Wanting to know more

Narrative Burden: The pressure or expectation to share one’s life narrative.

We all have narratives – a story. We all have things we share and don’t share. I am learning more and more though, as I read and listen that certain people’s stories feel and seem more public than others.

One of my biggest frustrations, in response to well-intentioned actions/ questions, when my own personal filters get tested, has been to have to hear “It was well meant”. One of the most helpful things I have recently read in a book by Gail Steinberg & Beth Hall called Inside Transracial Adoption was that it’s not just about the intent it’s also about the impact. I think that this sums up brilliantly what I have often clumsily tried to say.

It’s not just about INTENT. It’s also about IMPACT.

(It was in this book that narrative burden got given a name for me.)

The more I reflect on narrative burden, the more I realise that while it is a term used in adoption circles with transracial/ cross-cultural adoptees, it’s a really helpful term in understanding some of my (other race) friends’ stories too. The friend whose model C school accent doesn’t reveal that she grew up in a rural Eastern Cape village or the friend who ‘defied the odds’ and whose story then becomes public property with people wanting to understand and know and be intrigued as to how he or she got to where they are. All well intentioned in terms of meaning to be encouraging and seeking understanding but also potentially having an impact not intended – that of being seen as the exception, or as previously blogged about meeting a particular standard suddenly which is not always so encouraging.

In my circles I am seeing a push to more and more open, deep dialogue with the intention to bring healing and understanding around issues of justice and race. We can only do this with people we feel safe sharing the deeper stuff with. We can only do this within appropriate parameters. We can only do this well when we feel like we have a choice and know that what our stories will be heard and respected. Otherwise it feels well intentioned, but actually might have a very different impact.

Part of our official adoption prep has been to listen, to read, to discuss and to explore specific topics.

Part of my personal prep has been speaking to different friends, not in my professional capacity, but as a friend, who have adopted and listening to some of their learnings and frustrations and joys as adoptive parents. One of these friends recently confided that it was hard being asked to share their adoption experience (through writing a requested article) simply as it felt like speaking out their child’s story without their child being able to choose if this is something that they would be comfortable with, or not. This really struck me. Despite the fact that nothing private would be disclosed, their family would once more be on display in a way. It struck me how much this person who is an advocate for adoption and family and people was advocating for their child’s privacy and safety in sharing. It struck me also how conflicted this felt for them.

My guy and I have been speaking about what do we do to keep and protect our future child’s story safe?

We would like our child to have their own story – one which they can choose to tell and engage with as they are developmentally ready to do so. No one asks biological children to explain the private aspects of their stories of origin, and yet in some ways I am realising, more and more, again and again – through reading, through listening and through discussions, that adopted children & especially obviously adopted children don’t get offered the same right to privacy that most of us expect to have – whatever our story is.

I have often thought (and will confess to having said on occasion) ‘tongue-in-cheek’ to people who allude to wanting the full disclosure and details of a child’s story of origin that is kind of like asking parents of biological children to go into the personal details of the circumstances around conception of their children. It’s just something that we (generally) respect as being private. Yet with adopted children there is a narrative burden to tell this story– both on the child as they grow to explain it and on parents who get asked along the way.

Maybe this is a part of our ‘talk-show’, reality TV, social media culture we now live?

Part of my wanting to respect & figure out the ‘narrative burden’ has also meant re-looking at how and what we share – and recognising that I can tell my story only while there is no potential impact on my child or my family. My family has stories which are ours. Which we don’t tell randomly. My small is going to have to develop skills I didn’t need to growing up to help manage this challenge. This is not a shame based response. It’s not an ‘adoption is a secret’ response. It’s a response, for me, which recognises that adopted children don’t get the gift of privacy, or only having their parents know their starting story – social workers, foster parents, sometimes police, and sometimes multiple people in these roles amongst others all know their story which started with saying goodbye without a choice. I want to know better how to give our child the gift of being able to choose.

Discovering ‘narrative burden’ has already been a gift. It’s encouraged me to examine what do we hold in the sacred spaces within our marriage? Within our families and close friends?

Experiencing a glimpse of this when people ask ‘why adoption’ and then offering solutions or intended encouragement especially when we aren’t particularly close, or they don’t know that this has always been plan A for us, has given me a tiny taste of this.

My strategies in being gracious in this are being refined. In learning to recognise intent and respond strategically to that as well as impact. Not just impact, or potential impact. Definitely not perfect. Just being refined.

Grace.

Fierce protection and the things people say

A friend recently said to me:
“I wish I could just be my daughter’s mom rather than always being seen as the adoptive mom” – she is part of a transracial family.

She is her daughter’s mom. My heart aches at the fact that people struggle with this based on the appearance or how it started. Regardless of the reasons she chose to adopt.
Then I look at my friends who are in transracial families by virtue of marriage where my paler or blonde friends have coffee skinned dark haired babies. Or my coffee skinned friends have blonde babies –simply because of the way their genes mixed to produce their beautiful kids and I wonder if they get asked the same questions at times in terms of being conspicuous.

My heart aches at the fact that we need to think through how we are going to protect our children from ignorant, uninformed or unhelpful statements. My heart is already fiercely protective of my not yet known child, whose life challenges and growing up is going to be in a family that can’t wait to have him home and yet also has to recognise that by virtue of the fact that he is adopted, he is going to have extra work to do as a part of his life story.

My fierce protection extends to wanting to say the following:

Please don’t tell me that as soon as we adopt, then we will fall pregnant: We can fall pregnant. Yes, we have publicly shared about miscarriage but that doesn’t mean we have given up hope or can’t have biological babies. The medical reality is that we can fall pregnant and there is no known reason why we can’t have biological children if we choose to – but we choosing to go the adoption route first. This has always been part of our choice for our family. When you tell me that as soon as I adopt I will fall pregnant, the unspoken message I hear isn’t encouraging – in fact it makes things awkward. Awkward because I already want to protect my child. I hear and worry that my adopted child will hear: Being adopted is a second prize plan and my bio baby is the first & that’s not something any of us would want to be – a second prize.

Our choosing adoption is part of the first prize for our family. It always has been.

Please don’t make assumptions about our fertility as potential adoptive parents – some of my friends already have bio babies and have chosen to adopt. Some of my friends can’t have bio babies and have chosen to adopt. Some of my circles chose to adopt before even considering bio babies – not because they are somewhat noble or holier or something more than other mothers – simply as this is the story that they have chosen for their families. When we make assumptions about this – people are left needing to defend & protect themselves and their children – when people choose to fall pregnant and grow their families that way, we celebrate the new life. As a prospective adoptive parent, my choices are wrapped in layers of recognising that I potentially will be a mom but that there are challenges and losses amidst the celebration of family and life – perhaps ask if there is freedom to do so rather than assume why I am doing so & if there isn’t enough depth of relationship or I haven’t volunteered why I am doing this, then maybe we aren’t in a space to want to engage around this.

Good moms and dads want to protect their children against things that aren’t helpful to their growth and give them skills to manage the challenges that are a part of life. I never want my child to think that they are my 2nd prize – regardless of whether their younger siblings arrive from my tummy or through an adoption process. We all know life shoves enough at us along the way without adding that into the mix. Please help my child never feel obligated to me – we will belong to each other – not owe each other infinite gratitude for having each other. My gratitude is to God who models adoption for me. My gratitude is for a husband who was pro-adoption before I met him and in figuring out what we wanted life to be about as a family had adoption in the picture too. My child isn’t going to be lucky to have us. We are going to be blessed to have each other.

We are excited, and planning, and dreaming, and nervous as we continue with the screening and prep process. We are aware and processing some of the challenges of parenting – we have to do this differently simply because we get asked and assessed and guided and need to think things through that some pregnant parents do but many don’t.

I am grateful for a gracious husband. He gets this right in a way I struggle with. Often.

I am having to learn to say things differently, to listen more and work out whether humour, information giving to simply choosing not to respond is the best way forward in protecting my family and future family – rather than just seeking battle always.
I am grateful for the friends who pave the way before us and for those doing this with us and for the beautifully mixed world we get to live in.