In just a few days, I will be flying with my daughter K to visit her birthmother and her teenage brother and sister.
During K’s early years, she did not have a relationship with her birth family. But the summer before K turned 6, her birthmom called and asked if we would come for a visit. The lead-up to that first visit rocked K’s world. She spent months acting out, testing boundaries, and crying. She would shout awful things like “just throw me in the garbage!”
We agonized—should we cancel the visit? Was it too scary for her? We started weekly sessions with a child therapist who specialized in adoption. K was displaying understandable anxiety. She was confused and scared. Although some people thought we were crazy, we decided to go forward with the visit, because underneath the fear, K expressed a desperate desire to see her birth family.
And . . . the visit went really well, and K’s behavior returned to normal shortly after we flew back home.
We went back the next summer, and the next, and the next.
K is 9 now. She is more socially aware. Last night, as we sat on the couch watching the Blackhawks play Boston in the Stanley Cup Finals, K and I strategized prior to the birth family visit.
“What will we do during the visit?” K wanted to know.
“Let’s make a list of things you want to do with them, and we will use that as a guide,” I answered.
K came up with the following:
- Go swimming in the hotel pool
- Visit a museum, any kind that looks interesting
- Bring paper and markers and draw pictures for each other and exchange them
- Eat sushi or other Asian food
- Play card games like Quiddler or Spot It
- Play math games
- Make a video together to watch later
- Go to a movie or watch one in the hotel
“What if we have trouble finding things to talk about?” she asked me. K is not the only one worrying about the visit. Her birth mom sent me a message recently expressing her own pre-visit jitters, her tentative fears that K will be a stranger to her or won't feel affection for her. I reassured M that K loves her very much, which is 100% true.
“Let’s make a list of 5 topics that you can discuss if the conversation feels difficult,” I replied.
She came up with:
- Talk about school
- Talk about friends
- Ask M about her job
- Talk about what we are going to do that day
- Talk about swim team
I loved that K was the one coming up with the ideas. Giving her control over the plans reduces her anxiety and increases her excitement about the visit.
But there was one more thing I wanted to talk about. Two years ago, when we said goodbye to M, K felt terrible grief and suffered a major meltdown in the hotel. In the event that she has overwhelming feelings of sadness this year, I think it is best to be prepared.
“K,” I began, “let’s also come up with a list of things you can do to help yourself feel better when we say goodbye at the end of the visit. Just in case you are feeling extra sad.”
She nodded and tilted her head thoughtfully.
She came up with the following ideas to help manage her grief when the visit concludes:
- Take deep breaths
- Remind myself I will see them again in a year
- Give them big humongous hugs
- Write in my journal
- Talk to Mommy about it
Satisfied, she kissed me goodnight and padded upstairs to go to sleep. I mused about how different the lead-up to this visit is than the one four years ago. How far she has come, how far we have all come. I am looking forward to seeing M, the woman who made me a mother and who is now my friend. It is a strange relationship, one that very very few people can understand. But it works for us, and we have our gorgeous daughter connecting us forever.
Half an hour after K went to sleep, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup with two back-to-back goals at the end of the game. It’s going to be a good visit.
Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.
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