Affirming the Adoptee's Reality: A Way to Intimacy
"The young child knows when the truth is being told and when it isn't. It's just amazing how much little children know of you, within and without."
- Patricia McNulty, adoptee and Waldorf kindergarten teacher
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 self.
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 constitutions.
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 intuitive compass.
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 circumstances.
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 reality.
"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 notion."
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," explains Baran.
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 The Way".)
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.
Marcy Wineman Axness is the mother of two children, Ian and Eve. A former award-winning television news and documentary producer, Ms. Axness writes and speaks internationally on adoption and pre- and perinatal issues, and is currently pursuing a doctorate degree. Her new Adoption Insight Series booklets are now available, offering respectful, practical approaches to enhancing the adoptive family experience.
Copyright 1998 Marcy Wineman Axness. Presented with permission of the author.