"The young child knows when the truth is being told and when
It's just amazing how much little children know of you, within and
- Patricia McNulty, adoptee and Waldorf
The road leading up to adoption is invariably a painful one for
parents, marked by many losses: the children they might have had,
but for infertility; the child or children they lost through
miscarriage, stillbirth, or death; and sometimes even pieces of
themselves feel chipped away - their feelings of competence,
wholeness, worthiness, and so many other essential components of
By the time their long-awaited adopted child is placed in their
arms, parents usually - and understandably - just want to put all
the heartache behind them and move on into the joyful realms of
mothering and fathering. But the very real feelings of loss that
attend adoption need to have a place in the story of the adoptive
family, or they can cast ever-lengthening shadows on the
relationship between parents and child.
Adopted kids often grow up with the mantra "being adopted
is just another way to become a family." This is a dismissive
characterization of a profound experience that has involved not
only the parents' deep losses, but the child's loss of the parents
who couldn't keep him. With the best of intentions, adoptive
parents often convey half-truths about the implications of
adoption to shield their child from the pain of loss that is
inherent in the experience.
Understanding The First Reality
"I lost my mother soon after I was born." If I were
to say this to a stranger, the response would surely be shock and
sympathy for my loss: "I'm so sorry for you." But if I
tell that stranger, "I was adopted," the response is
usually, "Really, that's wonderful, how nice for you."
If we are to affirm an adoptee's reality, we need to remember
that she did, in fact, lose her mother soon after birth (in the
case of an infant adoption). And while she may have been blessed
with wonderful, loving, adoptive parents, this blessing was
preceded by a profound loss. For a newborn to be separated from
her biological mother is a trauma, both psychological and
physiological, that is felt and processed and manifested in the
lives of adoptees according to their individual temperaments,
personalities, and physical, emotional and spiritual
There are two realities that a parent needs to accept in order
to have an authentic relationship with an adopted child:
My child has two mothers and two fathers.
My child came to me not as a blank slate, but with a
history of connection and of loss.
Adoptees - like all other people - have their roads to travel.
Our "life journeys" come with certain burdens and
lessons which help make us who we are. I believe that I am living
exactly the life I was supposed to, and I have no regrets. But
whether it was God's plan or simply my destiny that I came into
this earthly life as an adoptee, I still needed and craved
compassion and acknowledgment for my losses, and for my reality,
before I could truly move on to the business of living my life.
The goal as I see it isn't to try to fix things so that adoptees
no longer have a burden, but rather to do whatever we can to help
them remain connected with their inner truth instead of alienated
from it. We can do this by affirming the adoptee's reality.
The Heart of Open Adoption
Whether one has an "open adoption", a "semi-open
adoption", an "international adoption", or a
"closed adoption", these terms refer to the mechanics
of the adoption, not to the way it feels. To have an
"open-of-heart" adoption is to have the ability to
affirm the adoptee's reality, without flinching: "It was sad
that you had to leave your other mother. I bet you miss her. Yes,
you really do have two mothers." Reality. Affirmed. Ahhh...
that makes sense, my feelings make sense, everything makes sense
now. I know what's real.
The Gift of "What is So"
If you go to any park on any day in any city, you will see a
child fall and start to cry - and then you will see his mother
swoop him up and begin to chant incessantly to him, "You're
okay, you're okay, no blood, you're okay!" Meanwhile, the
child continues to wail. Only very occasionally will a parent tell
a child, "Yes, I saw that you tripped over that bucket and
fell down. And that hurt, didn't it?" Or maybe, "That
was pretty scary, huh?" She reflects to her child simply what
is so - not what she wishes were so, or what she might prefer to be
so. Her child's crying ebbs and he is soon ready to get back to
his business of playing. He has been heard.
Sadly, when we respond to our children like the first woman in
the park, when we try to impose our preferred reality, our myth,
upon them, we insidiously lure them - day by day - away from their
own inner knowing, their inner truth. And that is when they become
infinitely vulnerable in the world, for then they have lost their
The other devastating consequence is that we erode our child's
trust when we don't reflect the truth back to him. When we tell a
child, "There's nothing sad about adoption, it's just another
way to become a family," he begins to lose his compass, and
the ability to distinguish whether or not there are feelings of
loss or hurt inside him. He will also lose any sense of trust for
- and connection to - the parent who repeatedly discounts his
experience and his reality. What incredible blessings come when we
are able to affirm our child's reality, because doing so builds
trust, and trust leads to intimacy.
Studies show that this kind of intimate connection between
parents and children is the most effective protection for them in
a world of peer pressure, drugs, sex, and other high-risk
Adoptive Parents Need to Affirm Their Own Reality
Why would we tell a child, "You're okay!" with such
frantic conviction, when he has clearly just suffered a hurt?
Perhaps it is because we need so desperately to remind ourselves
(or convince ourselves) that we're okay. We have to keep
tamped down all of our own hurts and fears and losses that have
never been acknowledged, our own reality that has gone unaffirmed.
This is the generational legacy of denial.
Jung said "The most damaging thing to a child is the
unlived lives of his parents." I take this to mean the parts
of the parent that have been unacknowledged, unexpressed, and
ungrieved: the shadow. For adoptive parents, a critical piece in
affirming their adopted child's reality is affirming their own
"Other mommies and daddies had to take what they got, but
we got to choose you," is another of the well-intentioned but
ultimately destructive lies that some adoptive parents tell in an
attempt to bolster their child's positive sense of self. Perhaps
these parents are attempting to "polish" the status of
being adopted, and compensate for any undercurrents of social
stigma to which the child might later be exposed. While it may not
be appropriate to discuss every painful detail of their
pre-adoptive situation, it is crucial for parents to share the
essence of the truth with their adopted children, the feelings
that hover beneath the facts.
Annette Baran, author of the groundbreaking book, The
Adoption Triangle, says that "Adoptive parents must weep
with their child: 'We're sorry, too, that you didn't grow in
Mommy's tummy.' "
"I think parents don't realize they're allowed to show
these feelings," says Baran. "They think they have to
present an unflagging cheerfulness about adoption, in order that
the children will feel positive, too. This is a mistaken
Parents who demonstrate emotional openness send a healthy
message to their child that he or she is allowed to express a full
range of feelings, not just the "positive" ones.
"Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that
they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along
with them. But having lost an original set of parents is something
to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is
to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them,"
Saying It Out Loud: "Adoption Was Our Second Choice"
Very few people in our society grow up dreaming that they'll
fall in love, get married, and adopt a child, or that they will
have a child and give it to others to raise.
Adoptive parents need to address their own ambivalence about
the very desirability of adoption if they are to avoid the kind of
inauthentic, happy-face approach embodied in dismissive slogans
like "adoption is just another way to become a family."
Another challenge for adoptive parents is the nagging legacy of
infertility, and society's ongoing lack of recognition of this as
a profound loss. Parents need to be guided and supported in
finding ways to do their mourning, so that the adoptive mother can
say very sincerely and authentically to her child - not just
mechanically following a script - "I'm sorry, too, that you
didn't grow in my tummy. It was sad for me that I couldn't grow a
baby, and it was sad for you and your other mother that you
couldn't stay together. But I am happy that you and I ended up
together." What an amazing, powerful connection can be forged
here, on this common ground of loss. Affirming the adoptee's
reality is a key element in the secure, continuing relationship
between parents and child.
How Do Parents Affirm Their Adopted Child's Reality?
1. Affirm the Newborn's Experience
In my article, "A Therapist Counsels Parents of Babies
Separated From Mothers At Birth,"1 a perinatal
therapist offers specific things parents can say - out loud - to
a baby who has been separated from his mother. Infants who have
recently experienced separation from their mothers will show
signs of trauma - prolonged crying or almost no crying, flaccid
body tone or extreme rigidity, tremendous startle responses,
and/or an unwillingness to make eye contact or to be held or
comforted. Instead of feeling that the child is rejecting them,
parents can say to this baby, "You miss your other mother.
You miss your connection. You've lost something very important,
and I understand, and I'm going to be here for you. It's all
right to be sad." They can hold the baby, and let the baby
mourn, because this is what the baby needs to do.
The time to begin affirming an adoptee's reality is at the
very beginning; this lays a foundation of openness and honesty.
Using the words, out loud, before the child even has language,
it is our energetic message that is conveyed to her, telling her
that we are connecting with the knowledge of loss that is in her
bones, beyond words.
2. Tell Him the Story of His Birth
Children love to hear about the time in their mother's womb,
the day they were born, and the day they came home. It helps to
lay a foundation for them of connectedness to their family and
to this earth. It grounds them. Typically, it isn't a story that
adoptees get to hear. We grow up with the vague sense that we
were hatched from a very special, top-secret file. This is one
of the beauties of open adoption, in which it is possible to
create a child's "life book", containing the birth
parents' pictures and information. This can lead to natural
conversations about the birth parents: what color eyes the birth
father has, what his hobbies are, the birth mother's favorite
song, whether she rides horses or likes to rollerblade, what she
liked to do during her pregnancy. All such conversations are
opportunities to affirm the adoptee's reality.
3. Offer Her Stories, Songs, and Images that might Resonate
with her Experience
As with all children, parenting an adopted child is not an
exact science, but an intuitive one. It asks that you look
deeply into your unique child and find what will resonate with
her. Trial and error is often the path to gold in this realm.
There are many stories of separation, self-discovery, loss and
redemption, and loss without redemption, such as "The
Incredible Journey", "Pinocchio", or even the
story of Moses. For me, "Thumbelina", the story of a
perfect little girl who was delivered from a flower, provided me
with a powerful connection that - at age four or five - I didn't
begin to understand cognitively, which was its beauty.
"Thumbelina" gave me a symbolic context for the primal
feelings that lay at my core. That story, in some way, gave me a
home for my soul.
Stories, drawings, and other types of creative expression can
inspire the child's imagination. These offer the child as many
different colors and brushes and textures as possible with which
to envision his own life, his experience, and himself. (Be
careful not to undermine the value of this approach by
"narrating" or over-commenting on the child's
expressions. See Naomi Aldort's article, "Getting Out of
4. Take A Spiritual Approach
Holding an awareness of a child's experience, without even
saying a word, can be tremendously healing for the child and for
the entire family. There is a growing body of evidence for the
healing power of prayer, or of simply holding a vision of the
person as whole, healthy, completely loved, and at peace.
Another way to work on this level is to sit by the child's
bed while he sleeps, and "talk" to his unconscious,
either silently or aloud. "I am safe in my world. It is
safe for me to trust and to give and accept love. My mother and
father will always be here for me. It is alright for me to feel
sad or angry and to talk to my parents about it... they will
affirm my true experience and my feelings." This is a
simple but incredibly powerful way to affirm a child's reality.
Reality is A Personal Affair
In a sense, we cannot know exactly what any particular
adoptee's reality is, since an individual's reality is a product
of many subjective perceptions, filtered through her unique
emotional, psychological and spiritual lenses. But if we affirm an
adoptee's honest experience - what it is that really happened to
her - and offer her a palette of contexts through which to own
that experience, we will weave a vital connection with that child.
Our gift in return will be her sense of trust and her resulting
willingness to share with us her reality, and her life. And that
is called intimacy.