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This month we celebrate the “birthday” and independence of the United States. Many folks observe the Fourth of July as an extended family. Holidays become enmeshed with warm memories of the important people in our family, delicious food, fun activities, and great company.

Since we are part of an adopted family, we have some “extra steps” to consider while planning our holiday. We need to include a generous dose of Adoption Attunement along with all our good intentions. As parents, we can look back over decades of holidays and enjoy the memories they conjure. Drawing on our history, we strive to continue longstanding traditions and to establish family traditions with our own children, family, and friends.

Mindful of our commitment to ensuring that our children have the support they need, we recognize that as an adoptive family we have a few extra boxes to tick off on the planning list.  The top priority is ensuring that our kids feel safe and comfortable enough to enjoy themselves. While this seems like a given, for many adoptees, several factors can make it a bit harder for them to relax and enjoy the festivities.

Remember that many adoptees feel most alone and “out of sync” during large gatherings of extended family. Their experience of the holiday may be quite different from ours. Our kids may actually feel the full weight of their differences instead of the ease of many decades of feeling at home with family, loved, accepted, "seen", and appreciated. This means they may need an escape from this explosion of family tradition.

Create a plan ahead of time that outlines what your child—and you—can do to help them enjoy the day. Agree on options they can choose if they need to access a bit of calm or solitude in the midst of all the fun and chaos. Our personal enjoyment of the day must take a back seat to ensure that our kids feel safe and secure. This attunement to their needs will benefit our children, ourselves, and everyone else in attendance.

Kids adopted from foster care may have uncomfortable, painful, bittersweet, special, or treasured memories of holidays that they shared with their birth families. They will almost certainly have some sense of reawakened loss and heartache. Be mindful of this reality. Discuss it ahead of time. Be aware that certain sights, sounds, music, foods, etc., may trigger some challenging emotions. Create a list of strategies that they can use. Set a code word they can say to you that alerts you to their need for prompt support—or perhaps a respite from the chaos and noise. Reassure them that their reaching out for help will be met with your understanding. Promise that you will not be angry or annoyed if they have to call on your support. Be sure they know that you want them to seek you out if they are struggling, that keeping them safe is more important than the fun you are having yourself.

Kids adopted at infancy won’t have any previous holiday memories that are unknown to you that could unexpectedly "trigger" them but they may still feel a sense of “not belonging” in gatherings of extended family. They can look around and see family commonalities play out live—in the moment—gestures, patterns, physical attributes all convey a message of family identity. Our kids can see these attributes and judge them both as familiar and reassuring and as qualities which they clearly lack. Once again, High AQ families will note the presence of Both/And in the reality that is adoption.

Share conversations ahead of time that explore the complicated and ambiguous emotions that they might feel during the holiday events. Discussing things ahead of time provides an opportunity to build resiliency, predetermine the support needed and wanted, and to set exit strategies if necessary. Try some conversation starters like:

I wonder how you feel when everyone talks about all the past family holidays ...

You look obviously different from the family; how do you feel about that when we are all together?

Since you dislike sports, what will you do during the family softball game?

What agreements and plans will you want in place so you can enjoy yourself, have fun and feel safe?

Highly attuned adoptive parents regularly remind themselves of the need to steep their parenting in the fifteen elements of Adoption Attunement. It takes years of practice before the High AQ approach becomes the default. Keep practicing. Our kids are worth it!

Learn how the coaches at GIFT Family Services can help you and your family navigate your adoption journey. We've faced our share of family challenges and crises, ridden the metaphorical rollercoaster, and our families have not only survived; they have thrived. We offer experience, neutrality, and understanding. GIFT coaches are available to present workshops online.  Contact us : 1-800-653-9445

 

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The month of May, rich with burgeoning life after winter’s severity, brings motherhood to mind . The observance of an official holiday further nudges our awareness!  So, a question comes to mind: What does it mean to mother?

Like the iconic, multi-tasking mother herself, the word holds several jobs: noun, adjective, and verb. Each category has nuanced sub-definitions. Mothering is complex—both passive and active—we can be a mother to someone and we can be mothered by someone.  We can have a mother and lose a mother to death or life circumstance.

In adoption, the word Mother holds additional unique subtexts: Expectant, Hopeful, Real, Birth, First, Adoptive, Foster… Mothers—and fathers—are described as Permanent, Temporary, Terminated, or Forever

As so often happens, language is freighted with emotional weight. Like a fence, words mark who or what is in or out. Too often, we use language as a leveraging tool in an adversarial, either/or power play. Language influences who or what has value and/or power.

One of the most enduring realities in adoption is that family life is complicated, messy, crowded, and necessitates a Both/And approach. Our children depend on us to be inclusive. We can love with courage and verve. The choice is ours. We can resist our fears and insecurities and not allow them to limit and distress us. We can embrace the Both/And approach and harvest the advantages of inclusion. Not only will our children benefit; we will as well.

We parents love all of our children whether we adopted them or gave birth to them. If someone insisted that we choose one child and forsake another, we would adamantly refuse. We would insist that the request was impossible! Unreasonable! Cruel!

Yet, too often, this expectation of exclusivity and undivided loyalty is imposed on adopted children, not only by society but also by their adoptive parents. Adoptees are told—overtly or subtly—that they must choose their adoptive parents over their birth parents. Whether out of insecurity or fear, some adoptive parents cannot, or choose not to make room in the family circle to include all of their child’s relationships. Instead, they insist: Choose us or them.

From this limited, polarized vantage point, only one set of parents are held as real. Adopted children whose families believe this either/or point of view, suffer tremendous emotional upheaval. Mother Love becomes a knife that cleaves them instead of a sanctuary that enfolds and nurtures them.

As adoptive parents, we can refuse to ask our children to split themselves in two. Instead, we can offer them a great grace and not insist that our children be exclusively loyal and emotionally connected only to us. We can offer our children an inclusive, unconditional love that genuinely appreciates their need for all of their significant relationships. We want to forge ways to sustain emotional, intellectual, psychic, and—as long as it is safe—physical openness with birth parents. (When physical connection is not possible or is unsafe, we can still  nurture the other aspects of openness.)

Before we know it, our children will be autonomous adults no longer under our control. They will decide for themselves with whom to engage or not. Will they experience us as having been their champions, mentors, and best advocates as well as their beloved parents? Their decision will be partially based on how well they feel we met their needs and that they felt safe, seen, validated, and supported, and loved in ways that touched their hearts' core.

When we are able to create that connection, they will have experienced belonging in a way that they felt in their hearts, minds, and spirits.

Sometimes our emotions run so deep that the only way we can begin to express them is through poetry. This poem is dedicated to all those who mother...

On Mothering, Part II

For all who mother,

            We wish you blessings and joy, memories and connection.

For mothers who mourn,

            We wish you comfort and peace.

For mothers who grieve,

We wish you solace.

For those who yearn to mother,

We wish you hope and fulfillment.

For mothers who wonder,

We wish you answers and reassurance.

For mothers who suffer,

We wish you healing and understanding.

For all who seek to Mother,

We wish your dream fulfilled.

For those who love with a mother’s soul,

We wish you love returned in full measure.

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Yearning to Belong: the Quest to Feel at Home

Winter has arrived. Even here in South Florida temperatures have plummeted! Our instinct to hunker down drives us to turn to home for shelter, warmth, and safety. Home and family provide a reassuring sense of belonging. Home is far more than the physical structure in which we live; it is the interwoven relationships that provide physical and emotional sanctuary. When life overwhelms or circumstances challenge us, we look for this safe space. This kind of unconditional belonging is a fundamental human need.

When Sally Ankerfelt and I were writing What Adoptees Seek from Families and Faith, we interviewed many adult adoptees. . If we choose to listen, the insights and wisdom of adult adoptees can help us to be better parents, reduce the adoption-connected pain and trauma that our children might experience, and nurture a comforting sense of belonging in our families.

Each of their stories described a unique, individual narrative. Collectively they revealed some consistent themes. The most common theme was their profound yearning to belong, to feel that soul-deep sense of being "at home."

This powerful need to belong was often paired with a painful awareness that they no longer “belonged” in their birth families. Most viewed their separation from their first family as rejection— one which they felt in a deeply personal way. Regardless of the justifications, pressures,  heartbreaking factors, or “valid” reasons that propelled their mothers’ decision to choose adoption, adoptees felt anguish. As youths,  they struggled to parse the painful reality that their mothers had been unable to find a way to make space for them in their lives. (Many continue to wrestle with the pain of this rejection throughout their adult lives.)

Many adoptees reported that they never quite fit in with their adoptive families. The underlying fear of precipitating a repetition of their first families’ rejections motivated adoptees to try to morph into whom they believed their adoptive parents wanted them to be.

They never quite measured up to the expectations of their adoptive parents nor could they ever quite embody the child their adoptive parents had fantasized in their imaginations. It is impossible to compete with a dream.

Sadder still, many adoptees reported that they felt obligated to suppress their true selves, to subordinate their natural interests and abilities, and instead to follow the historic family patterns, interests, and paths that their adoptive family had followed for generations. Thus, they were simultaneously not quite themselves and not quite who their parents dreamed. They did not fully feel "at home" in either their adoptive families or their birth families. Their sense of belonging remained elusive.

In this month that is often associated with love and sweetness, let us ponder some important questions:

How are we nurturing our children’s authentic selves?

How are we affirming and validating the realities of their life experiences?

How are we sharing conversations about important conversations— even if awkward or difficult?

How can we help our children to experience a secure sense of belonging in our families?

 

I saw a post on Facebook which offered a powerful suggestion: when someone comes to us, e.g., our children, ask them this question. Do you want me to listen or offer solutions? This simple question places the trajectory of the conversation firmly in the hands of the person/child who sought us out. It empowers them to define what they want from us. They set the parameters, not us. They don’t have to adjust to our instincts, they can assert their own and make a clear request. This is empowering. This sense of agency is healing and is one of the elements that build a sense of belonging. This also helps to diminish any learned helplessness and affirm their capacity to problem solve and feel capable of meeting life's challenges. When parents "come to the rescue" too quickly or too often, kids internalize a powerful belief in their own lack of capability. This diminished sense of self reinforces feelings of shame, rejection, difference, and chips away at their sense of security, belonging, and feeling at home.

GIFT logo yearning to belong                         
            Your Adoption Attunement (AQ) Specialists
providing coaching and support before, during, and after adoption

Learn how the coaches at GIFT Family Services can help you and your family navigate your adoption journey. We've faced our share of family challenges and crises, ridden the metaphorical rollercoaster, and our families have not only survived; they have thrived. We offer experience, neutrality, and understanding. GIFT coaches are available to present workshops on-line.

Contact us to explore this possibility: 1-800-653-9445 

      Read these books written by our coaches.

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Lessons from 2020

The past year taught us we must learn to discuss hard things, listen to multiple voices with respect, and complete attention. We must strive to understand all sides of the conversation. Adoption is no different. People have very strong feelings about it.

Who are the experts? Is it therapists, social workers, adoptive parents? While each has a degree of expertise, they also tend to have a particular point of view that reflects their role in adoption. Their roles form the lenses through which they experience and interpret adoption

The real experts are adult adoptees. Parents— adoptive and birth— siblings, extended family, adoption professionals are all secondary voices.

Typically, adoptive parents have the most enthusiastic voice in any conversation about adoption. Professionals form the next tier. The main cultural belief holds adoption as a totally benign win/win solution in which all participants land on their feet with a smile on their faces and gratitude in their hearts.

The reality is more nuanced. Adoption Attunement affirms a more nuanced concept that sets aside the fairytale and validates the grief and loss in which all adoptions are rooted. It recognizes that before the adopted family comes together, the birth family is fractured. When speaking about adoption we must not lose sight of that painful reality.

As parents, we have an understandably positive bias about adoption. After all, it brought our children into our families and our hearts; adoption made our parenting dreams come true. We willingly take the stage and speak of the blessings of adoption. Our impassioned voices dominate the conversation.

But what about our children? Who hears their voices? Who listens to their perspective? Who witnesses their losses as well as their gains? Who affirms their need to know about and connect to their birth families and their roots? When we do listen, are we listening with empathy,  open minds, and hearts?

Or when we listen, are we listening through the filter of our positive bias? Is our body language sending a subtle— or not so subtle— message that we want to hear our children “accent the positive” when they discuss adoption. Have we telegraphed a silent message to our children that we are uncomfortable or unwilling to hear about the darker thoughts and feelings that adoption might elicit? Is this our Pandora’s box that we secretly want to keep padlocked?

Who is hurting?

Parents suffer when we see our kids in pain whether it is physical or emotional. We leap to comfort them and to cure the cause of their distress as quickly as possible. While our eagerness is primarily motivated by genuine concern for them, part of us is also eager to relieve our own discomfort. But sometimes the only way to handle tough stuff is to face it not to stuff it under the rug or to slap on a Band-Aid of positivity and denial. Be “with” them as they work through their discomfort. Lift their voices. Encourage them to speak their truth— their whole truth. Listen as an act of love.

How do we help our children use their voices?

Start when they are young. It need not be a Big Deal conversation along the lines of, I think we should talk about how you feel about being adopted. We all know how it feels when someone approaches us and says,  We need to talk.  Our stomach drops, hearts pound, and thoughts race. Our whole being is on the alert. This is not exactly the best scenario for a heart-to-heart convo with our children. A direct invitation like Want to talk about adoption?  is likely to be unwelcome and rebuffed.

Instead, learn how to routinely drop “seeds” in your everyday conversations.

     Wow, you are so… I wonder if that talent runs in your birth family? (Fill in the blank with the appropriate talent or quality.)

     Your birth mom would be so proud of you.

     I bet (Name) thinks of you in a special way on your birthday.

If your child wants to pursue the conversation, follow their lead. If not, just leave the question to linger in their minds. If you do it frequently and with genuine curiosity, the kids will feel that when they are ready, you will be receptive to talking about adoption. That’s the first step.

Avoid these surefire ways to get children to “clam up”.

Minimize
Dismiss
Make excuses
Rationalize the behavior, conversation, and attitudes of others.
Deny or invalidate their experience.
Jump to Fix It mode
Shut down any “negative” thoughts about adoption
Be blind to their adoption-connected grief and loss
Appear sad, hurt, or angry when they share
Expect 100% of their “loyalty”

None of these responses leave space for empathy, affirmation, or curiosity about how they are feeling, or what ideas they have on how to handle the issue at hand. Attune. Attune. Attune. Validate their experience. Thank them for trusting you enough to share. Ask them what they would like you to do. Allow them to take the lead while reaffirming your willingness to assist, if necessary.

Initiating Difficult conversations is a skill that takes practice

Start when they are young. How? Books are a superb way of raising conversations about adoption. With them snuggled beside us sharing the same book, we create moments of “togetherness” that goes beyond the words and the physical closeness. It creates a moment of intimacy, of shared interest, and focused attention. Kids need that.

Be sure your family library includes books that reflect the total adoption experience, not exclusively the positives. (Think of how you feel when people dismiss or minimize the challenges you’ve experienced like miscarriage, infertility, or the death of a child.)

Start Early

As always, it is important that you provide your children with truthful, age-appropriate information even in your very earliest conversations when they are very young. This way you can add information and provide detail and context as they are mature enough to learn it. For example, the picture book  ABC, Adoption & Me uses the simple alphabet format to introduce adoptees to many complex aspects of adoption in a way that is appropriate even for very young children. The format is one with which they are familiar and comfortable so it provides an easy framework on which to build.

The letter A page says A is for adoption. Some families come together through adoption. Mine did. Seems pretty simple. And yet… inherent in the statement is that adoption is not the norm, something the child will eventually have to come to grips with: most people raise the children to whom they gave birth.

The groundwork is laid for exploring the causes of adoption and eventually your child’s specific circumstances when they are older.

No spoiler alert needed: the book continues with the letter B. B is for bellybuttons and birthdays. Everyone has them. Again, seems very obvious, basic. And… it begins a path to why we all have bellybuttons: we all grew inside our mothers. We were born on a particular date. For adoptees, this day predates the time they joined our adoptive families.

How are you making sure your children know that you want to hear their voice? What books are on your family shelf? Do they reflect a balanced perspective about the gains and losses of adoption? How well do they lift up both the parental experience and the child’s?

Photo credit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

                         
GIFT, Growing Intentional Families Together, adoption
            Your Adoption Attunement (AQ) Specialists
providing coaching and support before, during, and after adoption

Learn how the coaches at GIFT Family Services can help you and your family navigate your adoption journey. We've faced our share of family challenges and crises, ridden the metaphorical rollercoaster, and our families have not only survived; they have thrived. We offer experience, neutrality, and understanding. GIFT coaches are available to present workshops on-line.

Contact us to explore this possibility: 1-800-653-9445 

      Read these books written by our coaches.

Listen to our podcasts.

 

 

Feeling short of time or finding it difficult to concentrate? You can listen to this post. Listening time:  6:21

November features National Adoption Awareness Month (#NAAM).

One thing 2020 has taught us: truly valuable things in life have no price tag. The things that genuinely matter are priceless: family, friends, health, companionship, security. As we observe the holidays, we do well to remember it is not the gifts we purchase but what is in our hearts that matters most.

This holiday season will be unlike any we have known in our lifetimes. 2020 has proven to be a game-changer in innumerable ways and our holidays will certainly be shaped by the pandemic realities. Our connections and celebrations may be mostly digital instead of in-person. Many of us have lost loved ones to the pandemic and their absence will be keenly felt. Still,  the core message of the holidays remains unaltered by circumstance, distance, or travail: live by the Golden Rule; seek peace; practice generosity, respect, goodwill, and compassion for others; and be a good neighbor.

As High AQ adoptive parents, we choose to parent with Intention so we commit to an additional tenet: Adoption Attunement. This relationship system honors the complex puzzle of adoption gains and losses. It moves beyond the proverbial “happily ever after story” and advances a more inclusive perspective; adoption creates not a completely benign solution, but one which includes real loss and challenges as well. Parents who embrace Adoption Attunement and commit to developing a high “AQ,” (Adoption Attunement quotient) know that by acknowledging the hard stuff with their kids, they can then become the safe harbor to which their children can turn for support, affirmation, security, and love. This attunement is an invaluable gift.

In the tumult of the holiday frenzy, we intentionally find ways to connect with our children. We know their expectations and emotions run high and deep and we actively engage in ways that support and reassure them.

We share important conversations that address adoption reality— no matter how awkward, uncomfortable, or difficult for us because our children need to know we are the strong shoulders on which they can lean and the source of strength on which they can draw. Such conversations cannot be forced or imposed. Our children simply must be confident that we genuinely welcome these discussions.

Although most adoptions are “open” this is not a binary experience; it is a spectrum of openness, contact, and emotional welcome. Openness is both a way of interacting and it is also a frame of mind as well as a setting of the heart. Such openness cannot be “faked.” It arises from an unconditional love for our kids that recognizes and supports their needs. Our children need to know that we are “all in”, that openness is not a burden or an obligation but an expression of our love and our awareness that openness benefits our children.

Whether their adoption is open or closed, adopted children will surely have thoughts and complex feelings about their first parents. Some children will ruminate more intently and more frequently, others perhaps less so. Parents can respond with open minds and hearts and listen to them without refutation or an effort to minimize or dismiss their words and feelings. Resist any temptation to speak ill of their birth parents. Instead, respond to the emotions our children express— sadness, regret, yearning, anger, etc. Affirm and validate their experience and remember, just like we can have strong emotions about family life that we share with friends, we don’t want our friends to speak ill of our family members.  We want them to support us through the challenge of the moment. This is also what our children seek from us. Ultimately, we want to build healthy, inclusive, honest relationships and not to stockpile ammunition for shooting one another down.

Conversations like this don’t “just happen.” We must build a reality-based sense that we want to listen to them, that we are strong enough to hear hard truths, that we love our children enough to support their need for the presence of their first families in their thoughts, hearts, and conversations. We bless our children when we free them of the false belief they must choose between loving and needing us and loving and needing their first families. Meeting our children’s needs in this way builds trust, deepens connection, and nurtures attachment.

This is joy. This is grace. This is unconditional love. This is Adoption Attunement.

     
            Your Adoption Attunement (AQ) specialists
providing coaching and support before, during, and after adoption

Learn how the coaches at GIFT Family Services can help you and your family navigate your adoption journey. We've faced our share of family challenges and crises, ridden the metaphorical rollercoaster, and our families have not only survived; they have thrived. We offer experience, neutrality, and understanding. GIFT coaches are available to present workshops on-line. Contact us to explore this possibility: 1-800-653-9445 

      Read these books written by our coaches.

Listen to our podcasts.


GIFT, Growing Intentional Families Together, adoption

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