Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Power of Ghosts

At International Adoption Reader, a helpful post on an important subject, being open to birth family in international adoption:
When we began our adoption process, we believed we would adopt fully orphaned children; some of our views had been formed by the books of Melissa Faye Green, and so we expected children who had been cared for in an Ethiopian orphanage after the death of both parents, probably due to HIV. We were absolutely convinced we were doing something entirely helpful, just as we were later convinced we were being part of a flawlessly ethical process.

After a series of very long and complicated turns and twists, the details of which I am not free to share because they belong to my children, and facing the results of research and inquiries, we now know some major facts and minor details we had not been aware of before. And we now have family in Ethiopia.

When our children are asked about brothers and sisters, they tell the number, including our biological children and their biological (half)siblings, without hesitating. It was a long way to get there, and this long and sometimes very painful way has formed our views on international adoption and open adoption.

* * *

The basic difficulty, though, behind openness seems to be an emotional one: Openness means, on a daily basis, facing the fact that the adoptive mother is the second mother, and, come what may, there is someone else who shared the primal relationship to the child, who looks like the child (vice versa, I guess) and who was close in a way that cannot be substituted. It may not be easy -on an emotional level -to accept. But it is the undeniable reality the child will have to learn to cope with, so obviously, the adults can be asked to do a comparable step, which for them, at least, does not touch their sense of personal identity as it does for the child.
So many people choose international adoption in order to avoid birth parent issues -- my shame is that I was one of them.  I knew that my children were not technically "fully orphaned," given the circumstances that drove abandonment in China, but I expected that they would be emotionally fully orphaned, uncaring and uninterested in these wispy, insubstantial ghosts we call birth parents.

What I didn't know then is the power of ghosts. That even in their absence, and in part because of their absence, birth parents are central to our children's lives, to our family's life.  Without knowing who they are or ever meeting them, my children long for them, to know who they are, what they look like, how they live (if they are even living), where they live, whether they are safe, why they could not parent them. Even if we never mentioned them, never acknowledged the existence of ghosts, their birth parents would still be present in our lives. There is a power in what's missing.

It was a process, but I got over that emotional hurdle that demanded exclusivity -- that I be the only mother.  It was actually pretty easy to do once my children became real to me, when my love for them demanded that I fulfill their needs.  As my children became real to me, so did the ghosts.

My girls need me to include their birth parents in our lives, so I do.  I'm the grown-up, so I have the responsibility to put aside my issues, to get over any issues that interfere with my children's well-being. We deal with the ghosts, because never mentioned, never acknowledged, their birth parents would be the proverbial elephant in the room (to mix metaphors!), squeezing out the possibility of any other authentic relationship entering that room. 
I know what you're thinking -- when it comes to birth parents, we have it easy.  In China, children are abandoned and no birth family information is given.  Dealing with imaginary birth parents -- with ghosts -- is far easier than dealing with the real thing, so I should just get over my big, bad self, I hear you cry.  I'm not sure I agree that it's easier, but it is different. 

I do know parents who are working hard to maintain an open international adoption (we're searching, hoping to be one of those families, with no luck so far), and it is hard work, given differences in language and culture, time and distance.  But it can also be  hard work with unknown birth parents as well -- the continual not-knowing, the difficulty in separating fantasy from reality, the feeling of disconnectedness.  The power of what's missing. But we plug away at it, because it's worth it.

My takeaway: If, because of circumstances beyond your control, you can't have an open relationship with the actual birth parents, at least be open with your children about their existence, their significance. Without acknowledging what's missing, your relationship with your child will be haunted by ghosts.


Reena said...

A great post!


Liz said...

I actually think it would be much, much, much harder to deal with unkown birth family. Adoption is hard stuff, but I think my daughter is better able to process it because she knows her birth family in Ethiopia, we have pictures of them, I have met them, we have limited ongoing contact with them (though only one way so far), and we have a plan to go back and visit them within the next couple of years. If they were a complete unknown, I do think we would both be haunted by the missing, as you say. I am so very thankful that we have the information we have and can't even imagine not having it!

Anonymous said...

I love on so many levels; perceptive, raw and vulnerable. And true for so many of us and our children.

I do however add one caveat.

For years our son was reluctant to discuss his overseas family, despite the information we are fortunate to have on them.

His refusal for any contact was adamant and a homeland visit was cancelled as his insistence.

We continue to bring it up, in essence creating the ghosts for him, convinced it was imperative to keep the dialogue open, hoping he would intuit that his voice would always be heard by us.

He is now a young man and still wants no part of that discussion. He continues to refuse contact with those members of his biological family still living.

My heart grieves for him but we have accepted that its his choice and his way; much the same way the author is raising her girls in a child centered way, so too have we, but from the other side.

His voice asked (demanded of) us not to push and he was heard.

Could this change one day? Of course, but his time and his way.

Ironically our other child is more reflective of the author's daughters.

Holly said...

We have an open international adoption and we are very grateful for it. We lived in the country we adopted from so that really helped us form a relationship with their (now "our") family. It was hard moving back to the states, because we knew it would be that much harder to keep a strong tie to them (though we are trying). We also made the decision to let them "approve" us before we proceeded with the adoption. I felt like this showed them respect and maintained dignity in the relationship. It also honored what was a very difficult situation (them acknowledging they couldn't/wouldn't take care of the girls and us stepping in to care for them). I wrote about it much more in depth (and my thoughts on international adoption) here--

Jessica said...

A beautiful and honest post.

We searched for and found the birth mothers of our two Guatemala-born children. No longer ghosts, they are real people we know and love and care for.

Our children's feelings go in waves--they want to talk about their other moms and siblings, and then they don't. They want to visit, then they want to stay home.

My guess is this ebb and flow could continue throughout their lives. But communication is open, the lines are clear. There's no mystery.

Karen said...

VERY nicely put Malinda. Thank you for this post.