“Difficult to place.”
“An illegitimate child.”
“The product of an affair.”
These were the labels that were spoken over and about Michelle from her beginning. These were the words that attached themselves to her identity over the course of years, as she sorted through all of her hidden pain, trying to find wholeness and healing.
Michelle Madrid-Branch was adopted out of the England foster care system and placed into a forever home in America. Michelle shared with me that she didn’t have the heartbreak of being shuffled from home-to-home, but she did carry the stigmas that accompany the label: “foster care kid.” She was adopted at a young age, but the trauma and questions, the fears and realities, which all adoptees face at one point or another still existed.
The words and stigmas spoken over her stuck with her throughout her life, starting at an early age. Michelle said, “Words have incredible power, and I realized this as I began my journey to healing, to greatness.”
I had the honor of asking Michelle a lot of questions, craving to hear from a foster care and international adoptee, and she confirmed many things I had wondered for our own adoption journey.
When I first asked her at what age she was adopted, she responded with this: “I was just a little one. But the age doesn’t really matter; there is still another family, another history, another giant part that must be allowed to be expressed and explored. Even babies who were adopted have a history that is and needs to be woven into the rest of their story. Every adoptee needs to be whole and healthy, and by giving their full history a voice and permission to express itself; you allow your child to pursue a whole identity.”
It’s not just important to create spaces and moments for our children to talk about, process, and voice all of their thoughts/feelings/trauma surrounding their adoption and biological histories, it is absolutely necessary. We must invite them into these conversations frequently, making it known that we as their parents are safe people to talk about hard things with.
I shared with Michelle that many of my friends are foster or adoptive parents; some of their kids are old enough to say some hurtful things while others aren’t, but the fear of those statements in our futures remain. Statements like, “I wish I lived with my real/biological family,” and “You aren’t my real/biological mom!” thrown around in the heat of an argument. What would you tell [foster/adoptive] parents who struggle with jealousy towards their child’s biological family?
Michelle responded with wisdom: “To the jealousy, I know it may be hard to swallow, but it’s got to be put aside for the health of the child. But honestly? I think honesty needs to be your guide. Be honest with them about how you feel; if you expect them to be vulnerable, you also need to be vulnerable. Children can sense when their parents stiffen or feel uncomfortable; we don’t give them enough credit. If they bring up their birth parents and feel your tension/jealousy/discomfort, they won’t feel safe to bring it up again.”
Which is tragic.
Michelle shared with me that her biological parents were never a part of her daily life or conversation; she did not feel the safety or security that she could bring them up whenever she needed to. There was no balance, only extremes: there was never anything negative sad about her birth family but there was rarely anything ever said at all.
“Looking back, is there something you wish you would have heard from your parents regarding your biological family?” I asked her.
Michelle responded, “I would have loved to have them as a part of my daily conversation; I would have loved to feel safe to talk about them. I don’t ever want my daughter to feel like she can’t share about her birth mother, I don’t want my children to feel hushed about any parts of their lives. That includes all of them. So I do my best to offer them a safe space, to encourage conversations, to include their biological families into our daily lives. Both of my children were adopted internationally. I never force them to talk about anything they don’t want to talk about; it’s their story. But I do want them to know that they are safe and absolutely welcome to talk about birth family, birth heritage, at anytime. I guess I wish I had that for me.”
This isn’t the first story I have heard, the first adoptee that has shared with me, they wished they had felt safe to talk about their whole identities growing up. We as parents, foster/adoptive parents, might tend to forget how important it is to not ignore that there are entire parts of our children’s lives that don’t include us. Entire sections of their identity are missed, are ignored, and are left out of our daily, weekly, monthly conversations with our children. Most, if not all, children crave to talk about the missing pieces to their story.
As their parents, it’s our role to make safe spaces for them. As their parents, it is our responsibility to invite them into the conversation, to lead them, to let them know it is safe. We cannot assume they will bring up their histories and thoughts; we must be ready to love them big and love them well.
Wondering where to start? Feel like it’s been too long since you’ve had a conversation about their biological family, and sense it might be awkward?
You need to press past the awkward. Maybe start by saying something simple like, “I wonder what (bio family name) is up to today,” or “Your nose sure does look like your biological dad’s nose,” or “Have you thought much about your birth mom lately?” Simple questions, simple comments, simple invitations into safe spaces.
Michelle Madrid-Branch is a life coach, author, speaker, and global advocate for women and children. She is the author of Adoption Means Love: Triumph of the Heart and the children’s book, The Tummy Mummy.