Sunday, May 22, 2011

I Was Adopted?

Children’s Books that Open Up the Discussion
Whether your child has always known she was adopted or you’re planning the proper moment for your talk, you may find it helpful to supplement your discussion with one of several children’s books created specifically for this reason. I take a look at several, and you’ll be surprised at the subtle but significant differences you’ll find.

One of the first authors to take on the subject of adoption with a sense of openness and honesty was Linda Walvoord Girard, who had carved out a niche for herself in the 1980s by taking on weighty topics and making them approachable for children. Her 1984 book, My Body is Private discussed the issue of sexual abuse. She also wrote about divorce in 1987’s At Daddy’s on Saturdays as well as the needs-no-further-explanation title, 1991’s Alex, the Kid With AIDS.

Her two books on adoption, 1986’s Adoption Is for Always and the nearly identical 1989 book, We Adopted You, Benjamin Koo are classics on the topic, are still in print and active circulation. This might lead one to believe that these books are tried and true, but I found them filled with assumptions that it’s “normal” to feel hurt and angry at the idea of being adopted. If an author uses loaded, culturally potent language like birth mommy, you have to be ready to expect your child to feel upset at the idea of having another mommy out there somewhere. Girard’s philosophy seems to be that it’s inevitable to feel sad and angry, but you need to face it so you can work through it. I think if you don’t want your child to feel hurt and angry, don’t frame the topic and discussion by focusing on the absent birth mother. Likewise, the maudlin 1994 book, Did My First Mother Love Me? By Kathryn Ann Miller and Jami Moffett seems to percolate and inadvertently encourage uncomfortable, unanswerable questions. This book does have a very specific usage, though. It covers the topic of open adoption where the birthmother has communication with the adopted child. But if your child does not specifically fall into this camp, it seems much wiser to steer the focus of the discussion to the many positives connected with adoption.

Which leads me to another older but widely read book by the late Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, his 1994 book, Let’s Talk About It: Adoption. In his adoption book, he proves himself to be a savvier communicator than Girard in that he relates the adoption story as an origin story that begins at the moment of adoption, not at the moment of birth; the emphasis in on the family rather than the individual, “When you were born, you were ready to live and be loved, just like every other child in the world. You could belong in your family by being born into it, or you could belong in your family by being adopted into it.” Rogers does not use the term birthmother at all in the book, and only uses the term birthparents once. His emphasis is on the sense of love and security within the family unit. I think it is much more palatable than either of Girard’s books.

The 1996 book, Happy Adoption Day, sees adoption as a cause for celebration and singing. The book is actually a song by John McCutcheon and Julie Paschkis and the last page of the book contains the sheet music for the melody, “All of a sudden this family was born. Oh, happy adoption day!” The terms birthmother, birthparent, mother, mommy, or father do not appear in the book at all. It’s a joyous celebration of family.

In a different, more situation-specific vein, 2003’s My New Family, by Pat Thomas tries to take an honest look at combinations of foster care and adoption and uses the terms birth parents and foster family, but the book does not use the terms mother, father, or birthmother at all. It does acknowledge the contributions of both birthparents and adoptive parents, “Remember that both of your sets of parents have given you something special. Your birth parents gave you life. Your adoptive parents gave you a home and family and the love you need to grow up healthy and happy.” For the specific circumstance of foster care to adoption, this book is sensitive and caring.

1995’s How I Was Adopted by Joanna Cole and Maxie Chambliss employs a knowing use of language to position the adoption story as the origin story in a similar fashion as Fred Rogers’ book. Warning: it goes a step further than the other books on the topic of birth by introducing real biology. Accompanied by illustrations that show a woman with an “x-ray” image of a baby inside her, “Every baby grows in a special place inside a woman’s body. That place is called her uterus. When a baby is ready to be born, the woman’s uterus squeezes and squeezes and the baby comes out into the world!” In its own way, this book doesn’t romanticize birth; it tells it like it is. This book uses the terms mommy, daddy, and mother, but only in relation to adoptive parents. If you’re comfortable with your child knowing where babies come from, this book is positive and supportive, a refreshingly modern take.

Children model their behavior on us and take their cues from us, even in regards to how they’re supposed to feel about being adopted. I don’t want to inadvertently give my child the signal that it’s natural to feel bad about being adopted. In certain respects, it’s simple: if you think that being adopted is nothing to be ashamed of, then don’t act like it IS something to be ashamed of. Put the focus on your values of family, security, and love, and leave the obsession on what’s not there to the distant past. I’m glad we’ve moved past the era of shame. I hope my daughter reads that message in me.

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