For the adoptive parent looking for a map: there isn’t one. Our kids come with stories that predate their entries into our families, and we have to raise those stories alongside the kids who own them. Like anything else having to do with parenting, we figure it out as we go, and the approach that worked with little kids probably won’t work with tweens—or teens. It’s always new.
In preparation for a trip we will take later this year, we recently decided it was time to renew our passports.* In order to do this, we began a house-wide search for the kids’ birth certificates. (Don’t say it. I know.) Ten-year-old “Emmie’s” Certificate of Foreign Birth was located in a file box along with a treasure trove of paperwork and mementos from her adoption, including a piece of paper that included a few details about her birth parents I’d forgotten we’d ever been given.
I will not share the details of what was written on that paper, nor will I share why I’d forgotten about them. There are reasons for both. But I will tell you what I did with the piece of Emmie’s story I found myself holding in my hand.
As a younger child, Emmie had always been interested in her origins, asked questions about her background, even cheered for South Korea when watching the Olympics. There was never a time she didn’t know where she came from or how she came to be part of our family, and she’s always known questions are welcome. She happily donned hanboks, ate Korean food when we could get or make it, and looked for Korean culture wherever we could find it.
In the last year or so, however, she’s backed off from her interest in things Korean—except for food. (My daughter—I’m so proud!) She’s asked fewer questions about her adoption, too. Is this because she’s a tween now and too busy texting her friends and trying to figure out boys to spare attention for adoption-related matters? Is she completely comfortable with her identity and just doesn’t worry about it? Maybe she’s very sensitive about it and, taking a lesson from her big brother, doesn’t want to ask her parents about these things anymore because come on, who talks to their parents about anything important? Or is everything simmering in her very busy brain, sometimes in the front, sometimes in the back, and it will all come out sometime, someplace, when I truly don’t expect it?
Knowing Emmie, I suspect it’s the last option. But I don’t know for certain, so as her mother, I’ve tried to create an atmosphere that allows for all possibilities. If Emmie doesn’t want to talk about these topics, I won’t make her. But it’s my job to create opportunities for communication, so every now and then, I bring up an adoption-related topic. I offer a book with a Korean character, or I leave one I’m reading on the coffee table where I know she’ll see it. I wonder aloud if her birth mother is chatty like she is, or I ask Emmie if she wonders about her birth mother, or if any of Emmie’s friends have ever received hurtful comments because of their race. We talk about the answers if she wants to; if she doesn’t want to, I make a brief point and then we move on.
So when I found myself holding the forgotten adoption paper, I had a decision to make. This wasn’t just a list of some interesting facts. It was, potentially, a crowbar to pry open a can of deep, painful feelings in my generally happy little girl. And I didn’t want to hurt her.
But I quickly arrived at the same place I almost always do. What I held in my hand was not mine; it was Emmie’s. This is her story. As Emmie’s mother, it’s my responsibility to keep that story safe for her, to give it to her in pieces as I judge her to be ready, and to be there for her as she digests it. When she is old enough, if she wants to seek more of it, it’s my job to help her do that, too. I am merely the caretaker and the facilitator. Emmie’s story belongs to her.
I asked Emmie to come upstairs with me. We sat down in the middle of my and my husband’s king-size bed, and I showed her the paper. “This was in the files,” I said. “It’s about your birth parents. Let’s read it together.”
We read. She asked a question or two. She made a couple of comments.
One more thing: “You know, this story is all yours,” I said. “It’s totally up to you if you share this with anyone—including your brother.** This is yours. And you can share it with your best, best friends if you really want to, but I think you should wait. Don’t tell any of your friends for, say, six months. Think about it first. You know, sometimes things change. Make really sure. Once you tell someone, you can’t take it back. Wait a while and see if maybe you want to keep it private.”
“Okay.” She bounded off the bed and went downstairs, leaving me with the paper.
And that was it.
Until it isn’t. Until the next time. I don’t know if that time will be next week or next year, or where it will be, because I haven’t got a map. But I know there will be a next time, and I’ll be ready.
*Thanks to the spectacularly inconvenient hours at the U.S. passport office and the fact that minors’ passports must be renewed in person by both parents and the child, we still have not managed to accomplish this goal.
**While I was upstairs reading with Emmie, my husband was downstairs explaining to fourteen-year-old “Jack” why he couldn’t see the paper or even be told by one of us what it said. We’re not big on secrets in our house, so he was a bit unhappy over the withholding of information. When I came downstairs later, I asked him if he now understood why he wasn’t included. “Your sister may choose to share this with you one day, and that’s great if she does,” I said. “But for now, she’s keeping it to herself. And that’s okay. It’s her story.” He said he understood, and went back to playing games on his phone.