Openness isn’t just for infant adoption anymore. Even in the absence of contact with birth parents, openness can help parents connect with and be more accessible to their kids and help them grow up whole.
In this interview, adoption movie critic Addison Cooper (AdoptionLCSW.com) interviews Lori Holden (LavenderLuz.com), author of the 2013 book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Kids Grow Up Whole (http://bit.ly/open-adoption).
Addison: Your book just had its 2nd birthday this spring, and your two kids are now in their early teen years. What have you learned about adoptive parenting since your book came out, and would these new development have changed your book?
Lori: I’m realizing that if a child is going to have issues around his/her adoption (some will, some won’t –the determining factors are an unpredictable mix of inborn traits, nature and nurture) these issues will likely be there whether or not you have openness. By “openness” I mean not only possible contact, but also the way we parent, how open and vulnerable we make ourselves to our child. As you know, I have separated those two measures of contact and openness. It’s only partly true when you say you’re in an “open adoption” because you have identifying information and/or contact with birth family. Openness also refers to the degree to which you’re open to your child when she comes to you with questions, and how open you can be when responding in those moments.
If I were to update our book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, I would be more in tune with the notion that for some kids (not all), there may be issues that stem from the adoption itself, no matter how much openness there is. Openness probably prepares the family to deal better with the issues that arise, but it doesn’t solve or prevent all issues. Openness is better than closed, but adoption can still be really rough at times.
That’s realistic, I would say. There’s no magic wand that makes anything completely easy or completely hard, but one’s preferable to the other. In your book, it sounded like the online adoption blogging community had been very helpful to you, and in fact, lots of adoption bloggers lent their voices to your book. How did you decide to start blogging, and how can the online community affect families touched by adoption? It can seem brutal at times.
I started blogging because I read an infertility book, a memoir called Waiting for Daisy by Peggy Orenstein in the Spring of 2007. When I finished reading the book, I wanted to learn more about the author, so I Googled her and one of the first links that came up was to a blog called Stirrup Queens. Melissa Ford, the blogger, had just launched a book tour about Waiting for Daisy, and in the post announcing it she said, “all you need is the book and a blog.” I thought, “Well, I have the book, and I can create a blog.” So, I created a blog!
As for how the online community can affect families involved in adoption, at times it can be very supportive and other times, as you say, brutal! It’s an act of self-preservation to develop healthy boundaries when interacting online -- to know when something’s not about you, and to not engage when something’s not about you. And when something IS about you, to be open to exploring how it is about you without becoming triggered or reactive.
What are some strategies to avoid taking things personally that aren’t personal, and avoid becoming unhelpfully over-reactive?
The image that I have is of the doctor coming at you with one of those reflex hammers, which she uses to tap you right below your kneecap. You don’t think about reacting, you just automatically kick – the original knee-jerk reaction.
Sometimes what we see with online comments are knee-jerk reactions, where people react instead of respond. Information and processing isn’t going on in the higher levels of the brain, but rather we give a more visceral, un-thoughtful reaction – which is very different from a considered and chosen response. When you find this happening to you, stop and breathe. Breathing is always there for you, and it’s the thing that takes you back into your thinking mind. Breathing helps you realize, “I can tell by my reaction there’s something here for me. Why did I get triggered by this?”
Such introspection can help you see into your own psyche – and begin to heal your own wounds. This wouldn’t trigger me if I weren’t afraid it was true. If you’re triggered by something you’re reading online, there’s probably something in you that needs to be dealt with -- and not just in the other person. For example, if somebody tells me that I have stinky hair, and I don’t have stinky hair, I’m not going to respond to it because it doesn’t make my knee jerk. But if someone tells me, “You don’t spend enough time with your kids,” I may feel like lashing out at the person who dared to point that out. Deep down, I do feel guilty for not spending more time with my kids and for being on the computer. Maybe I should be interacting more with my children, but HOW DARE YOU TELL ME. And I WILL MAKE YOU PAY FOR DOING SO!
It sounds like the stuff that resonates within us either matches something we know to be true about ourselves, or something that we fear to be true about ourselves.
Exactly right. When your child says, “You’re not my real mom” -- if you’ve already worked that through within yourself, then that is not going to stick to you. You’ll be able to say, “I understand that you feel that way, but I’m here and you’re stuck with me and I’m never going away” -- instead of deflecting the child’s feelings saying something defensive like, “I have a legal document TELLING YOU I’m your real mom!”
In addition, you can address your child’s feelings better when you’re not triggered. When I examine myself and realize that I DO spend time on the computer, but I also talk with my kids a lot and am present for them, I have neutralized the fear and the accusation won’t stick to me. Or, maybe when I evaluate myself I find that something I read online DOES stick to me, it can serve as a call to rebalance where my attention goes. It’s important to think about the things that we react to, and look behind the feelings. That’s what the breathing does. It gives me that pause, that bit of space to turn a reaction into a response.
In addition to being an adoptive parent, a blogger, a writer, and a wife, you’re also a yoga practitioner. How does that impact your parenting?
I started blogging the same month that I started doing yoga, so those two things met me in my early forties in a tough and physically exhausting stage of life -- wrangling little kids. I started doing yoga because it was the only kind of exercise that ever stuck. I was never an athlete – I’d always found it hard to be in my body, one that had failed me over and over again. I started going to yoga class for physical reasons – to combat creeping weight gain -- but I continued for other reasons. Yoga helps me find my core, my center, a place of stillness where I make better decisions for parenting, writing or whatever. It’s when I find my core, the part of myself that’s not influenced by other people’s opinions of me – including my children! -- that I am able to best respond to whatever is in front of me.
So, you’re able to come from a more self-assured place?
Yeah. I’d love to be able to show my kids how to continually “know thyself.” I waited until my 40s til I began to figure it out; I’m not sure I would have been receptive as a teenager. Yoga is really a way to train your mind, and to find stillness when things are chaotic around you. It’s a valuable skill, especially for parents of teenagers!
Let’s talk about fears. When you lead workshops around the country for adoptive and adoptive parents, what fears about openness tend to come up? What fears did you have about openness and how did you deal with them?
I was very much the typical pre-adoptive, hopeful adoptive parent. I had been steeped in the way adoption had been done in the 1960s and 1970s – everyone was to act “as if” it weren’t adoption. I knew people who had been adopted. They knew they were adopted, but they never talked about it and their parents never talked about it. Everyone was supposed to pretend that nothing had happened, that this was no different than the biological way of building a family. I think that the underlying mindset of this was, “either/or,” as in, “you can have only one set of parents, so we have to completely deny the other set.” Adoptees were expected to give their adoptive parents their undivided loyalty and never wonder -- or at least never wonder out loud.
I had huge fears about birth parents prior to going through the adoption process. But during our pre-adoption training, the agency offered a birth parent panel. Three women who had placed were at different stages of their journeys – 10 weeks, 1 year, 4 years. We saw real women who did not fit the stereotypes I’d heard of birth mothers. They spanned economic levels, age levels, educational levels, and racial identity. I realized that birth mothers are just people like me, women who loved the baby they were able to create (duh!).
It sounds like there are preconceptions that we have before we approach adoption and for you, when you met real-life birth mothers, they were more relatable than you feared they would be.
Yeah, they were just real people. I could have come across them in my life and connected with them. Also, having them talk about their loss helped me understand that I could empathize with them, because we had been through loss as well, and I would never want to exacerbate somebody else’s loss. This helped me be mindful of their loss. When I was going through infertility, I thought nothing else could be like that loss – and it is hard to compare pain – but I can see now that there is big pain that other people have faced, not just my own.
Something you wrote once really stayed with me. It was powerful when you said that processing and releasing our grief can help us avoid mistaking tenderness from within for a wound from without.
Yes – if you’re getting triggered it’s helpful to first discern if your hurt is from a tenderness within or from a wound inflicted from outside you. They way you deal with the two hurts is vastly different. Be sure the other person is actually trying to poke you before you accuse him/her of poking you. If your wound comes from inside, from a tender space you haven’t yet grieved and processed, you’ll only complicate things if you try to resolve externally rather than within. (Sometimes you DO need to deal with those external to you, but you need to first make this discernment.)
You wrote that we honor the other parent’s role in adoption by not asking the child to choose or rank biology over biography or vice versa. People tend towards categorization and try to figure out where we fit in the pecking order of the world, what the different camps are. That can hurt kids, though. How can we avoid doing that?
You’re right that we do that. The adoption triad isn’t really a triad. For example, you and I are both in the adoption world, but you’re in the social worker corner and I’m in the adoptive parent corner, and other people are in other corners, like birth parents or adoptees or activists or therapists. Then we have other delineations: international or domestic, private or foster, happy or “angry.” We are always looking for differences and similarities and aligning ourselves accordingly.
The answer to your question of how to avoid hurting kids is pretty simple. We need to move from an Either/Or mindset -- “either they’re your parents or we are,” or “either you’re their son or you’re mine,” or, “you can claim either them or us,” – we must move from that Either/Or mindset to a Both/And heartset. The Both/And approach acknowledges that “all of us contributed to who you are. They gave you something we can’t. We’re giving you something they couldn’t.” When you have the Both/And heartset, the Either/Or question is pointless. It’s splitting a baby, and who wants to split a baby?
What does it mean to you to be “one of” your son’s favorite moms, as you wrote?
On the morning of my son’s 9th birthday, I woke him up by gushing, “You’re my favorite son!” He responded with, “You’re my faav...errr…ummmm…. You’re one of my favorite mommies!”
I was totally happy about that. If he had said, “You’re my favorite mom,” it could have been like splitting my baby. Did he feel he had to tell me that so that I would feel like the winner over his birth mother --at his expense? He would be saying that because his loyalties are split by an Either/Or mindset. I want him to claim Both/And. I want him never to feel split.
That’s beautiful. Would you describe parenting in seven words?
Rewarding and relentless practice of loving unconditionally.
You wrote about the “ghosts” of how things might have been. For birth parents, there’s the ghost child not being raised. For adoptive parents, there can be the ghost bio kid that never manifested. For adoptees, there’s the question of, what life would have been like with birth family or a different adoptive family? How can we deal with the ghosts of how things might have been?
The Ghost Kingdom is an idea from adoptee activist and psychologist Betty Jean Lifton, PhD. It’s really important to actually deal with any ghosts we have rather than pretend they’re not there, because “that which we resist persists.” Perhaps we all experience our ghost lives, and it’s okay that we do it -- as long as we do it mindfully. I do sometimes catch myself with my ghost child, the mini-me I had once dreamed of. I feel a bit of regret and even shame about that, but it would be worse if I tried to stuff it down and never deal with it. That would make it harder for my kids. It would make it harder for me. So I try to be mindful of my ghost child when she appears and say, “Oh, here you are again. Hi, there. I wonder why I’m conjuring you right now. What grief or loss do I need to process? Thank you for visiting, and I’m returning to the kids I am raising. I appreciate you for bringing me the gift of awareness.”
Being mindful is the way to neutralize our ghosts. You have to be gentle with yourself, and know that if you’re feeling wistful about the child you didn’t get to raise, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, it just means that you’ve got a wounded spot that needs healing. Your kids are most likely dealing with their ghosts, too. Be gentle with yourself and be compassionate with your kids as they process their own grief and loss. Model for them how to deal with ghosts.
It seems like the way we treat ourselves affects how our kids will treat themselves. This reminds me of the beginning scene of The Odd Life of Timothy Green. The couple is mourning the child that they haven’t been able to have, and they do that by imagining exactly what he would have been like. That always struck me as a healthy way of facing and processing grief.
In fact, one of the things our agency did for us during our pre-adoption training was to have each of us write a letter to the child we would never have. Maybe that shouldn’t be a one-time activity; maybe letter-writing can be a way to periodically deal with the ghost child that keeps popping up. Maybe you need to say goodbye again and again as new things come up for you through your actual child’s life.
You wrote that the less emotional distance a child perceives between his two sets of parents, the more integrated his psyche can be. You also wrote that openness can help heal the split between a child’ biology and biography that is created by adoption. How can we help our children develop a healed and integrated psyche, and how does the distance between both sets of parents impact a child?
It varies as a child ages and goes through different stages, but through the long journey we trust the process. It’s a hard road sometimes, but it’s better to have openness than closedness (and by openness I mean more than just contact). Openness promotes mindfulness. When things are closed, when stuff is kept from us, we have a harder time being mindful and fully aware. You might keep things from yourself, thinking “Oh, I won’t deal with this and it will go away,” but things don’t go away when you don’t deal with them; they can grow and become even more unmanageable.
Minimizing emotional distance between adoptive and birth families can mean speaking about your counterparts only in a loving/accepting and never derogatory way. It can mean choosing to love your counterparts simply because doing so is good for your child. In some ways, this is like a “good” divorce, in which the parents stay united in parenting even though they dissolve the marriage, versus a “bad” divorce, in which the children become pawns of the adults who continue to have lots of unresolved triggers.
I like that you acknowledge that adoption is complicated, no matter how you do it. Just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, and if you perceive it as uncomplicated, it probably means you’re not looking hard enough.
Heather Forbes of Beyond Consequences reinforces the concept that in parenting, sometimes you don’t find immediate success; the best you can do is trust the process and operate from your core, from a place of stillness and wisdom that you learn to use as a touchstone. Sometimes when things get hard, it feels like things are going wrong, but trust yourself, operate from your core – a place of pure love, and trust the process. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to keep your own self regulated.
You said something beautiful and true in your book: that almost everybody is doing the best they can with what they have at any point in time. I see that there in Heather’s training, too. All we can hold ourselves accountable for is to do the best we can. If I plant seed in a garden, I can’t be accountable for whether it grows, I can only be accountable for if I planted it well. If you adopt, you can’t be accountable for whether your kid thrives or whether the relationships thrive, only whether you did the best you could do.
That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. I think being open, vulnerable, and honest with yourself and others, aiming for continual self-awareness – these are the ingredients that truly help us grow in our journey through adoptive parenting – and through life.