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.

 

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.