I feel like I'm admitting a shameful secret, but here's the plain truth: I'm a well-educated, well-spoken, conscientious adoptive parent who has a hard time talking about adoption with my kids.
There, I said it. As much as I'd love to say it's easy and I handle this topic with admirable grace, the reality is that I stumble and stutter and think and rethink what I'm saying to Ro and Ree about adoption, how much information they can handle at their age, and how I'm answering their questions. And our girls are only three years old. Imagine how tough (for all parties) these conversations are going to be when they're five, or seven, or 15?
What I want:
I want to tell our three-year-olds what adoption means in simple kid-friendly terms, I want to tell them that adopting them was the best thing their father and I have ever done, and I want to find an age-appropriate way to gently introduce topics like their birthparents in China and why they were available for adoption. Shoot, writing all of that was so simple... I wish conversations about these things were that simple also. But they're not, at least for me.
What we've done so far:
We talk about adoption all the time in our family. I guess we've embraced the "Talk early, often, and at an age-appropriate level" way of thinking. It's a good thing, for the girls, but also for us because, frankly, we need the practice. With every conversation we all get a little more comfortable. Luckily, Ro and Ree are young enough right now that we have time to tell their adoption stories, stumble over certain areas, figure out better ways to say what we want to say, and eventually get it right.
Anyhow, we press on, and take every opportunity (either natural or sometimes admittedly forced) to talk about adoption and China and our family, partly because we don't ever want the girls to angrily say "What? We didn't know that -- why didn't you ever tell us?!!" We want the information about our family's beginnings (and the girls' beginnings) to be something that they've just always known. Something we've always talked about. Something that they know their daddy and I are incredibly happy about.
It's been relatively "easy" up to this point:
As much as we talk about adoption with the girls, I've got to say that up to this point our conversations have been fairly high-level. Ro and Ree are young -- so young -- and we've kept our conversations at what we think are age-appropriate levels. That "age appropriate" part is such a judgement call though!
As an example, this is the simple story we tell them of how we met: Once upon a time, your daddy and I really wanted to have a family. We talked and talked about it and then we decided to adopt a child. It was so exciting! We contacted an adoption agency and filled out lots of paperwork. Afterwards, we waited and waited and waited some more. It was a really long wait and we were so anxious... In October of 2005, you girls were born in China, and then our adoption agency sent us your names (Da-Shuang and Xiao-Shuang) and your pictures. Holy moly! We were crazy thrilled that you were twins and couldn't believe we were going to adopt not one but two precious babies! In the pictures that the agency sent us, Baby Da-Shuang (that's you Ro) was wearing a pink outfit and staring right at the camera -- so beautiful and so serious looking. And Baby Xiao-Shuang (that's you Ree) was wearing a blue outfit and a funny little smirk -- so beautiful and a little bit mischievous looking. We were overjoyed, and had a big party with lots of ribs and chocolate to celebrate. We couldn't wait to travel to China to meet our adorable baby girls! As soon as we could, we gathered our families (Wela and BobBob, Ma and Pa), packed our big huge suitcases, and all six of us flew on a looooooong plane ride to China where we got to meet the two of you. You were sad at the beginning, because you didn't know us and we didn't know you and everything was new and scary. For the next two weeks in China, we went to a whole bunch of appointments and meetings and gradually started to adjust to each other as a family. Your daddy and I felt like the luckiest people in the world when we got to adopt you and become a family of four. Finally the last official paper was signed, and the whole family got on a big plane and flew home.
The story changes a bit every time we tell it, depending on what tangents the girls feel like exploring. But that's the gist of it. It gives a pretty accurate glimpse at the level of detail our three-year-olds are interested in right now.
They like to look at all of the pictures from our trip to China, especially ones where they were crying, and to ask questions about what they liked to eat when we first met them, whether they knew how to walk or not, and which toys they played with. (Ro's favorite pic from China is this one that she calls "the orange picture.") I don't think Ro and Ree have any idea what "born" or "adopt" really mean, although we use those terms frequently when we talk to them and they parrot the terms back to us. I think that three-year-olds (at least our three-year-olds) just don't really understand those concepts yet, and that's ok.
We'll continue to tell their stories, and continue to add more information and details every time, whether they completely understand everything or not, and whether they ask questions or not. (We don't wait until they ask questions, because they might not know what to ask, or they might be afraid to ask, particularly as they get older.)
Taking the next step (gulp):
I think we're at a natural point right now to discuss more information with the girls, but it's hard to know what to say. One of their aunts is pregnant, which is thrilling and also gives us a good opportunity to talk a little bit about pregnancy and babies and birthmothers. The girls have asked questions about the baby, they speculate which stuffed animal is the same size as the growing baby right now, they've touched the aunt's tummy trying to feel the baby kick, and their favorite game right now is to put a stuffed animal under their clothes and prance around yelling "I've got a baby in my tummy." It's cute, of course. But in the back of my mind, even as I'm playing the game with them, I'm noodling things over. We've already danced around the question of "Did I grow in your tummy, mama?" but they haven't asked point blank yet. One of them will ask though, today or tomorrow or next month, and even if they don't I have the feeling we should use this as a catalyst to gently introduce the concept of birthparents. I know from experience that I stink at on-the-fly explanations, but can do a pretty decent job of explaining things with some advance thought. This applies to all of the next big topics we'll get into. So TubaDad and I are working on it. When we figure it out we'll add it into the story of how we met the girls.
Well that's where we are. I wish I had all the answers and was a natural at these discussions, but I don't and I'm not. So instead here's a request for help. If you've got things figured out, can you share your thoughts on any of these topics:
- DEFINING ADOPTION: What simple, kid-friendly definition of adoption do you use in your family?
- BIRTH PARENTS: How do you discuss your child's birthmother and birthfather? What terms have you settled on (I'm using birthmother and birthfather just for the sake of discussion here). At what age did you start talking to your child about the fact that she had a birthmother/birthfather?
- WHY DIDN'T THEY KEEP ME?: How do you approach (or plan to approach) this topic in your family? What do you say to your child when she asks (in one form or another) "Why did my parents give me up?" How much detail do you go into?
- WHAT OTHER QUESTIONS WOULD YOU LIKE TO DISCUSS?
I titled this post "Part 1" because I'd like for this to be an ongoing discussion. Maybe we could even have a few guest hosts who have this all dialed in for Part 2. I can't be the only person in the world who has an entire bookshelf devoted to adoption and still needs to learn more about this, can I? Anyhow, clearly I need to go reread some of those books, and I also hope to learn from others so that talking about adoption isn't quite as hard.