Quieting the Adoption Ghosts: A Personal and Professional View
By: Faith Eidson, LCSW, IMH-E® (IV)
It has been two years since I wrote “Adoption Ghosts,” and I found it challenging to think about writing a follow-up to that piece. In that article (MIAIMH Infant Crier, Winter 2012), I described how I came to adopt my son, Jackson, now three years old, and how he came to me. I also described ways in which our story of adoption impacted our developing relationship. As I prepared to write again, I found that I kept asking myself “Who am I?” and “Who is Jackson?” and “What does this all mean?” In asking these questions, I realized I was stuck. I don’t know the answers to any one of these questions. It is hard to write about something that feels unknown and undefined. After careful thought, what did become clear was my own process of exploring the unknown, and how different I feel now in the process than when I wrote that piece. I also stumbled upon some fascinating and, I think, key themes in my own development as a parent that seemed to parallel the development of so many of us in the infant mental health field.
Who is Jackson?
Jackson is a bright, charming, artistic, observant and sensitive three-and-a-half year old boy. He has the chubbiest cheeks that are so fun to kiss and he loves to laugh and make people laugh. He adores his family, plays confidently with his sister, impresses his preschool teachers and draws any stranger to him when we are out in the community. He has been drawing people’s attention and compliments since the day he was born.
We adopted Jackson when he was five days old. He has a birth father, whom I will call Tony, and a birth mother, whom I will call Molly, who will forever impact who he is in a multitude of ways. What we remember of Tony (he stepped out of Jackson’s life when Jackson was one year old and we have not heard from him since) is that he is kind, empathic, athletic and a gentle soul. He also tends to see things as “black or white” and shows little flexibility in many areas of his life. He loves sports and he enjoys doing puzzles in his spare time. What we know of Molly is that she has a troubled past and has made some unhealthy choices, but that she also is a compassionate and kind person. She is gorgeous, and she seems to have a magnetic quality to her. Molly has an artistic side and is creative and currently runs her own business in fashion. She can tolerate seeing multiple perspectives and she can think outside of the box and take risks. Both Molly and Tony are extremely intelligent and resourceful. From the first time we spoke with them, we liked them a lot and felt drawn to them.
Who am I?
I am the kind of person who likes to understand things, to master them. I enjoy exploring my inner self, and I have immersed myself in a field that allows me to help others on their path to understanding. I am the mom of two children, born only six months apart. I am the wife to my high school sweetheart. I am a giver, and I seek connection with everyone. I am also a therapist, supervisor, trainer and consultant. I am these things, and so much more.
What does this all mean?
That’s a good question! As an adoptive parent, we spend months or years wondering who our child will be. We often don’t know race, gender, biological history, or even when or how our child will be born. We are asked to preference categories (do you prefer a white baby or a biracial baby, what medical needs are you willing to accept, boy or girl, mental health diagnoses of biological family that are acceptable?), and it seems to be a desperate attempt to contain the uncontainable; to define what our future child will be, which is futile. In the excruciating months of waiting, I did a lot of wondering and attempting to master the things I could master. I read books, blogs, articles, really anything I could get my hands on, that were written by adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees. I began to talk about the kind of adoptive parent I was going to be and what kind of relationships I was going to strive to have with my child and with his or her birth parents. Then we found out I was pregnant. Then we learned that Tony and Molly had chosen us to adopt their baby, due in two months and predicted to be a girl. I began a new line of planning: we will have this kind of relationship with Tony and Molly, we will do these things with our baby, we will send these mementos to Tony and Molly - you get the idea. I had images of this baby and who she would be, melding versions of Tony, Molly, my husband and myself into one picture. Then our dreamed about baby was born, and in that moment of learning that he was a boy, I believe something shifted within me. It was the beginning of the development of a more complicated “me” that I am not through exploring or understanding. I have noticed this shift both in parenting and in my professional realm.
When I wrote “Adoption Ghosts,” I was describing my process of “making sense” of things as Jackson’s mom and in my narrower role as his adoptive mom. As I write today, it seems I am in a different process of accepting that there is no “right” way to make sense of any of my observations of and interactions with my son. His sensitivity and “slow to warm” personality could be a genetic marker from Tony or it could be that his experiences as our first child led him this way, or it could be a mixture of those two things and many other unknown factors. When he gets angry and pushes me away, I could analyze it, as I did in the previous article, and worry myself into a frenzy that he is re-experiencing his early days of life…or I could wonder about his development, e.g., the normality of an 18 month old to get angry at mommy when she leaves him in a contained area, the difficulty of a toddler at his age to calm himself quickly, and the expected ambivalence he is beginning to experience in his relationship with mommy. When he shows a particular skill, such as putting together puzzles, I could attribute this to his biological father enjoying and excelling at puzzles or I could wonder if he learned to love them because we provided so many opportunities for him to enjoy them or I might hope that he has already begun to internalize his mommy’s intense persistence at tasks until mastery is accomplished. Since child development is not linear, it is not possible to ever really know what makes them the way that they are. As parents, and as therapists, we take guesses. We follow threads back and try to figure out where they began. In figuring out where they began, we can avoid feeling as overwhelmed by these “threads” of emotions, beliefs and behaviors that inevitably become tangled within relationships and begin to look messy. The problem is, even when we have it “figured out,” there is no way to know if we are right. As professionals, we talk about our ideas so assuredly, as if our clinical hypotheses are reality. As parents, we often talk about our children’s traits as if we can see a causal link between daddy’s years playing basketball in high school and his daughter’s love for basketball: “She gets that from her daddy.” It makes us feel like at least some things are predictable. What I am learning is that they aren’t actually predictable, and when we expect them to be, we might become disappointed.
Since bringing Jackson home, I have noticed a shift from needing to know and understand (and conquer) to allowing myself to entertain and explore. In the end, does it matter why Jackson has a difficult time saying goodbye or why he seems particularly drawn to art? Even if I made guesses, the answers would be just that: guesses. There is no way to ever prove my hunches. He is who he is. Whether he gets his incredible charm from Tony or Molly or my husband or me, it doesn’t matter. I just love it. Whether his anger boils over and he reminds me of myself at times and also triggers my worry related to his biological family history of mental illness, it doesn’t actually matter in that moment. I still have to figure out a way to respond appropriately and to support him through it. To do that, I have to be right with him in those moments. If I allowed my head to go to analyzing in the midst of those interactions (my common response to fear) then I would leave him behind, which is exactly what I would never want to do. It is incredibly freeing to realize that I can’t know these things, and therefore don’t need to search for the answers. I can just be me. I can just be his mom; and he can just be Jackson, my sweet baby boy. We can live in the moment together. This is not to say that the many threads that weave together to make us unique are not worth exploring. They absolutely are. When we pick a thread of ourselves, study it, feel it, notice where it is damaged and frayed and then notice where it glimmers in the light, we know our whole selves a little bit more. When we do this for our children, or for the children and caregivers we serve, we help them to know themselves a little bit more. The danger lies in moving from observing, noticing, exploring and wondering to knowing and doing, and then getting stuck there. I have especially noticed this tendency in adoptive parents. We can become so focused on the adoption thread, that other threads seem to fade into the background: the child’s temperament, our own histories and personalities, environmental influences since their birth or placement with us, and many other pieces that come together to make our children who they are and make our relationships what they end up being. It can be tempting to look for and find the adoption strand in many interactions with our children. While it is important to hold the adoption theme in mind, it is also important to hold our minds and hearts open to exploring other important pieces of the whole picture.
As I experience this shift in thinking, I can’t help but notice the parallel to our work with children and families. There is a development of the professional that starts with an intense need to “know,” to convince others of our “knowing” and then to fix what it is we think we know. In our beautiful field of infant mental health, we talk about the importance of just “being with,” but I know I struggled with this concept for years. I still do, if I am being honest. However, my experience in adopting my son and entering a world that was so foreign to me - only to be led down a path of unknowns towards my son, who is perfect just the way he is, has given me the gift of learning what it really means to “be with.” Similarly, it is possible for clinicians to become so focused on one piece of the story, that other pieces of the story seem to disappear – it can be a parent’s or child’s trauma history, particular ghosts that appear in the story, and/or the interactions in the present that seem particularly problematic, even critical, needs for focus and response. While we are so focused on seeing and fixing this one important piece, we fail to notice others, such as beautiful moments of connection between the parent and child, particular strengths the parent has demonstrated despite their traumatic history, or possibly our own history and how it has become intertwined with the family’s story. What I have learned to practice and promote as an infant mental health specialist and mentor is no less important in my life as a mommy.
So, can I do this? A reflection…
Adoption is a leap of faith. Some might argue that adoption is a slightly larger leap than is made when having children through birth, due to all of the unknowns that accompany an adoption situation. Adoptive parents spend so much time before actually receiving our child trying to wrap our brains and hearts around who will soon come to us and how we will manage it. Then the baby (if the child is placed during infancy) is placed in our arms and what we worried about before that seems inconsequential when compared to the “bigness” of that moment. Isn’t that how attachment begins? It is this intense desire to know another, and along the way we learn to know ourselves a little more deeply. Jackson came with all of his systems ready to attach. How could I not fall in love? Even if it did not happen immediately, that was ok. Writing now, I have the benefit of time with him. With enough time, our relationship has had opportunities to wrestle with rupture and to be strengthened by repair. Within all of those hard moments, those awe inspiring moments, and those ordinary-every-day moments, we learned that we are ok together. We are confident in who we are within ourselves and who we are to each other. Sure, there will be more to come. I could worry about how he will come to understand his story as he grows older or how I will find the right words (because if I use the right words, it will hurt less, right?) to explain to him how he came to us. However, when I feel my heart going down that road, I remind myself of our solid relationship and our intense love for each other right now. Similarly, I wonder if that might be the gift we bring to the families we meet professionally and have the opportunity to be with and know? We see them in this moment, and we feel tenderness for them in this moment. We may not love what came before this moment and who knows what will come after it. But when I sit here, in your kitchen, and we talk about the kind of mom you want to be for your baby, I am holding you and caring for you. So maybe this concept of “holding” that Winnicott so beautifully gave us has an anchor in being present in the moment. With this concept as anchor, every step taken forward into tomorrow is taken together. Our todays and tomorrows become intertwined, even after we leave those relationships. Our time together will always have “happened.” Maybe that is what I find so comforting and so grounding about my relationship with Jackson – the past three-and-a-half years of loving and liking (and sometimes not liking!) each other will always have happened. Our paths toward the future are forever united. Why would I ever want to untangle that and try to analyze what makes him him? Or what makes us us? He will show me what I need to know, when I need to know it, if I can only stay present and pay attention.
I can do that.