Adoption—It’s Not all Hearts and Smiley Faces

Dawn Davenport


Loss and Pain of Adoption

Despite our love adopted children may feel the loss and pain of adoption. What’s a parent to do?

The following was written by a 15 year old adopted as a baby from China.

I always knew my background. The story that had been told to me over and over again all through my childhood:  ” Once upon a time in a beautiful land called China there was a mommy and a daddy who loved you very much, but they couldn’t take care of you, and so they gave you to the orphanage who brought you to us”.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about my adoption, and I realized that I have been suppressing a lot over the year.  I can finally say that I am mad at my birthparents and not feel guilty about it. It [feels] really great, and also because of that I think I can be more open with [my parents].  I’m just needing to realize that it was okay to be angry at my birth parents .  I think the reason why it was so hard for me to realize that was because my whole life they had been characterized as good people who loved me very much but couldn’t keep me.  Maybe they loved me, but they just didn’t love me enough.   I thought that they loved me, so I had to love them.  Now I get that I do love them, but I am extremely mad at them, and that’s okay because well, I know they care about me and they’d be okay with me being mad at them.  Heck, I bet some days they get mad at themselves.

Some people blame my troubles on everything that happened on the streets of China.  Maybe they’re right, or maybe their wrong.  I think about my birthparents every day.  I ask if they think about me, if they wonder if I’m okay. But I know they do.  It’s hard to convince myself, but it’s true.  Sometimes I want to blame them for everything that has gone wrong.  But I love them.  They don’t have a name or a face to them, but I know them and love them unconditionally.  I want to find them one day, but I don’t know if that will be possible.  If I ever adopt a child I want to make sure they know that it’s okay to be mad because I don’t think I ever got that message from my parents.

Lest, you think this is just the lot of international adoptees in closed adoptions, I received the following message from the mom of a twelve year old in an open domestic adoption.

My son’s first mom, L, now has a year old daughter with her husband.  We have had a very open adoption, including get togethers a couple of times a year with L and her extended family.  We have even babysat for L’s daughter.  Her visits and calls are getting fewer as she gets busier with her new family.   My son has been acting troubled since our last visit a couple of months ago (acting out, hitting his brother, yelling at us, etc.)  Last night, I was rubbing his back at bedtime and told him the L had called.  He said, “I know you think adoption is all hearts and smiley faces and that I have to love L, but sometimes I hate L so much I just want to hit her, but then you tell me she gave me away (I never used that language) because she loved me.  But I don’t always love her.”

To Be Received Someone Had to Give Away

We want our kids’ lives to be easy—to be all hearts and smiley faces with a bit of sunshine and butterflies thrown in for good measure.  Part of adoption is being received, and that’s the fun part to talk about.  “Daddy and I wanted a baby soooo much, and when we saw you, we fell completely totally insanely in love.  Our lives were complete and we lived happily ever after.”   But to be received by us adoptive parents, our kids had to be “given away” by their first parents.  As adults, we understand or at least try to understand the compelling reasons why someone is not able to parent their child.  We may even know that it was the best decision at the time.  But our children may experience it on a different level.  Sometimes it hurts to be the one not kept, and sometime being hurt makes you mad. Very very mad.

Because They Loved You?!?

We tell our children that their first parents loved them.  We say this because we either know or assume that it is true. We say this because we want our children to understand that the decision to not parent them had nothing to do with them and everything to do with their birth parents.  We say this because we want our children to feeling loveable.  But I think the two young people above raise a great point that we adoptive parents need to hear.  We need to support our kids through all their emotions and most important, we need to give them permission to have the full range of emotions.

The Truth About Birth Mothers

The truth is that some birth parents were abusive, some were addicted, and some were immature.  It’s also true that most were in dire financial straights, most agonized over the decision, and most dearly loved their child—our child.  We can and should share it all with our kids as they age.  And I think it’s OK to speculate if we don’t know for sure.   Share what you know about the specifics of your child’s birth mother and birth father, what you know about poverty, what you know about the social and political climate of their birth country, and what you know about human nature to come up with some ideas.  And remember, we do know a little something about our child’s first parents by living with and loving our beautiful child.  Not all traits, temperaments, and talents are heritable, but some are.  Acknowledge what you know and what you assume.

How to Help Our Kids

If you are in an open adoption, consider that this is a conversation that needs to take place between your child and her first mother or father.  Your child and her birth parent may or may not want you present. It is often helpful for you to discuss what is happening and your child’s questions with the birthparent first.  The mom in the open adoption email above took that suggestion.  At first L was reluctant to have this conversation and was even more reluctant to initiate the conversation.  With gentle pressure the mom was able to persuade L that their son needed to hear from her.  L told him that she wished every day that she could have parented him.  She explained again why she didn’t feel ready to be a mother when he was born and wouldn’t have been the type of mother he needed.  Apparently that is what he needed to hear since his mom reports that his behavior has settled down.  He did not tell L that sometimes he hated her, but his mom had prepared L for this possibility.

If you are in a closed adoption, you have to rely on books or maybe conversations with someone from your child’s birth country.  We have tons of suggested books for kids from 2 to 18—some general, foster care , and some by country (China, Korea, Latin America, Russia/Eastern & Central Europe, Vietnam)  If you haven’t made a lifebook, get started on this valuable resource for discussing first families. (We provide many resources to help you get started on an adoption lifebook.)

As these two stories reinforce, in all our conversations with our children, we need to leave room for them to have the full range of emotions—even those feelings that scare us and them.  A wonderful book of letters written by birth mothers in Korea to the children for whom they are making an adoption plan is titled I Wish for You a Beautiful Life. This title expresses the sentiment of all parents–birth or adoptive.   We all want our children to experience just the beautiful parts of life.  But life isn’t always beautiful—not for us, or for them, or for anyone.  Not all aspects of adoption are beautiful.   Our kids, however, are up to the challenge of incorporating the complete adoption package—the hearts and smiley faces and the dark clouds of confusion and rejection.

Have your children expressed the non smiley face parts of adoption?

Image credit:  Cynr

08/03/2011 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 17 Comments

17 Responses to Adoption—It’s Not all Hearts and Smiley Faces

  1. Avatar Mary says:

    I really want to encourage the 15 year old to set that as a goal to find her natural parents, as soon as she is old enough. Adoption is such a difficult thing, and certainly not everything about it is “wonderful.”

  2. Avatar Von says:

    It’s ok to be angry.Anger is a valid emotion it’s what we do with it that is important.
    We are also not obligated to love anyone.We can only feel love if we do love someone,usually because we have a relationship with them, not if someone else tells us we should.
    All adoption starts with loss which needs to be acknowledged and mourned.When adults get better at recognising that adoptees will be helped.They also need to remember that the search for parents is the perogative of the adoptee, their story, their journey.

  3. Avatar Tracy says:

    I’m curious what your suggestions would be, Dawn, on how to best explain the kind of love that causes parents to give their children away?

    • Tracy, what a thought provoking question. I don’t think or talk of the love of a birth parents as the kind of love that causes a parent to give their child away. I think of it in terms of being able to parent, being ready to parent, and wanting the best for this child that they love. As parents we all make decisions that are hard because we love our children and want what’s best for them. Does your child have a relationship with his/her birth mother or birth father? If so, this could be a discussion to have with the birth parent. If not, then we can make assumptions of what we think their birth mother felt and why she made the decision to place her child with you, rather than parent herself.

  4. Avatar Tracy says:

    My son was adopted internationally, so we don’t have a relationship with the birth mother, and we have limited information. I’ve always told him that moms want to be able to give their children everything they need: love, enough food, clothes, a safe place to live, a way to go to school, etc. his mom could only give him love, so she found him a family that could give him everything she wanted him to have.

  5. Avatar Tammy says:

    I think in some ways having an open relationship with birth parents makes it easier to explain my son’s relinquishment (I am guessing, of course, as he is only 2). We will be able to talk about real ways that his birth family could not parent him.

    On the other hand, it does make it a bit more complicated because your child is receiving messages from more people than just you. At the end of every conversation and e-mail, my son’s first mom always says, “Tell him I love him and I miss him”. I have no doubt whatsoever she feels the emotions and yet…she says she loves him but I am the one who initiates most of the contact. She says she misses him but I am the one who calls her on his birthday. If I tell her he has been sick, she never calls or e-mails a few days later to see if he is feeling better. As an adult, I have a little better understanding of how her life evolved to make her the person she is today but her words and actions can be seen as sending mixed messages. So I do think it’s important to teach our kids that love isn’t just a feeling. Or maybe teaching them that there are different kinds of love. I don’t know exactly how to say it. But our kids’ birth parents love is different than the love we have for them. For example, in the case of most US adoptions, it isn’t poverty alone that drives them to place. But we spend so much time trying to honor birth families (because we know that’s important too) it feels wrong to imply that their love is anything but complete. I guess we need to get away from all the “shoulds” and simply tell our kids the truths as we see them.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Tammy, you raise some great points. There are different kinds of love. The challenge as parents is how to explain that and how to not put our own judgment on it.

  6. Avatar kay says:

    A lot of birthmothers are worried about “overstepping the boundaries” and may not feel comfortable taking the first step so may wait for you to contact them.

  7. Avatar Jennifer says:

    Von – So would you suggest waiting to do a search for birth parents until the child can make the decision. Like one other poster mentioned – waiting might mean we end up finding nothing. But I’m not sure this is a decision I want to make for my child. Thanks.

  8. I’ve long been troubled (even before I adopted my Li’l E) by the romanticized stories that I’ve heard over the years of peeking my toes into the adoption community. Now that I’m fully in, all in with both feet and up to my chin in it all, I’m seeing just WHY I was uncomfortable with the framings of the stories I heard. I appreciate how “theadoptedones” phrased it – when we do that romanticizing, our kids can hear the message as “love equals being left.”

    Not only do I not want to assign emotion or circumstance to an event that I don’t know enough about or even always understand, I don’t want the message that “love” means abandonment. I want the way I talk to her and parent her to set her up for lasting love, lasting relationships, and committed nurture of those relationships. I want to set her up to succeed at loving, without the fear of leaving or being left behind herself.

    It’s a tightrope to walk, but walk it we must as we parent our precious kids. And I’m searching and seeking better ways to talk about it with my daughter. Thanks for sharing these adoptees thoughts. I always come away from here with something good to think about and implement.

  9. Avatar Jennifer says:

    I actually plan to tell my child that I don’t know what her birth mother thought or did – because I honestly don’t know. I will tell her what “might” have been the case – but that we really don’t know. It is sad that I don’t have more information to give her. I have considered doing an in-country search for more information for my child’s sake – but she is only 3 years old and part of me wants her to weigh into that decision when she is a little older.

    There is also the horrible reality that there are internationally adopted children who were coerced or outright stolen from their birth parents. This won’t be the first thing I tell my child – but someday we may discuss that these things do happen. I’d rather be the one to tell discuss this with her – rather than her finding out on her own.

  10. Great post. I think I will be changing some of the wording in my son’s next edition lifebook. On the page about birth parents, I have already written that it is okay to think about them, but it might be a good idea to add that it is also okay to be mad at them or even sad about them.

  11. Avatar Jill says:

    I really appreciate this piece. I will be storing away this link for the future.

    Thank you.

  12. Avatar Tammy says:

    This is just my personal opinion, but if you have any information that would allow for a birth parent search, do it sooner rather than later. Don’t wait. Leads can go stale and unfortunately, people frequently die younger in countries where international adoption is prevalent. I’ve done the search and am very happy I did. As my daughter ages (4 when search was done), I’m able to answer her questions honestly and show her pictures of her mother (father unknown) and her half-siblings. There is more information that I will give her when she is older as it is not age appropriate right now. If you wait, you may miss out on the information forever and then your daughter will never know. As I said this is just my opinion, so take it for what it is.

  13. So many adult adoptees have been trying to tell this to parents for years but we are told our adoptions happened so long ago or things are different now, etc.

    I’m rambling now and not sure where I am going but telling the child your mother loved you so much she gave you away – no matter what politically correct terminology you use is an epic fail – kids put it into terminology they can understand. Anger is just one facet of coming to terms with it – and one of the steps of grieving that can be a lifelong process based on life triggers.

    It has to be told differently – how that is done depends on the adoption and the child because without the level of understanding of the reasons why there was NO OTHER CHOICE and there better be a real good reason, that can be accepted – love equals leaving – and anyone you love will leave – just a matter of time – not an if but a when – and that is the danger of the statement.

    And just like the words of the child and parent above “but then you tell me she gave me away (I never used that language) because she loved me” it doesn’t matter the words used it is stripped down into love and left…there has to be a real reason and even that isn’t always enough to overcome the feelings of love equals being left…

    Perhaps talking more to adult adoptees you can find ways to ensure this generation and the next generation of adoptees will be provided with a better method of coping with the loss.

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