Just like antiseptic on a wound, some lessons sting but are necessary to healing. I have always considered myself to be a fairly aware adoptive parent. I have known many adoptees, including my sister who was legally adopted by my dad when my parents got married. I thought I had a pretty good handle on some of the major pitfalls that I see adoptive parents fall into and knew that I was not doing those things, so I patted myself on the back.
Then, my article on social workers came out and I saw that it was being attacked online by a group of adoptees. Their words were harsh and painful to read. And though I felt unfairly excoriated, once I had the chance to process it all, I am glad to have stumbled into that controversy. The daily struggle as a parent to raise special-needs kids can sometimes feel so overwhelming that it’s easy to get wrapped up in my own stress and pain. The feedback from my article put a fine point on the need to never lose sight of my kids’ feelings as adoptees. I was at a conference on adoption at the time that I read the comments and it made me extra-sensitive to discussions about the experience of being adopted. I’ve also begun following a number of adoptees on Twitter and am really taking in how much pain so many of these people feel about their adoption story.
When I say that I was a fairly aware adoptive parent, I mean that I always, intuitively got the concept that their adoption is a tragedy and a trauma for them. Being adopted is a signal that something went terribly wrong with the “normal” order of things. I worked for racial justice and never minimized my kids’ racial identities. I also understood how profoundly important their birth parents were to them and never denigrated their feelings for them. I try to be fully supportive of them expressing themselves around their adoption. I reached out and established connections with birth family, framed pictures of them for kids, and always assured them of how much they were loved. I saved gifts and letters from their families-of-origin. We talked about everything and I never judged them for what they said, even when it hurt me. When my most attached child told me that he shouldn’t live with me because he should have stayed with his birth mom, I agreed with him that that would have been best in an ideal world and didn’t let on how intensely those words made me want to cry.
But here’s where I went wrong. I don’t think until last week that I ever *really* understood how angry, hurt and sad so many adoptees were. And this made me feel so heartbroken and furthered my questions about a foster care system that funnels children into new families. But the day-to-day realities of adoption have been part of my life for so long that the bigger picture of what so many adopted persons go through hadn’t sunk in as it should have.
I naively assumed that nearly all adoptive families stayed family after the kids reached adulthood. Of course I knew that sometimes families splinter, but my realization lately is that it’s happening far more than I would have considered. I finally really understand in my bones how intensely important it is to “get it right” when it comes to adoptee feelings. By that I mean to honor their story, their experience and their feelings. It is crucial to set-aside our feelings as adoptive parents to allow our kids to process their journey. And if our kids are adopted from other races, other cultures and even other socio-economic backgrounds, we have to be real – like really, really real – about how coming into our families and communities can be completely traumatizing and disorienting, beyond whatever trauma, poverty or anything else that brought them into the adoption world in the first place. We have to acknowledge that they have their own story separate from us. Even children adopted as babies experience loss and grief when they no longer hear and smell their birth mom.
Adoption has changed quite a bit, in many ways, from the “dark days” of adoption being considered a shameful secret. Or the flip side – that adoption was nothing but a joyous occasion for all where our children will be grateful to be saved. Clearly there are still families where these outdated ways of thinking linger. But more of us are trying to do better, and even still may not grasp the depth of our kids’ distress. That grief can be so painful for us as their parents. But ignore it at your family’s peril. You might worry that being open and affirming about their experience can drive them “back” to their bio families. But what I’m now clearly seeing is that not acknowledging their feelings can be what fractures your relationship. Things can become so broken, possibly beyond repair, as your child tries to make sense of their world. Our kids need us to help them sort out all these complex and conflicting feelings while they are still young. Not having to add unprocessed feelings about adoption to such an already stressful and chaotic time as entering adulthood will only further their success. And hopefully, it will preserve the family you so much wanted to create.