A three-year-old with HIV inspired my first of many life books. Her mother was still alive, but she showed signs of her life nearing its end. It was likely this toddler would live long enough to be adopted and have questions like, “Do I look like my birth mom?” And, “What was her favorite color?”

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

How I First Heard about Life Books

It was 1994, and the clock was ticking. I was working with children, some who were literally dying, and all who were trapped in anxiety and sadness. They were waiting for their workers and caregivers to learn the language of adoption.

A coworker at the Massachusetts Department of Social Services had explained to me the complex contents of the legal packet. Then she casually added, “And don’t forget about the life book.”

I asked, “The what book?”

“The life book. 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, no life books 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.)

Starting to Write

Having been adopted did not lend itself to golden explanations for why children couldn’t stay with their birth families or where babies come from. Thus, the words for Arlene’s book were stuck in my throat at first.

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, having a set format helped me a great deal . The experienced life book writers in my office had created a template of sorts. It included:

  • Facts about 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
  • Placement(s)
  • 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 babies born addicted to drugs and fighting for their lives. It just didn’t seem to ring true. Life books were supposed to be about the truth.

Life Book Truths

There are two important things to remember when creating a life book.

1. If you don’t know something for sure, do not lie. Instead, it is acceptable to say, “I’ll bet that…”

“I’ll bet that your birth mother 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 life book with the child. Grab a quiet space and bring some crayons and markers. Sometimes younger kids enjoy dictating while you write. You can even 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 Life Book Journey

Unfortunately, my initial life book sessions with children were brutal. I never stopped putting out fires long enough to really see my cases through the children’s eyes. I didn’t want to feel their pain because I was already feeling mine with my own adoption. My reaction to life book work with children was quite strong, and it was a reaction my coworkers did not share. My “adoption” buttons were getting pushed. Pretty soon, I started to wonder what those doctors had said when I was born. What were my baby facts?

So, my own journey began.

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

“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 lips smacking? 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 life book, it was enough to satisfy me for a while, as well as motivate me to create life books for many more of the children I was to place. Each lifebook contained a few “lip-smacking” stories, as I called them. Those warm fuzzy facts.

It didn’t take too many years before I started hearing back from families whose children had my initial life books (those plain, typewritten books—I’m no artist!). They said the life books became even more valuable over time.

19 Years Later

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 by the ocean, so I would sit at my computer and watch the sun rise while I wrote. 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, and everyone else who wanted to create a life book for a child.

Then, in the fall of 2000, a local TV station contacted. They said they 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, so I found myself facing a crisis! I contacted a foster mother I had never even met who had signed up for a life book training I 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.

Life Books 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 that would last forever. I had never seen anything like it. Any child leaving their foster home for an adoptive placement received a unique life book, a gift from their hearts, to be treasured.

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

Tag Team It!

A team approach to life books 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 placement goal at the time—then the life book has begun. Social workers and/or therapists can add on to that. The life book can be completed by the adoptive parent. The information should be collaborative.

I bet we all know a few lip-smacking stories about the children who are at the heart of many cases. Think about making a record of those stories. Talk with foster, kinship, adoptive, and guardian parents about the children and their life books. They can make such a valuable contribution to each life book, and consequently for each child.

The Blessing Page

A blessing page for the children concluded each life book template. Here’s one that was for all of us, the social workers:

May your days
Be filled with decisions
That always turn out right.
And your time
Be spent on life books
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.