*Article credit goes to author Beth O’Malley. Visit her website here: https://www.adoptionlifebooks.com/.

My first lifebook was inspired by a three-year-old with HIV. Her birth mother was still alive, but the signs showed that she would not live for long. Almost certainly, this toddler would live long enough to have questions like, “Do I look like my birth mom?” “What was her favorite color?”

Little Arlene needed a lifebook. I sat with her birth mother and a translator taking pictures, getting stories, and convincing her to write a long letter, in Creole, to her daughter. That lifebook became little Arlene’s legacy.

It was 1994, and the clock was ticking. There were children, some (like Arlene) literally dying and all of them trapped in anxiety and sadness, waiting for their workers and caregivers to learn the language of adoption.

A co-worker at the Massachusetts Department of Social Services had explained to me the complex contents of the legal packet. When she casually added, “And don’t forget about the lifebook,” I asked, “The what book?”

“The lifebook. You take children’s lives and turn them into kids’ stories, their own stories. It’s cute. Try to find some pictures to go into it.”

“Great idea,” I thought, “but who has the time? And how do you translate abuse or rejection for a five-year-old? And what if there have been ten placements? No lifebooks for this adoption worker.”  (Note: These are the sensitive thoughts of a social worker who spent the first five months of her life in foster care before being adopted.)

Being adopted did not lend itself to golden explanations of why children aren’t with their first families or where babies come from. The words were stuck in my throat. Where to begin? I walked through my fears on the wording, with help from my supervisor at work.

“This disease meant that your mommy’s blood could not fight illnesses. She became sicker as the years passed. Doctors do not know how to make people better who have this disease. Some people live longer with this disease than others.”

In the beginning, what helped me a great deal was a set format. The experienced lifebook writers in my office had created a template of sorts. It included:

  • The child’s birth
  • The child’s birth certificate (check your state’s regulations)
  • Information about the birth parents and birth siblings
  • The reason the child was placed
  • Placements
  • A blessing page at the end

Within this template, the child’s birth page was very upbeat in order to increase self-esteem. “When you were born, the doctors oohed and aahed.” I never liked this line. So many of our children were tiny drug-addicted babies fighting for their lives. It just didn’t seem to ring true. Lifebooks are supposed to be about the truth.

Lifebook Truths

1. If you don’t know something for sure, never lie. It is acceptable to say, “I’ll bet that…”

“I’ll bet that your birthmother was very happy to have given birth to such a beautiful baby girl, but she must have felt sad and confused because of her problems with bad drugs.”

2. It’s powerful to make the lifebook with the child. Grab a quiet space and always bring crayons and markers. Sometimes younger kids enjoy dictating while you write. You can pretend they’re guests on a talk show and you’re interviewing them. Others like it when you take their words into the office and return with neat, typewritten pages.

My initial lifebook sessions with children were brutal. I had never stopped putting out fires long enough to really see my cases through the children’s eyes or feel their pain. My reaction to lifebook work with children was quite strong. This was something my co-workers did not share. My “adoption” buttons were getting pushed. I started to wonder what those doctors had to say when I was born. What were my baby facts? My own journey began.

It was a short trip. I tracked down my foster care notes painlessly. No identifying information could be released. It was a thin file but the social worker found this one story tucked away:

“Your second foster family reported to the social worker that you used to sit and make these funny lip-smacking sounds with your lips. The whole family would watch and laugh while you smacked.”

You mean, I was a real baby who did cute things like smack my lips? What a wonderful image. I could picture it as if I had been standing there. How normal. Those words became my earliest baby photo, which I carried around in my heart.

A Valuable Idea

Although I didn’t get all the answers for my own lifebook, it was enough to satisfy me for a while, as well as inspire me to create lifebooks for many of the children I was to place. Each lifebook contained a few “lip-smacking” stories, as I called them. Those warm fuzzy facts.

It wasn’t too many years before I was hearing back from families whose children had my initial lifebooks (those plain, typewritten books – I’m no artist!). They reported that the lifebooks became even more valuable over time. Time passed, and after more than 19 years as a social worker, I bought a computer and started a website. A social worker with a dot-com business. The calls actually poured in, but they didn’t contain a message that I expected. What callers were saying was, “Beth, we want to make it ourselves. Teach us how.” My husband and I had just bought a small house on the ocean. I sat at my computer and watched the sun rise, and the words went straight from my heart to the screen. I translated my years of experience into a step-by-step guide for families, social workers, or anyone who wanted to create a LifeBook for a child.

In fall 2000, a local TV station contacted me and wanted to do a story. They needed shots of families and, ideally, children. I couldn’t use families from my caseload due to confidentiality restrictions. I was facing a lifebook crisis! I contacted a foster mother I had never met who had signed up for a lifebook training I was scheduled to offer. Would she come for a TV shooting and bring friends? Yes. Tomorrow? Fine. And it just so happened she was a scrapbooker.

Lifebooks Meet Scrapbooking

Nola and Jerri arrived well ahead of the cameras. They had incredible adoption albums – pictures that most foster children only dream about. All of this was laid out with creative and detailed designs on acid-free paper, which would last forever. I had never seen anything like it. Any child leaving their foster home for an adoptive placement received a unique lifebook, a gift from their hearts, to be treasured.

I provided information, advising them to include additional information about the birth parents (don’t leave out that birth dad!) and the reason for placement. I encouraged them to do more writing along with the pictures, called journaling in the scrapbook world.

A team approach to lifebooks may be the wave of the future. If foster parents can capture a few moments of the child’s life– perhaps grab a picture of the birth family (regardless of the goal)– then the lifebook has begun. Social workers and/or therapists can add on to this beginning. The lifebook can be completed by the adoptive parent. Information is shared.

I bet we all know a few lip-smacking stories about the children who are at the heart of many caseloads. Think about making a record of those stories, and talk with foster, kinship, adoptive, and guardianship parents about them and about lifebooks. They can make such a big difference to each child.

The template for lifebooks concluded with a blessing page for the children. Here’s one for all of us, the social workers:

A Blessing Page

May your days
Be filled with decisions
That always turn out right.
And your time
Be spent on lifebooks
Which age just like fine wine.
Let your good intentions carry you
When the words don’t
Come out right.
And give all those children memories
To treasure throughout life.