Monday, September 21, 2009

What Happens When the Story Changes?

We all know how difficult it is in international adoption to piece together our child’s story. We rely on information provided at the time of the adoption by the sending country’s paperwork and representatives. We supplement it with information we learn from other parents about our child’s area or orphanage. If we’re lucky, we have photos and developmental updates from the orphanage, stories from the foster family. We hire services to take photos for us that we couldn’t take ourselves – finding locations, orphanages, etc, and to track down information like finding ads. We research on the internet – what was the weather like on the day my child was born? What did the night sky look like? We read and research to discover likely reasons why children are placed for adoption in that country, in that area. We take a homeland tour and visit orphanages and finding places, ask to see our child's file.

And we put together our child’s story, piece by piece, hoping we have enough pieces to make a clear picture. We sprinkle the story with “I don’t knows” and “This is my best guess.” But we think we’ve got a fairly accurate picture.

What happens when the story changes?

I’ve blogged before about parts of my children’s stories that I wonder about. Maya’s abandonment certificate says she was left in front of the women’s and children’s hospital. I think it’s possible she never left the hospital, that her birth parents walked out and left her there because they could not pay the bills for a preemie's care. Zoe’s story includes a note – a note said to have been left by her birth family. But two other families in our group got very similar notes, including the same kind of red paper. I’ve doubted its genuineness. But now someone who has reason to know suggests it might be genuine, because Zoe’s orphanage looks like one with an incentive program, where birth parents actually come into the orphanage to leave the children in exchange for money. If so, then the orphanage could have supplied the paper and pens. That explains the similarities in the 3 notes. That makes them genuine. And it makes the abandonment certificate a lie. Maybe the parts that mean so much to Zoe – the three layers of clothing, the little hat, the cardboard box – are all lies.

And then there’s the baby-stealing scandals, first reported in July and expanded upon by the L.A. Times articles. Although my children are not from the areas where it is reported that family planning officials confiscated babies, nor are they from the areas where news is just now starting to come out that the same thing has been happening, the scandals further shake my confidence in the information I’ve been given.

How to deal with all of this? If one knows FOR A FACT that the story has changed, I believe one MUST discuss it with the child. But how? Beth O’Malley says:
If your child is still little, then you are the one to make the emotional adjustment. But how do you handle new information when your child is eight or nine? What about conflicting information? Suddenly everything that you (and your child) believed to be true—is either only partially true or completely false. What can your child believe or trust about his story now? Here are some suggestions for handling situations about new or changing information:

• First of all, as the grownup, it’s your job to come to terms with whatever you learn. Deal with your emotions. Even as you read this article, plan on having a crisis occur at some point in your child’s life. Plan for it by expecting your child to seek information and also to question the accuracy of it all—especially if some of it has turned out to be incorrect.

• Predict and prepare accordingly. How might my child handle this? Is this potentially traumatic information? Will these ‘life facts’ have traumatic impact on my child? Follow your gut instincts and remember that you are the expert on your child.
• Separate your feelings from your child’s. Remember that your child has his/her own feelings and reactions. We parents should sort through ours so that we don’t project them onto our children. For example, our children might have anger about something that saddens us and we have to be ready to react to their feelings. Or, they might be much less impacted than we anticipate. We need to honor and validate their feelings and having sorted through our own first will make this much easier.

• Do your homework. Find out if the information you do have is absolutely accurate. What is the proof? If there is a possible nuance due to translation? If so, proceed cautiously and conservatively. Discuss the impact of translation and explain why new or changed information has emerged. Possible phrases to use are “According to the papers” or “Sometimes the words in one language don’t mean the same in another language….”

Expect all involved to go through a grieving process when new information emerges or previous information proves to be untrue. Your child has just ‘lost’ a chunk of their life foundation and a belief and a piece of identity they have had.
Excellent suggestions. But what if you don’t KNOW, but only SUSPECT that the information is false? Do you disclose?

I believe that I do have to tell my kids about my concerns. I don’t want them to find out on their own, even as adults. I’m quite convinced that they will, as adults, seek additional information. What would I say, then, about why I didn’t mention the birth parent note might be a fake? Or that the orphanage might have had an incentive program? Or that the abandonment certificate might be falsified?

When to tell? Depends on the child. But I think the Ten Commandments of Telling apply here, too, and that requires disclosing all of their story by age 12. Doubt is part of their story. It should be disclosed.


Wendy said...

M's story had many "could be this or possibly that" until we met her parents. Some of what they said provided great comfort while others are really hard to swallow when it comes to our Western sensibilities. Most of the information is appropriate for her now and some is for the future. It is dealing with the in-between time, I cannot lie, but I cannot fully disclose. It is all in the wording at this age and discussing cultures, superstitions, etc.
Her story was made more complete, I have to say I was very glad that I never gave her one story even though we had done all you mentioned and "knew" much of it, I always left open the possibilities for her in case the information was not completely true.
If we remain honest and open from the start--babies/toddlers--I think our kids will understand when more information arises. If we leave out the fairy tale it will be easier to digest the facts bit by bit.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both of you.

In the absence of a factual story, I want to know how other have begun broaching the stories of corruption and child theft with their kids in such a way that it doesn't write off the whole country or sound racist, as in, "They do WHAT?" I've been able to talk to DD about where the money goes in a pretty realistic way, but I want to tell her more.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I should add that I'm not going to open with "You could be a stolen child." I can think of several reasons why that's a really *bad* opening. But I want to talk to her more about the issues that have affected other families and could, in the absence of confirmation of discomfirmation, theoretically affect any family that adopted from China.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that at my daughter's orphanage, there is a very strong possibility that children whose story says they were "found" were actually delivered directly from the hospital to the orphanage at birth. Some kind of don't ask/don't tell thing going on where if the parents couldn't keep the child, they could discretely disappear, the child wound up at the orphanage, and no questions were asked. Many people in the city also would spend weekends and holidays at the orphanage playing with the babies. I wonder how many were family members, going to visit their own girls.

suz said...

Fascinating in an odd sort of way to me Malinda. Disheartening, upsetting to0.

Let me explain my personal fascination.

As a mother who surrendered her first born to a baby broker (unknown to me or my parents at the time but known to others) and as someone who has reunited many adoptees adopted through that broker, I find much in common with your posts - only my experience is domestic.

I have seen the disbelief in adoptive parents voices when they discover that Kurtz was a broker. I have seen the parents connect the dots between those high fees they paid, the delays in their adoption being finalized and even with the irrefutable proof right in front of them they still refuse to believe their child's beginning, their adoption was based on lies. One adoptive mother even told me (when faced with the truth that her childs mother was restrained and drugged) that it was the mothers fault for not being strong enough to fight the restraints and drugs. In nearly all cases, they refuse to acnkowledge they were duped and maniupated or even that of the agency was unethical and yet continue to insist the mother abandoned her child, wanted to give her child up, coercion doesnt exist, etc. I cannot even imagine how an adoptive parent processes that kind of truth on their own let alone explain it to their child.

But it is true and it does happen. Denying it doesnt make it go away.

Diane said...

"Maybe the parts that mean so much to Zoe – the three layers of clothing, the little hat, the cardboard box – are all lies."


Lisa said...

Malinda - Interesting that you got a lead in the Birth Note Mystery. What you know makes sense, but I agree with "Do Your Homework" before disclosing. And, do you think you could find out? Even if you compare notes and feel it's the same handwriting - could it be that "someone" writes the notes for the Birth Parents and helps them out? I know it's a stretch, but I am just throwing it out there.

Zoe embraces her story with all her heart. It is obviously so essential to her identity at this point. I'd sit on this a while and see what you can do to get a more accurate picture. What you have right now is assumptions based on what "may have happened." Could be true, could not be true.

Nora Jane said...

I didn't this was your blog, Malinda! So glad I clicked the link on Facebook :) What great information. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

malinda said...

Good to see you here, Nora! What link on Facebook? I've seen tons of traffic today from Facebook, but didn't know why . . . .

Anonymous said...

Kay Bratt linked your blog

YoonSeon said...

This is all very well, but I don't know if I agree with the: "you are the expert on your child." This implies that you know everything about your child, and as an adoptee who's been through all this, that's not necessarily true. Your child doesn't necessarily tell you everything/anything.

Furthermore, I would suggest ASKING your child how THEY feel. Tell them it's OK to be sad about it, to be confused and even ashamed. Consider THEIR feelings, but do it so they KNOW YOU'RE concerned. Make sure they know it's about THEM, NOT about you. Because, really, it is.

malinda said...

Anon, thanks for letting me know about Kay's link -- curiousity was killing me!

malinda said...

Thanks for commenting, YoonSeon! I really appreciate your sharing your perspective.

You're absolutely right that parents don't know everything about the child; the idea is that they understand the child's developmental level. I'm not even sure that's true -- I think APs' own issues surrounding adoption sometimes influence them to think their child isn't ready for adoption talk when the child clearly is.

And thanks for the reminder that this needs to be child-centered and emphasizing emotions.

malinda said...


When I saw your name on a comment here, I flashed back immediately to your story, and how your child's story must have changed, even before I read your comment.

Thanks for posting -- hearing your perspective is so helpful!

malinda said...

FYI, I haven't said anything to my kids about my doubts yet. I want to try to work to resolve the doubts, as Lisa suggested, first. But if doubts remain, tell I will.

Anonymous said...

I think that one of the things that most of us knew (or should have known) when we adopted from China is that the accuracy of the information we received was questionable. So, there's very little that we know for sure. I think that all along we can be careful about how "facts" are presented. It is a "fact" that the orphanage director told me XYZ, but it is also likely that not everything I have been told is true. If our children know that, then when the presumed story changes, it might be less shocking. We define birthday as the day we celebrate your birth, not the day you were born. I know (from information shared on a Yahoo group that I created for the orphanage) that children like my older daughter who were adopted in the first few years of the orphanage's international adoption program were often said to be found at the gate and many of them had even-numbered (possibly thought to be lucky numbered) birth dates. I have received conflicting information from my older daughter's orphanage regarding whether she was in foster care or not (and discussions about this conflicting info have occurred in her presence). As for my other daughter, I have a photo copy of a birth note with her birth date written in Chinese. I have always doubted the authenticity of it and I don't know if I've ever mentioned to her that there was one. I also have been given the clothes she was found in, but have a hard time believing that they are the actual clothes. So, when we received these clothes in her presence when we visited the orphanage 2 years ago, I simply told her they were her "baby clothes." Sometime between the adoption of my first and second child, I accepted the lack of knowing. Traveling back to their hometowns has filled in a lot of the blanks for me, and I hope for them. But there are lots of blanks left. My children seem to feel comfortable with what they know and what they don't. Of course that can change anytime. But I wonder if my acceptance of the knowns and unknowns of their early lives has helped them to feel comfortable with it as well. As to what to say about the possibility of corruption, I am not really sure. I think that we should stick with facts, not probabilities (even if there is a strong probability, we really don't know for sure). That we should share the fact that we don't know, that we wonder, that we doubt, and even share the reasons why. I am not sure when to do this. It's probably different for each child and it's hard for parents to know.
But I think it's possible to say too much too soon, just as much as it is possible to say too little too late.
Sue (aka anonymous)

Lindy said...

I like Sue's comment on taking a cautious approach. I would be careful about presenting a brokerage story when you really don't know if it is true. Maybe the first thing to do is slowing convey to the child that the story they've been told is what you were told by the orphanage. I can't see upsetting a child with information that may or may not be true. "Stick with facts and not probabilities."