Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality: A Way to Intimacy by Marcy Axness, Ph.D., Adoptee

Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality: A Way to Intimacy by Marcy Axness, Ph.D., Adoptee

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:

  1. My child has two mothers and two fathers.
  2. 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.

Adopt Salon Constellation Support Group- How it all Began? by Jeanette Yoffe M.F.T.

Adopt Salon Constellation Support Group- How it all Began? by Jeanette Yoffe M.F.T.

Certificate of Appreciation from City of Los Angeles mayor Eric GarcettiMy first job in the Los Angeles child welfare system was as a paraprofessional volunteer at the Stephen S. Weiss Temple Adoption Support Center under the supervision of Stephanie Siegel, PhD. I mentored children who were adopted, assisted with support groups, and helped answer questions about my experience at special events and panels for families. I didn’t think much of it because at the time, because I was busy trying to be an actress! I had written and performed a play, which shed light on growing up in foster care with the objective to share “what it feels like.” I did benefits for local foster care and adoption organizations, and it was at a Q & A, with county social workers and psychotherapists that I realized I knew more than the professionals knew, about the psychological and emotional impact of growing up in foster care and the light bulb went on. “I think I want to work with children and families connected by foster care and adoption!” 

So, I went back to school to pursue a Master’s Degree in Psychology, and was hired not as a psychotherapist first, but as a Foster Care Social Worker at Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency under the direction of Sylvia Fogelman and worked with children in the foster care system referred by the Department of Child and Family Services in Los Angles County. She said to me, “Trust your instincts, you have a lot to offer.” No one had ever told me that. I was compelled to do what she had instilled in me, and I learned endlessly about the foster care system in Los Angeles.

I drove to children’s homes in a 1985 Mazda Rx7, transported them to and from birth family visits and/or doctor’s appointments, monitored visits, talked with mothers helping them see how important they were to their children, recognized the stigma parents had about birth families as “junkies” or “bad people”, heard that social workers were making promises to children about returning to their families when parents were already AWOL. Every other day a foster parent’s call would begin with, “How can I give my 7-day notice?” I was overwhelmed, and kept asking myself, how do we all get on the same page?

Then in 2006, I wanted to start taking some small steps on my own, so I started a private practice, became a Medi-cal provider, doing attachment therapy with children and families connected by foster care and adoption. I answered parents questions over and over, about attachment, trust, grief reactions….” foster kids are grieving the loss of their previous situation…even if it was scary” “trauma impacts the brain and behavior…” “do you know any foster alumni you can speak to?” “have you read more about a birth mother’s experience?” “do you know any adoptees?” “Please make friends with other families like yours, this will be a lifelong process.”

I continued to question, where are the others out there like me? How can we help each other understand? How can I help eliminate the stigma of birth families? How can I help families understand the lifelong impact? I realized parents needed more support and education outside of therapy. The “whole system” needed more support and education of knowing together “what is the best interest of the child?”. And most importantly it would be beneficial if they could all hear it together, sit in the question together, and find solutions together.

So in 2009, I called a local adoption agency, Vista Del Mar Agency, and asked if they would host a support group I named Adopt Salon Constellation named after the book by Micheal Grand, The Adoption Constellation… where he writes…

“Openness helps everyone in the adoption constellation. It heals relationships and helps to guide how the birth family is part of the adoptive family, and how the adoptive family is part of the birth family. We have to think of that relationship in both directions, which is different than a totally closed adoption where we pretend that the birth family never existed. This is why we need to think about the adoption constellation. The constellation includes all the people involved in the adoption experience: siblings, both birth and adopted, extended families, social workers, teachers, religious leaders, and legislators. A constellation model allows for them all to influence the experience and recognizes changes in relationships over time. Some may drift away, some may become closer.”

After reading the book, I chose to include foster care to the equation too, because I was raised in foster care and many of the families I worked with were in foster care. This voice in child welfare needed understanding too. 

And 60 people showed up to the first group! It was shocking! I finally felt that I had found a “ real solution” to a “ real problem”. Adopt Salon. The support group was and still is a success and has become couples “date night” on the first Wednesday of the scheduled months. 

Goals of Adopt Salon:

#1: Bring everyone together- first mothers, first fathers, foster youth alumni, foster parents, kinship caregivers, legal guardians, adult adoptees, adoptive parents, siblings, relatives, and significant others in one room. Yes, I repeat, in one room!

#2: Provide a space to share each other’s stories in an emotionally safe environment, with a non-biased facilitator, who could hold each different voice and point of view with respect and regard. Which was me, the voice of the child welfare system having regard for all those who help a child navigate the child welfare system, and find a forever family.

#3: Create a list of safe and healthy boundaries. “We are here to share stories, thoughts, feelings, and ideas, receive psycho-education, process grief, and loss, build strong bonds and connections. There is no criticizing, judgment, or unsolicited advice given unless requested, when sharing all shares must be expressed in an “I message.” If you have a question, that person has a right to respond or say “no thank you. You can also be an OWL – observe, watch and listen so that your feelings can inform a proactive response, rather than reactive response. And most importantly, understand there are many voices in child welfare, and many different points of view because…”

“If you look at a tree from one angle, that’s the only angle you are going to get!”

How the group works:

We start by going around the group, each person states their name, their connection to adoption or foster care, say if they have any questions, pressing issues or shares, so the facilitator can return back to them to open up a group discussion.

Common themes that come up are the struggles with parenting a child with early childhood trauma, helping them change the paradigm from “what’s wrong with him to what happened to him?”, understanding grief and loss for the adoptee and foster youth and first-birth mother or father, shifting the way first-birth mothers and fathers are perceived as people with their “own unmet mental health needs”, and having the courage to acknowledge that we can and are grieving these losses together. And lastly, by acknowledging this commonality, this will help us see the connection of what’s truly “in the best interest for the child”.

There are stories shared about mothers who were forced to surrender their children due to no fault of their own and those whose families did not support them in keeping their child. There are stories of mothers, who genuinely wanted their children, who were not ready to be mothers, were also products of the foster care system and yet still wanted to be a part of their children’s lives but not knowing how. Then we discuss open adoption and how that works. And teaching foster parents, how to convey their child’s stories to them in an “age-appropriate way” and helping families who have not, still to this day, told their children they were adopted as infants. There are stories of foster youth alumni who ran away from home due to the abuse they endured and needed their foster families to understand how badly they were hurting and what they truly needed during those times.

There have also been special guests at Adopt Salon, representing different points of view, i.e. professionals who are also part of the constellation such as Marcy Axness, Marlou Russell, Dee Dee Mascarenas, Noah Rothchild, Maureen Donley, Santana Dempsey, Briana Spencer, foster youth alumni, adult adoptees, and first mother Kelsey Stewart.

Where we are today:

The support group is held four times a year, on the first Wednesday of March, June, September, and December from 7-9pm at Vista Del Mar Adoption Agency.

Starting in October and November 2019, we will be hosting a new system of support, called Adopt-ED Salon Open House, which is a bi-annual open house bringing together people in the foster care and adoption constellation with those who have an interest in the community including social workers, therapists, prospective adoptive or foster parents, among others.
Celia Center Adoption Foster Care Education Support Groups in Los Angeles

The mission of the open house is to increase awareness, facilitate community and encourage dialogue in a minimally-structured, non-clinical environment. This format allows people to have private conversations with any member of the constellation, ask questions that they always thought about asking and never had the opportunity to do before to break down the walls. Adopt-ED Salon Open House was developed by our board member, Carra Greenberg, lawyer, and an adult adoptee.

For 10 years now we have been learning, via Adopt Salon Constellation, how to break down the walls of the negative stigma, how to support one another with respect and compassion, and start saying “we and us” together, so we can be the constellation of change together, as a community.

In 2014, an ADOPT SALON RESEARCH STUDY was conducted HERE on the efficacy of this group.

93% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:

  • The support group increased their knowledge
  • 94% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that 
  • The support group provided a safe place for them to share stories, thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

87% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:

  • The support group provided opportunities for them to process grief and loss.
  • The support group provided them with opportunities to build strong bonds and connections with others.

91% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:

  • They are able to understand themselves better because of this group.

96% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:

  • They will recommend this group to others

Participants reported:

  1. I understand my adopted daughter much more since coming to this group.
  2. Priceless information regarding the emotional well-being of the adoption and foster community.
  3. Being able to understand, relate, and talk an adoptee and foster youth.
  4. Learning how to approach an upcoming reunion.
  5. Developing a better relationship and intimacy with family.
  6. Gaining priceless and useful information regarding the emotional well-being of the adoption and foster care community.
  7. I recommend the group to anyone in the adoption triad!

As said by James L. Gritter, author of Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption says:

The birth family creates the life.
The adoptive and foster family sustain the life,
and together, they affirm the child’s life.

The Adopt Salon Constellation Support group was created by CeliaCenter.org, helping families become whole again one group, one family, one person at a time. 

Jeanette Yoffe, M.A., M.F.T. founded the non-profit she named, Celia Center, after her first mother, Celia. Celia Center is a mental health center that meets the critical needs of all those connected by Foster Care and Adoption and all those who serve the community of Foster Care and Adoption in Los Angeles and beyond. Year-round, they host mental health conferences, training, workshops, support groups, arts festivals, family outings, and wolf healings.

For more information please visit Celia Center’s website at www.CeliaCenter.org

Watch HERE what people say about Celia Center and Adopt Salon Constellation Support Groups 

Adopt Salon Conference – Mending the Losses, Becoming Whole Again 2012

Adopt Salon Conference – Mending the Losses, Becoming Whole Again 2012

Mending the Losses, Becoming Whole Again Adopt Salon Conference at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles 2012

This 2- day conference took place on

Friday, November 9th & Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Celia Center sponsored this conference and 250 people attended.

 

KEYNOTE SPEAKERS
Adam Pertman, Parent by Adoption & Exec. Dir. of the National Adoption Institute
Marcy Axness, Adoptee, Child Dev. Specialist
Daniel Heimpel, Journalist, Founder/President of Fostering Media Connections & Volunteer w/Foster Alumni

2 days, 14 presenters, 15 Breakout Sessions

This is a conference designed to educate and inspire those connected by adoption.

*Participants will gain insight into the complex, multifaceted and often embodied issues related to adoption.
*You will gain a clearer understanding of adoption and acquire practical, meaningful tools that can ultimately lead to healing and integration of the adoption experience.

A shift is occurring – be a part of the transformation!

Rethinking Adoption in the 21st Century

Watch Opening Keynote Welcome with Jeanette Yoffe

This conference is recommended for all members of the Foster Care and Adoption Constellation and those treating/working with the Foster Care and Adoption population i.e. Foster Youth Alumni, Adult Adoptees, Adoptive Parents, Foster-Adoptive Parents, Birth Parents, Social Workers, Psychotherapists and anyone connected by Foster Care and Adoption.

Conference Schedule: Session topics included…

#101 From Knowledge to Healing: What the Research Teaches Us~ Presenter: Adam Pertman


#102 Focus on Adoption: An Insider’s Perspective ~ Presenters: Carra Greenberg, J.D. and Sheila Kamen, Ph.D.
#103 Transracial Adoptive Family Training and panel ~ Presenter: Angela Gee, M.A., M.F.T.
#104 The Primal Wound: Author answers questions about her world-renowned book ~ Presenter: Nancy Verrier, M.A., M.F.T.

 


#105 Ten Things Adoptees Want the World to Know- Lesli Johnson
#106 Inside-Out Healing Session ~ Presenters: Craig Hyman and Patrick McMahon
#107 From Loss to Hope: Becoming Parents ~ Presenter: Carole Lieber Wilkins, M.A., M.F.T.
#108 Understanding First Mothers: Realities of Search and Reunion~ Presenter: Mimi Janes

 


#109 “A Falling Out of Everydayness”: Adoption’s Unspoken Stories~ Presenter: Marcy Axness, Ph.D.
#110 Understanding Your Teen Adoptee… with 3 Teen Panelists~ Presenter: Jeanette Yoffe, M.A., M.F.T.
#111 Making the Most of Adoption Reunions ~ Presenter: Marlou Russell, Ph.D.

 


#112 Male Adoptees ~ Presenter: Craig Hyman
#113 Attachment Research and Adoption: Raising Children Who Thrive, Not Just Survive ~ Presenter: Sally Maslansky, M.A., M.F.T.
#115 Coming Home to Self: The Path to Healing for all members of the Constellation ~ Presenter: Nancy Verrier, M.A., M.F.T.