I like book clubs and feel lucky when people get together to read any of my books. Thank you, book club people!
Recently, a book club reading my new adoption memoir, Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, sent me this question:
What actionable steps could adoptive parents/families take to make adopted children feel more included and part of the family rather than an outsider?
November is National Adoption Month, which is a good time to talk about these things, maybe.
Here’s what I wrote back.
I hope those of you who are part of the adoption experience might share your thoughts, too.
It’s a hard question and I could use some help.
Dear Book Club Folks:
When my Uncle Tony gave me sips of Budweiser and asked if he could lift me by my ponytail just once to toughen me up, I felt accepted
Every family shows acceptance in different ways.
My parents–the parents who raised me–loved me and I loved them, but that didn’t always prevent me from feeling like an outsider in my extended family, Uncle Tony aside.
There are things people say to adopted kids that can be damaging. Maybe being sensitive to those things, and maybe not saying them, is one practical thing to do.
Growing up, I heard the word “grateful” a lot. I hear friends say that word to their adopted kids all the time.
We should all be grateful for our lives, of course–it’s a miracle that we’re here at all–but adopted people hear it differently, maybe.
I wasn’t a standard-grade orphan. I was born with a birth defect that required major surgeries so I’d be able to walk. My parents adopted me when I was a year old. They paid for the surgeries and nursed me through. They put up with my personality, too–a genetic thing, they thought–which may have been harder than the surgeries.
I walk fine.
I will always be grateful for that.
My personality could still use some work and I’m grateful a few people love me despite it.
But the concept of gratitude is complicated, maybe.
For me, it became almost a mantra, like the little kid on the rocking horse in “The Lottery” chanting, “There must be more money.”
I knew I needed to be grateful or there’d be a stoning. I worried I’d fall under some sort of Lemon Law. If I wasn’t a perfect child–always lovely and clean and wearing matching socks–I could be returned, defective merchandise.
I’d hear, “You should be grateful, or we’ll send you back to that orphanage.”
I’d hear, “You wouldn’t be able to walk if your parents didn’t take you out of that orphanage.”
I’d hear, “Your life is a debt you can never repay.”
I did owe, of course, but it was hard to hear about it all the time.
So maybe being conscious of that word – gratitude – and what it means would help.
Also I think it’s important to remember that one’s children are not responsible for one’s own happiness.
Children aren’t caulking. They’re not supposed to fill up holes or stop a leak in a life.
I saw it with my parents, who loved each other but were unhappy and unsatisfied anyway. They hoped adding me into the mix might fix that. I see it now with friends who’ve adopted a child expecting the child they’ve brought in–sometimes over mountains and oceans and thousands of miles, the child they saved and who must be grateful–to save them, to save their marriages, to keep them from feeling lonely.
Those bumper stickers and car magnets from people who do pet-rescue adoptions–the ones that say “Who rescued who?”–really bother me because I think that’s the way some people think about adopted people, too.
That sentiment seems beautiful when applied to pets, but it’s troubling when it translates to human beings.
Of course parents with children who were not adopted say and do these things too, but for adopted people the message can be more loaded.
And yet as a parent, there are many things I say and do that are brilliantly wrong. These will be the things my kids will one day bring up when they try to offer advice on how not to parent someone.
Parenthood–adoptive or otherwise–is a humbling thing. I love the Samuel Beckett lines: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Here’s my try:
I try to let my kids be the people they are instead of who I might imagine them to be.
My daughter, for instance, loves professional wrestling and so we spent a day recently at a Comic-Con. She dressed up as a shark and wore a championship belt and wiggled her fins and nearly passed out when she got the autograph of a wrestler she loved.
All of this was her idea. I have no idea why she loves professional wrestling so much. I have no idea why she wanted to dress up as a shark except that she loves sharks. But I love that she loves these things and I love that she’s her own person and that she doesn’t care what other people think about the things she loves.
Her happiness becomes my happiness, but my happiness is residual. Her joy, and the path she chooses to get there, is what matters.
My husband and I, in parenting, try to follow Vonnegut’s guide to living: “There’s only one rule I know of, babies. God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” I want my kids to be kind and happy. I try not to make them feel they are responsible for my happiness in any way or that they need to take care of me, that it’s always the other way around. My kids are grateful people–they say thank you a lot–but I try not to make them feel they owe me for their lives.
I say “try” because parenting is hard–chanting Beckett here–and there are so many ways to make a mess of things.
I tell my kids I love them all the time and they say it back. It was like that for me with my parents, too. Maybe that’s the thing–to let everyone know they’re loved and how very much.
Photos by author