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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.

A Girl Like Her — Ann Fessler in Columbus

Ann FesslerYou are invited to join the Ohio Birthparent Group when they present Ann Fessler hosting a showing of her documentary, A Girl Like Her. In honor of OBG’s second anniversary and National Adoption Month, director Ann Fessler (a graduate of The Ohio State University) introduces this screening and signs copies of her related book, The Girls Who Went Away, at a reception afterward. You can reserve your tickets here.

The powerful film reveals the hidden history of over a million women who became pregnant in the 1950s and 60s and were banished to maternity homes where they would ultimately give up their children in forced adoptions. At a time when sex education was minimal, single women were often ostracized into enduring their pregnancies in shame-filled institutional isolation. The film allows us to hear heartbreaking stories directly from the women who lived them, combined with footage from educational films and newsreels from the time that reinforce the era’s perceptions of sex, “illegitimate” pregnancy, and adoption. (48 mins., video)

The program starts with a screening of Fessler’s short Cliff & Hazel (25 mins., video), a humorous and poignant portrait of her adoptive parents that was supported through the Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio Program.

Event support provided by The Living Culture Initiative in the Department of Art and the OSU GLBT Alumni Society. Cosponsored by the Ohio Birthparent Group; Arts and Humanities and the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies in Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences; and the Women and Gender History Workshop.

October issue of Adoptive Families

I have a very short article on the October print issue of Adoptive Families Magazine about taking my daughter back to the hospital where she was born for a tour. I was fortunate to interview the always stellar Micky Duxbury, a family counselor and author of Making Room in Our Hearts, a book which is a must-have for anyone living or wondering about open adoption.

Visiting the hospital with my daughter was an important part of helping her take ownership of her birth and adoption story. It gave her confidence in understanding and making sense of her beginnings in a very profound way and helped uncover some concerns that she needed us to address. I hope you’ll check out the story and see what you think.

2011 Open Adoption Symposium

I am so very excited to be presenting at the 2011 Symposium Opening Adoption: Realities, Possibilities and Challenges this fall in Richmond, VA. Because I volunteered to help them with their brochures and landing pages for the conference, I’ve been privvy to some of the amazing names who will be there including keynoters James Gritter and Adam Pertman but also a long list of speakers with both personal and professional expertise (some of whom you know ‘cuz of their presence in the blogosphere! Check it out!).

This symposium is being put on by a very small, very ethical agency in Richmond, Coordinators2inc. This agency is less focused on overseeing adoptions and much more focused on offering much needed post-adoption support. (Check out their web site and you’ll see!) They received a grant to create this conference because they felt that openness has gotten short shrift in their geographical area. Cynthia Henebry, an online friend, invited me to join them about a year ago and watching this small, dedicated group of people put together what will be a major event has been inspiring. I, along with a lot of other folks I’ve talked to around the country, hope that this becomes a regular event but the agency is first and foremost committed to serving their clients and whether or not this conference happens again will likely depend on how this first one goes!

There is such a huge need for more open adoption information, especially information that is presented critically and with an eye to practical support. Instead expect two days of questions, discussions and hopefully renewed dedication to improving on current practices.

My session is:

Family Values and Openness: Confronting and accepting differences

With the assumption that every non-kinship adoption is a transcultural one, the presenter discusses the small and large conflicts that can arise in open adoptions due to the differing values between birth and adoptive family members. She discusses the ways families can successfully confront these challenges and makes recommendations for ways professionals can better support families in their care.

Cynthia helped me pull it together because they had a rough idea of what they wanted me to do and her feedback was immeasurably valuable. I’ve been working on it since this winter but took time off to tunnel through summer session (argh — halfway through!!! this has not been an easy summer so far!). I can’t wait until August 5th when my final final will be over and I’ll be able to get back to working on my presentation. I hope to get a survey up this week to get some anecdotal information and I’ll be hitting y’all up to help me get it out there.

Kids who need more

I turned in the edits on the disruption article yesterday and then sometime later in the afternoon, I found a video of the “still face” experiment (I can’t remember where). I find this video kind of hard to watch because of the baby’s stress; I’ll just warn you that if you have a hard time watching babies cry, this might bother you.

Look how hard that is for that baby. You can see that if that still, unresponsive faces were that child’s reality, that she might have trouble being able to connect to other people once she leaves that environment. For a child who has depressed parents or is in an institution where there aren’t enough time or resources, learning how to accept and manage relationships might be a normal reaction. In this video that came up in the youtube related box, Dr. David Arredondo makes a distinction between “attachment” and “connectivity.” (I don’t know anything about Dr. Arredondo — I’m going to read about him more after I post this but I was struck by his distinction.)

So when we’re talking about narratives around adoption, the type that are perpetuated by some agencies where the kid comes home and wraps her arms around her new mommy’s neck and everyone goes to Disneyworld to celebrate Christmas, we can see that those stories are at best lies by omission and at worst outright falsehoods. Because it is normal for children to have long-term challenges when their early lives are deprived. It is NORMAL. It is not pathological for any child to have some serious struggles when they have experienced the kind of neglect that many kids in fostercare or orphanages may have experienced. It makes sense, you know? It makes perfect sense. It doesn’t make for bad kids anymore than calling a child who limps because of an injury a bad kid. Babies and children are certainly resilient (thank goodness) but resiliency can only go so far and resiliency can also include coping mechanisms that may not work so well outside the orphanage. It may take time to unlearn survival methods that make perfect sense in one environment when we are moved to another.

And when adoption agencies tell stories that leave out the reality, they clearly don’t give a damn about those kids and they don’t give a damn about the prospective adoptive parents either. Because they don’t give those parents a chance to properly prepare.

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