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.
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