By the time their long-awaited adopted child is placed in their arms, parents usually--and understandably--just want to put all the heartache behind them and move on into the joyful realms of parenthood. But their very real feelings of loss need to have a place in the story of their new family, or they can cast ever-lengthening shadows on the relationship between parents and child.
Adopted kids often grow up with the mantra, "Being adopted is just another way to become a family." This is a dismissive characterization of a profound experience that has involved not only the parents' deep losses, but also the child's loss of the parents who couldn't keep them. With the best of intentions, adoptive parents often convey half-truths about the implications of adoption to shield their child from the pain of loss that is inherent in the experience.
"Adoptive parents are really trying to do the right thing, and if feels like avoiding pain is the right thing, but it truly is not," says therapist Wendy McCord. "They need to look at their good intentions and re-frame them, because hiding from the feelings doesn't help their child."
"Other mommies and daddies had to take what they got, but got to choose you," is another well intentioned but ultimately destructive lie told to many adopted children. While it clearly wouldn't be appropriate to share with them what is often the actual truth--that they tried everything possible to have their own child before deciding to adopt--it is crucial for parents to share the essence of the truth with their adopted children, the feelings which hover beneath the facts.
Social worker Annette Baran, a nationally-recognized adoption expect, says, "Adoptive parents must weep with their child. 'We're sorry, too, that you didn't grow in Mommy's tummy.'"
"I think parents don't realize they're allowed to show these feelings," says Baran. "They think they have to present and unflagging cheerfulness about adoption in order that the children will feel positive too, which is a misconception."
Parents who demonstrate emotional openness send a healthy message to their child that they are allowed to express a full range of feelings, not just the 'nice' ones.
"Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them. But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them," explains Baran.
Dr McCord acknowledges that supporting a child in this empathetic manner can be emotionally challenging for adoptive parents. "It forces them to feel their own loss about not having their own biological child, and it also will trigger any issues of what they may have lost in their relationships with their own parents."
While it may seem easier--especially int he beginning--to avoid these uncomfortable feelings, glossing over them with cheerful slogans isn't hte loving choice, for it ultimately deprives both parents and child of genuine intimacy. Children who grow up with that kind of pretense and denial often report that they have superficial, 'walking on eggshells' relationships with their parents.
By contrast, parents who allow a child to explore all of the complex feelings--and questions--that are a natural part of the adoptive experience, lay a solid foundation of trust and honesty for a deep, authentic connection with their child.
As any attuned parent knows, children are creatures of intuitions--they respond to the truth behind our words rather than the words themselves. And if the truth we're telling them isn't the whole truth, they perceive in this discrepancy that there is something intangibly wrong about themselves. IN my own experience, it took me until age 38 to unlearn that early, stunting lesson, to learn that there wasn't something unspeakably wrong about me, but rather, something that my parent's couldn't face, and share--the difficult realities that surrounded my adoption.
When we deny adoption's losses, we also deny oursevles its fullest blessings.
Marcy Wineman Axness, an adoptee, lives in California with her husband and two children. She writes and lectures nationwide on adoption and pre- and peri-natal issues.