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.

 

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In anticipation

The Big Wait.  The Paper Pregnant with no deadline.  No timeline.  Just hope.  Lots of it.

Hope and an awareness that in the background to our story unfolding, others are happening.

One with social workers, acting on our behalf to make sure that our profile is out there for prospective matches.

One with social workers wanting to see children permanently placed with the right families for them.

Reams of paperwork we completed on file being accessed as is needed to confirm and explore possibilities.

A child, whose story we don’t know yet, having to cope with hard goodbyes and temporary hellos until we have the privilege of parenting him.

A birth mom, who may or may not still be around this child – I have no idea of her story but she is an important part of ours, not just as the birth mom of our small but as our family grows in the years ahead.

Our community.

Our community anticipating with us, praying with us, holding open hearts and dreams with us.

Our community blessing us with practical gifts.

Blessing us with a celebration and gathering of family and friends to welcome us to first time parenthood together with a shower and a braai  – my guy is an important part of this all.

Our community getting frustrated for us in the wait – more than us most days!

Our community embracing our process and while not seeing my belly grow, are making space anyway in our worlds for our future child.

Us.

Us talking about the things we are excited about and the things we are nervous about.

Us dreaming what we would like the new rhythm  in our family to be like.

Us talking about working mom, part time working mom or full time mommy space for a season.

Us talking to our families and friends about our feelings in this process.

Us accompanied by my sister in law to an adoption conference (in which she became an us as she pressed in to aspects of adoption)

Me.

Me waking up and thinking about what and how to arrange the second room.

Me reflecting on the professional things my brain knows and needing to work these through with a professional of my own in anticipation.

Me remembering the fear & grief of losing pregnancies and knowing that this is a definite thing.

Me recognising that I am not going to have all the answers and get this right every time and that showing up consistently to try and figure things out is what matters.

Ultimately God.

Walking this journey is teaching me more about faith – we hope for things that we do not yet see to quote Hebrews 11:1.   It’s confidence of what is coming. It’s assurance of what I don’t see. It’s the conviction of knowing this and preparing to do the things that need doing.

In anticipation.

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.

Are there more white people like you?

In the past few weeks I have been faced with my ‘privilege’.
My white privilege.
Yes mine.

I have been faced with the fact that as much as I am surrounded by amazing people, doing things to see communities shift and healed, that there is not enough contact between different (colour)people happening to make people realise that actually there are many(white)who are seeking this change. Who think that justice matters, who think that restitution matters.

How do I know this?

Simply because too often, it’s the same people in contact with the same circles –regardless of what the circles look like. I know this because a friend boldly told me this. He heard me say that my heart was sore because in 2 days I had two friends of colour (from different contexts) voice this sentiment:

Are there more? Maybe there are more but we don’t see or hear them?

Then I got thinking about how do we make these circles bigger? How do we mix them up more?

The next challenge then got thrown at me by someone whose dreams I respect and support, whose voice is loud, whose passion for community, for people and for South Africa is being refined and yet I know that these dreams seem to belong to someone else at times for this friend, as he has other responsibilities in life that stop the pursuit of these dreams.

Why do I think that his dreams matters?
• I believe that we need more young leaders and men like my friend in communities speaking, advocating and encouraging people.

• I believe that we need to relook at how we understand supporting education in this country – for some of us it is about equipping teachers, advocating for bursaries – but I was recently challenged to think beyond that to what does it mean for someone whose very BASIC income is needed to support their family (with basics – regardless of the nature of their work) to how do we support big hearts and brilliant minds out of relationship to be able to study further. We all know that education matters, in this instance though – relationship matters too.

• I was privileged in having parents, who still had to sacrifice, but were able to put me through Varsity with no study debt. My friend’s starting point is not this but it could be if we stood next to him in this. If we acknowledged our privilege – our connections, our contexts, our means – and used it to support him. Then maybe there would be more – more people with privilege being seen as people who are there, who truly are committed to seeing things change.

I want to stand beside a friend to see his dreams come true while his family still live and eat and can celebrate his dreams too. So I am talking with others (yes more of us & mixed racial circles), and praying and seeking other people to stand alongside him. Not out of charity. Out of relationship. This is what family does. This is what we do when we are in relationship and see and hear and acknowledge each other’s dreams.

We help find ways of seeing them happen. I have had people doing this with me. And still do. I want to be a part of someone else’s story too.

This was written with the knowledge of my friend whose story challenged mine – I am grateful that he shared his story with me. In doing so it made me a part of his story as much as he became a part of mine.

One week later: Things that helped, things that hindered & finding grace in grief

I have learnt, lived and experienced things this last week that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. In the midst of the heartache and disappointment there have been many reasons for gratitude. There have also been things that happened that were perhaps well meaning but really not helpful. There were things that I am not sure what they were about but have left me perplexed. They are things. Things for me work well in lists, so here goes the list.

GRATITUDE for the man I married who has loved, held, supported and shown up when nothing he can do can “fix this” right now. I have learnt that Charlie shows up in the way that matters and that he loves me more, deeper and far better than I could have hoped or imagined.

HELPFUL reflection: We need the love and support and ACKNOWLEDGMENT of our community but that much of this grief work is private as much as the journey is shared. So thank you for acknowledging our grief, for praying, for messages and for space. That is both something that I am grateful for and that was helpful. There is a part of this that is lonely and that I can’t share with others – but value them being there. Just being there.

NOT SO HELPFUL reflection:
We chose to share the joy of discovering we were pregnant, as well as the sadness of the loss. The amount of info we share around this is up to us – it hasn’t been so helpful when people have wanted details around either the pregnancy or the loss. We were clear about the reason for not meeting our little person when we announced this (a blighted ovum). Questions & responses which weren’t helpful included, and in fact were quite intrusive:

o Did the doctors do investigations as to why? Can they explain why? (No – if you want more info, perhaps use google, rather than me).

o Were you on hormone treatment? Will you be given hormones to help you fall pregnant again? (Really – this is loaded with assumptions about how we fell pregnant to start with or that there are issues – and if there are, that is obviously something personal that wasn’t shared; and if there aren’t, how do I respond graciously and honour my community who have had struggles in this without pushing into their pain. Fertility is an emotionally loaded area. Please be careful how you approach this with anyone, maybe don’t?)

o Inquiries as to how much (& whether it will be protected/ unprotected) sex we plan on having in the near future (My gut reaction to this: Why would you like to recommend a baby making position?!)

The spiritual side of things matter too. I don’t believe that things always happen for a reason, or that there is a bigger picture or obviously God wanted an extra baby in heaven – my faith in God wasn’t hinged on whether or not this baby made it to us: I was astounded at the amount of people who told me not to give up on God. It worries me that God’s faithfulness is perceived as being contingent on my circumstances – but that is another discussion. The world is messy. Life is messy. This happening is nonsensical to me, and as hard as it is is messy. God doesn’t owe me an explanation -I don’t want to get into a discussion like Job did where God had to remind him of who is who.

It has been a week today since we found out that we weren’t going to meet our small person this side of heaven. Acknowledgment of this means being sad, saying it’s hard and taking your lead from how much information we choose to share. Our medical history is ours and the way in which we are processing privately needs to be ours too.

It doesn’t matter whether this was a first time lucky conception or a hard prayed and longed for one (with or without intervention)– or whether it was an adoption that fell through. When people bond and dream of their small people, it’s a loss – REGARDLESS of how the small person was going to arrive.

HELPFUL reflection: Recognising that while we share stories I don’t want to own your story and I don’t want you to own mine. They are our individual stories of unique babies but with a shared understanding of loss. It is stressful and hard for anyone to have to listen to someone else’s outcome which is not necessarily true for the person. Thank you for the friends who shared their stories but also for those who shared the helpful parts and didn’t insert into our story what their outcome was. Our story isn’t finished yet. A parallel story to this was my younger brother getting married before me – people often asked me if it was hard for me to hope for marriage since I am the oldest and Mark got wed first – no it wasn’t hard. I was never going to marry my brother. His being married, someone else having a baby or not is not my story. It’s theirs. My cousin is going into labour (hopefully) any minute – I am excited at the hope of new life in the midst of our loss. It’s been hard but helpful, for me, to be able to weep and celebrate with her. This might not be true for anyone else.

GRACE moments: That this either owns me indefinitely or becomes a part of my story. My daily choices as I grieve and choose to process will determine this. This was a reminder again that there is a depth of pain that lacks words. It was a reminder that I don’t have to soldier on and that in the midst of this and that there is love in places and people if I am open to receiving and allowing it to be there.

This is a club that I NEVER signed up for. I resent at times the fact that I now have to be a part of this and yet I look at the amazing women in my world who are here too – some who are birth mothers and some who mothers without having given birth (or adopting) and realise that none of them did either and there are lots of clubs throughout the world that people didn’t sign up for.

In the meantime there is grace, gratitude and recognition that it’s okay to say things are sometimes more helpful than others.

This is dedicated to a baby we never met who we named Michael; who would have been born around Freedom Day (27th April). Trusting that his story will help bring greater freedom in our lives, other’s lives as well as a sense of God’s glory in the messiness of life