Adoption: Children, puppies & kittens

Upfront disclosurer:
This is both personal and professional for me.
Before anything else I am a mother through adoption. After that I am a play therapist who has worked with children while still in care and post placement in their adoptive families. I have worked with adoptees and their families for reasons that are not adoption related in the initial referral but where dealing with issues relating to their adoption story changes behaviours, or for other clients, it’s a part of their story but has little to do with why I have the honour of being in their world for a season.

This is being written in response to being asked by a few different people how I feel when people use the analogy of pet adoption for the adoption of children.  

When we when we initiated our adoption process there were a couple of themes that emerged:
– That we were wonderful people to do this.
Hmmm…. we are people who wanted to be parents and recognised that there are different ways to become parents; We are people who believe that children belong in families and while we advocate & support that children remain with their biological mothers wherever we can, we also recognise that there are children where the biological mother, for reasons of her own chooses not to follow this path.
– An assumption that once we had adopted we would fall pregnant.
Some families get to this choosing adoption for reasons related to infertility. The point is that WE CHOOSE this regardless of how we get here. Please don’t reflect this to people. Unless they have shared openly with you as to how they got here.
(We can fall pregnant, we chose a different path to grow our family & separate conversation to this one).
– Either being told wonderful stories of adoption or horror stories.
No judgement in this – it’s our nature to respond to anything from our own experience or perspective of things.
One of the biggest things though, that perplexed my guy and I was being told individually, by different people in different contexts, about when people had adopted their puppy & how it had changed their worlds.

YOH!
At the time I was a lot more reactive than I am now. Mamahood has helped refine my responses. The depth of my feeling about this hasn’t changed. I have had to learn how to navigate things differently for the sake of my child having a mama being available to him rather than waging war with the world. I still think that these things mentioned above matter.
What has been pivotal for my guy and I though, is that throughout this process of parenting, from the months of initial paperwork and screenings and ongoingly now, the question we keep asking is WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR CHILDREN?
What are they going to hear in the narratives around them? What are they hearing in the way we speak or share about adoption or about how we became a family? What is ours to share and what belongs to them to share about their stories? What are they internalising about the conversations re our conspicuous family due to racial differences? What are they hearing in the things we challenge or the things we let go? How are we helping them engage with this all?

Why is this important?
Because when we talk about adoption, even generically and our children are listening, we are speaking into a story that is personal for them and holds meaning for them. Even if we don’t realise it at the time, our children are absorbing messages and perhaps you are reading this as someone involved with children, whether your own or other people’s, who has no known adoptees in your world, the children under your influence are absorbing messages too.

I have worked in an educational setting where some of the children in the classroom were adopted. They are not one homogenous group of children. Some of them were open about their story, some of them were dealing with painful parts of their story and some of them weren’t sure what to do with their story. It was painful however to hear their peers reflect things to these children like ‘You are lucky your family chose you”, “Your biological mother abandoned you or didn’t want you”, “Was your mother too young to have you”? None of these conversations, or simply repeating things from other conversations or media, were helpful for the adoptees in their peer group.

Too often adults default to the language of adoption, that we use with pets.
A tagline that is often seen on social media is ‘Adopt don’t shop’. I fully support rehoming dogs. I have friends, who are advocates for rehoming cats and dogs. We are very much, for the most part, a hair covered community in some way -whether just on the dog blankets, or our pants legs, or our couches. We love our hounds.
I am a crazy dog lady. My dog holds a large part of my affection. He is my shadow and my companion often. He brings me joy & helps me learn to slow down and shake things off. He is my boy BUT as much as he is to me, part of my family, he is still my dog. His needs can be complicated and simple, but they remain pretty constant. (Affection, playtime, outside time, training time, meal time, more affection, more affection and lots of long naps).
My dog was rehomed to us through a rescue organisation. We had a meet n greet that I went to with a friend & my husband saying: “You make the decision, I trust you”, a home check to ensure our property was secure & that the rescue organisation was happy with our approach to caring for the dog who became our dog. We signed paperwork, paid a fee to cover admin and other vet checks that are standard practice and he was delivered to our home.

My child however is not my dog. We had an intensive screening exploring who we were as individuals, how we got to this choice. I sat in police stations for hours getting papers certified, then more papers. We had criminal checks. We appeared before a children’s court magistrate. We met with different professionals. We had compulsory webinars and reading. We had more interviews exploring what we had learnt and realised in our own story in preparation. We prepared our minds and our hearts and then we waited. We waited to get approval to be registered legally, in terms of the law as adoptive parents. We waited and weren’t actively part of choosing a specific child.

My child wasn’t waiting to be chosen in the way that we see puppies or kittens or older dogs and cats seeking homes. It wasn’t a case of looking for the right child for us. Our social work team reiterated repeatedly throughout the screening and prep process that this was about find the right parents for the children registered as eligible for adoption. It was about ensuring, as much as possible, that we would be capable of caring for the fullness of who he is as a child who will mature into an adult.

My child wasn’t this being to be pitied until someone rescued him. He was a human being with his own story and own history. His story. A story we protect and guard for it is the story of his beginning; one which we weren’t a part of and so he needs to choose how he manages this part of his story as he matures, with us being responsible to ensure that he knows what he needs to know as he matures too.
Nor are we great rescuers or saviours. We are simply his parents – figuring out what we need to be doing to honour him as being fully our child in terms of our responsibilities as his parents, as well as a child who has a story that we weren’t part of too.

This all means that the primary focus needs to be about him in our narratives and our stories in a way that too often is lacking when we only focus on the people doing the adopting (or fostering for that matter).

The problem with the comparing adoption of a child to adoption of an animal (however much loved or lucky it is perceived that the animal is) is that we allow for a patronising, debt of gratitude narrative to unfold around adoptees’ lives. This plays out behaviourally in different ways for children and adolescents and dismisses parts of their own story.

Adoptees never chose adoption. All the other adults in their world – from birth parents (&even then not always) to social workers to the courts to the adoptive parents made choices. When we then add a debt of gratitude to the mix, rather than simply acknowledging that this family, formed through adoption does start with a trauma, always, of deep loss, it adds to the work that adoptees and their families need to do.

Please, as someone who sits in this space as a mom and an advocate for children who are processing what this means and how it plays out in different ways in their stories – depending on who and what is influencing their story, can we find a different, honest way of teaching children what adoption is?

If you are unsure where to start, this might be helpful.

Talking adoption… when questions are asked.

Talking adoption… when questions are asked.

What happens when you have a family member who is adopted and other family members start asking questions about why, where, how?

How do you manage this?

My husband and I have been very clear from the start that we believe that our son, and any future adopted children’s beginning stories will belong to them.  This means that we don’t ever discuss where their birth/ first families are or why we ended up as families.

Do we believe that there is a shameful secret around this?  Most definitely not. Even if the story has hard, sad, crazy, wish we didn’t have to talk about this one day, or maybe the story is the ‘ideal’ as much as adoption stories can be the ideal ito content.

We  ascribe the following:

It’s not our story to tell.  Not even as immediate or close family. Or friends.

It’s not our story to tell.  Which means that even well meant, seeking more understanding questions might be left feeling unanswered simply as our son’s right, as well as his first family’s right to privacy takes precedent in this.

Not because we think that family doesn’t matter, but because we are recognising that there are more things to consider than just close family and friends in this.

We love how much our family and friends celebrate the joyful one who is our son.

We also hold a space that we don’t get to share with anyone else, around parts of how he became our son.  There are elements of gratitude but also elements of grief in this.

Another tricky part of this is navigating GENUINELY curious question from children in their efforts to understand. We need to answer questions generally without allocating any of the answers to our son’s story.

Huh?

The reason for this simply is that general answers, (Like sometimes first mom’s can’t look after their children because… economics, relationship, life seasons) need to be given in a way that leaves the final answer with we don’t know why.  This is something that is for him and his first mom to know. Maybe he will know that information, by we don’t know.  This is part of his private story.

As our son’s parents, we get to give him the detailed version of the story-  and we don’t want to be correcting myths or well intended things that he might hear in passing that have been communicated along the way.  The truth of his adoption story will always be known by him, along with this is your private story and we, as his parents, are responsible for helping him share this appropriately as he grows.  Once things are said, they cannot be unsaid or taken back.

SO in our family – and we recognise that other adoptive families might choose to do this differently – if you have children or maybe you are asking these questions, or are an adoptive family trying to navigate this, below is some of what my husband and I  are asking be used in response to these questions:

  • We use the term first family to cover first mom and other first family members-  as much as we are the family our child is doing life with, there was another family  he was born from first.  Before us.  It also makes explaining two families a little easier for us when we have already introduced the concept – whether clearly understood or not just yet.
  • There are lots of different reasons for why first families (moms, dads, grandmothers and all the other adults in a child’s life) might not be able to look after a baby that grew in the first mom’s tummy.
  • We don’t know the reason why *insert child’s name* was adopted
  • Some of the reasons might be that the first mom was too young, or maybe didn’t have enough money or enough resources to look after a baby. Another reason might be that the mom didn’t plan to have another baby and so she needed to have someone else look after the baby.  We don’t know why *insert child’s name* first mom made this decision.  That might be information that they have or don’t have-  but it’s private information and so we don’t know.
  • You might be wondering who helped the *insert child’s name* join our family? There are people called social workers who look after children and try and make sure that every child whose first mom can’t look after them gets to join another family.
  • When children are adopted most of the time, the first family isn’t a part of the child’s life anymore.
  • Alexa and her husband always wanted to adopt – even before they got married, they spoke about this. About choosing to have children whose first mom’s couldn’t help their babies get big.
  • Adoption means that there are two families for *insert child’s name* – one they were born from and one that they live with forever – one day *insert child’s name* might have a lot of questions about this all and then it’s up to his mom and dad to help figure this out.

Some questions to help both adults and smaller people process this include:

  • Do you think that this might be confusing for him sometimes? Or maybe it might make him a little sad?  What do you think would be something that might make him happy about being in our family or community? What makes you happy or sad in this story? Does anything worry you in this?

Practical ways of talking about this might include:

  • Using one piece of paper, drawing two different families but putting a line down the middle to explore the two families.
  • Using play dough to create families and social workers and explaining the story.
  • Using photos to tell the story of families becoming family and internet sourced scans of pregnant bellies.
  • Using different feeling faces along the way.

 

We are aware that we might seem over protective, unwilling to share or over sensitive in this.It’s not about us though – it’s about our children. It’s about figuring out how to best love them, allowing our broader community to be loving them well and modelling the values and core beliefs we hold as adoptive parents in this.

It’s about ensuring that their story remains fully theirs.

 

Choosing Children. Or Not.

Adoption as a choice.
Not a default. Not because of. A choice.

This is a vent post.
I am currently frustrated. Intensely, immensely frustrated by a post I just read on a friend’s facebook wall where someone stated that to actively choose to adopt or stay “sterile” for the sake of not having children, and so that you could have sex without procreating, he didn’t believe was biblical.

Song of Songs seems to suggest otherwise.

He also believed that women are saved through childbirth – a little out of context as the Word clearly states that women and men – both are only saved in the Christian faith through the Cross. In other words through Jesus.
That aside.
When did we become the police of people’s choices to have children, or not to, or how to?

I selfishly love the spaces & freedom my friends who choose not to have children invite me into. Not because I don’t want to be a mother. But because it speaks to other parts of who I am and who they are.
Before we got married my guy and I spoke about how we were going to grow our family. My vision was ALWAYS adoption. It was just a matter of when we were going to adopt.

Not because I want someone else’s child, but because the reality is that there are children who need to be in families and I wanted to be a mother and actually, I still continue to want to be a mother.

I don’t have strong need to be pregnant. The only time I did have strong need for this was after 6 months of considering this as a possibility and knowing that it mattered to my husband AT THE TIME and wanting to honour him in this – the perfectionist in me felt the need to get this right. Sadly, we had a miscarriage, but even so, according to the Gynae, there was absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t fall pregnant should we CHOOSE too. See that word? It’s been a loud one in my head and heart.

We did adopt. We have a gorgeous one year old son.
We want him to have siblings. We have recently wrestled and worked through which way we want to grow our family next. We have prayed about this. We have spoken at length to each other. We have sat with the options individually. We have had to take a long hard look at our motives and ourintentions and selves (the good and the ugly) and come to a decision.
A decision based on CHOICE.
A decision based on who we are, where we are, who our son is and what we believe about parenthood.

Regardless of whether people come to the point of adoption through the initial plan A or a journey with the grief of infertility or a journey of life not working out quiet the way they envisioned with a partner – It’s a CHOICE. It’s a choice to love another. (Like you choose to love your partner who wasn’t born to you). It’s a choice to do midnight nappy changes, feeding, teething, hospital visits, interrupted sleep, reallocating budget. It’s a choice to be a parent – regardless of whether we get there through sex, adoption or marrying someone who already has children.

It’s a choice to not be a parent too.

Our lives exist outside of our children, we are people apart from our children and they are people apart from us.

We have the freedom to choose. Most of us reading this anyway.
Maybe we need to honour other’s freedom in this too.

Before the Birthday Candles

I lit a candle tonight and reflected on the fact that we get to celebrate my son’s first birthday soon.

We get to celebrate the laughter, the giggles, the mischief and snuggles that is fully him.

We get to reflect on the joy of the last 6 months of being his parents. The joy in seeing him sit up, cut teeth, crawl, walk and speak his first basic words to us.

Before we celebrate the sweetness of adoption though, the bitter part of the grief of adoption has shown itself.

I told him his basic adoption story again this evening – he has heard it before.  It is his story after all, as much we are a part of it and he is a part of ours.

His story, the details of which are his to hold onto or tell as he grows.

Tonight on reflecting on our beautiful son and how awe inspiring it is to see him growing before our eyes, I was reminded of the fact that he is going to have things to deal with that we can’t pretend he isn’t.

I was reminded that  for 9 months, he grew under his birth mom’s heart – and as much as people say that adoption is when a baby grows in your heart instead of your womb, this baby grew under a heart in another’s womb and that is a part of his story.

It is a part of her story and now it is a part of our story too.

A friend recently reminded me that the Psalmist speaks in Psalm 139 of being knit together in a mother’s womb and not being hidden from the start.  She reminded me that my son was known from the start as much as we didn’t know him from the start.  I was reminded this evening that as much as adoption was always part of how I planned to grow my family one day, of the conversations my guy and I had prior to marriage that, this plan brings with it a story of loss for two others – but that they are known too.

Tonight I want to make sure that he knows that we will stand next to him in responding to the things that are going to be his to deal with as he matures into manhood.

More than that, before we think about candles on cakes, tonight I lit a candle and want to honour a birthmother, who a year ago was preparing for labour and to relinquish (the details of this are hers and his) the baby who became our son.

I want to honour her simply for being his other mother.  We don’t know her and she doesn’t know us and yet our life stories are intertwined.

So before the candles celebrating a year of life are lit, there is another life I want to honour tonight and have no idea how do that.

Other than to pray.

To hold the space with my son and to say to this other mother that you are a part of our story always.

In a respectful way.

In a way which honours a decision you made.

In a way which honours our son.

In a way that honours the unknown between us and yet shares a life.

Tonight I simply want to honour you.

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The world doesn’t work like that.

Over the past few weeks I have had the incredible honour of getting to know someone a little better who is in the same social media South African Adoption and Conversations re: race issues in SA as me.  She is someone who tentatively spoke out about the fact that white parents of black children need to remember that their children are going to grow up experiencing things around race that white people never need to think about.  She is someone who is South African. She is someone who has lost someone close to her under apartheid as a part of the struggle.  She is black.

And then the moderating of her reminder began from white people.

Assumingly good people who have chosen to adopt because they believe each child should be in a family.  People who want to parent children regardless of race.

It happened again when she shared her frustration (with evidence) of a racist encounter with an estate agent who told her a property was unavailable and yet it was available when her white friend called. THE NEXT DAY.

It makes me cringe when we, as a white community do this.

I say we as I am no more innocent of wanting to shout out loudly some days.

My most recent PAUSE moment was needing to check my own reactions to spaces I have been invited into and then question how I feel when people I am in relationship with use language or speak out their anger in a way that causes pain or unsettledness or fear in me.

Whether as well-meaning, faith filled people or not, simply as when we moderate someone’s experience of a racial interaction from outside of their racial experience not only do I believe that  we minimise their story, but we also assume we can fix it or know better.

Whether we recognise it in the moment or not.

Before my son made me a mama, while we were waiting for him, my guy and I had lots of conversations about how we wanted to manage being a mixed race family.  We realised the following:

  • While we might be given great insights into the challenges and glory moments facing people who belong to a racial group that is different to ours, we don’t have their lived realities and that it’s not random people’s responsibility to educate us. Rather, we need, out of relationship with people in our community to identify mentors and teachers to navigate things – both culturally and in terms of race.
  • Our son is our son is our son and we are his. Something I tell him often – mama is yours – but part of him being embraced in the fullness of who he is means recognising that some of the challenges that might face him aren’t challenges that we have had to deal with in our own worlds growing up.  This doesn’t mean that we make race the focus and family secondary; it means we recognise that our family has to learn new ways of engaging with the world.

It means we look at what do we need to equip ourselves and prepare him outside of what we strive to make a safe space for him within our home.  The language we use, making sure his hair and skin are cared for well, without making that the only focal point in embracing him and delighting in him as he explores the world.

  • I am (proudly) my boy’s mama – but no one is going to know or care about that when he is out on his own or an adult. He needs skills, support and insight into navigating spaces as a black man in South Africa.

Before I became his mama, people told me to just let him be my son when he came home.

He is fully my son.  This week he had surgery.  I have cleaned up the tears, the blood off his and my clothes from holding him to settle him.  I have held him or engaged with him almost constantly as he has needed through the day, and the night, so that he could rest, sleep or just be.  He is my son.  My tears have flowed at the physical discomfort and pain he has been in that I couldn’t stop and prevent and all I could do was be present with him.

I am reminded that our family isn’t always perceived as fully being just family when people glare, won’t make eye contact (and this isn’t a cultural thing), shake their heads or are simply rude when we walk past.

I am reminded that while he is still little and I am mostly around, I can field this and help navigate it, minimising its impact.  I can only do this though if I am willing to listen and learn and be challenged.

I am reminded that as he gets bigger, I won’t always be there to do so.

I am reminded as I watch him grow of children I have worked with, or been friends with who have shed tears because children wouldn’t play with them because they were too brown.

I am reminded that the world and its people see colour and that as adults we need to help children understand what that means.  I am reminded that we are in this world too.

I am reminded that this is beyond simply people being mean.  This is about a history of systemic thinking that is entrenched in us in different ways around superiority and inferiority and that we have a responsibility to navigate this out of ourselves and the world around us.

I am reminded that as much as I believe all people are created equal that the world doesn’t work like that.

I am reminded that as much as I might not agree with systems and social or business models that perpetuated race issues, and still do, that doesn’t make them not real.

I am reminded that for me to parent my son well means to embrace the fullness of his story, of who he is and that I need to do this in community.

I am reminded that I can’t pretend that these things don’t matter.

The world doesn’t work like that.  As much as we might wish it did.

 

It’s not my story to tell

We were joined just over 6 weeks ago.

6 weeks of getting to know each other.

In these 6 weeks we have had to navigate being a new family with a baby, but who isn’t a new born.

We have been exceptionally grateful for the conversations, the listening, the facebook groups talking around things from a transracial adoption perspectives, adoptive parents, birthmoms perspectives and adoptees perspectives that happened in the build up to meeting our boy.

We ventured out the house for rambles, just the 3 of us in the first week of being together.

In the first week of being together we had already run into questions and statements– some well meant, some simply curious and some just inappropriate re: how our family was joined.

We have had to navigate some racial stuff.

We have had to navigate questions around his story.

We have had to navigate questions around the adoption process and costs.

All of this is stuff beyond simply being a family. Beyond simply being a new family. Beyond the (happens to all I know) unsolicited comments and advice.  Comments and advice which I know are well meant but don’t always acknowledge that adoption starts with a relationship (or more than one as between birthmoms and adopted families there are foster/ place of safety placements for adoptees too) ending.  So regardless of how cute, or little, or challenging our children are, when we adopt, our families start with navigating a grief.

My own story involves having being intimately involved in another little boy’s life who called me his mamma for a season despite my reminding him that I couldn’t be. Having to step back from his life was one of the hardest things I have ever done (He is in a permanent placement now with siblings and I celebrated the sweetness of that despite the bitterness of saying goodbye.  He taught me much about parenting and loving babies and being available when you don’t ‘feel’ awake, rested & sociable enough!)

My own story involves having to face an awareness that the grief that I have around this creates empathy for my son’s birth mom and yet is not the same.  The grief of knowing that you have to say goodbye to someone and step back from their lives and yet they are very much alive.

We, my guy and I, both believe that our family story isn’t just ours as the adoptive parents.

 

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Not every adoptive family will feel this way. The internet is full of public disclosures by adoptive families.

Our family being an adoptive family is already public – we can’t pretend that we are genetically his!

Our family story also belongs to his birth mom, as well as to him.

We adopted by choice. He needs choices to navigate the world as the world gets bigger and he engages more of it.

It needs to be his story to tell.

Deeply grateful for friends and family who have honoured this space as well as created safety for us as a new family to be a new family, regardless of our incredible boy’s age!

Grumpy but Grateful

I am a mom to a 6 month old.

I have only been a mom to him for 2 and a half weeks.

That’s when he joined us – 2 and a half weeks ago.

Our plan A – his plan B.

His plan A would have been to stay with his birth mom.

The bitter-sweetness of adoption is that fact.

I am grateful for the sweetness of this boy, of the joy that he is, that he is the first child that my guy and I get to parent together.

My heart has ached for his birth mom and him.  His first Christmas was with us – not her. This was her first Christmas without him.  This has been a tangible grief in the last 2 weeks.

Joining our family was the 2nd biggest thing that has happened in his short life.  He has had to settle into a new way of being with us and us with him.

The reasons for his joining our family and not staying with his birth family is not my story to tell – that belongs to him.

Joining us.  Not because he is lucky, or because we are extra special.  Simply because we have been joined.  Matched in a process that was full of incredible grace.

We have been joined and belong to each other, with the knowledge that he is linked to another too.

The last 2 weeks have been amazing. Overwhelming.  Exhausting. Terrifying. Exhilarating.

Pretty much what any new mom feels – regardless of whether the baby joined their family through a biological birth process or not.

I have been so grateful for the way in which our community has rallied around us – from my mom only being a phone call away – I can’t wait for her to be a short few minutes away – to friends and family who have stepped up, with meals, WhatsApp support and in support of our transition.

I have been grateful to my guy who has been open to truly co-parenting –even though the sleep thing is hard and he is/ was averse to body fluids of all sorts.  I am grateful that he gets that we are both in a 24/7 commitment with our boy and that in some ways, when he leaves the house, the intensity is different than my being home –and yet that doesn’t minimise the fact that him going out to work allows my being at home – something that we are both grateful for!

I have been grumpy, like all new moms, at times, as we settle into this new season.

I have been grateful for people respecting the fact that we need to attach and learn each other’s dance before our gorgeous boy gets to engage with others.

I have been grumpy from tiredness at times as our small family is only 2 and half weeks old in this sacred, fragile, beautiful adventure and it’s incredible; it’s also still new and unknown as we navigate new ways of being as indviduals, partners and parents.

I have been grumpy and oversensitive sometimes when people ask well- meaning questions or offer advice (like happens with ALL parents, new or not) around what our boy does or needs.  It’s easier some days than others to field all of this.

What he needs, what we need is for our attachment dance to be danced and the rest follows that.

His grief at this change (yes, babies grieve), the adjustment for him, as well as figuring out who we are and are we going to keep showing up for him, loving him, feeding him, trying to figure out what he needs is our priority now.  Yes, he is 6 months old – so we celebrate all the joys and milestones that come with that but together we are only 2 and a half weeks old.

Our boy’s starting point wasn’t with us.  It was with people who genuinely cared about him to look after him – but that isn’t the same as being in a family that you belong to – and that brings extra developmental tasks for him and for us to navigate. As individuals and as a family.

Not because of anything else, but for the fact that this is beautifully normal in the adoption process.

I have reminded friends (and clients) of this in the past.

It is my turn to be reminded.