For many years I have been saying that I feel it is the responsibility of the adoptive family to care take their child’s adoption until she/he is able to care take it for her/himself. What does this really mean in our daily lives?
Sharon Kaplan Roszia, co-author of “The Open Adoption Experience,” states that in order for adopted people to come to a full understanding of who they are, they need to have the information and history from both their birthmother and adoptive families. She adds that it is the adoptive parents’ “job” to preserve their children’s biological heritage – to pass on at the appropriate times. “We ask our children to put on our cloaks and embrace our religion, our stories of where we came from, our heritage. We need to be willing to put on their cloaks of identity. We should be combining in our closet, all of that, so when we put on our cloaks, we’re wearing each other’s.” “It’s not, who does this child belong to, but who belongs to this child?”
So how does one become a caretaker of an adoption? The answer will depend on the type of adoption in which you have chosen to participate. For some of our families the connection remains through the agency; for others the connection is direct between the birthmother and adoptive families and for a handful, the connection is silent—existing as a file that someday hopefully will be opened and added to. There are some basic tenets that belong in all adoptions.
1. Start talking to your child from the very beginning about how she/he became a part of your family. A baby does not understand what you are saying but you are building your confidence in telling the story. You may want to create a picture book for your child about his/her adoption. If appropriate, include your child’s birthmother family, a picture of the hospital the baby was born in (nurses tend to love group photos), and the coming home pictures. Include the book in your child’s bedtime stories. If you do not make a book for your child, then there are many well written adoption books for children that you may wish to add to your child’s library.
2. Always tell the truth, referring to people by their correct names and their correct connection to your family. Calling your child’s birthmother a special angel or a “friend” or anything other than the truth corrupts your foundation immediately. I worked with one wonderful family who did this and I suggested to the family that their daughter already had figured out the truth and sure enough when they finally got up the courage to tell their daughter she turned around, shrugged and said “duh—I know that she is my birthmother.” Our kids are smart and they deserve the truth.
3. Life is good, at least on most days. But being a proponent of preventative medicine, I like to be prepared. I would encourage identifying a therapist familiar and comfortable with the issues of adoption. Meeting with a therapist when you are in a healthy state of being allows that person to better attend to your needs in time of crisis. I thought I made a wise choice when I selected a therapist because she was an adoptive parent herself. I figured she’d be skilled in helping my child when the need arose. Wrong! More harm than good was done. I learned my lesson and interviewed future professionals prior to introducing my child to them.
4. If your child asks a question about her/his adoption and you can’t answer it, respond by saying that you will attempt to find out the answer and do so. Many of our alumni have called over the years with questions, and in looking in their files, I have been able to find the answers. This has provided them with the ability to respond truthfully to their child’s inquiries. If the answer can’t be obtained, let your child know that you hope in time to be able to find out the answer. Remember the agency is a lifelong resource for you, your child and your child’s biological family. We are caretaking all of the adoptions that we have participated in over the last quarter-century and we welcome calls from our alumni.
5. If your child was born of difficult circumstances, then tell the story at an age-appropriate level. I can recall Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao, author of the “The Family of Adoption,” telling of a young woman who wanted to know who her birthfather was. In her skilled way, Joyce was able to work with family members to create a video that—when watched by the adopted person and her family in a therapeutic setting—allowed this young woman to identify her birthfather. What could have been a traumatizing situation, in the secure and safe environment of a skilled professional’s office turned out to be a powerful growth experience for this young woman and for her whole family.
6. If you are communicating with your child’s birthfamily with letters and pictures, please remember to include quality pictures of not only the child but the child with the family. As one birthmother told me, “I placed my son with a family. When I get only pictures of him, I think that he is an orphan.” A quick call to the adoptive family, letting them know this, resulted in a deluge of family pictures. A number of families have provided photo albums to the birthfamily so they can expand the album as new pictures arrive. If there are siblings in the biological family, we have had our adoptive families send individual albums to the children so they can have their own special albums.
7. Talk about adoption. It doesn’t need to be an everyday dinner topic, but weave it into your family conversations. Did you watch a movie together where adoption was talked about? You might ask your son or daughter what they thought about it. Did your neighbor down the street just adopt? Did your son or daughter mention it to you or you to them? I have heard a number of our families say, “but Johnny never brings it up.” My response is, “Do you ever bring it up?” Again, our kids are smart. They know what is safe to talk about and what weirds their parent/s out! So if Johnny isn’t talking, it’s a sure sign that you should be!
Many of our families use technology to chronicle their child’s adoption and to preserve the connection between the families. One of our families used Snapfish (http://www.snapfish.com) to create their profile. They then added to the book once they were chosen to adopt a baby. With permission from the birth family, they included birth pictures and comments from the extended biological family. Just recently they sent another book to forward to the biological family, filled with pictures of the baby’s milestones over the year. They plan to do this every year and my guess is they will be celebrating many of the child’s milestones together. The child has copies of the books in his bedroom to look at as he pleases.
I have watched our families, who have entered open adoptions and who planned annual visits, develop their own rhythm with their connection to one another. Many of these visits occur at our annual picnic. As we witness from a distance, body language tells the story. One could sense the nervousness of the anticipation of the first visit, but when you come back next year and the year after and you see the happiness of families spending a day together—adoptive moms, adoptive dads, birth and adoptive grandparents, and add the children, birth and adoptive—the joy abounds!
But what happens if, after a few years, the birth family doesn’t show up? Your child might think that it is her/his fault or that something bad happened to her/his birth family. Life sometimes is tough. If your adoption foundation is strong, it will allow your child to weather the storm. In allowing your child to express her/his feelings and assuring him/her that you will attempt to find out why the birth family was unable to meet, your child will continue to feel secure.
Caretaking your child’s adoption is no easy task. In fact, it would be much easier to tell your child once that she/he is adopted and then move along, having done your job. This way you are protecting your child from any pain of her/his story. But we learn from the articulate voices of adults who were adopted that as adoptive families we need to spend less time protecting and more time listening to their feelings and providing a safe and secure environment for them to learn the truth of their adoptions.
My daughter turned 28 on Dec. 30. Joel and I, along with her brother, wished her a happy birthday but it was the text message from her biological sister wishing her a happy birthday that made her day complete. Her entire family—birth and adoptive—share joy in her being the person that she is. Together over the years, through the calm times and the challenging times, we collectively have provided her with the information that she has needed and that belongs to her to allow her to grow up into a healthy adult.
In a recently published book, “Making Room in Our Hearts” by Micky Duxbury, she writes, “In order to know who you are, you need to know something about where you came from; in order to move into the future, you have to be able to claim your past.”
If we lovingly care take our children’s adoptions, we give them the gift of being able to value and celebrate their whole selves.
Recommended reading and resource:
• Copin’ With Open, by Michael Colberg; Friends in Adoption Newsletter Volume 8, Spring/Summer 2003
• The Open Adoption Experience, by Lois Ruskai Melina and Sharon Kaplan Roszia
• Making Room in Our Hearts, by Micky Duxbury
Dawn Smith-Pliner is the adoptive mother of Aura and Isaac. She is the founder and director of Friends in Adoption - a domestic infant adoption agency specializing in Compassionate Adoption. Dawn is a frequent speaker at adoption conferences throughout the Northeast