by my mother, adoptive parent, retired social worker, life coach
When my husband and I adopted a three-year-old from China in 1997, I thought I was prepared to handle any grief she might experience. I had been a foster parent trainer for many years and taught prospective foster parents about grief and loss. However, I soon discovered that understanding something intellectually did not mean that I would know how to deal with the deep well of sorrow that a child who had lost everything might carry with her.
At three years of age, my daughter had a limited vocabulary, so the effects of her disruption came out mostly through being terrified of sleep and waking in the night, wailing in fear. Over time, she gained the ability to share her sadness, at first with simple words, but later with questions and more complex statements. By Kindergarten, she knew the basic story of how she came to be adopted, why her first family might have been unable to raise her, and what I believed they would have wanted for her. Still, her grief persisted.
I wanted to respect her feelings of sadness while helping her to make space for the good things, too, but didn’t know how. Therapy? I considered it. It was during this period that I had an idea that just felt right. I thought my daughter might benefit from hearing her story from a Chinese woman and that looking into a face that resembled hers could be healing. I called the agency which had worked with us on the adoption and explained what I was hoping might be able to happen.
Chengli, a Chinese woman who worked at the adoption agency and had been with us in China when we adopted our daughter, asked what we had told her thus far. She continued that the information we provided was what she would have said as well, not quite understanding why she might be able to make a difference. Still, she agreed, and we headed off to Minnesota, where on one late afternoon, our daughter sat on Chengli’s lap to hear her adoption story once again.
This day was the beginning of a new chapter for our daughter, who continued to miss what was lost but began integrating those losses with the possibility of a life in the United States. Though my husband and I had adopted our daughter and loved her from the start, it took a much longer amount of time for her to “adopt” us in return and truly allow us to be her parents.
I am so grateful that Chengli was able to hold this conversation with our daughter. In doing so, she somewhat represented the missing Chinese mother who could not be there to comfort and explain to my daughter why this had happened to her. A couple of years ago, I read an article about a mother of a gay son in Oklahoma who now attends the same-sex weddings of couples when their biological parents won’t participate. She referred to this as “standing in the gap,” and I realized that this was what I had asked Chengli to do for our daughter — to stand in the gap and bridge the oceans between my daughter and her Chinese mother.
My daughter is now an adult. Over the years, she has shared many stories about adoptees who have been hurt and alienated by the families who adopted them. I’m not talking about the kinds of shortcomings that all parents struggle with — being snippy when overly tired, getting irritated by a lost backpack, or not paying attention fully to a child sharing about her day. These are deeper cuts that remove a sense of safety and a place of belonging, that demonstrate an unwillingness to understand who the adoptee is and the unique challenges of that status, especially if the adoptee is a person of color in a white family. It is shutting the door to any meaningful communication and leaving the adoptee alone to make sense of their feelings and experiences. Sometimes, it leads to the actual loss of the adoptive family who vowed to love and care for that child and to be their “forever family.”
At a conference about a year ago, I had the honor of being in a session for adoptees and those connected to adoption, where adoptees shared some of their stories. They ranged in ages from mid-twenties to maybe late-forties. Some told of happy years growing up, surrounded by love and security. But some, more than I expected, cried and described abuse, emotional neglect, second class status in the family, and a myriad of wounds that still festered. I ached for them, for what had happened to them, and for what they hadn’t received. When the conversation was opened up for non-adopted individuals to speak, I stood and apologized to these adoptees, as an adoptive mother, who was sad and ashamed that they had been let down in fundamental ways by their adoptive families. Over the next day, several women from that session came up to me and thanked me. Without conscious thought, I had “stood in the gap” for them, like Chengli had done for my own daughter all those years before.
Today, I want to make that apology to any adoptees who are out there and grieving a fragmented relationship with your adoptive parents, recognizing that I am a part of this group that has caused hurt for so many adoptees. I know that what you may really wish for is an apology from your parent(s), not from a stranger. I hope that you will get that someday. For now, I want to tell you I am sorry that perhaps:
- your parent didn’t speak out when racist comments were made
- your parent didn’t help you navigate being a person of color or even think it was an issue
- your parent refused to talk with you about your first family and made it clear those conversations weren’t welcome
- your parent, who removed you from your home country and culture, talked badly about it or not at all
- your parent, who swore to protect and care for you, abused or neglected you
- your parent, when things got hard, gave up on trying to understand and be there for you
- your parent expected you to feel grateful for what every child has a right to – shelter, safety, love, food, an education, and kindness
You deserved better than this. You are worthy of much more than this. As an adoptive mother, I am sending hugs to you and best wishes for the bright future that you will create. May you find other mothers along the way who will “stand in the gap” for you.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Read the other guest piece written written by my mother: here