I sang the book’s praise when it first arrived in the mail last month, with a certain thrill and sort of fear at seeing my words in black and white, on paper, when I flipped the book open to chapter one. By chance I landed on a page containing an excerpt from I post I had written over four years ago, just before our daughter was born, before she was “ours.” It was about letting go of fear and insecurity and embracing possibility and vulnerability. Ultimately that post was about opening one’s heart.
I wish I could explore all of the questions proposed by participants on this book tour. Though I planned to answer more, I only had time for two since my answers are long! Click through to see what others are saying about Lori’s book.
Holden encourages adopted parents to embrace an and/both mindset instead of either/or thinking, through a careful process of fostering connections of an adopted child to both first parents and adopted parents. Why do you think this approach helps a child “grow up whole?”
Excellent question. While I’d love to speak with authority on this one, our child is not even four years old and is only now beginning to ask questions about her story. But this approach just makes sense. Lori repeats in the book her fundamental premise: that adopted children grow up with a split between their biology and biography, and that openness can help heal that split. Openness in spirit — i.e., talking about adoption, celebrating the child’s origins, embracing their first families, acknowledging loss, etc. — can help a child integrate these two inherently different aspects of themselves.
A child is born into one family, then raised by another. The child remains part of both families. Yet there’s a disconnect. The child’s first/birth family is still very much a part of the child. And the child is still part of that family, even though s/he’s not there. At the same time, the child is embraced into his/her new family and loved and cherished. Yet all the love in the world can’t make up for what the child has lost — i.e., the opportunity to grow up in his/her family of origin. It’s the one thing I can’t give our daughter, that experience. As full as her life may be, something is inherently missing. But I can help facilitate a connection to that sense of herself. When I embrace our daughter’s first family into my heart, I’m loving a part of her. When we embrace them into our lives, they become our family too.
My daughter didn’t choose to be adopted. The rest of us made that choice for her. She shouldn’t have to choose between her two families, where to place her love or loyalty. She shouldn’t be forced to feel a split in her identity, divided. She is not either part of their family or part of ours. She is both. Always both.
Of course I’m her Mama. And I can’t say it won’t hurt when she tells me I’m not her “real” Mama. But she has another Mama, too. That bond never ends, the love never stops. No one wins if we force her to choose, to pretend she exists in just one family. Most of all, she loses an important part of herself. She is both the result of her nature and nurture. We can help integrate these two vital parts of her identity. Openness takes away nothing from me, once I acknowledge there are certain things I simply cannot provide. Yet it could mean everything to our daughter, in that her first/birth family is a fundamental part of who she is. By embracing her birth family as extended family, our daughter shouldn’t ever have to choose between us. She may feel loss, but she should never feel split. Her love should not be divided but rather multiplied. Love is not finite or limited. There is enough to go around. She has a right to feel and express it all, and it’s our job as her parents to provide those opportunities.
As Lori wisely says in a recent post, shifting to a “both/and” paradigm properly puts the child first. “We encourage them to claim all pieces of themselves, those from biology and those from biography. We enable our children to be claimed by both of their clans.” An adult adoptee friend puts it more simply: “Not half and half…both things. The two parts are not mutually exclusive nor inclusive. Not 1+1=0…but rather 1+1=1.” She further illustrates the point with this example: a mother with two children is not half a mom to each, but a full mom to both; similarly, adoptees exist in both families at once.
Adoption was once associated with secrecy and shame. Like a dark secret hidden from view, negative emotions can fester beneath the surface which can cause problems later. As Lori writes, openness can help shine a light on that darkness, calling it out, validating those feelings and naming them. Trust and open communication about adoption can help a child approach his/her parents to discuss tough issues in a safe and supported setting, rather than feeling stifled. While we can’t take away or “fix” our children’s negative feelings, we can hold them close and affirm them and help them release those feelings so they don’t insidiously gain power and influence over their hearts and minds.
To me, that’s how openness helps heal. It broadens our definition of family. It places the child first, always, even (especially?) when it pushes us beyond our comfort zone. It supports our children as they work through what it means to be adopted. It helps them claim their full identity, as part of both families. And it means they never have to choose.
Lori talks about her journey as an adoptive mom from initially feeling threatened at the prospect of openness to embracing it as a way to help her children be whole. How important do you think her experience during adoption school (when she was ‘the baby’) was to her process?
The short answer: a little empathy can go a long way.
I can’t speak to Lori’s process, but I can imagine that in those moments — where she imagined what it was like to have been “the baby” separated from the only mother she ever knew — engendered great empathy. Lori’s heart was open enough to get outside her own skin and limited experience, to ponder the heart and needs of the baby. And that’s how we put children in adoption first. We focus on their needs, from before they are born and throughout life. [EDITED to add: Of course all parents ideally do this, adoptive or not. Yet parents through adoption have an unique set of complex issues and relationships to navigate in parenting, which warrant special attention and care.]
I know during our process, my heart opened to embrace openness farther and faster than I could have imagined before. Yet there is a difference between approaching openness objectively — i.e., envisioning it in theory — and subjectively — i.e., living it daily. I can be logical and analyze why openness would be beneficial, but nothing could really prepare me for those intimate moments, sitting with my daughter and telling her how she came to be ours. That’s not to say I shouldn’t have prepared for those moments — because I did, I practiced and started telling her story long before she could ever understand, for instance. Yet in those moments, looking into her bright eyes and feeling the weight of her body against mine as she seeks little bits of information, only that which she is ready to hear and saving the rest for another time, in those moments I want to hold her tight and wipe away the hurt, even the hurt she might not yet feel because the magnitude of her story has not yet been processed. But I know I can’t.
Instead, my job is to hold that space for her to feel and process whatever emotions arise. It’s acknowledging that the day I gained a daughter, she lost a mother. Even as her birth mama remains an integral part of her life, our daughter lost the chance to grow up in the same home. Loss is loss. Acknowledging this validates her experience.
In those moments, I am so grateful for the relationships we have with our daughter’s first family, and I hope and wish and pray they remain strong for her sake. I wonder how accessible her birth mama will be as our little girl grows up and her questions (and understanding) grow more complex. I think about her biological father’s side of the family, and I wonder whether there will ever be more, and quite honestly, I worry about it either way. I think about how one day, she will explore such profound questions and deep issues so core to her very identity. I try to imagine her head and heart trying to grasp the reality of having been adopted, of being adopted. And all I can do in those moments is remember to breathe, open my heart a little more, and let it grow to make room for all of it.
Empathy above all is a quest for understanding. While I can never truly understand what it means to be an adopted child, I can seek understanding by opening my heart to our daughter as she discovers and experiences what it means for her. When I focus on her, everything becomes more clear. This is true now, just as it was before she was born. When I could set aside my longing to become a mama and focus instead on the well-being of the child yet-to-be-born, her interests and needs came first and it became clear what I needed to do. I can only hope the same internal compass will guide me as she grows, along with her understanding of her own story.