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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Talking Adoption

A few weeks ago, before the dreaded Swine Flu overtook our house, another Tonggu Momma asked me how we got started "talking adoption" with the Tongginator. (Valerie blogs at I'm Just Peachy.) Just y'alls luck that she asked about a topic I will absolutely sound obnoxious passionate about when I answer. But at least I KNOW I sound that way. (And I'm really sorry that I do!) I DO, however, have some firm opinions about this topic, mostly because I've thought about it a ton, read even more and talked with countless adoptive parents.

First off, I believe that "talking adoption" with your child doesn't always have to be doom and gloom. Children need to feel comfortable with their life stories and also free to feel... however it is that they feel. So when I use the phrase "talking adoption?" I'm not suggesting that you sit down with your child on a weekly basis, hammering out the details of his or her abandonment. I'm talking about... making the word "adoption" a normal part of your family conversation, not so often that it feels forced or weird, but not so rare that it feels awkward. I'm talking about addressing questions easily, as they arise, and also weaving little, positive details of their early lives into the conversation, as appropriate. (In other words, not pretending that their lives began on the day y'all met them.) So yes, I am ALSO talking about teaching your child the known and age-appropriate details of his or her life prior to adoption.

I do believe there are some rules that ALL adoptive parents absolutely should follow. Malinda said them best in her post Ten Commandments of Telling. For me, it is not a question of if or when you should start talking about adoption with your child, but how. What language will you use? How will you phrase things? I believe that, no matter how young your child is at the moment, if you aren't already talking adoption with him or her, you should start now. And it needs to be standard discourse, not a special conversation that is reserved for specific times of year or when your child finally braves the topic. YOU, as the parent, need to broach the subject often so your child learns that it's okay to bring it up.

I've talked with lots of families about this subject. And what I've found is that many parents avoid "talking adoption" with their children because they fear that addressing adoption *at all* will bring up some of the more difficult aspects of their childrens' stories. They are afraid their children are too young to hear about such things. And, while I understand those fears, one thing I've found to be true is... usually the child is more than ready to handle the tough topics, in an age-appropriate way. It's the parents who are the ones not ready for it.

(Ouch. Talk about a self-convicting statement. Because that? Was me.)


I know this all sounds so very harsh... most of y'all have very young children, ages five and under. Do these innocent little ones really need to hear such difficult realities? My opinion is yes: if a child has lived it, then a child should be able to talk about it. There are age-appropriate ways to explain every single part of our childrens' stories. Tonggu Grammy, my own resident child expert, reassures me constantly that children will not developmentally process information they aren't able to handle. That's why I believe you need to continually talk about it, at different ages and stages, because the information isn't new, but the way the child understands it DOES become new.

If you don't talk with your child about adoption on a regular basis, making it a natural part of your life, then you are - in effect - robbing them of their ability to process their own life stories; plus, you are putting off the inevitable, not to mention deferring the responsibility. Does this mean I feel every adoption talk should be about heavy topics such as abandonment? Absolutely not. And not every adoption conversation will involve sadness and tears. In fact, some children may never cry. But those tough conversations WILL come up naturally when the child needs for them to IF you talk about other "adoption stuff" on a regular basis.

So how does one get started?

The best advice that I can give is to LET GO OF THE GUILT. Let go of the fact that you might not say the right thing. Let go of the fact that you didn't start talking about adoption until your child was XX years old. Let go of the fact that you don't know all of the answers. Let. Go. Of. That. Guilt.

Guilt doesn't help anyone.

The second bit of advice I can share is that you, as the parent, need to work through your child's story as soon as possible. YOU need to emotionally process the tough stuff, the hard questions, the array of emotions YOU feel about your child's life prior to and at the time of adoption. And you need to do this separate from your child, owning your emotions, processing them and then PUTTING THEM ASIDE so that you can then place your focus where it needs to be: ON YOUR CHILD.

I believe the easiest way to do this is to create a lifebook for your child. Creating a lifebook forces a parent to thoughtfully decide how to phrase certain concepts. There is something about printing it out on paper that helps a parent get serious about how they wish to phrase things. For example, are you going to use the term birthmother, first mother or China mommy? Will you start with the term abandoned or will you use the phrase "left to be found" until your child is a bit older? Will you use the phrase "a special place inside of a woman's tummy" or will you *gasp* actually use the word uterus? (We did. And Canuck K told me I was going to burn for it. Heh.)

Creating a lifebook also forces parents to work through the tough parts of their child's story. It's HARD to think about your child lying inside a cardboard box, at a bus stop, early one snowy January morning. It's HARD to think about your son or daughter being abandoned because of a medical special need that is such a part of them. It can be DIFFICULT to process your child's life in an orphanage or foster home, especially since you view that time through the lens of your child's condition at the time of adoption. It's HARD to grasp the many "I don't knows" that surround China's first parents, people so important in our child's lives, yet who remain in the shadows. Writing about these topics help parents work through their emotions so that, when the time comes, the focus can be where it needs to be: ON THE CHILD'S EMOTIONS. Parents can deliver the information in a nuetral way because they've already worked through it.

Ideally, a child should have two lifebooks: a "toddler one" that shares the basics of his or her story and is appropriate for ages two to six-ish... and an "older one" that shares all of the details of his or her life story. And by the basics, I don't mean just the adoption trip part of the story. I mean that your child needs to hear from you that he or she has two parents other than you... lived inside of another "woman's tummy" before being born... was later found or relinquished... lived somewhere else for a time... and THEN experienced adoption. The older, more detailed book goes even further.

The younger your child is when you start, the easier it is. Most parents of school-age children find that, if they didn't practice "talking adoption" when their child was younger, they end up scrambling to catch up because peer questions and school assignments force the issue. Just remember: the younger the child, the less likely he or she is to remember your exact words. It's practice time for mom and dad. You can explore the terms that feel most authentic. You can decide how to phrase things. You have time to get past your own issues. And the more comfortable you feel with the topics, the more likely they are to appear in everyday conversations with your child.

If you are right now totally freaking out about lifebooks and how to get started making one, don't fret. There are SO many resources out there. You can check out Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child by Beth O'Malley or Adoption Lifebook: A Bridge to Your Child's Beginnings by Cindy Probst. You can spend $5 to join Kay Graap's on-line group Asia Lifebooks (I belong!), which provides you access to a forum and a pdf version of her Lifebook Writing Guide. You can ask around locally to see if there are group workshops near your home.

You can do this!

And you should. Because these are their life stories. And they deserve to know them.

40 comments:

Mei Mei Journal said...

Lauren and I talk about about adoption and the fact that has birthparents in China. She knows that she and Paige grew in the tummies (I'll have to elaborate-uterus) of their first mothers in China. I focus on the one policy rule in China as the reason they couldn't keep their babies. Lauren wishes she could see what her birthmother looks like and I say, "probably like you" and she smiles.

Sherri said...

Olivia has always known she was adopted. We have always talked about it. What she DIDN'T understand was that she had a birthmother. I think she just thought she was waiting for me to come get her.

Anyway, with Olivia entering first grade, I thought it was necessary to explain the birthmother concept to her. She seemed to "get it" and all was right with the world.

Then, one day last week, she was talking to Mia about "their" birthmother. I explained to her that Mia has a different birthmother and she said, "WHAT?!" So much for understanding.....

malinda said...

YES!!!! As you know, this is also something I'm passionate about! I'm so thrilled that you're writing about it.

Another resource for an older child (though my 5-year-old loved it as much as my 8-year-old) is Beth O'Malley's My China Workbook. It's a child-made workbook.

But I absolutely agree with the value of a parent-made lifebook -- not so much for the child as for the parent for all the reasons you expressed.

And thanks for the link!

malinda said...

Oops, I meant "child-made lifebook."

Desiree' said...

I talk about adoption with the girls all the time, they know they were born in China and we came to get them because we loved them so much, ect. Hope especially enjoys hearing her story.We have both born in my belly and born in my heart kiddos and have to be open and honest.
I have a sorta of life book for both girls but thought I would wait until they are a little older and have them help me put it together. Might be a great opportunity to talk and ask questions or something. I will stop now because i could go on and on about this subject. I too am passionate about it. LOL

Debbie B said...

Excellent post. I can see that we share the same passion.
I know a friend whose preteen has never once asked about their adoption. It saddens me to think about that. She was adopted internationally so she had a life, although short, in another country.

We've told Isabel her story often from the time she came home. We don't have the tough subjects you do with your story but it's still important to try it out.

Mandy Jo said...

Love this blog:) We have always used the word adoption in our home and birthmother since Mist was born. I have had so many people that say things like "wow she really knows her story huh?" uhh well yeah after all its her story why would she not know it!?!?

autumnesf said...

Excellent post!

I only did one lifebook for an older age but we've used it since it was done...just not word for word...we used age appropriate story telling.

I really cant imagine not talking about adoption from the beginning. MM likes to watch her video of the orphanage video a couple times a year so its always been there.

She's still kind of confused on the whole birth mother thing. She demands answers to the questions we tell her "I don't know" to. Why don't we know???? LOL!

And I just have to say that if you adopted transracially it would be rather strange to ignore the topic!

Jean said...

I so agree with your post! It was very hard to talk about early on but now it is much easier- Actually because Sarah is older and we just talk about China and her life in China.

Actually as I am typing I am realizing that we talk about China but rarely about her bio mom. I think we will need to do a better job at that. She definitely has some not so accurate ideas of that- the language barrier keeps us from some of it. She is doing great with her english but there are many words she does not understand.

I sat down with Anna a year ago and really felt inadequate at this- it's better now but probably because Sarah is here.

Sorry- I'm rambling!

Great post!! Important topic!!

Aus said...

Great post - you just keep on being passionate on the topic!! While we haven't done 'lifebooks' for our kids (7 and 3) we have freqeuntly 'talked adoption'. Brianna was about 4 when she first 'noticed' that she and mom were different 'races' - that serves as a 'conversation starter'! (We like the term 'birth mom' BTW.) We are blessed in that we seem to have more information than most on our China adoption, and we have a lot of info on the Korean adoption. Early on Marie and I made the decision to share only those things absolutely necessary about the girls, and sealed up the rest for them. As they get older we intend to give them their 'history' as best we know it - and they can decide what they want to share.

Life book - nice idea, I'll have to check on that with the boss. As for the rest - ya'll just keep up the good work and don't hesitate to carry your message!

hugs - aus and co.

bbmomof2boys said...

Ok, I'm slack and everyone knows it! I haven't started Little T's lifebook yet. I do read adoption related books at night to her and when she points to a plane in the sky I talk to her about how momma, Aunt J, and gege came on a plane to China and how she flew home on one. Right now that's about it for the adoption talk. We have only watched her family day video 2x. The first time she had such a strong reaction to it that I waited almost a year to show it to her again. The 2nd time she would smile and point out momma, gege, Aunt J but when the picture of us and the orphanage director came up she just turned her head into me. She remembers, I know she does but since she isn't talking yet its very difficult to figure out WHAT she remembers. We may never actually know...

Great post!

Hugs,
Carla

Anonymous said...

Our daughter from China is 10 - 5th grade, and was adopted at 9 months. We started talking about her life story from the day we got her - it was just something we always talked about. Both our kids (big brother is bio) love to hear stories about when they were little. She loves to review how she acted when we met, how she loved the hotel swimming pool, how she screamed if we tried to take the bottle and get her to burp. As our kids get older, they ask harder and harder questions. Our sweet girl recently read through our journal of the trip to China with us. As parents, we had some anxiety about that step, but she thought is was great fun. I worried about her reading the passage about how she was found in a cardboard box (we've told her, but this is different). Her reaction? "How could I breathe in a box? Was there a lid?" About twice a year she tells me that she misses her birth mommy and both of us talk, hug and cry. She asks me not to tell dadddy because she is convinced it was her birth daddy that forced her to be abandoned and feels that her forever daddy won't understand. She has also started making up fantastic stories about her family in China (her uncle, the butcher, chopped off heads for emperors) and has us all laughing. Hard to tell if she is just being goofy or if it her way of working through feelings. Either way is o.k. Mercy, I love this child!
Vonna in Kansas

malinda said...

Vonna wrote: "I worried about her reading the passage about how she was found in a cardboard box (we've told her, but this is different). Her reaction? "How could I breathe in a box? Was there a lid?"

How great that she asked! It took Zoe 3 days after visiting her finding site to ask if she had been BURIED in the ground there. Yipes. It kills me to think of her worrying about that for 3 days.

And Zoe loves the story about her box -- go figure! -- and the 3 layers of clothing and the little hat. She sees it as evidence that her birth parents were taking care of her.

Patricia/NYC said...

YES!! YES!! YES!!!
I share your passion about this topic!! (Can ya tell? loL!)

BEAUTIFULLY written!! This is a subject that cannot be stressed enough!!

Kiara loves hearing "her story" but every now & then, even though she will initiate it, she sometimes says to me, "OK, stop...no more." I let her do the driving! ;)

Wanda said...

Right on! As usual.

I did the Kay Graap thing awhile back and need to re-vamp it for the older version. It really was therapeutic for me. Dahlia is still pretty ho-hum about it all so I've just talked about it enough to make it natural and wait for her cues to go further.

And now I get to do it all over again with Milana.

Annie said...

Love this post TM!!! Lizzie has a book of pics from her time in her orphanage. She loves to get this book out and look at the pictures and we get to talk a lot about her time there. I have mentioned her birthmom to her before but have not REALLY talked to her about BM. I think it is coming soon, though! Thanks for such a great post!!

M3 said...

Great suggestions!! I've been stuck on this one forever. I think I'm in that "This lifebook has to be perfect" mode and am paralyzed to start it. That link you gave from EMK Press had an awesome suggestion: "Find a lifebook buddy." I read that and thought "Yes!!!! I can do that!" So that's the new task for this week.

Kristi said...

So glad that you tackled this one head on! I started telling Kylie her story when she was just 11 months old (as soon as we came home) and it has gotten easier over time. Besides, with her recent experience of going to meet Caleb, and now really watching Ian and I prepare for Darcy, it sparks lots of conversation!
It really bothers me when I hear other adoptive parents say that they don't want to confuse their kids by telling them about their birth parents. Really, you think that they aren't going to be confused just by avoiding it?
I think that you may spur me to write a post on my thoughts and experiences on this topic...

The Things We Carried said...

I am always shocked some people do not talk about adoption to their adopted child.

This is an excellent post with lots of great help for getting the ball rolling.

Remember when you sensed something was wrong as a child and your parents decided it was best not to talk about it? Sometimes it needed to be talked about.

Adoption is one of those conversations that is easier the sooner it begins.

thegypsymama said...

This whole post could have been reduced to that one, single, compelling sentence: "if a child has lived it, then a child should be able to talk about it."

One.Hundred.Percent.

Joanne said...

Oh I am SO glad you did this post!! My friend and I are starting our daughter's lifebooks - the girls (who are 3 yrs old) have a playdate while us mom's talk (and do) their lifebooks! I was actually going to ask Malinda about this - I love the idea of doing two - one for the toddler to understand and one for when they are older - THANK YOU!!

Holly said...

I agree...it needs to be an ANTI-taboo subject from the get go.
Some parts are hard. It can be emotional. But waiting until later in life just makes it harder!
The hardest part for me are all the questions that I have no answers to. (sigh) All I can do is guess...an educated guess at best as to why my son was not kept in his birth family...if it was a family. perhaps a young single mother? We will likely never know.
What has been hardest for me besides the unanswered questions is calling his first mom Mommy. See, because I didn't have to compete for the title of Mommy with my other children. It was with Josiah that I first had to EARN the title Mommy. He'd had so many you see. (birth mom,nanny, foster mom, foster mom and then me)And yet how can I not honor the woman who had the courage to give him life at all and then leave him in a safe place where he was sure to be found quickly? Perhaps she didn't get the gift of being Mommy, but she was indeed his mother. I figure we will work on an older lifebook when he gets to be in gradeschool.
Thanks for this post!

Krista ~ Bits and pieces said...

You are wonderful to do this post. Vito and I have been opened with Bella from the begin about the beauty of how God made us a family~ when she was little I had made a video of all the photo's we took in China~ she would ask over and over "can I watch my pa - doption video" It is her favorite, she loves to climb up in my arms and have me share with her when, where and what we were doing when the photos were taken.

Heather of the EO said...

This post is yet another reason that I nominated you for the Mommy Blog Awards in the adoption category on the bump.com. You know, cause I think you rock.

Heather of the EO said...

http://pregnant.thebump.com/extras/mommy-blog-awards.aspx

Oh...here's the link :)

Sharie said...

Amen Momma!

Kimberly said...

These suggestions are SO helpful. I'm bookmarking this post to refer to again.

Even though my time is extremely limited these days and I basically haven't scrapbooked since starting my Master's in 2007, lately I have been feeling the itch to get cracking on AK's lifebook. I think our one year Family Day anniversary has been the motivation to try to get started. I think it would be helpful to have the life book done before she's college-age, no? I'd best start now to accomplish that. :-)

Catherine said...

Thank you so much!! Although I have yet to have met my daughter in person I know that I want to do this for her....for us. Thank you for the encouragement to begin early. Also, for all the great information and links. Started a few new tabs tonight and want to start her lifebook sooner rather than later.

Thank you!!

adoptionroad said...

I hope you are submitting this to AF! As always, so well said.

Elizabeth said...

You've inspired me again, TM!!! My son is not yet with our family, but he will be joining us in a few weeks at the age of 2.5. He already has a life story, and we are blessed to have a good bit of information about his situation. I am ordering one of the Lifebook guides along with the WISE up book you recommended in another post. Thank you for getting me going in the right direction!!

Laura L. said...

Hi there, TM.
This is a really great post. You always do such an awesome job.
I so agree with talking to them about adoption as often as possible.
For us, pictures have always been the starting point. She has a little album, given to us by her orphanage, with photos of her with foster family, etc. She gets it out pretty often and questions come.
Recently, her questions about her birth, etc. were more specific. So we talked about birthmom, foster mom, etc.
She surprised me and made me smile with, "Wow! So I've had 3 moms!"

Thank you for the links for Lifebooks. I needed those. :)

Lisa said...

I second the recomendation to submit this to AF; as always a beautifully crafted, thoughtful and honest reflection ~ making it an ideal resource for so many of us.

And as always I'm a bit behind :) but its never too late to comment I hope!

I actually began weaving my way through Lauren's life story weeks after we returned home. I would rock her at night and stumble my way through the details, the issues and the tough stuff. Often she would be asleep and tears would be streaming down my face. There were things I didn't want to say or couldn't in the beginning. Sharing it early & in essence "practicing" allowed me to develop a sense of what termonology I was comfortable with and allowed me to take myself out of the equation. Just as you expressed......

I can't imagine if we hadn't started then.....and when we brought baby Tyler home we updated her life book at the same time we began his; she was a part of constructing his book and it was very rewarding for us all.

All my best,

AdoptAuthor said...

One thing I have always found in speaking to my kids - or others, for that matter - about "delicate" difficult or painful subjects is to open the door and let them know you are available when thy are. I also like to do as much VALIDATING of their feelings as possible without totally agreeing or disagreeing.

Example: I parent children of divorce and when they come from seeing their father and say "he's a jerk" or "I hate him, he's such a liar!" I cannot agree or disagree with such a stateament but I can and do validate the feelings behind it.

"It must be very painful for you when you dad is not truthful with you."

Or, "I understand that you're angry." Sometimes it's appropriate to say: "You have a right to be angry" if he disappoints them.

In adoption, as you said, you do not need to detail their abandonment. But validate how it may feel to feel rejected or abandoned! That is the issue they are struggling with. It is about letting them feel their loss...giving them permission to GRIEVE the loss of who they might have been...

They may be feeling very sad wondering if their mother is crying for them...

They may well be wondering about siblings.

These are the "issues" for the adopted child.

Open the door...let them know that their grieving is not an affront to you or an act of being disloyal. THAT is the important gift you can give your adopted child! (And I've talked with thousands of adoptees over the past 309+ years researching the subject)

Mirah Riben

Mamatini said...

Oh, TM, such a great post! I cannot emphasize enough the idea of starting early so that you have time to practice your words, phrases, etc., while they are still too young to remember them exactly.

Isa asked early and often about her story, asked explicitly about her birthmother and the concepts of 'genes', and never really appeared to assign an emotion to the topic. She (still) seems neutral.

Ina, on the other hand, never prompts discussion on adoption. It always comes from us. Yet, when we talk about it, she has vividly imaginative concepts of her birthparents (her birthmother is like a fairy godmother) and her story.

Such different approaches, that it has given me a lot of practice in different ways to handle the conversations.

I always intended to (with the best A-Mommy intentions!) to make a scrapbook, but never did because of my 'analysis paralysis': can't do it unless it is perfect!

Still, what has evolved in its place, and what we've used from the beginning, are their "China boxes." These are treasure boxes that contain all the ephemera of their experiences: pictures from their time in the orphanage, finding ads, the clothes they came to us in, pictures of their finding place, a bottle, airplane tickets with their Chinese name on them, etc. They love to ask, "can we look at our China boxes?" and we sift through the things, touch them, explain them, compare them. It isn't a book, but works the same way.

Dita said...

Beautifully written, as always.

I am very much in favor of having an "ongoing" conversation throughout my son's life. He has always known of the circumstances of his birth and how he came to us.

I, too, had done much research and consulted several child therapists to assist in dealing with this and I always got the same answer...the sooner the better.

Hugs,
Dita

Valerie said...

Thank you for writing this post. I am the other Tonggu Momma you mentioned and yes-it would be ok to link to my blog. I have a swirl of emotions after reading your post and the comments that followed. I need to read more, understand more and yes, dive into a lifebook for our daughter. Just yesterday, she said to me that she wishes she had another mommy, one who doesn't make her pick up her toys or do anything. I froze. I didn't know what to say. I was just stunned. Because she does have another mommy who didn't make her do anything. That mommy is in China. I know things won't get any easier as she gets older. She'll soon be 5. She is already aware she is from China and she is different than us. She recognizes all the other girls in our area or on the internet that are like her. And--it's not that we are keeping the adoptions secret, we just felt like she was too young to grasp some of the details. But, I like how you said that children process things differently at different ages. So true. I know that. I mean I knew that. I guess we've just been so busy enjoying our life with her that I haven't taken the time to talk to her about what adoption means. We have tons of books too. I prepared for all that while we were "paper pregnant". I guess I've got some catching up to do. Thank you for giving me your thoughts. I feel much better equipped to tackle this.

a little leprechaun said...

Thank you. That's all I can say. Is thank you! Thank you for this post. Thank you for answering my personal email when I had a question regarding an adoption issue. Thank you for being there.

Please have a wonderful weekend!!
HUGS!!

Half Gaelic, Half Garlic! said...

I think this is one heck of a post.....Excellent!! You made so many great points.

We are very open and honest with Sarah and talk about the details surrounding her story and how we adopted her....of course we speak on her level, but as she gets older, we will explain in more detail.

As time goes on and we get closer to "China Baby" I will be picking your brain on the Lifebook. I think that as our girls get older, there might be a lot of comparing of stories, and they are going to be very different. Sarah will have been with us since day 1 and china baby will have spent a couple of months to a year plus in an orphanage.

Lisa

Ivy said...

What a great recipe fora conversation we're all going to have to do one day.

I started a lifebook before the adoption, which turned into my own chronicles of how much we wanted to adopt and what the wait meant for me. Then I uploaded photos, took excerpts from the years worth of journaling and made a photo essay from it. I hope it serves it's purpose, but it was actually fun to do and I think it will be given to her when she's older.

For now I just talk about where Kira came from and she repeats back "from China of course!" It's all cute now, but I've been practicing for the big convo.

Wow, thank for softening the blow!

Hugs,

Ivy

rosemary said...

What a great reminder and thanks for the specific how-to style details! I am huge on the importance of talking but I have to admit I have been putting off the lifebook. Not because I am afraid to do it but because I hate scrapbooking and all things crafty. Must make myself.