Monday, June 15, 2009

Now what?

While we do not characterize ourselves as different from biological families, as adoptive families, we should recognize that there are certain issues unique to adoption that are sure to surface. In my family, adoption is an every day word in our home. The words "birth mother", and "adoption" are safe and comfortable. We have photos of our children's birth mothers. But we don't always talk about their specific adoption situations - unless they want to. We want the subject to come up naturally, for them to be the one to raise the questions. But we have always tried to let them know that this is a safe, positive subject; not one for them to fear or be uncomfortable with.

In addition to more typical parenting situations, adapting to adoption, coping with feelings of abandonment and searching for personal identity are some of the subjects children who are adopted, and their families, will deal with on a lifelong basis. Richard A. Goodman, a licensed mental health counselor and clinical fellow at the Boston Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies in Brookline and the adoptive father of a 4-year old girl, contends that "adopted children know they are adopted. They sense a feeling of loss from the beginning. Even though they cannot verbalize it, they may have been traumatized during their first few weeks or months of life." Fragility concerning future loss, heightened sensitivity and vulnerability may be established from the beginning.

I did not agree with this theory much until recently. One night last week, in the middle of the night, my 8 year old daughter, Meg, came into our room in the middle of the night sobbing. I assumed she'd had a nightmare, or maybe something hurt. When I asked what was wrong, her answer surprised me. She said "Mom, you're not going to go away are you? I don't have to go somewhere else do I? I'm in our family, huh?" I was practically speechless. We were in the delivery room with Meg's birth mom. I was the first one to hold her, and for 8 years, haven't really let go. We have discussed adoption openly and positively. She has watched my work at Heart to Heart and lived another adoption through the past year as we adopted another daughter, Halle. But I think deep in her heart of hearts, there is some insecurity as to why she was placed and what is her guarantee that it won't happen again, when adoption is happening all around us.

According to Jeffrey LaCure, M.S.W., founder and clinical director of the national organization, Adoption Support and Enrichment Services in Framingham, Massachusetts, this period of adjustment is to be expected and says, "even in infancy the child should be told she is adopted." (Personally, I avoid the labels of any kind, including "adopted child".) LaCure, an adoptee himself, recommends, "don't say, 'my beautiful adopted baby.' It is more productive to share the experience you went through to adopt the child and the excitement you felt when she was finally yours."

"Children pick up much more from feelings than from words," adds Goodman. "When to verbally discuss the adoption should be up to the child. Don't push it. The child will give clues and start to ask questions when he's ready." The discussion should be relaxed and appropriate for the child's age level. "A child may become fearful if he is given too much information. Encourage him by reminding him, 'you're terrific. I'm glad you're mine,'" advises Goodman.
As children mature they ask more concrete questions, explains LaCure, "such as, 'what did I look like when I was born? Did my parents love me?' But what they are really wondering is if their birth parents think about them." This may be a tricky time for parents as they discern how much information to share. "Adoptive parents may put pressure on themselves to tell it all, " says LaCure, "but if the child is a product of rape or incest or was removed from the biological home because of abuse I don't recommend telling him that at a young age. Say they had difficulty parenting. What the child really wants to know is that you love him and are not going to give him up."
Elementary school age is a key time for adopted children. As they start school they begin to see differences among children and try to figure out where they fit in. Parents of cross cultural adoptees might consider the advantage of living in a multi-cultural community. "The emotional impact on a child adopted overseas is lessened in a multi-cultural setting," says Goodman, whose own daughter was born in Korea. "They realize that it is fine to look the way they do.""The first time I looked at Andrew I saw how different he was from me; his skin color and his eyes," remembers Mrs. Kahn. "And I've heard a few thoughtless remarks from people such as, 'does he speak Spanish?' Other people may feel there is something different about him, but I look at Andrew and I just see my son." Goodman applauds this attitude and says it is important to keep in touch with the birth culture in order to help the child establish a sense of personal identity.
Families participating in open adoption may wonder how to maintain the relationship over time. And the degree of openness varies; it may range from a few letters each year to extended family involvement. "For the child to be able to manage in an open adoption the adults must be comfortable and secure in the roles they have created," says Silverstein. "Before birth the adoptive and birth parents, with professional support to help, should think about the family structure they want. Be cautious initially. Things can more easily become more open than more closed."

Often it is the adoptive parents who are interested in having contact more than the birth mothers. "The birth mother who has played an active role in creating the adoptive family for her child, assuming it has been an open, healthy process, is more likely to feel secure because she has a sense of where the child is going and a trust in the family she has chosen. On-going information continues to indicate that she has made a good choice. Rather than a sense of loss she experiences a sense of well-being," concludes Silverstein.

As I snuggled Meg that night, I reassured her that she is ours; that she is part of our family, and she is here to stay. She giggled when I said, "You're part of this family when we're at the beach and when we're cleaning toilets! You're part of this family when we eat your favorite pizza, and when we eat shepherd's pie!" (her LEAST favorite!) "Like it or not, just like all your sisters and brother, you're here for good. That's how our family works. We're all in it for the long haul...forever!" And as I held her close, she fell asleep. I laid awake thinking for a little while longer, wondering if I'd done something wrong, or if something had happened to cause this moment of anxiety for her. But as I thought more, I realized that this is probably not the last time this conversation will occur. I will probably get many moments in upcoming years to reassure her that she is loved beyond measure, and ours forever - the same reassurance all children need and want. I just may get to do it a little more often with Meg....and that's ok.


  1. Shelly - Your post are always so insightful. I learn so much every single time you post something new. Thank you for being such a great resource for all of us adoptive families. You are the best!!

  2. There is academic evidence to back up what your instincts told you and I am sorry not to be able to meet you because you must be really sweet (hope that doesn't embarrass you) I know birth mothers are now coming forward, as are birth fathers, like Madonna's Mercy's dad who Madonna acknowledged and will when Mercy is older for the child's benefit.

    If you have a look at the link just below, you will see the academic stuff, if you like >

  3. shelly these post are great! thanks for the wise words so I know what to do when my sweet livvy has the same questions for me!