Em over at Letters to a Birthmother found herself in a quandary recently as her nephew, while looking at photos of her son’s first mother, expressed confusion at the notion of two mothers for a child.
She froze up, and began worrying that if she didn’t know how to answer her nephew’s questions, how would she ever adequately discuss it all with her son, the one who would need these answers most of all?
I so understand.
I think every adoptive parent committed to openness and sharing understands. She asked for advice, and I happened to stumble onto her post before anyone else had chimed in. Funny thing is, in reaching out to her, I quite possibly may have authored the longest comment ever (any bloggerville awards for that?). Obnoxiously long, actually. I simply was on a roll and wanted her to feel better in knowing we’re all human, we’re all doing the best we can and we’re all in a similar boat. In fact, while I was writing my novella, furiously typing because she struck such a chord with me, the always insighful Jenna managed to get in a perfectly sensible, well-written and far more appropriately sized comment essentially expressing my sentiments before I could even hit send. That’s how long I was type, type, typing away. Yeesh.
Anyway, as I expressed at the end of my discourse over there, it seems good fodder for mamagigi-land and I want to take up here the matter of handling unexpected yet pointed questions on open adoption and all its workings. It can be hard enough to explain to an adult — but throw in an innocent question from a child and, well, all sorts of tizziness can set in, especially when you realize your own child will be asking soon enough.
It is hard, isn’t it? When we have the luxury of time to consider future questions and conversations, these things play out quite differently in our imagination. Like a well-scripted movie or television program, the right, poignant, memorable words and thoughtful facial expressions fall into place.
But what about when we’re about to order pancakes and hash browns or we’re strolling the aisles of Target? And if the pop quiz on open adoption comes from loved ones we so dearly want to just “get” it, well, it’s darn easy to panic a bit.
I’ve been trying to consider each of these why-are-they-looking-at-me-like-I-have-two-heads moments as a test run, as a good thing. Case in point:
My six-year-old nephew, whose mom (my sister) has explained adoption to him numerous times since Maeve came into our lives, has seemed on each occasion to understand both the general idea of adoption and ours specifically. But every once in a while, he asks a new question.
A month or so ago I was in the store with him when out of the blue he asked me if Maeve would ever leave us to go live with her real mom. I froze. After all, I’d never imagined these conversations with him or Maeve taking place in an aisle at Target. In my mind, these delicate topics and intricate stories were lovingly detailed while nestled on my couch, fire crackling before us, my arms wrapped around the inquisitive child.
Instead, over a red plastic and metal shopping cart, I explained a couple points as slowly and gently (more for my good than his) as I could. First, I am Maeve’s mom and she will live with me, Aunt Gigi, and Uncle Tom until she is all grown up. I explained that he didn’t have to worry that she would leave us. Then I explained that he was right — that Maeve has another mom. While I’m the mom who loves her in person all the time, her other mom also loves her all the time but doesn’t live close enough to see her every day. I explained that when she carried Maeve in her tummy and went to the hospital to have her, she had thought long and hard about taking care of baby Maeve until she grew up and decided she just couldn’t take care of her the way she wanted her to be taken care of. And so, I explained to him, even though it was very sad for her, she looked for people who would love Maeve as much as she did. And, I asked, weren’t we so lucky she found us?
I let that sit a moment or two and then said, as if I were letting him in on a secret, “Actually, if you think about it, it’s pretty cool Maeve has so many people who love her, don’t you think?” He listened, he nodded. I could tell he was absorbing, processing.
A few moments later, when I had his attention again, I told him we have photos of Maeve’s other mom at home. He looked puzzled. “Where?” he asked, as if it was impossible he hadn’t already noticed them. I explained that Maeve has a little photo album just the right size for hands that has lots of pictures of her other mom, and some of her other mom’s family, and photos of Maeve with them while we visited in a park one day. I told him the book was with all her other favorite books she keeps in a basket in the living room. When I asked if he wanted to see them, I wasn’t surprised he said yes.
By the time we arrived at my home that afternoon, his six-year-old energetic self wasn’t thinking about it anymore. And I could have let it go. Instead, I asked if he still wanted to see photos of Maeve’s other mom. He did, and so we nestled and looked, page by page. When we finished, I told him that anytime he wants to know more, he should just ask me.
And then he ran off to play with whatever treasure Target had bestowed on him. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, he was satisfied — for now — and ran off to play. My panic had been mostly for naught. He wasn’t expecting a perfectly worded presentation on the matter. Just a few answers to the questions that popped up in his mind.
Of course it’s tremendously important to me that my nephew and others in our life fully understand and respect our situation. But in the end, it’s the moments shared with an inquisitive Maeve that truly matter. It’s her questions I need to prepare for. So I try to be thankful for the little zingers from random folks or unexpected questions from loved ones and consider them lessons and learning curves for the critical conversations with Maeve.
I had a eureka moment early on, actually, in how to share my belief in adoption openness with the less-convinced around me. Initially — before we were even placed with Maevey Gravy — I found myself unsure how others would react to my wanting openness with our future child’s birth mother. So, as even some of my closest family members expressed doubts at such an arrangement I found I was only hinting at the idea of openness. Being wishy-washy. Separating myself from it, even slightly. Kind of sticking my toe in unknown and possibly very cold waters.
But very quickly that didn’t feel right. It was like I was cheating the lot of us — me and Thomas as adoptive parents, our future child and what I wanted for him or her, and that child’s first family. I wasn’t being fair to us — ultimately, the only ones who really mattered in our story.
A side effect of this hinting or doling out information in bits I thought those around me might be more able to accept, was that I was actually providing them “cracks” in my story. Cracks or “loopholes” in which they rested their worries and comforted themselves that perhaps these are just thoughts and ideas — trial balloons, really — and Gretchen would likely come to her senses soon enough.
That’s when I realized I was letting an irrational fear interfere with some of the most important relationships I would have in my life. So I let go, deciding my family and friends loved me enough and would love my future child enough that they would have to sort it out for themselves. That, like it or not, this is what Thomas and I believe — wholeheartedly — is best for our future family.
So from then on, when I discussed our impending adoption and the openness we sought, I embraced the truth of it all and told it as it was. I didn’t look to ruffle feathers or furrow brows and never discussed this approach for the sake of being “radical.” I took into consideration those I cared about, of course, but ultimately I had to consider our future child first.
And, funny thing — the sky didn’t fall. In fact, an incredible burden was lifted from my shoulders. When I told it as it was, an established fact in our lives, people listened. No one jumped from their seats, enlightened and moved beyond words. Of course not. In fact, I’m doubtful anyone ever was convinced in that very moment. Or is yet, for that matter. But they listened because I was really talking. There could be no doubt in my voice, its intonations, my body language, that I had made a choice and was committed to living it. And when folks asked skeptical questions I tried to answer clearly, honestly and completely — not editing myself for others’ sake. And with every conversation, it felt right. I took them as they came, explained why we believed an open adoption was a good thing and tried to fully respond to questions about a child confused by two mothers, or whether a birthmother would interfere when she disagreed with our parenting. I tried to answer these things to the best of my ability.
Sometimes it meant keeping it simple: ALL children who are adopted (assuming they know of the adoption, of course) WILL have questions. Period. So, I’d continue, why not have answers? Answers inevitably are better than questions, questions that forever linger.
The full story was now theirs to process.
(I’d also try to share with them — even if just a tidbit — a gentle moment or a few words from her birthmother, or even relay a heartwarming look on her birthmother’s face. It seems I needed to remind them that Maeve’s birth mom is a human being with a heart and soul and feelings and loss like anyone else. Absurd? Yes. But true nonetheless. I’m always wanting others to consider Maeve’s first mother, all first mothers, really. I’d like to think that people entertaining doubts about us connecting with her birthmother can look at their own love for Maeve and through that tangible example, see past their fear and simply want the best for Maeve’s other mother too.)
I also hope that as time passes and our family’s openness proves successful, today’s doubters may become tomorrow’s believers. At the very least, they must process their views and make sense of inequities.
Time for an admission: Sometimes, in my weakest moments, I try to take those anxiety-inducing voices of skepticism or confusion and (nicely) use them as motivation to remain committed for the long haul — in a sense, to prove them wrong. No, of course it’s not about them. It’s about Maeve. But I try to use the naysayers to our family’s advantage, rather than let it become a debilitating disadvantage, by reminding myself that working on openness will shed light for these folks, as well as reap rewards for Maeve.
Rewards she so richly deserves.