How To Be The Adoptive Parent Your Child Needs You To Be Transcript

Episode 2 Podcast > Full Transcript

Lori Holden, Greeting:
This is Adoption: The Long View, a podcast brought to you by I'm your host, Lori Holden, author of The Open Hearted Way to Open Adoption. Join me as we take a closer look at what happens after you adopt your child and begin parenting. Your adoption journey isn't over then; it's just beginning.

In this podcast, you'll hear from a variety of thought provoking and influential guests as we help you make the most of your adoption journey. Like any trip worth taking, there will be ups and downs and challenges. Here's what you're going to wish you'd known from the start. Ready? Let's go.

Lori Holden, Intro:
Ask any adoptive family if they have an open adoption and the criteria they'll probably use is whether or not they have contact with the child's birth parents.

But there are problems with using contact as the defining feature. For one, it's imprecise. One family might text pictures quarterly, maybe even grudgingly, and another might invite birth parents to birthday parties and soccer games. But they both claim open adoptions.

Are we talking about quantity of contact or type of contact, the quality of it, the feelings underneath the contact?

For another thing, having contact with birth parents doesn't necessarily mean that adoptive parents are able and willing to engage with their child about tough adoption conversations and big adoption emotions that can arise, whether or not birth parents are in the picture. I suggest the contact isn't the best measure for determining open adoption.

So, what might we use instead? If we ask adoptees what really makes the difference for them, in not feeling split between their biology (nature) and their biography (nurture) they tell us that it's more a sense of openness they feel from their parents.

To this end, in 2013, I conceived of the open adoption grid that combines both measures; contact along the East-West axis and openness along the North-South axis.

The idea resonated with adoptees and thought leader, Angela Tucker, who was my guest in Season One, so much so that she took the grid and ran with it, along with Dr. {indistinct 2:12} Kim, who is an adoptee and a researcher. Together, they incorporated it into The Inclusive Family Support Model. And even more exciting, Angela has headed a team that has turned this grid into a three-minute animation for adoptive families. You can watch it in the show notes, and I highly encourage you to do that.

Basically stated, though, every adoptive family can be plotted according to four quadrants based on both openness within the home and contact with birth family.

One, if there's low contact and low openness, then the family is in the Closed Quadrant. If there is contact but low openness, then the families in the Mediated Quadrant. They may need some help talking about things.

If there is low contact, but high openness, such as when birth family is for any reason unavailable, the family is in the Spirit of Openness Quadrant.

And if there's both high contact and high openness, the family is in the Inclusive Quadrant. You can see a picture of this in the show notes if you want to tune in when you're able.

All of that is to set the stage to welcome my two guests who served with me on Angela's team to bring this grid to life through animation as a tool to help adoptive families plot where they are and understand where their child needs them to be, as well as how to get there.

A very warm welcome to my friends and colleagues, Katie Byron and Cara Anderson. Let me tell you about them.

First is Katie. Katie is a former foster and current adoptive parent and mom to four great kids. Due largely to her relationships with her oldest daughter's mom, Katie saw a need to help other caregivers and adoptive parents understand why children need connection to their first families, as well as provide practical tools and suggestions for building and maintaining these essential relationships. These and other experiences led her to create fostering connections for families, where she authored a training course on building and maintaining connections between all the important people in a child's life.

Katie is also the Program Manager for the Family Connections Program, as well as a Star Adoptive Parent Group Facilitator. In her spare time, Katie enjoys being crafty, working in her garden and dreaming of drinking her coffee while it's still hot. Welcome, Katie.

Thank you so much, Lori.

It's so great to have you here. Let me bring in Cara Anderson.

Cara is a clinical social worker with a master's in counseling and currently the Family Support Specialist at {indistinct 4:40} in Seattle. Cara’s nuanced understanding of the complexities and unique aspects of adoptive parenting allow her to build authentic, collaborative partnerships with the families she works with.

Cara supports adoptive parents and birth parents through the lifelong journey of adoption, utilizing the inclusive family support model. Supporting adoptive families on their path toward a spirit of openness is where her true joy and fulfillment in this work lies.

Cara is the biological parent of two children and in her spare time, enjoys to travel, listen to endless hours of her favorite podcast, and hike and bike with her family. Welcome, Cara.

Thank you, Lori. It's great to be here.

We've been working on this project for several months now and it's been lovely getting to know you ladies and working with you and finding out more about your work with adoptive families.

So, let's talk about this new animation that breaks down the difference between contact and openness. How do you envision this tool helping the adoptive families that you work with? Katie, would you like to take that one first?


I envision this tool helping people realize that it's not black and white, closed or open, but it's a whole continuum on a grid. And you can move around on the grid. And that you will move around on the grid because these are human relationships and all human relationships have ebbs and flows and times where it's flowing really well and then times where there might be some conflict.

And so, I love the simplicity of the grid, but also the complexity of showing that it is not just open or closed, but a whole variety of different things.

I love that; the simplicity and the complexity, that's kind of both end thing that I'm all about. And also, that you bring up; it's not static. If you have more than one child, you're going to have more than one set of birth parents. And then when you take it over time, you're going to have, like you say, the ebbs and flows.

How about you, Cara? How do you see this tool helping adoptive families?

Yeah, I'm really excited to begin to utilize it in my work. I think it is a really good way to engage in the early stages of conversation with maybe folks that find themselves in the lower closed quadrant. It's a really good way for them to see that, like what Katie said, that it is mobile. There's mobility within the quadrants. You can be in one quadrant in one situation or with one child.

And however, there are steps and things you can do to move into all the other quadrants based on the needs of your family, based on any member of the triad. Having a different reaction to many different things allows you to move within the dynamic of the relationship.

I mean, I think for a lot of the families that I work with, it's a great place just to begin to engage in these concepts and to help families really understand what we're talking about when we say spirit of openness and what that truly means in terms of relationship.


And I like how it provides that self-assessment tool where you can figure out where you are, as well as where you need to be, and then how to get there.

Let's talk a little bit about some terms. This is a two-part question. First, how would you define closedness? You've both mentioned that. How do you define closedness in adoption? And what have you seen are the consequences of closedness in adoption?

Yeah, sure. I'll start here.

So, when I'm working with my families who would identify themselves to be more in a closed quadrant, that is with more of the understanding that the ability to have hold space in their home for some of these difficult conversations, maybe it might not be present.

So, parents might feel uncomfortable about having conversations around their child's first family, folks might feel like, “My kid knows that they're adopted. Isn't that enough?” I hear that often in families that kind of fall in the closed quadrant.

And I think that when we ask folks to kind of do that work to get themselves to a place where they're more comfortable with navigating those conversations, that's when we can see a real movement into the higher quadrants.

I love the term you used, holding space, because that also involves making space for the adoptees to have their own feelings about all of this. And the making space is the opposite of being closed, right? You have to have space to hold their emotions, which means you have to have dealt with yours somehow.


Katie, what do you have to say about closedness and the effects of it?

So, I would think of closedness as maybe the thought of, you know, like very similar to what Cara said, that adoption, once you've moved past that finalization day, is kind of in your history. It's done. There's a new family created and you just go forward.

And the child may know they're adopted, but there really is maybe just a superficial acknowledgement of the adoption; like perhaps celebrating Gotcha Day or reading some of the popular kid's books, but not digging deeper and realizing that adoption is very complex, particularly for adoptees, and creating that space where adoptees feel like they can explore that and all its nuances along with you, instead of feeling like they need to do that exploratory identity work without your knowledge.

So, closedness is not having that open environment in the home, in the family system where adoption, both the easy parts and the more complex parts, are discussed.

And I think a little bit where we've learned this is through when adult adoptees are able to share their stories with us about their experience of growing up and what they would consider a closed adoption.

So, what we've heard adult adoptees say are things like, “Yeah, I always knew I was adopted. My parents told me I was adopted. My friends knew I was adopted. But I never really felt like I had anybody to talk to about it. I never felt that I could really bring up that I actually missed my first family or curiosity about my first family with my adoptive parents because I'm so worried that I would hurt them or I was so worried that they wouldn't be able to handle that level of conversation.”

And so, when we say closed, that's what closed looks like; it’s not allowing that conversation to be fostered, not allowing that conversation to be organic in the home. And so, adoptees will often then feel a sense of conflicted loyalty. They'll feel a sense of something's missing because I haven't been really able to build that attachment and connection to my adoptive parents because I haven't been able to be true to my experience as an adoptee.

And I think you both bring up a good point that it's not enough just to tell your child; we can talk about these things. Because we hear from adult adoptees that their parents did tell them that and they still felt like they couldn't approach their parents, because really this is more about a vibe than the words that are used.


So, let's talk a little bit about the flip side, the openness. How do you define what is openness and why do you so strongly encourage, in your work, why do you encourage parents to cultivate this sense of openness?

I'll let Katie take that one because she lives this.

So, what is openness? Openness is where adoption is just part of everyday life. So, acknowledgement that the child has two families and holds that within themselves is just part of the family. Like we talk about, in our family, my kids have two moms and we refer to them as mom; and siblings. And that is all just part of our, not daily, but regular conversation.

And so, it's not me coming up with this moment where I'm like, “Oh, do you have any questions about your adoption?” It's just constant – Well, not constant. Not at all constant – but just discussion; like as other topics come up, adoption comes up. And we talk about their families. We talk to their families.

And so, it's just part of, I guess, the culture of our family is just holding these three families together and just realizing that while it may look really complex to the outsider, to my kids, we've been able to cultivate an atmosphere where it's just normal. They have two moms. It is what it is. They have siblings that live in other houses, and that's just part of who they are.

I love that. And being able to talk about it.

Well, let me back up. Some of the messages that I got from the best advice of my first season from so many of the guests was to work on your own stuff. Parents, do your own work.

And so, when you talk about being able to have easeful conversations about adoption, that can happen with this vibe that we have when we're dealing with our own emotional charge about adoption issues.

Like, for example, like, “You're not my real mom” or somebody asking you in the checkout line, “Who's his real mom?” You know, that can have a big emotional charge for you and you're going to close down and have a hard time working that through yourself, much less with the person in front of you. Sometimes that's your child.

What do you have to say, Cara?


And I was just thinking, as Katie was saying. When I'm working with families who have younger kids, so zero to three, who are just coming into words, you're starting to talk to them about adoption. You might be reading some adoption-related books with them. You are kind of introducing that language into your family.

I always encourage parents to practice; do a lot of practice to get themselves comfortable with this language. It's maybe less about what you're actually communicating to your child in those early years about adoption, their story, them having, a family before and an adoptive family now. More about cultivating your own comfort level with that and practicing during those early years, so that when you're talking to your child, who is verbal and has the language and have the developmental ability to understand more of those concepts, that you're actually understanding them already and that you are fully able to sit with to embrace that level of comfort with those conversations, which is, like you said, Lori, allows for that ease of flow. And kids easily pick up on that frustration if it's present and they will take it on themselves and hold that.

One of the things that we do know is that adoptees a lot like want to protect their adoptive parents. And by doing so will not openly share when they feel that your vibe is – that it's not. This is a no-go zone.

And I have a story, kind of about a journey that I went on myself on this. So, we adopted our oldest. She was a domestic private infant adoption, 13 years ago. And we did all the preparatory work for adoption that the agency had us do. And I thought I had a good concept of adoption.

So, we picked her up from the hospital, met her mom, developed a little bit of a relationship. And then it was kind of like we had finalization. And my understanding at that time is that the best thing for her would just to be go forth and raise her as my own blood. And that the adoption was kind of a thing of the past. We would talk now and then; like she knew she was adopted. And we talked about her other family. But I really thought she was adopted as an infant. There was no trauma.

And it was when we had just recently moved. She was about five years old. And she was feeling some big feelings, very frustrated about something. And she said – She was in a tantrum and was like, “I miss my birth mom.”

And I was so caught off guard by that because my first thought was, “How can you miss someone you don't even know?” Like they had only spent a brief amount of time in the hospital together. And I'm like I was totally taken aback by that. I don't understand this. I didn't say those words to her. But in my head, I was like trying to rationalize this, because no one had ever helped me understand that separation from her mother at birth was trauma and that she would hold that.

And fortunately, I was trying to figure out, “What do I do here? I have no idea. No one ever told me this was going to happen.” I met with an adoption therapist who really explained to me that there is a loss, even if they're a 24-hour old baby. And that adoptees hold that loss. And that it's not just starting a new family and sunshine and roses and treat her as if she was your own, but that I was going to have to figure out how to help my child, who did have this loss, who had this conflict between having two families.

And it really was an eye opening moment that I was going to have to do some work that I didn't know I was supposed to do and that I hadn't done it “right.”

But I also needed to give myself grace, because I didn't know. I didn't know. What I was told was, “The most important thing is to treat her like your own lover and it'll all be fine.” And yes, that's absolutely true, but there's a whole lot more to know and do, as an adoptive parent, to raise an adoptee with a healthy identity.

Yeah, I didn't know. I didn't know. But when I did know, I had to delve in and do the work.

Oh, that's such a beautiful and helpful story, Katie, and I love that you included the part about giving yourself grace. When we know better, we do better.

When you were talking about, “How can you miss someone you don't know?” If anybody listening is having trouble with that concept as well, and if you have been through infertility, I think this really does have a parallel. And that would be if you ever were trying to get pregnant, maybe you had a chemical pregnancy, an early loss, you never got to know that baby, but you feel the loss of that baby. If you ever had an adoption placement fall through, maybe you never got to meet or hold that baby, but that's a loss that you feel, even as somebody that you didn't know.

And I love what both of you have said about openness and adoption, because both of you are referring to the aspect of, we have to be able to deal with what is, not what we wish things were for us, for our child, that we really have to deal with what is going on in front of us and within us, whether that's within our child and the grief that may be arising in them, which is not a bad thing.

The fact that they're sharing it with you and they're letting it out can actually be a good thing. That's like the difference being an open pot that doesn't build up the pressure inside and one that's closed and doesn't have a way to release the pressure.

And that the experience of an adopted child and adoptive person is unique and complex. And it isn't the same as a child that's being parented in a different way. There are different nuances that they're going to experience in the world that are unique to them being an adoptee. And for you to be able as their parent to help set that sit with them through that and really understand their experience is extremely important.

Yes. Understand and allow for it. Yeah, exactly.

What does a listener need to know about being the parent that their child needs them to be?

I think to kind of echo a little bit of what the takeaways that I was thinking about when I heard Katie's story is that oftentimes, when I'm meeting with families for the first time, understanding that one family had to have a loss for my family to be formed.

And when folks are really able to grasp that at a deep level, the spirit of openness becomes an even less daunting achievement, I think, for folks. When you're really able to sit with, “Yes, we everybody came to the table and has agreed that this is the plan for both of our families. However, that there is this undeniable underlining loss that one family had to experience for this family to form, which can allow for a lot of growth and healing if families are able to really sit with that.”

That was absolutely beautifully said, Cara. I think you really hit the nail on the head. And that our children are straddling this. They are straddling exactly what you talked about, that one family suffered great loss to create the family they're being raised in. And just being able to acknowledge that and sit with it, I think, is one of the most important things that we can do as adoptive parents.

Another thing that we can do that is very difficult is to listen to the words of adoptees. And that can be really hard. It can be so hard to hear that what you've done may have caused your child harm emotionally or may have not been the right thing. And that is tough. It's a tough space to sit in.

Sometimes, reading the words of adult adoptees, reading and seeing that the best intentions of their parents ended up causing them some emotional trauma, that's hard. We don't as parents want to do that. We want to nurture our children and love them and actually protect them from that.

And so, being able to sit with that, read that, be uncomfortable with it, and then find a safe space to unpack that.

One of the most wonderful things that has come into my life is the Star Adoptive Parent Group. It's a group full of adoptive parents who kind of support each other on this journey. And it's a safe space to allow us to unpack that kind of stuff.

And it's not a group where we disparage first families or talk bad about anything, but it's really unpacking that hard work that comes with being an adoptive parent. And also, acknowledging that sometimes, adoptive parents don't know that raising an adoptee comes with this extra layer of emotional work that you're going to have to do.

And to find out, yeah, not only are you raising your child, but you're also going to need to do this work; this hard work, this work that feels uncomfortable and difficult, like how you have to do that, too. And there can be a feeling of like, “I love my child. I don't want my child to be anywhere else, but no one told me that adoption had this work or had this trauma.” They really make it out to be like a beautiful thing happens. The baby's born. The baby finds a new family. Letters and pictures are exchanged or maybe even in-person visits. And that's adoption. Put a pretty bow on it. The end.

And that goes back to what you said at the beginning about this isn't just a simple, “It's good. It's bad.” It's a very nuanced and complex thing. And over time, all those complexities can shift around as well.

There probably will be some people listening who will still say something like, “Well, we can't have an open adoption, because the birth parents aren't known to us” or “They're not available to us for whatever reason” or “They're on another continent” or “They're not safe” or “My kid doesn't want to have contact with them.” There's a lot of reasons why contact might not be available to families. How can they still have what we would call an open adoption?

This this is my favorite question. So, a lot of the majority of the work that I do is with adoptive parents who have adopted from Foster Care. So, oftentimes, for various reasons, sometimes contact is not the right option. And so, I do a lot of work with families around just this; how do we incorporate their first family into your home, into your life without having contact?

So, oftentimes that looks like do we have pictures? Are there visual representations of our children's first family; whether is there a visual representations of our first or birth parents’ culture, whether that be significantly different than ours or not that different.

But it's not only are we engaging in conversation, but is my child able to see in our home, in our space that this is cultivated in a way that I actually have, as their parent, have a curiosity about that. That I am taking an active step in engaging in that for them.

And that is when we say create safe space, that's what we're talking about, is that it's not just, “Yeah, I'm here for whenever they have questions. Whenever they're ready to talk about it, I will show up and I will be there to have those conversations.”

Well, what we do know is that oftentimes kids don't necessarily ask. They will behave, they will act out, they will do all sorts of things that indicate that they have something to say. But asking questions, that's not necessarily their first go-to.

So, prompting discussion; “Hey, so I have wondered, where do you think you get those blue eyes? I wonder if that's from your birth mom.”

You know, showing that you care in a deeper way will invite that sense of safe space, will invite them to feel that this home is created with a space for my first birth family, as well as the love and attachment I have for my adoptive family.

And I think it's twofold; it's having just a spirit of the belief that people are more than an experience or the way they’re presented in a set amount of time, and that you give space for things to change if people have changed.

And so, if there is a true safety concern and contact cannot be had, it's holding space just within yourself that if things were to change and this birthparent were to reach out, and their circumstances have truly changed, that you acknowledge that your child will benefit from having them in their life. And that it won't be, “Oh, no. The open adoption agreement was one year. It's been long terminated. You're done.”

It's figuring out a way, how can I get my child this connection? Continuing, of course, to keep the child safety paramount. But if this parent has changed their life and is now safe, acknowledging that they can bring so much to your child. And figuring out a way to connect your child.

It's that. And then it's also just regular conversations that aren't like preplanned conversations. But in the grid video, the little discussion about the child discussing his birth dad loving cheese like he does, was actually something that occurred in our house. And my little adopted son was just telling me all about the snacks he had shared with his birth dad and how they both loved Pirate's Booty.

And I don't know if that's true. I don't know. I wasn't there, but I was able to just run with it and be like, “Oh, yeah, cheesy snacks are the best. And maybe you both just really love that cheesy crunch.” And so, you're just creating that that spirit of openness that you're talking about.

And so, I wasn't lying to him, but I was just going with like, “Yeah, maybe he probably did love Pirate's Booty. It's delicious.”

And so, just having that be part of conversation. Eating a snack is a safe space where you can talk about, “Maybe my birth dad really love these.” So, you're just not creating defined spaces to talk about adoption, but creating an environment where it can just pop up. It can be a brief conversation about cheese or Pirate's Booty and then it moves on.

And one thing I think that's important to know is that, one, families are able to cultivate the spirit of openness. That was outlined in our video, is that we know that from the experience of adult adoptees sharing with us, that it tends to increase adoptee sense of self. That it also decreases their sense of abandonment and increases their attachment to adoptive parents, which are some pretty amazing benefits that can happen when we are able to push through the discomfort, when we're able to fully embrace, do the inner work that’s so hard in parenting, in all aspects of parenting, but then the added layer of the complexity and uniqueness that is adoptive parenting.

That's such a great point that it's almost counterintuitive that the more you can open to birth family or at least birth family conversations, the closer your child can be to you, not the farther away. It's not a competition. And when they feel it is a competition, they don't feel validated and they don't feel like you're safe to them. So, you guys provided some wonderful ways for validation.

I just want to add one other thing in here is that we can also expand what birth family means beyond just birth mom and dad. There might be birth grandparents, birth aunts and uncles, birth siblings who can provide that kind of contact in the absence of the actual birth parents.

So, I knew that our time together was going to go way too fast because we have lots of feelings and lots to say on these topics. But I do want to close with the last question that I'm asking of all of our Season Two guests, and that's this one. What do you think people need to know to adopt well and to adoptive parent well? Cara, why don't you close this one out?


And I think I'll just go back to a little bit of what I talked about before, which is that one family had to experience a loss for my family to form. That's completely unique to an adoptive parenting journey than many other parenting journeys.

I think also, too, that their experience of being an adoptive person needs to be at the center of how you parent. And there are going to be many different factors that ebb and flow throughout their lifespan. But creating that space, creating an environment in your home that's open and welcome to discussing this is key, just like in other ways that you are, as a parent, creating that space to talk about all the things that kids experience, whether that's bullying, human sexuality, drugs and alcohol; all the big issues that come into play as parenting. This is just another one that needs to be on the table and available to fully embrace.

And I will say that getting good at having adoption conversations does make you good and open.

At other ones.

At other big ones. Yeah. That's a good point. Katie?

My advice would be to really take to heart the Maya Angelou quote that Lori mentioned earlier, that,

“Do the best you can until you know better. And when you know better, do better.”

So, if you are an adoptive parent who's just starting the journey or maybe you're a hopeful adoptive parent, I'm going to ask you to read some of the books that are hard to sit with, like The Primal Wound, to really help yourself understand the adoptee experience and delve deeper and do that work. And just be open to knowing better and doing better and finding spaces where you can really explore that.

And so maybe at first, it's with other adoptive parents, because they share a like experience. But then maybe you get yourself into a Facebook group or literature that's written by adult adoptees, acknowledging that there might be some stuff in there that's hard to hear. But making space for the hard to hear, not reacting instinctively with defense and like, “I didn't do that” or “I didn't mean to do that” or “That's not my situation.” But sitting back listening and giving space to learn.

I love that. And that's what this podcast is all about, is knowing better and learning more, especially from alternative perspectives.

So, thank you, ladies, so much for helping us to understand the inclusive family support model, the open adoption grid, the difference between openness and contact, and how to be the adoptive parent that your child needs you to be. I'm so grateful to you both for being here today.

Thank you, Lori. It was a pleasure.

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

To check out more of what Katie and Cara offer adoptive parents, please check for links in the show notes and make sure to invest less than three minutes watching for the inclusive support family model animation. You can also find it on YouTube, looking for inclusive family support model animation. We will link to it in the show notes.

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