Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality: A Way to Intimacy
by Marcy Axness, Ph.D., Adoptee
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 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, the 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”
We as a society are two-faced about adoption—publicly we laud it as a wonderful thing, while in our hearts we often scorn it. It’s second-choice. And in the secret minds of many, second-best as well. If we didn’t find adoption so contemptible, so laced with shame, why would our laws be so vehemently constructed to protect everyone from the shame returning to their doorsteps? So…why should adoptive parents feel any differently than others in society? Discovering that you can’t bear children and deciding to adopt doesn’t necessarily obliterate a lifetime of subliminal cultural attitudes about adoption. It may just mean you desperately want a baby in your arms.
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 children.
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 great stories of separation, self-discovery, loss, and redemption. There are many great stories about children without their biological parents—Moses, Pinocchio, Merlin, and Arthur all were fostered away from home toward great destinies. These kinds of more symbolic, literary, artistic representations are wonderful to use. It invites the child’s imagination in. 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, and that is critical in supporting the development of a child’s healthy will forces. These approaches 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. more »
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 a 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.
5 hours left…to tell my parents about you..
Today mocks my delicate mood
The clouds cry for me and together we brood
The air is calm and comfortable
But inside there’s a storm
My inside is real but outside I must perform
Everything is bleak and gray
My problems shall forever stay
I only have five hours left to keep my secrets
My tears will resemble the purest garnets
As I break down to tell my sob story
I’ll bloom at the end of the night, only for a small while, like a morning glory
5 hours left to live my life
Later I’ll be caught drowning in strife
Which the clouds cried a roaring river
I dove from the boat without signing the waiver
Now the ice water stampedes over my head
Some try to reach my, but the water pulls me deeper instead
A pestilence chokes its way down my throat
The angle of death stares at my to gloat
She won’t take me but tease me at arm’s length
I’m losing my grip as this secret drains all my strength
5 hours left for everything to be the same
5 hours left to prepare for today’s later pain
Since that day, it’s been 16 years
That whole time, I buried my tears
With them, I filled a bottle
Combined with things that were simply awful
It was tightly capped, to make it all stop
But the pressure rose, as it filled to the top
The first layer was superficial
Day to day worries, that meant very little
They were a distraction for what laid underneath
Not far below, was my hidden grief
A layer of secrets that ravaged my body
Even though my mind stayed cloudy and foggy
This layer was older, it started at 8
Starting a cycle that decided my fate
The next layer and the decades that followed
Reinforced my need to keep it all bottled
Mixed throughout were life’s other struggles
Through which my tears continued to muddle
At the bottom was a pain
That shall forever stay
That is until I meet you someday
This layer was shoved to the bottom
With something I tried not to think about often
Compounded so hard, the tears couldn’t reach
Even though the pain continued to screech
Finally, I cracked it open
As the pain fizzled out, it let the hope in
At the bottom, this final layer was stuck
I thought about throwing it in the garbage truck
But I know I have to clean it out
No matter how much my pain might shout
Eventually, the bottle will dry
And finally, I’ll bloom like a butterfly
After 18 years, I’ll finally be ready
To fly with you, and keep you steady
I’ll take the bottle, and throw it in the ocean
Watching it drift away in the waves and their motion
We will watch the sunrise over the horizon
Together our days will begin to brighten
On grass, we will lay and look at the stars
As the clouds and storm eventually clears
To show us the sky as we watch together
And I can finally be your mother
Another day I sit and wonder how you are
More and more time I spend daydreaming my life away
My heart is spilled
Yet filled with your love
My stomach is empty
yet filled with knots
My fists are clenched
Yet open and waiting
My eyes are dry
Yet tears flow inside
My heart is broken
Yet sewing itself up
My mouth is screaming
Yet no sound escapes
The Picture … the first time I saw her as a teenager
A picture of you
A glimmer of hope
My days have been dark
Finally, you bring light
Like a look in the mirror
I can’t believe what I see
I know it’s the truth
Deep in my soul
My body speaks with authenticity
Joy fills my lungs
And my heart begins to sing
An impossibility becomes reality
And I’m still in a dream
I wonder if you feel me
Looking into your eyes
From a distance so far
But at my fingertips
As the time ticks away
And space shortens
The day will come
When a picture comes to life
A girl, a child, a mother
Who cannot seem to speak
But actions talk of pain and despair
A piece of her soul, her heart, is missing
It was carved out on a bleak November day
And left in the half-melted snow
To bleed down the sidewalk
And eventually dry
Flaking off in the wind
Leaving no trace
Seemingly gone, lost forever
The void filled with the heaviest emptiness
There was nothing there
But it weighed three tons
Incapable of moving
Unable to breathe
Crushed by the weight
Looking for you and I wonder
Are you looking for me?
Showering through pages
And clawing through words
That feel like a mountain
But end so abruptly
Cracking a code
Clues lead to nowhere
The only path is a bridge
That I cannot seem to cross
Maybe more notes
Can show me the way
Regardless there’s someone
I can’t walk past
You’re there, somewhere
On the other side
Can you feel me
Searching for you?
How to Cope with the Ups and Downs of Being a Foster Parent by Dr. John DeGarmo
As a foster parent, you NEED to take care of yourself. You NEED to ensure that you are watching out after yourself, finding the time you need for you, and the help you need to care for not only the children in your home but for yourself and your family. If you do not, all that you do will suffer.
Remember to “Be in the Moment”
It is important to stay in the moment, so to speak, to focus on the here and now, instead of what might happen, of what could be. When we worry about what might happen in the future, we lose the chance and the opportunity to embrace and enjoy what is happening in the present time. When we allow our worries and concerns to overwhelm us about future events, we do not allow ourselves to be helpful to those around us in the present moment. As foster parents, we can’t care for, help, teach and love the children living with our family, children that need us to be with them right now, at the moment, if we are overwhelmed with things we have no control of tomorrow, next week, or next year.
Let your heartbreak
We do love them as our own, and we experience feelings of grief and loss when a child leaves our home and our family. Yet, it is healthy for us to become emotionally invested, and to become attached to the children in our home. If we do not become attached, and hold ourselves at arm’s distance, so to speak, and try to protect ourselves, we will not be able to help the ones we are trying to care for.
Patience is a Virtue
If you are struggling with maintaining your own patience, go ahead and call your own time out. Don’t be afraid or let your ego object to asking your spouse or partner to step in and take over a situation if you are becoming too frustrated, or feel you are losing control of your own emotions. Tell the child that you will talk about it at a later time, allowing both you and the child to cool off. Step outside or into another room, and give yourself time to count to ten. Any of these are positive ways to de-escalate a situation.
Don’t Take it Personally
As foster parents, we need to keep in mind that it isn’t really about us. The child has been abused, neglected, abandoned. There is a reason why the child living in your home has been placed in foster care. He is hurting. It’s not about us. It’s about the child and his pain. Even when he is yelling at you, “I hate you!” and slamming the door. His anger and emotion may be directed at you, but it’s not true about you. Instead, his anger and pain come from someplace else.
When your buttons are being pushed, it is important to remember that you are the mature one, you are the adult, you are the parental figure. Resist yelling back, don’t give in to the temptation to respond in anger, no name-calling from you. Try to not respond emotionally. Instead, focus on the child’s behavior and not his emotion. Respond to why he is feeling this way, not to the words he may be yelling at you.
Your Own Support Group
I have said it over and over again; no one truly understands a foster parent like another foster parent. That’s why it is important to surround yourself with a support group of fellow foster parents, especially when you are feeling burned out. There are a number of foster parent support groups and associations across the nation. A few of these organizations may be national ones, while many others are, comprised of foster parents, like you. Either way, you will benefit by being in a support organization, as they will provide you with not only support, but information, fellowship, and important insight that will help you be a better foster parent.
Sometimes, taking time for yourself also means saying “no” to the next phone call; the next placement. It is okay to say “No,” once in a while as a foster parent. It is okay for you to take time for yourself, your spouse, and your family. It is okay to re-charge those batteries. It’s okay to take some time off to grieve the loss of a child from foster care in your home, and in your life. It’s okay to take some personal time, each day, for meditation, prayer, or spiritual time for yourself.
Dr. John DeGarmo is an international expert in parenting and foster care and is a TEDx Talk presenter. Dr. John is the founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. He has been a foster parent for 17 years, and he and his wife have had over 60 children come through their home. He is an international consultant to schools, legal firms, and foster care agencies, as well as an empowerment and transformational speaker and trainer for schools, child welfare, businesses, and non-profit organizations. He is the author of several books, including The Foster Care Survival Guide and writes for several publications. Dr. John has appeared on CNN HLN, Good Morning, America, and NBC, FOX, CBS, and PBS stations across the nation. He and his wife have received many awards, including the Good Morning America Ultimate Hero Award. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at The Foster Care Institute.