When the Circle of Family Grows

An entrustment ceremony may be the perfect way to celebrate the joyous moment when your new child joins your family forever.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

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 birth parents. (Even if she has relinquished her child months before, a birth mother 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.

In domestic adoptions, birth parents 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 birth parents 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 birth parents 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.

Birth parents 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 birth parents through an agreed-upon level of contact, and to be a family.

Honoring the absent birth parent

Even if one or both of the birth parents cannot physically attend an entrustment ceremony or other welcoming event, you can still design a ritual that honors their roles.

Ask the birth parents 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 birth parents. 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 birth mother 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!


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