Monday, December 23, 2013

Caring for the Adoptees in our Lives During the Holidays by Honoring their Definition of Family

A holiday photo card for you, featuring an image
of a gift to me from my original mother.
Have you ever had one of those moments when someone says something to you that sums up an ocean of your own thoughts in just one sentence?  I will never forget the moment in undergrad when one of my favorite professors gave a short lecture on what's called the "strengths perspective."  The strengths perspective identifies acknowledges that all people have strengths that can be used to help them overcome problems.  By pathologizing someone instead--choosing to see deficits or assuming the worst of a person--we alienate them from their sources of strength.  We also alientate them from ourselves when we could potentially be a source of strength for each other.  Then he said it, the line I will never forget.  "Be careful not to define 'family' too narrowly for someone else.  Family is a source of strength for many people."

Yes, I thought.  That.

The title version of this post title could be: "Caring for the Adoptees (and anybody) in our Lives During the Holidays (and everyday) by Honoring their Definition of Family (and their experience in life in-general).  I say this because every person needs and deserves respect for their family and the story of their family.  Being in the midst of the holiday season at this time, I am reminded of how intense the topic of family can be for those of us in the adoption community (and anywhere) during the winter holiday season.

I can tell you that it is very awkward to be at a family gathering and everyone there knows of your search or reunion but no one says anything.  It's worse when  no one asks how you're doing or says something simple yet validating like, "I know reunion was important to you.  I'm glad it happened for you."  Then there's that instance when you are already feeling like the odd one out (the only adopted one, the only one not biologically-related, and for transracial adoptees, perhaps the only person of color in the room), and someone feels compelled to tell you how your adoption/search/reunion makes them feel.  "You know, what you did [reunion/speaking openly about being adopted, etc.] just wasn't very loyal to the rest of us."

Here's a list from my notes in undergrad, from that day, about seeing the strengths in each other:
  1. Instead of focusing on problems or deficits, you are focusing on something empowering.
  2. Strengths give people positive feedback about themselves and build confidence.
  3. Acknowledging someone's strengths shows that you respect them.
  4. Strengths are not just positive but are something concrete to focus on.
All people have strengths.  This is a reality of being human.

After being a part of the adoption community for 28 years of my life, I have seen the idea of "family" constructed through stereotypically biologically-raised-centric or adoption-centric ways that does not first honor how an individual adopted person views themselves.  Some people say that the adoptive family isn't 'real' family, and that the adoptee is only an honorary member.  Some people say that the original family isn't family any longer, and our laws in the U.S. fortify this.  Often times, nature is completely removed from importance, and nurture is embraced as the only source of strength and family an adopted person can acknowledge.  Those of us with a combination of family by biology, family by adoption, and family by choice are confronted with phrases like, "now how does that work?"

No one wants to feel like their sources of strength are pulled away from them at any time.  Certainly this is true during the holidays when the accumulated memories and emotions from past holidays swirl in the forefront of our minds, and we try to find comfort in the present while missing those who are far away whether by distance, by their choice (or ours), or because we have yet to be able to meet them.

What is key in caring for the adoptees (or anyone) in our lives is sitting with them and responding to them in an truly empathic way.  Essential to this is looking at one's own definition of family and examining how it shapes one's view of another person's family before commenting on that person's family.  Remember that how someone else defines family does not mean you are required to alter your definition for your own.  No one should take how an adoptee feels about family and finds strength personally.  Their definition for family is about them, not you.

I am not only talking about accepting someone's family as family when those family members never made mistakes or are perfect people.  No one is perfect.  Whether it be a friend, caretaker, adoptive family, original family, foster family, or the workers who looked after you in foster care (etc.) many people hold a special place for others in their lives and hearts for their own deeply personal reasons.  No matter how someone chooses to see their family members or wants to include members in their family using a definition that doesn't make sense to another person, it's really up to them.  Choose to celebrate, not alienate, their sources of strength.