*This is a compilation of stories from my journey and those I have interviewed intertwined into one article. Specific details and circumstances have been changed to protect identities.
I am no stranger to open adoption. My husband and I decided quite early on in our adoption journey to not just facilitate openness in our adoptions but to pursue it. It is easy early on in this road to be quite cocky and certain that you know it all. When listening to difficult adoption stories, you figure out exactly where everyone else went wrong. It takes time to realize that the pre-adoption training wasn’t written for “those guys over there” that are struggling; no, it was also written for you and your family.
For quite some time, adoption has been viewed through the lens of fantasy. It has been viewed as a magical, overwhelmingly positive experience in which the orphaned child who is almost always completely healthy is “saved” by their new adoptive parents. This child is eternally grateful for this family who, at least in the fantasy, is wealthy. These mythical parents have resources galore and the children’s behaviors are never an issue. Things never get difficult and the adopted child never thinks about their birth parents. Or at least, such thoughts are never an intrusion on this perfect family.
However, developmentally it is normal for an adopted child to fantasize about their birth parents. Kids are often engaged in magical thinking. It is a part of childhood, and it is a part of normal development. Kids come up with some pretty outrageous and often hilarious ideas about how the world works. This is the pairing of their known experiences with their imaginations. Kids dream big. We live on a farm and it is not uncommon for me to find my younger girls riding around on their ponies pretending they are actually flying in the sky on unicorns (or rather alicorns as apparently there is a difference, but that is a whole different story). They dream about riding dragons and riding through enchanted forests. And one of my children in particular dreams about her birth parents.
In my experience, the need to fantasize about birth parents is more pronounced in some children than it is for others. We have 5 kids in the home 3 of whom are adopted. One is too small to verbalize thoughts on adoption. One is quite happy-go-lucky about the entire thing. And one is quite immersed in thinking about who her parents are, her journey, and how things could have been different.
I remember hearing about lots of different adoption experiences in our pre-adoption training. I also distinctly remember scoffing (yes scoffing, which I am quite embarrassed about now) at the idea that children can struggle with things like reactive attachment disorder even when adopted from a young age. At the time, we were attempting to adopt our foster daughter who had been with us since her earliest days on this earth. She didn’t know any other parents I naively thought. I didn’t yet know about cellular memory, and I sort of conveniently discounted the fact that babies in a nursery can tell their mother based on smell and voice alone. I truly did believe that any serious behavior issues or mental anguish over the adoption just wouldn’t occur because this child and others afterward came to us just days after birth. I was wrong.
We are all created differently, and we all react to the things around us and the things that happen in our lives differently. What I was about to learn the hard way is that this is true of children who have been adopted as well. In the end, it didn’t matter that she came to us at five days old. What mattered is that to her there were pieces missing in her story. And what mattered is that for her a collection of photos and written accounts was just not enough. I have learned that attachment issues can and do crop up when least expected. These disorders do not respect firm boundaries on whom, how, and why they can affect someone. Attachment disorders do not care about your “shouldn’t” and “couldn’t” exist thoughts or feelings. Instead, these disorders show that “it is happening” or “there is evidence of” those very things you thought you wouldn’t have to deal with.
When we started to realize how deep her feelings were about her birth family and also her adoption, we decided we had to take it seriously. It went without saying that her reactive attachment disorder was taken extremely seriously as well. That condition by nature demands attention. We could have chosen to just say, “Stop thinking about things so much!” to her every time she brought up these topics or her birth parents. However, I could tell that it was deeply troubling her. I could tell that there was much emotion behind this, and I definitely wanted to be the one to walk with her through this. I didn’t want her to feel like she had to be alone with her thoughts and questions or that she didn’t have anyone willing and able to help her figure it all out. Of course, that meant that our entire family felt many emotions that couldn’t necessarily have predicted.
I have written previously about the night I knew that I was meant to seek out and find our daughter’s mom. I have shared many times about the healing that brought her birth mom and about how that brought abundant joy to our daughter. It actually settled right into my heart as well and it was so right, all of it. I thought this would be enough for now. I thought that it would be the end for a while, but it actually spurred on so many more questions. Our daughter has a life book, she has seen photos, and she has now met her birth mom and many extended family members, but it did not stop what was to come next. “Where is my birth dad? I want to meet him.”
I thought we might have a little more time, but that’s ok. We rolled with it. It took several months after I sent the initial messages to make contact with him and several more months to organize a visit. I have to laugh because with adoption and foster care few things go as planned. This was no exception. As it turned out, he was here much sooner than expected. The details of that first meeting are precious, and I hold them close to my heart. The details aren’t something that I am going to share here other than to say that it was a blessing to all of us. My little girl, this girl that I have raised from birth just jumped into her daddy’s arms and told him she loved him while I stood back with my husband her other dad, and just soaked in the moment. We are so far past letting anything like that threaten us that we were able to let the joy and of course the tears run their course.
I am still learning. I’ve been an adoptive parent for almost a decade, and Lord knows I have so much more to learn. Silly me, I sort of sat back and thought about how we had done it. We had moved heaven and earth to create a visit and make some magic happen. I sort of thought I had done my job and it was time to rest again until the next major event in our lives. I should have known a little girl with a quivery lip would appear at my bedside. She was troubled. “Where is he now? Where does he go? What does he do?” I was transported back to our earliest fostering days to other little blessings with tremblings lips. I thought of other answers that have run through my head but never quite made it past my lips: your parents are gone, your parents have problems with drugs and alcohol, your parents aren’t safe for you right now, your father is in jail, and your father died.
I clear my throat and sift through the journey of others and sit with the discomfort of not knowing what to say, again. Childhood is tender. Children aren’t yet prepared to deal with the weight of their reality. I’m an adult and I find it difficult to deal with the reality my children are faced with. It breaks my own heart and brings me to tears when a child in my care or in my circle is living and moving and learning and growing with this truth over them like a cloud. Things in my family are difficult. Yet, it is much harder when drugs and alcohol, criminal pasts, abuse, and neglect are thrown into the mix. I think about how each time it is of utmost importance to uphold the dignity and value of the birth parent. I believe that human beings are worthy of love and respect because they are human even when they have made bad choices. I also believe in being truthful and helping my adopted children understand their stories piece by age-appropriate piece. So that by the time they reach adulthood they have their whole story. And here is the dilemma, isn’t it? Because the hard things have to be talked about someday.
“Can I sleep in your room?” she asked. We have a little loveseat in our room for just this reason. Sometimes the littles as we call our kids need the comfort of our proximity. For years, my husband and I slept in a double bed with a couch at the end to accommodate those with bad dreams, fears, or sadness about the present circumstances in their lives. Tonight was one of those nights. She wanted to know it all. Everything about him and his past. I toyed with the blanket as I reconstructed what I could giving glimpses, respectful glimpses. The kids in our home all know that some adults struggle with big people problems like drugs and alcohol. We have worked hard to make a framework of language that portrays truth gently.
She told me how much she loves her birth dad and I agreed that he is totally worth loving. She told me she wishes she knew more about where he goes or where he disappears to after visits. I agree I told her. It would be nice to know. In reality, sometimes we do know. Words like jail and homelessness rattle around in my brain. It is my job to comfort and protect. I suggest that we pray for him and that we say all the things we liked about the last visit out loud. She loved that idea and we went to sleep on the positive.
It got me thinking, though. She thinks about where he goes. She doesn’t have all the information right now. I do. I have a much better picture. To be honest, I spend time thinking about it too. I picture him hitchhiking on snow-covered highways and I worry. I picture him walking long long roads on the promise of change. I see him in my mind in Salvation Army shelters. I picture him in the group home when he was a kid. I want to fix it. I want to change it and I can not.
I’ve worked in street ministry for almost a decade now and this is an old pain. My heart wants to know, where do they go? Are they ok? I imagine the worst. What this has taught me is that if I am thinking about it, how much harder is it for my child? This is their parent and their tiny hearts and bodies aren’t designed to struggle with this stress. So, the next time one of my kids asks “Where does he go?” I might not have any answers. But I have some solutions. Would you like to pray for them? Would you like to journal? Would you like to look at photos of them and remember all the good times? Addictions and trauma may rip families apart and we may not know where loved ones go on their painful journeys, but we can help our foster and adoptive kids hold their birth parents in their hearts. It might not seem like much, but it is something. And sometimes, something is just enough.
Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.