Controlling the Narrative
If there’s one major disconnect in the adoption community, it surely has to do with controlling the narrative, and this comes up in a variety of ways, during and after the adoption process.
Parents sometimes contact our agency staff asking us to reconstruct the story of their child’s adoption when their child begins asking questions, and they hopefully have the best of intentions.
However, seeking to control the narrative is typically unfair to adult adoptees– no matter who does it. And even if you’re doing it out of love, to try to protect the adoptee from the truth, please remember that the truth, lovingly told, is still more healing than a lie told kindly.
The Adoptive Parents’ Narrative
Traditionally, adoptive parents were afforded the sole opportunity to control the narrative, when it came to deciding if (or when) to disclose the adoption story to the person most affected by it.
Years ago, the adoption narrative usually went something like this: “your parents wanted a baby so out of the goodness of their hearts, they went and found a child with no parents and you are so lucky to be that child (so please be thankful and don’t ask any more questions.)” End of story.
The problem with that narrative (well, there are many problems with it, but the biggest issue for adoptees) was that it didn’t even begin to address the two burning questions most adopted persons seem to have:
1) Who do I look like? and 2) Why did my birthparents place me for adoption?
In closed adoptions, the adopters rarely ever had the answers to those questions and feared their adopted children ever even asking them. In open adoptions, the adoptive parents are enabled to know the answers firsthand, and the best of them routinely weave these truths into the age-appropriate adoption narrative they share with their child/ren, all across the developmental span.
The Professionals’ Narrative
Adoptees who contact the adoption agencies that handled their placements typically get what’s called a “deidentified history.” These usually go something like this:
“The biological parents were ________ graduates of _______ descent who met in ______ and dated briefly before discovering the unplanned pregnancy. The birthmother was approximately ____ tall, weighed _____ lbs before pregnancy and had _____ hair and _____ eyes. The birthfather stood approximately ____ tall, weighed ____ lgs and had _____ hair and _____ eyes. The couples considered all possible options before choosing to place their baby ____ with _____ and _____ of _______.”
This narrative may dutifully check off the blanks for the answers sought in questions 1 and 2 above, but it still is painfully unsatisfying for most adoptees seeking deeper insight into who their birthfamilies were and how they came to make the hardest decision that any parent possibly can, to surrender their baby for adoption.
The Birthparents’ Narrative
For adoptees from closed or semi-closed adoptions who find their birthparents on their own, the narrative often sounds just as one-sided, albeit from a different side:
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant until I was pretty far along and I didn’t know what else to do. So I called an adoption agency/adoption attorney and when you were born, the nurses took you to another room and I think that’s where the adoptive family was but they were afraid if I saw you I would change my mind so I didn’t get to spend much time with you and I don’t remember much else about it. I wished I could’ve kept you but really that wasn’t the thing for a single mom to do back then.”
Unlike most adoptive parent narratives, which tend to be overtly optimistic, birthparent narratives often seem overly apologetic, as if the birthparent feels compelled to explain themselves for having made the decision that they did, whether out of an obligation to justify it to themselves or to the adoptee? People are expected to feel happy about having adopted, of course; to feel contented with having made the decision to surrender a child for adoption just seems wrong, somehow. And yet, no adoptee wants to be put in the position of having to forge their own narrative merely to assuage their adoptive parents’ need for validation nor their birthparents’ need for absolution, so keep this in mind. Tell your truth, yes–but do so for their benefit, not for your own.
The Communal Narrative
With genuinely open adoptions, like those done at Abrazo, the adoption narrative is continually evolving over time, as the adoptee grows and as his or her needs shape the direction of the story being told. The adoptee is afforded the opportunity to hear his or her own birth story and adoption narrative told by the people who were present, and as he or she witnesses the interactions between those witnesses, the adoptee has the advantage of gleaning corroborating details that make the story that much richer.
If you could be a fly on the wall in a cabin at Camp Abrazo with one of our birthfamilies and adoptive families, you might hear the story recounted something like this:
Birthparent: “So back then, I went to Abrazo and looked at the profiles of the waiting families, and they all seemed nice, but then I saw a photo of your mom and dad kissing in the stands at a baseball game, and I thought, that’s the kind of couple I wish I’d had as parents!”
Adoptive parent: “Remember, at the time, you said you loved that we were wearing Rangers shirts to an Astros game!”
Birthparent: “And then you told me you almost got hit by a fly-ball and you spilled a full soda all over, just trying to dodge it.”
Adoptive parent: “Which is about what we did in the delivery room, too, we were so nervous! Remember when we accidentally bumped the tray table over and the nurses had to come clean up the mess?”
Birthparent: “But then, when the baby was born, we kept passing him back and forth, because he was the prettiest baby we’d ever seen and we knew then we were all gonna be on his team forever.”
Adoptive parent: “The day the agency staff came to sign papers was the hardest day ever. We didn’t want you to have to go through this; I think we cried all the way home from the hospital, both with joy over this beautiful new baby and with sadness for you and what you were going through.”
Birthparent: “I know, I worried about whether I was going to regret making the decision. But I knew when I saw him in your arms that he was in the best of hands, and whenever it hurt the most, I reminded myself that I was saying “see ya later” and not “goodbye.” It wasn’t easy, I often wondered what life would’ve been like had I not done this. But you promised me we’d always be family and I’m so glad you kept your promises.”
Adoptive parent: “How could we not? You belong to him (pointing to adoptee) so we belong to you, too.”
Adoptee: “Y’all are all wayyy too sentimental, can we go ride horses or something?”
The Changing Narrative
As adoptees mature, they tend to grow in their understanding of relationship dynamics, human reproduction, cultural norms and personal needs. These things can also color their perception of the adoption narrative and impact their ability to comprehend some of the more painful aspects of the adoption narrative, as historical factors such as family violence, racial bias, socioeconomics, addiction and other experiences become known to them.
Adults’ memories of traumatic moments can also shift, with time, further impacting the adoption narrative. A birthmother who originally wanted a closed adoption due to the trauma of the conception or out of guilt for having used drugs during pregnancy may later choose to remember her decision to not participate in an open adoption as a symptom of having been “forced” to birth/place her child for adoption. An adoptive parent who rejected a birthfather’s interest in his child out of fear that he might intervene by seeking custody may years later want to remember him instead as a potential threat to their safety, so as to not alienate the adoptee who now longs to know him.
These are self-serving changes to adoption narratives that may make the adults feel better, but which in truth do adoptees a disservice as they seek to understand the origins of their life stories. Tipping the scales in your own favor (or even sugarcoating the truth in an effort to shield the adopted person) is not truth-telling, regardless of the intent behind it. And what most adoptees need most, as they negotiate what it means to be adopted, is to be told their own truth– told with love, honesty and sensitivity.
At Abrazo, we ask birthparents at time of placement to indicate if they want their file released to the adoptee at age 21 or not; if so, then they can be provided the birthparents’ self-written explanation of their reasons for placing at that time. An adoptee with court-approved access to their entire adoption file may be privy to the adoptive parents’ initially-expressed placement preferences, or the agency staff’s perspectives on the actions of all the parties involved over the years.
And yes, there may be times when individuals understandably want to control that narrative. Yet controlling the narrative will never be as healthy for the adoptee as empowering him or her to know and understand his or her own truth, to process it in the manner in which he or she sees best, and to elect how best to proceed from thereon.
Controlling the narrative is a privilege each adoptee must be empowered to do for himself/herself, for their life stories are not ours to write– only to safeguard for them, until they take over the completion of their masterpiece for themselves.