Lessons Learned from An Imaginary Redhead.

Lessons Learned from An Imaginary Redhead.

In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Portrait of an Adoption is running a special series called 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.

By Elisabeth O’Toole

Not long after I married my husband (a tall redhead), my mom and I (both short and brunette) developed a plan.  I was going to finally fulfill some long-held desires she’d had for her family – desires my siblings and I had not successfully satisfied.  In the anticipated daughter I would soon be having (yes, it would be a girl), my mother was finally going to get not only a redheaded baby in the family, but, later, a long, lean and very talented basketball player.

I know this sounds like pressure, so I should admit that I had no problem with this assumption.  In fact, I’m sure I perpetuated it far more than my mother did.  After all, I was fully confident in my ability to produce this child; the child I imagined for us both.

That is not how things worked out.

As readers of Portrait of an Adoption well know, loss is a fundamental and complicated aspect of any adoption.  In order for there to be gain – of a family, of a child – there must first be loss.  Birthmothers and birth relatives experience an often great and abiding loss.  The adopted child experiences loss – no matter at what age he is adopted or under what conditions he was adopted. Communities, foster parents, other children who may remain, and caregivers may experience loss as a result of adoption.

As an adoptive parent, I struggled with the loss of privacy, the loss of control over this aspect of my life –becoming a parent– and the loss of my imagined child – that redheaded basketball player I had expected.

Like most adoptive parents, I was counseled to try to understand the role that loss plays in adoption, and how it may be experienced by others, birthparents and adoptees, especially.  And I was advised to acknowledge and grieve loss as an important step toward adoptive parenthood.

I’ve come to believe that it’s also important that we try to consider how others, outside of the immediate adoption triad might also experience loss related to adoption.  This is especially common for our closest relatives.  Like adoptive parents, it’s not at all uncommon that others have also imagined and anticipated a particular child or experience, both for us and for themselves.  When that expectation is unmet, other people may experience aspects of that same loss that many of us triad members do.

A grandfather described for me how his son’s adoption plans meant the end of his family’s genealogical line.  And the grandfather’s early resistance to the adoption – painful and frustrating for his son – stemmed from that loss. He needed time to let go of a lifelong (and reasonable) expectation.  And he needed to mourn that real and legitimate loss before he could welcome the adoption.

A grandmother described for me her reaction to her daughter’s announcement that she was adopting.  The grandmother couldn’t understand her own lack of enthusiasm, even sadness.  After all, she told herself, she just wanted her daughter to be happy. And she’d always wanted to be a grandparent.   She finally realized part of what was holding her back was her reluctance to let go of a dream she’d had, an experience she had long looked forward to.  For years, she’d pictured being with her daughter in a delivery room, present at the very moment of birth of her first grandchild. It was something she and her daughter had anticipated together.  That she would not have this experience was a loss related to adoption that both of them had to acknowledge – and grieve.

Neither of these grandparents, nor their adult children, initially identified the grandparents’ ambivalence toward adoption as related to loss.  Instead, their loved ones viewed them as unsupportive and negative about adoption. But acknowledging loss and then grieving it were steps these grandparents needed to take.  Just as the adoptive parents had.

In my own life as an adoptive parent, I didn’t consider the losses others might have experienced around my family’s adoptions until years after first adopting.  I had begun talking to adoptive grandparents and relatives from other families as research for a book I was writing.  And so it was, years after my first adoption, I found myself reconsidering my own relatives’ reactions to adoption with new eyes.  I finally came to recognize that the people around me had lost that redheaded basketball player, too.  And I suddenly understood why one family member in particular had reacted to our adoption plans as she had.

At the time, feeling vulnerable and still trying to understand adoption myself, I couldn’t understand or, frankly, have much compassion for what seemed to be her knee-jerk resistance to adoption.  I thought this close relative was narrow-minded, overly concerned with appearances and tradition.  But after making an effort to consider what this experience had been like for someone who, like me, had long anticipated a particular child and experience, I felt compassion for what I now understood was another person’s response to her own loss. I wish I’d had that insight — and that vocabulary — at the time.

Though understanding loss is a standard discussion topic in adoption education, we don’t typically offer others – who are also impacted by adoption – that language of loss.  I think we should.

Thinking about loss in this way reinforces for me how adoption is not just about “us”: my husband and I and our children.  Rather, it’s about a larger “Us”: our parents, our siblings, our close friends and extended families.  And as our family ages and our circle expands, adoption includes our kids’ friends, their teachers, their caregivers, and the many other people who comprise our family’s adoption circle.

I’ve come to believe that one of the responsibilities we adoptive parents take on when we adopt is to include others in adoption, to bring them in on it.  One way we can bring people in is by acknowledging their own perspectives and experiences with adoption, perhaps including loss.  Other people – besides adoptive parents – deserve the chance to ask questions and to share their concerns and fears about adoption.   Other people need and deserve information and preparation for adoption. Because other people are going to love and want to advocate for our children and for adoption, too.

By Elisabeth O’Toole

Elisabeth O’Toole is a mother of three children through adoption and the author of “In On It; What Adoptive Parents Would Like You To Know About Adoption. A Guide for Relatives and Friends.” (FIG Press, 2011).  More information about Elisabeth and “In On It” can be found at www.InOnAdoption.com and www.facebook.com/inonitadoptionbook .

Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.  This year’s adoption series is full, but if you have a story you would like to submit as a candidate for next year’s series, please email it to portraitofanadoption@gmail.com.

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