Who we are and where we come from are two of the most fundamental human questions. In my family, I can trace an exact line from me to Sam Houston on my father’s side and to a small village in Germany on my mother’s side. A quick glance at our wall of family photos reveals a slight change in the mold from one generation to the next. But for my children, there are no such photos.
For my son, adopted from China at 22 months, and my daughter, adopted from India at 18 months, who they are and where they come from are difficult questions. Unlike biological families, my children’s stories did not begin when we first met. My children spoke different languages, ate different foods, and loved other caregivers. Their narratives are both beautiful and complex. They are both the same as other children and entirely different. In 2001, Beth O’Malley created the first Adoption Lifebooks, designed to help foster children and adoptive children understand these very questions. A lifebook is a collection of photographs, letters, memorabilia, and words that essentially tells the story of your child.
When I first sat down to write my son’s lifebook, I googled “life book,” which produced a series of self-help websites. So I shut my computer and opened the massive binder I had carried with me all through China. I have never been much of a scrap booker (seven years later, our wedding photos still reside at the bottom of my closet) but I decided to start making piles. Sifting through everything, I found hotel receipts, plane ticket stubs, photos from my son’s foster family, handwritten notes of my son’s likes and dislikes, a menu of our first meal together, and of course, lots and lots of photos. I laid everything out like a three-act play: Beginning, Middle, and End. The beginning bore memorabilia and notes from my son’s orphanage and foster family but also photos of my husband and me preparing our son’s room. The middle became our time together in China. And the end included his Certificate of Citizenship, visa stamp, and notes from family and friends welcoming our son into our community. Surveying my piles, I realized his story was here, at least as much of his story as I know.
My first version of my son’s lifebook was over 100 pages long. I have never been one for brevity, but looking through my series of photos, memorabilia, and words, I realized that perhaps my son’s lifebook was not one story, but two. In the first version of his book I had included everything. I had notices of his abandonment (standard in China), transcripts of the journal I kept in China, immunization records, ticket stubs. All things I knew would be important to him as he grew. But for now? At the age of 3? I decided to start over.
What followed was one of the hardest books I’ve ever penned, but also the most important. I began with “Once upon a time” and created a developmentally appropriate book of my son’s life from the time he was born to when we landed on American soil. There are blanks I tried to fill in and blanks I felt should be left open for him to discover when he is ready. There are many “I wish I knews” and many “I imagines” all told through a simple story, with photos and pictures. I chose to conclude with the words: “This is no one’s story but your own. It is yours to tell, yours to share, or yours to hold.” Because it is his story. A story that will transform as he gets older. And a story that will evolve into a co-constructed narrative as we both find our way.
How about you? Have you ever created a lifebook? What was your experience like?