305: The Right (And Wrong) Way To Tell Your Child Their Adoption Story Transcript

Episode 305 Podcast > Full Transcript

Lori Holden, Greeting:
This is Adoption: The Long View, a podcast brought to you by adopting.com. 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 them. 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:
How we see adoption and how we see ourselves as adoptive parents is intricately tied with how we see our children in adoption and ultimately how they see themselves. Stick with me on this.

Seemingly heroic narratives like saving a child or seemingly innocuous ones like, “We were meant to be together,” may have unintended effects that parents don't see on the front end until after damage has been done.

Here to talk with us about taking the longer view, right from the start or wherever you are now, is a woman who is both an adoptee and an adoptive parent. Joanna Ivey is going to help us understand why such feel-good sentiments for parents, ones we often use as our entrance narratives in adoption, don't always land in the intended way for the adoptee.

She'll also reveal ways to frame our narratives to be more accurate, more loving, and more effective in building connection for the adoptee and for ourselves.

So, let me tell you more about Joanna. Joanna Ivey is an adult adoptee, in reunion, and an adoptive parent. In addition, she helps prospective adoptive parents understand adoptee perspectives through her work as the owner of Our Chosen Child Adoption Profile Design. Through her work with families, she understands the complex emotions that bring people to adoption and the questions adoptive parents have as they're trying to understand the impact of adoption on adoptees. She works to educate her client families so they are empowered to be better parents in the long run.

In addition to her work with adoptive families, she's a speaker, writer and sits on two national committees focused on adoption and ethics.

Lori Holden:
Welcome, Joanna. It's such a pleasure to talk with you today.

Joanna Ivey:
Thank you. It's a pleasure to talk with you as well.

I'm so excited to get into this because I think this is really fascinating. Let's start with your entrance narrative. What brings you here? You have two stories to tell about entering the world of adoption; first as an adoptee and next as an adoptive mom. What would you like to say about those entrance narratives?

Yeah. So, I was adopted, right in the middle of the Baby Scoop era when adoptions were closed and when adoptive parents didn't have a whole lot of education about how to teach their children about adoption. So, I was kind of raised in the what-not-to-do era.

And later in life, I met my birth mother and got to know her. And I have a half-brother who was raised with her. And even in the last few years, I have been privileged enough to meet my birth father's family, through meeting them on 23andMe.

So, I am in reunion. Sometimes reunion is messy and sometimes it's wonderful. But I really deeply understand the need for the biological connection.

Our son is 17, and he was adopted at birth, and he was also adopted in a closed adoption. This was not through choice. We came to adoption after we have a biological son and we lost his twin at birth. And adoption had always been in our plans, because I was adopted, and knowing that we could not walk that road again, losing a child, we turned to adoption.

And we had been matched for five months in an open adoption. It was really everything that I wanted; to raise a child in an open adoption. And at birth, she decided to parent, which I think she was going to be a great parent. So, we were happy about that, but we were also, of course, devastated. And a week later, we got a call that we could come meet our son. And again, it was a closed adoption through his birth parents’ choice.

So, I've learned through how I grew up and I was able to parent him differently as a child growing in a closed adoption. I hope his experience was different than mine.

And I won't share a lot of details about his story because they are his story and it's not mine to share. But what I can share is that two years ago we met his birth sister, who was also placed for adoption. And I can't quite find the word to explain it, but it is such a gift to him to have that biological connection much earlier in life than I was able to get my biological connection. So, yeah, that's a bit about both of our stories.

And you mention I also work in adoption, which means that I work with a lot of hopeful adoptive parents. And through that work, I've really come to understand a lot of the emotions that bring them to adoption. I understand their journeys and I also see where some of that's not going to play out so well in the long run. So, a lot of my work with them is really on the phone and sharing my personal experiences and sharing my journey in hopes that their feelings evolve over time so they parent from a different place than where they're starting from.

I have to admit, I laughed at the truth of what you said; you grew up in the what-not-to-do era. The reason I laughed is because it's so true. Everything that we did that came from, shame and secrecy. It's like the fruit of the poison tree; everything that came out of it was just harder than it needed to be.

And you mentioned that you wanted to provide something different for your son. So, even though he doesn't have contact with his birth parents, you've managed to come up with some sort of contact for him with birth family. But what are some of the ways that you wanted to provide him a different experience in the closed versus open way? Talk to us about that; what you're trying to provide for him, that's different.

You know, I think that at the very core, it's to provide him space and understanding and words for his longing for that biological connection. And because I'm adopted and he always says, “I'm so glad you're adopted because you understand,” that there's no shame. It's the most natural thing in the world to want and to miss that connection with your biological family. And to be curious and to wonder what that's like.

So, growing up, I really never had space for that. I'm recalling a lot of things my family has said, even as an adult, not understanding. My siblings were never taught about what it means to be adopted. How you feel different as an adoptee, how you're always searching as an adoptee. So, as we were raising both of our sons, not only did we find that space for our adopted son, but we taught our biological son and our extended family what it is to be adopted and what it is to have that longing and how natural those feelings are. So, he's always had that space.

And we talk about that someday, I hope he meets his birth parents. It didn't happen for me until I was in my thirties and I hope it happens for him. And he knows that should he meet them, it doesn't take anything away from my relationship with him. Those are separate. Love is multiplied. And so, he can have those longings without thinking that he's going to hurt me by having them. And I never had that space. So, I can't give him his biology, but I can give him that.

You are really speaking my language on this. The model that I worked on with our mutual friend, Angela Tucker, the Inclusive Family Support Model, which I'll try to remember to put in the show notes. It really hones in on what you're talking about, which is the difference between contact and openness. Contact provides a piece of it, but openness is really the part that you're talking about here. The word you've mentioned more than once is providing him space for longing. And providing for him the idea that he doesn't have to split his loyalties between you and his other parents or wondering about them, even if they're not there. And that is such a gift we can give to adoptees, and we do that by doing our own work.


So, that's another thing we have in this.

Yeah. And as an adoptee, that's been easier for me because I know those feelings. But even for my husband who wasn't adopted, you know, there's been a lot of education for me to give him to get to that place as well.

And I hear in your story of adopting your son that there is a lot of loss on the way there. And when I had the opportunity to hear you speak recently, you said something that really resonated for me. You said that we all come to adoption on our knees. Tell me more of what you mean by this and what does it mean for adoptive parents in general?

I think it's rare that anyone comes to adoption without Loss; infertility, miscarriage, for us losing a child. And even same sex families who come to adoption, their loss is rooted in the discrimination within the adoption community. They probably grew up and came out in a time where they never imagined that they could be parents. So, all of us, I think, come to adoption on our knees.

And I think it's important to acknowledge; within the adoption community, we talk a lot about the heartache and the loss of expectant parents and birth parents and adoptees. And I think it's important to offer that same grace to adoptive parents, because their journeys also come from years of loss. And no matter what our place is in the Triad, it's not easy for anyone.

And when I work with adoptive parents or when I speak, I often say things that really push people outside of their comfort zone or make them uncomfortable and hopefully make them think. And I always like to begin that conversation with honoring that their journey has been difficult too.

I love that you do that because on the edge of comfort and discomfort is where we grow.

Absolutely. Absolutely. I think one of the problems, whenever we come from trauma or loss or difficulty, not just in adoption but anywhere in life, is that we tend to be myopic. And by this, I mean that our loss and our journey and our trauma is at the front of our minds and we forget how important it is to put ourselves in the shoes in adoption of the other people in the Triad, and to really seek to truly understand and have empathy for their journeys.

So, I think this whole process begins with that myopia, which I think is absolutely natural, but I think it's a starting place. I want it to be a starting place and I want there to be growth in that.

I love that you pointed out that it's completely natural and normal. I remember when I was in that place, I had baby fever bad and my criteria, because I didn't know and I didn't know what I didn't know, my two criteria were how fast can I get? How fast can I fill my arms and how much is it going to cost me? So, I understand that baby fever. One of my previous guests called it got-to-get-a-baby syndrome. And it's natural. It's normal, especially if you're coming to adoption on your knees; if you've had loss and longing.

So, I want to just kind of take a small detour here. There are probably some people listening who maybe don't come to adoption as adoptive parents through infertility. Do they come to adoption on their knees as well in some way?

You know, I hear people say, “Adoption is our first choice; we always planned on adopting.” And I can't speak for everyone. But when, in general, when I hear, “Adoption was our first choice,” it is followed with what I call the hero narrative, meaning I want to make the world a better place by adopting, by saving a child, by providing a home for a child who needs one.

So, I'm not going to generalize and say that's everyone, but often when people say, “I'm called to adopt. That's why we're adopting.” And I find that problematic. And I can talk about why I find that problematic.

Yeah. Let's take this into kind of our next topic, which is entrance narratives, because I think we're going to head to that direction. So, first of all, before I ask you what some of them are, first tell us what is an entrance narrative in the scope of adoption?

Yes. Entrance narratives are the stories that we as adoptive parents tell about how we came to adoption and how our child joined our family. We create entrance narratives to answer the questions others may have about our decision to create a family through adoption.

When a child conceived biologically, there's really not much need for an entrance narrative. People want to have a family, they have sex, they have a baby; they’re parents. But in adoption, there's an information void and voids like to be filled. And so, we create stories. We create narratives to fill that void.

And there are two audiences, maybe three audiences, for entrance narratives. Originally, our entrance narrative is for us to explain to ourselves why we've made the choice to move from infertility or whatever brought us here, to adoption. And the second audience is then when we explain our decision to adopt with our families, our community and our faith community. But over time, there are two other audiences for that entrance narrative; one is the expectant parents and then one is the adoptee. And what plays well for one audience doesn't play well for another audience.

And once that narrative has been launched, you can't pull it back. And that's my concern is an adoptee; how those entrance narratives ultimately impact the adoptee.

Okay, that's a great explanation, and it sets the stage for our next step, which is some of these entrance narratives that we're talking about involve being called to adopt or that he was meant to be your child. So, I'm wondering, how could these possibly have a downside? Because they sound so noble and for a second reason, so many people use them. I mean, if these were harmful things, people wouldn't say them, right?.

Right. Right. Well, I think when we create them, our first audience is ourselves and our communities. And let's break it down a little. So, when we come to adoption, we come broken. And I think it's really tempting to package our grief and our loss and our anger into a narrative that makes us the hero of our story. To say that our journey was meant to be, because somehow it is God's plan and that we've been asked to walk through this fire to find our calling and our calling is to save a child who needs a home. I think it's a convenient displacement for our sorrow to kind of package it up.

But when we do that, we stop there and we say, this is okay. But there's that lingering grief and anger and sorrow that's never dealt with because we put it into this package. And this package feels much better because instead of dealing with those really difficult emotions, we are, you know, this feels great. We have a calling. We're a hero. There's a reason for this path.

I think that entrance narrative, when I hear it, it's completely normal. I think it is, psychologically speaking, I really normal place for people to arrive. And in all of the loss that we've had in our journeys, this is the first thing that feels good. It's kind of nice. But narratives that are centered on destiny and feeling called to adopt are unbalanced because they are adoptive parent centric. And honestly, a bit dismissive of expectant parents and detrimental to adoptees. And so, I think it's okay to start there, but don't stay there.

And so, to break it down, you know, I said, I'm okay making people a little uncomfortable because I think that's where the growth is. So, in breaking down why I think these are not healthy entrance narratives. I want to make people a little uncomfortable.

So, feeling called to adopt, I think, presupposes that someone is doing the calling and that this road that you've walked has been preordained for the greater good. But there are people on the other side of that equation, the expectant parents, birth parents, who also have a journey bringing them to this place. And they have also walked a difficult road. While as adoptive parents, ours ends in celebration, theirs ends in loss.

And they might not feel so great learning that you're thinking that the child that they are carrying was meant to be yours, or that somehow their journey was to serve your calling.

Because of your destiny as an adoptive parent is preordained; if you're the hero, if this is destiny, this necessitates that their destiny has been preordained as well. And as an adoptee, I'm really uncomfortable with that idea.

And I've shared this story before, that as an adult, I learned that I was conceived through sexual assault, which was a lot to grapple with. And as I met my birth father's family and came to know their story, I learned that my birth grandmother was also assaulted and conceived my birth father in that.

And as I came to know my families, I learned the devastation of not only the assaults, but placing their children for adoption and how that has affected generations of their family. The children who were raised in those families had mothers who were broken and who were depressed and who had wounds that they didn't understand. And this isn't even to mention my own trauma and difficulty in learning about my heritage and my conception and my birth father's conception.

And knowing the depth of these traumas, I cannot believe for one second that all of that was preordained to make my parents, parents and my birth fathers’ parents, parents. That doesn't work for me.

Entrance narratives that focus on the adoptive parents as a hero fail to honor the role of expectant parents and birth parents. Period. And I think it's important for adoptive parents to spend time listening to and learning from birth parents. And there are a lot of great podcasts, a lot of people doing hard work, a lot of good books. And I think by doing that work to understand adoptive parents’ grief and anger and expectant parents journey lessens the myopia. It creates a more inclusive narrative that honors everyone in the Triad.

Thank you so much for sharing your unique perspective. I find it so valuable, I think, for me and for others listening because that is what your conception story is, one of the ones that people just really dread ever having to deal with or tell. And to hear you tell it in such a way that shows the healing you've done around it and the space you've made for it shows that it can be done. It can be done. And I think that's so important.

And just to reinforce, again, the work that you're doing with people when they come to you at Our Chosen Child to get them into that place of discomfort. What I see you doing there, on that bubble between comfort and discomfort, is dealing with the myopia, as you said, by showing them the other perspectives. And the more we can see adoption from perspectives other than our own, the better we're all going to function and the healthier we're all going to be. And when adoptive parents are healthy and doing their work, that's when the adoptee can do this healing work that that is their life journey, too.

So, this kind of leads into my next question, which is what are some of the ways that a parent can make sure that this narrative that they're telling themselves and they're telling their child and they're telling other people, how can we make sure that this entrance narrative is adoptee centric rather than parent centric?

Yeah. So, I think at the very beginning it's understanding that the ideas, the emotions and the words that adoptive parents bring to adoption and parenting an adopted child, those will define how we as adoptees feel about ourselves, our birth families and our place in the world. Adoptive parents’ thoughts become the lens from which we view the world and ourselves. And as you said, adoption at its core must be child centric and not adoptive parent centric.

And I think that begins with adoptive parents unpacking their baggage prior to adopting because the narrative that they set will deeply impact the adoptee. And it can start with thinking about the entrance narrative, since that's what we're talking about today. So, if you as an adoptive parent have those feelings of being called to adopt and destiny, and if you have the hero story, I encourage people to really take time and dig deep into those feelings. Is that just a palatable package to make you feel better about where you are in the process and how do those narratives reflect on other people in the Triad?

So, I think creating an entrance narrative that it's child centric, again, it's thinking about your audiences. In the beginning of your journey, it can just be an honest, “We are unable to have children biologically and we are so excited to have a family, so we're adopting.” Cutting away the extraneous details, cutting away the hero story, and share your excitement about raising a child.

And I want to touch on when you have an entrance narrative that has the adoptive parent as the hero and the child is being saved, the danger is when you put that out into your community, they will always see your child as the recipient of your benevolence; that you are a gift to the child – a stable home.

And that is the danger is that the communities lens through which they view adoption becomes one of a hierarchy of the adoptive parents as the hero and the child as what to be grateful for that and the birth parents as someone who needed their child to be saved. So, that entrance narrative that feels so good to us, automatically creates a hierarchy. And as that adoptee begins their search for self, think about how that impacts them when extended family and faith community believes that their birth parents were lesser than their adoptive parents, because that is our literal flesh and blood. So, what does that mean for us as adoptees? How do we sink that up? I think it's damaging to adoptees.

So, an entrance narrative that is just informational, cuts the details, does not create a hierarchy, does not have a hero, I think that's enough. And when you are telling your child their story, it is important not to tell your child that you saved them, but that they saved you. And not to tell your child that you adopted them in order to give them opportunities that they wouldn't have had. But you tell your child that they gave you the opportunity to be a parent. And not that your adoption is a blessing to them, but they've just blessed the world, just by existing.

This feels very honest to me, this kind of approach, because instead of saying that – It feels like we're dealing with what is. Earlier when we were talking about, “We all come to adoption on our knees,” as adoptive parents, we come to this through some need, whether it's the need for a child or the call to save a child. And so, acknowledging that in the narrative, “We did this because we needed to.” That sounds a lot more honest dealing with what is and not covering it up with that hero story, as you say.

So, I think this is great advice for people who are at the very beginning of their journey. But there may be some people listening, Joanna, who are saying, “Oh, I'm feeling really uncomfortable. I'm on that bubble right now because I have used one of these entrance narratives. And now what do I do? How do I fix this?” Do you have any tips for somebody who might have maybe a three-year-old child or a six-year-old child or a pre-teen or a teenager? How might we make a course correction on that?

Yeah, that's a great question. And, I think, thinking back to the stories that you've told in your extended family and in your community, because those are the people that will have conversations with your adoptee someday and those are the people that your adoptee will look to and will say comments like, “Aren't you so lucky? What would your life have been like if you weren't adopted?” So, make those corrections and reinforce a different narrative within your community about how grateful you are to their birth parents, how amazing their birth parents have been, how amazing the child is, and how grateful and humbled you are.

Flip that hierarchy to put the child and the expectant parents at top. I'm making a triangle with my hands that no one can see. But flip that and put yourself at the bottom of offering your gratitude and humility to the two other sides of the triad. And reinforce that as much as you can. And you can explain to your family, “You know, I know better now. I've learned. What I thought before, I understand now wasn't the whole story. And I'd just like to correct that.”

And how about any direct conversations or private conversations with the child that helps just re-shift that higher that very subtle hierarchy. Do you have any words of how to start that conversation?

You know, I think a lot depends on the child's age and what conversations you've had before. But for the child, any time that you honor their birth parents through actions, through words, through books, through holding space for them, any time that you honor them, you are reinforcing to your child that their biology is a gift, that they are wonderful from the inside out, that there's nothing to be ashamed of.

So, when you have entrance narratives that begin with, “Well, your birth parents, you know, maybe couldn't raise you,” that's internalized by your child. So, starting to have those conversations now will really help your child's identity as they grow.

So, what I'm hearing you say is this is less about the words you use than the way you show up and the work you're doing inside. And how that kind of how you show up with your child; how the vibe that you – you're shifting your own vibe from you needing to be the hero to more truthful thing of the child bringing to you something that you didn't have before and that you really wanted.

Yeah. It all begins with doing the work and understanding that that myopia that we have, which is normal, is just the beginning. And keep doing the work, even though it is really uncomfortable and it's dealing with some really difficult emotions. Because sometimes we have to get angry at our bodies, at God and at our partner, maybe, and dealing with the grief. And that is really hard work. But the payoff is for your child. That's who really ultimately benefits. When you parent from a place of wholeness, it is the child who benefits.

And that feels really good to be able to parent from a place of wholeness. Everybody wins when we can deal with what is, clear away the grief, at least deal with it and show up just more honestly in our relationships.


Yeah. I think that's very helpful. So, this is our last question, Joanna, and all Season 3 guests are getting this. From your dual perspectives, as an adoptee and an adoptive mom, what do you think is the most important piece of the long view of adoption that people tend to miss on the front end?

I think that's a great question, and I I'll answer it a little bit differently than I think other guests have. We talk a lot about privilege these days, and it's usually in terms of racial and economic privilege. There's also a privilege that we have as hopeful adoptive parents and adoptive parents. When people hear this, they might think, “Of all the ways, we're not privileged as adoptive parents. We come to adoption with years of loss. We're financially vulnerable. We're holding our hearts in our hands, wanting to be parents.” And all that is true.

But our privilege comes from the one thing it often comes from, and that's money. And because adoptive parents are paying vast sums to agencies to adopt, we are the consumer and agencies cater to us in their marketing, in their services, and as it's relevant to this discussion, in the words agencies use. Media sees our privilege. Stories and movies and TV are framed with adoptive parents as heroes. Our churches and our communities see us as benevolent gifters of stable homes. So, we have privilege.

And I think the long view is to understand our privilege and know that with privilege comes power. Because we can have the discussions within our communities. We can talk to our adoption agencies. We can write to Disney Media. And we can ensure that adoptee voices and birth parent voices are heard and that they are valued in the same way that our voices are valued. Because the power to change that narrative, I think, is on us as adoptive parents because. We have the privilege.

Well, if anybody could see me right this moment, I am dropping a proverbial mic. That was brilliant. I love everything about that. And I would love to see this gradual shift over the next five or ten years where parents are paying a lot more attention to the entrance narratives they use personally. And then we're also paying more attention to the more global narratives about adoption and making corrections on them and being more inclusive on them of who all it affects.

I love your ideas for hitting the bigger places; the agencies, the media in ways that make this correction and make it more universal from everybody who's living in adoption and not just the adoptive parents who happen to have the money that powers the engine that goes around and around.

Exactly. Right, exactly.

So, thank you so much, Joanna, for sharing the two sides of your part in adoption and the wisdom that you've gained through your journeys.

Yeah, thanks for having me on. It's really been nice to chat through this with you.

Yeah, I really enjoyed this.

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