The majority of parents don’t understand the parallels between their attitudes toward the first parents and their child’s receptivity to receive unconditional love. That’s why it’s vitally important to understand what I’ll call “the first parent factor.”
Let’s begin by getting some historical perspective on adoption and how relationships between adoptive parents and first parents evolved. Jayne Schooler, adoption expert and author gives us some historical context in Searching for a Past: The Adopted Adult’s Unique Process of Finding Identity.(p. 40) “In recent decades, adoption has served two addition functions—to meet the needs of couples whose dreams of a family were shattered by infertility and to provide a solution for birth parents who found themselves facing an unintended and untimely pregnancy. What emerged from the latter two functions of adoption during the middle decades of this century was an idealistic picture, one which characterized a perfect solution to a societal problem…What this ‘perfect solution’ created were myths that were safeguarded throughout the world of adoption.”
“Years ago,” according to Sharon Kaplan-Roszia, “myths were perpetuated through the adoption community. One myth taught those whose lives were touched by adoption that the most healthy attitude for all members of the adoption triad was to make a clean break. That meant no looking back—for anyone, forever.”
Closed Adoptions—Put the Past Behind and Pretend
A closed adoption, even though prevalent in the 1940—is still desirable by some today. In this arrangement, there is no contact whatsoever between the birth parents and adopters. Instead, there is an intermediary that facilitates the adoption, whether it be foreign government officials, local or national adoption agencies, or private attorneys and physicians. In the case of international adoptions, scanty, if any, information is given to the adopters by orphanage workers, not from mal intent, but because there is no information available. As Richard Fischer, adoptive dad and publisher of Adoptive Families Today, said, “All these kids come with one thing—a certificate of abandonment.” For those of us born domestically, we can get an amended birth certificate, but the only information we are given is “non-identifying information,” which means age of parents at birth, their occupation, place of birth, whether there were siblings. All other information is “whited out” on the original certificate, which then becomes officially sealed and legally unavailable to the adopted person. Even if an adoptee from a closed adoption is successful in securing the original birth certificate, there is still the matter of secrecy. For example, my birth mother put the name of her husband as father on my birth certificate, when he wasn’t the father. In the 1940’s, the blank for the father had to be filled in, so she must have put his name, to keep the name of my birth father a secret, which she still carries until this day.
When I speak to audiences, they are usually unaware that the majority of adoptees in this country, no matter what their ages, have sealed birth certificates, except in a growing number of States. They are appalled, as this is a basic right of every citizen.
Semi-Closed Adoptions–First Parent Connection Is Maintained from a Distance
This type of adoption is quite popular today. There is direct contact between the adopters and the birth family, with the adopters determining the parameters and boundaries. The parents may meet the birth parents at the birth or dedication ceremony, but after that, there is usually no physical contact. However, there still is openness and communication through gifts and cards. The subject of the birth family is usually not off limits, at least it shouldn’t be. Our granddaughter has always had a photo of her birth mother is her bedroom and she has a book made for her by her birth mother, telling her her favorite colors, activities, etc. One time my daughter went to her bedroom, only to find her older sister in the crib with her, reading her the book from her birth mother.
Open Adoptions—Adoptive Parents and First Parents Become Blended Family
These adoptions are becoming more prevalent today and involve and on-going, direct relationship between the adoptive family, the adopted child, and the first parents.
When people ask me if I am in favor of open adoptions, I tell them three things. I know I am out of the mainstream of professionals in my opinion, but I look at it as an adopted person. I do believe that it can be wonderful, especially after reading the thoughts of James Gritter in the Spirit of Open Adoption.
I do believe, however, that it takes four incredibly mature individuals (birth and adoptive parents) to pull it off, and that, with counseling and coaching from a qualified open adoption practitioner.
It is not the panacea for adoption, however, as many would like to believe. It doesn’t change the fact that the first parents have abdicated parental responsibilities, which is a loss for both them and the child. In addition, it doesn’t mean that the child isn’t going to have issues surrounding adoption. No, he won’t have to search for his first mother’s face in a crowd, but he will have to come to terms with why he has a “blended family.”
From an adopted person’s perspective, it can put undue pressure on the child and rob him of the innocence of childhood. There is a seven-year-old adopted girl who was at a family gathering with both birth and adoptive family. Members of the extended adoptive family hadn’t yet met the birth relatives. The child, in an attempt to introduce the first aunt to the adoptive aunt, stopped short and asked what the word “first aunt” meant.
Even in a biological family, it is difficult for young children to understand how the two families merge to make a bigger family. Not long ago, our seven-year-old grandson asked me how I knew his other grandma.
Along the subject of enjoying one’s childhood, I am reminded of something our eight-year-old grandson said to me recently. When I told him that I couldn’t be in the sun because of health reasons, he declared that was the reason he didn’t want to get old! Then, he went on to say repeatedly, “I just LOVE being a kid.”
I know that’s what you want for your kids, too—to LOVE being a kid, to enjoy childhood to the fullest. That’s why I would like you to think deeply about this subject and what is best for your child and family. Take my perspective with a grain of salt, ask for wisdom about it from on high, and listen to other professionals before making the decision about what type of adoption you will pursue.
PARENTAL PERSPECTIVES ON BIRTH PARENTS
In this day and age, you were probably prepared well enough by your agency to realize that your child may want to search for his first parents someday. Randolf Severson, author and therapist, describes the struggle within that you may encounter over the years: “Adoptive parents—some with joy and some with anguish—are awakening to the fact that roots, however twisted, are as vital to the leafing of a tree as is the gentle nurturing of the sun and rain.” You may feel prepared for every question that may be posed in the years to come, but how will you really react when and if the time comes?
Yet, in spite of this new awareness among adoptive parents, resistance to the subject still surprises me during talks with parents of adopted children. Let’s look at some of the reasons and perhaps your resistance level will go down.
I’m Okay—I’m Prepared
Even the most mature and prepared parents find the first parent topic difficult. When a child announces it is time to search for the birth parents. You may have read all the books, prepared yourself in every way possible, yet when the time comes, you are reminded of your frailty and humanity in a big way. Doris said, “When my daughter announced….we felt like we had been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer.”
For nearly five years, a friend and I volunteered at Indiana University Hospital, to visit all new patients on a weekly basis. We visited patients from the top to the first floors, never knowing what to expect when we walked into a room. I’ve visited patients receiving bone marrow transplants, those receiving chemotherapy, and those that are one step from death.
Therefore, with this experience under my belt, when my elderly father’s physician called and told me to come quick, he was dying, I remember walking into the hospital and telling myself that I would be able to be “cool and calm” because of my prior experience. I still remember nearing his room in ICU. My knees started quivering and my hands were sweating profusely. Even though I was prepared in every way, when it became personal, I realized my humanity once again. We can do everything possible to prepare ourselves, but then we also must be gentle and forgiving with ourselves as well.
This is a difficult hurdle for parents to jump because they want to protect their child from further hurt. However, parents, it’s important to remember that there is a primal, DNA tie to those first parents that no abuse or neglect can sever. A story is told of a toddler who was put in a hot, oiled frying pan by her mother. When he visited the child in the pediatric ICU, the mother came to visit. The child’s first reaction was to hold out her arms to the mother and cry “mama!”
I’m the “Real” Parent!
Traversing that narrow line between honoring the role of the first parent and the irresponsible behavior can be tricky. One mother describes her experience: “We have a closed adoption. My husband and I have never met our daughter’s first parents. She came into our home as a nine-month-old baby from foster care seven years ago. I don’t understand her first parents’ choices – drugs, no prenatal care, a handful of visits, and ultimately leaving town without signing a single document. It took us an additional nine months to adopt her because of their lack of communication with social services.
Where Do They Get the Right to Be Called Parents?
My husband and I were faced with our feelings about her first parents just this week. Our 2nd grade daughter was chosen to be “Star of the Week” at school. A poster was to be made with pictures of her family and hobbies that interested her. As Grace and I were cutting out the stars the teacher had printed, she said, “Mom, can I put a picture of my first parents on the poster?”
I responded with, “Oh, honey, that’s private.” Immediately my heart told me that was not right. We’ve always been open with her in how she came into our family and I didn’t want her to feel that her adoption story was a secret or something she should be ashamed about. And besides, the kids in her class had been asking her who her “real” parents were because she is Filipino and we are Caucasian. So, I asked her some questions to see how comfortable she was in answering them.
After thinking about it, she said she’d changed her mind, only to come back to me a couple of hours later saying that she really wanted their picture on the poster. My heart was in turmoil. How did her birthparents earn the right to be on the poster? Are they family?
The answer came to me as my husband and I shared our feelings later that night. First, their picture should be on there because that’s what Grace wanted. Second, they are family. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have the joy of parenting our daughter. And third, if by sharing the picture with her class helps our daughter’s growth process, it was worth putting aside our feelings.
Through all the emotions my husband and I went through over a picture, what will it be like when she wants to meet them some day? One step at a time.”
They’re a Non-Issue—We Adopted Internationally!
Many, not all, who choose international adoption are motivated by “the first parent factor.” If we adopt from abroad, there will be no history. There will be no first parents who change their minds after the adoption is finalized and come to get our child in the middle of the night, like little Jessica DeBoer.
One parent who adopted internationally says, “I was very glad in the beginning, that the likelihood of a parent ever contacting me was remote. That feeling started to dissipate in China, and I recall feeling overwhelmed with emotion as the plane lifted off the tarmac in Beijing, holding my daughter to the window, and telling her to say goodbye to China. Oh, goodbye to your birth country, your heritage, your first family, your ancestors, your language, your culture, the only place where you will ever feel in the majority—say goodbye to it all, because I wanted a daughter, and I could adopt you, so I did. Now, I realize it is NOT all about me, and it IS about my daughter. I would give anything to be able to fill that black hole of nothingness that is inside my daughter, where her first family should be. All I can do as her parent is to help her to bear the pain of the unknown, and deal with it in a way that will allow her to live a happy and productive life. I pray that I will be able to do this.”
What If She Runs Off with Them and Forgets Me?
During nine years of leading all-adoptee support groups, I have never seen an adopted person, no matter his or her age, search, reunite with the birth parents, and then say “ta, ta” to their mom and dad and run off with the first parents. They all return with a deepened appreciation and love for their parents.
What’s the Deal? Didn’t I Do A Good Enough Job?
An adult adoptee said, “My mama didn’t like me to ask much about my first mom. She couldn’t understand why I wanted to know about her. My daddy has always been much more accepting and open. When I was reunited with members of my first family, my mom fell to pieces and said it was because ‘she wasn’t a good enough mom and God was punishing her.’ I just want to belong.”
COACH SHERRIE’S INVITATION
Parents, we’ve looked at some of the possible perspectives parents have about first parents. We’ve certainly seen our humanity!
The Key for Communicating Unconditional Love to Your Child
I’d like to share another perspective with you that I believe will revolutionize your relationship with your child—choosing to openly show honor to your child’s first parents, no matter what their behavior or history. You choose to honor their role.
Why? Because your child is a part of them! Your child had her first conversation with her first mother during the last trimester in the pregnancy. Your child’s first home was her first mother’s womb. The DNA that helped determine your child’s personality and looks came from her first father.
To deny these wondrous facts is to say to your child that part of her is unspeakable, so bad, so unworthy, that we can’t talk about it.
The defining principle is: When you honor your child’s birth family, you honor your child. If you don’t honor her birth parents, she will secretly or unconsciously conclude that there is something terrible about her. In other words, you will be fostering shame, which I know is the last thing you desire. You want your child to feel unconditionally loved!
Here are some suggestions to get you started with honoring statements, which should begin from day one:
- I am so glad your first mother and father gave you to us to love.
- Your first parents must be wonderful people to have had such an awesome baby.
- How I love your first parents for sharing you with us.
- Your first mother and father must be incredible people!