Making Room at the Table

Every year Thanksgiving creeps up on me. I’m enjoying my summer and the next thing I know, it’s time to break out the warm clothes and plan for the holidays. So here we are. Thanksgiving is in a week.

 

There is something about the holidays that amplifies emotions.

The joys become happier, brighter, and more meaningful. Conversely, the sorrows become deeper, sharper, and more intense.

 

Maybe this is because the holidays are weighted with memories, traditions and expectations that center around children and family. Maybe this is because there is an innocence to this time of year, and we all want to catch a little glimpse of this.   

 

A Thanksgiving tradition for many families is to openly share something for which they are thankful before eating their big meal. Most adoptive families with whom I have worked will gladly say they are thankful for their children. They will say they are thankful for their child’s birth family. And they will mean this with every ounce of their being.

 

My question, then, as we approach this year’s holiday season, is simply “is there room at the table for your child’s birth family?”

 

Is there a way to take your gratitude from a verbal acknowledgement to demonstrating it?

 

The holidays are notoriously difficult for people who are grieving.

And a birth mother’s grief, while equally profound and deep as any other type of grief, is unique and often misunderstood. Her child did not die. But her child is not by her side.

 

Now is the time to demonstrate an extra measure of grace and gratitude in the world of adoption. Has it been awhile since your last visit? Schedule one! Plan something fun for the holidays. Take advantage of all the activities and cheer that go on around you. Send that photo of your child with Santa. Do an art project with your child and send it in a Christmas card. If your child’s birth family is struggling financially, this is the time of year when a gift card is perfectly appropriate and very much appreciated.

 

Your adoption is not really open? You have no way of reaching your child’s birth mom? Actions still speak louder than words, and your child is definitely listening! Make a Christmas card with your child and place it in a box for someday. Make a memorial contribution to an organization that supports women facing an unintended pregnancy, such as the Women’s Care Center or one that supports women who have placed a child such as the On Your Feet Foundation.

 

You may not literally be setting a place at the table this year for a birth family, but there is still room at the table.


Adoption is “brute-i-full!”—An ASC adoptive mom

During National Adoption Awareness Month, it seems appropriate to mention that adoption is not always like the feel good, happily ever after, fluff stories the media throws out. Sure, there are stories of overcoming hardship and adversity on the road to the happy ending. After all, who wants to dwell on sorrow, grief, and depression? Who wants to end the story in which they are engaged and be left with an empty, heart-achy feeling?

 

The thing is, every adoption story begins from a place of brokenness and loss. Every. Single. One. And the best way to move from this brokenness and loss toward the happily ever after is to acknowledge it.

 

Where then, do we start?

We start by acknowledging that even if the adopted person is placed with loving, stable, and happy adopted parents as a newborn infant, that newborn infant has experienced a loss. This loss is not something the newborn understands and can verbalize, but it is a loss that neuroscience tells us is imbedded deep in the sympathetic nervous system of the brain.

 

At 18 weeks in utero, the baby begins to hear their first sounds. By week 25, the baby is able to respond to sound. The sense of smell also develops in utero. Placing the newborn with people who do not smell or sound like what they have lived for the past 40 weeks is a definite loss. Nothing is familiar.

 

Ideally birth and adoptive parents can work together to create a transition from one family to the next.

Adoptive parents can spend time prior to delivery with the expectant mom so that baby can hear their voices. Expectant mom can record a bedtime story to be played back to baby when they are in their crib.

 

But adoption is “brute-i-full.”

The ideal is replaced by the practical.  Parents—both birth and adoptive—do what they must to get through the day. Adoptive parents meet the needs of the newborn baby time and time again to begin the cycle of attachment that bonds baby to them.

 

We all know that babies communicate through their cries. Babies cry when hungry, when diapers are wet, and for attention. Babies may also be crying because they sense a loss. Adding the act of holding baby close and telling about their amazing birth mother is one way to acknowledge the trauma and loss.

 

Let’s acknowledge to ourselves that for all its beauty, infant adoption also involves loss. And with that acknowledgement we can find the resilience, love, and joy that makes adoption worth it.

 

 


Happily Ever After

Great relationships don’t “just” happen. There is no luck, chance, or fate that creates a happily ever after life. Great relationships take work and communication. They also take a certain amount of intentionality. This is especially true in open adoption relationships.

 

Adoption stories often seem to start with relationships that were ‘meant to be.’ An expectant mom happens on a hopeful adoptive family’s biography online, through a friend, or at a clinic. This progresses to a meeting in which everyone’s personality just gels and it seems meant to be. From this first meeting, the relationship grows, and baby is born and placed with that hopeful adoptive family. Expectant mom changes her role from a woman considering adoption to that of a birth mother. The hopeful adoptive family becomes parents.

 

And this is where all too often, everyone assumes the happily ever after will begin. Cue the violins as the credits start to play over the sunset.

 

As anyone who has ever been married will report, the happily ever after does not naturally happen after the wedding gifts have been opened and the honeymoon pictures are posted on Instagram. The happily ever after turns into days of routine, complete with challenges both little and big. This is balanced with joys that are also both little and big.

 

Likewise, as anyone who has ever managed an open adoption over a long period of time will report, the happily ever after does not naturally occur after the baby is home from the hospital and the newborn and family pictures are posted on Instagram. The happily ever after involves both challenges and joys.  How these challenges and joys are handled will determine whether the relationship thrives and grows, or becomes fraught with tensions.

 

No matter how magically the adoption seems to come together in the beginning, there will be a time that the adoptive family does something that the birth mother does not like. It may be over something small—like a haircut or school picture. It may be over something more substantial—like a move to a different part of the country or adopting another child. There will also come a time that the birth mother does something that the adoptive family does not like. This may also be something small—like a tattoo or posting a picture on social media. It may be something more substantial—like a new relationship or another pregnancy in which birth mother parents.  

 

How can an open adoption thrive in such circumstances?

Do both sides ignore the things that are disliked? Or do they have the courage to speak up, take ownership of their feelings, and move forward?

 

To create that happily ever after, the adults in the relationship have to move from having good intentions toward the adoption to acting with intentionality. Yes, that’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one.

 

Acting with intentionality means that instead of saying “We will get together sometime,” the next visit is set at the time one visit is ending. Acting with intentionality means that instead of saying “Let me ask my husband when a good time to call will be and I’ll get back to you,” you say, “It was so good to hear from you, let me ask my husband and I will get back to you by Friday.”

 

Happily ever afters DO happen, but not by mere chance or through fate. Happily ever afters happen when the adults in the relationship put in the work, communication and intentionality for it to do so.


IF…

Such a small little word. The online dictionary gives the following definition. “in case that; granting or supposing that; on condition that” or “even though.”

 

“If” is a word that is frequently tossed around in adoptive circles. “If the expectant mom places with us, we are going to name the baby Audrey.” “If I can’t figure out how to take care of the kids I already have, I’m making an adoption plan.”

 

And then there are the “ifs” that come later in the life of an adoptive family. “If my child wants to see me someday, I’m willing to be contacted.” “If our child wants to reach out to her birth mom, we’re all for it, provided that the timing is right.” “If my child asks me a question about his tummy mommy, of course I will answer in an age and developmentally appropriate way.”

 

Let’s go back to our definition. Let’s look at that one little phrase…on condition that.

 

Many times an “if” answer turns into a “not yet” or “maybe someday” answer. Many times an “if” answer really means “no.”

 

When will the conditions be right?

There are no easy answers, because none of us has a crystal ball that will allow us to see the future. We may think there will be a magic age or time in the child’s life when contact between all parts of the adoption triad are desirable. We may simply be unsure what it will look like.

 

To create and maintain a healthy open adoption, “ifs” should be used sparingly. The way to minimize the use of the “if” is to set a foundation of acceptance and openness that gives the adoptee permission to feel emotionally safe.  

 

Being emotionally safe means that the adoptee can ask any questions—at any time—without worrying about the parents’ reactions. Questions can be asked although it may cause the parent some discomfort. Questions may be asked that may bring the parent joy! In either case, adoptees deserve to have their questions answered.

 

Answering questions honestly and creating an emotionally safe space does is not giving carte blanche to the adoptee to do anything she wants, but she can ask and trust that her parents will tell her the truth. Giving your child permission—through open body language, calm tone of voice, and honest words is the basis of a healthy open adoption.

 

How do you create an open atmosphere in your home? We would love to hear how you have down-played the “if” and are handling your open adoption.  

 

 


Fearful or Fearless

It’s October—that deliciously scary time of year when the days are shorter, the nights seem darker, and haunted houses are everywhere.

 

Since we are here in October, let’s talk about that emotion that lies just under the surface—that emotion of fear. We are conditioned to not want to admit to being afraid. After all, we might be seen as weak!

 

But fear is an emotion that all too often makes an appearance during the adoption process.

There is the fear of the unknown.

The fear of being rejected.

The fear of not being good enough.

(And coincidentally, these same fears work for both expectant parents considering adoption and hopeful adoptive parents.)

 

The question then becomes “how can I be brave?” How is it possible to be brave when you are hoping an expectant mother chooses you? How is it possible to be brave when don’t know if the adoptive family you chose will honor their promises? How can I move from “fearful” to “fearless”?

 

As with anything else in life, so much depends on the mindset and what you are telling yourself. It’s the difference between negative and positive self-talk.

 

Negative and fearful thoughts are like weeds. Once one fearful thought takes root, it’s hard to not let it overrun everything. Positive and fearless thoughts are the ones that need to be tended. The more positive thoughts you can plant in your brain, the more likely you are to starve out the negative.

 

Fear-less thinking when it comes to adoption is thinking that requires you to step into the unknown while you are confident in your own abilities. This will include your ability to trust yourself and your instincts. This will include your ability to seek help when you are feeing uncertain. This might include your ability to say no to some situations and yes to others.

 

This will include your ability to love unconditionally.

 

Which will you be today? Fear-full or fear-less?


Brave and Open

Here at ASC, we spend a lot of time educating our prospective families about the concept and practice of “open adoption.” We address fears they may have, including the one that maybe open adoption is actually co-parenting. (It’s not.)

 

We acknowledge and address the grief that is inherent in adoption, on all sides of the triad. We help prospective families visualize what an open adoption can look like, and we help families establish and maintain healthy boundaries.

 

We believe that an open adoption is a healthy adoption.

We believe having access to answers to one’s very identity is a key to raising a confident and happy person who just happens to be adopted.

 

Despite all these deeply held beliefs about the importance of openness, we have sometimes overlooked one key component to making an open adoption relationship work. That key component is the bravery and courage of the birth mother to make that open adoption relationship really work.

 

Often expectant mothers will tell us they want an open adoption for their own healing; to know and see that their child is thriving and happy. Yet over time they stop responding to texts with pictures. They plan visits but then change plans, often with little notice. The adoptive family is left feeling that the birth mother no longer wants to connect. They worry that as the child ages they will not have the answers to identity questions.

 

It takes courage to make an open adoption truly open.

 

The opposite of courage is fear. Fear is easily linked to shame. As Brene Brown says, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement.” Birth mothers often face harsh judgements from those around them. These judgements all too often silence their voice and lead to the secrecy that breeds shame.

 

It takes a daily dose of courage to say over and over again, “I placed my child for adoption.” It takes a daily dose of courage to say, “I don’t live with my daughter, but I get to see her next week.” Above all, it takes courage to say directly to that person who is adopted, “I let someone else raise you because I could not.”

 

ASC believes that #strongwomenmakebravechoices. And today we are honoring those women who continue to be strong and courageous by bravely, without shame, work to make their child’s adoption open and healthy. 

 


Sisters and Brothers

As an adoption professional with two children who joined my family through adoption, I would often try to get their perspective and views on things. On one such occasion, I asked my oldest, blonde haired, hazel-eyed daughter her views on the wisdom and advisability of a white family adopting a second black child. My daughter was about ten years old at the time, and she had been letting me know that she often felt different from her friends and not always a part of the family. I wondered how race might play into her thoughts.

Her answer had nothing to do with race and very little to do with adoption. Her answer took me aback—“Why would anyone adopt more than one child?” As we talked further, I realized this had nothing to do with either race or adoption. It had everything to do with wanting to be an only child. My daughter expanded her views, voicing her exasperation with her little sister and her jealousy of her friends who were only children. Only children, it seemed, were entitled to such delights as undivided parental attention and horses. And the ability to do whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it.

It is worth noting that this same ten-year-old child is now past her twenties and a mother of five. Perspective changes with age and circumstance!

But the relationship of siblings in adoption is a topic worth mentioning.

What, exactly, makes for a sibling relationship? Are siblings those people who share your DNA? Are siblings those people with whom you are raised and share day-to-day relationships? 

For families notcreated through adoption, the definition of a sibling is easy to create. It’s the bossy older brother, or the pesky little sister. It’s the person you can bully, but if anyone outside your family tries the same, that bully best watch his or her back. 

On the other hand, for families who are created through adoption, the sibling question becomes a little more tricky. Some families only adopt one child. Others adopt two or three children. Some families adopt children who are biologically siblings. Other families have biological children before adopting children. There are step-parent adoptions, kinship adoptions, and transracial adoptions. You can look at some families and know that there is an adoption story there. Conversely, you can look at other families and have no idea that adoption played a role in their creation.

It’s relatively easy to look at a single family unit and identify the brothers and sisters. No one can push your buttons like your sister! “Stop touching me! Stay on your side of the line! That’s mine!”These conversations can easily be followed with “Let’s go build a fort! Want to play a game? Can I borrow your shirt?”

Often adopted children will ask about siblings.

This simple question can mean a variety of things. A young only child asking about siblings may just be the desire to have a brother or sister in their own family. On the other hand, adopted children may be asking about birth siblings. Sometimes this is because the child doing the asking would like a new playmate. If the child is in his teens, he may be concerned that the person on whom he has a crush may be somehow connected to him through DNA. That could be gross! 

Many adoptee questions regarding siblings have to do with timing, developmental stage, and an understanding of their own identity and adoption story.

Young children are very accepting of different family roles, without a deep understanding of what each role entails. As with most things related to open adoption, the more normal and natural it is to talk about birth siblings, the fewer questions and more accepting the child will be. For a child to discover later in life that there are siblings, the questions about identity again come into play. 

What does this look like in real life? At a recent post-placement visit, big brother was happy to show off his new little brother. This young man, not quite in kindergarten, understood that his new little brother was here to stay, and that he had big responsibility in teaching him what it was to be a member of the Smith family. This same young man had recently shared a birthday party with a younger biological sibling placed in a different family. The young man knew that this other child was also his sister, and this sister didn’t live with him, and really…this was no big deal. 

It was no big deal because all the adults involved were comfortable in their own roles as parents and understood the connections between them. No one worried that the little ones wouldn’t understand. They answered questions as they arose, and celebrated the connections they shared.

Now it’s your turn. How do you—as either birth parents or adoptive parents—navigate the questions related to siblings? What do your sibling relationships look like? Any great challenges? Any great answers?

Until next time,

Diane


Why Adoption?

Ever heard the expression “I can’t see the forest for the trees?” Sometimes working in the field of adoption, this expression comes to mind, and I start to feel a little overwhelmed. Adoption is a tough way to make a living. The emotions of everyone involved generally run high. Prospective adoptive parents who may still be grieving their infertility. Birth families who are grieving the physical loss of their baby. Sitting in grief with both sides of families touched by adoption is a privilege. Yet it’s a tiring privilege.

So why do it?

I do it for the adoptees. 

Adoptees become adoptees completely through the choices of the adults to whom they are connected. Their birth parents make a choice based on their inability to provide care they believe the child needs at that point in their life. Adoptive parents choose to adopt a child because they believe they can provide for that child in ways that the birth family cannot.

Because adoptees do not have a choice in this crucial piece of their lives, it is up to the adults who did make this choice to provide not only for the child’s physical and emotional needs, but also for their identity needs.

Adoptees need to believe that they are wanted. Treasured. Loved.

They have a right to know the parts of their biology that make them a unique individual and the parts of their adoptive family that also contribute to this uniqueness.  

Adoptees do not need to be grateful to their adoptive parents any more than a biological child needs to be grateful to their parents.

I work in adoption because I want to help first moms realize that their decision to place a child was a good one and one that was not made for nothing. 

I work in adoption because I want to help the adults create the kind of environment in which to raise children that lets the child flourish. 

I work in adoption because I want the adopted child to grow up to be a confident adult who knows—really knows—that they are loved and have value. 

That’s why I work in adoption.


Shame has no place in adoption.

Shame is hot right now. And by hot, I mean trending. Social worker/author/speaker Brene Brown has made shame a trending topic. From her TED talk to her Oprah featured best-sellers to her Netflix special, Brown is tackling the subject fearlessly. 

Adoption is no stranger to the concept of shame.

Historically, adoption thrived on shame. There was the shame of infertility. Obviously, real men are able to get their wives pregnant, and real women are able to conceive and bear children. There was the shame of unexpected pregnancy. Really good girls don’t have sex outside of marriage, so they certainly can’t get pregnant. Over time, that morphed into really good girls may have sex outside of marriage, but if they give away their babies,they are inherently bad. And sadly, many adoptees have wondered if there was something intrinsically wrong with them that led to birth mothers’ decisions to place them. 

You could say adoption has been a real shame storm.  

“So, what’s the problem with that?” one might ask. “Doesn’t a little shame motivate people to do better?”

And that is where the misconception lies. There is a difference between shame and guilt.

Guiltis the emotion that claims, “I made a mistake.”

Shameis the emotion that insists, “I am a mistake.”

All of us make mistakes. Not a day goes by where I don’t realize I could have handled a situation differently, spoken a little more kindness into the world, or merely even made eye contact and smiled at a stranger. Some days—some situations—are more apparent where the mistakes lie, and on those days, my guilt meter perks up and reminds me to change what needs to be changed.

But making a mistake is different than believing my very existence is a mistake. 

As adoption has evolved past the days of “secrecy for everyone’s best interests,” it’s stigma and power to shame have decreased. This is in no small part why adoptions are increasingly more open in terms of post placement contact. This is why adoption professionals, myself included, advocate for talking with children about adoption from the very beginning of their lives. This is why ASC advocates for our birth mothers, reminding the world that strong women make brave choices.  

Adoption is about relationships. And shame has no place in adoption. Adoption is about relationships, and the healthier the relationships are, the less need there is for the toxicity of shame.


The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same!

It’s time to say “thank you.”

Thank you to everyone who wished me well as the news of my 20thanniversary was posted on social media in June. Thank you to all the families who have allowed me into their homes as I asked oh so many personal questions. Thank you to all the families who have allowed me to share in their joys and walk through the tough times. Thank you to all the women with whom I have cried over their loss. Thank you to all the adoptees who have allowed me to be a part of the struggle in their understanding their identity. Thank you to a great group of women who have allowed me to be vulnerable and a part of their struggles—I call you co-workers and more importantly friends. Above all, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Maria and Shannon who had no choice in my becoming their mother, but are the embodiment of family.

There. The mushy stuff has been said. It’s heartfelt, but let’s move on.

I first began working for ASC in 1994. After a five year hiatus from 2004-2009, I have been back and immersed in the work of adoption. Looking back at 25 years, I have been struck by a few things. 

The mechanics of the process have changed.

Oh, sure, families still need a home study to adopt a child. The basic requirements of what is in that home study have varied slightly, but not by much. As an agency and a professional social worker, my goal continues to be to help families think about what it means to raise a child—not just get a baby. Expectant moms still consider making an adoption plan because they believe they are unable to provide the care they believe their child needs and deserves at that time in her life. 

Expectant parents used to connect with potential adoptive parents by reading classified ads in newspapers. Newspapers are now  going the way of the dinosaurs. The agency’s advertising budget relied heavily on Yellow Page ads. Packets sent to expectant moms used to include a “Dear Birth Mom” letter accompanied by a very brief biography. Adoption coordinators would take scrapbooks of families with whom the expectant moms thought they might be interested. Expectant and adoptive families would meet once or twice before placement, but have very little contact before the baby was born.

After the adoption was finalized when I first began working at ASC, families would send letters and photos to the agency to forward on to their child’s birth family. Every piece of correspondence would be photocopied and placed in the adoptive family’s file. It quickly became apparent that we would not have enough storage to do this indefinitely.

Post placement visits were extremely rare. So were transracial adoptions. 

So many changes.

What hasn’t changed are the feelings underneath it all. 

At it’s heart, I’ve learned that adoption is about connection. Birth parents are looking for a connection to the family who will raise their child. Adoptive parents are looking for a connection with their child’s birth family so that they can provide their child with a solid foundation from which they can grow. And adoptees are looking for connection to the people who gave them life—both in the physical and emotional senses.

So once again, thank you. Thank you all for allowing me to connect with you.

Diane