Articles

Article Index 
 
Meeting My Mother
Understanding the Adoption Triad
Search and Reunion
Grief and Loss in Adoption
When Adoptees Become Parents
Adoption Issues in Psychotherapy
Forever Families
Being Adopted
Hello Before Goodbye
Happy Adoption Books
Talking with your Child about Adoption and Foster Care Issues 
 

Meeting My Mother

Whole Life Times, January 1995
 
I met my mother for the first time when I was thirty-five years old. She was nothing like I had imagined. When I was a child I was sure she was a movie star hopelessly in love with her leading man but unable to be with him for some obscure but romantic reason. When I was a teenager I thought she was probably a drug addict living on the streets. For why else had she not come back to claim me or at least inquire about my well being?

Our meeting falls into that category of significant and life-changing events that I will never forget: my wedding day, receiving my Ph.D., and the death of my adoptive father. All of these events, in fact, were crucial in the timing of my meeting my birthmother. But let me start at the beginning.

I was adopted as an infant in what is called a closed or traditional adoption. I was not supposed to meet my birthmother. She was supposed to forget me and get on with her life. We were supposed to ignore the fact that something out of the ordinary had taken place.

I found out I was adopted when I was seven years old. My mother told me that she and my father had wanted to have babies of their own but couldn’t have any. They tried for many years. Then one day a doctor said that there was a baby available and did they want it? They had already adopted my older sister and decided to adopt me too. She said that my other mother loved me and wanted me to have a good home. They had never met her but heard she was a nice girl. I remember hearing what my mother was telling me but not being able to take it in. I felt kind of numb. She said I was special and that she and my father were really glad to have me and my sister. I felt sad. She never brought up the topic of adoption again.

What is it like being adopted? Being adopted means being different. Different is not bad, it is just different. To deny my difference would be to deny who I am. I started out in this world differently. My conception, prenatal experience, and birth were different. My birthmother was not joyfully pregnant. No one gave her a baby shower. She never saw the infant she gave birth to.

Losing the mother who gave you life is traumatic. I wanted to keep a part of her in my soul. I thought about her a lot. My fantasy life about my birthmother was rich. I didn’t have a lot of facts to counteract what I imagined. I wanted to believe that if my birthmother and I were in the same place at the same time that we would immediately know it and recognize each other. For years I peered at faces in crowds - was she here? I was always looking - at the grocery store, in movie lines, and later, even in bars. I wondered if she ever thought of me. Did she remember my birthday? I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask her. I wanted to see her. I wondered if I looked like her. I wondered if I looked like anyone.

I was the tallest one in my family. People would ask me how I got so tall. I didn't know. I grew up with short people. They had blue eyes. I had brown eyes. They were brunette. I was blonde. I wanted to fit in somewhere, anywhere. I wanted to look like someone who looked like me. Whose eyes were those in the mirror?

Adoption was one of our family secrets. My sister and I were told not to tell anyone that we were adopted because they wouldn't understand and besides it was none of their business. But we were never told what to say to explain our obvious physical differences. Keeping the secret created some problems. One year my sister and I were on our way to a new camp on the camp bus. Some of the kids on the bus didn't believe we were sisters. When we got to camp they took us in separate rooms and asked us our home addresses to check out our story. Somehow that convinced them and they believed that we were really sisters. It didn?t occur to me to say that we were adopted. That would have been breaking the taboo.

I did, however, tell some people that I was adopted. There would come a time in relationships where, if I trusted the person, I would confess to my status of being adopted. Usually it was no big deal to the person I told. To me, it was a turning point in the relationship. Would they reject me or accept me? Would they understand what it means to me to be adopted?

I began to search for my birthmother when I was twenty three years old. I joined support groups and wrote letters to try to obtain information that would help me locate her. There were a lot of dead ends and a recurring voice in my head that said I shouldn’t be trying to find her. I would be intruding on her life if I showed up now. It wasn't fair to her.

When I visited my adoptive family I would ask questions about my background to try to get any bit of information that might help in my search. My mother cried and my father got angry. They didn't understand my need to know. I told them that it felt like a piece of me was missing. They were offended and asked why they couldn't fill those needs. They weren't able to see that this wasn't something about them, it was about me before them. It was about my beginnings.

It's not an accident that I became more active in my search after my adoptive father passed away. I didn't want to face his hurt and anger and I didn't want to search behind his back. I needed a lot of support and encouragement to pursue my search and I received that from my husband. He was behind me all the way and helped me to keep going when things looked hopeless. He knew my pain. He also knew that I am a person who likes to be working on a project or goal. Since I had recently passed my licensing exam, I was out of goals. Finding my birthmother seemed like a good project to take on. Plus, with a Ph.D. behind my name I felt my birthmother would know I had accomplished something with my life. I would be "presentable".

My searching took many routes and I finally ended up with her telephone number. I dialed the phone. The call was transferred. My birthmother was on the other end. In one long, rushed, tearful sentence I stated my name, my birth date, my hometown, and that I thought she was my birthmother. A moment of silence on the line. Then sobs. Yes, she was my birthmother. And how was I? Was I OK? More sobs from both of us. Yes, I was OK.

We said we would write to each other and send pictures. We both wrote and mailed our notes to each other that day. She sent a picture of herself with her youngest son, my half-brother. I studied it daily. We made plans to meet. My brother and I spoke and met.

The three of us continue to stay in contact. We all feel like we have known each other for longer than three years. For me, I feel like I have come home. I feel connected and centered. Much of my pain has been relieved. I know who I look like. I now have a place in the world.

I told my birthmother that I was writing this article on being an adoptee. I said it might be fun sometime for she and I to write about our adoption experiences. She wrote me back immediately. This is what she had to say: "The happiest day of my life was when Marlou called! Probably the saddest day was when she was born as I knew she would be given over to someone else to raise. Thirty-eight years ago was a very different time to be unwed and pregnant. I never told my family or her father (he was involved with someone else by then). He knows now but sadly to say he hasn't contacted her. (Maybe with a wife and family it isn't possible). Hopefully one day that will be resolved. He is missing knowing a wonderful person! My brothers and sisters have been great to me and welcome Marlou with open arms. My two sons are so proud to have a neat sister!

"Not having an education or any job skills, I thought it would be the best thing for her to be raised by a family with love (I hoped) and means to provide the necessary things she would need. I often thought of searching for her, but not knowing even if she'd been told she was adopted, would talk myself into thinking it was best for her just to leave things alone. I am so grateful she searched!! When she called I was in a wheelchair, using a leg brace (I have multiple sclerosis). Now I don't even use a cane to walk. I started improving the day she called. Isn't it strange what your sub-conscious can do? I stopped searching faces in crowds the day she called. It is so nice to have such a beautiful thing from my life back and I look forward to many more happy times. I feel so comfortable with her and her husband. I am a very lucky person. My hope is that all birthmoms would have my good fortune."

What more can I say? I am blessed to have such a caring and wonderful birthmother and we are fortunate indeed to know each other. Even if it did take thirty five years to meet.
 

Understanding the Adoption Triad


Children Magazine, June 1997
For more information, email
marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
People choose adoption for different reasons. Couples struggling with infertility choose adoption in order to become parents. Parents who want to add to their family but not have more biological children choose adoption. Gay and lesbian couples choose adoption to raise children. Stepparents adopt the children of their current spouse. Birth parents choose adoption because they feel unable to take care of their child.

Choosing adoption is an active process filled with decisions. People considering adoption must decide between working with a public or private adoption agency or using an independent adoption attorney. Will the adoption be open or closed? If an open adoption is chosen, how much contact will be agreed upon? Will the adoption be within the United States or intercountry? What age will the child be when adopted and will the child have any special needs?

There are over 450,000 children waiting for permanent homes in the United States today. President Clinton has challenged the nation to double the number of children adopted in this country by the year 2002. As incentive, the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 now provides a $5,000 tax credit to families adopting children and a $6,000 tax credit to families adopting special needs children.

In 1992, (the last year for which total adoption statistics are available), 127,441 children of all races and nationalities were adopted. Of this number, 42% percent or 53,525 were stepparent or relative adoptions. In 1996 there were 11,340 children adopted from other countries and raised in the United States.

The adoption triad consists of the adoptee, the birth parents, and the adoptive parent(s). Like any triad, each member is necessary and supports the other two sides. Birth families and adoptive families are forever connected - even if they never meet in person. Adoptive parents and birth parents share a very important mutual interest - their child’s well being. Adopting a child means inviting a birth family to be a part of the adoptive family. Being connected to a birth family is a lot like having in-laws - you may or may not like these people but you share someone you love in common. Respecting a child’s birth family respects that child. Love is not a finite commodity. Just as a parent can love more than one child, a child can love more than one parent. Adoptive parents and birth parents have different things to offer the adoptee. Each role must be acknowledged and respected.

Adoption issues do not end with the signing of the Adoption Decree. Each triad member will experience the lifelong impact of adoption. Seemingly simple questions can trigger emotional reactions specific to adoption. For example, an adoptee is asked if cancer runs in her family. A birth mother is asked how many children she has. An adoptive father is asked where his son got such blue eyes. Deeper issues may be touched when an adoptee worries about being rejected in relationships or when an adopted teenager becomes pregnant. Acknowledging the lifelong impact of adoption in the beginning means less emotional surprises in the future.

Adoption inherently involves gains and losses for all members of the triad. Adoptees gain prepared parents while losing biological relatives. Infertile couples become parents while losing the dream of giving birth to a child. Birth parents are relieved of the responsibility of parenting while losing a child. Because of these adoption losses, triad members will experience the five basic stages of grieving - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These feelings can appear in any order and arise at various times throughout a triad member’s life. Regardless of who is in the delivery room or how many kids one has later, the losses of adoption will still be present. Despite what the future holds, a loss is still a loss and a separation is still a separation. Trying to avoid these emotions will not eliminate them, just postpone them. Respecting, validating and honoring the losses of adoption in one's self and in the other triad members is part of the healing process.

Talking about adoption begins in the adoptive home. Adoptive parents who are open and honest in their feelings about adopting and have come to a resolution, will be more comfortable bringing up adoption topics in the family. If, on the other hand, adoptive parents feel conflicted about adopting and distrust the birth parents, then the adoptee will feel their hesitation to embrace the inevitable issues of adoption. It is the responsibility of the adoptive parents to bring up the topic of adoption as they are the holders of the information. If talked about from the beginning, adoption will be more easily addressed and less emotionally laden. Many times adoptees are afraid to ask the questions they have about adoption because they don’t want to hurt their adoptive parents' feelings. Family conversations about adoption can be initiated by using movies, cartoons, media stories, and personal experiences to exchange views, opinions and feelings about adoption.

People outside the adoptive family can ask some seemingly innocent but insensitive questions. Strangers may ask why a child doesn’t look like their parent or inquire about the specifics of an adoption. Sometimes an explanation is appropriate while at other times one's privacy needs to be protected. Adoption triad members need to be prepared to deal with the questions and comments of uninformed others. Ideally, an adoptive family will talk about adoption issues and learn how to respond to people’s curiosity about adoption before the questions are asked. Extended family members of an adoptive family may also need to be more aware of adoption issues as their unthinking comments can sometimes hurt the most.

Opportunities abound for educating people about adoption. A typical situation is when an acquaintance asks where an adoptee's real parent is. An explanation can be offered that in adoption there are birth parents and adoptive parents. Everyone in adoption is real and natural as opposed to unreal and unnatural. Adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents are in unique positions to educate others about the use of respectful language in adoption.

As any parent knows, raising a child brings up many feelings and challenges along with much joy and reward. Adoption triad members face some feelings specific to their involvement in the adoption experience. While adoptees are told that they are chosen and special, they also become aware that someone chose not to keep them. Even if adoption is considered to be the best option, thoughts of "what if?" are common. Adoptees wonder what life would have been like with their original family. Birth parents feel sad that they will miss their child's first school play. Adoptive parents wonder what characteristics their biological child might have had. The process of identifying, accepting, and talking about these feelings of adoption allows empathy and understanding for one's self and others.

Every child will test a parent's limits, whether it is about bedtime or wanting a toy at the store. An adoptive family's limits and boundaries take on additional emotional significance. An adoptee will test a parent's limits to see if that parent stays. This testing can take the form of acting out or compliance. Adoptees are inherently sensitive to the issues of rejection and abandonment since, regardless of the reason for adoption, they feel rejected and abandoned by their birth parents. Building trust can take time in adoptive families. Adoptive parents can best deal with their child's abandonment issues by being emotionally available, consistent in limit-setting, and reliable at all times. Expecting and acknowledging an adoptee's original loss can help to prevent the adoptee from having to act out his or her pain.

Bringing a child into a family changes that family forever. As the child is welcomed, the original family adjusts to its newest member. Being a new parent entails gathering information and helpful hints on how to raise a child. Being an adoptive parent involves gaining additional insight about the intricacies of living with adoption. More and more information about adoption is now available. There are books about adoption. There are support groups for adoptive families, birth families, and adoptees. As with any other issue, it is important to find a safe place to talk about feelings and get feedback from others who understand. Many adoptive family groups offer activities that provide a place to socialize with other adoptive families, learn about various cultures, and talk about adoption issues. Classes on the lifelong impact of adoption are available for pre and post-adoptive parents. The Internet is filled with conversation and information on adoption. Organizations exist both locally and nationally for adoptive triad members with specific needs.

It is said that for every adoption that takes place, fifteen people are affected. Treating adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents with respect means thinking before asking questions and being aware of the many emotions connected to adoption. Choosing adoption takes conscious effort, courage, and determination. It also takes an understanding of the lifelong impact of adoption and acceptance of the issues inherent in the adoption experience.
 

Search and Reunion


Family Therapy News, February 1995
For more information, email
marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
Consider the following scenarios: A family has come to you for family counseling. The parents are at their wits end in knowing what to do with their fifteen year old adopted daughter who has been acting out at school and at home. They ask you if you think it would be helpful to try to locate their daughter's birthmother.

A woman you have been treating for depression for the last three years now reveals to you that she gave up a daughter for adoption twenty-three years ago. She has seen reunions on TV talk shows and is wondering whether she should search for this daughter, her only child.

A male client you have just started to work with is engaged to be married. His fiancée is pressuring him to find out more information about his genealogical background because they plan to have children. He is an adoptee and is unsure how to get the information she is requesting.

Each of the cases above involves adoption triad members and search and reunion issues. The adoption triad consists of the adoptee, the birthparent, and the adoptive parent. Search and reunion are automatically part of the package of adoption because creating an adoptive family means separating another family.

Search and reunion issues arise in closed adoptions. If an adoption is truly open, the adoptee and birth family can interact and communicate at any time. In closed adoptions, communication between the families has been nonexistent. Search and reunion typically involves the adoptee and the birthparent searching for each other, contacting each other, and negotiating a reunion relationship.

What is implied in the notion of search and reunion is the issue of grief and loss. All triad members experience loss in adoption: the birthparents lose their child, the adoptee loses biological connections, and the adoptive parents lose the hope of a biological child.

As a therapist you can facilitate the mourning process by helping the client to acknowledge and validate the loses in adoption. The five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has set out: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance can be a useful tool to help the client explore their feelings. Reassure them that it is possible to move through these stages.

Your adoption triad clients may or may not be aware of the losses they have experienced. The cases above illustrate that symptoms can be the signs of loss whether is is the acting-out teenager, the depressed birthmother, or the adoptee who can't speak for himself.

Be alert to possible denial in adoption triad clients. Much like an alcoholic who doesn’t see his own drinking problem or an anorexic who feels fat, an adoptee may state that being adopted is not an issue for them. A birthmother may state that she doesn’t really think about her child. An adoptive parent may say that she doesn't like to be reminded that her child is adopted. Denial is a very useful defense mechanism - it protects the person from painful feelings.

Where does this pain come from for the adoptee? An adoptee experiences a traumatic event upon his arrival in this world. He is separated from the only mother he has known for nine months. The adoptee is then surrounded by strangers. No matter how well-meaning the adoptive parents are, they are not the birthmother - the person the infant has bonded with during his prenatal life. For a more extensive look at the impact of this separation read The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Verrier, a therapist and an adoptive mother.

The birthmother also experiences great pain - she has lost her child. It is like a death but less final - more like being in limbo or missing in action. There are no rituals for the birthmother to grieve. No gathering of people helps the birthmother through this transition or supports her grief. She is told to forget the experience and put it behind her. She is told that if she really loves her child she will give him up.

Adoptive parents experience their pain before adoption takes place. If infertility is an issue, they have gone through medical tests and money to try to have their own biological child. The task for the adoptive parent is to release the fantasy child they could have had. It means saying goodbye to a much desired wish. Loss is clearly an issue here that if left unaddressed, will revisit the adoptive family.

How do you treat the pain and loss issues for adoption triad members? One of the most important techniques you can use is that of validating their pain. When their pain is heard and acknowledged, they can move on. If not heard, it will continue to present itself until someone takes notice. Be the one who takes notice.

Therapy with adoption triad members is a lot like bereavement counseling. You allow the person to tell their story until they are done telling their story. Then they tell their story again, as many times as they need to. In any gathering of adoption triad members you will hear people telling their story. It is a way of healing.

How do you know if the grief and loss issues have been addressed for the adoption triad members? Look at the therapeutic relationship. How does each member interact with you. Can the adoptee connect to you in a meaningful way? Does the birthparent believe you when you positively reinforce her? Are the adoptive parents able to talk about how they handled the miscarriages they experienced?

To assess an adoptive family look at the family dynamics and family secrets. What pain is the family hiding? How open is the family to talking about adoption issues? Researcher David Kirk in his book, Shared Fate: A Theory and Method of Adoptive Relationships, found that adoptive families who fared best were the ones who acknowledged the difference of being an adoptive family versus families who rejected the difference. The families who acknowledged their difference were more empathic and had more open communication.

Will every adoptee embark on a search for his or her birthmother? Does every birthmother try to reconnect with their child? Not necessarily. The desire to search for one's child or one's parent can be on an internal or external level or both. There is a natural curiosity to want to know your kin. Some triad members actively search while others passively wait to be found.

When do triad members consider search and reunion? The answer is anytime. An adoptee may be more likely to think about searching when he is getting married, having children, getting divorced, or when his adoptive parents die. There is a sense of internal timing with search. It is important to respect it and allow it. Searching is a way to master the losses in adoption. It is a way to feel in control. Betty Jean Lifton in her book, Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness describes the sense of empowerment and healing that an adoptee can experience by searching.

As you work with a triad member around the issues of search and reunion you can be very instrumental in helping prepare the client for what they may find. Ask about expectations. Many triad members search as adults and they have had years of fantasies about who the other person is. Find out what the best case and worst case scenario is for the client. Usually the adoptee worries that the birthparent will be dead or not won't want to reunite. Discuss with the client that the person doing the searching is usually more prepared for contact than the person being found. This means that an initial refusal to talk or meet can turn into a desire to meet after the person has had the time to integrate the contact.

Searching is like a roller coaster - it has many ups and downs. Be there for your client during each cycle. Encourage your client to use their intuition. They have been blocking their intuition for years. Expect fear to emerge - they will feel that they shouldn't be searching. Expect anger to emerge - why are they being blocked from this person? There can be many setbacks but there is always hope. Support your client's hope.

Encourage your client to seek support outside of therapy. You cannot and should not be the only source of support for your searching client. It is important that your client have other adoptees and birthparents to talk with who can relate to their experience. Adoptees can find support in local meetings of the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) is an organization offering support and information for birthparents and anyone touched by adoption. The Council for Equal Rights in Adoption (CERA) maintains an updated list of support groups in cities across the country. The American Adoption Congress (AAC) has regional and national conferences and is an umbrella organization for many of the adoption reform groups. All triad members and therapists can benefit from involvement in these groups.

You can also inform your clients about the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR) which is a reunion registry for adoptees and birthparents. A match is made if an adoptee and the birthparent have both registered. There is no fee for this service and it is a good way for the client to feel that he or she has made a step in the search process. Sometimes the mere act of filling out the ISRR form brings up feelings that can be dealt with in therapy. A good book about search and reunions is Adoption Reunions: A Book for Adoptees, Birth Parents and Adoptive Families.

If the adoptee is under eighteen years of age, the adoptive parents can help in the search by submitting an ISRR registry form on their child's behalf. An adoptive parent can also provide any information they may have on the birthparents. Another way an adoptive parent can help their child search is by contacting the adoption agency where the child was adopted and submitting a letter or signing a waiver stating it is OK for their child to meet the birthparents. It is usually during adolescence when identity issues emerge that an adoptee wonders about birthfamily and origins. A book written for teenage adoptees, Where Are My Birth Parents? gently leads younger adoptees through the search and reunion process and addresses common concerns and questions.

Know that active searching is an all-encompassing endeavor. It can be emotionally draining and take on a life of its own. Sometimes the partners or family members of searching adoptees and birthparents have a difficult time understanding the depth of feelings that arise and can feel left out. If adoptive parents are involved in the search it can be a very healing experience for everyone.

Unfortunately, many adoptees feel they do not have the support of their adoptive parents in their search. To many adoptive parents search and reunion is a threatening notion. It can bring up loss issues, questions about parenting roles, and fears that their children will leave them. An excellent book for adoptive parents is Courageous Blessing: Adoptive Parents and the Search.

In actuality, a reunion has the potential to strengthen the ties between the adoptee and the adoptive parents. Many adoptees come to appreciate their upbringing more by seeing how life would have been had they not been adopted. Much like the crises of being diagnosed with cancer or being admitted to a chemical dependency unit, there is a window of opportunity where family members can come together, share feelings, and be closer. Your work as a therapist will be to draw out the fears people are experiencing and clear up the communication between family members.

Reunions are the beginning of a previous relationship. It is where fantasy meets reality. The feelings before, during and after a reunion are usually more intense than anticipated. There can be a rush of excitement and expectation. The thrill of seeing someone who looks like you. The relief of knowing your child is alive and well. It is common for reunion participants to look for similarities and try to connect in a meaningful way. Sometimes there are striking coincidences in experiences, likes or dislikes, and events. An interesting book on this topic is Synchronicity and Reunion: The Genetic Connection of Adoptees and Birthparents.

Even the happiest of reunions can be overwhelming with the intensity of feelings and expectations. In her book, Birthright: The Guide to Search and Reunion for Adoptees, Birthparents, and Adoptive Parents, Jean Strauss describes five phases of reunions: fantasy, first encounters, the morning after, limbo, and reconciliation. It is not surprising that many describe the reunion experience as something akin to falling in love.

The challenge of reunions is navigating the ongoing relationship. Like any relationship, communication is crucial. People in reunion relationships need to check in with each other. They need to pace themselves. There needs to be an understanding about frequency of communication. It is important for participants to be aware of their feelings and the feelings of the other person. Checking out perceptions and assumptions can make the difference between an ongoing reunion relationship and a nonexistent one. Your therapist role can be that of a communication coach.

It is common for people in reunion relationships to be fearful that the relationship will end. They have already experienced one separation from the person and worry that it will happen again. As a therapist you can work with the triad member to learn to trust. Encourage the client to voice their feelings. Support the client in taking risks in the relationship. Talk to the client about boundaries - how to establish and maintain them.

Misunderstandings can occur about needs and intentions in reunion relationships. Sometimes one person expects and wants more from the relationship than the other person. Actions can be critically analyzed for meaning and misinterpreted. It is important that the adoptee and birthparent learn to directly communicate with the other person. It is also important that each person have a place to talk about their feelings without the other person being there. Support groups are very useful for dealing with post-reunion issues.

Issues specific to reunion relationships will occur. What does the adoptee call the birthmother? Will all family members know about the relationship? Is there a plan for the birthmother to meet the adoptive parents? Where will the adoptee spend holidays? All of these questions can be answered by communicating with those involved. Help your clients in reunion relationships to speak authentically about their needs. Role-play situations that seem difficult for them. It may be beneficial to invite the other party or family member in for a conjoint session.

Healing occurs in reunion relationships. No matter what people find, knowing is better than not knowing. Adoptees feel like the missing pieces of the puzzle have been found. Birthparents can sleep better at night knowing where their son or daughter is. The gestalt is complete - people have come full circle.

Reunions are honesty in action. Search and reunion break down the wall of secrecy that has been pervasive in adoption. As therapists we know how damaging family secrets are to all the family members. Honesty and openness eliminates the need for search and reunion in adoption. Until that honesty is a reality, we as therapists will need to know how to help adoption triad members process their search and reunion issues.

MY STORY OF REUNION
My reunion relationship with my birthmother inspired me to specialize in adoption issues. While I was searching for her I went to support group meetings and met a lot of adoptees and birthparents. I started going to Adoption conferences. I found that all members of the adoption triad were in pain. Whether I was at an ALMA meeting, a CUB meeting, or a RESOLVE meeting, I was struck by the amount of pain and tears in the room.

Searching for my birthmother was a gift I gave myself. There were many false starts and faint promises but each drawback or step forward helped me to learn about myself. One of the healing aspects about searching is that there are plenty of opportunities for self knowledge.

The healing has come in many forms. I feel more connected and more centered. Many of my questions have been answered. I can enter into conversations now that I couldn't before. I now know people who look like me.

My birthmother has had some remarkable physical healing. When I first met her she was using a wheelchair, her right arm was paralyzed, and her speech impeded. She had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in her early thirties. Now, three years later, she walks without a cane, her right arm is fully functioning, and you can understand every word she says. She says she started getting better the day I called.

My work as a therapist has been enhanced by my search and reunion. As an adoptee, I know what it is like to be misunderstood. I have learned on a personal level how valuable support groups can be. I have come to trust my intuition more and more.

I have learned to trust other people's intuition and help them to honor it. In working with adoptees and birthparents in search and reunion I have learned to honor and respect other people's intuition, pain, fear, terror, and joy.
 

Grief and Loss in Adoption


Special Needs Adoptive Parents Newsletter, Fall 2000
For more information, email
marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
Loss is an inherent part of adoption. In adoption, adoptees lose their birth families, birth parents lose their children, and adoptive parents lose their dream of the child they originally wanted to have. The structure of adoption is such that to create an adoptive family a birth family must be separated.

Special needs adoption adds another layer of loss to adoption. The loss of health, siblings, cultural familiarity and caretakers will affect the adoptee. The adoptee's losses are then passed on to the adoptive parents and birth parents via tentative and precarious relationships.

Unless loss is recognized, grieving cannot take place. Oftentimes when an adoption is finalized, triad members are focusing on the next phase of their lives - the adoptive parents are busy raising their child, the birth parents are attempting to move on in their lives, and the adoptee is getting used to new caretakers.

Recognizing the stages of grief can reassure triad members that they are experiencing appropriate feelings. Adults, children, and even infants can show the signs and symptoms of loss and grief. When the losses of adoption are addressed, the gains of adoption can be more fully appreciated.

Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has been a pioneer in the field of death and dying research. In her work with dying people and those close to them, she has identified five stages of the normal grieving process. These five stages can be worked through in any order. Some stages may be revisited, but typically people pass through all five stages in their processing of grief issues.

Denial

The first stage of grieving is denial. Feeling shock, disbelief, numb, and detached is common. The incident or feelings are kept out of one's awareness. Denial is protective in that it helps people to function when the truth or clarity would be too much to handle. Staying in denial, however, has negative consequences. To ignore important issues and feelings is like having a pink elephant in the living room that no one talks about. Everyone walks around it and pretends it isn't there even though it's in the way of everything.

Anger

The second stage of grieving is anger. Anger is the feeling that a situation is unfair and should not have happened. It is common in the anger stage to look for someone to blame. Anger can also be very motivating and inspire one to take action. The anger stage can help a person make changes in their life. Many worthwhile organizations have grown out of the energy that anger can produce.

Bargaining

The third stage of grieving is bargaining. Bargaining involves trying to find ways to undo the situation by searching for trade-offs. Being in the stage of bargaining means that the person is no longer in denial. There is a real awareness of the loss, and the bargaining is an attempt to control a situation that feels out of control.

Depression

The fourth stage of grieving is depression. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can be present as well as a lack of energy, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, irritability, lack of interest in usual activities, sadness, and an inability to concentrate.

Acceptance

The fifth and final stage of grieving is acceptance. The loss is no longer the main focus and there is room for other activities and interests. The goal of acceptance in adoption is not to forget the person or that an adoption has taken place. That would bring one back to the stage of denial. The goal of acceptance is to honor and integrate the people and experience of adoption.

Grieving in Adoption

Grieving in adoption is different in some distinct ways from mourning the death of someone who has died. When someone dies, there is a definite ending that allows grieving to begin. In adoption, there is no death, no ending. In adoption, a state of limbo exists that is similar to the dynamics of mourning someone who is missing in action. It is difficult to mourn someone who is alive but unavailable.

It is important to acknowledge and address the phases of grieving as they appear. Events and situations in each triad member's life will trigger feelings of adoption loss. Acknowledging and expressing these feelings appropriately allows the grieving process to proceed and healing to take place.

Feelings of loss and the need to grieve can occur despite the level of contact and communication between triad members. Adoptees can miss their birth parents or former care takers even if there was abuse. Birth parents can miss their children regardless of the circumstances of the separation. Adoptive parents can miss the simpler life they had before the adoption.

Adoption triad members need to be aware of the issues of adoption and be around people who understand the complexities of adoption. Conferences, books, and the Internet are a great source of information on all aspects of the adoption experience. Adoption support groups offer camaraderie, validation, and practical information.

The losses of adoption cannot be avoided. However, the process of grieving and reaching out to others for support can provide emotional relief and the knowledge that you are not alone on your journey of adoption.
 

When Adoptees Become Parents


American Adoption Congress Decree, Fall 2000
For more information, email
marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
My birth mother gave me a baby shower when I was six months pregnant. It was the one she was supposed to have when she was pregnant with me. It was forty years late but attended by all the right people. She proudly ushered me around to all the friends and relatives. She lovingly patted my stomach and easily slipped in to calling herself Grandma Sarah. I was delighted and moved to be a part of the family.

My adoptive mother would ask how I was feeling and what the baby was doing when I was pregnant. We stayed away from topics like breast feeding and Lamaze classes. We kept the conversations more on what she could relate to - what items the baby might need. When my daughter was born, my adoptive mother told me she thought my daughter looked a lot like me. I know how hard it was for her to say that. We had never talked about family resemblance before.

An adoptee's pregnancy resurrects the issues that initially brought the triad together - pregnancy, fertility and the ability to parent. If the original adoption triad does not adequately address these themes of adoption, then the next generation will be burdened with trying to resolve the lingering issues.

Which pieces of emotional work will be passed on to the pregnant adoptee's child? What will this child learn about love, trust, loss, abandonment, and connection? How will the adoptee's child define family? On a conscious or unconscious level, the child of the adoptee will have some adoption issues to be worked out. How can the original triad help pave the way for the newest member of their family?

If each triad member does their own individual emotional work, then the whole triad team will be stronger and more available for the adoptee's child. If triad members are not known or are not on speaking terms, then the adoptee's child will suffer. Why? Because there will be momentous events that need to be celebrated. Pregnancy, birth, baptism, birthdays, Thanksgivings, graduations, weddings, and funerals will be a part of the child’s life. Who will be in attendance? Who won't? And who will feel the pressure of trying to please everyone?

In an ideal world a couple deliberately decides to consciously conceive a baby who they will raise and love for the rest of their lives. In adoption this doesn’t happen. Normalizing pregnancy will help an adoptee bond with their unborn baby and prepare for parenthood. Pregnant adoptees need information, support, and a place to talk about medical history, morning sickness and the first flutters of life within. Will an adoptee feel compelled to edit out some of the awe and excitement of pregnancy when talking with the birth or adoptive family?

Adoptive parents will be forced to face their fertility issues when their child is pregnant. Even if work has been done in this area, sadness and loss may find its way back to the adoptive parent. Acknowledging these feelings in an appropriate way and with the appropriate people can help an adoptive parent clear the way for grand parenthood.

Birth parents may find themselves being a grandparent without ever having raised a child. Memories of the relinquishment experience may reappear without warning. Being around a grandchild can remind birth parents of what they missed out on in their child's life.

Triad members have much to give to the child of an adoptee. Adoptive parents are the keepers of the family stories and memories and can provide their grand child with history. Birth parents hold the key to genetic information, the roadmap for who came before in a long list of ancestors. Each triad member is necessary and offers what the other could not.

Welcoming an adoptee's child in to the family takes maturity and sensitivity. The real and imagined hurts of the original adoption can be reworked and repaired as triad members await the arrival of the adoptee's baby. An adoptee's pregnancy offers yet another chance for all the triad members to come together and heal the wounds of adoption.

My birth father's parents came to visit when my daughter was one month old. It was the first time we had all met. My grandmother held my daughter and softly sang her a lullaby. As I watched my daughter swiftly fall asleep in the safety of her great grand mother's arms I realized how deeply I had missed having grandparents in my own life. And later on it occurred to me that not getting something then is less important than what my daughter needs now.
 

Adoption Issues in Psychotherapy


Los Angeles Psychologist, May/June 2002
For more information, email
marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
In the old days, adoption was considered an unspeakable family secret that was shrouded in shame. Today prospective adoptive parents advertise with 800 numbers, a pregnant woman can place her baby for adoption on the internet, and adoptees have a support group called Bastard Nation.

Despite this apparent openness in adoption, there is a still a great need for adoption issues to be addressed in psychotherapy. As psychologists, we know about attachment theory, are aware that babies are sentient beings, and understand the necessity of grieving losses. In our role as therapists we are in a position to impart this information to people whose lives have been touched by adoption.

A psychologist’s personal beliefs will be called into play when working with adoption issues. What does the therapist believe about nature and nurture? Under what circumstances should a child be separated from their birth family? Is open adoption better for an adopted child? Does a birth parent have a right to search for a child they gave up for adoption thirty years ago? Is adoptive parenting really any different? These philosophical and emotional issues arise in therapy with adoption triad members.

Emotional Issues

The adoption triad consists of the adoptee, the birth parents, and the adoptive parent or parents. All three members are necessary and forever connected whether or not they ever meet. Although the adoption triad members are the primary participants in adoption, surrounding people can also be affected.

The emotional issues that occur at the time of an adoption will continue to surface and weave their way through a triad member’s daily life. Seemingly simple questions can trigger these adoption-related feelings. A birth mother is asked how many kids she has. A physician asks an adoptee if cancer runs in his family. An adoptive parent is asked why her two children look so different.

Adoption has lifelong impact for each triad member. When working with triad members in a treatment setting look for signs of lack of control, shame and embarrassment, rejection and abandonment, identity and roles, and secrecy and honesty. Listen for these emotional issues as triad members describe their relationships.

Loss is an inevitable part of adoption. The structure of adoption is such that to create an adoptive family, a birth family must be separated. Birth parents lose their children, adoptees lose their biological ties, and adoptive parents lose the child they expected to have. Acknowledging the inherent losses of adoption allows a fuller appreciation of the gains of adoption.

Adoptees

The emotional task for adoptees is to connect. Note feelings of abandonment, separation, attachment, and rejection. Be alert to issues of identity and self-worth. Ask adoptees what they were told about their adoption and what their reactions were to the information. Find out how an adoptee feels currently about their birth family and whether there is contact. Examine fantasies about birth parents and possible siblings. Talk about what an adoptee thinks it would have been like to have been raised in the birth family.

Explore the questions adoptees have been afraid to ask their adoptive parents. Know that adoptees can have a strong loyalty to their adoptive parents and may deny an interest in their birth family. Normalize and validate the natural curiosity that adoptees and all people have in their roots and heritage.

Birth parents

An unplanned pregnancy that leads to adoption is, by definition, a crisis pregnancy. Being unable to parent your child, no matter what the circumstances, is traumatic for all concerned.

Clients who are birth parents may not readily reveal this fact to their therapists. In initial interviews ask clients how many times they have been involved in a pregnancy. This will provide information regarding abortions, miscarriages, children relinquished for adoption, and children raised by the client.

The emotional task for birth parents is forgiveness. Be alert to feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, anger, blame, regret, depression, and low self-esteem. Ask birth parents about the pregnancy and relinquishment experience. Who knew about the pregnancy? Who was supportive and who was not? Was the option of open adoption available? Is there current contact with the child? Respect the birth parent’s feelings and picture of the past. Honor the birth parent’s role as a parent and validate the loss of their child.

Adoptive parents

People become adoptive parents for various reasons. When adoptive parents present for treatment, find out what their experiences have been regarding fertility treatments, the home study, and the adoption process. Find out if they are parenting other children and what their expectations are regarding adoptive parenting.

The emotional task for adoptive parents is acceptance. Watch for feelings of anger, helplessness, frustration, disappointment, envy, shame, entitlement, and sadness. Adoption does not cure infertility. Adoptive parents may be surprised that they can still feel the pangs of not being biological parents.

Adoptive parents usually struggle with finding the words to answer their child’s question, “Why was I adopted?” A good response is, “Your birth parents chose adoption because they didn’t feel able to parent you at that time.” This statement provides the truth, allows room for birth parents to parent other children, and does not include love or money as reasons for the adoption. Saying a child was adopted because their birth parents loved them sets up love to mean leaving. Saying a child was adopted because the birth parents were poor sets up money and abandonment issues.

Ask adoptive parent patients about the adoption conversations they have at home. Find out how open they are about adoption. Are they in a support group for adoptive families? Do their children have scrapbooks that include the birth family?

Fortunately, with today’s more open nature of adoption there are many resources available for adoption triad members and the psychologists who treat them. The Internet is filled with support groups, chats, experts, and information addressing all areas of adoption from search and reunion tips to how to adopt internationally. There are numerous books, conferences, and organizations that offer various kinds of assistance and reassurance as people journey through adoption.
 

Forever Families


adoption.about.com 9/12/02
http://adoption.about.com/library/weekly/uc090902a.htm For more information, email marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
Adoptive parents, hoping to instill a sense of security in their child, will say that they are now a “forever family”. On the surface, this sounds comforting and reassuring. Who wouldn’t want a forever family? It conveys the commitment and continuity that adoptees need. However, is it realistic to expect adoptees to embrace the forever family concept?

I’m not fond of the term “forever family”. Maybe it’s because I’m a therapist and have seen too many forever families break up. Maybe it’s because as an adoptee I have trust issues. Or maybe it’s because saying “forever family” evokes the uncertainty of it. Do non-adoptive parents tell their kids they are in a forever family? I don’t think so.

There is also the issue of when exactly do you know if you have accomplished the goal of being a forever family? Is it like marriage where you only know if the vow of “till death do us part” has been upheld by one of the parties dying?

I imagine an adoptive parent or professional created the term “forever family” to offer reassurance to adoptees and their families. I can appreciate the intention but worry that the term reassures the adoptive parent more than the adoptee. Stating you are a forever family is like someone saying they are going to be honest with you. It raises suspicions and doubts.

Adoptees tend to be sensitive about promises, lies, secrets, and honesty. Adoptees appreciate the truth because it validates their experience and honors their intuition. Don’t promise an adoptee something you can’t deliver. A parent can’t guarantee that they won’t die or that they won’t get divorced. The world is filled with random events and situations that are out of our control. Can a parent promise a forever family? Not really.

So what can an adoptive parent do? Instead of saying you are a forever family, be one. Show adoptees that they are valuable members of the family. Be interested in who they are and what interests them. Prove that family is important by spending time together and appreciating what each person brings to the family. Acknowledge the importance of birth family connections. Let adoptees know you love them even if you aren’t thrilled with their current behavior.

Adoptive family relationships are built upon shared moments and daily interactions. Trust takes time, a very long time for adoptees. Allow adoptees to gather family moments, piece them together, and draw their own conclusions. Hopefully with the passage of time and a collection of consistent moments, the adoptee will feel like they are in a family that will be there for them forever.
 

Being Adopted


adoption.about.com 9/19/02
http://adoption.about.com/library/weekly/uc091602a.htm For more information, email marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
Being adopted is interesting. People ask adoptees where their real parents are and wonder why adoptees don’t look like their siblings. Some people tell adoptees they should feel grateful for being adopted. If not anticipated, these questions and comments can leave an adoptee at a loss for words and feeling self-conscious.

Hopefully every adoptive parent knows enough nowadays to give their children the tools to deal with the inevitable questions that will arise around adoption issues. Confidence can be built by role-playing, having five different answers to the same question and by knowing how to educate people about adoption. Humor helps too.

Here are some ideas on how adoptees can respond when asked where their real parents are:
- “At home.”
- “Texas.”
- “I’m not sure I know what you mean by real.”
- “You must mean my birth parents.”
- “I have birth parents and adoptive parents and all of them are real!”

Knowledge is power and adoptees need all the power they can get when confronted by thoughtless people asking insensitive questions. Education about adoption starts at home. If adoptees have learned the terms to describe the people in their lives, then they will be better able to address comments and questions that come their way.

Here are some suggestions for when someone states, “Wow, you and your sister don’t look anything alike!”:
- “You’re right.”
- “Oh, you noticed!”
- “I know, we’re adopted.”
- “That’s what lots of people say.”
- “Yeah, but we both like peanut butter.”

Responding to questions and comments does not necessarily mean revealing private information or getting into personal feelings. Each situation will entail figuring out whether to agree, disagree, educate, or move on.

Here are some ideas for responding to people who talk about adoptees and being grateful:
- “You’re right!”
- “Aren’t we all?”
- “Like all kids, I’m grateful for what my parents provide.”
- “Yeah, but my parents are really the lucky ones, they got me!”
- “If you have some time I’d be glad to tell you about all my feelings about being adopted.”

Undoubtedly, people will continue to ask adoptees interesting questions. Being adopted can include being prepared to respond to those questions and comments in a way that speaks one’s truth and builds confidence.
 

Hello Before Goodbye


adoption.about.com 9/26/02
http://adoption.about.com/library/weekly/uc092302a.htm For more information, email marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
I used to think it was a good idea for prospective adoptive parents and expectant birth parents to meet before the birth of their baby. I thought it might help babies to hear the voices of all the people who would be a part of their life. I figured a pregnant mother might feel better and more at ease if she had the support and encouragement of the people who planned to parent her child.

But I’ve changed my mind.

Now I think it is necessary for a pregnant mother to have clear space and time to be with her baby one-on-one. I believe it is more important for the birth parents to talk to their baby than for prospective adoptive parents to. Babies need to hear hello before they hear goodbye. A baby needs to connect and bond to the birth mother before attaching to other people. Bonding and attachment come from shared quiet moments, not from crowded events.

I have other concerns about prospective adoptive parents and expectant birth parents having too much contact before a baby is born. I worry about the possibility of intentional or unintentional coercion. Will a pregnant mother who has accepted medical, financial, and emotional aid have the strength to freely change her mind about adoption and keep her baby? I’m not sure. Any woman who is pregnant and considering adoption is, by definition, having a crisis pregnancy. It takes time and clarity to make a rational, loving, and realistic decision. Being indebted to eager people around you does not make for clear thinking.

What happens when a pregnant woman considering adoption chooses adoptive parents but then decides to raise her child? I have seen numerous prospective adoptive parents tearfully process their feelings of loss when the woman who they thought was going to hand over her baby to them changes her mind and keeps her baby. They feel lied to, cheated, defeated, and devastated when the baby they thought was going to be theirs turns out to stay within the birth family. Do they have a right to their feelings? Of course. Could the situation have been avoided? Yes, if all involved had embraced the idea that no one knows what will happen until it happens.

Interestingly enough, when a pregnant mother who considers adoption wants to raise her child it’s called a failed adoption. Another way of looking at it is that the birth family successfully remains intact. Maybe we should call it a failed assumption instead of a failed adoption.

So if adoption is going to happen, let’s make it easier on all the triad members. Let’s not promise prospective adoptive parents something that may or may not be delivered. Let’s let the woman who is pregnant and considering adoption have all the time she needs to be with her baby before, during and after the baby is born. Let’s remember that we are dealing with decisions that will irrevocably alter a human being’s life. Let’s make sure there is plenty of time to say hello before saying goodbye.
 

Happy Adoption Books


adoption.about.com 10/01/02
http://adoption.about.com/library/weekly/uc093002a.htm For more information, email marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
An adoptive mother came up to me at a conference I was speaking at and mentioned that her daughter from China had ripped out some pages of a popular, upbeat adoption book for children. She wondered what it meant.

I smiled. I couldn’t help but think that this adoptee was trying to relay a message to her mother. The fact that the mother was also a therapist was not lost on me. Even the best trained among us can be blind to the painful parts of life.

I am sure this mother wants the best for her child. I know she wants her daughter to feel safe and secure and a part of the family. I imagine this mother would also love to take away any suffering her daughter may have that comes from being adopted.

What I’m not so sure about is how beneficial it is to try to present only the positive aspects of adoption, especially to the adoptee.

Adoption is based on loss. There’s no way around it. Every adoptee loses their birth family, even in open adoptions. Loss creates sadness and anger and sometimes depression. Loss leads to yearning and mourning for what is no longer ours. Adoptees can sometimes feel this on a daily basis.

When adoptive parents present adoption solely as a happy occasion it can make adoptees feel confused, upset and out of touch with reality. For adoptees, the celebration of adoption comes with a shadow.

The reality for an adoptee is that adoption is first a loss, then a gain. If the loss is not acknowledged, then the gain cannot be appreciated. Adoptees need help in processing this loss.

I told the adoptive mother to let her daughter do anything she wanted with the adoption book. She could offer her daughter tape to repair the pages so she could cobble a whole out of the parts. Perhaps her daughter wanted to put the torn pages in a drawer, keeping a reminder of the missing pieces in her life. I suggested she ask her daughter what she wanted to do.

I’m not sure what the daughter was trying to tell her mother but I do know it was quite a statement. Children don’t always have the awareness or the words to tell their grown-ups about their feelings. But sometimes actions broadcast loudly. I’m glad her mother heard her.
 

Talking with your Child about Adoption and Foster Care Issues


Adoption Today Magazine, January 2003
For more information, email
marlourussell@hotmail.com
 
When do you tell a child they are adopted? What information do you give to a foster child about their biological parents? How do you convey facts about placement without hurting a child’s self-esteem?

These are all questions that adoptive and foster parents must address in the course of caring for their child. For many parents, talking about foster care and adoption is intimidating. Here are some ideas on how to provide your child with essential information in a way that helps them to understand who they are and how they joined their family.

When to tell. Talking about adoption and past history is a series of conversations that begin when the child enters the family. If the child is an infant or under the age of 4 you can welcome the child in to the family by saying something like, “What a journey you have had. We are so glad you are here. Welcome home.” There is no real mention of adoption, per say, but there is an honoring of the child’s previous experiences and the message that there is a place for them. You can go on to tell the child about all the people who love him – there is grandma Jean and uncle Joseph, cousin Isaiah and birth mom Tamara, sister Aimee and mom and dad.

For an older child you use the term adoption and add whatever information and emotions are appropriate. You can explain to an older child that adoption and foster care take place when a birth parent is not able to raise their child. You can talk about what was going on in their birth family at the time of adoption or placement in a developmentally appropriate way. Let your child know that there are many reasons why a birth parent isn’t able to parent at the time of the adoption or placement.

An older child who experienced abuse can be told that the abuse was not his fault and that he is now in your care so that he can be safe. You can let an older child know that having mixed feelings about the people who hurt him is natural. Tell the child that you are available to talk about his feelings and are there to help him.

What to say. Perhaps the biggest question adoptees and foster children have is why they were adopted and why they aren’t living with their birth family. The answer to this is not as complicated as it seems. Start with the facts in a sentence that addresses the reality of the situation while validating the need for placement.

Here is a starter sentence that can be used to explain why a child was adopted: “Your birth parents chose adoption because they didn’t feel able to parent you at that time.” The beauty of this statement is that it is the truth, assigns responsibility to the birth parents, and is timeless. It can be used by both adoptive and birth parents to explain why a child was moved from one family to another.

You may notice that the above statement does not include love or money. To say that a birth mother chose adoption because she really loved her child sets a child up to think that love means leaving. To say that a birth parent wasn’t able to afford to raise the child can set a child up to worry about money and security in the current family.

The above statement also offers a logical explanation of why a birth parent may be raising other children but not the adoptee or foster child. Since all children are ego-centered, the adoptee or foster child needs to know that they didn’t make the adoption or foster placement happen. Make sure the child understands it was the grown-ups who made placement decisions due to grown-up situations.

If the child was removed from the birth family by the courts, then the statement can be adjusted as follows: “The court chose foster care for you because the court didn’t feel that your birth family was able to take care of you at that time.” This is again a statement of facts and helps the child to feel that separation from the original family was not his or her fault. You can go on to explain that it is the job of a court to make sure kids are safe and that sometimes this means moving a child to a different family.

Telling an adoptee or foster child the truth about their beginnings validates their experiences and helps them to make sense of where they are now. Telling their story in a factual way allows the adoptee or foster child to respond with their own feelings rather than mirroring a parent’s emotions.

Feelings about birth parents. It may be difficult to logically understand how a child can yearn for a birth parent they’ve never seen or miss a birth parent who has abused them. Heart connections run deep and are not easily broken by abuse, neglect or adoption. Expect that an adopted or foster child will have a natural curiosity about their birth family. Understand that an interest in one’s roots is a universal inclination and not a statement about the quality of adoptive or foster parenting.

Answer your child’s questions about their birth family. Know that whatever you say may be taken on by the child. Speak respectfully of others and allow the adoptee and foster child to grieve the loss of these very important people.

Make sure you relay some positive attributes that your child can hold on to. You might know that the only way your child had a chance at survival was for the birth parent to leave your child on the steps of an orphanage. Talk about how sometimes people need to do things that are very, very difficult. Perhaps your child’s birth parent is in prison and the only thing you can think of is that he liked the color yellow. Mention it. You may find that the child incorporates more yellow into his wardrobe or room.

Conveying difficult information. Don’t be afraid to talk frankly with your older child about some of the more difficult aspects surrounding their adoption or placement. Including some situational factors can help your child appreciate and understand the necessity of the placement. You can talk with your child about the fact that adoption happens when birth parents are having difficulties in their lives. You can say that the decision to place a child in foster care is a very emotional time for everyone involved.

Informing a child about a birth parent’s alcohol or drug use can be used as a life lesson to help the child make more conscious choices in the future. You can talk about why someone would turn to drugs and who might have a tendency to become an alcoholic. You can convey your concerns that your child may make some wrong choices. You can relay your hope that he will remember, when he is offered drugs, that he might have a greater tendency than another person to become an addict and that his choices are very important.

For some adoptees and foster children there will be a lack of information. This can sometimes be more difficult than learning negative information. Tell the adoptee or foster child all you know and what you think the missing parts might be. Bits and pieces of information can feel enormous to an adoptee or foster child trying to grasp on to anything.

If a child is adopted internationally from an orphanage, tell the child all that you know about the orphanage, care takers and other children there. At an appropriate age you can describe the times and conditions that led to children being raised in orphanages. Respect the fact that a child adopted from an orphanage still loses all that he or she has ever known when taken to a new home. Loss is loss no matter what the circumstances.

How to introduce topics. It is the parent’s responsibility to bring up the topic of adoption and foster placement. Don’t wait until your child asks questions or acts interested. Typically, adoptees and foster kids will not ask the many questions they have for fear of hurting their parent’s feelings.

Opportunities abound for discussing adoption and foster care issues. Some opportunities are blatant such as a Disney movie with its usual theme about parental loss. Some situations are more metaphorical such as fairy tales or stories. Read children’s books that directly address adoption or have characters in various family situations. Talk about the families you know and how all family members have similarities and differences. Make a photo album or collage with your child describing and including all the people who care about him or her. Take the time to help your child find out what they like and build their self-esteem by supporting self-discovery and self-knowledge.

Prepare your children for what they may experience outside your home. Know that people will ask them inappropriate questions and say mean things about being adopted or being a foster child. Role-play various responses your child can use when confronted by a classmate’s insensitive comments. Spend time with your child figuring out how to rework the family tree assignment for school. Educate your family and friends about proper adoption terms and foster care issues.

Dealing with feelings. Allow your child to have and express all the feelings they are experiencing about their adoption and foster placement. Don’t say they shouldn’t feel the way they do or try to change the subject too quickly. Validate their feelings even if they don’t match your own. Listen to what your child has to say.

Share the wealth of the knowledge you gain through articles, books and seminars by having conversations with your child, your family members, and friends. Make sure you are involved in support groups and family groups with other adoptive and foster families.

Create opportunities to talk with your child about adoption and foster care issues. Model honesty and respect as you tell your child about their past. Don’t let your child be the last to know about him or herself. Honor everyone connected to your child. Let your child know you love them and will be there for them. And give your child one of the greatest gifts you can offer - their life story. 

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