How To Get Your Loved Ones To Join Your Open Adoption Journey

So, are you and your loved ones “in on it” yet? Last week, I told you about a guidebook that helps adoptive parents explain adoption to their family and friends.

In On It: What Adoptive Parents Would Like You To Know About Adoption draws on author Elisabeth’s O’Toole’s own experiences to show those who are adopting or have adopted how to get others to become adoption insiders and join them on their journey. You can find out more about how to do that here, here and now, in my interview with Elisabeth, here

You mention near the end of In On It that adoption is like being in on “a really good secret.” So, now that we’ve given each other the secret handshake, tell me, what led you to write this book? Was there one incident in particular where you wished your family or friends had been part of your adoption journey?

I don’t know if I can point to a specific incident – it was more of a gradual realization. At some point during my adoption process I realized that unlike the other big episodes in my life  –  choosing a college, planning a wedding, buying a house, the birth of a niece of nephew  – this critical experience of forming my own family seemed to be happening apart from most of the people I’m closest to.

Unlike other life-changing episodes in my life, the adoption process (the classes, the paperwork, the decision-making) did not formally include anyone but my husband and me. I knew that throughout our lives I was going to want the people around me and my family to feel like prepared adoption insiders, too – for my own sake and for the sake of my children.

I needed a way to  welcome other people into adoption, a tool to provide them with information and insights about adoption, and a way to reassure them  –  people who cared about me, who would care about the coming child, and for whom contemporary adoption was still new and a bit scary. Just as it once had been for me.

You tell a really interesting story about how your basketball-loving mother was so happy when you married your tall, red-haired husband. Here she was, about to get a red-haired basketball-playing granddaughter! Or so she thought. But then infertility came along and you found yourself not only dealing with the loss of your imagined child, but realizing that other people had lost that child, too.  How important is it for hopeful adoptive parents to have their parents understand their adoption choices?

It’s not at all unusual for prospective adoptive parents to first grapple with the decision to adopt privately.  It’s a deeply intimate decision – one that requires intense self-examination and contemplation.  And it’s a time of great vulnerability; we may seek to avoid being challenged or questioned about a choice we’re still learning and gathering information about ourselves. So parents may wait until the point they can announce “we’re going to adopt” before they bring people in.

We parents just need to remember that if someone hasn’t been part of our decision-making process, they’re going to have legitimate questions and may need reassurance – especially if adoption is new or unfamiliar. And our close relatives and friends are protective of us. They will want to know that we’ve considered our options and know what we’re doing. Knowing that we’ve made a thoughtful, deliberate choice – that we’ve examined our options and arrived at adoption – is very important (and again, reassuring)  to those that care most about us.

Let’s talk about loss, which is one of the most difficult and defining aspects of adoption. You describe the moment when you first made the connection about adoption and loss as “a light coming on in a dark room.” Suddenly, you said, you understood all of the complicated experiences and mixed emotions you had struggled with in your journey to become a parent. What did that moment teach you?

Once I was able to identify the source of those complicated and conflicted feelings – to understand that I was a person experiencing loss – I stopped fighting them.  I knew what to do. I allowed myself to grieve the red-headed, basketball playing daughter I had expected, and one day move forward. It was an essential step in my preparation for adoptive parenthood.

I think it’s helpful to try to extend our understanding of the concept of loss, especially as it may impact those closest to us.  It’s not at all unusual for others – especially immediate relatives – to have also expected a particular child or experience. I was not the only person who had lost the red-headed basketball player once expected.

I know of a deeply devoted and doting adoptive grandfather who had had to mourn the end of his genealogical family line before he was ready to welcome adoption. If someone’s reaction to adoption is not ideal, I think it can be helpful to consider whether, like many adoptive parents, someone may also need time and room to grieve adoption-related loss.

You went into adoption with a lot of optimism and idealism. Originally, you saw yourself as the type of person who could parent any child. But gradually you came to see your limitations. For anyone reading this who’s feeling guilty about their choices — because they have fears about open adoption or because they’re not adopting a special needs child or a child of a different race or culture or because they’re thinking of adopting outside the U.S.– what advice do you have?

Questions like “Why did you adopt internationally instead of domestically when there are so many children needing homes right here?” and others that seem to challenge our choices, are really just a sign of ignorance about adoption. One reason I encourage prospective adoptive parents to educate people about the nuts and bolts of the adoption process is because it helps people understand the many layers of decision-making that adoption entails.

It’s harder to question or judge a person’s adoption decisions when they understand the kind of boxes you’ve had to check and the kinds of self-examination you’ve had to do.  This is a highly intimate, personal, and utterly individual decision. It’s not fair to anyone to adopt in the way you believe you “should,” instead of the way you believe you “can.”

When should hopeful adoptive parents first tell their family members about their plan to adopt and what’s the best way to do it?

So much of this has to do with relationships and prior experience.  Sometimes the sharing happens based on outside factors – someone recently mentioned to me that they’d had to tell their human resources director about their adoption plans before they were ready to announce it to their immediate family. Some adoptive parents may have others in the loop all the way along; perhaps they’ve first experienced infertility and shared that experience with people close to them.  Adoption may be the obvious next step.

When sharing adoption plans, I think adoptive parents get to set the tone – for their adoption plans and for adoption in general.  It’s important to approach those conversations positively, with confidence about your decision and a willingness to include and to educate. Invite questions. Offer resources – books, blogs, events, classes.  Provide people with ideas for next steps they can take to begin becoming insiders themselves.

Moving on to other people within your immediate circle, how do you decide who to tell and who not to tell without hurting their feelings?

Again, the adoption process is a vulnerable and uncertain period for most prospective adoptive parents. Parents should give themselves permission to move at their own pace when it comes to sharing their adoption plans publicly.  Their feelings and comfort are important, too.

If someone feels they should have been included before the adoptive parents were ready to bring them in, acknowledge their feelings, but take care of yourself, too.  Often, once someone better understands adoption, they will often also better understand why a prospective adoptive parent may have waited to share their adoption plans until they were more comfortable and had more information themselves.

Many hopeful adoptive parents find that their parents are resistant or sometimes even opposed to their adoption plan. What tips or suggestions do you have for them?

Again, I think it’s critical to consider the perspective other people may bring to adoption. If someone is new to adoption or unfamiliar with it, they may need information and education. If the announcement is still fresh or unexpected, they may need time and the opportunity to ask questions. If someone is grappling with their own adoption loss, they may need space to grieve. And even the most enthusiastic relatives and friends appreciate information and preparation.

Prospective adoptive parents might share with others how some version of “How do your relatives and friends feel about your adoption plans?” is a common home study question. It seems to help people to know that their feelings have been considered as a part of the process itself. I think that finding ways to include people in the experience – from attending trainings to reading memoirs to painting bedrooms – is essential.  Even the most reluctant relative will help install a car seat.

Adoption brings out the best and the worst in other people. Let’s talk about the worst: When people make an insensitive or insulting comment, how do you know when to educate them and when to just walk away?

In On It begins with an anecdote about how a “sweet little old lady” in a grocery store taught me an important lesson about immediately prickling at adoption-related questions and comments.  I’ve learned to try to react by taking a breath and then asking myself this question: “How would they know?”

If someone has not themself gone through the adoption process; if they’ve not had the deeply intimate experience of becoming and then being a member of an adoptive family; if they’ve not lived as an adopted person: how would they know that a question or comment may be taken as inappropriate or offensive?

Educating others is one of the ongoing tasks of adoptive parenthood – it’s a responsibility we take on when we choose this path to forming our families. The people closest to us are going to need to understand adoption because they’re going to be close to the child and need to avoid being inadvertently hurtful or demeaning. And they’ll likely receive comments and questions about the child and adoption themselves.  They will want to be prepared to respond, too.

The issue of privacy in adoption is a tricky one. Part of adoptive parenthood is to be something of an ambassador; we familiarize others with adoption and normalize it for them when we can.  But this does not mean that we need to compromise our child’s privacy in the aisles of the grocery store. Sometimes a brief, innocuous reply, over your shoulder as you head for the cereal aisle, is enough.

Where do you draw the line between privacy and secrecy? You mention that when talking to others, you don’t want to share private information. But neither do you want your children to feel like adoption is something to be embarrassed or ashamed about. So is there a general rule you follow about setting boundaries?

The rule I follow is this: Remember who your most important audience is.  It is virtually always the child. Whether or not the child is of an age they can understand, whether or not the child is even in attendance, frame your reactions and responses for the child’s eyes and ears.  My belief is that it doesn’t matter what the questioner hears, so much as it matters what my child hears.

I also think that people may not understand the issue of a child’s privacy because they’ve never had the opportunity to think about it much. But if I explain to someone that my child’s information is “not mine to share” and that though I may have my child’s information, I’m really just holding it for him until he is old enough to manage it himself? People get it. They understand that there are aspects of a person that they don’t need to know until the child himself knows it.

I think that by and large, people mean well.  They just haven’t had the benefit of experience and time and education that we adoptive parents receive. So we can’t expect others to act like insiders until we’ve allowed them access to those things, too – until we’ve helped to bring them “in on it.”

What do you think of Elisabeth’s answers? Where do you draw the line between privacy and secrecy when it comes to adoption? What adoption questions do you have? Leave your comments in the comment section below.