The first word our daughter said to us was “bop”! It wasn’t a word in Chinese that we were aware of. We are pretty sure “bop” meant something along the lines of, “Who are you, put me down and I’m angry” or simply, “F U.” So, when people ask me when I started talking to my child about adoption, I tell them we started communicating from the first day.
Except for the word, “bop”, most of what we said about adoption had no words. Like most adoptive parents, we read her storybooks and used simple phrases to explain what happened. I can attest that talking to children about adoption in the preschool stage helps them accept the information more effortlessly. It set the stage for us to continue the conversation whenever it came up. However, reading I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, forty-seven times was a fraction of what was
actually being said between us. Even if parents do not openly discuss adoption with their child, they still communicate their attitudeabout it. According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology at UCLA, 93% of communication is nonverbal, 55% body language and 38% tone of voice. A child will come to understand adoption more through what her parents are feeling than what they are saying. Nonverbal communication plays an even larger role when adoption is deliberately not talked about. Parents that do not talk about adoption with their child are actually saying more than they may be aware of.
“What we bury, we carry through time.”
In 8 years of working with families, I find the biggest obstacle to open communication about adoption is a parent’s repressed grief. Adoption has inherent loss and grief for both parent and child. Most adoptive parents have not fully healed from the losses they experienced during infertility. Healing takes time and no matter how much work has been done, it’s normal to experience some grief while parenting.
The nature of our family’s adoption brought grief to the surface immediately. Our daughter lived with a foster mother in China for the first year of her life and the separation was traumatic. For months after coming home, she woke in the night in a crying rage, about 6 times a night. She was very difficult to calm. Even though I prepared for this possibility, when she raged something painful stirred in me too. It was my own anger, deeply buried and displaced. This was not how I imagined I would feel during the first few months with my baby. Processing loss takes a willingness to feel discomfort.
When parents bring their baby home they want to leave the painful past behind. Sometimes, this is when real grieving begins. It is tempting to want to bury grief and carry on with the distracting job of parenting. What we bury, we carry through time. Grief gets heavy and tiresome and can show up in different ways, such as irritability, resentment, or contemptuous feelings toward your child. Repressed grief may be displaced into negative parent reactions like detached body language or an unpleasant tone of voice. Ongoing feelings of sadness, resentment, regret or jealousy may cause distance between a parent and child. Years of unresolved grief has the ability to time travel through generations by influencing the parent/child bond. By talking with a professional or joining a support group a parent can continue the healing process. Parents who are able to resolve their grief have the ability to help their child work through genetic loss.
“Unresolved grief has the ability to time travel through generations.”
Luckily, my daughter’s grief uncovered mine and there was no stopping the feelings that came to the surface. I had to feel it to heal it and so did she. She also needed me to heal. By processing my grief, I was able to own my negative feelings and not project them on to my daughter. My husband comforted her in moments that were too much for me. Over and over, we held our daughter in the night and told her she was safe and loved. We grieved with her, confronted our fears and talked about the hard stuff. We used humor for reprieve from the heaviness. Fearful, sleep deprived nights gradually turned into peaceful days of acceptance. We are better parents because we got better at accepting both sides of adoption, the loss and the joy.
Jana M. Rupnow is a licensed professional counselor, adoptive mother and adoptee, and author of the best-selling book Three Makes Baby. She specializes in fertility, including third party reproduction and adoption in her private practice in Dallas, TX. Learn more about Jana at janarupnow.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.