Imagine a tortoise–the kind you see in the zoo. With a huge, rough shell for a home and a head that rarely sees the full light of day, he waddles a few steps closer to his desired destination.
With all due respect, many of us adoptees are a lot like the tortoise. Our heads pop out only occasionally to see if it’s okay to assert ourselves, to ask questions and express feelings about our past. Is it okay to ask the hospital where I was born for my medical records? Is it okay to ask for non-identifying information about my birth mother and birth father? Is it okay to say that I’m curious about them and might like to meet them some day? Is it okay to be angry about my birth mother’s decision to relinquish? Is it okay to search for my birth family? Is it okay to seek out other birth relatives if my birth mother rejects me at our reunion?
These are a few of the questions that haunt many adoptees. Remember the story in chapter one about the young adoptee, who after hearing her mother make a casual reference to her birth mother, sheepishly asked, “Is it all right to talk about that?” That’s a good example of a tortoise-like remark! In spite of all the advantages this young adoptee had, her hesitancy and fear remained.
Why is that? you may be wondering. Why is it so difficult for most adoptees to believe that it is permissible to talk about the birth family? Why is it that they hold back, frozen in fear, curious, yet ambivalent at the same time about knowing more?
I believe the main reason many adoptees hold back is that they perceive themselves as victims, unable to assert themselves effectively. Consider these comments and behaviors from Talking with Young Children About Adoption by Drs. Susan Fisher and Mary Watkins:
- A three-year-old pretends that she is a nursing baby piglet. She has her adoptive mother ask pig-mother if piglet can live at her house. Pig-mother says yes. When at adoptive mother’s pretend house, child has adoptive mother “squish” her. Child runs back to pig-mother, who protects her.
- A six-year-old asks, “What did she (the birth mother) say when she saw me? Did she kiss me? Only you should have kissed me because you’re my parents.”
It’s important for parents to be aware of the adoptee’s unconscious tendency toward this victimy mindset, but also her need for compassion, for the adopted child literally was a victim.
Nancy Verrier, in The Primal Wound, says, “The feeling of being a victim is not just a fantasy, but a reality. Being abandoned often leaves one with a permanent feeling of being at the mercy of others.”
Understanding a Victim’s Mindset
There are three aspects to a victim’s mindset: innocence, defenselessness, and helplessness. They are evident in the adoptee’s perceptions after birth and onward, before healing has occurred.
It wasn’t the adoptee’s fault that her birth mother got pregnant. It wasn’t her fault that the birth mother, for whatever reason, didn’t parent. The child didn’t deserve losing a family at birth. She was the innocent party in it all.
In spite of their innocence, however, many adoptees carry a false burden of guilt, much like children of divorce. They may silently wonder:
- Did I do something to make my other mommy mad at me and give me away?
- I think she (the birth mother) didn’t like me.
- Was there something bad about my birth daddy?
The adoptee was powerless at relinquishment. She had no way of protecting herself from further wounding. She may reenact those feelings of defenselessness through play from a young age. Fishers and Wakins, in Talking with Young Children About Adoption observed:
- A three-year-old enacts someone trying to take a baby kitten away from its mother and the mother objects.
- A little girl plays out a scene in which a wicked woman takes a child away from her good mother. She has the girl say to the wicked lady, whom she has her mother play, “If it hadn’t been for you, I would be with my real mother.” The child then confides to her adoptive mother, “Yeah, if it hadn’t been for you, I would still be with her. You came and took me away.”
- A child asks, “Where is my real dad? Why don’t you know where he is? I don’t want him to find me…he’d take me away…I’d get kidnapped by him.”
Even though there were probably people there to tend to your child when she was born, even though you may have been in the delivery room to welcome her, the transfer away from the birth mother and into your arms was traumatic for her to some degree.
In order to get some idea of the helplessness your child may experience, imagine yourself boarding a plane for Europe. When you finally arrive, your excitement level is at an all-time high. How wonderful it is going to be! As the days pass by, it is wonderful…just about every aspect of it. The food. The hotels. The dusty country backroads.
But in the midst of it all, there is something wrenching in your gut. You can’t really describe it except to say that the very things that are so wonderful are producing a peculiar sense of helplessness within you. Everything around you is so different. The people. The food. The language. Your body is beginning to feel the effects of the time change. The people speak another language. You struggle to connect…to speak with the foreigners, to read the menus, but you can’t. What is so wonderful is producing feelings of helplessness.
This subconscious sense of helplessness may continue for many adoptees throughout life.
I am aware of the fact that these are pretty hard words to digest, but if you are to be in tune with the unspoken needs of your child to talk about his birth family, then you must be aware of some of the complex and even scary thoughts and feelings he may keep hidden.
You see, there is a mixture of feelings about the birth mother in your adoptee’s heart. Fantasy. Anger. Victimization. Love. You can be a powerful resource in helping him identify and process these conflicting feelings–or you can be a major obstacle. What determines your role as a facilitator or a hurdle is your willingness and skill in drawing your child into productive conversation about her birth family and her complex feelings about them. Let’s take a look at how you can equip yourself for this crucial task.
Getting Ready to Talk
What comes to mind when you think about initiating a conversation with your child about his birth family? Do you feel defensive, like the birth family is the enemy to be avoided at all costs? Do you feel sad, and does your lip begin to quiver at the thought of their possible presence in your child’s life? Do you fear your child will love them more than he loves you?
If so, this section is especially for you.Kids are experts at reading body language. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes. If you are upset about something and trying to hide it, they will sense it.
In order to converse with your child productively about the issues closest to his heart, you must first develop a healthy attitude about the impact of adoption on the family system. Sociologist and author H. David Kirk, in Shared Fate, suggests five common attitudes adoptive parents tend to hold about how adoption impacts the family:
1) Insistence: All problems are due to adoption. There is a great deal of emphasis between biological and adopted children: the “bad seed.”
2) Assumption: Parents have a romanticized view of adoption and expect the adoptee to have only positive feelings about adoption.
3) Acknowledgment: Adoption is seen as one of the factors in family problems. Family members have special sensitivities about adoption.
4) Rejection: Parents admit, “Yes, there’s a difference, but…” (want to forget it). They forget that the child feels the difference and needs permission to voice his feelings.
5) Denial: Parents have not told children about adoption. There is a big secret in the family.
Of course, acknowledgment is the most healthy attitude. We can’t blame all family problems on adoption, but it is important to help the adoptee see what part adoption plays in the fabric of his life.
There are certain things you can do to prepare yourself for drawing your child into a productive conversation about his birth family.
Face Your Greatest Fear
The first thing you as an adoptive parent must do is face your greatest fear, which is being rejected by your child. You may envision your child reuniting with his birth parents someday and then wanting nothing more to do with you. If so, you would return to that lonely place of barrenness once again.
The truth is, what is likely to happen at reunion is just the opposite of what you fear. (We will discuss this in detail in the last chapter of the book.) Nevertheless, you may feel flooded with a torrent of emotions you never knew existed. Jealously and envy. Anger…even rage. A sense of betrayal by the one you held closest to your heart over the years.
The empathetic ear of a friend, professional counselor, or an adoption support group can help you through these tough times. That person should be someone who has already faced and worked through her own pain and is not afraid of yours. When you have come through to the other side, you will be able to be truly in tune emotionally with your child.
Give Permission for Open Dialogue
Parents must remember that adoptees need permission repeatedly to talk about the birth family. It is like their “permission button” is broken; your words can go in one ear and out the other.
Adoptive mom Kathy Giles believes that this continual permission-giving is a signal to the adoptee that her myriad questions and feelings are okay. She says, “I find adoptees sense the ‘okay-ness’ of wanting to know about their birth parents from their adoptive parents. The parents must signal that they understand, empathize, and will, in fact, help make it possible for their children to connect with their first set of parents. To adoptive parents, I say, don’t kid yourself, saying ‘I wouldn’t want to know.’ Ask instead, ‘What would/will my child want and need?'”
Foster a Non-Competitive Spirit
The third pre-requisite is that there be a non-competitive spirit between the adoptive and birth parents. This may be the most difficult task for adoptive parents, for they must accept without reservation that they are not the child’s only parents.
I know these are painful words. Many adoptive parents would like a clean slate…a new beginning. However, your child does have two sets of parents–biological and adoptive. This is her reality, whether you choose to accept or acknowledge it. There is a special place within the adoptee’s heart reserved just for the birth mother and birth father. If adoptive parents try to fill both roles, the adoptee may erect a tall barrier of resentment to keep her fantasies and thoughts of them alive.
Let your child know that you think about his or her birth parents also. This brings her out of her secret fantasy world into reality: She does have birth parents, and you acknowledge that fact. Allow the birth family, if they desire, to send gifts to the child, and keep them updated on the child’s progress.
Be Confident in Your Role
One of the most important things you as adoptive parents can do for your child is to be comfortable and non-defensive when he talks about his birth family. Your child needs a settled confidence emanating from you when the topic of the birth family is brought up.
Step into your role with confidence, knowing that you have a unique and vital position and influence in this child’s life. No, you didn’t give him birth. You don’t share the same blood. But you are giving him something that no one else can. You are a gift to your child, just as he is a gift to you.
I expressed my gratitude for my adoptive parents in a letter I imagined God writing to them.
Dear Retha and Mike,
One of my children needs a home–a mother and father who will love her and provide for her. I know how much you wanted to have children. I know the tears and anguish you have experienced. But the only way I could make a place for this child in your home was through the open door of your infertility. I am loaning her to you for while to take care of. Do the best you know how to do, for she is precious to me. Someday, when you are gone, I will be her mother and father. She will learn to trust me and depend on me as she did on you Thank you for being willing to love my daughter and give her a home on earth.
Fisher and Watkins describe how a four-year-old child verbalized his feelings about both sets of parents: He said to a friend, “The way I see adoption is like this. Somebody has the baby but can’t keep the baby and goes ‘Wah, wah, wah, good-bye, baby,’ and somebody who can’t get a baby in her tummy says, ‘Goody goody…hello, baby.”
I would challenge you to help your child find a way to express her feelings for both her birth and adoptive parents. Perhaps she could draw a picture or compose a poem. Or she could write a play about adoption and then perform it for you. If she has access to a photograph of her birth parents, consider buying her a photo frame with two openings–one for the adoptive family and one for the birth family. Encourage your child to take on one of these projects and set aside special time when she can share it with you.
In open adoptions, the birth parents are graciously invited by the adoptive parents to share in this nurturing role, thus, the support and love base for the child is doubled. This is ideal. Adoptive mother Kathy Giles, experiencing an open adoption, said, “As their mother, why would I ever want to keep ‘good things’ from their lives? Why would I want to ‘protect’ them from people who had selflessly planned a life for them in another family and relinquished the right to parent them? I wouldn’t! Who among us says, ‘Sorry, I don’t need any additional people in my life who love me.” Or, ‘No more love needed here.’
“Furthermore, the golden rule applies. If I were the one adopted, how would I feel? Would I want to know my first mother and father? Would I want to know who I look like? Would I want to know where my talents, gifts, and inclinations came from? Would I want to know why they relinquished me? Would I want to understand that relinquishment of ‘parental rights’ was not the relinquishment of love, concern and interest. YES! All of that would be important to me if I were the adopted child.”
What Parents Can Do
When you understand the fears and ambivalence your child may have when it comes to discussing his birth family, you will be much more effective in drawing out his hidden thoughts at strategic times.I believe that conversations about the birth family should be initiated at times of pleasure and celebration and at times of stress or vulnerability.
Positive times for initiating might include the following.
- The child’s birthday. “I wonder if your birth mom/dad are thinking about you.”
- Mothers’ Day/Fathers’ Day. “I wonder what your birth mom/dad is doing today.”
- Nighttime prayers. “Let’s remember your birth family in our prayers.”
- Child’s accomplishments. “Your birth parents would be proud of you just like we are.”
- Physical features. “I wonder if your birth mom has curly hair like you.”
- Spontaneously. Whenever your heart wells with gratitude to the birth family. “I’m so glad they gave you to us!”
Conversations about the birth family might also be initiated during vulnerable times like these.
- Physical exam. “It must be a bummer not knowing your full birth history.”
- Beginning college. “I’ll bet your adoption issues make saying good-bye extra difficult.”
- After an acting-out episode. “Have you been thinking about your birth family lately?”
- Family tree assignments in school. (The adoptee’s family tree is very complex and will not conform to the usual configuration.) You might say to the child, “With your permission and approval, I will talk to your teacher and ask if you (or we) can make a special family tree that will include both sides of your family.”
- After the child has been teased by a peer because he’s adopted. “I know it’s hard to be singled out because of your adoption, but remember we love you and so does your birth family.”
Part of the reason that your child wants you to take the initiative in opening conversations about the birth family is that he has a need to know the truth about his conception, birth and family history, no matter how painful the details may be.
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Excerpt from TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW (Copyright, Random House, 1999.)