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.

Whites need to sort out the white problem

Two weeks in a row I heard this said.

Once very succinctly and twice as the theme of a dialogue in a space where we were talking about race.

WHITES NEED TO SORT OUT THE WHITE PROBLEM.

Not who to vote for, not who was less corrupt; not who allowed for the coffee drinkers to access better coffee (pre 94 people might recall the chicory blend that masqueraded as coffee) but simply about this thing that is race.

Race as defined by a Xhosa friend in his 50’s “The concept that politicians made up to do what they wanted to” – this said enough about what it was and why he refused to define himself by it despite growing up in an Apartheid defined society.

This consistent theme reinforced for me, again, that as much as we talk about prejudice, as much as people want the colour blind illusion to be true (which it can’t be because then in essence we deny the fullness of the other person), that actually some of the ways that we think we are allies in the fight against racism effectively reinforces aspects of it.

The way in which we want people to share the stories of their pain, present and past, in order for us to understand why this all matters is one of the ways that we reinforce things.  Yes, I get that as we listen to stories, the reality becomes informed and educational and real – but then I look at some of my friends who painfully have repeatedly engaged in this space and realise what it is costing them to have to retell a story that is still a lived reality, while I get to go home to my comfortable world to process it – and they get to go home to continue living it.  In expecting this to be how we shift our spaces, we once more sit in a place of needing to be served, rather than asking what do we need to be together in this.  Intentionally or not – and in response to this, I hear ‘Sisi Lex, we are tired of this – whites need to sort out the white problem, it’s not my problem that they don’t get it’.

A while ago I wrote about the narrative burden we place on people to talk about the thing that is ‘different’ to us – whether it’s being adopted, being disabled, being foreign, being …whatever – the expectation of them to tell their story.  Maybe rather than asking people to tell me their story so that I can get it, I should be more intentionally creating spaces and listening harder in the present as to what matters in the here and now.

I do know that part of listening to each other’s stories is part of learning how we are all impacted by our life experiences and stories –regardless of the position we hold.  Yet, if this doesn’t happen in a relational space with a commitment to more, than as the above friend said, it becomes about the emotional charge of the moment and not about commitment to shifting spaces.

I am starting to more and more realise what it looks like when some of us have been slow to engage with listening to learn and shift spaces, while others are still seeing people live without simply because politicians did what they wanted to do.  Yes, I get that this goes all the way back to colonialism but the reality for people I know, respect, value and love is that this doing what they wanted directly impacts them still.

Our desire for comfort in the white community I believe is one of the biggest challenges to us sorting out the white problem.  We don’t want to make other people uncomfortable or perhaps we are scared of being scorned, labelled, or seen as ‘something’ if we do speak up.

This week my mom called me, in tears.  This short, going grey, perhaps unseen in some circles or prejudged in others based on her ethnic heritage and age, had once more confronted racism in her community.  In the past 6 months alone, my mom has called me a few times to vent around the fact that people think that it’s okay to treat people as unseen, less than, or unequal based on their ‘race’. Some of the issues have been obvious issues, some of the issues have been more subtle and yet obvious enough to be seen if you are willing to see them.  My mom has my respect in this.  She lives in a small town. She & my dad are some of the most hospitable people I know – to anyone – you could visit them simply because you know me, whether I am there or not. Yet, my mom does not keep silent on this issue.  There are details to the how things have unfolded recently that don’t need to be told here – beyond my parents’ challenging the status quo – not just in words, but also in actions and follow through.  They are retired people.  Not the youthful faces we associate with movements like #luister.  They are parents and grandparents wanting people to know that they are valued, seen, heard and that their lives matter.

My 80 year old Ouma (Afrikaans grandmother) learnt to stop using racist and loaded language, because she was challenged. Was it comfortable for her?  No. Was she the same person who was able to engage in radical ways with people when she felt convicted to?  Yes.  To the point of taking bedding off of her bed to give to someone, and inviting a stranger to sit at her table and giving him her plate of food ‘for you never know when you might be entertaining angels’ much to our discomfort at her vulnerability in this.  Yet, she did it. She got that sometimes discomfort meant more than just being uncomfortable.  I so want to see a life well lived in which I get to honour her and my mom’s chutzpah in this way – because they did and do the uncomfortable spaces.

I recently had an experience of someone telling a racist joke during a social event.  Except that there is no such thing.  We tell children in social skills, that it’s only a joke if it’s funny for everyone – else it might be a little bit mean.  They get this.  Yet, how often do we allow things to be pardoned ‘because it was just a joke’.  I liked the person telling the joke.  I liked their family.  I didn’t like the joke or what it meant or said about people that I know and love.  People whose race is different to mine.  And so I said so. And there was an awkward moment or three that followed before there was a rythmn again in the conversation.  In this moment I realised that doing this seems simple, yet this was the space that more than one of my black friends has said matters more to them than how comfortable I am in communities where I am in the minority whether through work or socially.

We need to become comfortable being uncomfortable.  We need to become uncomfortable enough to voice, challenge and invite people to stretch beyond the status quo.  South Africa has space in it for all who care about Africa and the people who live here. Else, we aren’t actually shifting spaces or living out the fact that we claim that all people matter.  One way of being a part of this is for us white people to start owning that we need to sort ourselves out – as uncomfortable as this might be.

Onwards. Failing forwards at times when we don’t get it right but onwards in this.

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.