Friday, October 19, 2012

How and When to Talk to Your Adopted Child About His Past

During our adoption training classes, one of the topics discussed was talking to your child about adoption.  As in, the fact that he or she was adopted.  As in, don't lie to your kids.

Honestly, we thought the discussion was silly.  Because here's us:

Just a typical Sunday, lying around amidst cut-out hearts

And here's Eli:
Yes, another picture from his class field trip to the pumpkin patch.  :)

Clearly adopted, no?

Plus, he was four and a half years old when we adopted him.  So while he may not have understood the intricacies of the process, he does know that he was born to one family in one part of the world but now lives with a different family in another part of the world.  The notion that we had to decide whether or not to tell him he was adopted was pretty funny to us.

(And most, if not all, of the families in our class were adopting from Ethiopia.  One family during this particular class was African, but the rest of us not.  And we were not the only ones adopting an older child.  I know I sound whiny an unappreciative.  Sorry.  Sometimes I'm just like that.)

What would've been more helpful to us?  A discussion of how and when to talk to Eli about his past.

We want Eli to know we're open to talking to him about his adoption.  We want to share with him the little we know about his past.  And we'd love for him to tell us what he remembers.  But how, exactly, do you broach this topic?  How do we give it the significance it deserves without making it feel too "big," and thus perhaps stifling a free discussion?

We've casually asked him about Gambella, in terms of "did you see this kind of animal in Gambella?"  Or "did they have this kind of tree in Gambella."  We've also tried to ask him about his necklace, which he was wearing when we first met and which Brad has researched and found to have connections with his tribe.

The other night I was going through some photos on my laptop, trying to organize them, and Eli was sitting next to me on the couch.  I showed Eli this photo I'd found sometime ago on another adoptive parent's blog:

It's the orphanage in Gambella where he stayed until right before Brad and I went to court to adopt him.  At least that's what we thought it was, since we'd never actually seen it ourselves.

When I showed the photo to Eli, he got excited and pointed to it.  He recognized it!  We asked him if that's where he slept before he came to us, and he said yes.  He excitedly tried to tell us something else, but he couldn't find the English words and we didn't understand his (presumably Anuak) words.

Then he asked "we go there tomorrow?"  This stumped us.  Because it sounded like he wanted to go there.  We told him that it was very, very far away and we would not be able to go there tomorrow.  He asked if it was "in there," pointing to the television.  (Remember, "in there" can mean just about anything or anywhere.)  Again, we had no idea how to respond.

Honestly, friends, I was not prepared for our child asking to go back to the orphanage.  He's seen plenty of pictures of our agency's care center in Addis Ababa and has never asked to go back.  Panic filled me.  I mean, I thought we were all doing well here.  Better than "well," I thought we were doing great.  I thought he was happy here.

I swallowed my fear and asked him if he wanted to there, pointing to photo on my laptop of the orphanage.  He said "yes."  But by the way he said "yes" we suspected this was a "yes means no" response.  That he was being the good kid, telling us what he thought we wanted to hear in preparation for going back.  Or maybe he's thought all along that we'd be sending him back at some point.  (I ache through to my soul even thinking that.)

Pointing to the photo of the orphanage, Brad and I explained to him he would never be sleeping there again.  That he was a part of our family now and would never, ever not be a part of our family.  I wanted us to be able to tell him that someday we could go there to visit, but I don't know if that's a promise we can keep.  And I didn't want to try explaining to our son that where he was born--where his birth family still lives--is too dangerous for us.

I'm not sure how much of what we said he understood, in terms of the actual words we used, but he seemed to understand the meaning. 

And he looked relieved.  Bless his little broken heart.

I don't know if this was the best way for us to begin talking to him about his past, but I'm glad the conversation has begun.  We have a few photos given to us by another family, where his birth mother is in the background.  We're not sure exactly when we'll share those with him, but we'll probably wait a little while for his language to improve.  We want to be able to answer his questions, and ask him questions that we have.  Most of all we want to be able to reassure him about the security of his home now, and know that he understands what we're saying.

Because his past is important.  To him, and to us.  It's part of who he is, and so now a part of who we are.

Because we are family.


In other news, Eli gave me a kiss goodnight for the first time that night.  Okay, so it wasn't a real kiss in terms of what you'd think of as a goodnight kiss.  He kissed his hand and then touched my arm with the hand he'd kissed.  And his dad prompted him to do it.

But, friends, to me it was a perfectly beautiful KISS.

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