Facing Birth Mother Discussions Without Fear
My 8 year-old son, Reed is the smooth-sailing and resilient type, able to roll with life’s punches and not have a lot of “issues.”
Yet we recently had some revelatory conversations about his birth mom that shows how deeply in his psyche he is processing his adoption. I expect that as my children grow they will, at stages, deepen their understanding of their adoptedness through wondering and questioning. And I will encourage this every chance I get.
Just before bedtime one night, Reed and I read entries from his new Guinness Book of World Records and marveled at crazy human feats. We put the book down to cuddle, just the two of us, in his parents’ bed.
“Do you think often about Michele?” I opened the door to talk about his birth mom.
“Yeah. A lot.”
“Mom,” he continued, “do you think I could try living with her for a week or a month or something?”
“Sweetie,” I replied, “It doesn’t work like that. But we can certainly try to arrange for a visit with Michele the next time we are all in the same state.”
“OK, Mama,” Reed said.
A moment later: “Mom, why did Michele give me away? And how did you and Daddy become my parents?”
“Well,” I scanned the archives of my memory for advice I’ve read by and for adoptees on how best to proceed. “You were a surprise to Michele. Before she even knew she was pregnant, you were being born.”
“Uh hunh,” Reed said, encouraging me. He’d heard his story before.
“She was going to college and wasn’t really prepared to take care of ANY baby right then. She had to scramble to figure out how to do that -- take care of a baby while finishing up school. She tried really hard, and she loved you very much, but she just couldn’t figure out how to be a mom right then.”
“Did you know her before that?” my son asked.
“No. We met her after she went to the same agency we did and picked us to be your forever parents.”
“When did you meet her?”
“The first time we met it was just Michele and Daddy and me at the agency. It was a time for her to check us out. It was a big decision for her, and she took it very seriously. WHO could she entrust her beloved son to? The agency called us later that evening to say that Michele had decided on us, and that we could come back the next day to meet our son. And bring him home.”
I paused to read his body, still nestled against mine. I knew that he was present with me, with the story.
“The next day we drove back to the agency, but this time Grandma and Grandpa and Tessa were also invited. It was the first time we saw you and boy, were we happy! You were so adorable and loveable. Michele brought her three best friends. We all met in a conference room for an Entrustment Ceremony.”
“That’s where Michele entrusted you into our care.”
“Tell me about that.”
“Well…” I knew that this coming part was likely to hurt. I breathed and became conscious of my breath. “Michele was holding you. The lady running the meeting said a prayer for Michele and a prayer for AJ [first father], who wasn’t able to be there. There was a prayer for Daddy and me and, of course, a prayer for the baby -- you -- who joined everyone in the room together.”
I breathed again. “Then Michele placed you in my arms.”
My son then let out one whimper. His small body sobbed one time. I held him more tightly (but not too tight) and stroked his shoulder, arm, side, leg. “I know, baby.” I breathed deeply, willing him to, as well.
I abided with him for a moment, simply giving him the space to feel what he was feeling. Then his sister Tessa entered the room and asked what we were talking about and would I tell her about her story, too?
The next day Reed and I ran some errands. I aimed to get back into the emotional space we’d been in the night before.
“So remember last night? We were talking about the moment when you became our son. You seemed sad. Do you want to talk about that?”
“I dunno. It’s just that I was sad for Michele. No one wants to give away their baby.”
“That’s so right. It was very hard for Michele to do that. But what about you? What do you suppose that moment felt like for you?”
Now some would be content to leave this stone unturned, thinking that not everything has to be dealt with. But my view is that what lies dormant affects us unconsciously. And what is brought to the surface can be felt, examined and released. My hope is that if my son can become aware of his emotions and motivations at age 8, maybe they won’t get buried over the decades and erupt for him massively later in life. I want to give my children a head start on living mindfully, consciously.
These lofty goals don’t mean, however, that he was ready to feel the emotions from the moment when he was placed in my arms by the woman who was his first mom.
“I think I had a poopy diaper and I wanted it changed,” he laughed a jittery laugh, not quite ready to Go There.
“You’re silly,” I said and laughed with him, giving him space and not filling the silence that followed.
Soon he continued, “I probably wanted milk. I had gotten milk from my mom and now I wanted milk from my new mom.” We both sat with that. A few blocks passed in silence.
“You know,” I resumed, “that moment when I became your mom was such a strange time. Everyone in the room was feeling something very intensely. For Michele, it was one of the saddest and hardest days of her life. For Daddy and Tessa and me, it was one of the happiest. Isn’t that strange?”
“Yeah. I’m sad for Michele. No one wants to give away their baby.” He repeated this, trying on his first mom’s feelings.
“That’s so very true. Especially a baby as wonderful as you, Reed.”
“Mom, do her children ever ask about me?” Reed has a younger brother and sister who visited us last year.
“I would imagine they ask about you, or they will when they are old enough to understand.”
“But what if they don’t know about me? What if she doesn’t tell them?”
“I’m sure she’s not hiding you. After all, they’ve been to our house once and hopefully they’ll come again. I think she’s very proud of the young man you’re becoming. She keeps up with you on my Facebook page, you know.”
“Mom. Would you adopt another baby?”
“We don’t have plans to do that. Is that something you’d like?”
“Yeah,” he said, thinking. “I want to know what it felt like for Tessa when I joined the family. And what it’s going to feel like for Dominic [his cousin] when Aunt Tami’s baby is born.”
I suspect this is also because he has missed out on the big brother experience with Michele’s two parented children and [birth dad] AJ’s new baby daughter.
“I’m not sure that’s likely to happen. You’ll get to be the big cousin to Tami’s baby.”
“NOT cousin. I want to be the big brother to a baby.”
“I’m sorry, Reed.”
We had arrived at our destination.
Later that night I pulled down a small item from the very top of Reed’s bookshelf. It was a brilliant little present to me, to us, from the me of 2003.
Right before I had headed to the Entrustment Ceremony to meet and bring home our son, I had the flash of insight to bring a blank spiral journal I’d had lying around. I asked Michele after the ceremony to write a page or so to Reed, to tell her what was in her heart for him that day, what her hopes were for him.
I, too, put my thoughts down in that notebook frequently in those early days, and I recruited Roger, my parents, Grandma Lisa, and everyone who attended his first several birthday parties to write words of love to my son. There are now a couple of dozen pages of people just loving on Reed over the years, until about 2006, when we moved and the book got put away.
At bedtime, Reed was able to read the time-capsule message from his birth mom. He slept with that notebook that night.
So what can be gleaned from these conversations with my son? Reader comments left on the original post brought up several points.
1. Know what it was; what it wasn’t. The questions Reed asked and the things he said in his wondering about Michele didn’t hurt me at all (other than the fact that he was hurting). Why?
BECAUSE NONE OF IT WAS ABOUT ME. This knowing is what enables me to be fully present for my children during such times. This point is key for adoptive parents to get, deep down in our bones. This was about my son and his innermost feelings. He will have them whether or not I am comfortable with him having them. The question is, can he trust me to feel them on the outside of himself?
2. Become impervious. Allow, encourage, enable your kids to feel their feelings about their birth families, and do it imperviously, as you do when discussing other hurts they might have that also have nothing to do with you: a broken toy, being spurned by a friend, not making the team. The feelings about birth parents are likely more intense, but they are no more about you than these other scenarios are. The questions and wondering about the birth family are not about you and therefore take away nothing from you. Take yourself out of the equation and it all becomes so much simpler.
3. The myth of strength. I am not any stronger than any other parents. It’s just that I get, deep in my bones, #1 above.
4. Don’t dread having these conversations with your child because, hey, see #1. And why not decide to enjoy rather than endure these moments of adoptive parenting? Opening your heart sets you up for success much better than will gritting your teeth.
5. Don’t dread your child having these feelings, either. If your child doesn’t ever encounter these emotions, great. If s/he DOES, however, why psych yourself (and your child) out ahead of time? Besides, why would you want to deprive your child of all the soul-deepening and self-knowledge that comes from having feelings, which we label as “good” or “bad”, but can simply be guideposts for how to live?
Do not ever be afraid of your child feeling her feelings; fear only her NOT feeling her feelings or getting stuck in them. Help your child keep the emotions in motion. It’s the repression and stagnancy that cause problems.
6. Get to know. How did I figure out #1? By listening to adult adoptees. Andi, Andy, Jeni, Amanda, Lost Daughters, Torrejon, others. Don’t internalize everything you read but do listen for gems that will help you understand what may one day be felt by your child, as well as the underlying reasons.
7. Don’t underestimate the strength of your child. A wise school teacher tells me that a child will rise or fall to the level of expectation you set. Notice the strength of my son in these two conversations. He has all that within him. I just held the expectation that he would tap it.
If your child’s story has some difficult components to it, then when you do talk about the hard stuff, envelop him in love and be open to deep wisdom. Also, see the strength and resilience of your child. He needs to see you reflect those traits he already has back to him.
And if you have any further notion that I am “special” in a way that you’re not, please read my Hotel Rwanda post. Anyone strong enough to survive infertility and the adoption process and to undertake parenting is able to rise to adoptive parenting moments like these.
Don’t you tell me otherwise.
Lori is a wee bit passionate about de-freakifying open adoption. The people helping to clue her in are her children Tessa, 10, and Reed, 8. Lori writes regularly at WriteMindOpenHeart.com about parenting and living mindfully. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption will be published by Rowman & Littlefield and available in mid-2013.She lives in Denver and on Twitter she's @LavLuz.
Photo Credit: mangpages.