Family You Don’t Get to Pick

christoper-communion-close-upThe past few days I’ve been corresponding (sometimes through the comments section, other times privately) with a couple of birth/first mothers who say they want to understand the implications of reunification from an adoptive parent’s perspective. One of them asked me (I’m paraphrasing here): “Why WOULDN”T you want birth family members at milestones like birthdays, graduations, and weddings? Don’t you invite aunts and uncles and extended family members?” (Yes, but no one confuses them with the parents!)

Each triad is so different it is difficult, if not impossible, to make blanket statements about how adoptive families should — or should not — navigate these situations. The saddest cases, of course, are those adoptive families that would like more information and/or contact, and have no way of getting it. On the other end of the spectrum are adoptive families who lie awake nights, contemplating a move to the other side of the country so birth/first family members don’t kidnap the children while they sleep. Most families, I suspect, fall somewhere in the middle.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was greatly encouraged by Patricia Dischler’s book Because I Loved You, in the way she described open adoption dynamics. It is reassuring to know that there ARE birth/first families who genuinely support the efforts of adoptive parents, and have no wish to supplant them. Frankly, I’d like to hear more stories like those … Stories of successful birth/adoptive family integration. (If you have such a story, I invite you to post it here, either in the comments or as a guest post or link.)

I have one friend, who is both a birth mother and an adoptee, who has the gift of a truly integrated extended family.  However, I can also point to six other triads I know personally, that have not been able to manage this for a variety of reasons, from lack of information about birth parents, to unwillingess of birth parent to have contact, to addiction or mental/emotional stability issues making it impossible to sustain contact.  

The prevalence of open adoptions is making it increasingly common for adoptive and first/birth families to sustain contact from the outset. As foster parents, we had weekly agency visits with the birth family of our children for the first year and a half — always a very intense situation, and one I would have given my right arm to avoid altogether. (I penned a little ditty about one of these visits here… in a post called “The Family You Don’t Get to Pick.”) Agency days were invariably the days when all hell broke loose, with wall smearing and food throwing and general surliness and craziness all around. It took 3-4 days just to recover, then we got to do it all over again.

Six years have passed. The kids no longer see their birth parents, and see their older siblings about once a month. And yet, clearly the memories are still very much present. Chris especially is missing his mother and siblings, which is a normal part of foster-adoption, the grieving. And as any mother knows, the only thing worse than enduring a loss yourself … is to watch your child go through it. You fill up the love banks as often as you can. You let him talk. You find ways to make him laugh, or play, or enjoy himself. Sooner or later, the sun comes out again. But part of you stays braced, just waiting for the next storm.

Today at “Heart, Mind, and Strength,” Greg and Lisa Popcak (who last year adopted a little girl from China) spoke with a mother whose six-year-old son was acting out in school (I caught only the last half of the conversation). Turns out they had been forcibly removed from their home, and the father had been forced to go to another state to find work. “Of COURSE he’s going to act out … His little world has been turned upside down!” exclaimed Lisa. They recommended a book called The Positive Child, which I plan to check out …

One of the greatest challenges of (foster) adoptive parenting is knowing how to handle the “ghosts” … and sometimes, the family you don’t get to pick.


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