Several months ago Todd and I went to hear adoption guru Jane Brown speak. Her specialty is working with kids (through play) to help them integrate adoption into their sense of themselves. She draws from a huge well of experience and I definitely recommend participating in one of her workshops if you get the opportunity. I hope my kids have a chance when they're older.
Her talk that night focused on how children process adoption--specifically race/ethnicity in transracial or transcultural adoptions--during different developmental stages. She talked a lot about identity and how we go about creating the story of who we are during childhood. Because kids are dealing with different fundamental identity issues at different ages, even the same question--like "Why didn't my birth parents raise me?"--is asking something different coming from a three-year old than a nine-year old. So how we as parents talk about adoption needs to shift over the years, as well.
(I should note that I'm working off of my memory and my scribbled notes from that evening. And adding in a whole lot of my own words. So please don't hold Ms. Brown to anything except the four numbered points below, which are verbatim.)
One of the things she talked about that night was facing up to really difficult parts of your child's history as an adoptive parent. She was discussing how to talk about those things, but you could tell that some of the parents in the room were struggling with the question of whether to share before they could think about how. I'll be honest, my first reaction was that they were trying to justify lying by omission. But they were dealing with some truly terrible things: attempted infanticide, extreme violence associated with the conception/pregnancy, infant abuse. As I thought about looking into Puppy's or Firefly's face and telling them about such darkness in their past, I could sympathize with these parents' struggle. It is tempting to think that if we hide information away, that it will slip into oblivion--that if we never pass a certain fact on to our children, then they will simply never know.
Ms. Brown, with all compassion, did not budge one inch no matter how much those parents pressed her. And people tried valiantly to find a loophole. She was adamant that there is no possible reason--none--that justifies us keeping any shred of information about our children's histories from them. The how and when is up for discussion, but never whether. If they are old enough to ask a question, they're old enough to get an age-appropriate answer that doesn't hide information. And if they never raise a certain issue, at some point we need to take the initiative to fill in the blanks. The information is theirs and belongs to them; we are just temporary caretakers.
(Even though I walked into the room sharing Ms. Brown's opinion, I was really struck that evening by the role we play as information keepers in our children's adoptions. The facts and stories come at us in pieces and from different sources during and after the adoption process, but we are typically the ones who hold it all together until it's passed on to our kids. How we talk with them about their history and their story is one of the most important adoption-related things we do.)
She gave four questions for parents to think about as we formulate answers to kids' questions or prepare to share difficult information:
- Where is the child in his/her identity process?
Like I mentioned before, where a child is at in the identity process often influences what is behind a question and what we emphasize in our answers. This is why we need to be reading our child development basics. For insight into how identity formation intersects with adoption, she recommended Joyce Maguire Pavao's The Family of Adoption and David Brodinsky's Being Adopted.
- Do I have the tools to deal with the questions and emotions that arise?
This one doesn't get us off the hook if we don't think we're ready to deal with a certain topic. If we're not ready, then we need to get ourselves ready. Ideally, we start anticipating these discussions early on and begin to prepare ourselves through reading, learning from others in similar situations, taking classes, building an adoption support network for ourselves and our kids, etc. She did note that it's okay to not answer a question immediately if we feel ill-equipped. "That's a question with a big answer. I'm glad you asked it and I want to talk to you about it. I'd like some time to think about how to answer." Then do what we need to do to prepare ourselves and take the initiative to re-start the conversation. What we want to avoid is blurting out hard stuff and leaving our kids to deal with the aftermath.
- Are they capable of keeping it private?
As a five-year old, your daughter may feel free to tell everyone she knows that someone left her in a trash bin as a baby or that a birth parent is in jail for murder.* But six years down the road, she might hate that all her classmates know that about her. It's a matter of knowing your own child and thinking through how specific your language will be at different stages and which details you will provide when.
- Are they capable of receiving and understanding the information?
Like in #3, this is about timing, the language you use, and how specific you decide to be. She did caution against metaphors and euphemisms, which can be confusing.
This has already gone on and on, so I will leave the rest for a second post. Because the thing I kept thinking as I listened was, "But with open adoptions it's different..." And that is what Todd and I talked about on the long drive home.
* I apologize if my examples play into stereotypes about first parents. I was searching for obviously difficult hypothetical situations.