Seven top tips for adoptive parents Part 1
by Robyn Wolfson Vorster As adoptive parents, we should constantly be learning how to parent our adoptees better, which led me to documenting these seven top tips for adoptive parents, along with some related dos and don’ts. But first a disclaimer. I am a step-mother, a biological mother, an adoptive mom and even a grandmother. It makes me a veteran parent, not an expert. I am also only six years into being an adoptive mom. I am however trying to learn all the time. This article is the product of that learning (and the expertise and experience of adult adoptees, social workers, psychologists and other adoptive parents). But the content is not exhaustive, I’m sure as my daughter grows to adulthood, I will be able to add many more relevant points.
- Your child should be the first person to hear their story
Stated differently, your child’s story is their own so don’t share it with others before your child is old enough to consent to the story being told.
In the adoption process, there are three separate stories, one for each member of the adoption triad (adoptee, birth parents and adoptive parents). The only one of those stories that is ours to tell is our own. It may sound simple, but it isn’t because people ask for details all the time. “How much do you know about him?” “Have you met her birth mother?” “What ethnicity is he?” Most of these are perfectly innocent and generally well-meaning questions but they all telegraph something about your child. For example, answering “no” to the birth mother question or “I don’t know” to the ethnicity question can cause people to deduce that you child was abandoned.
Interestingly, adoptive parents and social workers appear to have slightly different boundaries in this regard, usually based on how a child was placed for adoption. For example, while it is considered an “overshare” to say that your child was abandoned, saying that they were consented isn’t. Other families are willing to share that their child was abandoned, but not how. Our family’s work as adoption advocates and educators mean that we regularly talk about our family, so we have been forced to set our boundary very firmly. Our choice is to share no information, including how our daughter became adoptable. But, regardless of where you have drawn the line previously, please be aware that sharing information that is personal to your child before they are able to decide if they want that information shared (and to whom), should be avoided.
It may be helpful to role play some responses to these questions before you adopt. Answers could include: “That is part of insert child’s name’s story, so I am unable to share it”. Or if you feel that you would like to answer the question in some way, you can even say “I know everything that my social worker knows about insert child’s name and his story.”
The only exception to the no sharing rule is when professionals (social workers, counsellors or therapists such as Play Therapists or Occupational Therapists) need the information to treat your child (for example, if your child was born prematurely as a result of a late term abortion or if your child’s birth mother drank or took drugs during the pregnancy, or if your child was oxygen deprived during the abandonment process). In these instances, information needs to be shared on the basis of professional confidentiality.
Be particularly careful of the “support group exception”. Many adoptive parents share too much about their child’s story in online support group settings to obtain help from other adoptive parents. While it is understandable, it can easily overstep the line. If in doubt, rather share it with a professional or, if you really need to share with other adoptive parents, asking the group admin to post your question anonymously is probably the lesser of two evils.
The flipside of guarding your child’s story from other people is ensuring that you tell your child their story, often, and in an age appropriate way. When questioned about how to tell an adoption story, Nomzamo Botha, a South African adult adoptee said that when she asked her parents about her story, they would always talk to her in private, telling her whatever they knew in a way that she could understand. When they were unsure about details, their response was, “let’s try and find out together.”
- Race, ethnicity and culture matter, especially if your child is transracially adopted
It has been a while since I have heard an adoptive parent say, “I can’t raise my child to be Zulu or Sesotho, so I will raise them to be like me, Afrikaans, or Greek (insert a relevant culture)”. But, some parents still live as if this was true. If you are in this camp, ask yourself these questions: what percentage of your child’s life will they spend in your home? What identity will your child have when he or she is out in the world? Most parents wouldn’t want their child to walk around wearing a sign that says, “I can’t relate to you, I’m adopted”, or “I can’t speak your language, I’m adopted”. But, that is often the outcome of our choices.
It is one of the biggest areas of pain for adult adoptees in South Africa, but in recent years, there has been far more effort amongst parents to address these issues. The first step is learning to care for your child’s skin and hair, something that adoptive parents are increasingly embracing (and thank goodness, because in the past, badly cared for, knotty or matted hair, receding hairlines and flaky grey skin were ways that black people identified transracially adopted children). But our efforts can’t end there, because our child’s identity is more than skin deep and struggling to fit in may cause anxiety and even depression in adopted children and adults.
So, how do you avoid raising a child who is likely to be labelled a “coconut” (for those who aren’t familiar with the term, a derogatory term used to describe people who are black on the outside but “white” on the inside)? The answer is that you can’t on your own, it takes a village. Racial mirrors are essential for your child and this doesn’t just mean having a black nanny or au pair, or your child spending time with other transracially adopted children. Your child needs significant black role models and same race friends who can decode culture and behaviour and language and nuance for them. You will also need to address your demographics. Is your environment (your suburb, your child’s school, where your worship, your places of leisure) predominantly white or same race? What is your child’s experience of living in those demographics? Notably, many families take the path of least resistance and expect their children’s friends to instil culture. But this can be problematic. My daughter’s two best friends at school are black. One is from an upper middle-class family. Her mother is Zulu and her father Tswana, but she speaks English, at home and with her nanny, and the family are more likely to go on holiday to Disneyland then to stay with their extended families where cultural practices are more evident. Her other friend is from a traditional family, but she hails from Zimbabwe so also struggles with cultural relevance in South Africa. If you depend on friends to decode culture for your child, the version of growing up as a young black woman or man will vary depending on who your children befriends. This is why input from adults whose values and understanding of culture can be directive is so critical.
And, you need to prioritise language and cultural awareness for your child. While it is true that South Africa is increasingly cosmopolitan and not all black people living here can speak a local language, not being able to speak a black language immediately isolates your child from other black people. So, make an effort, as a family if possible. This means exposing your child to their culturally relevant language if possible. But at a minimum, your child should be able to speak one of the widely spoken languages, for example isiXhosa in the Western Cape or isiZulu in KwaZulu Natal or Gauteng.
You also need to watch your language. Saying, “I don’t see race” is not helpful to your child and can be disingenuous or even unintentionally belittling. One of the most bemusing questions we have been asked is: “do you still see her as black?” Or, rephrased as a statement: I’m sure that you don’t even see that she is black anymore”. Our answer is “of course we see her race, and we honour it, the fact that our daughter is black is an integral and beautiful part of her identity and who God made her to be”. And no, children are not colour blind. Seeing race is not the problem because we are not “all the same”. Praising a child for not seeing race may inadvertently imply that race is a bad thing. Stated bluntly, denying race can be as problematic as overemphasising it. Instead, we need to recognise that the problem is not race itself, but the value people ascribe to it, either positive, as in valuing one race more than another, or negative, deeming one or some races to be “bad”.
It is still rife in our country which is why we need to acknowledge and talk to our children about racism. To quote a fellow adoptive parent, Thandi Nkomo, “being ‘colour blind’ will lead to being blind to what your child’s colour means to that racist shop owner, to the racist neighbour. It will mean being blind to the differences between you and your child that make it blindingly obvious that your child did not come from your womb”. It means, “being blind to racial bullying, name calling, racist teachers giving your child bad marks for perfect essays…being blind to your child’s pain”. Ultimately, it means, “ignoring the lived experiences of black people warning you about what your black children will face.” Her caution is therefore against “ignoring systemic and institutionalised racism”, and not just because, as she goes on to explain, “a white surname wouldn’t save transracially adoptive children from the apartheid mindset still entrenched in people’s minds today”, but also because advocating for our transracially adopted children at the expense of the remainder of South Africa’s children is self-serving and ultimately, self-defeating.
Finally, please don’t use pet names for your child that are racially offensive to black people just because you would use them with another (white) child. In particular, calling your black child a monkey should always be a no-no (think Penny Sparrow if you are wondering why).
As a postscript: this article contains a tiny overview of a huge topic. There are many books and articles on the subject so if you are a transracially adoptive parent, learn as much as you can, especially before your child becomes a tween / teen and is increasingly busy with the work of identity formation. Secondly, sociology teaches us that culture is fluid which makes this a moving target. Learning about culture, race and ethnicity should therefore be continuous, rather than a once off event.
- Names and identity matter
Naming a child is a vital part of attachment, so it is natural for adoptive parents to want to name their child when they adopt. But, it is also important to recognise that 99% of adoptive children already have a name when they are adopted. In addition, it’s critical to recognise that name changes are one of the biggest sources of distress expressed by adult adoptees. So here are some things to consider when naming your child.
- Who gave your child their birth name? If it was a biological parent, your child has a profound association between their name and their first family. Statistically however, there are more abandoned children than consented children on our adoption register so adoptive parents often choose not to keep a child’s name because it wasn’t given by a birth parent. While this may be valid, it is worth considering that if your child is a foundling, the person who named them (usually a nurse, policeman or woman, or social worker) is also a significant part of their story. So, regardless of how a child was placed for adoption, it may be worth keeping their birth name, even as a second or third name.
- How old was your child when she or he was adopted? The older your child, the more their name is part of their identity, and changing it could be psychologically damaging. The caveat here is that your child may be old enough to request a new name as part of their new identity. In these instances, please talk to your child about keeping the old one as a second or third name in case they feel differently as an adult.
- Is your adoption trans-racial? If so, and if your child’s birth name is part of their first culture, please again consider keeping it. It may be a significant part of their identity formation to be able to revert to their birth name. And if their first name isn’t a reflection of their cultural identity, please consider adding a name that is culturally relevant to their current name. It is a huge gift to your child to have the option of using it when they are older. I named my daughter 20 years before we adopted her, and her name, which means “hope, life and blessed” in different languages, is an integral part of her story. But, we have retained her birth name too. We use them both and if one day she chooses to revert to her birth name, we will support her in her decision.
As a note for those parents who didn’t keep their child’s birth name or whose transracially adopted child doesn’t have a culturally appropriate name, it isn’t too late to do something about it. Changing a child’s name at Home Affairs is a relatively easy process (don’t be put off by the first, usually epic, name change process which also involved the changing of a surname and identity number), so please consider restoring their birth name, even if only as a second or third name. Equally imperative is that you support your child if their need to identify with their culture or birth family (or any other reason) compels them to use that name rather than the one you gave them.
4. Terminology matters
As adoptive parents we are generally sensitive to language. Few things are as uncomfortable as someone asking where your child’s “real parents” are, or if you “bought” your child. Terminology matters, and not just for adoptive parents, but for every member of the triad. For example, if your child is consented, your child’s birth mother “placed her child for adoption”, she didn’t “give her away” or “get rid of him”. How you refer to your child’s birth family is also crucial. When your child is older, you should allow your children decide what they want to call their birth family. But while they are little, please choose something that is personal and affirming. When I write, I usually use the term “biological mother”, but I don’t with my daughter. We refer to her first family or her birth mom and dad. If you are fortunate enough to have details about your child’s first family, you could also use their names and a descriptor. Some social workers suggest “tummy mommy” for toddlers, and adult adoptees sometimes use “natural family” to describe their birth parents. Either way, please make sure that your language honours your child’s other family and where possible, take your lead from your adoptee.
Language related to abandoned children is particularly problematic. Many parents struggle to be truthful, but not hurtful. Still, it should go without saying (but sadly doesn’t), that you should never tell your child that they were “thrown away” or “discarded”. Parents often feel justified in using this catastrophic language when their child has been abandoned unsafely. But it’s worth remembering that adoptive parents usually have no idea what circumstances drove their child’s birth mother to abandonment, so even if you feel angry about it, please try to empathise with her. In addition, a child’s sense of worth is tied up in the act. Reinforcing it emphasises the child’s feelings of rejection. My preference is therefore to refer to abandoned children as foundlings, thus highlighting the (more) positive part of their story rather than focusing on the desperate act of abandonment.
As a caveat, I recently heard of a social worker speaking about “good abandonment” (versus bad, I guess). According to experts, this is a misnomer. Although it is essential to honour women who, when forced to abandon, don’t put their children in danger, no abandonment is “good”. There is always loss of identity, relationship, and a feeling of rejection that comes with abandonment, and using that term may inadvertently downplay your child’s loss. A more helpful distinction is between safe (where the child’s life is not placed in danger and there is some form of handover, often through a baby safe or a mother dropping a child off at a Place of Safety), and unsafe abandonment (which is itself on a spectrum, but where the child’s life is endangered by the act).
Please see part two of this article for the remaining three top tips.