Our recent posts focused on communication, deep listening, and respect. These are foundational values for Intentional Families. In this blog, we also frequently discuss the intrinsic connection adopted families have to Diversity. Our families are rooted in difference. It is inherent in the way we became a family. Moreover, with the increasing number of transracial and/or transcultural adoptions, adoptive families are living Diversity with a daily, visceral experience.
Adoption has removed the cultural blinders of white privilege from the eyes of thousands of families. We know it is real because we personally experienced discrimination, about race, culture, and the way families are formed. Painful. And unfair. It is important that we work to erase any imbalance and ensure equality for all. We must validate our children’s encounters with discrimination and be aware that when they are in the world without us, any insulating cushion of white privilege which exists when they are with us, is removed.
With that being said, let’s consider another form of ‘discrimination” that can exist in adoptive families, one that is more subtle but equally powerful. Not racial or cultural but adopted versus not adopted. Unless we ourselves have been adopted, we cannot totally understand the challenges that our children face—especially for those in closed adoptions. We might be tempted to dismiss our children’s reports of being treated differently by extended family and attribute their perception as being overly sensitive or just inaccurate.
Without wondering what emotions and needs are causing his response, we might lament Johnny’s less-than-stellar behavior at the elaborate party we’ve staged and wonder, Why does he spoil every family gathering?)
We overlook, justify, or deny any aloofness of extended family at gatherings and “blame” or child. (It’s simply Maddy’s personality.)
Sometimes, our yearning for the fairy tale ending where everyone lives happily ever after leads us to white-wash their adoption-related struggles. Wishing something were true does not make it so. This kind of denial is a kind of discrimination. Equally unacceptable is telegraphing to kids that they must repress any adoption-related grief or loss. This requirement becomes the unspoken “cost” of belonging to the adoptive family.
A more insidious factor might be at work. Our own feelings of loyalty to our families of origin might cloud our judgment, and tempt us to cast things as rosier than they are. It’s difficult to admit that Grammy and Grandpa are bigoted or that they prefer their biological grandchildren over their adopted grandchildren or for us to acknowledge that their acceptance of our children is only surface deep. Lip service. But in some families, this is the reality. It is cruel to subject our children to this emotional discrimination and pain. This is unacceptable.
When things get difficult, the words and actions of these “relatives” reveal their true feelings. They comment that you should have known better than to adopt an older child, or should have expected problems “considering…” the list of reasons varies but the theme is the same. The adoptee is perceived as “other.” Not one of “Us.” Relatives/friends use the information we’ve shared as a way to diminish, judge, and criticize our children. (This is one important reason why it is imperative to not share the details of our children’s stories. It belongs to them, not us. Family and friends need only know our kiddos had tough stuff to overcome. Specifics are unnecessary.)
Truth matters. As adoptive families, we must deal with the realities of life. (This is part of the “tuning in” of Adoption Attunement.) Together we can face our challenges but first, we must acknowledge them. This requires courage, commitment, trust, and a willingness to see and speak the complex truth about adoption. Then we can come together to support one another. There is strength in the struggle and the conquering of challenges. Healing occurs over time and is a family effort, a family goal, and a family purpose.
As children mature they will take increasing control of their relationship with their birth families. Some adoptees seek intimate contact. Others prefer a more aloof relationship. The choice belongs to them. It is our job to respect their lead and to continue respecting their birth families.
Similarly, our kids may not feel as attached to our extended family of origin, and they may choose to stop coming to family events. This disappoints us. It represents a loss both for our kids and for us. However, we must accept where they are. We must not try to pressure them into “putting on a happy face”. Such pressure gaslights their experience and jeopardizes our parent/child relationship because it telegraphs to our children that their needs are secondary to the appearance of harmony with extended family.
Validating our children will keep the communication and relationship flowing and allow healing to begin to take place–or at least hold open the possibility for that healing. Letting our kids take the lead is essential. If they choose to distance themselves from extended family, take a stance of loving curiosity as you seek to “know” and understand your child’s feelings and reasons for that choice. Resist any urge to pressure kids to change their minds. Do not try to convince them they are wrong. Respect their feelings and decisions just as you expect them to respect yours. Their life. Their mental health. Their truth. Their decision.
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