July 05, 2009

Talking About the Hard Stuff

Well, there was a clear winner in choose your own blog adventure exercise, so here goes...

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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
She also recommended giving kids a measure of control during these conversations, to not force them into the position of being passive recipients of information that might be unexpedtedly overwhelming, frightening, or confusing. One suggestion she gave was hand signals: to have them hold up a "stop" hand if something is too much to hear or to raise their hand if they are confused. She emphasized that we shouldn't ask them to explain themselves if they use one of the signs. For example, if they give the "confused" signal, instead of asking, "What don't you understand?" you could say, "Would you like to ask me a question, or would you like me to try saying it again with different words?" Obviously this would work differently at different ages. But she said in her own work the hand signs had been helpful even with older kids.

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.


Deb said...

This is great stuff. I look forward to your next one about how it's different for open adoptions.
I don't think I ever thought about our child keeping it private.

Sally Bacchetta said...

Even though we're open with our kids about their histories, I gained insight from this post. Thanks for sharing it. I enjoyed it very much, and I'll be back!

Lori Lavender Luz said...

Good to know about the whether. I would like to hear Jane speak sometime.

Also, the "stop" and "confused" signals will come in handy.

birthmothertalks said...

Thanks for learning all you can learn and sharing with others.

M de P said...

Thank you so, so much for this post. As I've written briefly about, this is something I think about a lot(my daughter is 11 months old - so it's the anticipation of it all). I love how you say that we are the temporary keepers of their history/information, but these are indeed THEIR histories. I feel very strongly about this and it was the argument I went back and back to when Mr. P and I were having the "what if..." conversations during our homestudy.

I look forward to your follow up post!

Tammy said...

Thank you for this, and also the book recs. I am going to see if I can get more of her seminar info, maybe if she has some of it recorded? We really need this preparation as we work through how and when to tell our children the hard stuff that encompasses much of their beginnings and first family dynamics. I wish it wasn't going to be hard, but one thing about adoption for me anyway, is that it is rarely easy. If ever.

And just after skimming this post this morning, I had the privilege of a conversation with my young daughter about the fact she'll be an aunt in a few weeks. It came up very naturally when she inquired about seeing her much older sister, and I was amazed at how matter of fact I was able to be since this conversation has had my heart in turmoil for quite awhile. Thank you Heather... as always, you've enlightened my perspective.

Hope you are doing well these days...

Rebeccah said...

Great post. I'd add that part of deciding what/when/how to share your child's history with them is making sure to think carefully about what/when/how you share information with the rest of the world. We've had so many friends/relatives ask us for very detailed info about Squeaker's adoption, and I'm always treading a fine line between sharing information that I know we'll be able to share with him at an early age and keeping back information that we aren't going to be comfortable sharing with him until he's old enough to be able to process it. The last thing we want is for him to learn his history from some random person before we (or, hopefully, his birthmom) have a chance to share it with him in a sensitive and loving way.

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