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Adoption is pretty complicated. You think the hard part is the application process – which, to be fair, is pretty gruelling, and rightly so.
But that’s really only the beginning. Once your child comes home, the hard work begins.
And it’s not just a clean-cut case of starting to bond as a family – which is hard enough, right?
Because when you adopt, you are forever connecting your family to another family – one you probably haven’t met and may never meet.
You may have absolutely nothing in common with this family. You may not look the same, vote the same, enjoy the same pastimes or discuss the same issues. You may not have any of the connecting views or hobbies which usually join two families together.
How can we connect well with birth family, then – especially when they were the reason that their/our child ended up in care in the first place? How can we keep a relationship going, until such time as our child can decide for himself? How can we process the hurt, the neglect, the abuse that they caused our child?
One way is through sticking to your letterbox agreement – and I’ve given some ideas on how to do that in What should I write in a letterbox contact?
But today – in honour of National Adoption Week – I want to talk about a different aspect: our own emotions towards our child’s birth family, especially his mother.
It can be hugely difficult to remain positive towards them when they were responsible for neglecting or abusing our child, particularly if we can regularly see results of that abuse as it plays out in our child’s daily interactions.
Why is it important to maintain links with the child’s birth family?
We cannot simply shake off the family which birthed our children. They are too important in our children’s history.
I do understand that there are occasional situations when, with the best will in the world, contact is impossible to maintain. But, for the majority of us, contact is totally possible, and an important responsibility for adoptive parents.
Like it or not, our children wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for their birth family. How our kids look, and even aspects of their personality, will be down to nature, not always nurture.
Besides, it is not our relationship to sever. Our children’s relationship with their birth family is really their decision – once they’re old enough – not ours. By breaking ties early on, we rob our kids of the opportunity to build a relationship in the future.
I never want to tell my children that I neglected my duty as their adoptive mum. I keep copies of all our letters, as well as any letters received, in a special place that they can access whenever they feel ready. I want them always to know that we did everything possible to keep the lines of communication open for them to track down their birth family.
What are the challenges in relating to birth family?
So contact is important – we understand that. But this doesn’t magically wipe away all of the suffering that their birth parents inflicted upon our children, knowingly or unknowingly.
Whether it’s physical issues resulting from neglect, emotional insecurities resulting from abuse, or simply struggles with attachment resulting from the change in caregiver, our children – more often than not – will daily display the scars of their early start to life.
Sometimes it will only be us who notice – at other times it will be more obvious to others as well – but, either way, we can feel great pain at what our children are going through, and great resentment, or even anger, towards the person who caused it.
I have to say I’ve never experienced negative feelings towards my children’s birth mother. I don’t wear this as a badge of honour, it’s just the way it is.
Perhaps it’s because our boys were whisked away from her at birth, with no opportunity to experience neglect or abuse in her care. (Although, as we well know, there is still trauma in being separated from your birth mother, even if this happens at birth.)
Or perhaps it’s because her story is so deeply tragic, that there is simply no room for any emotion other than pity.
But I do know how easy it is for these negative feelings towards birth family to surface, and I understand a little of how we can conquer them, in order to be more gracious and forgiving towards our child’s birth family.
How can I feel more positive towards my child’s birth family?
Imagine this: a child grows up with few of her care-needs being met. She is regularly neglected, sometimes left alone in the house for hours at a time. She learns to fend for herself from a young age, and struggles to get close to anyone because her own parents haven’t modelled this to her.
The girl’s struggles increase as she moves into adolescence, looking for acceptance any which way she can find it. She falls pregnant at 18 to an abusive partner. She can’t keep her child safe from his drunken outbursts. She wants to love her baby and be a good parent, but she never had this modelled to her, and doesn’t have a clue where to start. There’s never enough money, so food and clothes are scarce. Having a second child only adds more stress and another mouth to feed.
Her children are eventually removed from her, and people like you and I are enormously empathetic towards these poor children, with their terrible start in life.
But what about mum? Where is the empathy for her? Who was fighting her corner when she needed it?
Sometimes it seems like we can understand why a child struggles due to their poor start in life – but as soon as that child gets to 18, BAM! They’re suddenly expected to conquer all their demons and magically transform into a well-adjusted adult.
Remembering that our child’s birth mother may well have had little to no nurturing herself can be a helpful place to start when we’re trying to show a more gracious and forgiving attitude towards her.
And even if this poor start is not evident in the life story work we’ve received, it’s wise to realise that there may be myriad trauma written between the lines of the skin-and-bones account shared with us.
Many parents who have children removed are sadly struggling with additional needs, mental health or physical health issues which make parenting nigh-on impossible.
And anyone can struggle with parenting.
There’s often a fine line between making it through and collapsing in a heap, unable to go on. It’s our job as adopters to show love and empathy not only to the children we’ve been blessed with, but to the families from which they’ve come.
Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will be an ongoing process and yes, sometimes it will take a ton of coffee and a huge helping of the Holy Spirit – but we can do it. We must do it. We are called to do it.
When the storms come…
On the days when my children are at their most dysregulated, when I’m struggling to hold it together and can’t see how we’re ever going to move forward from this situation, I wonder if their birth family has any idea how difficult life is for these sweet boys, with the changes in care giver that they’ve been through in their short lives?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never held a grudge against their birth mum. But sometimes I do question whether anyone in the birth family realises the impact of their situation on these children.
My guess is that even if they do, there isn’t much they could have done to change events. Much as my boys are battling daily triggers from their past, their life is – on the whole – pretty good. They have security, stability and lots of blessings.
But birth family? I just don’t know. I don’t know how chaotic their lives look right now. I would imagine that they battle far greater things, in far less stable an environment, than my boys do.
It’s my hope and prayer that our boys will experience enough empathy from us that, despite the challenges they face, they will have the resources they need to change the cycle for the next generation.
And this is my hope for your family too: that all the wonderful love and nurture you’re giving your precious children; all the days (and nights) you drag yourself out of bed to care for them; all the times you bite your tongue to stay calm; all the times you regulate your own emotions so that you can help them regulate theirs – ALL OF THIS will have an impact into the next generation and beyond, an impact that you’ll never see the full extent of in your lifetime.
It is fully possible to both forgive your child’s birth family AND simultaneously be repairing the damage they caused.
After all, it’s what God does all the time with us: forgiveness and sanctification – so He’s more than capable of doing it through us with the complicated families we are so blessed to be a part of.