Regardless of whether or not kids are ever able to meet their birth family, they have a relationship with them,” says Beth O’Malley, who has been a social worker for 22 years and with the adoption unit of the Department of Social Services for a dozen. She has been a lifebook expert for a decade. Those are her professional credentials. Personally, she is an adoptive mother and was adopted from foster care as a baby. When she was growing up, she felt “the void” of not knowing the names and faces of her birth family.
While many people have compelling accounts of life as an adoptee or adoptive parent, and others have done extensive work as researchers or therapists, few combine personal and professional experience on this subject. “It’s one thing being a social worker and another having a little one in my home who needs concrete information about adoption,” she says. O’Malley and her husband, Douglas Bell, adopted Polina almost four years ago. “We are lucky,” said O’Malley, because she’s from Kazakhstan, a place where birth parent searches have just started to be done. Therefore, Polina has information about her birth family. But O’Malley wondered, “How the heck would we handle this if we didn’t have pictures?”
When it was time for O’Malley to update and reprint her workbook for kids adopted from China – called “My China Workbook: A Lifebook Tool For Kids Adopted From China,” she revised it to include more information about the birth family.
Naming the Birth Mother
“I want to give children permission to start having an active relationship with birth parents, to give their birth mother a name and to formally invite them into their minds, lives and emotions and to have a conversation with her,” O’Malley says. On one page of the workbook O’Malley suggests kids come up with a name or nick name for their birth mother so they can make her existence feel more real. “Hello Birth Mother isn’t too warm or inviting,” she says.
O’Malley believes this exercise of giving the birth mother a name offers kids “control over the gaping hole in their heart and story.” As O’Malley says, “They weren’t born from a ghost or an anonymous person and calling someone by name makes them real.”
She wants adoptive parents to understand that whether or not our children will ever be able to search for any member of their birth family, each of them will do some kind of identity-related inner work which requires connecting back to the first family.
Finding Words: Pain Management vs. Pain Avoidance
“The reality of the birth mother is enormous. She is a real woman and the loss of her presence in the lives of our children can’t be minimized,” O’Malley says, “I’m talking about waking up in the middle of the night and being all alone. That’s the trauma, and the trauma of crying or not crying and looking for the birth mother and her not coming. Life is forever changed.”
Abandonment and life in an orphanage – no matter how “good” – causes trauma to newborns, infants, toddlers and children, she explains. “It’s about primary emotions with primary relationships. It’s about love, trust and intimacy and how the child will relate with everyone in their world.”
Knowing from her experience as a parent and social worker, O’Malley understands the fear of making our children feel badly by talking about difficult topics and our worry that we’ll say “the wrong thing.” O’Malley observes that “when people say birth family talk is causing their child to feel sad, they are right. Do they think their child isn’t sad and that there aren’t emotions connected to being adopted?”
O’Malley goes on to say, “If you think feelings won’t come by avoiding birth family talk, then that is naïve. We, the parents, are responsible for helping our children process and deal with their feelings – including the painful ones.” She reminds parents with quite young children, who may not having any idea of the loss associated with being adopted, that the sadness they feel is normal. For many adoptive parents, one of the hardest lessons is recognizing that we “can’t fix” the feelings. “We can’t take the pain away,” O’Malley says, “There’s an element of being powerless that we have to come to terms with as parents. One of our jobs is helping our kids manage their pain about their abandonment.”
My Child Doesn’t Want to Talk about It
She does hear from many parents who say that their child(ren) don’t want to talk about birth family and she said, “That’s tough,” but insists it’s up the parents to take the lead on birth family conversation. She’s reluctant to encourage any “tabling” of birth family talk.
“I’m not talking about hammering adoption into heads on a daily basis” she says, “You have to be vigilant about keeping the subject alive. It might need to be informal. It may feel like monologues for a long time. If you join with them in not talking, they’ll never have a shot at coming to terms with processing it. That’s why you have to get creative with it. Do not let it fade into the sunset.”
In her workbook, O’Malley has a page entitled “If, If, If…” in which kids can write what they would like to share with their birth family if they could, as well as a place to ask them questions. She encourages the use of interactive pages, letter writing, role playing with dolls, therapy and conversation within the family to give kids practical ways of expressing themselves.
She explains that there are a myriad of ways in which families can work and play so the subject is less intellectual. For example, she says, writing a letter to the birth family can be a satisfying exercise “because it’s a task with a beginning, middle and end. The letter can be kept in a special box or shared but the main benefit is that feelings and thoughts are expressed.”
“One of the hardest things for me growing up adopted was not being able to know what I was feeling or having the right words to describe it,” she said, “and if there’s one message I could give it is this - sometimes kids don’t lead conversations because they can’t verbalize it, because they don’t have the words not because they don’t have any feelings.”
It is her view that families should compensate for any lack of concrete birth family information with extra efforts and attempts to address feelings about the ambiguity and loss. She says, “If adoption were a mathematical equation and lack of information were in one column, I’d have attempts to compensate for that on the other side to balance it.”
Differentiating Birth Culture and Birth Family
O’Malley is impressed with how the China adoption community has created play groups, travel group reunions, and a strong online community for sharing experiences, discussing issues, and asking each other questions. She is aware of how many Chinese adoptees know other kids who were born in China. She’s heard about children adopted from China who have located biological siblings who have also been adopted by comparing photos and information on the Web. There are also the homeland tours with groups comprised of other adoptive families, and she’s impressed with how families stay connected to their children’s orphanages and birth provinces in China. Then there are the many celebrations and activities embracing Chinese ethnicity and culture.
She cautions families though by saying, “There’s so much energy around birth culture. Sometimes it’s so much that birth parents end up not coming into the equation.” This causes her to wonder if this emphasis on culture is in part to compensate for the fact that there is so little concrete information about birth families that can be shared. She suggests dealing with the reality of the absence head on. “We have to come up with strategies to help our children develop relationships with their birth mother and birth father and the first step is in making those people real,” O’Malley says. “The primary relationship is the one that brought you into this world and that seeps into the child’s relationship with the entire world.”
She emphasizes the need for children to understand they came from a “first mother,” a “first parent,” a “first family.” She cautions that it is not certain that there will never be a way for our children to search for their birth family; all we know now is that there is little chance of searching successfully and having a reunion with the birth family.
O’Malley understands that parents don’t always have the “right” words readily available to talk about all of these issues. Sometimes our anxieties as parents bout our children’s painful and ambiguous early life history leaves us at a loss, too. In addition, as parents we might fear that our children might secretly love their birth family more or that the biological connection is so strong it can never be replaced by our love. These fears can complicate our ability to communicate.
She recommends, “reading reading, reading and reading,” from among the huge number of books, magazines, poetry and first-person accounts written by adult adoptees. In her opinion, the anthologies by adult adoptees provide great “insight into the soul” and she hopes adoptive parents refer to them more often. [See accompanying box with some book, blogs and Web sites recommendations from O’Malley.] O’Malley talks about feeling “emotionally punched” by the eloquence of the writings by transracial adoptees who have “conveyed complex and painful emotions with such beauty and articulation.”
Comfort Zones: Creating Them for Our Children and Destroying Our Own
One of the most challenging aspects for children born from China is being an ethnic minority. “They face race issues as well as adoption ones,” she says. “I can only imagine that being Chinese amplifies all of the basic issues of feeling alone and being different, because, unlike in same race adoption in which there’s some choice about whether or not to share personal adoption information, that is not the case for most transracial adoptees.” As she puts it, “It’s one more layer of control stripped away - at least in public.”
China’s one child policy can cause some parents to “romanticize” the circumstances of their child’s abandonment. “A child does not end up in an orphanage because they are removed from the home by the government or a child welfare agency as is the case in the states and in some countries such as Russia or Eastern Europe,” O’Malley says. On the surface, she says, “Parents with children born in China can more easily empathize with the birth mother who is viewed as having no choice about relinquishing her child (though many families in China do keep out-of-quota girls). On a very basic level it’s much easier to have sympathy for the birth family and to not be angry with them because it can feel like the abandonment was out of their control.”
In contrast, she says, children adopted out of the foster care system in the Unites States often have to contend with what seems like intentional pain inflicted by birth family, often as a result of domestic violence, drug abuse and neglect. She says birth mothers are often demonized.
Her point in making this comparison is for parents to be wary of emotions they prescribe on behalf of their children so they do not project particular feelings toward the birth family. She hopes parents realize that children will have different feelings at different times throughout development. “We have to tread lightly so that we don’t necessarily fill in the blanks emotionally for our kids,” O’Malley says.
“For me, one of the feelings I’ve had to contend with is the rage, absolute rage, at being placed for adoption.” This how-could-you-do-this-to-me feeling” was one that she was not allowed or encouraged to express. Of her own rage and grief she says, “It got stuck in me. I was unable to articulate it.” She compared it to living with a time bomb inside of her, waiting for it to go off and not knowing how to diffuse it.
O’Malley’s hope is that parents can provide a safe setting for their children to talk about all of their feelings about their first family. All adoptees grapple with ambiguity and loss she says. “The birth family isn’t dead and to some extent is treated that way,” she says, “There would actually be more finality if they were dead. Instead, there’s the silence.” What she would like is for parents to become more afraid of silence than of painful emotions. “As adoptive parents, we have to get out of our comfort zone,” she advises. “If we don’t, our kids never will.”
“A painful glob of nameless, shapeless emotions with a strong presence can be moved and shaped into something manageable and understandable,” says O’Malley. “And ultimately the benefit is the healing.”
*this article first appeared in the New England FCC chapter of the China Connection with a different title