Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Are Adoptive Parents Modeling Enough Adoption Language for Their Children?

This post is about the lack of modeling from adoptive parents when it comes to answering questions about their child's adoption story with friends, family and even complete strangers. As an adoptee, this is extremely unsettling to me. This is the exact same approach my parents took over thirty years ago when I was a child. Thirty years ago it was a lack of information and fear that led to the absence of modeling and today it seems to be the belief is that sharing any aspect of the child's history is invading their privacy. I have heard over and over again in adoption circles that the adoption story is only for the adoptee to tell when they are ready to do so. As an adoptee that has lived through the repercussions of Adoptive Parent silence, I could not disagree more.

You see, when I grew up my parents had no information about my birth family or my adoption story. They hardly mentioned my adoption and when a friend or stranger asked about my adoption, the response was usually "we don't even think of her as being adopted." Talk about reinforcing that adoption IS BAD to your child and missing a teachable moment! I was fed the universal adoption line of the 70's, "Your Mother loved you so much that she gave you a better life." God, I always cringed inside when my well meaning Mother said this.  It never made sense to me.  It still doesn't. Shit - I love my kids too, should I send them to Dubai to live in a castle with a chef and chauffeur? Some would argue that would be a better life than what we are providing them. It's just crap. No one relinquishes their children to give them a better life. It is NOT that simple. There is typically a lot more meat in that sandwich! Any adoptee in reunion will tell you that. I will say that there has been an enormous shift in that thinking when it comes to adoption language. Families are talking more inside the home and seem to have more educated responses when it comes to the tough questions. But is it enough?

Anyway, my point is that I had zero modeling from my parents about how to talk about my adoption, my birth family, my history, my heritage. So, what did I do? I just said nothing. When my adoption came up among my peers I froze. With every question or comment that I was not prepared to answer, a piece of me died. In college I erased the adoption from my life entirely. I didn't even tell my husband I was adopted for a long time. How could I? I was ill-equipped for the topic and I was emotionally aware enough to know that the very mention of it chipped away at my soul. It was no way to live. Living a lie was awful.

So, my husband and I have chosen to talk about my daughter's story in front of her and my other children to other people. It is my belief that if I do not model for her and my other children the ability to articulate these words, they will never be able to. Do I tell every last detail - no, no, no!
Some details are way too personal and those details ARE her details to share. You see, the advantage to this approach is that your children will witness all of the reactions that people have to their adoption stories. They will learn the various questions that people ask just by observing the situation. As you know, most people are well meaning, but some are ignorant, mean, and offensive.  Your children will watch you handle their story with grace. They will see you stumble at times, when people delve too deep or ask you something you are not prepared for. They will also see you screw up or perhaps say something too personal for their comfort level. But they are learning from YOU!  I truly don't believe that keeping these conversations in the home is enough, although I feel an intense pressure to do so from adoptive parents. As an adoptee, I encourage you to consider modeling detailed adoption language for your children unless or until they tell you otherwise.

So, how do my husband and I model adoption talk? Well, for one we talk about her Ethiopian family openly and frequently. We have done this from the day she came into our home at four months of age. There was never a question of whether or not she was ready to see pictures of her family, hear stories about her family, and learn about the circumstances that led her into our family. It was NOT her choice to leave her family, so why should all that history and information be erased from her identity? We openly talk about her family in Ethiopia to friends, teachers, and peers. We proudly show neighbors and colleagues pictures as we would any other member of our family. After our visit to Ethiopia this summer, we brought pictures into school for her to show her teachers and friends. My daughter is not placed in a position to feel loyalties or ties to one family or another.

We also don't cringe or snap when people ask us very personal questions about her history, her race, her culture or her adoption. We do not get defensive. To us, adoption is not a defensive subject. We simply answer the question briefly or answer based on conversations we have had with her privately about what is comfortable to say and what is not. We empower her to decide what is okay and what is not okay. We do not decide for her regardless of her age. We guide her and we help her, but she is perfectly clear about what aspects of her story she would like modeled and we do just that.

My proudest moments are when a tough question is asked and she looks to me and waits for a response. What I have learned is that, in my daughter's case, she is always happier when I answer truthfully rather than give a canned adoption response.  For example, she hates when I say, "No we don't match, but lots of families don't match. I bet if you look around town you will see lots of families that don't match." She prefers, "We don't match because she was born in Ethiopia. Her family in Ethiopia also has brown skin."

When people ask us what happened to her real parents she prefers us to tell them the truth (short version) followed by the fact that she has several real parents. We always make it clear with our peers that we don't get caught up in adoption terms. We don't ever want our daughter to feel like she can't refer to her family in Ethiopia as her real family. She doesn't need to qualify her family in Ethiopia with Birth, Original or First. She can call them and us whatever she wants to. Again, the adoption was not her choice. Who I am to get insulted or intimidated by HER choice of words?

You need to ask yourself if opening your conversations up to others is more about your own fears than protecting your child? Are you the one who is not ready to talk about the other family? Are you the one who has a hard time looking at people who look so much like your precious child? Are you the one is afraid to let your child love another family? Their other family. Are you the one who is intimidated by words like real? Adoption is not about the adoptive parent. It is about the child.

So, before you virtually yell at me, I totally respect the families that take other approaches especially if there are highly sensitive topics involved. I totally get that. Of course, I get that. All I am asking is for you to respect the families that do talk about their children's stories. We are all trying to do our best, and we likely have a reason for our choices. For me, it is my experience as an adoptee that shaped how I raise all of my children, especially my adopted daughter. I am in a very unique situation.

Adoption is a fluid, diverse experience that spans a lifetime. Trust me, it is highly possible that your adoption beliefs will shift throughout your lifetime. Knowledge is power.

Lynn Steinberg is an adult adoptee from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Lynn was adopted in Ohio in 1975 and raised by her parents on Long Island, New York along with her older brother who was also adopted. Her adoption was closed and Lynn’s adoptive parents knew nothing about her Birth Family or story leading up to her relinquishment. At the age of 35, after having two biological children, Lynn and her husband Michael adopted a baby girl from Ethiopia. It was the adoption of her daughter that ignited an innate interest in searching for her Birth Mother. In 2009, Lynn found her Birth Mother and half-siblings with the help of a Private Investigator. Upon reunion, she discovered that her existence had been kept a secret from her siblings by her Birth Mother for 35 years. With that said, Lynn was joyously accepted by her Birth Mother and siblings, but continually struggles with her identity and comfort level within her Birth Family. She feels there is a lack of support and resources for adult adoptees once the initial reunion is complete and hopes to act as a source of support what she calls, “The Reunion after the Reunion.”  Lynn is a strong advocate for opening adoption records nationwide and is passionate about educating adoptive parents on the importance of open communication and lifelong emotional support of their adopted children. Follow Lynn on Twitter @SociallyLynn.