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.
It’s My Job to Listen and Love
By Rachel Garlinghouse
As parents, we want to be fixers.
It starts when our children are young. One scrapes a knee, and we rush over to examine. Seeing blood appear, we blot, we apply antibiotic cream, and then top it with a cartoon bandage. Lastly, we kiss the “boo boo” and declare it “all better.” We use our fingers to wipe away tears streaming down our child’s face.
Throughout their childhoods, we step in time and time and time again. When someone teases our child for their glasses or lack of athletic ability. When a friend fails to invite our child to the birthday party. When the first boyfriend or girlfriend breaks our child’s heart. Then the coach doesn’t put our kid in the game—again.
We want our kids to have happy, beautiful lives. Sunshine and rainbows.
But the reality is, when it comes to parenting adoptees, the goal shouldn’t be to make everything better.
My husband and I have always been honest with our children about their adoption stories. No question is off-limits. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes questions don’t stop us in our tracks.
There’s really no sugarcoating the hardships of adoption. They are what they are. And I never want to tell any of my children how to feel about their stories, their histories, or their current situation. It’s not my job to preach feelings and “shoulds”—you know, to attempt to fix.
Rather, it’s my job to listen and love.
Parents who adopt will hear their children ask many questions over the years—and hopefully, there will be many questions. Parents should be their children’s soft place to fall, their safety.
Because I have a toddler all the way to a tween, the questions are all over the place—ranging from simplistic to complex. Perhaps some of these questions sound familiar to you—because you’ve asked them or you’ve been asked:
“Mom, where does my birth father live?”
“Mom, how many siblings do I have?”
“Mom, which hospital was I born in?”
“Mom, are you going to have a baby in your tummy one day?”
“Mom, can I text my birth mom?”
“Mom, when are going to visit my brother again?”
For over a decade, I’ve fielded adoption questions from my (now) four children. Curious, heartfelt, honest questions. Questions that deserve honest, empathetic, supportive answers.
There are hard questions, easy questions, complicated questions. There are also heartbreaking questions—since I know the answers aren’t pretty. There are times I feel my heartbeat quicken, my stomach sink—and I know there’s bound to be tears.
I’ve learned to lean in to the emotions, to embrace the vulnerability that Brene Brown talks so beautifully about. I want my kids to know I’m 100% for them—and their feelings aren’t wrong. Their questions are allowed. And their observations are fair.
I’m the one who is honored with the sacred task of raising my children. Which means that I have to constantly work on myself—my own hang ups, emotions, and experiences—in order to best parent my kids. I have to ask myself “why” a lot, and I’ve learned to pause, think, utter a quick prayer for wisdom, and then speak.
There’s no cookie-cutter guidebook for how to deal with the tough stuff. We can read all the books and articles, listen to the podcasts, and attend the adoption conferences—but at the end of the day, when our kids are looking at us, their eyes imploring, we have to come up with answers. And pray we’re doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way.
Because our kids know they can trust us—we can have heart-to-heart adoption conversations. They also know they can share what they choose with whomever they choose—but it’s OK if they don’t share, too.
My kids are really proud of who they are: adoptees and Black. They will freely share how many siblings they have, where they were born, traits they share with their birth mothers and fathers. They will tell you facts about Black history at the drop of a hat. My toddler says I’m the color of “oatmeal” and she is “brown.”
Ultimately, I want to raise confident, racially competent, happy children who are proudly themselves. We don’t want them to feel they must fit into any sort of box—whether that be an “adoptee box” or certain categories because they are Black. It’s a delicate balance to parent adoptees of color.
I’m relentless in listening to my children and meeting their needs—because it’s the job I was chosen to do. This includes sitting with them when they’re hurt, confused, angry, or anxious. It also includes being part of their joy, their confidence, their pride. It means cheering for them during their music concerts and basketball games. It means holiday celebrations and ordinary school days. It’s homework and chores and sick days. There’s the occasional and the daily—and every one of these moments matter.
Our lives as a transracial, adoptive family are rather ordinary—despite what others may think. But there are absolutely moments when I’m doing something ordinary—like tucking a child into bed or brushing my teeth—and I’m asked a big, important adoption question. And how I answer—my tone, my words, my eye contact—these matter. A lot.
I’m thankful to be my children’s chosen and second mom. I’m the one who gets to answer their “why” questions first. It’s a big job. It’s a bittersweet job.
But at the end of the day, I’m grateful to be the one they call “mom.” And I pray that my responses to their questions teach my children that it’s OK to ask and it’s OK to feel. I’ll be right beside them through it all.
Rachel Garlinghouse is mothering four children who came to her and her husband by domestic, infant, open, transracial adoption. She’s the author of THE HOPEFUL MOM’S GUIDE TO ADOPTION, hundreds or articles, and her blog. Rachel has appeared on CNN, CBS, NPR, and MSNBC, talking about race and adoption.
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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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