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When the Circle of Family Grows

Parents always celebrate when a new child joins their family. But adoptive moms and dads might want to mark their blessed event with a meaningful ceremony beyond the usual festivities.By Lois Melina



Baby shower, bris, christening, naming ceremony.... All of these time-honored rituals herald the arrival of a new baby, but also carry common elements: tradition, community, symbolism, and the passing on of wisdom.

By claiming their ancestors’ customs—whether by playing silly baby-shower games or observing religious rites—parents feel initiated into their new roles and validated in their choice to widen their circle of family. The presence of other loved ones at such events also signals community acceptance and support. It says, “We welcome this child into our family and surrounding culture. You are not alone.” So it is only natural that adoptive families would want to embrace these or similar celebrations.

While festive parties with relatives and friends are important, rituals have even greater value: They not only signify change, they also create change when we perform them. At wedding festivities, for instance, the just-married couple is appropriately honored, then actually “sent off” into their new life together.

A welcoming celebration for an adopted child can take on the same significance, with families either adapting existing rituals or creating their own.

Bestowing a blessing
One meaningful option is an entrustment ceremony. The adoptive family and the birth family, if possible, commemorate the passage of the child from one family to another. Like a marriage ceremony, it can symbolize the joining of two families to create a new family, through agreed-upon symbols and actions.

Many domestic adoptions include such rituals, though they are still rare in international adoption. In Cambodia and Viet Nam, however, a “Giving and Receiving” ceremony is actually the final stage of the legal adoption process—and can be an opportunity for adoptive parents to meet their child’s birthparents. (Even if she has relinquished her child months before, a birthmother may travel miles to her province’s justice department to participate.) Ceremonies can involve the physical transfer of the child, as well as adoptive parents expressing their feelings about and intentions for becoming parents.

More Ways to Say, "Welcome!"

NAMING CEREMONY: Many adoptive parents choose to design a ritual around the naming of their child. After all, naming—or renaming—carries personal significance for them. If you keep the child’s original name as a symbol of her family of origin, even if it wasn’t given by her birthparents, the naming ceremony can be a particulary meaningful way to celebrate the joining of two families or two cultures. With international adoption, you may able to find someone who can transcribe your child’s new name in her original language or calligraphy and incoporate it into your celebration.

BABY SHOWER:
Though these baby-gear parties are usually held for expectant mothers, adopting parents often adapt this tradition by waiting until their child comes home. Increasingly, the birth family attends the baby shower, and it isn’t unusual for a member of the birth family to host one. [Read about some adopters’ baby showers here.] Showers tend to be more informal than naming or entrustment ceremonies. Still, when friends and family shower new parents with child-care items, they demonstrate their support. And the natural tendency to talk about baby care at these events provides the perfect outlet for passing on wisdom gained through generations of experience.

LASTING TESTAMENT: Just as toasts are offered at weddings, the birth or adoptive family may request a pause in the merriment of an adoption celebration to comment on the profound changes that are taking place. To commemorate the occasion, you can ask a friend or relative to videotape these moments, as well as individual guests expressing their wishes for the family. You can then make copies for both families to treasure.

In domestic adoptions, birthparents legally transfer their parental rights by signing papers or appearing in court. But an entrustment ceremony provides the birth family a chance to give their personal blessing to the new family. And this helps adoptive parents feel entitled to be this particular child’s mother or father.

As in a wedding, any sadness that parents may feel in “giving away” a son or daughter mixes freely with joy in the new family’s love. It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge the birth family’s sadness in adoption, and, if the celebration takes place before the finalization, some may wonder whether the ceremony is appropriate. Such discomfort is natural, however, and signifies that what is happening involves change. Once everyone recognizes this, all can wholeheartedly embrace their new roles.

Creating your ritual
Entrustment ceremonies are not yet common enough to have any “typical” elements. The ceremony can be tailored to a family’s individual circumstances and desires.

Generally, however, the event is scheduled close to the date of the child’s placement. This timing highlights the reality that the birthparents have ceased to act as the child’s parents, and the adoptive parents have begun to do so, even before the roles are formalized through a legal process. The ceremony may take place in the hospital, in the adoptive parents’ or birth family’s home, or at the adoption agency.

Birth and adoptive families often plan and design the ceremony together. It usually centers around the birthparents or a birth-family member physically or symbolically passing the child to the adoptive parents. The ceremony can involve religious scripture, poetry, music, candle-lighting, or readings composed or chosen by the birth family as a way of bidding farewell to the child.

Birthparents may also choose to express their hopes, dreams, and love for the child, as well as their confidence in the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents then verbally, and often physically, accept the child and state their commitments: to love and care for the child, to honor the birthparents through an agreed-upon level of contact, and to be a family.[Read one mom’s description of her family’s entrustment ceremony at adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php? aid=1365.]

Honoring the absent birthparent
Even if one or both of the birthparents cannot physically attend an entrustment or other welcoming ceremony, you can still design a ritual that honors their roles.

Ask the birthparents or a member of the birth family to write something, or to suggest a poem, reading, or song to be included in the ceremony. If you have photographs of the birth family, display them at the ceremony.

If you adopted through a closed domestic adoption or international adoption and have no information about the birth family, designate a surrogate to represent the birthparents. You can also incorporate songs or symbols from your child’s home state or country of origin into the ceremony.

Sometimes, though, a welcoming ceremony occurs spontaneously. Perhaps a flight attendant kindly acknowledges parents returning from China with their new baby. Perhaps a new mother encounters her child’s birthmother in the hospital parking lot or outside the courtroom, and the two openly share their feelings about what is happening.

One of my favorite celebration stories comes from a woman who adopted in Southeast Asia. People from the village surrounded her car, questioning her driver about the white lady with the dark-skinned baby. The man explained she had just become a mother through adoption. As the car drove off, all the villagers trotted alongside, smiling and waving as they escorted the woman and her child to the edge of town. What a joyous way for society to acknowledge the creation of a new family!

Lois Melina is an internationally recognized authority on adoptive parenting and the author of Raising Adopted Children. She is a director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

For more articles and advice about welcoming rituals and ceremonies, visit www.adoptivefamilies.com/rituals.

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