Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Jay D. Lenn
On the day my husband Greg and I brought our son Clark home, we read to him. The first book was Guess How Much I Love You?, a story in which Little Nutbrown Hare tells his father Big Nutbrown Hare how much he loves him and discovers that his father, in turn, loves him more than Little Nutbrown Hare can imagine.
Clark was one month old when Greg and I adopted him. He slept through this first reading, but we read to him anyway because we wanted to begin the ritual of reading every day. We wanted him to hear our voices and the cadence of a well-told story. We wanted him not to remember a time when we didn’t read to him.
I have thought much about the books we read to Clark, books to make him laugh and think and be curious. Books to help him understand another person. Books about topics that interest him. Books that help us understand sadness. Sometimes the books reveal the unexpected — especially to me.
That first book shares something with many books we’ve read — but not something I had thought about then. There is a missing parent. There is no mother in Guess How Much I Love You?
One or both parents are often missing in children’s books. Sometimes there is no explanation; sometimes the absence is the result of a horrible accident, illness, or act of violence.
Peter Rabbit’s father had “an accident” in the garden and was baked in a pie. Snow White’s and Cinderella’s mothers died. Harry Potter’s parents were killed by Voldemort. The loss of Hugo Cabret’s mother remains unexplained, and his father dies in a fire. Johnny Tremain’s father is a mystery, and his mother dies of a fever. The Series of Unfortunate Events — fire. The Secret Garden — cholera. The Graveyard Book — murder. James and the Giant Peach — death by an angry rhinoceros.
People have written essays and scholarly theses about this literary phenomenon, postulating that the absence of parents speaks to children in many ways, including a child’s fears of abandonment and loneliness.
Parental absence can also speak to children’s strengths, including their resiliency, their capacity to make meaningful connections after a loss, and their exploration of independence from their parents.
All of these ideas make sense to me. But I can’t help thinking that for many children these stories of loss, abandonment, or loneliness remain comfortably in the realm of fiction.
It’s an opportunity to explore these complicated emotions in a safe environment. These children encounter fear with a degree of security. Some children, however, experience actual loss. A parent dies. A parent leaves.
I think often about what these stories mean to Clark or what they might mean to other children who are adopted. These children have experienced a different kind of loss and grieve over a family that might have been. It’s the loss of a family that can only be imagined. It’s the loss of people who are both familiar and unknown.
And for Clark — as is likely for other children who were adopted — it is a fragmented and continuously unfolding loss. A loss that is repeated, that changes, that becomes more complicated.
Clark knows his birth mother. They have met twice. They talk on the phone or email occasionally. He knows we haven’t always known her whereabouts. He knows about stories of recurring addiction.
He knows he has two half-siblings, whom he will likely not meet any time soon for reasons beyond our control. He knows about some, but not all, criminal activity. He knows it’s a story filled with grief, but he is also hopeful — or wishful — for better versions of this story.
We are learning that a part of our role as adoptive parents is to help Clark manage his grief, to learn how to talk about his feelings, to approach expectations with a balance of hope and clarity, to speak kindly of his birth family while telling the story honestly.
We have help from therapists, both Clark’s and our own. But I also find help from the books Clark and I have read and continue to read together. I rarely ask him directly what he thinks about a story. I wait for his comments. I listen when he says some incident in the story makes him happy or sad. I share my own response to the same incident. I pay attention to which characters evoke his empathy. I note the kinds of stories he likes and dislikes.
Despite similarities in stories and characters, I can’t always predict Clark’s reaction. Sometimes I’m surprised. Often, as with parenting in general, I’m just guessing.
In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is already alone when we meet him. We learn in flashbacks that he has lost his father in a fire and has been spared some grief by the disappearance of a horrible uncle. We’ve read this book three times.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a collection of stories reportedly much loved by readers because the young protagonists, the three Baudelaire children, persistently overcome remarkable and fantastic odds. The first book begins with their parents’ death in a fire, and the children are sent to live with a horrible uncle. After a couple of chapters, Clark did not want to finish. I asked, “Is it too sad?” He answered, “Yes.”
I didn’t know if it was the death of the parents or the uncle’s treatment of the children — or both — that made him sad. I didn’t ask. We just stopped reading the book. It wasn’t, however, our last book with missing parents. Indeed, it’s difficult to avoid them.
In The Graveyard Book, we witness the murder of the protagonist Bod’s parents and older sister — grim from the outset like A Series of Unfortunate Events. But unlike the unfortunate Baudelaire children, Bod is immediately under the protection and care of kind guardians — the residents of a graveyard, ghosts and a “recovering” vampire. A few pages into this book, I paused and asked, “Do you want to keep reading?” He did, and this book remains a favorite.
I’m not sure what made one book with missing parents different from others. It could have been the timing. It could be that the tragedy in A Series of Unfortunate Events went quickly from bad to worse, that the person who should have been a source of comfort was the villain.
But I learned a few things. First, I have to trust and honor Clark’s reaction. There are simply stories he doesn’t want to read — or doesn’t want to read now. Second, it may matter to Clark how a difficult story is told, who is there to help the child experience the grief, whether there is even an opportunity for a character to grieve, and whether there is any hope for the character’s security.
A little more than a year ago, Clark and I started reading Jonathan Stroud’s series Lockwood & Co. We like these books for many reasons, not the least being that the story is set in and around London, a favorite place for our family. But they are also well-told ghost stories and mysteries.
The stories are set in a fictional Britain that has been overrun by ghosts, many of whom are malicious and all of whom are deadly if they touch a living person. Children are the only people who can see them, and consequently, they are the only people who can vanquish the ghosts. This turns the story of security on its head. Adults need children to keep them safe.
But the children are still children — imaginative, impulsive, resilient, but also vulnerable and afraid. The title character is the teenage Anthony Lockwood, whose parents died when he was young, presumably for a reason related to their research on ancient artifacts. His sister was killed by a ghost. Lucy Carlyle, a teenage girl and one of Lockwood’s collaborators, has moved from the north of England to London. Lucy is somewhat estranged from her mother who has struggled to support her seven children on her own since her husband’s death.
Anthony Lockwood and Lucy Carlyle might be considered classics of the genre of stories with missing parents. They are alone, grieving, hiding their grief, and learning to trust each other enough to know one another’s stories.
But they are also sleuths. To rid a place of a ghost, they need to understand the ghost’s story. Why is it trapped or lingering? How did the person die? What does the ghost want living people to know? Each ghost is a connection to a story from the past that needs to be pieced together with care.
The fifth book was just published this fall, and Clark and I have just begun reading it together. One thread of the ongoing story that we expect to see resolved is Lucy Carlyle’s suspicion that the living — even those who successfully vanquish ghosts — don’t truly understand the lingering souls of the dead.
Lucy is one of the rare people who can hear and communicate with ghosts. She suspects that all the theories about why ghosts remain and why many attack the living are wrong. The key to understanding ghosts will be learning how to listen, learning how to hear someone else’s story — and as the gifted listener, learning how to tell that story to other people.
We read books in our home for many reasons — to be entertained, to think, to explore. We also read because we learn how to listen, how to understand another person’s feelings, how to hear another person’s story.
One of our roles as Clark’s parents is to listen to his story, to hear what he’s thinking and feeling. And we must help him tell his story, especially the parts that need to be constructed with care. We have to listen to his expressions of sorrow and grief and then help narrate it back to him. We need to help him find the right vocabulary to reconstruct story lines that are not always clear or obvious.
The learning curve for this role is treacherously steep, and I fail often. When Clark is having feelings about difficult things — any number of things — it doesn’t come in tidy narratives. He doesn’t simply offer, “I am sad” or “I am angry.” From my perspective, it feels like a blast of emotions, and I’m a person who is easily knocked over by such blasts.
The strategy that helps me most — this is where my own therapy comes in — is practicing the narrative. I have written down things I should say but am not likely to retrieve in an emotional moment. Things like, “I see that you are upset. Can you help me understand what’s making you anxious right now?” It sounds a bit contrived, but it’s an offer to listen. It’s an opportunity for him to tell me a story. Sometimes I have to ask questions — or some variation of twenty questions. “Are you thinking about … ?”
Sometimes we don’t get around to this conversation until after I’ve completely misunderstood him and been angry; occasionally, the conversations creep so quietly into our lives, we surprise ourselves. Greg and I are also learning that it helps to ask questions when nothing is wrong. “We haven’t talked about your birth mother lately. Have you been thinking about her?”
These conversations are fragments of a bigger narrative filled with strong emotions about a loss that he can’t control but that has shaped his life and our own family story. One of our roles in the narrative is making him feel secure — to know that he is not alone in grieving loss, knowing his birth family, and telling his story. He needs to feel safe. Clark needs to know we love him more than he has yet imagined.
Jay D. Lenn is a stay-at-home dad, medical writer, occasional gardener, and perpetual volunteer. Jay lives with his husband Greg and son Clark in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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