chief storyteller for Communities of Hope. Kelley and Claude do life in transit between Arizona and Burundi. She’s in transit between continents but also in terms of her own experience of motherhood, discipleship, theological engagement and living into God’s dream for the world. She savors handwritten letters, homemade pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggemann. She is fueled by space and snacks (and Diet Coke). Blog: kelleynikondeha.com Twitter: @knikondeha
Psssst: isn't that the coolest tattoo? You can read the story of that here.
The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?
For more in the series, please click here.