Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Are You an Attuned Adoptive Parent?

When a baby cries, an attuned parent or caregiver recognizes this as a communication of an unmet need and subsequently tries to a) decipher the communication, and b) meet the need. Repetitions of this cycle facilitates attachment between the child and their caregiver.

When an older child comes into a family as a foster or foster-adopt placement, a similar scenario plays out. The child "cries out" -- sometimes with words, sometimes with actual tears, often with behavior. It's a more challenging situation because trauma scrambles the message. Fear masquerades as anger; anxiety as aggression. But a loving and attuned parent can learn to decode the message, to "hear" what the child is saying.

Most parents will bend over backwards to meet the needs of their children. Love, safety, a sense of belonging. Anything that is beneficial, we want them to have it. But what happens when an adoptive parent tunes in and hears the child asking for a connection, or more of a connection, to their biological family?

Here's where many adoptive parents panic and freeze. If they manage to hear the message at all. Sometimes the message doesn't even make it through because it is one that is so scary to adoptive parents that they can't even let it in. There are adoptive parents who would lay down their lives for the children, make any sacrifice, do anything and everything possible to increase their child's happiness and well-being ... anything, that is, but that.

There are a couple of issues here. One is that it is simply very difficult for some adoptive parents to understand that the longing for the biological family does not detract from the solidity of the adoptive family. The biological longing is often perceived as something dangerous and destructive, something that prevents the child from bonding in the new family and that must therefore be quashed.

A second issue is that a sense of connection to one's biological family is not simply recognized as a need. As an adoptee, I believe that it is one of the basic and primal of needs, but the entire adoption industry is based on the premise that it is not a need, or at the very least, not an important one. It's a premise that has benefited from a lot of PR over the years and is still very prevalent, in spite of the attempts on the part of many adoptees, first parents, and others to dismantle it.

As an adoptee, I was in a unique position to hear my daughter when she communicated her longing for more connection with her first family, as she did in many ways. If you've read my blog before you know that I consider open adoption to have contributed positively to my life in many ways. If you've read the new blog of my adopted daughter's first mother, Erica, you likewise know that our open arrangement benefits her as well. But the main reason we have an open adoption is because it benefits our daughter.

I know that some adoptive parents will say that their child doesn't communicate any longing for the biological  family. I have heard adoptive parents say with pride, "My child says they won't ever search for their biological family because we are their real family and we are all they need." I cringe a little when I hear this. Why? Because I was that adoptee -- the compliant adoptee saying what I knew would garner approval. No one ever told me I had to say that, but I picked it up somehow. I knew it was my expected line. For years I repeated it without questioning it, believing I believed it. Then one day, in my twenties, I found myself curled up in a ball on the floor of my apartment, weeping uncontrollably, knocked flat by grief and longing that came at me out of the blue.

I know a set of adoptive parents who have done everything in their power to squash their child's expression of longing for her first mother, including telling her outright that she shouldn't talk about her, or really even think about her, because they are her parents now. Those parents recently told me, without any sense of irony, that one of the reasons they are not pursuing visitation with the first mother is that the child "never asks about her." If you are an adoptive parent, I know that you have your child's best interest at heart. But I urge you to ask yourself the hard questions. Have you really made it safe for your child to express all that is in his or her heart? Does the child trust that you will be able to hear them if they speak their truth, or do you have blinders on in this one area? Is there any way that your own fears and anxieties may be getting in the way of your child's message getting through?

I understand that there are some biological parents who are not safe people for children to be around. Or in some cases the biological parent may be the one who has retreated and pulled back from contact. And then there are those situations in which distance makes regular contact with the biological family impossible. Meeting the longing in the child will look different in different families. In some cases, the best the parent can offer may be empathy and understanding -- acknowledgment of the child's loss. It may mean making space for mourning. (Even this can be challenging for some adoptive parents.) In other situations, creative solutions may be possible. If one or both biological parents are not accessible for whatever reason, is there another relative with whom a relationship might be formed? Can siblings be connected? (For example, there are summer camps devoted to bringing siblings back together for a week or two or reconnection.)

I tried to explain to a friend recently how my bond with my adopted daughter strengthened as I facilitated more contact with her biological family, and she looked at me in disbelief. But when viewed in terms of what I wrote above about attunement, it's not so surprising. My daughter communicated a need and her need was heard and met, by me, her attuned parent. I'm not a perfect parent. I get tired and cranky; I've got buttons and my kids know how to push them. I often look back on situations and wish I had handled them differently. But in this one area I am confident that I am on the right track.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

33 comments:

  1. I absolutely love this post. Since I've made several comments before, I'm sure you remember that I'm a birthmom. I get to see my daughter and her parents and have contact on a fairly regular basis (she's almost 2, so right now, I don't think she realizes quite what's going on and who I am). Anyway, it's SO nice to hear this stuff from an adoptive parent's point of view! Though an open adoption does benefit the birthmother in that she has contact with her child, ultimately it's for the child so that he or she has that biological connection. And...I think you're doing a fabulous job of attuning to your daughter and her needs, in this and other things too! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. We've had a difficult time lately with an open relationship in adoption. Thank you for reminding me why we chose to make this connection. ~Kari

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you, Kari and Jenn! And my apologies to Monika for mistyping her name earlier. :-p

    ReplyDelete
  4. Has anyone told you lately that you rock?? Great post!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ha! Thanks, Andy. You just made my day!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Really good post.

    I don't see why it's so difficult for parents to understand their kid's curiosity/interest in their bio families. I guess it's not really about that, it's all about insecurity.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks, Campbell. Yes, I think you are right. And I understand the insecurity. I'm not immune to it myself, but I try to keep the bigger picture in mind.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I really enjoyed reading this. Our four adoptions were open. All four boys were very curious when they were little and asked all sorts of questions. My second son's birth mom died when he was one. That's been a tough one.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is beautifully clear, Rebecca. My partner is also an adoptee, though hers was an intrafamily adoption and thus has always been open. I do think that's impacted how she has responded to our foster daughter's yearnings for her own family, but I know it's worked in the other direction too. Back when little Mara was saying daily, "I lost my daddy!" she'd turn to Lee and say, "But you lost your daddy, too. And you needed Grace (her bio aunt) to take care of you..." which is not even something we'd ever told her but just what she'd been able to figure out because the story was so much like her own. We're not quite to full openness yet as we move toward finalizing the adoption, but are gently pushing her family to remember us and think of her and open themselves to contact when they're ready for it. It's very clear it's what Mara wants and needs, and I don't want to stand in the way of that.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks Kristen, Heather, and motherissues.

    @Kristen - that sounds really hard ... for you and for your son.

    @motherissues We also didn't fully open things up until the adoption was finalized. In the early days, I did a lot of the empathy and understanding part of things. Being adopted myself did help a lot. Even though my adoption situation was very different from Ashley's, she understood that I had some personal experience with separation and loss.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Great post, some sense at last!!!!Von

    ReplyDelete
  12. We are in the category of her first mother backing out of openness. It is so, so difficult. My daughter has sisters who don't know about her. I show her pictures of her bio family (I have garnered 100s off social networking pages) and when she saay she wants to see them we just tell her "so do we" It is so hard to explain why she can't "go to their house."

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thanks for your comment, Trish. That does sound difficult, but you seem to be sharing as much information as you can and meeting her disappointment with empathy and sympathy. That shows her that you get it, even if you can't change the situation.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Loved your post. My situation is a little different in that I adopted my sons from Ethiopia 14 years ago and they were orphans, having lost both parents
    in the year before we adopted them (they were 4 & 5 when they joined our family), so it was grief that we worked through. 7 years ago though, after years of searching, we found their mum's extended family and 2 years ago their dad's. We go back to Ethiopia every 3 years or so and visit and it has been overwhelmingly positive. We have been welcomed into their family and it has enriched all our lives. Thanks for you thoughtful post.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thanks, Peach and Kathie!

    @Kathie -- love your story of finding the extended families. Thanks for sharing that.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Even when families are forrmed through international adoption - emotional openness to the first families: ie listening to children's wishes to search, supporting that process when it feels age appropriate, inviting your child to communicate about their first parents and then accepting whatever feelings or language emerge, offering acceptance and support with out fear or defensiveness - this to me, is the primary sacred task of being an "adoptive" parent.
    Thanks for this post - its very well said.

    Martha Crawford, LCSW - a-parent
    whatashrinkthinks.com

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks! I appreciate your feedback ... and the tweet. "Emotional openness to the first families" - I like that phrasing.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Amazing post, Rebecca!

    I thank God every day that you have that special ability to truly "hear" what Ashley is really saying. Not only that, but having the strength and guts to do what you know to be right for your (our) daughter. Thank you, you really do "rock"!

    ~Erica

    ReplyDelete
  19. Thanks, Erica. You rock too! Can't wait to read your next post. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Homeschoolingmy3sonsNovember 18, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    Thanks for the post. My parents adopted 2 baby girls at birth. They grew up with us telling them how much we loved them and that although they were adopted we were the family they were meant to be with. The problem is, we honestly believed this. We did not think of them any differently then we did are biological brothers or sisters. But we had no idea that they might not really feel this way. That they might have questions we couldn't answer or emotions that needed to be fulfilled by acknowledging they had another family.

    Now that they are grown and in their 20's they want to find their biological families and my mom seemed hurt by this and not very helpful in the beginning. But because of this I have made sure that my daughter, who was adopted from the foster care system, has an open adoption with her biological families. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. Is it hard? Yes. Is she worth it? Yes.

    The thing is that no matter how much I detest her biological parents and the things they do, they do love her. So I keep my mouth shut about them in front of her and set up boundaries for them with visitation. And sometimes my heart does hurt and is jealous because she will make a picture and say "I am going to give this to Daddy B when I see him again." Or "When can we go see Mommy M?" But I still feel it is more important for her to have this relationship with them and try to remember that just because she expresses love for them doesn't mean she doesn't love me too.

    Katrina
    Carlene's soon to be momma:)
    www.operationorphannomore.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  21. Thanks. "Is she worth it? Yes." Love that!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thank your for this. It is indeed heartening to read!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Ooops "Thank you*" from a mom/first mom.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Caregiving for a child requires the most challenging urgent care wilmington de that every parent has to diligently master and develop on. References such as what you have here allows us to learn from the experience of those who has "been there and done that". Thanks for providing us this learning curve to ponder on. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  26. This is such a thoughtful piece, and I really love it. I need to print it and put it on my wall. A couple of things strike me: 1) that honouring your child's desire for closeness or connection with their biological family does not detract from your own bond with your child and in fact may strengthen it AND 2) that we as parents need to open and reopen the door to the conversation about their biological parents / family and not ASSUME that they aren't interested because they didn't say anything. I've heard many adult adoptees say they didn't search until after their parents passed away to avoid hurting them. IMO, that is quite a caring thought but so wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Rebecca...I know that this is an old post, but it is my absolute favorite...the first thing I think to say is YES!

    We don't know my daughter's first parents...it is slim to none that we every will. I mourn that fact with her and can only imagine how hard it will be to grow up not knowing where she comes from...I try to talk about her first parents as much as I can (now!) and we wonder together what gifts she has comes from her mom or dad or other relatives...

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...