My blog has been neglected these days but I’m trying to get back into the swing of things! Here are some things that caught my eye in the past month:
And please remember, the Annual Toy Swap is this Sunday! My kind landlord was able to come to an agreement with me to allow me access to the office next door to mine to accommodate the swap. If you have early drop-offs, I’ll be there Saturday afternoon and/or evening so contact me if you want to drop things off early. My office is on the lower level but there is an elevator if you need it. Details about the toy swap are here.
I 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.
In my practice (and in my personal life), I’ve found that tween adoptees tend to be thinking about adoption and about their birth families more than their adoptive parents may realize. They’re not always talking about it but they’re thinking about it. The Adoption Institute linked to a study that looked at this in last month’s newsletter, here’s the abstract:
The adopted children, between the ages of 8 and 12 years, and their parents answered questions about the children’s thoughts and feelings about adoption. Descriptive data and scores on four scales – family, adoption, birth culture identity and discrimination – were obtained. Compared with same-race adoptees, transracial adoptees scored significantly higher on birth culture identity and perceived discrimination. High levels of convergence between the children’s and parents’ viewpoints on the experiences of adoption and related issues were found. Nevertheless, the adopted children scored higher than their parents on birth culture identity, suggesting that at this age adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s connection to their cultural origins
I think there are several reasons why adoptive parents may underestimate their children’s interest. For one thing, just because kids are thinking something doesn’t mean they’re talking about it; they may not even have the words to share what they’re thinking and feeling. But absence of discussion on their part doesn’t mean it’s not on their minds.
The other thing is that many adoptees worry excessively about hurting their adoptive parents’ feelings. They pick up on any jealousy or insecurity on the part of their parents real or perceived and they act accordingly.
They may also fear being different than the rest of the family and expressing their interest in their birth origins can exacerbate this worry.
So what is a concerned adoptive parent to do?
- Talk about adoption early and often. Don’t wait until “they’re old enough to understand.” Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Make adoption part of your everyday lives and discussion. Practice, if you need to, with a friend so that you can talk about adoption without blanching. Your child should know everything you do (expressed age appropriately) by the time they hit their teens, which means if there are some tough things to talk about, you need to get ready to talk about them. (If you need help, talk to a counselor or a teacher or a spiritual adviser or someone else who knows how to discuss difficult things with kids.)
- Assume your child’s interest even if they don’t express it. Remember that every adoption outside of family adoption (and sometimes even then) is a transcultural adoption so even if your child looks like you and everyone else in the family, she or he has a birth culture that is worth exploring. And that birth culture is part of your family culture now so welcome it the same way you welcome your own culture of origin.
- This doesn’t mean forcing them to assume an identity of your making, mind you. Your daughter from China may not particularly want to identify as Chinese and that’s OK. What you’re doing is creating opportunity so that she has room to decide for herself. Just like families connected by biology may drag their kids to Irish step shows because they want to remind them of dear old Granny Murphy, adoptive families should celebrate connection as a family. And just like bio kids may grow up to loathe Michael Flatley, so your son adopted from Ethiopia may grow up to loathe injera. But what they’ll remember is that it mattered to the family and trust me, that part of it will matter to them no matter what.
- Don’t spend so much time on culture that you forget biology. Your child likely wants to know about his or her birth family, too. If you have information, share it. If you don’t, share what you do have. If you have nothing, talk openly about that. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be willing to do research. And it’s best that you do this exploration before your child hits those tween years so that you’re prepared for their questions.
- If you do have access to birth family, help your child have access, too. How this should look will depend a great deal on the reasons behind your child’s adoption but you can get help by talking to other adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees or by talking to a knowledgeable therapist.
- Find someone for your child to talk to. As I said before, sometimes we parents are not the best people for our kids to confide in so find a trusted adult adviser whether that be a therapist, another relative or friend of the family, or an adoptee mentor.
I know that a couple of weeks ago I told you to talk less when you’re redirecting your kids but in most other situations I’m going to advise you to talk more — especially when it comes to talking about the hard stuff.
What hard stuff? The usual: Sex, drugs, body image, bullying and other important topics. Many of us schedule these discussions for particular set times. We might sit our children down to have The Talk when it comes to sex. Or we might create loving rituals to talk adoption, like the families I know who say a prayer to birth parents every night. This is great. Formal talks are great and loving rituals are definitely great. But our kids need more talking. They need it more often and in more places and in more contexts. The big talks and the rituals are terrific but they’re meant to be jumping off points to a bigger conversation.
Back when I taught preschool we had a big alphabet banner that ran across the side of our room, right at 3-year old eye level. The children in our care liked to tell themselves the ABCs using that banner. They would sing their way down the line, pointing at each letter. Or they would whisper to themselves, “A is for apple. B is for ball,” pointing to the letter than the picture next to it. But many of them couldn’t go and find the same letter in a book or on another banner. They knew the alphabet in that context — there on the wall in our room — and not when they found it in the rest of the world.
The same goes for sex and drugs and all the rest of it.
These topics need to exist in the everyday world to make sense, otherwise it all stays theoretical. Bringing it up in other settings also creates opportunity for your child to reconsider the discussion in new ways.
The preschoolers I taught eventually understood that A was for apple on the banner but also at the grocery store and that A was for Annie when they read Henry and Mudge. They learned that because they had exposure to more and opportunity for more.
When should you talk about the things that are hard to talk about it?
- When they ask questions. And they might ask questions at weird inconvenient times (my kids both had the uncanny knack of asking deep philosophical questions when I was merging on the freeway) partly because they are feeling self-conscious about asking. If they can toss it off when you seem distracted then it’s not as risky as sitting down and asking you point blank. That’s one of the Catch-22s of parenting; you have to be prepared to answer questions when you’re least prepared. As tempting as it might be to put it off, if you get an unexpected question grab the opportunity. If it really is a bad time then promise to answer later and keep the promise.
- When they don’t ask questions. Maybe one evening you’re watching a family movie and it makes you think, “Man, this reminds me of XYZ. I wonder if it reminds my child of it, too?” Chances are it does. But don’t wait for them to tell you; bring it up yourself. Speak your thoughts out loud and see what happens. If they haven’t experienced it the way you have (if the movie hasn’t made them think about adoption or about grandpa’s illness or about the friend who’s moved away), you’ve still let them know that it’s a topic that’s open for discussion. That’s important. You’re paving the way for future questions. So if you feel an unspoken question hovering in the air go ahead and give voice to it.
It’s ok to be awkward talking about hard things. It’s ok to not be sure and to say, “I don’t know.” Like most of parenting, we get to learn as we go. It takes practice to move these discussions out of safe context and into the rest of our lives but it’s worth it. And it might make merging on the freeway infinitely more interesting for your family, too.
Heather and Kat sent a whole slew of questions along for the first segment of the Open Adoption Book Club. We’re talking about Megan’s Birthday Tree: A Story About Open Adoption.
This is the one I chose to write about:
In the story, Megan struggles with the fear that her birthmother will forget her if she no longer has the Birthday Tree to remind her. What fears have you struggled with in your adoption journey? What helped you overcome those fears?
One of the things we were told repeatedly by some of the workers at our agency and the world at large is that our child-to-be’s birthmother would “move on” and become less of a presence in our open adoptions. This was often stated as a selling point. Even the agency expectation that we send cards and letters once a month for the first year and then annually thereafter was a nod to the myth that open adoptions naturally become less open as time goes on. The philosophy behind those annual cards and letters is that once the raw first year was over, everyone could get back to “normal.” Normal, apparently, meant not necessarily forgetting but at least less need.
That has most decidedly not been our experience and in talking to many adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees, that is not most people’s experience. Although it’s true that some families lose touch with each other, I have yet to meet anyone who forgets and blithely moves on.
Still that cultural idea is very present in adoption and Megan’s concern is common to adopted kids whether or not the adoption is open. And certainly one thing is very true about life post-adoption; nobody stands still. People don’t move on but they do move and big changes (new babies, new homes, new jobs, etc.) require what can sometimes be hard adjustment.
Not every child feels safe to voice the fear that their birth families have forgotten or will forget them. Some are afraid of saying out loud something that feels so true because it might confirm it’s truth. Others are afraid that birth or adoptive parents won’t understand or will be dismissive. Or maybe it’s both those fears all wrapped up and tied together.
Many parents are afraid to ask their children if they worry about this for similar reasons. What if their child isn’t worried about it until their parent asks? This is why Megan’s Birthday Tree can be a valuable book to open a discussion. Birth and adoptive parents who read this book with their children may feel more comfortable observing Megan’s feelings and then asking their child, “What do you think about Megan’s being afraid that her birth mom will forget her? Is this something you think about?” Having some distance (speaking about imaginary Megan instead of themselves) can also give kids space to address their worries in the guise of helping Megan address hers. What advice would they give her during different points of the book? What do they think about how the story ended?
Very often parents tell me that their children won’t talk about their feelings around adoption but our goal isn’t necessarily to get them talk; it’s to let them know that it’s safe to talk. Safe means bringing hard subjects up without pressure and respecting their boundaries so don’t fret if your child rejects your overtures. Knowing that you will give them room to talk and room to not talk will go a long way. Meanwhile make sure books Megan’s Birthday Tree is out and easy to access so that children can revisit the story without making a fuss about it.