Sunday, February 28, 2010

Conversation Starters

We know that it isn't enough to just have "the adoption talk" once with our children. It's an ongoing conversation, responsive to our children's growing understanding of adoption and different needs at different times. We need to be sensitive to non-verbal cues that they want to talk, we need to be asking questions periodically to make sure there isn't something they're wanting to talk about and to signal our willingness to talk about any adoption topics that might be on their minds. We need to introduce the topic of adoption periodically so our children know it's on our minds, too, and that we're open to talking about it.

Sometimes parents aren't sure how to introduce the topic. I think it's pretty easy to do if you look for opportunities. Certainly, special occasions like birthdays, Mother's Day, Father's Day, adoption days and the like provide that opportunity. And special accomplishments provide that opportunity (like, say, a first ballet recital or first home run, to say, "I bet your birth parents would be proud.") But what about the everyday conversations? Are there opportunities there, too?

I remember distinctly the first time I mentioned Zoe's birth parents outside our usual story of adoption ("You grew like a flower in your birth mother's tummy until it was time for you to be born. . . .") Zoe was around three years old, and we were eating our ice cream cones outside the ice cream shop. Zoe saw a little bird and exclaimed about how tiny it was, and said, "I was never that small." I said, "Actually, you were that small when you were growing inside your birth mother's tummy." Zoe was fascinated by this little tidbit, intrigued that we could talk about adoption outside a bedtime story, and we had an actual conversation about her birth mother.

Conversation starters are out there, if you are looking for them. Today, my girls handed me two conversation starters.

At breakfast, Maya asked why our nearby grocery store kept changing its name. It used to be a Minyard's, and then became City Market, and is now Albertson's. I explained that the store was sold to different companies that wanted to give their own name to the store. And then I took the opportunity to talk about their names, that I gave them new names when I adopted them as a way of claiming them. We talked about how they felt about that, whether they would have preferred to just have their Chinese names, whether they would ever want to use their Chinese names (Maya says no, Zoe says maybe!). We talked about how and why they named their dolls and stuffed animals, and that they sometimes even change the names of their dolls and stuffed animals! And I had a chance to tell them that my feelings wouldn't be at all hurt if they wanted to use their Chinese names. And I think I proved my sincerity about that, by telling Zoe I didn't care if she wanted to change the spelling of her name to Zoey, something she's been playing around with!

The second conversation starter occurred later in the day, while Zoe was reading a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She told me incredulously that when he went to seminary, there were only six African-American students and 100 white students. I asked her how she thought he felt about that. Zoe said she thought he must have felt lonely. I asked if she ever felt that way when she was one of only a few Asians in a group. She said sometimes she feels lonely that way at school, but that it helps to play with Sydney, the other girl adopted from China in her grade. And Zoe said she was glad she wasn't the only "brown girl," since there were other kids, Mexican-American, African-American, "and G. who is from the Philippines" in her grade.

She also said she doesn't tell the other kids about feeling lonely. She hasn't even told me about feeling lonely as the only Asian in a crowd. In fact, when the two of us had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in December, she asked if I thought she was the only Chinese person in the room, other than the people working there. I said I thought she was, and asked how it made her feel. Her answer then was a chirpy, "Great!" Hmmm. I'm glad I had another chance to explore the issue with her today.

Now, I don't really think that either girl was fishing for an opportunity to talk about adoption issues or race issues, and some would fault me for introducing the topic when they weren't obviously asking. But those are the parents who say they don't want to "plant ideas" in their child's head. I take the position that it's actually my JOB to plant ideas in my child's head! I plant ideas about manners and morality, about love and logic, about all sorts of things, including adoption. Of course, my kids will have their own ideas about all these things, and that's just fine. But part of parenting is passing on our own values. That's what planting seeds is all about.

A friend of mine who adopted from China told me about addressing an adoption issue her daughter raised while she was giving her a bath. When she told her husband about it afterwards, he was mad that she answered the question. He thought they should both sit down with their daughter, and explain all about birth parents and adoption, not just do it singly and off-the-cuff. I had to laugh -- as if! It never seems to work that way, in my experience. I don't think adoption talk has to be a serious sit-down speech; in fact, I think it is much better if it isn't.

So the alternative is to take opportunities as they are presented, and run with them. I stay attuned for opportunities to explore Zoe's and Maya's thoughts and feelings about adoption, birth parents, racial identity (and lots of non-adoption things, too!), and to plant my seeds. I don't have any illusions that my seeds will absolutely take root, or will crowd out weeds planted by others, but I know if I don't take the opportunities presented, I won't have any part of the garden of their minds.

So keep an eye out for the conversation starters -- if you're committed to finding opportunities to talk adoption, you'll find those opportunities.


Mama C said...

Thank you for all the context and simplicity of finding a way in. Yes to practice, practice, practice. My son (AA adopted at birth) seems to be getting so comfortable with everything now, because of all of these every day easy talks. So much easier to this work now then in five years too... The little ones don't hang on every word like an adolescent will. Our most recent started like this; SON: Mom I can almost beat you at checkers and racing now. How come? ME: Well, I know your birth father is an incredible athlete, do you think he played checkers too? Or do you think that is something your first mom is good at too?

Tonya said...

I frequently bring up adoption issues with my children -- even when they seem uninterested. My daughter (now 5) is starting to bring up questions by herself now, and I think that's partly because we've made it "okay" to talk about her adoption.

Von said...

Think you're absolutely right not to make a big issue out of 'the talk', answer naturally and unselfconsciously when the questions come up.You've shown you're open to talking about it.
I'd be so careful about saying things like "Your birth mother or parents would be proud" The little voice inside says 'Why didn't she keep me then?"
If children start to bring up questions it's maybe to please you because they think they're being 'good'.There's so many ways a 'good child' in a 'good adoption' will try to please, be accepted and loved.Don't put pressure on them in any way to do what is acceptable in this area, acceptable to you and others that is.Ease up and try to be easy with it...good luck.

Sandy said...

I would have loved my parents saying your birth mother would have been proud if she could have been here...what family member would not be?

Just having the adoption story is not enough, being inclusive of both families (here or not) is the right way to go.

I follow this blog because it shows how adoption has evolved since my time and it is a good thing. Keep doing what you are doing - you have my vote - that of an adoptee who was a child 40 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Great post, M! This is true about discussing other issues with our kids too. It gets harder to find these opportunities as they get older, I think--but we have to keep trying! I really miss you . . . and am going to miss you. I'm glad you have this blog to make me feel like I'm "right next door." clf

Wendy said...

Great post, the only sad thing is that this post is still necessary. Hopefully those who feel there is a "talk" to be had will go just as "the talk" when it comes to sex has gone (at least I think that mentality is gone).

Trust is developed with many conversations--deep, light, relating to other topics, daily life. A child should never have to wonder if it is "okay" to talk about their adoption; I fear those who see talking about adoption/birth families/etc. as an event are furthering that worry.

At this point this concept should be adoption 101.

Mei Ling said...

"I would have loved my parents saying your birth mother would have been proud if she could have been here...what family member would not be?"

When I was in high school (nearing the end of it, actually), I'd constantly ask my mom "Do you think my mother thinks of me? Do you think she'd be proud?"

And my mom would say "Of course, I bet she thinks of you every day. I'm sure she would be."

But I kept asking because I knew my mother *wasn't* there. And she *wouldn't* be there.

And my mom is not my mother.

Sandy said...

Mei Ling,

My mom is not my mother either. They are each unique and each holds a different place in my heart.

I never got to meet my mother - I was too late...and that hurts more than I can ever say.