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.