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Speaking truth to your adopted child

thoughtfulgirl-inside(This is an edited repost from my defunct personal blog, which is why it references other posts from four years ago and Lost, for goodness sakes, like the olden days or something.)

Malinda posted about this parenting advice from Brian Stuy:

We have never brought up, unprompted, our daughters’ birth parents. We have discussed adoption, conception and pregnancy, and other corollary issues from time to time, but I have never, without having the subject introduced by a daughter, initiated a conversation by saying, “Do you wish you knew your birth mother?” Or, “Do you want to know more about your abandonment?” I have always indicated a willingness to answer any and all questions (not just about adoption but about anything), so I am confident my kids know that if they ask any question we will try to provide them with a good answer. But the point is, I wait for them to ask. Those that force-feed their children the deep issues of abandonment, birth parents and adoption, risk, I believe, getting the kinds of responses displayed above. In fact, by presenting the reality of birth parents before they are mature enough to handle it, for example, I think we risk diminishing our own position as parents to our children.

I was watching Lost on Tuesday, which is chock full of obvious and less obvious adoption issues and adoption cliches and stereotypes and I was thinking about how deeply ingrained our presumptions are about “real” parents and changelings and lost orphans and false parents. I was thinking about fairy tales and mythology and thinking that our collective unconsciousness already feeds us these ideas. (I am typing this to avoid spoilers.) It doesn’t matter if they are “true” or not — they are part of our belief system.

So unlike Brian, I think that even if we never ever ever breathe an unasked for word about our kids’ birth parents that our collective unconsciousness is already, in some ways, defining our own position as parents to our children. And our kids need to figure that out for themselves, which I think means we should be more explicit in welcoming that discussion. Not because we need to sway them but because we need to hear them out (or at least say to them, “I am bringing this up because I will hear you out”) so that they know whatever direction they choose, whatever belief feels like home to them, we will love them and accept them and never ever leave them. Even if they feel more attached to their birth countries, families and origins than they do to us. They may reject the “blood is thicker than water” belief system or they may not. But they will wonder about it.

Brian also says:

They might ask at that point if they were born of their adoptive parents, and that would be a good time to answer, “No, you were born to a woman in China.” That is the type of answer I would give. But many use this opportunity to go ahead and answer questions not asked and not even thought of: “No, you were born to a woman in China. She is your birth mother, and she wasn’t able to keep you, so she left you at the gate of the orphanage.” This is the type of over-feeding that overwhelms most kids, and creates, I believe, unnecessarily emotional issues.

There’s a third response, “No, you were born to a woman in China. What do you think about that?”  or “How do you feel about that?” or “I know that might be confusing. Do you have some questions about that?”

I mean, culturally? We romanticize birth ties. I’m not willing to say that this romance is more true or less true. I’m not willing to say that it’s a cultural bias we need to question or reject or welcome with open arms. I think it’s one that’s interesting to explore and for any adopted child, it is an absolutely vital exploration because it is a conflict she is living and she will need to make sense of it in whatever way she needs to.

This is why we need to bring it up. We don’t say, “Hey, my lovely child, do you feel so much more tied to your birth mom than you do to me? Since she’s your real mother and all?” Instead we can say, “How did you feel when so-and-so was talking about this thing that might relate to adoption?” If I was Brian Stuy in a closed adoption from China, I’d surely say, “Sometimes I wonder about your birth mom. Do you wonder?” Because I would wonder. And if I’m wondering, it’s not such a far stretch to think that the child herself wonders.

I do not think that birth ties are any more magical and true than love ties but I do believe that birth ties are rich with meaning. I do think that in a culture that romanticizes our genetic origins that those genetic origins have an important weight.

For example, gender has tremendous cultural weight, agreed? We can say that gender is a social construct but it does not negate the weight of it. We can say it is a figment of our collective imagination and we can choose NOT to believe that gender matters. Individually, we can do that. But culturally, gender still has weight and our questions and struggle with the cultural construct of gender is practiced against the beliefs that we are questioning. Which is to say, no matter how much we choose to believe that gender does not matter for ourselves, it does matter. Our personal practice of gender exists in contrast to the larger cultural construct. In other words, Lady Gaga owes as big a debt to Phyllis Schlafly as she does to Madonna.

Angry Adoptees

angry adopteesI know many adoptees, and although this is not true across the board adoptees will never be pigeonholed, i’ve found that more often than not, when you look beyond the surface, the adoptees whom a casual observer may most likely label as an “angry adoptee” or see as being the most critical of different aspects of adoption, are often the very ones who have the closest and healthiest relationships with their adoptive parents. It seems counter-intuitive, but I see it over and over again.

When an adoptee makes a critical statement about adoption or adoption practices it doesn’t automatically mean that they are “angry” or have a bad relationship with their parents. Often, the opposite is true, and all it really means is that they’ve been paying attention.

via blog.adoptionmosaic.org » Angry in a Whole New Light.

There’s a myth that goes around adoptive parent circles, which says that if you are a good adoptive parent your child will never grieve, never be angry about his/her adoption and never “need” to meet their birth family. Many of us know that it’s a myth and yet it persists. And it presupposes that adopted people should not be angry or that we should not want to raise children who have their own opinions, thoughts and feelings about their experiences.

You can’t look at any child who isn’t expressing negative emotion and assume that means the child isn’t feeling negative emotion, not when it comes to big ticket items like adoption or divorce or moving or deployed parents, etc. It may be that child is very private. It may be that child doesn’t want to disrupt things for other family members (issues of loyalty, guilt or responsibility can make talking about our feelings that much more difficult). It may be that the complexity of those big ticket items make it too hard to talk about.

In other words, giving your child safe space to say, “I miss my birth mom” does not MAKE her miss her birth mom; it lets her know that you are strong enough to be there for her while she struggles with any and all of her feelings.

This isn’t to say that “angry adoptees” are modeling the only way or the most healthy way for an adopted person to feel. Adopted people are not a monolithic population and so there are adopted people who are happy about adoption and adopted people w ho are angry about adoption and adopted people who are grieving their adoption and very often those people are many of those things all at the same time or they will change their feelings as their experiences change. Just like those of us who are not adopted, we all have a right to make meaning of our experiences with room for ambivalence and room for growth and room for change.

We adoptive parents, we do not get to define the adoption experience for our children and we do not get to take their emotions and decide it says something about us (making their feelings all about us).

Being critical of adoption — being critical of our participation as adoptive parents — is the right of any adopted person. We get to have our experience of adoption; they get to have theirs.

When they are very young children and then bigger children and then teens, our job is to help them make sense of their stories and give them room to eventually tell their own narrative. Our job is not to control that narrative and it is not to limit their authorship of their own story because, as I said, giving your child space to be critical does not create the criticism.

All Access

smiley2-insideYou know how Jane Brown famously said that internationally adoptive parents are a fifth best choice? (And I’ll assume that domestic transcultural adoptive parents are a fourth best choice.)

The first, she believes, is for children to remain with their birthparents; second-best is for a child to be adopted by, or remain with, a member of the extended family; third-best is to be raised by people of the same race in the country of one’s birth, and fourth-best is to be raised by members of the same race outside the country of one’s birth.

(quoted from The Pain of Adoption)

What she’s talking about are the levels of adoption loss — the loss of a biological connection and then the loss of a cultural connection. If we adopt transracially/transculturally, our children become biracial/bicultural regardless of their biological roots. A Birth Project wrote about this several years ago.

(Note: I know that it’s hard for adoptive parents to read a quote like Jane’s above and I include it not to make transracially/transculturally adoptive parents feel bad but to galvanize them to confront the unique challenges their children face. Information is power and I believe in empowering parents so that they can make their own best decisions.)

The transracially adoptive parent’s goal can’t be to do “as good a job” at nurturing her child’s birth culture in in the same way that a parent who shares that birth culture could because that would be an impossible goal. We can’t understand the nuances of that culture the way we could if we had grown up there. We can read, we can visit (as an observer, as a tourist) but we can’t live it.

It’s kind of the same thing when people say that doing a white child’s hair is as difficult or as important as doing a black child’s hair. No, it isn’t. Even if the two children have the exact same hair texture, if one child has pink skin and one has brown, the state of their hair has different cultural connotations. There’s an extra layer to the discussion. We can exchange hair tips, talk conditioner, and trade beads and baubles but when we send our kids out into the world, they bear a different weight in their curls.

There are a lot of challenges in being a transcultural parent (and I include bio parents who are transculturally parenting — especially if they do not have a co-parent who reps the culture of the child) and one challenge is trying to make sense of when our values are more or less important than the values of the child’s birth culture.

This is ongoing work and it will look different for different families and different at different time in our children’s lives.

Upcoming Workshops

brothersister-insideThis month I have the Talking Adoption workshop and then starting in April I’m going to be offering free 2-hour parenting workshops each month. These will be very small discussion groups on a specific topic with lots of great information and hand-outs (because I love hand-outs). They’ll be on the third Tuesday of each month at 7pm (with the adoption class being the exception) and I’ll hold them at my office. (If we outgrow the space I’ll look at holding them someplace with more seating room.)

You can see what’s coming up by clicking here to get a whole workshop list. You can also stay informed about upcoming events (because I’m always adding cool stuff) by subscribing to my email list. I send my list out once or twice a month (depending on what’s happening) so you don’t have to worry about me cluttering up your inbox. And of course I never ever ever share my email list with anyone else.

You can register for the following classes now and there’s more coming:

Talking to Kids About Adoption
February 26 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Tailored to the needs of both pre-adoptive parents and those who are already parenting, this 2-hour workshop on talking to kids about adoption will help parents create and nurture healthy conversations. We will discuss: How to begin the conversation; the ways your child’s development shapes their need to know; telling the truth: when, why and how; engaging the reluctant child; how to be prepared for unexpected questions. There are only a few seats left and you can register by clicking here.

Beyond Because I Said So: Better Communication for More Effective Parenting
April 24 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Tired of arguing with your kids? Sick of the power struggles? Discover ways to get your point across quicker, easier and with better results. This free 2-hour workshop will be fun, informative and will give you lots of tools to take home and start using right away. Space is limited so reserve your seat today by clicking here.

When Your Child Says “I Hate Myself”
June 24 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
This free 2-hour workshop will focus on understanding how self esteem changes as children grow and the ways that parents can help their children develop a positive self concept. We’ll talk about both typical child development and atypical challenges. Class size is limited so reserve your space today by clicking here.

Building Emotional Literacy in Your Child
July 22 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Emotional literacy — the ability to recognize and appropriately express our feelings — is at the center of healthy child development. Kids who are able to identify and express their feelings have fewer behavior problems and are easier to parent. This free 2-hour workshop will help you strengthen your own skills to help your child become fluent in the language of feelings. Class size is limited so reserve your spot today by clicking here.

Being critical of birth parent behavior, not birth parents

blondeboy-insideI wanted to pull something out that Catana said in her comments to my last post because I thought it was really important:

When the teen years begin the issue becomes more difficult because, in addition to everything else, they wonder what their parent’s sexual behavior was and whether they will ultimately end up like them – unmarried and pregnant, and/or irresponsible adults. Teens need a confidante, typically not the adoptive family.

Catana is an adult adoptee so her words should hold extra resonance for those of us raising adopted children.

I think this is a piece that can be very difficult for adoptive parents to understand, especially those adoptive parents who have real reason to feel angry or critical about their children’s birth parents actions (such as in the case of foster-to-adopt when terrible abuse or neglect is what led the child into the system).

It is absolutely understandable that adoptive parents would feel very angry and resentful towards those birth parents who were abusive and neglectful but it is not appropriate to express that anger and resentment to the child without caveats. It is hugely important that adoptive parents make it clear that their criticism is directed to the birth parents behavior and not to the birth parents themselves.

This can get tricky.

An adoptive parent should never say, “Your birth mom was just an evil person. Your birth dad was always a loser.”

An adoptive parent can say, “I feel so angry that your birth mom hurt you; I wish she’d known how to be a better mom. I am so sad that your birth dad didn’t know how to be a good parent; he’s missing out on a really great kid.”

Again, I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate to be angry and resentful about the behavior; it can be therapeutically important for the adoptive parents to express negative emotions for all that their children have gone through or are going through. But at the same time, it’s vital that adoptive parents remember that even if their children have been deeply hurt by their biological parents, they are still of them.

It’s the same thing we talk about when we talk about divorced parents not bad-mouthing their child’s other parent (even when that other parent deserves it). We need to keep our feelings our feelings and if we can’t do that, we need to talk to an understanding professional who can give you space to get it all out and then put it back together in the best way possible for our children.

Many adopted children certainly will wonder if they will make the same mistakes or struggle with the same demons. And in fact, they might. They need to know that you will love and cherish them anyway and — most importantly — that you will do everything you can to support them no matter what happens. They need to know that even if mental illness or addiction or what-have-you is in their biological heritage that this doesn’t need to dictate the trajectory of their lives.

I don’t want to chastise adoptive parents who are struggling or make them feel guilty for their ugly feelings towards birth parents who have harmed their children but I do want to encourage them to figure out a way to rise above it for the sake of their kids. To be able to do this for your child you need to be able to do it for yourself. If you’re holding onto fears that your child will head down the same path or you find yourself obsessed with anger towards your child’s birth parents, get some help from an understanding (and adoption competent) professional to figure it out.

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