Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dear Sugar: On Not Dictating Your Child's Emotional Response to Adoption

Ever since I started school, I wanted to be athletic.   But it just wasn’t in me.  

In third grade, when it was my turn to kick during a PE kickball game, I missed.  Every.  Single.  Time.   And in fifth grade dodge-ball, I was the tall, skinny girl who couldn’t catch or throw, so I just stood in the game awkwardly until I was the only one left.   The kids tried to cheer for me to hit the player on the other team, the person I was terrified of because I feared the rubber ball leaving his tight grip and smacking me in the face.   So I  just cowered while my teammates starting cheering for the OTHER guy to get me out so we could start the game over already.  

When I got to middle school, I still wanted to be an athlete, so I considered cheer-leading.  All the cool girls were cheerleaders.   Yet, I had no tumbling classes under my belt, no strength, and very little confidence.  

So in eighth grade, I decided to go to volleyball tryouts.   I spent the day before tryouts practicing with a BASKETBALL in my front yard.   Can you imagine a basketball hitting the bony forearms of an eight grader who had yet to even think about starting puberty?  It was frigid outside, but I practiced for hours. 

I made the team.   (I’m guessing there were no cuts.)   And I was deemed captain of the “C” team.  Yes, as in there was an A team, a B team, and then a C team.   I was in charge of the sixth graders.  I finally had what I wanted:  a uniform, a position, a team-name, teammates, and some sort of prestige among my peers.  

As we headed to our first game, cramped on a school bus, the coach stood and gave us a talk.   Part of the lecture was about winning and losing.   If we win, she said, we could have snacks after the game and cheer and carry on victoriously.  If we lost, we should travel home in a somber mood:  no talking, cheering, or giggling.   

This was so strange to me.  I grew up in a loud, opinionated, vocal family.   There were five of us.  My dad was a disc jockey and salesperson.   My mom stayed at home with us.  My sister had a “verbal diarrhea” issue prompting my mom to constantly tell her, just because you think something doesn’t mean you should say it.   My sister and I argued relentlessly, mostly because of our shared bedroom space in which I was tidy and she hid cheese-balls and chocolate under her bed—yet we were best friends.  My little brother was the rope between our tug-of-war and was always at the mercy of our antics. 

In essence:  we said what we thought.   We talked a lot.  My mom used to say all she wanted for any holiday gift was “peace and quiet.”  

The coach was telling me HOW to respond to something.   It made no sense to me.  Was this what it meant to be on a team?   We had to be unified in everything, directed by an adult?  We weren’t free to have our own reaction?  Our own emotions?  Our own opinions? 

It felt like oppression.   That someone was moving into my sacred space and trying to conquer.   It didn’t sit well with me:  not out of rebellion or lack of respect for the coach.   I was just uneasy about the whole thing, but in my middle-schooler mind, couldn’t pinpoint why.  

That was twenty-one years ago.   And this captain of the C volleyball team hasn’t shaken that lecture. 

When I see the many, many posts from new parents-by-adoption and those hoping to adopt, I remember that bus ride.   These current and hopeful parents ask and ponder:

·         What if my child wants to call his or her birth parents “mom” and “dad.” 
·         I’m not comfortable with visits.  We want to stick with just pictures and letters. 
·         I don’t want my child to be confused.
·         I can’t wait for our child to have once-a-week visits with his birth mom. 
·         Should I tell my child that she was conceived by rape?
·         When should I tell my child his adoption story? 

Parents:  here’s the deal.   It’s up to us to reveal all the information, as age-and-developmentally appropriate, to our children.  It’s not up to us to dictate their reactions or shape their stories in a way that’s more “gentle” (aka:  concealing details).   We are to be authentic, forthcoming, and proactive.   We are to be truth-tellers, empathy-servants, and hug-dealers.  

We should also be space-givers.  By that I mean, give our children the space to process and to react as they feel is appropriate.    We shouldn’t try to mold the outcomes to make ourselves feel better.  It’s not about us.   We shouldn’t tamper with the evidence, so to speak.  

We have the obligation and the privilege to give our children what we know.    It is not up to us, as the coach did to me, dictate the child’s response to the events that have already taken place. 
There are thousand decisions you will make as a parent surrounding the child’s adoption.   Questions that need answers.  Answers that prompt more questions.   Confusion.   Joy.   Wondering.   Peace.   All of these.  None of these.  Some of these. 
There’s no perfect way to navigate.  Though I know many post to Facebook groups seeking to find the no-fail answers to their burning questions.   Often when questions are asked, the parent already knows the right thing to do, or the wrong thing that should be avoided.   The goal in parenting (by adoption or biology) is not perfection.  The goal should be to demonstrate the things that make us good, that enable us to process the things life throws our way and respond to others:  empathy, kindness, honesty, encouragement, and, of course, abundant love.  

And if there is a “do not” to be shared, it’s this:  do not tell your child, or expect of your child, to handle adoption in any certain way.  A way that makes you more comfortable or proud.  A way that doesn’t ignite jealousy.  A way that makes you let out a breath of relief.   Your focus is on your child.   You demonstrate authenticity in disclosure, teaching your child that your home is a safe space for authenticity to happen. 

You can do this.   Your child needs you to be ready with an open mind, heart, and arms, no matter how he or she responds.  


For more inspiration, check out the book I co-authored with Madeleine Melcher:  Encouragement for the Adoption and Parenting Journey:  52 Devotions and a Journal.   And check out Madeleine's book Dear Adoptive Parents:  What You Need to Know Right Now-From an Adoptee.  

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