The way that society views adoption has changed drastically in recent years. Adoption used to be shrouded in secrecy. There was no discussion. Women who were pregnant out of wedlock were whisked away to out-of-town family or houses for unmarried girls. Upon birth, mothers were encouraged–or should I say forced–to hand their children over, and forget the whole thing. The system was set up to bury the details in secrecy for life. There are countless accounts of birth mothers going back to these homes, or orphanages, and asking for information only to be told the information was destroyed or unavailable. Women were told it was best to forget.
Parents that adopted these secret children were told that it was best to keep the child’s origins under wraps. Unfortunately, children of adoptions past were often not told about their adoption. Sometimes they found out by accident or were told quite late in life. Many adult adoptees speak to the pain this created. They share a feeling like their childhood and families were shams, being built upon lies. In the book, Telling the Truth To Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, Besty Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler share the following case studies:
- ‘….Laurie, now 17, was adopted at age 3. One afternoon at a family reunion, she sat dumbfounded as her cousin told her what really happened in her past: her birth father killed her birth mother, and he was in prison. The problem was that everyone in the family knew it except Laurie’
- ‘…Sarah, age eleven, often drew pictures of the house that she imagined her birth mother lived in. It was a large house, encircled with beautiful trees and flowers. One day she announced to her adoptive parents, “Someday, I’m going to visit my birth mother in her big house.” The problem with that picture was that Sarah’s mother did live in a ‘big” house: she lived in a prison. She was convicted of drug possession and assault and would be incarcerated for a very long time’
- ‘…Jason, age eight, knew he was “given up” for adoption, but he didn’t know why. The truth was, his birth mother loved him very much, but as a young teen she was unequipped to raise Jason to adulthood. Jason’s adoptive parents knew the whole story, but they assumed that the less they said, the better – for everyone. The only problem was that Jason was left believing that there was something “wrong” with him, that he had been unloveable from birth.’
Keefer and Schooler go on to say that children raised in such adoption secrecy bore a weight of shame. It became difficult for these kids to build their identity, or feel secure especially with key aspects of their past being unknown or withheld. The saying goes, when you know better, do better. Now we know that such secrecy is damaging. And now, we do better.
Currently, adoption is quite celebrated. Adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents, each forming a portion of the adoption triad, have countless resources to pull from, whether it be books, forums, dedicated and specific counselors (adoption counselors, specializing in counselor adoptees, or their adoptive parents, particularly through difficult parts of the adoption, are becoming more and more common), and support groups. Adoption is no longer thought of as shameful; rather, most people are very interested in adoption. TLC ran a fascinating television program alongside their “A Wedding Story” and “A Baby Story”, called “An Adoption Story”. November is commonly considered ‘Adoption Awareness Month’ in Canada, and many communities declare this at city hall meetings. Churches often observe ‘Orphan Sunday’ in remembrance of the 153 million children, worldwide, still looking for adoptive homes (statistic according to UNICEF). Canada has gone so far as to rectify the situation as to ban closed adoptions; there is no such thing as a closed adoption in Canada anymore.
We completed our first adoption in 2013 and, at that time, we were told: talk about adoption and talk about it often.
We realized quite quickly that it is one thing to say how important it is to talk about adoption, and talk about adoption often, but how do we put that into practice? How do you talk about adoption, daily when you have just adopted an infant? How do you talk about adoption often when things aren’t going that well? How do we really know that talking about adoption often is the best thing for our kids? Where do we even start?
- First things first. Positive adoption language is the first step to take when making adoption a daily topic. How we choose to say things frames our feelings (or the underlying meaning). It is easy to say things flippantly, and it is easy to brush things off as not a big deal. When looking at the below list, think carefully about the differences in the phrases, and the power that is there:
|Positive Adoption Language|
|Real parents||Birth parents|
|Gave up for adoption||Placed for adoption|
|Visitation/visiting real parents||Openness (conveys a delightful choosing to be engaged with one another)|
|Real siblings||Biological siblings|
How we talk about adoption will impact those around us–particularly, the adoptee. We want to portray love and acceptance all the time. Talk about adoption, positively, every time.
- Give yourself some tools. When we walked through our first adoption, our daughter was 18 months old. We had read many books, and we had talked to lots of people about adoption. We wanted to get it right! We kept hearing, tell her from early on that she is adopted, that she is loved, and where and whom she comes from. But….how? I felt very much like she didn’t know what we meant, and we didn’t know how to make the language simpler for her. Adoption is a big topic, and it isn’t a light one. I wish I could remember who to give the credit to, but that memory is lost. However, we took the advice and made a life book. The book contained a pictorial journey that our toddler, and now almost pre-teen daughter, can easily follow. It ages well and is treasured. We chose the best photos we could find (Facebook is a treasure trove) and created a book via an online company that let us pick everything -title page, colors, captions, and layouts. We included extended family members that we were aware of at the time, and very, very simple, one-line sentences that outlined basic details of why our daughter came into foster care, how that led her to our home, and how that led her to be adopted by us. We didn’t take all the hard stuff out, but we did make it simpler. Things like, “Your birth parents had big people problems, and they were having trouble finding a place to live, and food to eat” is not emotionally overwhelming for a child (although actually might be significantly harder for an older child to read, as they start to grasp what this truly means), but also doesn’t play into fantasy thinking, as we saw in one of the case studies above. Here are some other examples of how to portray truth while honoring your child’s tender heart:
|The Truth to be Shared:||Honest but Gentle Languagee for Kids*:|
|Birth parent is an addict||Birth parent has an illness called addiction|
|Birth parent is homeless/in jail/has been convicted of a crime or major offense||Birth parent has adult problems/birth parent is having a hard time with all the adult things he or she is facing. Some adults find it hard to pay the bills and keep a job. Some adults make bad decisions and there are always consequences that come with that|
|Domestic violence||Your birth parent hurt other people.|
|Mental illness (schizophrenia, personality disorder, etc)||Your birth parent faces some challenges with his or her thinking; sometimes, adults need medication to help make things clear, but some adults find it hard to take their medication often or as much as they need to; some people have brains that work differently, and some people’s brains see the world in a way that is hard to understand. They might be sadder than other people, or their brains might be busy all the time.|
*Don’t be afraid of big words! Raise a learner. When kids are little, it doesn’t matter. You are practicing talking about adoption; your child is hearing about adoption. When they are older and they do ask what something means (or, if they don’t, you ask them if they know what something means), use it as an opportunity for conversation. Start to dig just a bit deeper, every time.
Our goal should be to have given our adopted child their entire history by the time they turn 18. I am an advocate for turning over even the really hard information: murder within the family, incarceration, etc. My reason for this is that it isn’t my information to decide to hold or release. This information isn’t about me, and it isn’t my right to decide what to do with it. In Canada, kids from the foster care system can request their file when they turn 19 and can get all the details there. Wouldn’t you rather be the one to tell them, lovingly? This does not mean every sordid detail and every terrible thing. But, it does mean the bones of their past: a framework. This includes tough stuff. This is done one tidbit–one crumb at a time. Not so much as to overwhelm; not so little that you aren’t telling them their history. A life book with photos is your home base: the place you start. You can build up, make a new and updated one, fill in the blanks verbally, whatever comes naturally to you. Keeping the life book in an open area where you see it often can remind you to make adoption a daily topic.
- In times of behavioral turmoil, talking about adoption, and talking about adoption positively might seem impossible. I encourage you to keep on. Often when things get rocky, our kids are crying out for us to be their rock, their firm place that doesn’t move when the rest of their world might be turning upside down. Let your child know that you don’t know what it is like to be them – or to be adopted. Let your child know that you are there for them, and ask if there are things about their past that they want to talk about, or that are troubling them. Above all else, especially in times of trouble, speak highly of adoption.
- There can come a time that kids struggle immensely with their identity as an adoptee, no matter what you have done this far. I’ve been there as a parent, and I didn’t like it. Rejection of an adoptive parent is painful. You might think, “But I chose you, longed for you, wanted you…”, although your child might feel rejected by biological parents, or might feel less than your biological children, there might be a time to make the adoption not as much as a focal point. If you are feeling this might be the case, reach out to an experienced adoption worker. Be sensitive, and don’t push anything on your adoptee. Be soft and open, taking no offense to their behavior or comments. Behavior is often a sign of trying to fill a need. Stay in tune, and feel out what is really going on.
When you make adoption a topic of daily discussion, you bless your adoptee immensely. You see them; you know them; you acknowledge them. You acknowledge the validity of their journey, and you acknowledge the validity of the adoption. You are setting the example in your home, and by talking about adoption daily, or at least as often as you can, you set importance on it that cannot be understated. You are saying, “Adoption matters!”, and that means your adoptee matters. Giving adoption a voice chases away the shame and refuses to keep secrets. Talk about adoption, and talk about adoption often, it is one of the most important and beautiful journeys in this life, and that needs to be celebrated, not silenced.