There is no adoption story, no matter how beautiful, which does not begin with a great loss. This is a fact. There are no exceptions. There is loss for the birth parents, the extended birth family, but most importantly, there is a tremendous loss for the child. It does not matter if you were in the labor room watching your adopted child be born, if you received them into your arms as an infant, or if you came into their life after they established a relationship with their biological family. All these children experience a huge loss. They all lost their mother. It does not matter the reason.
I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make in parenting adopted children is to not allow them to mourn. I know within myself, I have a tendency to become mother bear, possessive of my children. Acknowledging the loss they have experienced can sometimes feel as if I am admitting I am not their “real” mom, whatever that means. But because I am their real mom, I know their mental health is my priority. Adopted children will mourn their loss, whether their adoptive parents acknowledge it or not. I tend to think being a support for them in the process, and allowing them to work through the emotions that will come with being adopted, whether it be mourning and sadness or rejection and anger, is among the greatest things we can do for them.
In our home, we have given the children permission to speak freely of their experiences. With our children being in relationship with their biological parents until they were three and five, they have distinct memories of the last time they saw their birth family. They have specific traumatic events they can recall and talk about. There are days we sit on the couch and cry together at how awful it is they had to go through that experience. I give them permission to be angry with what happened, but then remind them not to sit in that anger too long. I try to encourage them not to be angry at their biological mother and father, but instead at the circumstances. We try to empower them to avoid the temptation of allowing the events of their past be a reason not to pursue excellence in their present and their future. While their loss is not fair, we reject the idea it is a reason for victimhood. Instead we acknowledge it, feel it, talk through it and learn from it. The only limitation we have placed on this grief, is that we do not allow these conversations to occur in the midst of discipline. Our reasoning is to avoid an unrealistic fantasy that if they were with the biological family they would not be in trouble for unacceptable behavior. We want to live in the truth of what is their personal history and that includes the truth that regardless of who might have been parenting them, if they were loving parents, they would not allow for poor behavior.
The loss of a child adopted at infancy may not be as apparent as the one who experienced the loss as an older child. I believe, however that the sense of loss is likely to appear throughout their childhood and into their formative years, where in human development we are striving to understand who we are. Recently in speaking with an adult child adopted at infancy, she explained an overwhelming sadness when others would talk about who in their family they looked like and the discomfort from school projects involving family genetics. “I thought, initially, my discomfort was because I did not want to be different from the others. I wanted to know who I looked like, too. But I realized it was not discomfort, but instead an overwhelming sadness. I often felt I could not share this sadness, because I did not want to hurt my parents. I did not want them to feel like I did not appreciate my place in our family. I just felt sad and did not have a place to openly work through the sadness. In trying to ignore that sadness, I believe I began to just ignore all the harder emotions. I have suffered because of it. The emotions don’t go away when you don’t acknowledge them. Instead they grow bigger and often turn into problems. I think if I had been given the opportunity to address my feelings of loss and rejection when I was younger, I would not have made several of the damaging choices in my adulthood.”
One of the things we hear the most, and so they hear as they are listening to everything, is how blessed Em and Jordy are to have been adopted into our family. I believe this comment is a beautiful sentiment offered with loving motives. However, there are times I am conflicted in receiving it. Mourning children likely don’t benefit from hearing what a blessing their loss is anymore than grieving parents need to hear it was God’s will that they lost their child.
Logical thinking helps us, as adults, understand how there are many circumstances around adoption where a child could easily be defined as better off within their adoptive family. None of that logic applies in the emotions of loss. While going through our MAPP classes to become foster parents we went through an exercise which I believed to be powerful. This exercise was developed to help us understand the fallacy of understating loss, even in, or maybe especially in view of this better off idea. The exercise included us closing our eyes. Thinking about being in our homes. Imagining our favorite places, our favorite things. The smells of home. Then we were to imagine our families. We were to spend time in our imaginations thinking of the people we live with. See them in our minds. Think of how much we loved them. Think of our sensory receptors as they apply with that person. Once the facilitator of the class believed we were in touch with the relationship with our home and the people we loved with in our home, she stated.
“Now, I want you to imagine that you are whisked away from your home. You don’t get to choose to leave. You are just pulled away. You are told that the place you are going is so much nicer than your old home. The rooms are bigger. The house is more luxurious. There, you will have all new things. You may even get the things you have always wanted but had not yet saved for or been able to buy. You will have all the food you need. You will likely get to choose your most favorite things.
You won’t go back to your old home. Instead you will call this new place your home. When you get there, you will have so many great opportunities. You will also have people there who love you so much. You must call them husband, son, daughter. No, I know you already have those people, but these are now going to be your family. And you don’t need to think about those other people anymore. Look at this house, isn’t it nice? Don’t you appreciate this huge house you get to live in? Why would you not be happy to live here? You are so blessed. You have so many more opportunities now. This new husband, son and daughter, they are perfect for you. They will do so much for you. You will have so much more now.”
The facilitator would then ask us how long it would take us to be ok with this new scenario. Would you want to be with your original family? Would you go into mourning from losing your family? Would you choose better and nicer things than you have now, if it meant being separated from your family? Would those things be of any comfort to you? The answer is likely a resounding, “NO!” Now imagine yourself a child. It is hard to imagine isn’t it?
Make no mistake, I am an advocate for adoption. I believe it is a redemptive work. Because I believe it is an act of love, I have to believe that those of us who have chosen to add to our families through adoption must make as part of the long process the continued support of our children through the loss that required the adoption in the first place. I believe our families will be better, our children will be healthier, and their lives will be easier if we give room for them to grieve as they need to, whether that be on our shoulders and sofas or in the offices of therapists and counselors.