Good Ideas . . . for Birth Parents

By Janie Cravens, MSW-ACP

This article is one in a series of three about good ideas I’ve heard over the 20 + years that I’ve worked with folks touched by adoption. This is by far the hardest to write about – “good ideas” seems a trite phrase in the face of such huge and abiding losses. So I ask your forgiveness, and for you to hear the spirit behind the limited vocabulary.

When I ask myself the question “What’s a good idea for someone who has lost a child through adoptive placement (or who is considering placement for their child)?”, I think first about birthing. Birthing and parenting are certainly two different experiences in parenthood (in this case, motherhood). We live in a culture who has conditioned its women to have no power and no thoughts about birthing other than fear.

My dearest hope for those who are facing parting with a child after its birth, is that they can have a full experience of their role and of the child in the birth. I have a bumper sticker that says “Women of Earth, Take Back Your Birth” – and I understand just how powerful this message is. There are women who will not experience birthing – through choice or through calamity. For those who can and will, I encourage each one to actually be present and be transformed. No one can take this experience away from you, this miracle and this gift.

I’ve learned how important it is to name one’s child, to bestow through naming a certain kind of claiming, to send your child into their unknown future with something from their roots. For those of you who placed long ago – it’s not too late! Name your child for your own purposes and thoughts.

Ritualizing significant experiences is clearly something we humans need to do. Think of the possibilities with your birthparent-hood. Ceremonies at the time of placement, at the anniversary of the birth, at Mother’s Day and any time you wish is a powerful acknowledgement.

Write a letter to your child (each birthday if you wish) telling them what you hope for their lives.

Get a support group – it doesn’t have to be other birthparents – it can be any group of folks who can hear your loss and accept your feelings.

Confront the ghost of your past experience. This does not have to be in person, if that seems too hard or impossible. Again, you can write letters that will never be sent telling each “ghost” what their actions meant in your life. Social workers, clergy, parents, lawyers, nurses and doctors, etc. may have taken on larger than life proportions for you. Get rid of it.

Learn about the grief cycle. It helps to know you are not crazy. I close with these things I have learned about grief:

  • Grief, forever and always, involves the longing for a different ending. This does not make you “stuck” – it is just the nature of enormous loss.
  • Grief Fills the Room of My Absent Child (author unknown).
  • The best we hope for with big losses is that we integrate them into WHO WE ARE. You aren’t going to “get rid of” your grief at not parenting one of the children you birthed, but you don’t have to lose yourself too. You are a birthparent…and a lot of other things. Have as good a life as humanly possible. Dream. Speak the truth. Laugh. Do service. Slow down and drink lots of water.

Good Ideas . . . for Adoptive Parents

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in the Counselor’s Office… (and I was the counselor!)

By Janie Cravens, MSW-ACP

As I look back over the last 20-odd years of working with those touched by adoption, I am awed and humbled by how little I knew about how to help people during these dramatic times until they themselves taught me.

In this article, I would like to share some “gems” I have learned from the folks who had to actually LIVE the process that I watched and, sometimes, facilitated.

For Adoptive Parents

  1. Seek out and listen to someone who has had a rougher time than you. You’ll get perspective on your present situation, and maybe make some new friends.
  2. Keep a journal of your years of fertility treatment and waiting for the placement. It will be such a gift for your child, and it will help you to write what you feel.
  3. Do something fun at least once a week with your spouse that isn’t related to conceiving, birthing, parenting, or adopting. Also, get a hobby that will require your creative focus and keep at it (even during the pre-placement weeks).
  4. Think up some funny answers (or at least some stock phrases) for the questions you always get asked. It helps if you consume a bottle of during this exercise.
  5. Write a letter of thanks to the birth family and others who cared for, and about, your child on the days before your placement, and every birthday after that.
  6. Celebrate the day you received your child and the day you finalized.
  7. Make a real commitment to keep contact with a circle of friends who have children through adoption. In ten years it will be very important to your children.
  8. Make a storybook with photos about your child’s life – birthparents, previous caretakers, your life before placement, anything you can think of that preserves connections for the child.

Good Ideas . . . for Adopted People

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in the Counselor’s Office… (and I was the counselor!)

By Janie Cravens, MSW-ACP

In the last article I shared some of the “gems” that I have been taught by adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents. This column will focus on things I’ve been taught by adopted people (both adults and children). For many years I have ruminated about HOW adoptees (and their respective sets of parents) can positively acknowledge their adoptive status. Here are some gems I’ve learned from the folks who knew:

For adopted people who are still children, it is the responsibility of their parents to create a positive feeling about being adopted. Powerful things that can be given to adoptees come from their previous sets of parents. Think what it means to a person, who was adopted, to have an original name chosen by their birth parents, or perhaps a keepsake.

One adopted woman, over the age of 60, shared that when she found her birth family her maternal grandmother asked if she had the clothes she had sewn for her. The adoptee had to confess that she had never seen these treasures – how sad that someone had decided that this little baby girl did not need these things when they would have meant so much to her. Gifts, keepsakes, names – anything that can be sent forward with a child going into adoption – holds a powerful message of affirmation for the child.

Parents hold tremendous power to acknowledge adoption as important to their child’s self concept. When I asked a group of adult adoptees how they wish their adoption had been acknowledged in their growing years, great emotion was attached to the wish that their adoptive status could have been talked about openly.

Adoptive parents have the difficult mission of learning to tolerate, in fact to massage, their children’s salient feelings about adoption. This is not easy, since all parents wish to shield their children from hurt, from feeling different, about being unhappy about some unavoidable aspect of themselves. However, it is imperative that adoptive parents learn to do just the opposite – to support their children as they make peace with the fact that they do not live with their genetic relatives.

For Adult Adopted People

Here are some great ideas from adult adopted people who want to acknowledge their adoption.

  1. Choose a day related to an adoption event (your finalization day or the day your parents brought you home) and celebrate with a ritual. One adoptee sends her adoptive parents a card on this day, while another takes her adoptive parents to dinner. Being adopted is a very significant life experience for people – life altering, if you will – and deserves to be acknowledged.
  2. Make yourself available to the agency that facilitated your adoption as a resource. The people who work there may still need education about what adoption means over one’s lifetime.
  3. Reconnect to your history in whatever way you feel able to. Any effort you make brings you closer to wholeness and authenticity.
  4. Make yourself a lifebook (something like a child’s story book) that includes ALL of your important information.
  5. Get involved in some service work where you can share from your unique and expert position as an adopted person. Combat the myths out there through sharing your story.

Janie Cravens is owner of Adoption Development Resources and a Board Member of AKA.