I am an adoptive parent. I have also been a foster parent. I am a homeschool mom. My children are home with me most often. This means we share a lot of time together. My children’s lives are, rightfully so, woven into every part of my being. We are a healthy, thriving (although sometimes struggling) family. I don’t take ownership of my children (at least not in a possessive way that I think they are mine to shape and mold into what I want).
No, I see them as a gift from God on loan for me to love, cherish, and guide into their best selves. I see it as my job to teach them about love, life, faith, relationships, and who they are. It is my job to teach them everything I know and everything I wish I had known before I became an adult. I love my biological and adoptive children the same — with my whole heart. There is no difference in how I treat or relate to them.
But, there is a difference in one way. You see, in my adopted children there are places in their lives that I cannot touch. It is the little things that bring this to mind. For example, a simple visit to the optometrist. The assistant prepares to take eye measurements or something and asks a basic question that many people do not struggle to answer. “Is there any history of (fill in the blank) in your family?” I stare for a moment and skip a few beats. I’m not even really formulating an answer. I am more likely swallowing a lump in my throat. For some reason, the catty answers always flash through my mind first: “Well, not in my family, but I couldn’t tell you much about hers.”
Of course, I would never actually reply that way, and I’m not being callous about my child’s precious journey. It is more about simply knowing that the most simple answers I could give will throw people off-kilter. That isn’t the goal and so I swallow the ever-growing lump in my throat and reply, “Well, she is adopted. So I don’t really have that information for you.” The person on the other end of this conversation almost always blushes and looks down or away. It isn’t their fault, but he or she has just stumbled upon one of the places that I cannot go.
It proves again, that I was not there from the beginning. It feels like a warning light blinking because I do not have access to all the information about my adoptive children’s family (not like I do for my birth children anyways). There is a deficit here. If we knew . . . if only we knew. Is there some looming medical issue or crisis that could be prevented if I had more information about their past? It’s a place I can’t go. Oh, I could track down family and ask (and I have), but it isn’t the same. It is not the same as answering from your own personal experience. My typical answer would be something like “yes, my father has diabetes.” Instead, there is this slight void, a slight shaking of the heart, a slight sadness that seems to say, “You don’t know, Mama, because you were not there. It is not a place you can go.”
Let’s be honest. It is not simple. Families fractured by generations of abuse and addictions have had this happening for decades. It is a hard reality that some birth parents may not have access to their own medical history. Think about that. Imagine not knowing who your own parents were. You may not know if your family had any traditions or celebrated holidays. This repeated generational blocking or lack of access due to circumstances begotten by trauma leave holes that cannot easily be filled.
These are some of the hard places, broken places, and places that do not belong to me. I was sitting in the hard plastic chair of the old hospital in our town. The plexiglass between the receptionist and I was creating just enough of a barrier that I had to repeat myself. “She is here for an HIV test.
I could feel the eyes in the waiting room turning to me. I felt a slight flush. I had been asked to bring my foster daughter in for a blood test and had the lab requisition in hand. The thing is, I had no other info. How would she have contracted it if she did have it? What would happen to her? The thing is, the receptionist thought it was my fault. It was clear she thought I was the mother, and she was judging me hard. The face, eye roll, and glare told it all. Most of us would agree that professionals or people working in a professional setting should be free of obvious judgment like this. My experience is that it happens far too often. She huffed and began to get the papers together.
“She’s my foster daughter,” I blurted out. Her face showed visible relief. At least now, the awkwardness between us as well as her visible disdain had dropped. But it left me thinking about all the places I had not been with this child.
Most children available for adoption from the Canadian foster system are over the age of 8. If you adopted a child of this age, there are 8 years of life behind them that you were not a part of. He or she will have memories, both good and bad, of things you have no idea about. He or she knows people that you have never met. He or she has lived in places you can’t picture. This still throws my mind for a loop. My biological children have been with me since the beginning of their time. There is no place they have gone to for any length of time that I have not been there also. I recall their crib, know all their family members, and have been a part of all their firsts. There is something deeply emotional about sitting with a child who now belongs with you and hearing them describe a house you never lived in; there is another mother you can’t picture and siblings you’ve only read about in placement reports.
She looks like her mother and I can see it. I see her father in her smirk. Others see it, too. I have joy in my heart at a gathering for my adopted children and their extended birth family when I hear relatives talk about the similarities between my adopted children and their birth parents. I watch from across the room and realize I am the one who doesn’t look like anyone else or have common family experiences to discuss. And the tables have been turned for me.
It makes me realize all the times my adopted child is the one who must be thinking, “I wasn’t here for that. I don’t know who that is. That was in a time before me.” It helps me understand my child’s feelings and how he or she can feel like an outsider looking in. It makes me think of all the times my adopted kids might think they don’t fit in because of their adoptions. There are times when family-tree projects are assigned at school, my family talks about how much our birth children look like my husband, and when people ask where he or she got their brown eyes from — because mine and my husband’s eyes are blue.
We deal with reactive attachment disorder in one of our kids, and it is a brutal thing. It both saddens me because my child is afraid to trust adults and it frustrates me because of the chaos it causes. I always land on the question “What caused this?” and then I find myself staring at her from across the room. I find my mind wanting to wander into the past that I am not a part of and sift through the rubble to make things right for her, except that I cannot.
I find myself wanting to build a foundation out of those stones that crumbled for her in childhood, but there are pieces missing and pieces that I don’t understand. I can ask questions and talk to people who know the stories, but it is not the same. It is sort of like trying to put together a puzzle without a reference photo and with a few extra pieces thrown in the mix as well. I can assume and I can infer, but I can also be wrong. I would give anything to be able to understand. I would do anything to be able to go back to the beginning and record it all for her sake. But then I think about how sad it would be to watch from the outside unable to stop the hard parts from happening. In these moments it does feel ok that there are places that I cannot go.
C.S. Lewis says, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” This has got to be one of the most accurate depictions of adoption. This gives me hope. I will never be able to enter those places that came before me. I have been reflecting, though, on waiting for healing in some of these painful places. I can’t force it. I can only facilitate it and wait. And I can start right where we are at this very moment.
Already by choosing to adopt, I am changing how the story ends not only for my family but for this child that I now call my own. The painful beginnings and torn roots from the damaged primary attachment can grow and flourish into a beautiful tree.
As painful as it is, I know that not all children needing adoption get adopted. I know that according to Unicef there are 153,000,000 orphans worldwide. I heard years ago that only 20 percent of children eligible for adoption will ever actually be adopted. This tells me that there are millions of difficult beginnings, beginnings that didn’t work, and beginnings that were sad.
It tells me that there are other mamas out there just like me that are thinking about the days they weren’t around for and what they were like for this child they now call their own. It tells me I am not the only one that thinks about all the places I cannot go. It tells me that we are into the hard work of loving and healing and working things out for a better future. It tells me to hold space when I don’t know what else to do and to give grace to my child’s journey always.
It reminds me that he or she may be thinking the same; he or she might just be thinking about who and how I was before he or she was with me. He or she might be thinking, “Am I good enough? Do I fit here?” Or he or she might be thinking about how strange it is to be connected with an adult that doesn’t know or understand their whole story. And that is ok.
Adoption is truly the joining of hands that have crossed cultures, countries, and ethnicities in order to live life together. We might not fully understand the past, but we can look toward the future we are building as an adoptive family. Adoption is so incredibly unique by nature and one of the absolute sweetest expressions of love I can think of. While great pain may shape the beginnings, the capacity and potential for great outcomes are endless.
The incredible blessing to be able to call someone else’s child my own is not lost on me. It actually hits me hard and often. I think I walk through life very differently because of our adoptions. I take far less for granted, and I think I have far more respect for people’s individual journeys than I would have otherwise. I am incredibly thankful for all of my children. I am thankful for being there from the beginning for my birth children, and I am thankful for my adopted children who sit with me and tell me what it is like to be them. I am blessed to be called “Mom” by someone else’s child, and I am blessed to uphold who he or she was, is, and is becoming every day.