Seven top tips for adoptive parents Part 2
Robyn Wolfson Vorster In this two-part article, the focus is on how we as adoptive parents, can best parent our adoptees. Part 1 contained tips 1-4. This article explores the last three.
5. Your child should not remember the first time they heard their adoption story
Years ago, I watched an episode of the sitcom “Friends” where Chandler inadvertently told a little boy that he was adopted. They made it funny, but it was a particularly uncomfortable story line for me because I vividly remember my brother and I accidentally revealing to a friend that he was adopted when we were small children. We had no idea that it was a secret, and to this day, I wonder why his parents told family and friends (we weren’t even close friends), before telling him. It was admittedly a different time, where all adoptions were same race, so easily hidden, and for some, there was an odd stigma and sometimes even shame associated with having an adopted child. Those reasons should no longer be valid today. But there are still children that go years without their parents telling them that they are adopted. Nor does this only apply to same race adoptions. I recently met a five-year-old at a local school who does not know he is adopted, despite his mother being Indian while he is black. Part of him undoubtedly knows, he came to the school when anger issues forced him to leave his previous one, and children in the park tell him that he is lying when points out his mother to them (his adoption is being “outed” all the time). The school is in the process of helping his mom to tell him his story, and while it is very late at five, it will hopefully help him deal with whatever part of his identity has been wounded by this secret.
It is easy to judge this mom. However, she is doting, guilty of ignorance, not malice. And, she isn’t alone. I have even heard stories about children discovering that they were adopted when a parent died, sometimes when they were left out of the will. The bottom line is that regardless of your reason, not telling your child reinforces the notion that adoption is something to be ashamed about (especially for the child). It also forces a child to build their identity around a lie or half-truth.
So, please tell your child their adoption story from when they are tiny. Tell them during cuddles, when they feel safe and nurtured, tell them when they ask questions about pregnant women, and skin colour. Tell them because you love them and because you want to affirm their place in your heart and your family, and above all, tell them before anyone else does.
If you haven’t already done so, and your child is little, start today. But if your child is older, please seek expert help about how to broach the subject in a way that does not compound their sense of loss and rejection.
6. Birth parents matter
Love is not a competition. As a mom of two step-daughters and an adoptive child, I can’t stress this enough. Your child will always have two families and her need to connect with her birth parents is natural and healthy. It shouldn’t be seen as a threat. Interestingly, although adoptive parents often seem concerned that they will “lose” their children if the child meets their birth mother, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the opposite. The parents who do “lose” (relationship) with their children are more typically the ones that oppose their children’s efforts to find birth parents, or to explore their identity. One of the most important pieces of feedback coming from adult adoptees is that they wished that they could have met their birth parents earlier. The result is a drive towards opening adoptions that were previously closed (in other words, providing your child with access to their birth family before they reach the age of 18). Although some social workers are not in favour of opening adoptions, children seem to show a remarkable ability to manage the ambiguity of having more than one set of parents, and to fold their love for multiple parents into their lives. So, if you have details about your child’s birth mother (or family), it is worth exploring. However, please consider the following before you do so:
- You don’t want your child to risk secondary rejection, so ensure that your child’s birth family are receptive to a relationship with him.
- The relationship needs to be safe. Most South African adoptees are placed in adoptive families due to their birth parent’s circumstances, and not because of abuse or substance abuse (which is more common in foster care arrangements). Nonetheless, if the birth family could potentially harm your child, it may be better to consult your social worker or keep the adoption closed.
Finally, if you are fortunate enough to have an open adoption or an agreement with your child’s birth mother to share updates (I say fortunate because it is a huge gift to your child to have an involved birth mother), please honour that agreement. Where the relationship is through a social worker, be sure to follow up with them to find out if they have received anything from your child’s birth parent/s (especially at significant times, like your child’s birthday).
Unfortunately, since most of the adoptive children on the national register are abandoned, not consented, assisting your child to find out about their first family may be particularly difficult (if not impossible). These strategies may be helpful if you are in this situation:
- Put on your detective hat and find out everything you can about your child’s birth story: where they were abandoned, how, who found them, who named them. Meet everyone you can who participated in the story. Sadly, it will not assist with a medical history or to help your child connect with their first identity, but it gives your child valuable clues. For example, although abandoning mothers often travel to unfamiliar places to abandon, where a child was found may telegraph their cultural identity (especially if it was in a rural area, but even urban areas often cluster in communities based on ethnicity, such as Tswana or Pedi). Also try to find the origin of your child’s name. Although some names are used in several languages, social workers and public service employees usually try to name a child in language that is used in the area where he was found.
- Regardless of how your child was placed for adoption, but particularly for abandoned children where there is no information about birth families, try to find wonderful things about your child and attribute them to their birth parents. The obvious example is the way that your child looks, but please try to go deeper. For example, my daughter has incredible posture and long legs, along with amazing musicality, so even at six she dances beautifully. I always think about her birth parents when she does ballet, and it is a significant association for her. No matter how little (or how much) you know about your child’s birth parents, identifying characteristics like intelligence, humour, musical and sporting ability in your child and attributing them to their birth parents is hugely affirming for your child.
Conversely (and again, this should go without saying, but probably doesn’t), criticising your child’s birth parents causes your child shame and pain. Whether he has met them or not, he will always be linked to them. So, no matter how bad his birth parent’s choices were, and how much they have affected him, do you best to use affirming language when speaking about them. Again, this does not need to be dishonest. If you struggle to cope with your child’s foetal alcohol syndrome and the impact on her health, or feel angry that your child’s birth mother chose to abort her causing her to be born prematurely (with all of the physical and psychological problems this may bring), rather choose to vent to a therapist instead of inadvertently shaming your child, or making her choose between you and her birth mother.
7. Remember that adoption is about loss and joy, not always in equal measure
Adoption cannot take place without the participation, active or passive of all three parties in the adoption triad: birth parents, the adoptee and adoptive parents. And for a long time, adoption has mostly been viewed from the perspective of adoptive parents, for whom adoption is characterised by delight and wonder (an entirely valid response to the amazing gift of a child). But in recent times, there has been a welcome movement in adoption circles to also consider the devastating loss that predicates all adoptions, a loss for both the birth family and for the adoptee. Understanding that loss doesn’t diminish our joy as adoptive parents (adopting our daughter is still the best thing that happened to our family), nor is our child’s pain a negation of adoption, or of us as her adoptive parents. But it should bring nuance to way that we understand and talk about adoption. Our adoption narrative must acknowledge pain and loss, and adoptees should never be required to be grateful for their adoption, or to forget their first family, nor should we allow others to tell them they are “lucky”.
It should also guide our celebrations and rituals. It is very common for adoptees to be sorrowful on their birthday, a day when many feel most connected to their birth mother. It is also common for adoptees to feel sad on their adoption day. Some adoptive parents find this challenging, even a negation of the adoption that makes them so happy. But it isn’t necessarily true, it is just that adoption emotion is multi-faceted for adoptees, and on days of “celebration”, they are often more aware of the missing member of the triad. My suggestion is therefore that you take your cue from your child about how and if to celebrate.
Please also think carefully about how you speak about adoption rituals. Some parents in South Africa still call their child’s adoption day, “Gotcha Day” despite a strong backlash from adult adoptees, offended at the acquisitive nature of the term. If your child likes to celebrate their adoption day, allow them and other adoptees to guide terminology. For example, you could call it “family day”, a day to celebrate the formation of your family, or name the day after your child. We use the latter approach, and our daughter decides if she wants to celebrate or not. At five she didn’t feel up to it, but a year later she embraced it and planned her celebration.
A final note: some adoptees feel deep abiding sadness at the loss of their first family, or rejection that does not diminish over time. I have heard teachers and professionals (and even adoptive parents) saying that adoptees just need to “get over it”. But this is a very unhelpful approach. The level of trauma and rejection that some adoptees experience at birth and through the loss of their first family does not necessarily lessen over time. It is noteworthy that a disproportionate number of adoptees exhibit psychological problems and suicidal tendencies because of early loss, attachment and identity issues. That is not something to fear, but awareness is essential. If in doubt, be sure to get professional help.
In conclusion, be a learner and to listen more than you speak A lot of the current voices in adoption are those of adult adoptees in the US. While their context is very different to ours and therefore our experiences likely to be different (the US works on a supply and demand model where children are sourced for families, whereas South Africa, which is highly regulated, works on need, where families are found for children), we ignore them at our peril. As adoptive parents, we should always choose to learn from the mistakes of others, so we don’t have to make them too. My counsel is be a learner, listen more than you speak, don’t speak over those whose messages is different to yours, and be willing to change when you are wrong. Accepting nuance won’t affect your love for your child or your belief in adoption, quite the contrary it can help make it even more life-affirming, and the joyous gift that we would all like it to be.