Being Adopted and Mothering a Preschooler: The Family Trees Have Started Already

"I thought I would have at least two more years before I would have to do this" I huffed in my husband's direction.  He looked puzzled.  I was performing my nightly comb-through of our oldest son's preschool bag, a canvas tote that I had carefully hand-painted with red and black swirls.  I had pulled out his penmanship practice papers, a mixed media collage shaped like an apple, and then I saw it.  A tree.  A large, finger-painted, green and brown tree on an oblong sheet of paper.  The instructions clipped to the top of the tree paper explained that parents were to paste on to the image pictures of family members to create a "family tree."  I held the tree up for my husband to see and he nodded.  He has witnessed my several-years-long effort to educate others on the acceptance of a person's family as they identify it, including my own right to include my original and adoptive families together in my own tree.

Why did I have such a reluctant reaction to my son's project?  The image of one singular tree with no roots suggested in my mind the image of a traditional family tree that involves children who have two parents, who each have two parents, who each also have two parents.  Although social, psychological, biological, and nurturing connections may be represented in one singular family in one singular tree for many people, they are not for me.  Which means: they are not for my children either.

Simply put: when you've fought the family tree inclusivity battle for yourself, it's not one you really want to have to fight for your children too.

Over the years, I have seen a variety of family tree adaptations that are inclusive of individuals with foster families, step-families, and adoptive families in addition to biological families.  I have seen everything including the use of a "wheel" (which mimics the rings of a tree trunk), trees and bushes with intertwined trunks, adapted family charts, genograms, and families belonging to an individual mapped out by drawing each family in its own tree (as a part of a grove or forest), in its own house (as a part of a larger neighborhood), or in an arrangement of circles.

I looked at the finger-painted tree again.  We can work with this.

I decided to group families together and draw lines between them.  With my little guy's help, we got to work.  I placed a family picture of myself, my husband, and our two children at the bottom of the tree.  I placed a family picture of my original mother, brothers, and her husband, and one of my paternal aunt (the only paternal relative my son knows) above our family photo to the right.  Next, I placed a family photo of my adoptive parents with my grandmother (she lives with them in the summer), next to it, also to the right of my family photo.  Then to the left, I placed a family photo of my husband's family, his mom and dad, and sister with his niece, standing together.  I drew lines from our pictures to their pictures and wrote their names on the tree.

I dropped my son off at school and handed the assignment to my son's teacher that following Monday.  It occurred to me in that moment that she would not know why I had arranged the family members the way that I had and, furthermore, she might even ask my son to explain his family arrangement.  I consider myself to be a person who constructs boundaries carefully and thoughtfully, and here I was placed in a position of having to tell someone I barely know something personal to me.  Yes, I have a blog and a book, but even the things I share publicly in that way are done so after deep contemplation.  So I simply said to her,

"Our family is a little different, and this family tree is his reality.  If there are any curious questions about how his family is laid out here, please ask me."

Within my reaction to the family tree assignment was my need to evaluate it--to separate out the pieces--before I responded.  More specifically, I needed to decide what about my reaction was from how my family identification has been invalidated and what would really constitute a genuine concern for how my son would be treated when he presents his identified family.  To this day, people attempt to push my family through a biologically-raised lens where only one mother, one family, can be "real."  Whether it is my adoptive mother or my original mother who is called the "real mother," whether overtly or microaggressively someone asserts their reality over mine, I have had the experience of explaining, resisting, and reframing when attempting to discuss my family with others.  However, this does not mean that my son will be treated this way in his class.  Because I grew up in a closed adoption, confidently explaining my unique family system to others is not a skill that I developed in childhood.  However, it does not mean my son cannot learn the same skill in his childhood.

What I am continuously learning as an adoptee parenting children is that re-constructing the meaning of adoption in my life is a learning process in which I will lead the way for my children as well as become life's student alongside them.