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All in the Family

by Adoptive Families' expert panel and editors

 

Adoptive parents are used to fielding questions about adoption and birth mothers--and most of us have an arsenal of replies to give the stranger in the checkout lane or the acquaintance at the park ("Don't I look real?" "They're both my own." "Why do you ask?").

But when it's a family member or close friend making the rude remark, snappy comebacks don't suffice. To what extent do you educate about adoption, and where do you draw the line to preserve your child's privacy? We posed nine common scenarios to a panel of experts. Read on for their advice on navigating tricky conversations with loved ones.

 

"We invited our son's birth family to his third birthday party. Our relatives still don't seem to understand open adoption, and a few have asked me to revoke the invitation. I can't very well do that, nor do I want to."

If your relatives are like mine, some of your choices will please them and some won't. But you and your partner are the ones who decide what's in your family's best interest. You can say, "I wish you understood, but, if you don't, I need your respect. Trust us--we thought this through very carefully, and we know it will not hurt or confuse our child. We want you to be there, and we want the birth family to be there. At the party, you can think and feel however you want, but you cannot act in a way that would be disruptive or make anyone uncomfortable. We know that you want to be helpful and supportive of us. The most supportive thing would be for you to come and celebrate and help us make our son's birthday a wonderful, memorable family occasion." -- Ronny Diamond

"Our families are overjoyed that we're becoming parents, and several relatives have told us they'll be visiting soon after we come home with our child. I don't think I can tell people to cancel their travel plans, but how can I tell them that we want to be the only ones to feed and hold our child, to encourage bonding?"

Quoting a third party might help them understand: "Our social worker has suggested that we expose Alex to a minimal number of people in the first months after he comes home. She said that he has been around so many different people in his first two years of life that he seems to go to anyone. We want him to develop strong connections with us and his new sister. Once he understands who's who in our family, he will have a more secure foundation from which he can start to meet the rest of our loved ones." -- Gregory Keck

If some people have already made travel plans, I would let them know ahead of time that "the best way for our child to learn about being our son and to fall in love with us is for us to provide all of his care--feeding, soothing, putting him to sleep, snuggling, and playing." If your relatives have a sense of humor, and are generally good about pitching in, you might suggest that you could use a hand with the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, so that you have all the time you need to help your child adjust and attach. -- Diana Schwab

"At a family gathering, my mother remarked, 'All of the children in our family are fair and get freckles in the summer.' That's not the case with our 11-year-old daughter, whom we adopted from Ethiopia. I know it was an offhand comment, but I don't want to just let it go."

The most important task after a comment like this is to talk with your daughter. Rather than assume what she's feeling ("You must have been hurt"), ask an open-ended question: "What did you think when Grandma said that?"

If you have a comfortable relationship with your mom and the situation's pretty relaxed, you could respond on the spot. But, most likely, you'll want to call her later to have a more serious conversation. When you do, say, "You probably didn't think about it at the time, but your comment about all of the kids being fair was hard for my daughter to hear." After you speak, your mom may want to acknowledge to your daughter that she thinks of her as a family member and one of her grandchildren. (She may feel more comfortable writing a note or an e-mail than speaking in person or over the phone. If so, respect that.)

If you don't think you can stop your mom from saying such things, make a plan with your daughter about how to handle future situations. Come up with a secret sign to flash, one that says, "Grandma doesn't get it, there she goes again!" Try predicting some of the silly things Grandma might say, to defuse some of the hurtful comments, and role-play responses with your daughter. She could go up to Grandma and say, "Hey, Grandma, can you tell me where my freckles are?" If she's not ready to speak up now, she'll have responses ready, whether she's 15, or 20. -- Patty Cogen

"I shared some details about my son's birth family with my aunt in the first years after he came home. I now regret betraying my son's privacy, and I'm worried that my aunt (or a family member she told) will reveal something before we tell him."

This is a fairly common mistake. We look to our close family members and friends for advice and support, and keeping information from them can feel like keeping secrets. As adoptive parents, however, we must understand that our children's birth-family information belongs to them.

Now it's time to put on your adoption-educator hat. Approach your aunt (and other relatives) individually. Start the conversation by saying, "Do you remember what I told you about Billy's birthmother's circumstances? It was a mistake to have revealed that much. I would really appreciate your help in maintaining his privacy.  Please promise me that you won't discuss what I told you with other family members, or with Billy. We need to make sure we're the ones who share those details with Billy when he's older. He'll decide what to reveal and what to keep private." -- Ellen Singer

"My sister loves to talk about her wonderful pregnancy and the experience of breastfeeding her baby. Of course I'm happy for her, but I sense that she's implying that I won't bond as well with the newborn we're in the process of adopting."

The next time your sister brings this up, you might say: "It sounds like breastfeeding was a wonderful way to connect with your baby. I'm looking forward to discovering all the different ways I will be able to nurture and bond with my baby." Or, share any news you've recently gotten: "I just got off the phone with our baby's birthmother, who's due at the beginning of summer. I am so glad that our kids will be close in age, and I can't wait to be a mom."

You and your sister will have many parenting experiences that are similar and many that are different. In the end, you'll most likely enjoy the pleasure of sharing the joys, excitement, worries, and woes of parenthood with someone special. -- DS

"The last time my nine-year-old came home from visiting his cousins, he asked me how much he 'cost.' It seems that my sister-in-law said to a friend, in front of her kids, that we had to pay a lot to adopt our child. Then her kids asked my son about it."

First, make sure that all of your son's questions about the cost of adoption have been answered. Explain that there are fees associated with adoption, just as you'd pay fees if you gave birth at a hospital, but that you didn't pay for him directly. Reassure him that he's not like a can of tuna fish that you bought off the shelf. Ask him if he'd like you to explain the cost of adoption to his aunt and cousins.

If so, you might call your sister-in-law and say, "Bobby came home talking about how expensive adoption is, and said it was a topic of discussion at your house--I wanted to get your sense of what happened." She may have overheard the children's conversation, or she might make the connection with what she said in front of her kids. Give her a chance to speak, then explain that you want all the kids in the family to understand that children are never paid for. When you adopt, there are fees for the social workers, attorneys, agency, and so on, who ensure that the children are well cared-for. Saying that you'd like to get your kids on the same page will be more productive than forcing positive adoption language on her.

You might conclude with, "Bobby's been talking and wondering a lot about the adoption process. The next time your kids are over at our house, would it be OK if we talk about adoption and how it works?" Get her permission, then, when the kids are over, educate them directly. -- PC

"My mother is head-over-heels in love with our daughter, whom we just adopted from China. But sometimes, when she's raving about her, she'll say things like 'What a pretty China doll.' How can I tell my mom I find this kind of stereotyping unacceptable?"

You might start by saying, "I know how much you love your granddaughter. We want to make sure that she's loved for all that she is, not how she looks. The fact that she was born in China is an important aspect of who she is, but it's not the most important aspect." The next time your mother comments on your daughter's race or appearance, try turning the conversation to your daughter's development, her sense of humor, or the sweet new tricks she has for getting your attention! -- DS

Of course, your conversation with your mom will depend on the kind of relationship you have. You might say, "Mom, it's not like she's an exotic souvenir we brought home from some village--she's our daughter" or, more directly, "I think she's beautiful, too, but let's not call her a 'China doll.' That makes me uncomfortable." Lend your words a bit more weight and make the discussion less personal by invoking an authority on the subject: "When we were in our adoption class..." or "An adult adoptee told me that she was always offended when people called her a 'China doll.'" (This strategy is kind of like saying, "Well, the doctor said....") -- Deborah Johnson

"A few family members have asked prying questions about our newborn's birth family: 'Her birthmother was a teenager, right?' 'How could anyone give up such a beautiful baby?' 'Did her birthmother have a lot of problems?' How can I dampen their curiosity and let them know that their assumptions unfairly stereotype birthparents?"

You might start by saying something like, "You know, I had no idea people would be so interested in Katie's origins. When Katie is a bit older, we're sure she'll have many questions, too. For now, we've decided that Katie should know about her birth family before other people do. She might want to keep some things private and share other parts of her story. Many birthmothers are simply not in a position to parent a child. We can tell you that we're confident that Katie's birthmother made the best decision for Katie, for herself, and for us." -- GK

Q: "I suppose the birthmother was a teenager."
A: "Birthparents can be any age. The only question is whether they're in a position to care for a child when he's born. Our child's birthparents felt that adoption was the best plan."
Q: "How could anyone give up such a beautiful baby?"
A: "Yes, she is beautiful! Just look at those eyes."
Q: "I suppose the birthmother had lots of problems...."
A: "Well, making good decisions wasn't one of them. Our child's birthparents were able to make a great plan for her future."
-- Mary Ann Curran

"Our teenager has been spending a lot of time with her birth sister--at her birthmother's home and at ours. We've welcomed the relationship, but our relatives don't understand it."

Try to explain how the arrangement is working out. Something like, "It sounds like you don't think we should allow Kristina to spend time with her birth family. We see how much she enjoys having them in her life; in some ways, it has expanded our family, as well. Kristina's birthmom is so happy to have a connection with her, and, as an only child, Kristina's always wanted a sibling. Now she will have a sibling for life." -- GK

Open a dialogue and let your relatives express their concerns and confusion. It's likely that they feel protective of you and worry about your feelings. They might ask, "Do you feel replaced? Aren't you jealous?" If you truly don't feel this way, assure them that you don't ("I know you're worried, but this truly doesn't hurt me. Just as mothers can love more than one child, my daughter can love two mothers, and I'm still her parent."). If you do, understandably, occasionally feel jealous, say so ("Yes, sometimes I wonder if she feels closer to her birth family. But I know that my job as a parent is to be the best I can be, and I feel I did that in connecting her with her birth family. Besides, I really like them. They are like extended family.").

Finally, keep in mind that it is natural not to understand something you have not experienced yourself, as with the person who says, "I could never adopt." However the conversation with your family goes, you can say, "I know it is a lot to understand when you haven't experienced it.  I appreciate your love and trust, regardless." -- ES


Meet the Experts

Patty Cogen, M.A., Ed.D., author of Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, is a child and family therapist based in Seattle.

Mary Ann Curran is director of social services at World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP), in Seattle.

Ronny Diamond, LCSW, is a consultant with the Adoption Resource Center at Spence-Chapin in New York City.

Deborah Johnson, an adult adoptee, is a social worker and director of a heritage travel company, Kindred Journeys International. She lives in Minneapolis.

Gregory Keck, Ph.D., co-author of Parenting the Hurt Child, Adopting the Hurt Child, and Parenting the Adopted Adolescent, is the founder of the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio, in Cleveland.

Diana Schwab, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist and developmental specialist with International Health Services of Western Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh.

Ellen Singer, LCSW-C, is an adoption therapist and educator with the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.; adoptionsupport.org), in Burtonsville, Maryland.



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