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Grand Plans

Their grandparents' love secures our children a place in the family. Here's how to ensure that the older generation is on board.

by Diana Schwab, M.Ed.

Our culture typically allows grandparents to "spoil" the grandbabies. Having raised their own children, they get the luxury of being the ones with the bottomless candy jar, or the ones who can bend the household rules. Increasingly, however, many moms and dads rely heavily on their parents for frequent babysitting, or even primary day care.

Whether grandparents are involved in the day-to-day care of a child or merely play the role of doting family members, generational differences in child-rearing and attitudes about adoption may cause some friction. Good communication can minimize such problems, so it is best to open up an honest dialogue even before your baby comes home. By doing so, you'll minimize conflict and give your child the irreplaceable gift of positive grandparent involvement.

Grandparent Lessons
A little education can go a long way. Start building an adoption library for the grandparents with a copy of Patricia Irwin Johnston's Adoption Is a Family Affair: What Relatives and Friends Must Know. Add a few of the books (or, for Web-proficient grandparents, bookmark a few sites and blogs) that you found helpful as you learned about adoption. Round out the collection with picture books they can read to their new grandchild.

Changing Beliefs
You have put a lot of thought into your decision to adopt and to take the route you have chosen. You have researched the lifelong implications for parents and the adoptee. Your parents, however, are just beginning their journey when you tell them about your plans. Most likely, they never considered adoption as a way to form a family.

When and how families talk about adoption has changed remarkably in one generation. Families used to be advised not to tell a child he was adopted before he was a young adult, and not even then unless there was a pressing reason. My local paper ran a story a few years ago about a 70-year-old who discovered that he had been adopted while cleaning out his mother's house. He was shocked, but he said he was also relieved to finally understand something he had always felt. Waiting to tell a child clearly isn't an option for transracial families, and many domestic adoptions are open. Regardless of your family's physical similarities or dissimilarities, however, today's adoption experts encourage speaking openly about adoption from the time a child comes home.

Help the grandparents learn the "language" of adoption, offering specific suggestions. For instance, birthparents are not referred to as "real parents"; children are placed for adoption, not "given up." Perhaps you notice that every time your parents say the word "adoption," they speak in a hushed tone. Sometimes the solution is as simple as pointing out that they do this. If this doesn't work, you can say: "You know, Mom, a lot has changed about how children understand adoption and how we talk about it within the family. Whispering the word suggests that there is something to hide or be ashamed of."

Welcome to the Family!
It is important to let the grandparents know that adoption specialists recommend an early and intense bonding period between parents and child for the first few weeks. If you and your partner accept visitors during this period, be sure that you are the only ones to do baby care—feeding, changing, soothing, putting him to sleep. If you don't discuss this transition period with the grandparents, they may show up as soon as you're home from the hospital or airport, eager to help tend to baby. Explain that these strategies are not intended to keep them away or to differentiate your newly arrived child from any other grandchild. Rather, they are about promoting healthy, lifelong attachments. Be clear that you appreciate their willingness to help, and suggest other ways they can participate during the early stages of adjustment (see "In on the Act, below").

Every family makes changes that set it apart from the previous generation. While adoption can make this process more poignant, there are ways to help grandparents understand what adoption means to you and your family. Helping grandparents develop strong, loving attachments to all of their grandkids will be important to them and your child. You'll love watching your parents delight in their new roles, too.

DIANA SCHWAB, M.ED., is a psychotherapist and developmental specialist with International Adoption Health Services of Western Pennsylvania. She is the mother of three.

In On the Act
Grandparents can begin to "claim" or bond with the new arrival by:

  • Taking pictures of the baby to hang in their home.
  • Writing family traditions and stories in a scrapbook to share with all the grandchildren.
  • Freeing up the parents' time by helping with general household chores (cooking, laundry, cleaning, running errands).
  • Assuming the role of videographer or photographer, and adding the pictures to the child's lifebook or family photo albums.

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