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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.


When I was working on this essay the original piece didn’t have much of my daughter’s birth mother, Jessica, in it and they kept asking for more about her.

“Well, we want to know why she placed,” said the very nice editor’s assistant. “She seems so together so we can’t really understand.”

See, they had this image of what a woman who makes an adoption plan must look like and the word “together” wasn’t really part of it. My daughter’s birth mother had to have a reason. Some obvious reason that fit into the “brave birth mother” stereotype. Heroic! Sacrificial! Unworthy of parenting her own kid and the good sense to know it! So I called Jessica and told her that I was getting frustrated with the edits and wanted to talk to her about them because I felt like what was coming up was a good illustration of the things that made me hesitate to publish the piece. Like some other people who read the essay before I sent it to the editor felt that Jessica didn’t seem too realistic; they felt she appeared “too good to be true.” (Hey, I didn’t make up any of her quotes.) They wanted her story to slip into some kind of predetermined sense only that wasn’t going to happen because there is/was no one reason. Jessica’s decision wasn’t a tidy little If x = y then z type of thing.

So where does that leave Jessica (and every other woman whose children are being raised by other people)? To be brave and courageous she has to have a reason and that reason will damn her. If she’s unworthy of parenting this child then how much harder will she have to work to prove she’s worthy of parenting the next? Or the ones she already has?

But if she doesn’t have an acceptable reason she will be damned, too, because then she’s just “selfish.” I mean, it’s got to fit that simplified equation in people’s minds.

And of course, the birth mother will be to blame for whatever happens next. Either it will be her fault for her bad genes or her fault for making an adoption plan. Unless the child turns out “good” and then it’ll be because the adoptive parents are so fabulous. In other words, the birth mother gets kicked coming and going.

For a woman without her child, to get out from under these assumptions she’d have to denounce her decision. To be given the right to grieve it, to critique it she has to reject it, which isn’t fair either. There should be room for ambivalence in adoption, in abortion, in infertility, in mothering. While the rigidity in our birth mother visions are most clear, we (all women) are stuck with the polarity of saint and sinner.

this post appeared in a slightly different form on my old personal blog, this woman’s work


Time in Open Adoption

clockwall-insideAt the All Adoption Meetings we have participants whose children are grown and others whose children are infants. We have participants who have been living reunion for a long time and others who are just beginning to think about searching. And we have whole ranges of openness. There is so much value in hearing the voices of people who are living across the life span of adoption.

Last Monday, as I listened to one of the women talk about her family relationships pre-reunion — a reunion that has been thriving now for decades — it was a reminder for me that our relationships in open adoption are not stagnant.

At the beginning of our own journey I thought we had to get our open adoption relationship with our daughter’s birth mother exactly right or it would all go downhill. It felt tenuous and fragile and it was a few years into it before I could let my breath out and relax. But once I did relax I relaxed fully and I thought, “There! We did it!” and believed that our open adoption would shine like that forever.

Of course, the only constant in life is change. Our lives happened in unexpected ways (jobs, moves, the arrivals and departures of other family members) and so our open adoption shifted and suddenly I was scared again. Would we able to adjust to new uncertainties? Would we survive the momentous changes we were facing?

Our daughter’s mom no longer drops by a couple of times a month for dinner because now she lives states and states away and we only see her once or twice a year. I feel like I’m learning our open adoption all over again.

Listening to my friend’s life pre-reunion — a life that looked very very different than her happy reunion now — reassured me that we don’t have to get it right for forever. We just need to get it right for right now. It reminded me that all we need to do is roll with the inevitable change and live each moment as it comes.

The prompt for this month’s Open Adoption Roundtable was to write about open adoption and time.

The Open Adoption Roundtable is a series of occasional writing prompts about open adoption. It’s designed to showcase of the diversity of thought and experience in the open adoption community. The prompts are meant to be starting points–please feel free to adapt or expand on them. Write a response at your blog–linking back.

Remaining constant

Portrait of PiaThis is from A Portrait of Pia, a young adult book by Marisabina Russo about a 13-year old girl who goes looking for her — and finds — her long-lost father.

Pia could see herself standing in front of the class holding the [self-portrait] upside down. How foolish she had felt! Then she remembered Mrs. Lavelle pointing out the negative space behind her hair. It made her think of her father, the part of her life that was not here, but still defined her.

I was pleased to see that she wrote The Line-Up Book, too, because this was one of son’s favorites when he was little.

I’m always looking for books that aren’t just about adoption but also about kids finding themselves in unusual family circumstances. In this one, Pia’s mom’s boyfriend tells her that he was adopted. He tells her about finding his birth mother while he’s sitting with her at the airport before she gets on a plane with her mom to go meet her father. He tells her:

“In that instant I realized that although I’d found her, the woman who had given birth to me, I was still Greg Finer … I remember feeling really relieved because you know …” Here Greg finally took a deep breath. “I didn’t want to change. I liked who I was.”

Our children — most especially our children separated by birth parents for whatever reason — need to know that while they become better everyday, they are who they are. They are right and strong and true and they are exactly who they should be.

This is a great long review of the book and I encourage you to check it out.

The Myth of the Forever Family

My article on adoption disruption and dissolution is up at Brain Child (and of course on newsstands now):

When we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—“a forever family.”

That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.

In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.

But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.

The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.

via Brain, Child :: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

There was A LOT of great discussion that could not make it into the article, which I am very sorry about. I also talked to families who ended up not feeling comfortable being quoted for the piece but whose experiences informed my process. You can discuss the article here (at the Brain Child discussion blog) and I’ll be checking in there. I’ve also invited the people I interviewed to weigh in but they are busy people so we’ll just have to see.

This was a hard but rewarding piece to write and I just hope that I did justice to the topic.

One more thing — whenever I write about my daughter’s sealed-away birth certificate and the new fake one that she has, the editors stop me and ask me if I’m SURE about that. The editors at Salon even said, “Is that legal?” So many people outside of adoption get that it’s insane, which makes it more bizarre that it’s controversial to people inside adoption.

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