Archive for the ‘Blogs by Gayle Swift’ Category
Parenting is challenging work, probably far more difficult than you had anticipated. You might even find yourself wondering why nobody clued you in ahead of time. Think back, however, to the time when you were awaiting your child’s arrival. Most likely all you could anticipate was the joy and wonder of holding your child in your arms. Any caveats would have fallen on deaf ears or be filed under other people’s issues.
Once your child arrives and the initial ecstasy subsides, reality sets in. Oh boy does it ever! We discover that parenting—especially adoptive parenting— is not only beautiful, amazing and consuming. It is also complex, exhausting, overwhelming. For you. For your child. For your family. For his birth family.
Parents can easily fall into a “responsibility rut” and become over-focused on the work of parenting: teaching children to walk, talk and develop competencies; enticing them into eating healthy meals; preparing them for school; assigning age-appropriate chores; mastering Adoption-attunement … Over-emphasizing the regulatory aspects of parenting doesn’t exactly generate an atmosphere of warm, cuddly connection. Do you like to spend time with someone who constantly nitpicks, admonishes and routinely points out your shortcomings? Neither do our children. How can Intentional Parents address this?
Shared fun is the best antidote to the “work” of parenting. Blessedly, it is also a most effective and essential ingredient to building healthy attachment relationships. Fun builds joy. When joy exists within a relationship, it increases mutual value and respect and grows an interest in being together. Spending time together weaves a shared history. This creates a common story between parents and children which they all can enjoy retelling over the years.
Parents must also spend chunks of time setting boundaries, enforcing rules and imposing consequences. Shared fun provides an essential counter-balance to the “work” of parenting. While we want our children to grow into kind, successful and respectful family members and good contributors to the world, we also want them to yearn to spend time together as a family and to feel deep, abiding love and security. In the absence of fun and joy in a family, kids will regard parents more as “wardens” than as inspiring role models.
Authoritarian parents may elicit compliance and begrudging respect but most likely, that soul-deep unconditional love may be elusive. Children must be both inspired by parents and engaged by the values the family sets forth. This happens through days, weeks, months of shared interactions which include a healthy dose of fun, affection, discipline and encouragement. Intentional Parents understand that fun is not frivolous. It is integral to attachment and building family bonds.
How have you shared fun within your family? It need not be time-consuming or expensive but it must be consistent ingredient in family life on a daily basis. Try establishing a silly daily ritual. (Solicit ideas from your children.) Take an interest in your child’s interests. Teach siblings to do the same for one another. In addition to family grace, create a family handshake. Be inventive and have some fun!
Recall special memories from your own childhood. What made them memorable? Also be mindful of those times when you wished your parents had been interested in you and had opted to share in your daily life, not just in providing the essentials to you. Use that insight to inform the memory-building times you create within your family. How might your family benefit?
Adoptive families frequently encounter rude, inappropriate, intrusive or, dismissive questions and comments. Most of us who struggle with infertility have heard a variation of the following: Now that you’ve adopted, you’ll conceive and have a child of your own. While those with both bio and adopted children frequently hear: Which of your kids is your real child? People feel free to admonish our adopted children and tell them: You should feel lucky and grateful you were adopted. Or another hurtful criticism: How do you think your parents feel when you talk about or search for your birth parents? Although it remains unspoken, our kids get the message that they were a breath away from being aborted or abandoned to an orphanage and that there’s no room for any sad or angry feelings. They also recognize that you perceive their needing or valuing their birth relatives as a betrayal of the adoptive family.
What do all these comments have in common? The conversations lack personal engagement. They are rife with assumptions based on inaccurate, outdated cultural beliefs that see adoption as an event that perfectly—and painlessly–solves a problem for the child and both sets of parents. This myth dismisses the life-long emotional fallout that each member of the adoption triad must face. These speakers have not taken the time to listen or understand the unique and complicated experience of being an adoptee, birth parent or, adoptive parent.
Every comment glosses over the losses and grief that underpin the creation of an adoptive family. They’ve rendered these deep and powerful emotions invisible. In so doing, they’ve trivialized adoption-connected grief and loss and have denied people the opportunity to have their circumstances validated, acknowledged and witnessed. The speakers replaced the real people with two-dimensional characters because they are not willing to open themselves up and be mutually vulnerable. That level of intimacy is scary and intense. People tend to prefer the cultural myth.
But myth is not reality. Life is messy. Adoption is life on steroids: emotionally messy and complicated. All parties carry wounds which take time—for many, a lifetime—to heal. In the era of open adoption, balancing the multiple relationships takes commitment, respect and, persistence.
Remember the Hollywood blockbuster movie Avatar? The characters yearned to be seen—viscerally, authentically. Connecting on this personal level happens rarely because it takes commitment, empathy and deep listening. It means moving beyond the gloss of generalizations and noticing what is occurring between the lines, between the words, beyond the events.
Adoptees and their families (birth and adopted) crave this kind of authentic validation. (I would assert all people seek this kind of visibility and validation.) As adoptive parents, we have the opportunity to grow relationships with our children that are honest and that do see the reality of their experience. We must take the time to listen or understand the unique and complicated experience of being an adoptee. Instead of trying to “fix” things or minimize, Intentional Parents choose to listen to understand and validate our child’s reality. To do so, we must step beyond our own emotional baggage and history. This level of affirmation, honesty and vulnerability is intense, demanding—an exceptionally rare and genuine blessing. It makes for not just a relationship, which can be casual or intimate, but also for a true connection, a major building block for true family growth.. Few people experience this. As Intentional Parents we can bestow this gift on our children.
What that would be like for your child … for yourself. Imagine how would that benefit your family?
The Elephant in the Room: Fear of Rejection
Let’s face it, in Adoption World fear of rejection is the elephant in the room. Adoptees fear being rejected by their adoptive parents. Adoptive parents fear being rejected by their children. Birth parents fear being hated and unforgiven by their children. They also fear that once they have signed away their parental rights, adoptive parents may not honor the stipulations of their Open Adoption agreement. That is a lot of fear, pain, isolation and raw wounds. The potential for conflict, hurt feelings and miscommunication is immense.
Our recent blogs have focused on the importance of ensuring that adoption be a natural topic of conversation which welcomes the free flow of discussion points. In a full-throated Both/And paradigm we recognize that adoption is complicated. We accept both the positive and the painful parts. We move beyond happily-ever-after fairy tales and value the reality which confronts us.
That kind of honesty and acceptance is beautiful and too rare. Too rare. Often we dance around truth in a mistaken effort to protect one another’s feelings. Or we hide our true thoughts and feelings so that we don’t risk rejection. Relying on other people to read our minds won’t work, neither will hoping that things will just work themselves out. We are family joined through our love for our children.
We are inextricably linked. Whatever stresses one of us has repercussions for all of us. Each of us has competing needs but it is absolutely vital that we put the needs of our children as the Prime Directive for our choices and actions. Make talking about stuff routine and important. Our mantra must be: Adoption Matters; Talk about it.
Love and Loyalty
In the past, adoptive parents often equated—and mandated—their child’s loyalty as proof of their love. We now recognize this false equivalency. Love is something freely given. It is not a payment on a debt nor can it be required. To be authentic, love must be freely given. It must spring forth from the soul with an energy and vitality that is born from genuine connection. We cannot keep our children in an emotional cage where loyalty to us must supersede their affection/connection to their birth parents. A gilded cage is still a cage. Genuine love is freely given; it is not payment rendered.
Gratitude & Grace
Adoptees often hear that they should be grateful to their parents for adopting them. Such an expectation turns a blind eye to the complexities of adoption and the deep, abiding losses that it exacts from adoptees in addition to the benefits that it provides. Ironically, parents never hear that they should be grateful to their kids for allowing themselves to be adopted. When we flip the equation around like that, we can readily see the ridiculousness of expecting gratitude.
As adoptive parents most of us also wrestle with gratitude in another way. As we strive to express how we feel to our children’s birth mothers, naming the multi-dimensional emotion is nearly impossible. Gratitude seems almost insulting, like our child was the best Christmas gift we’ve ever received. (This casts our children like a commodity.) Language fails us. We need to invent a word that bears witness to the immense emotional reality for all—birth and adoptive parents as well as adoptees. Each copes with their own wounds and weaves this history into our joint lives as family.
Long-time readers of this blog know I am not a fan of the term “chosen” in the context of adoption. Many feel like this concept heals the pain of being placed for adoption. But saying the adoptive parents chose them is not the Band-Aid that heals adoptee rejection. It avoids the obvious: that before adoptive parents could choose their child, he had to be “unchosen” by his birth parents. It also plants the unspoken possibility of being “unchosen” again. Besides, with the prevalence of Open Adoption, “chosen” most accurately refers to the adoptive parents were selected by the expectant parents and/or the agency. One important “chosen” reality is that we chose to love children who were not born to us.
For adoptive parents, the arrival of their children is a miracle beyond conception and an event which they love to celebrate. In a recent letter, Dear Abby extolled the virtues of “Gotcha Day” as a wonderful way to celebrate an important and life transforming event. As Adoption-attuned parents, we understand that adoption is a beautiful way of forming a family. But, the Both/And reality of adoption means it has its roots in loss and grief for each member of the adoption triad. Thus, as an adoption professional and an adoptive parent, I’d like to offer three reasons to rethink “Gotcha Day” and to provide some alternatives. Please click this link to read my complete essay which appeared on Lori Holden’s blog Lavenderluz.com author of The Open-hearted Way to Open Adoption.
For me, Gotcha Day feels a bit like a hair shirt. It’s intended to generate warmth but it itches like crazy and somehow doesn’t accomplish the job.
Building families through adoption forges strong, loving bonds. It also realigns the life trajectories of entire families and fractures biological ties. Regardless of the degree of openness, adoption generates complicated tangles of atypical* relationships (* in the sense that these relationships do not exist within families built solely through biological ties.)
Raising children, most of us learn, is a team sport. Parenting is too important and too challenging to tackle without proper support resources. Adoption delivers experiences, needs and challenges to which our bio counterparts have no match. This impedes their ability to comprehend what we face and to offer appropriate solutions. How can we help our children handle the task of braiding together their dual heritage and all that task entails? Adoptive families eventually learn that the parenting templates which guided our own childhoods do not suit the needs of our adoptive families. It’s the equivalent of tossing a life ring when only a life boat will adequately serve.
So where do adoptive families find shoulders upon which we can lean? Family, friends and professionals who have little or no understanding of adoption realities often offer advice that misaligns with our needs as an adoptive family. As the saying goes, a bad marriage is worse than no marriage; so too, poor advice that is not Adoption-attuned* is worse than no advice at all. this is true whether the advice is well-intended or whether it comes from family, friend of professional. A commitment to Adoption-attunement must guide everyone. In the absence of that mindset, any suggestions are apt to create more harm than good.
How does this look in action? Imagine your ten-year-old child formerly comfortable with his adoption, is just beginning to understand the deep losses which adoption created. His teacher reports that he’s struggling to stay focused at school. Your friends suggest you “Impose consequences for his choices: limit TV time, make him do extra homework or miss out on some weekend activity.” The teacher agrees that you should drop the hammer and put pressure on him to buckle down. Your parents also think “Johnny” is being lazy.
When you listen to all this advice, an internal voice whispers a warning that warns you not to listen because their suggestions will further stress your child when he is already feeling vulnerable. Your intuition tells you that such an approach will shift Johnny’s attention from both his schoolwork and his “adoption work” to build resentment and anger towards you and the perceived unfairness of your punishing him. Still, you feel you must do something. But what? How will you respond?
Adoption-attunement guides you to a solution. First, you make a concerted effort to reinforce your relationship connection. Second, drop “seeds” that might trigger adoption-related conversations. Even if Johnny doesn’t react, you’ve reminded him that adoption is a welcome and safe topic. Model an approach he might follow. In either direct conversation with him or, in a conversation with your partner that he will overhear–mention that you are working through a relationship at work. Without betraying the privacy of those involved, allude to some of the strategies you use. (That’s a great model of both loyalty and respect for others.)
Talk about the complicated feelings that the circumstance raises and how you are addressing them. Emphasize that you are confident you will solve the problem. Even if your specific techniques do not resonate with your child, he will hear that it is possible to have conflict, ambivalence and emotional messiness and still work it out. That is a great life lesson for him to learn.
Most kids will stonewall when directly confronted with questions like, “Why did you do that” or, “What the heck is going on?” Try empathy. Focus on reassuring him that you believe he can overcome the situation. Say something like, “School has always been important to you. I’m guessing something must be bugging you. Remember I’m willing to help you work it out.” Although it is counter-intuitive, try to follow this with an invitation to share some fun together. Fun is the building material of relationship. It strengthens the connection. When kids feel connected, they feel safer sharing their “hard stuff” and they care about aligning with the values parents espouse.
Perhaps I’m being presumptuous but I believe for adoptive families, Adoption-attunement merits a place in the pyramid of needs. This attunement is primal, constant and evolving. Like the basic need for food and water, the need for adoption-attunement is life-long, life-giving and vital.
We, at GIFT Family Services” believe strongly in adoption-attuned parenting. If you would like more information regarding this topic, feel free to contact one of our GIFT members. Adoption-attuned support is just a phone call away.