My son celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday recently. For the first time in several years, his birth mother was not here to join us in person although she most certainly was present in spirit, in my own heart and most assuredly in our son's. Over the years we've come to know and love one another, building bridges, sharing joys and sorrows, basically becoming family together, fellow travelers on a shared life journey. We've also come to understand that adoption includes great losses for our son and for his mother and the rest of our son's first family.
As with anything connected with adoption, relationships swirl in complex ambiguity. I believe all of us have thoughts that ponder the great "what ifs"... What if the adoption had never happened. Who would our son be? Who would we be? Of course, none of us can ever know the answer to that question. Just as assuredly as a puff of breath extinguishes the candles on a birthday cake, adoption snuffed out one version of life for all of us and replaced it with the one which we have lived for several decades. Perhaps we will never know if this was "best." At this point in time, it is simply what is and we have made peace with that fact even as we all understand the profound "cost" of that reality.
For many adopted children, birthdays can be overwhelming as it awakens powerful and conflicting emotions. What kid doesn't love to be the center of attention and the recipient of lots of presents? At the same time, for adoptees, their birthday is inextricably linked with awareness of the primal loss of their first mother and extended biological family. I suspect that many kids do not even understand why they feel so conflicted on their birthday nor do they understand what might drive them to create chaos and turmoil in the midst of all the celebrations.
When they are really little, they probably only respond to the excitement and fun. However, once they reach about ten, they begin to truly comprehend how adoption realigned their lives. It's darned complicated for adults to comprehend the tumultuous feelings of adoption-connected loss and gain which arise. No wonder kids feel overwhelmed. It is wise to remind ourselves of this complex reality so that we can respond with empathy if our children meltdown in the midst of festivities which we've arranged in their honor. We must focus on being their source of comfort and understanding so they can deal with their emotions with our support. If we get distracted by our own sense of feeling that our efforts to orchestrate a celebration have been unappreciated or even disdained, we will have missed a powerful opportunity to be the safe harbor in the midst of a storm.
So what can we Intentional Parents do to help our kids? A few days prior to their birthday, try to open conversations that invite them to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Reassure them that you understand that adoption is a Both/and world and that you understand their need to value and explore their biological relationships and heritage. Such conversations can feel awkward; still they must be broached. Try saying something like, Around their birthdays, some adopted kids think a lot about their birth mother. I'm wondering if perhaps you are. It's okay and normal for you to think about her. I'm sure she thinks about you. Even if our children dismiss this conversation opener, we have planted a seed that roots a vital message: He does not have to hide his thoughts and feelings. We love them enough to make space for all of the people who are important to him. And because they are important to him, they are important to us.
This gift of inclusivity and openness is a birthday present to treasure.
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Although the calendar clearly indicates that winter has arrived, here in south Florida we continue to swelter. I’ve lived in Florida since the late ’80s, my brain still finds it difficult to equate palm trees and sun lotion as part of the holiday ambiance.
Holiday music helps, but Christmas shopping in shorts and a t-shirt still feels like an oxymoron. My senses say, "Hit the beach, " instead of "Put up the lights and decorate the tree." My brain must override this conflicting message which contrasts so starkly with the personal experience of my youth.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts where icy temperatures and drifting snow characterize winter events. My holiday memories sit clearly in a frame of cold weather factors: red cheeks, numb fingers, snow-encrusted mittens and the pleasure of hot chocolate after romping in the snow with friends and family.
On the other hand, I have a friend—a Florida native—who rejects any decorations that include depictions of snow. For her, Christmas has always meant sunny skies, sandy feet, and a plunge into the surf. Many of her prized ornaments feature Santa driving a sleigh pulled by flamingos!
Our two traditions contrast dramatically.
Which experience is right? Which is the “real” one?
Our world tends to favor the tidiness of either/or thinking.
We tend to think in dichotomies: win/lose, right/wrong acceptable/unacceptable, in/out. Real/Unreal. But, do we really have to choose?
Of course not. Our individual experiences of reality do not nullify each other; they coexist. We can easily see that our beliefs about holiday décor emerge from our personal experience. Each is valid. Each is “real”. Each is treasured and connects us to important memories and relationships.
We feel no need to insist that one of us must relinquish or invalidate her experience. We do not feel threatened by the other’s point of view and easily accommodate both.
Such an inclusive attitude. Powerful.
This is the grace of Both/and: of making room for both instead of assessing one as "right" and the other as "wrong."
During the holiday season, we will often hear the phrase “no room at the inn.” We judge the failure of the innkeeper who delivered that message and we like to believe that we would choose better if given the opportunity.
As adoptive families, we also have a choice to make. Will we exemplify welcome and openness in our families and embrace both/and in a profoundly significant way. Or, will we slam the door shut? For the sake of our children, we must make space for their birth families. (In cases where adoptions are not open or physical contact cannot occur, we can at least hold open the emotional space.)
At this time of year, most adoptees spend time thinking about their birth families. Many also struggle with feelings of guilt about his thoughts. Others say these thoughts make them feel disloyal to their adoptive parents. Imagine the relief they might feel if we open conversations that both acknowledge the likelihood they have such thoughts and that we are neither threatened or angry. Imagine the powerful reassurance we can offer them when we assert that their thoughts and feelings are normal, understandable and appropriate.
Imagine the peace of mind our children might feel knowing we love them enough to make space for all their important relationships--whether they originate in biology or adoption. This is how we can live the Christmas message of peace, grace & Room at the Inn.
Along with the joys of family celebrations, parties and, charitable efforts, the holiday crush creates stress and pressure. Expectations soar into the stratosphere. Parents seek to create magical moments with our kids by buying their dream gift. We want to make our family and friends happy. We yearn to feel that warm thrum of pleasure when our gift brings joy to them.
(Feel a tinge of pressure in your gut?)
We want to show them that we care and know enough about them to pick the perfect gift for them. I suspect that as adoptive parents, there is often a subtle yet potent pressure to “prove” ourselves to our kids, perhaps an unconscious sense that we must make their childhoods glorious to compensate for any adoption-connected loss and grief.
(Feeling more pressure?)
We know we must balance finances with our desire to buy the perfect gift. Often this pushes us to stretch the budget. Perhaps even to the point where it bursts and we create real financial pain for ourselves. Before buying an item, ask three questions: Can we afford it? Is this gift purchase about me feeling good or about the recipient? In six months will this still be valued?
(Feeling the burn now?)
How do we walk back expectations, defuse the stress and make healthier choices?
Let’s step back from the ingrained pattern and consider something our hearts all know: the best presents are not “stuff.” This is not to deny the hardcore realities of our culture. Yes kids dream of the “in” toy of the season or, the trendy clothing that will help them fit in with their chosen social group. They’ll get some pleasure from having their Christmas wish list fulfilled. But they don’t need everything they want. Help kids learn this life lesson.
As intentional parents, we also have an opportunity to open our children’s eyes to “gifts” they might never request: the gift of time, attention, respect and, most importantly, of validation.
Time and attention
By spending less time shopping, we can spend more time with our children and our partners. Make an opportunity to connect with each of them individually as well as collectively as a family. Be sure it is focused, undivided and connected. It does not have to be lengthy. Concentrate on truly being with one another. Here are just a few ideas.
One of the greatest gifts we can provide our children is validation. For adoptees the holidays can be complicated. Along with the excitement and anticipation which all kids feel, they can experience conflicting and distressing emotions. They can feel great longing and curiosity about their birth parents—even children adopted as infants. Validate that. Create a family tradition like burning a candle in honor of their birth parents or a special mention in the holiday blessings. (If the adoption is open, share an activity with the birth parents, perhaps replicating a tradition from the birth family. Keep it private without other family or friends. )
Ensure that you’ve created a space for children to be honest about their feelings. Be sure they know they can find support from you to help them cope, that you won’t be angry or hurt.
Reassure adoptees that there’s room for everyone at the emotional hearth. This is the time to remind them that the family is committed to Both/And; they do not need to choose between their adoptive and birth families.
For children adopted through foster care, memories of other Christmases will be on their mind. At best it will increase their grief and loss issues; at worst it will remind them of painful memories, abuse and neglect, and a tangle of mixed emotions. Sadness, longing, regret, anger and, love will all swirl in their minds. Do not wait for kids to raise the subject themselves. Open the space for talking about these hard things. Let them know that it is okay to have mixed feelings about the holidays, Reassure them that you understand if they are missing their first families. Identify a signal for when they are feeling overwhelmed and need an exit. Try to learn the triggers that might distress them, for example, songs, foods, smells, activities, sounds, even locations. Do not force them to participate in large, extended family gathering where they may feel out of place. This only reinforces feelings of not belonging. Give them the time and space they need. You and they will feel better in the long run.
Family dynamics are complicated, often unpredictable and highly charged. As intentional parents we recognize that the emotional health of our nuclear family must be at the center of any celebrations. Sometimes the emotional needs of our children will require us to skip the chaotic extended family gathering because it is too much for them to handle. Our guts can sense this. Listen to them. Being the safety net for our children is the best gift we can give them.
Acceptance is a two-way street. We must also give ourselves the grace we need. Admit when it is too much pressure, then maybe just do a minimal holiday --something that could be added to each year. Have no expectations, and if you feel you are heading for breakdown, take the cues from your child, and slow down the festivities to what can be tolerated--for them and you. Default to the lowest level of excitement--the one at which everyone can cope. Stay present and focus on what your intuition senses your family needs.
Blessings and peace.
In our blogs we focus on the essential need for a Both/And attitude in adoptive families. Both birth and adoptive parents. Both nature and nurture. Each has positives to offer. Each is a permanent and core part of the child. We believe everyone benefits from this inclusive approach which releases our children from the lose/lose expectation that they must be loyal only to us.
When we operate with a both/and presupposition, we free our children from the burden of an untenable choice: care about those who gave them life or care about those who raise them day to day.
We can also embrace a both/and paradigm in other areas of our parenting to help nurture family harmony. Consider the issue of low level conflict. How might parents propose an approach that allows both themselves and their children to feel heard?
Here's an example. Dad wants the lawn mowed--now. Teen wants to sleep in. What if they frame an agreement that lets the child rack up the extra zzzs as long as the lawn gets mowed by 6:00 p.m. (or other mutually agreed upon time of completion)? Instead of a battle royale, this could be a win/win situation. Both can get their goal accomplished and both can feel like they've "won."
Consider how often we engage in power struggles with kids because we want what we want, when we want and HOW we want. Emotions escalate. Parent and child each dig in their heels. Frequently the issue being debated is fairly trivial on the surface. The real point is control. Parents don't want to lose it and kids want as much self-determination as possible. Both lose in this struggle since the relationship is threatened and no real control truly exist.
Let's face it, none of us like to be told "No." The world of a child overflows with refusals, postponements and "Not on your lifes." To whatever extent possible, allow children choice. Avoid phrases like "Would you like to..." if "No!" is not an option. Deliberately create opportunities for children to practice decision-making. When they are little, it is easy to offer them two or three options--the red pajamas or the blue, orange juice, water or milk, bath or shower--any of which are acceptable. Get in the habit of offering these simple choices.
Be certain that you make a clear distinction between an option and an instruction. If there is not really a choice to be made but rather an instruction to be followed, don't play "Russian Roulette" hoping they'll choose the only option acceptable to you. That is not a genuine choice. This kind of deck-stacking damages a relationship. When the child chooses the "wrong" choice (the one included as a sham option but which the parent is unwilling to accept,) they will be angry when the parent breaks his word and overrides the child's choice. The phoniness of the transaction blindsides the child. The big lesson they learn is that the parent's word cannot be trusted. That is definitely not the message parents want to broadcast.
As kids get older allowing kids to make choices becomes a bit more challenging. The stakes increase and so does the learning. The only way to become skilled at making good decisions, anticipating consequences and avoiding poor outcomes is by making decisions, living with the results and learning from the process. It is far better to have kids learn the difference between a "good" and a "poor" decision when the life cost is trivial: a failing grade versus a juvenile court record; an ugly outfit versus a hideous --and inappropriate tattoo; an unsatisfying friendship versus an abusive one.
Failure teaches many lessons; it takes tremendous courage to keep trying. Parents must help kids--and themselves--to focus on learning from the decision not on the expectation that every decision/attempt will satisfy or succeed on the first go around. Be there when your child fails, not with "I told you so" but with curiosity as to how it can be done differently.
How are you creating opportunities for your children to practice good decision-making?
What are you modeling about your own processes, attitudes, persistence and learning from failure?
Where are you most challenged in allowing your children the chance to self-manages and make decisions.
How careful are you to distinguish between options and requirements?
Sally: 612-203-6530 | Susan: 541-788-8001 | Joann: 312-576-5755 | Gayle: 772-285-9607