Andrew and I looked at the class schedule for the day with a decided lack of enthusiasm. It was our second day of the mandatory training weekend that is part of our agency's homestudy requirements. The list was grim: Grief and Loss in Adoption, Attachment in Adoption, Transracial Issues for the Adopted Child -and that just took us through to the lunch break.
The social worker who was teaching the first class seemed a little apologetic. Here we were, a roomful of mostly white, mostly heterosexual, mostly couples, all fired up from learning about homestudy paperwork and the different adoption programs WACAP offers. The day before had been all about our process right now: homestudies, adoption programs, costs and fees. And today? Today was apparently going to start with the cheery topic of "Grief and Loss in Adoption." Well, I thought to myself, we've already all paid our homestudy fee. I guess we can't back out now no matter how grim a picture they paint for us.
"I know this is not the most fun way to start the day," the social worker began. "But understanding what is lost and grieved in adoption is the first step towards a successful adoption." She wrote three words on the board and underlined them, making three columns. They were entitled Birth Parent, Child, Adoptive Parent. This, she told us, is the Adoption Triad, and every one of these parties experiences loss, and needs to grieve as part of the adoption process. We commenced with brainstorming what those losses might be for each party.
The first two seemed pretty easy. No child is in a position to be adopted without there being some significant losses. The biological parents are losing their child, the chance to raise that child with thier particular family history, to be involved in the day to day stuff of life as that child grows. It is a loss that I cannot begin to understand. For some parents the loss might be even more stark - for children adopted internationally especially, the birth parents might have lost thier own lives. And wherever these parents live, there is a stigma associated with bearing a child in an unstable situation, regardless of the amount of control that parent has over their own stability.
As for the child, this also seemed obvious. Everyone in our class was planning to adopt transracially, so that was one obvious loss. We were a group of white folk (plus one Pacific Islander) all looking at adoptions either from Ethiopia or the African American Infant program. So, our children will start out losing connections to their biological family and their racial and ethnic heritage. Try as we might, we won't be able to re-create exactly the experience of growing up in a home where everyone's skin is the same color, where our child can look in the mirror and see the same pair of eyes that her mommy has, or be told that he looks just like Daddy did when he was small. Again, these are losses that I cannot begin to understand. Since the class I have been putting together our profile book, the book that will be shown to birth mothers who are making their adoption plan, or considering one. As I look through our family pictures I see so many people who look like me. I can't give this to my adopted child, and I can't pretend that the lack of it won't be real to him or her.
But the class seemed stumped when we came to the third column on the board, Adoptive Parents. What are our losses? We were sitting there hoping to become parents, how is that a loss? People threw a few half-hearted suggestions out there "Sleep" was popular, as well as "personal freedom!"
"No," our instructor gently pointed out, "every parent loses those things." She asked us to think harder, noting that our bafflement was pretty normal for where we were in the process. "You are all so excited you can't think of what could possibly be a loss for you."
"Infertility?" I could tell from the subtle nods that the woman who said it wasn't the only person in our class who knew something about that sort of loss. But no, our instructor wouldn't take that either.
"If you are here, we expect that you've dealt with your grief about infertility, or that you have mechanisms to do so," she said. "Adoption is not a way to deal with infertility, it is its own separate process." This shut us all up.
"Privacy." I didn't notice who said it, but immediately my ears perked up. Our social worker smiled and wrote it on the board under all three columns. That made sense. We're choosing to build a family that won't blend in with the vast majority of other families in the world. Everywhere we go together, people who see us with our child will know something sort of private about us - how we came to be a family. This is something that we will feel, and that eventually our children will feel. And our loss of privacy isn't confined to after we get our baby. By choosing adoption we are also choosing to involve a lot of people we don't know in the intimate details of our marriage, of our family life. Andrew and I have filled out forms about our finances, answered detailed and lengthy questions about our childhoods, courtship, and our own life together. We've sent our fingerprints to the FBI and given out our social security numbers. We scrubbed our house from top to bottom and had it inspected by a social worker with the power to yay or nay our hopes for becoming parents.
Adoptive parents also lose the illusion of being able to provide everything their child needs. Our child will need to know things about his or her biological family, mentoring on how to be a member of his or her racial community, and adult role models from that community. S/he will have a markedly different experience of the world than I do, and while parents of biological children might be able to fantasize that they will hold all the answers, and be able to provide for all of what their children need to grow up strong, centered, and healthy in the world, adoptive parents lose that fantasy.
The Grief and Loss class, and the materials I've been reading since then, were a good wake-up call about some of the less idyllic realities of adoption. So the question we're left with is this: How do we grieve these losses, and help our child grieve his or hers? What does it mean to start our family this way, in the midst of inevitable grief and loss?
I'm sure we'll discover answers to these questions, as we live through them. Going forward now I just remind myself that all families experience grief and loss. Choosing to love anyone means losing some part of yourself to be invested in their life. Choosing to parent a child means that, and more. Adoptive parenting means that in order to be responsible we will need to face these harsh realities, and more, we will need to teach our child how to face them.