by Jane A. Brown
As my husband and I nervously paced the airport terminal, awaiting the silver jet winging its way toward us from Korea to bring our first child, our thoughts focused on the Future, not on the Past, with all its sorrows. We dreamed of watching him toddle, play on our tree swing, his Christmas stocking on the mantel, and the years of love and laughter stretching before us. Not a thought did we give to what he was trading in for those blessings or of those people he'd left behind.
Loss is a universal, human experience, so learning to cope is an important part of developing self-identity. Only those who fail to recognize, mourn, and heal from their losses develop pathologically by exhibiting physical or psychological symptoms because they are emotionally "stuck" trying to avoid or repress thoughts and feelings instead of taking a direct route through them. They may cut themselves off from their own feelings or from intimacy. Their ability to trust and to love may be severely compromised. Avoiding and denying the normal response to loss--mourning-- is not healthy or to be encouraged.
All of the players in the adoption triad of birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents incorporate significant losses into their life journeys. They've had losses seldom understood or acknowledged by others. There are no rituals offered to them for mourning the ghosts of the Past. Outsiders and often, even those of us who live within the triad ourselves, are much more comfortable thinking/speaking of the gains adoption has brought and minimizing or avoiding our own feelings stemming from adoption losses. We are commended if we speak of what we've gained and how we've put the Past safely behind, judged to be troubled if we verbalize thoughts and feelings about how past losses continue to impact us. Those things we've lost often hover in the backround of our lives, in the shadows, so we try to stay with the Present and the Future, stepping carefully around the Past. We live with the proverbial elephant in our living rooms.
We've always recognized what the losses have been for birth and adoptive parents. We have understood that birth parents have signed on for a lifetime of living apart from the child they bore which inevitably carries pain and sadness. We know that adoptive parents have lost a Dream Child-- the child who might have been born to them-- even if they are fertile or single, by choosing to adopt, at least this time around. They lost out on sharing pregnancy, birth, and the time before placement with their child. They lost out, too, on having contributed genetically to who their child is and will become-- although most of us recognize the positives also that resulted from this one!
We've been less clear about what adoptees lose and how that continues to affect them. Only recently have internationally adopted adults begun to amass and share their collective experiences to offer us a glimpse into what the gains and losses have been. Woven through their individual stories, the loss of three important, identity-shaping elements clearly come across: (1)Loss of birth parents, early personal history, genetic history, and connection to an ancestral line. (2)Loss of a cultural connection (including language, so that if they search and find their birth families, there is a wide chasm that is difficult or impossible to bridge). (3) Loss of a same-race family and of being in the racial majority.
Several things about adoption losses set them apart from other types. Learned losses as opposed to remembered, acute ones, mean the child will only gradually understand that she did sustain losses. I.e., a six-year-old may realize, suddenly, that she may never meet her birth mother, at eighteen that she'll not see her graduate and pregnant with her first child, mourn knowing what her birth mother experienced and the inability to thank her for the gift of Life.
Adoption losses are ambiguous. Adoptees lose but also gain parents, a language, and a culture. Fantasies fill in for knowing what their lives would have been like had they not been adopted. Its therefore difficult and confusing to recognize and acknowledge feelings that come and go as part of a grief process. Instead, most describe a feeling that something is missing and incomplete. Many try to push that away, hoping that if they try not to think about it, the feelings will go away.
Adoption losses often become increasingly clearer and more impactful as adoptees move toward and then cross the threshold of adulthood reaching a crescendo in early adulthood when normally individuals individuate (separate) from their parents and begin a new chapter in the sculpting of their self-identity, free of parental expectations. Many say that they never thought much about adoption or race and ethnicity until AFTER they left home.
The ability to cope with intermittent feelings about the Past may actually enhance an adoptee's ability to appreciate and value the gains received through having been adopted. Most adult adoptees do speak positively about adoption, even as they acknowlege that it brought extra issues into their lives. Those who have not avoided or denied that they HAVE sustained losses seem better equipped to handle feelings that occasionally arise, without allowing them be the defining themes of their lives.
What can adoptive parents do to help?
- Start early to acknowledge the part of your child's life that you were not a part of. I.e., teach your preschooler about pregnancy and birth and birth parents for that is the normal stage at which children are naturally curious and ready to begin learning where babies come from. Too often, adoptive protect themselves at their children's expense by insisting that their child is too young, leaving their child unprepared for the questions and comments of others. Giving information early enables understanding to unfold gradually and gives clear cues that talking about adoption is normal and welcome in their home.
- Build strong family communication. Children (and their parents) need to be able to identify, listen for, express, and acknowledge feelings. Model expressing a full range of feelings. Be attuned to the child's feelings to understand that behavioral clues and indirect messages may be clues to what the child is grappling with, but can't articulate. This is especially true of the Middle Childhood Years (approximately 8 through 12's). These are LEARNED skills and they require practice and regular use. Parenting classes and books on general parenting that have chapters on reflective/active listening are the best means to learning effective communication skills.
- BOTH parents (in a two-parent family) need to be involved lest the child think that one parent doesn't care or understand and discussions need to evolve through each developmental stage, as a child's growing cognitive ability means that questions, thoughts, and feelings will expand and change. The task of initiating such discussions belongs to parents-- don't expect an eight year-old to continue to ask questions or openly confide what she is thinking and feeling as she did when she was four or five. How the child feels is much more important than whether or not there is a great deal of information about the Past to offer.
- Children benefit from making and maintaining a cultural connection
with others who share their ethnicity. They don't have to have a
cultural cut-off just because they've been adopted. While adoptive
parents can honor a child's cultural origins, they can't impart a
culture that is not theirs. A meaningful, comprehensive, and true
acquisition of cultural identity or even minimal comfort with people
who live the original culture can come only through the child building
relationships and engaging in culture-rich experiences within his
ethnic group. Regular, ongoing, direct contact and a personal,
meaningful relationship with an adult or family who shares the child's
ethnicity is a MUST if children are to be prevented from integrating
negative stereotypes and instead, are to be helped to develop pride in
Celebrating with other adoptive families is not enough and may actually cause a child to reject his cultural heritage by exaggerating differences. Heritage Camps are wonderful for connecting young adoptees with their peers and older adoptees who can provide role modeling and mentoring, but they are not substitutes for direct involvement in an ethnic community.
- We live in a race-conscious society in which people of color are often stereotyped, kept separate, and discriminated against, even though the latter is illegal. Although we are extremely focused on race, we, as a society fiercely cling to the delusion that we value diversity. Having Caucasian adoptive parents (if that is the case) does not shield a child from any of that. As parents, we must help our child acquire an accurate and healthy racial identity-- to take pride in who he is and not be poisoned by the pervasive racism which afflicts our society. The process can't wait until a child is about to go off to school or until after he's been on the receiving end of racial teasing--it needs to start when a child is in the cradle. How we interact with others of color and to what extent, whether we actively demonstrate that we value differences among people, and whether we speak up when we see racial prejudice or stereotyping are ways that we help or hinder our child's racial identity development. Our children need adult role models who can provide them with a road map for how to live life as a person of color in a racially-aware society that does not always value differences. They also need to be armed to respond to those who tie racial teasing to taunts about adoptive family membership and won't be, if families don't openly discuss societal tendencies to put people on a racial ruler and why that is wrong and self-limiting.
- Understand that although children in the middle childhood stage (8-12's) often deny thinking or wondering about birth parents, most do on a regular basis. Many adult adoptees tell us that being adopted was like living with an elephant in the living room, at that age! As parents, know that it is YOUR job to occasionally raise the topic of adoption in a matter-of-fact way so that you add to your child's body knowledge. Try to pick up on indirect clues and acknowledge them, even if your child denies any interest. Ambivalence is normal, at this age ("I want to know more/talk-- I don't").
What parents can learn from the lessons the adult adoptees provide is that our children are on a lifelong journey of exploring what it means to have been transracially, transculturally adopted and that we can accompany them for only a part of that journey. We can either help or hinder them along the way, depending on whether we have the courage to help them face the issues they'll grapple with or instead enable them to suppress, deny, and hide the fact that those issues exist so that they may proceed on a pathological trajectory. We don't get to choose whether or not having been adopted will impact children-- only whether we'll help them build skills that will better equip them to cope with the impact, perhaps even benefit from it and have a healthy life.
No adoptive parent can take on the specialized tasks of raising a child after adoption and do a perfect job, however. We don't owe our children perfect childhoods thank goodness, for that would be impossible to deliver! Nor do we have to get the job done within a set period of time. By finding balance, parents can try to insure that our child will grow up having had a satisfying and enriching childhood, able to put the Past into perspective. A major part of that is helping children embrace the losses and gains in adoption, so that they get woven into the tapestry of their lives, adding complexity and richness. Parents also most learn how to let go-- to gradually give over the responsibility for this to their children, once they've given opportunities for understanding and coping with adoption issues. Regardless of the consequences adoptees may bear if they choose NOT to straightforwardly go about dealing with those issues, adoptive parents must step back and respect their son or daughter's choice, knowing that life is long and at a later time, he or she may be more ready to deal with adoption issues.
Our first child grew to be a youth and then a young man who tends to be fairly private and does not easily share his thoughts and feelings. Months can go by without his discussing adoption-related topics. Recently, he fell in love and one day, I heard his beloved ask him about looking at his baby book. She asked questions that he could not answer. Since then, he's been asking questions, verbalizing thoughts and feelings that have been on his mind and in his heart for a very long time, but had been buried. His love for her was the trigger for him to push past those feelings to his greater need to know.
If there is a lesson in this, it is this: that our role does not end when our children reach the magical age of eighteen. Nor do their thoughts, feelings, questions, and yearnings end with childhood. To be an adoptee is to live with and hopefully embrace the gains and losses inextricably intertwined in having been adopted. To be an effective adoptive parent is to provide the tools so that our sons and daughters CAN embrace all this and incorporate it when they awaken to that need-- whenever it comes, knowing that the mourning for pieces of themselves lost in an unknown, unrecoverable past can and ultimately will sweeten what is and is yet to be.
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Jane Brown is both an adoption social worker/educator and an adoptive & foster mother of nine children, some of whom are now grown. She lives and works in Arizona. She serves on the editorial board of Adoptive Families Magazine and writes a regular parenting column for the publication. She is the creator of Adoptive Playshops which is a series of workshops for adopted children age five+, their non-adopted siblings, and adoptive parents in which children are helped through playful, multisensory activities to explore growing up in an adoptive family and racial identity, plus develop skills for dealing with societal attitudes and beliefs about adoption and includes helping children resist and confront racism and bullying. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at: (602) 690-5338.