Several months ago, I was driving my 9-yr-old to one of her ten zillion activities, and we were listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Annie. K asked me why Annie lived in an orphanage, and I answered that her parents died in a car wreck.
“But for most of the movie, Annie thinks they were still alive and just left her there. So, if they were alive, why was she in the orphanage?” K wanted to know. I found it fascinating that K was so mystified about the possibility that Annie might have had living parents who were not raising her. After all, K herself has living biological parents who are not raising her.
I wondered, was K asking about Annie because she was experiencing a cognitive disconnect about the fact that some kids don’t live with their parents? Was she asking about Annie as a way to ask about her own self? I turned off the music to allow us to have a focused conversation.
Carefully, oh so carefully, I began speaking with her about all the possible reasons that kids are placed for adoption, which tended to fall under the age appropriate category of: their parents are unable to care for them at that time in their lives, whether due to health concerns or lack of supports or extreme young age, etc.
No, no, K shook her head. I wasn’t getting it. That’s not what she was asking.
She tried rephrasing her question, working to put voice to what was concerning her. “Well, why was she living in that place, the orphanage? Why hadn’t someone adopted her yet? Why were all those girls waiting to be adopted?”
Contemplating this for a minute, I approached it from the angle that life is inherently unfair. I explained, “Some kids are born into stability and others are not. For those kids who lose their parents -- due to physical or mental illness or accidents – it can be very difficult to find the right family. The girls in the orphanage in the story of Annie are unlucky. It has nothing to do with how lovable they are, or how valuable they are, and it has everything to do with being caught in a bad situation.”
K said nothing for few minutes. Then she said, very very quietly, “What would have happened to me if you didn’t adopt me? What if nobody wanted me?”
Aah, that was the crux of it. K wanted reassurance that she was different from those girls in Annie. I felt an ineffable sadness, because in my darkest fears, I sometimes allow myself to speculate what would have happened to K if we didn’t adopt her. The truthful answer is, I don’t know. K was in foster care at the time that we gained custody of her, and the situation with her birth family was complicated and ugly. The details are not my story to tell, so I never will write about them, but suffice it to say that K's path was uncertain.
Ours was not a private domestic newborn adoption, in which K’s birthmother could have brought K right back home with her if we decided not to adopt. Had we walked away from the situation, K would have stayed in foster care for a long time. Maybe another couple would have adopted her. Maybe not. Maybe she would have grown older and older, becoming less and less likely to be adopted. Maybe her birthmother would have eventually regained custody of her, depending on many moving parts. Maybe another biological relative would have decided to adopt her. I don’t know; I just don’t know. There is no doubt that K would have bounced around homes, because the foster family that was caring for her only intended to foster and not to adopt. It makes my stomach hurt to think about the K living in that alternate universe, the K that didn’t come home to us.
I don’t know what would have happened. But I do know that if it is scary and painful for me to imagine, it must be terrifying for K.
As I opened my mouth to answer K, I knew that any words I chose would be insufficient. But I tried.
“Well, K, that is a frightening thing to worry about. The good news is that we wanted you from the minute we learned about you. And your birthmother really loves you, so she would have worked with the social workers to find you another family if we weren’t there, or she would have kept working on her own situation until the state would eventually return you to her. She would have made sure you were okay. I believe that with all my heart.
And your foster home was nothing like Annie’s orphanage. Your foster mom, S, really cared about you. When you came to live with us, she gave me photos of you as an infant. At the courthouse, she handed me a copy of her handwritten notes about you, like when you first slept through the night, and how often you liked to eat, and all that stuff. She gave me notes from your doctor's visits, like how much you had grown. You grew so much before we got you that some of the clothes I bought were already too small!”
K listened to me. I looked at her in the rear view mirror, trying to assess how she was doing. Her expression was hard to read. “Do you want to ask anything else?” I offered.
She shook her head. She seemed satisfied for now. Since my general strategy is to let her take the lead on these conversations, I decided to let it rest. These are seriously hard and intense conversations, and they are not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, K is brave enough to ask her uncomfortable questions, and as long as she can express her fears, I think we will be okay. I replay the conversations in my mind, hoping that I gave the “right” answers, but I know that there are no right answers. K is teaching me how to be an adoptive mother, and as she grows older, the lessons become more complex.
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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