Mother’s Day sits in our rearview mirror with all of the complicated emotional baggage that adheres to it for us, our children, and their birth mothers. Hand in hand with great joy, we all grapple with elements of grief and loss. Unsurprisingly, this affects the already complicated dynamics of being family because we must deal with the additional complications of being an adoptive family. We experience moments of resonant emotional attunement, feel mutually attached, and secure. But in spite of our good intentions and our best efforts, we also share incidents of painful and frustrating disconnect, anger, and rejection that leave us feeling discouraged, frustrated, exhausted, and unsupported.
As Intentional Parents, we understand that perfection is both unachievable and unrealistic. We know that intellectually, but our hearts operate on an entirely different plane. We yearn for that intimacy, joy, and reciprocity of mutual attachment between ourselves and our loved ones. A conflict-heavy relationship feels like the antithesis of that dream.
It’s essential to remember that all relationships experience conflict. Healthy relationships are characterized not by the absence of conflict but by the effort expended in addressing conflict, repairing emotional injuries, rebuilding broken trust, and cultivating an ongoing commitment to one another.
Pasting a happy face over unresolved conflict allows emotional wounds to fester and ultimately destroys both connection and trust. Equally damaging, are expectations that rely on the other person’s ability to read our minds, to intuitively know what we need and want. It takes courage to speak up and say, “You hurt me,” especially if we make this admission not in the passion of anger but rather, with a clear head and a willingness to expose our vulnerability. "You hurt me,” especially if we admit this not in the passion of anger but rather, with a clear head and a willingness to expose our vulnerability. Sharing this message requires courage and reveals an emotional investment in the relationship. Sharing the truth and hearing the truth requires both persons to be emotionally vulnerable. This is intimacy and connection in action.
How does this distinction look in action? Let’s assume we all have a very clear picture of how hurt feelings generate angry, aggressive, and hurtful responses. (Often we say things which we regret and wish we could take them back. But words, once spoken, can never be unheard. Profound damage to the relationship occurs. Hence the need for repair.)
A less familiar response is an intentional confrontation whose sole purpose is the repair and healing of the relationship. This outreach is made after emotions have cooled. It arises from the person’s higher commitment to the relationship than to being right in the specific event. When a person declares that a breakdown occurred in a relationship, when they share that they felt hurt, a simple “I’m sorry” is not enough and a cavalier “If I hurt you…” not only is insufficient, it often deepens the damage to the relationship. Once someone told us they felt hurt, whether or not we intentionally inflicted that hurt does not erase their hurt. This pain cannot be soothed with the assertion that I didn’t mean to hurt you. Hopefully, none of us intentionally hurt those with whom we share an intimate connection.
Imagining the event as having resulted in a physical injury, helps us better appreciate how our loved one feels. For example, if we opened the kitchen cabinet door and it slammed into their face, we would feel compelled to apologize and would certainly not say, “If your broken nose hurts, I am sorry.” because the injury is so physically obvious. It would feel ridiculous—as well as counterproductive to the relationship—to suggest that the injury did not occur. Yet too often, when a loved one asks us to apologize, we invalidate that apology by questioning the existence of the injury for which we are being asked to make amends: “If I hurt your feelings, I’m sorry. I never meant to do it.”
The lack of intentionality about the offense does not make the injury less painful. A more genuine apology might sound like this, “I am so sorry that I hurt you. I value our relationship. How can I make things right between us?” This statement does not dispute that the injury took place. It accepts the fact accountably. No effort is made to evade responsibility for the miscommunication under the escape hatch of I-did-not-mean-to-hurt-you.
An often overlooked perspective of the dynamics of unintended injury--within the context of a significant relationship-- is specifically the lack of intention. It suggests disinterest, dismissal, and lack of valuation of the relationship on the offender's part. The injured party can feel as if their significant other no longer holds the relationship as an important priority or has begun to take it for granted, not worth the time and attention which it requires so it can continue to flourish and remain mutually vital. Indifference, not hate is the opposite of love. When one no longer feels they are being held as an important priority by their partner (close friend, family member, etc.) they feel discarded, insignificant, hurt, unheard and invisible. Consider the words of David Augsberger: "Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are indistinguishable." No relationship can survive in the vacuum of inattention and indifference.
How are you nurturing your relationships? In which ones are you currently investing the most time and energy? How well does the current reality reflect your intended priorities versus your actual priorities? Who needs to know that you do hear and see them? What actions will you take to ensure that happens? What apologies and relationship repair work will you choose to handle? Carefully think through what you want to say. Remember to avoid verbal potholes—any effort to wriggle out of responsibility or soften accountability—that might invalidate apologies. Conclude with a question: Are we okay? Is there anything else you need from me? How can we move forward together?
GIFT coachees stand ready to help you handle similar difficult conversations. Imagine how it will benefit you and your family.
Listen to our podcasts on Adoption-attuned Parenting.
Read adoption-attuned book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift. They are written with an Adoption-attuned perspective
Unless adoptive parents are also adoptees, we can only approximate in our minds and hearts what it must be like for our children. Adoption was the answer to our prayer; but for our children, it is far more complicated. The benefits they gained via adoption coexist with significant loss and trauma. Adoption is not an exclusively happy experience for our children. We cannot know the silent, inner conversations they have within themselves as they strive to piece together a sense of healthy wholeness from the disparate threads of their biology and their biography.The only way to know what they are thinking is share conversations that touch on these difficult subjects. We must love them enough to hold these hard conversations.
It isn’t easy for them or us kids to talk about such heavy topics.
Our earnest hope that all is okay with our kids may willingly believe that it is so. When we ask kids if they’re doing all right and they quickly assure that it is, we heave a sigh of relief. But, can we actually accept their reassurances on face value?
What do we know, within ourselves, about assurances too quickly offered, of hot topics we gladly shove under the rug? Plenty.
How many times have we told spouses, partners, friends, or colleagues that “nothing is wrong” when in fact, it was obvious that we were hurting so much? But, we were afraid to articulate it, as if speaking it aloud made it real. Denying it offered us the temporary shelter of pretending we were fine. Besides, the truth was too scary to admit even to ourselves. We’d rather be stuck than to expose our vulnerability. Being stuck was less painful than facing the issues and doing the hard work of creating any necessary changes.
How many other times have we held back because we expected our loved ones to know without our telling them what was bothering us? Mindreading never works. It’s a dangerous and false assumption to think that because people care about us they automatically know what is going on inside our heads. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To rely on mindreading is to sabotage the relationship.
Communication is a two-way street. We have to engage in conversations that safely and respectfully talk about “stuff.” For families like ours, this means we must have the hard conversations about adoption and the very complicated reality it brings for our children.
Even as we admit it is hard for us as adults to tackle the hard conversations, it is even more difficult for our kids. They depend on us for virtually all their security—emotional and physical. The possibility that they might place that security in jeopardy is very scary. At some level, they know they need us, that they can’t afford to lose us. From this vantage point, consider how scary it is for them, therefore to share thins which they think might offend, alienate or disappoint us. They may even falsely believe that we do not want to hear their thoughts and feelings. They may worry that we cannot handle the awkward, negative conversations that may echo inside them. Inner demons may tell them we are open only to happy conversations that prove the benefits of adoption.
What strategies help us initiate conversations of this topic which is vital yet so scary for all of us? Here are a few ideas:
When the news mentions family separations, comment. Mention how hard that must be for parent and child. Wait to see if your child says anything. Say that it makes you think about his being separated from his first family. If he responds to this conversation starter, great! If not, reassure him that you would want to hear about his feelings when he is ready so you could help him work through it.
Have a well-stocked family library on books that explore adoption.
Read books from your child’s school list or from their own recreational list. Look for events in the book that might serve as conversation starters.
Similarly, listen to the lyrics of his favorite songs. Talk about why they resonate with him. This does not have to be about adoption. The purpose is to establish a pattern of authentic sharing.
See the films he enjoys. Watch them together, if he’s willing. If not, watch them by yourself and then look for an opportunity to chat about it together.
Share some of your moments of struggle--being mindful of holding appropriate boundaries. Articulate how a circumstance or relationship challenges you and mention some of the specific strategies you employed. These will then serve as models for some options which they might use in the future. Sharing your experiences relieves them of the false belief that parents never have struggles, feel inadequate, or have conflicting feelings within important relationships.
Good communication depends on respect and non-judgmental listening. Start with “safe” subjects and build a pattern of loving listening. This lays down the habit of talking together. The more routine it becomes, the more likely they will talk when it topics are more difficult.
What one thing can you do to start building a habit of talking to one another?
These terms originated in Lori Holden’s masterful book, The Open-hearted Way to Open Adoption. This book belongs in every adoptive family's library.
Wildfires, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes—weather has dominated the headlines in recent months. Disaster strikes with heartless intensity. Even a single death is one too many. Mother Nature can exact a crushing toll. Though many of the losses are material and replacement can eventually be made given enough money and time, the losses are still heartbreaking, discouraging, and frightening. Many significant losses cannot be measured in dollars and cents because the destruction destroyed things of intrinsic or sentimental value. But beyond measure are the losses “without price” —intangibles like peace of mind, souvenirs and photographs of life’s milestones. Another huge loss is one’s sense of safety and permanence.
Unable to prevent these natural disasters, we watch in horror. News coverage appears on a range of devices that keep us constantly updated and agitated. The scale and frequency of bad news can overwhelm us and can lead to compassion fatigue. Or, it can tempt us to throw our hands up in despair, do nothing and simply take our chances. As Intentional Parents, we understand and appreciate the value of planning ahead, of predetermining our responses as a way of reassuring and protecting our families.
Adopted children may be especially vulnerable to anything that threatens their sense of continuity and permanence. Having already experienced a profound loss—the loss of their first family—they may feel a strong need to hang on to “stuff” as a way of imposing some sense of control or “insurance.”
Sentimental pack rats may hate to part with items that may seem trivial to us. Avoid dismissing or belittling their desire to preserve memories. These items may provide them with essential ballast for steadying them through uncertainty. Help them discern why and what they want to save. Respect their inclination to save “stuff” and help them find ways to organize and curate their “collection.”
When disaster hits the headlines, our kids absorb the news (even if only peripherally.) All the dramatic coverage may cause them to feel a thrum of anxiety and uncertainty. They may not even suspect this is what makes them feel so unsettled. As adults, we too may be triggered by the pictures of flooded homes, collapsed dams, and houses floating down neighborhood streets. We hope our homes will be sturdy and remain undamaged and that our families will be safe. We may wonder if we have enough insurance, an adequate Emergency Fund or sufficient stockpile of emergency supplies. We may worry about potential damage, lost wages, and repair costs
We may unconsciously telegraph our own fear to our children. Consider holding a family meeting. In the absence of reassuring conversations, their fears may overwhelm them. Talk about what is occurring. Inform children of the preparations you’ve made, etc. Let them know how they can help. Invite them to pre-select what they would want to pack and preserve in case of a weather emergency. Explore how you can help neighbors and others in the community.
Ideally. hold these conversations when circumstances are calm, before danger looms. Ask kids to talk about their fears as well as their ideas for solutions and strategies. The conversation may even lead to children sharing other concerns and fears not related to storms but equally or even more important to discuss.
How might your family benefit from talking about disaster preparedness?
Those of us touched by adoption understand what it is like to feel "othered" or different. Many of us have adopted transracially and therefore, have a particular interest in ensuring equality for all. We get a closer look at the impact of racism, bias, micro-aggressions, and invalidation that happen to our families. Current events awaken us to the tragic inequities and actual dangers which threaten our kids. We recognize another sad but very real truth:, our children experience a more intimate relationship with the consequences of racism when they are outside of the sheltering protection of being with their white families.
We want to support, prepare and protect our children. To do that, we need to know what is happening in their lives and we need to talk about it. Yet for a variety of reasons, they may not be entirely forthcoming about the challenges they face in this arena. Perhaps it makes the ugliness too real. Perhaps, they want to forestall our worrying, perhaps they feel diminished by even giving the topic voice, perhaps they fear we won't "get" it--some, or all of these factors may be true.
It is absolutely essential that we have the difficult conversation, talk about the dangers, the unfairness, the cruelty and the small-mindedness that drive bigotry. We cannot afford to wait for our kids to raise the subject. It's too vital and too dangerous to postpone or ignore. Yet, as parents, we know how notoriously difficult it can be to get kids to open up. So, what can we do?
Our children are products of the internet era. Why not
Use kids' preference for, & comfort with, all things tech? Suggest watching this video together (Hey, I saw this on Facebook and wondered what you thought of it?) Then talk about it.
Read this companion article by Erin Canty who "grew up black in a very white neighborhood in a very white city in a very white state." Erin says it captures her experience quite well. Titled, 7 Things Black People Want Their Well-meaning White Friends to Know to Know posted on UpWorthy. I don't know if she is an adoptee. Perhaps she is. Perhaps she isn't. However, her post is very relevant in any racially-diverse family whether formed through biology or adoption.
Important conversations do not just happen. We must set the stage, issue the invitation and then LISTEN.
We ran this post last year and we think it bears a second look.
For most of us the carefully wrought, precarious balance of our family systems depends on everything operating as expected. But what happens when an event smashes that equilibrium? This made me think about parenting in adoption. Beyond the “normal” challenges of raising a family, working and sustaining a marriage (or significant-other partnership,) adoptive families have additional roles, relationships and challenges to juggle. We get used to handling mind-numbing stresses and living life as the ultimate roller coaster ride. But… What if you or your spouse suddenly got sick? If you totaled your car, lost your job, or one of your kiddos came totally unglued, what emergency plan do you have?
I’m guessing that few of us have a really detailed blueprint of whom to call upon for help. Perhaps we have casual agreements: My sister would take the kids; My Mom would come and stay; Joe could carpool, etc. Are you and your spouse (partner,) on the same page? Have your resource people actually agreed? Or is your plan based on assumptions? And we all know where assumptions land us, right? Our children have already experienced a primal disruption in their lives when they were separated from their birth families and grafted into ours. We must ensure that we do whatever we can to ensure that if tragedy ever strikes our families, we have carefully outlined a plan that addresses such situations.
The middle of a crisis is the worst time to be scrambling for resources and the assistance that you need. Do yourself a favor and brainstorm with your partner now and persist until you’ve developed a specific plan. Have those Difficult Discussions; if there's anything adoptive parents know, it is that life does not always go the way we plan. Actually, make that two plans: one for short-term problems and one for long-term. Be sure you have written things down. Have notarized permissions that allow others to access healthcare for your kids—and you—if you are unable to make those decisions. Compile a file that has their medical information, physician’s names, numbers, etc. Have a legally binding agreement that specifies who would care for your kids if something happened to you and/or your spouse (or partner.) What if neither of you could communicate?
While these events are unpleasant to confront, it is an act of love to ensure that you provide care and custody for your kids with people who would welcome and love them (as opposed to agreeing to it because they feel they “should.”) Ensure that the people you've chosen are willing to commit to the plan, are thoroughly educated on adoption realities and, embrace Adoption-attunement*. Compile a folder with pertinent resources. Include agencies as well as individuals, advocacy groups, on-line support forums, etc. Review your plans periodically; people and their circumstances change. Your choices may have to be adjusted to reflect those changes.
Schedule those conversation with your spouse and anyone designated in your "plan." It just might be one of the most loving and important things you can do for your children. It's a situation you hope you never face but if it happens, your kids' will benefit from your pre-planning immensely. Create the plans-- in detail.
What's your first step?
Sally: 612-203-6530 | Susan: 541-788-8001 | Joann: 312-576-5755 | Gayle: 772-285-9607