Helping Adopted Children Thrive
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Changing Trends in International Adoption
Birth Parents.Often these two words are the enough to scare families away from adopting domestically and straight into an international adoption where, as I have heard more than one family say, "birthparents won't be an issue."
I can now say sincerely, with four teens and one pre-teen (all adopted), that this commonly held belief is extremely far from the truth. Birth families, or first families as they are commonly known, are always part of every family formed through adoption. If you are just starting to think about adoption, the idea of your child having another set of parents may seem strange, frightening, or just one more mountain to climb in the arduous process of becoming a family. And it is important to note that you are not alone in feeling that way.
For decades that topic of birthparents has been something to be talked-around, vilified, feared, overly-praised, or part of a child's fantasy. In international adoption, birthparents are often so broadly generalized as to be summarily lumped into one collective category for each country. Guatemalan birthmom? Must be a single unwed mother. Russian birthparents? Probably neglectful alcoholics. Chinese birthparents? Surely the child is an unwanted baby girl, another one-child policy victim. Ethiopia ? Parents must have died of HIV. Like all stereotypes, the above statements rob individuals of their humanness. Each one of our families our connected in the most intimate way possible: We share a child.
Thirteen years ago, if someone had said those words to me, I would have firmly let them know that I am my child's REAL and ONLY mother. After bringing home our first precious child, I wasn't in any place emotionally to embrace the glaring truth that anyone other than her father and I could honestly lay claim to this snuggly, ticklish, almond-eyed miracle. Over a decade and with the addition of four more children, my attitude of ownership towards our children has changed. They are, without a doubt, my children, yet they are also their own persons, each a combination of genetics, environment, love and their own unique personality. To deny the importance and essentialness of their past would be like trying to wishfully erase the faces on Mount Rushmore with a nail file. Their birthparents not only exist, they are a permanent presence in our lives. My only choices were to either invite our children's birthparents into our home and lives with open arms, or deny them entry, leaving them shamefully in the shadows.
Intercountry Adoption was once believed the ultimate choice for families wishing to have a "closed" adoption. Yet for both practical and philosophical reasons, open adoption, in which the birth and adoptive families have ongoing contact with each other, is an idea you should explore and become more comfortable with. Not possible? I disagree. Even if there is no possibility that your family will ever be able to meet your child's birthparents, your child's best interest is served when the adoption becomes as open as possible. It's as much about attitude, loving support, openness to allowing all of the love into your child's life as possible, as it is about a true real-life relationship with your child's birthfamily. Even if the latter is impossible, a certain openness is possible and desirable.
The idea of a closed or confidential adoption as being best for a child significantly changed in the USA in the last few decades. We began to learn more about what it was like for children to grow up having been cut off from their origins. We learned this was a significant loss unrelated to how much adoptees loved their parents . We also learned that children sometimes felt abandoned, unwanted, and rejected by their birth parents; that it was more difficult for them to form a personal identity when they had little information about their genetic origins; and that adoptees developed fantasies, sometimes troubling ones, to fill in the missing pieces in their personal histories.
Open adoptions provide adoptees with the opportunity to know they are loved and valued by the people who gave them life . But how is an adoptive parent to accomplish this when there are no records leading to the birthparents? The idea is to create an atmosphere of openness with your child regarding birthparents. Your welcoming attitude of love and acceptance of the very real relationship that exists between child and birthparent is the foundation for opening your adoption.
Every adoptive parent has fears of someday losing their child physically or emotionally to the birth parents. They fear that if they are measured against the birth parents, they might be found inadequate.
Opening an adoption by embracing the reality of the birthfamily requires that adoptive parents first face these basic fears. Like any fear to be overcome, it often helps to speak with others who have overcome similar anxieties. Joining a local adoptive family group, participating in online classes or adoption conferences, reading books and articles, and speaking with adoptees and parents in open adoptions are all steps to overcoming the fear of losing your child to the birthfamily relationship.
"What relationship?" you ask, "We don't even know our child's birthparents!" Not in a physical sense, true. The entire idea of opening an adoption is to acknowledge, accept, and finally embrace your child's connection and relationship to family members that were once strangers to you.
Like any other relationship, open adoption is complicated. For those who are married or in committed relationships, consider the following: The open adoption relationship is very much like having in-laws. They may not share a common belief system with us, nor have made the same choices in life as we have made. Their religion and political views could be quite different than our own. But we make the effort to build a relationship with them because we have in common the love of a single person. Your spouse is connected to his or her family regardless of whether you like them or not. They fill a part of his or her life that you can never fill. They have a connection whether you acknowledge it or not. And it would be an unnecessary loss for your spouse to have to give up one of you to gain the other. In fact, your spouse would very likely experience great difficulty ever feeling "whole" if forced to choose one family over the other. Which is why we each make the great effort to join our lives together. An extension of this analogy is to realize that your spouse loves his family in one way, and you in another. They are both essential forms of love.
Forming a relationship with your child's birthfamily begins with the acknowledgement of the bond that exists between your child and his or her first parents. It is separate from the bond that you have with your child. One cannot replace the other.
Next, adoptive families must come to a level of acceptance . This step may be the hardest. Acknowledging that the relationship exists is one thing, while accepting that it will always be part of your family dynamics, an essential part, can take time. By focusing on the goal of raising your child to be the most emotionally healthy person possible, this goal will be more readily achieved.
To attain acceptance, you must first believe that your child was loved deeply by his or her birth family. Regardless of any facts you may know or believe about the birth family (abuse, alcoholism, abandonment) it is still true that they brought this child into the world. Try to stretch your heart and emotions enough to believe that there was love, hope, despair-of-parting, regret and great loss surrounding your child. Your empathy is the essential ingredient in welcoming and accepting your child's birth family as a permanent and great gain to your life and the life of your child.
The final step towards opening your adoption is to embrace your child's birth-family. It is at this point that you are ready to bring your child into the open-adoption relationship.
Perhaps there were comments made in the past about birthparents that need to be clarified. I know that when my children were very young, I was not at the point of full acceptance. I remember very emphatically telling my children that I am their REAL & only mother . What a mixed message I was sending! In one voice I would stress that their (generic, faceless) birthparents were brave and perhaps very poor, and had made a difficult decision to have others care for the child they were unable to parent. And on another day I was making very sure that their loyalties and love were with me and only me.
My own insecurities left my children with a terrible inner conflict. While I felt that I had given them the message that my door was always open and I was comfortable with any and all birthparent discussions, the message they heard was, "I must choose."
It took my own words, reflected back to me decades after I had first spoken them, to change my heart and attitude towards birthparents. I remember sitting at the dining room table, which had been decorated with a special table cloth and balloons, on the morning of my 10th birthday and asking my mom if she thought that my "natural mother" (this was the term at that time) thought of me on my birthday. It must have come as a slap, my question. My mom turned from the cake she was frosting and said , "Why would you be thinking of that? Aren't I enough?"
This time, however, it was my daughter asking the same question, and not so coincidentally, on her birthday. I was tucking her in after a long and fun day full of family and celebration. "Mom, do you think my birthmom is thinking of me today?" In her eyes I saw the fear of hurting my feelings, and of possibly being rejected by someone important in her life. At that moment, I said the thing I knew to be the truth: "Honey, I think your birthmom thinks about you every day." Her fear and longing transformed into joy right in front of me. How could I know this? she asked. Because I have a mom-heart and so does she. She loves you, honey. And thinks about you, hopes you are healthy and doing well. With a tickle and a smile I added, And she also hopes you are being very nice to me and doing your chores and homework without being asked!
It was the turning point for all of us. The truth entered into the room and took up permanent residence. I loved this child with all of my heart, every day and every minute. And so does another woman. And that's not just okay, it is wonderful . This growing, beautiful little girl is surrounded by love. Embraced on every side. Through her, our family is connected to generations of another family.
There is a great freedom that has come with embracing our children's birth-families. They are now part of our family lives, welcome to enter into our thoughts and conversations at any time. Hopefully we will be fortunate to meet in person one day. We wonder about them, and hope they are doing well and have joy in their lives. We send our love to them and know that they love us and want the best for each of us. Opening our hearts, and giving permission to our children to openly love and accept the love of their first families, has stretched each of us as relationships often do.
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