Monday, June 05, 2006

Talking With Young Children About Adoption

Talking with Young Children about Adoption by Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher was published in 1993. It was given to me by a good friend who has adopted two children, as a gift after my first adoption. I read it then, three years ago, and just re-read it with the added perspective of having been through two adoptions. With my boys being one year and almost four they are in the ages described in the book and adoption talk is frequent at our house.

In the introduction “From Sharing to Telling” the authors review changes in what the ‘experts’ have recommended over the years in regards to how parents should treat their child’s adoption. It used to be thought that children should be matched as closely as possible to their adoptive family’s looks, background, physical features, etc., and parents should wait to tell the children about their adoption until they were old enough to understand. Many times parents were in fact advised to deny the adoption or tell the child the birth parents had died in order to spare the child confusion about who their family was. It was thought that the less talk of adoption, the healthier and more normal everyone would be.

The authors of this book are both adoptive moms of the 80s, and the perspective they are speaking from is that of the expert advice of their time. They were told to “speak of adoption early and lovingly, to speak about adoption to our toddlers and preschoolers as the way our children entered our families, to acknowledge with respect our children’s birth-families and cultural heritage, to create an atmosphere in which questions, feelings, and concerns about adoption could be spoken about openly.” So the stories here are all about parents talking with their toddlers, preschoolers and middle-aged children, telling about their origins and their journeys into their adoptive families. The emphasis is on both the parents’ work of coming to terms with the losses, anxieties and adjustments to adoption and the children’s’ work of coming to understand what adoption means to them and their losses, their histories and their families.

Although the stories for young children are almost universally happy homecoming stories as presented by the parents, there is acknowledged the sadness that parents feel in not having the baby come from their own womb and the sadness the children feel in not being born from their mothers. For me personally, this is not something I can relate to as I have not felt it a terrible loss to not have been pregnant and given birth to my two younger sons. I wish I had been with them, held them and known them from the very beginning, but it is not an intense loss. I feel more sadness for their birthparents’ loss and the separation my boys have/will experience as a result of their first parent’s decisions about placing them.

However, I am very familiar with the intense dichotomy of joy and grief that comes with adoption. One of the things I like about this book is the way that is recognized and addressed from the parents’ perspective and the children’s perspective. Talking about those feelings is a large part of our coming to understand adoption and our growing together as a family I believe. Understanding those feelings and wonderings and thoughts is work that will continue throughout their childhoods, and is an opportunity for us to learn much about listening to each other and loving each other.

This second time I am reading the book it has bothered me a lot that the first parents to these children are not very well represented. Of the twenty families whose stories are told in detail, in the words of the children and parents, only one situation is an open adoption where the children know their first parents. Most of the families do not even know or share the first names of the original parents, and the children are told they may search for and possible meet their first parents when they reach the age of 18. Many of the stories told to the children by their adoptive moms disregard the first mom, calling her just a “tummy mommy” or “nice lady who took care of you before we came to get you”. The children’s lives’, in these stories, start when the adoptive parents race to the hospital and hold them for the first time. The joy of their birth is in the waiting of their adoptive parents. Their “ladies” are described as “too young and too poor” to be parents. It is as if they were just wombs, or instruments of producing the babies the adoptive parents longed for, and not people in their own right, people who might love and long for and miss the children they gave up.

Many of the adoptive moms acknowledge feelings of fear, anxiety, or insecurity when their children ask for details about their first moms, or in some way indicate that the first mom might also/alternately be a “real” mom. There is no understanding that both moms might be real, both moms might love the child and want to see their happiness, both moms might be part of the child’s family. There is little respect for the first parents’ connection to the child, which I find very distressing.

I have had to share my first, biological child with his father (not my husband; with whom I have been estranged from pregnancy) through out my son’s life. It has always been a struggle, and always been a relationship requiring qualities of grace, forgiveness and trust that were difficult to acquire. Perhaps because of this I have no difficulty seeing that it is entirely possible and actually beneficial to share the love and nurture of my children with adults who have deeply rooted connections to them, even in spite of my own possible feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness and confusion.

I also noticed that most of the stories are told by the adoptive moms. There is only one case where an adoptive father told his view point. He felt that the whole adoption process was painful and humiliating and made him feel a failure, because he and his wife did not achieve pregnancy and they had to adopt in order to raise children together. He wanted to forget about the whole adoption process and just focus on the kids. He didn’t think much about the biological parents at all. No biological fathers are mentioned or acknowledged. Biological fathers rights are not even on the horizon.

I strongly believe that a relationship with one’s biological parents is a right and expectation that every child should have, unless those parents have proven to be abusive or dangerous to the child. By that I mean not just when the adoptive parents feel threatened, but in a case where the child has experienced trauma and abuse. In those situations, maybe the ties should be cut to protect the child. But MOST of the time, children should see and know and maintain contact with their biological parents.

Perhaps because this book was written in the early 90s, and is based on family stories collected in the years preceding that, the ideas and values of open adoption have not been presented. The children whose words are repeated here have grown up now, and are coming into adulthood. One can only hope they have been reunited with their first parents, have established healthy loving relationships, and their adoptive families have grown to include their children’s first parents within the circles of love, respect and nurture.

I would really like to read the book like this that tells about the conversations parents have with their adopted children when the first parents are known to them and loved as part of the family. What are those conversations like between first and adoptive parents? Between first parents and adopted children? Siblings of adoption? Has such a book been written? Is it in the works?


Dawn said...

If someone has it, I'd say it'd be Perspective Press. But go look at their guidelines and maybe you should send them a proposal about this. You're the perfect person to write/edit a book like that. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

I love the way you put this. Next month I will have a grandson place for adoption. I would love more than anything to still be a part of his life. I know without a shadow of doubt that my daughter is doing the right thing but it truly hurts that I will not be a part of this childs life and he will never know the love we have for him as a family. Or at least he won't until he is 18. I would love to be a test case for kind of adoption you are speaking of. I think children should be surround with all the love they can get. Thanks so much for posting your thoughts.