Since adopting their daughter, Dana and Mike R. consider Mother’s Day a poignant holiday, and take time to honor the other mother in Julia’s life. That first year, they wrote a letter that spoke of their awe and wonder at their little girl.
They didn’t mail the letter, however, because their daughter’s birth mother lives far away and had asked for no contact. So Dana stored the letter in a special box. Each year since, they’ve added new letters filled with tales of Julia — her first words, first steps, first laughter.
Now that Julia is five, she’s in charge of what goes into the box: drawings, photos, kisses, and cards. Though the ritual began on Mother’s Day, it spills over to the many days and ways Julia thinks of her birth mom.
Whether they remain a presence though an open adoption, or you’ve only seen their photo or met once, or you’ve accepted the fact that you may never have the chance to meet, our children’s birth parents loom large in our families’ lives. Though she may ask occasional questions, your child is undoubtedly thinking about her birth mother much more often than she raises the topic. AF readers share some of their thoughts, fantasies, and conversations about birth parents, and rituals they’ve developed for honoring birth parents.
Honor Your Child’s Story
Some adoptive parents struggle with emotions of unresolved ambivalence versus gratitude toward their child’s first mother. For our children’s sake, we must be at peace with the truth that they have two mothers, and that their stories began before we met them.
Preserve your child’s story in a lifebook. Brenda Romanchik, LMSW, executive director of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support, urges all parents to start a lifebook even before their child arrives home. Seeing her story set down in a book lets your child know that you will always be available to talk about it.
“Children benefit when their parents find ways to keep conversation at the forefront from the earliest days on. Even if some details are unknown, share what you have: stories and pictures of his pregnant birth mother and the hospital where he was born, or the place where she lived, her crib mates, and the people who cared for her.” Ideally, your grown child will be able to say, “I don’t remember ‘being told’ I was adopted; I grew up always knowing.”
Speak about adoption early and often. These first conversations will help all of you get used to the words, ideas, and account. No one can comprehend his history at one telling of it; this will be a story you repeat as your child’s growing maturity permits him to grasp new aspects. And as you become secure in the idea that nothing can change your veracity and your permanence, your own fears will dwindle.
Solidify Connections Through Family Rituals
Rituals can be beautiful reminders that birth parents are present in your family’s thoughts. On your child’s birthday, or holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, her mind might naturally turn to the birth parents. Take these occasions to show your child that you hold her birth mother in your heart, too.
Write a letter to your child’s birth mother or birth father, and ask your child if she would like to write a letter or make a drawing. Even if a meeting seems unlikely, save these in a special place. Plant a bulb or a seed in your garden. Buy a bouquet of flowers and place them on the kitchen table. Have your child make a handprint, then talk with her about how her fingerprint is unique but is also a distinctive blend of her birth family’s genes. If your child’s first parents are in her life, ask them how they would like to be honored. You might send a card or a letter, give a special gift, or plan a visit.
Romanchik describes one family’s Valentine’s Day ceremony. Each member of the adoptive family lights a votive candle for every person in his life whom he loves. The power of the flickering candles that shine in the end testifies to an amazing circle of love.
Keep rituals for young children concrete. Initially, your child may be too young to participate, but she will gradually join in. Young children are very concrete and like to express their emotions in tangible ways, says Kathleen Silber, MSW, ACSW, associate executive director of the Independent Adoption Center, in Pleasant Hill, California, and coauthor of Children of Open Adoption (Corona).
She recommends giving your child a box, as Julia’s parents did, in which to store drawings, letters, photos, and treasured objects. Children may use such boxes in different ways, sharing the contents with their parents or delving into them only occasionally, in private. A child may think of it as a “mailbox” to hold letters and drawings for her birth mother, or use it to safeguard keepsakes special to herself.
Let traditions mature with your child and family. As your child grows older still, she may take charge of the ways your family honors her birth parents. Megan* loved her family’s tradition of writing a prayer together at the beginning of each year. The prayer is usually composed during an evening-long talk about recent and upcoming events, how to express love, sadness, and hope.
This year, 10-year-old Megan wrote a special prayer for her birth mother: “I hope you don’t cry today because you are a mother, and I think of you and worry if you are alright. I wish you would come see me happy here, or at least give us your address. I hope your guardian angel keeps you safe in her arm and that God whispers happiness to you when you are sad. You always have family — even when you don’t want it.”
Ten-year-old Fen has her mother put an extra candle on her birthday cake, and she makes a private wish before she blows it out. Last year Fen shared her wish with her parents but this year, it was between only Fen and God.
Start Conversations about Birth Parents
Some adopted children think about their birth parents every day, but your son or daughter probably won’t broach the subject this often. Like Fen’s, when your child approaches middle school, her willingness to talk about adoption may fade even further; it will probably be up to you to initiate any discussions you do have.
Start conversations casually. Talk may flow most easily when you are driving in the car, working on a task together, or out on a walk. You might begin by casually remarking, “I was thinking of your birth mom today.” If your child doesn’t respond after a few moments of silence, continue your thought. “I was wondering if you got your great cooking skills from her.” Letting your child know that you often think about her birth parents will encourage her to share her own thoughts and ask questions she may have about them.
Ceremonies or rituals can also serve as stepping stones to ongoing discussions. What began as Dana and Mike’s ceremony to honor Julia’s other mother gave their daughter the space and security to speak of matters of the heart. “I miss her. Do you?” she asked her dad one day. “Sometimes I pretend both of my moms are holding me,” Julia told her mother one quiet afternoon.
Encourage your child to open up by giving her labels for her feelings about birth family and adoption, whether they’re powerlessness, confusion, bereavement, anger, or simply curiosity, suggests Silber. Let your child know you value her birth parents by always speaking of them with respect and love.
Help Your Child Lay a Foundation for Identity
Not knowing his birth family may make a child feel he is somehow less “real.” You can make birth parents more concrete — and build your child’s self-esteem — through comments like, “You sing so beautifully. Do you think your first mom has a lovely voice, too?” or “Look how tall you’ve gotten! I wonder if your birth dad is tall, too.”
Keep your child’s birth parents in the picture. By paying tribute to our child’s first mom or dad, and speaking of them frequently, we’re acknowledging their importance in his life by creating him, giving him traits and talents, and ensuring that he is in a family — perhaps one they directly chose.
“Everyone in the family must understand that an adoptee’s need to know, his need to connect with his first family in many ways throughout the years, has absolutely nothing to do with the adoptive family. Even if an adoptee’s love for and attachment to his parents is as rare and as perfect as can be, there is grief running underneath,” says Romanchik. “By bringing up the birth family in everyday conversation, and by creating special rituals, we let our children know it’s OK to say that, yes, there are losses here, as well as a wealth of love.”
*Name has been changed to preserve privacy.