Friday, December 20, 2013

Understanding the Unique Experience of Adoption

At the 2013 It Takes a Village Parenting Conference in south Florida, I spoke on Understanding the Unique Experience of Adoption.  Here is that talk, and you may view the video at

There are no current statistics on adoption.   In 1992 - 21 years ago - almost 60% of Americans had a personal connection to adoption.  Six out of ten people either personally knew someone who had been adopted, had adopted a child themselves, or had placed a child for adoption.  There are an estimated 1.5 million adopted children in the US – 2% of all children.  I would like to re-phrase that as 1.5 million families in which the parents have chosen adoption.  How many of you? How many of you had siblings who told you that you were adopted?  We couldn’t do that it my family.  It would have been, “Well, duh.”  My connection to adoption is that my parents adopted me and my younger brother.  With that new info, I ask again, how many of you have a connection to adoption?

What is the value for you in understanding adoption?  You will get to see adoption profoundly cooperative.  It is a living example how we are a village because the foundation of adoption is one mother who said yes to bringing a child into the world and another mother who said yes to spending her life with that child.  They are in magnificent cooperation with one another whether they know it or not.  You will get to see how important the need to belong is and how resiliency – the ability to bounce – provides ways for all of us to handle challenges.  And you will see how adoption expands love beyond biology to seeing the world as deeply connected.  These things – cooperation, resiliency, belonging, and living with an open heart – enhance your life.

Charles Kettering said, “There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it." I invite you to move beyond knowing to understanding adoption from the perspective of  belonging, bounce, and blood.

First, meet my mother, Eleanor. 

Please meet my mother, Nina. 

This is a part of the uniqueness of adoption – you can have two mothers, two father, and multiple family trees.


We are all wired to connect and belong.  We are wired to love and be loved.  Brene Brown is an amazing researcher, and she says, “Belonging is that innate desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves.  A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children.  We are biologically, cognitively, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.  When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.”

We all need to belong, so what gets in the way?  Shame – that fear of disconnect; shame is that place where we feel we are flawed and unworthy of love and belonging.  You feel outside of and not a part of.

Shame is not reserved for those who have had great loss or trauma in their lives or those who experienced adoption.  Shame is experienced by everyone who has the capacity for human connection and empathy.

Shame needs three things to flourish – secrecy, silence, and judgment – and we can find all three factors in adoption and probably to some degree in every family and classroom in the world.  In adoption, it is in the secrecy in families in which children are not told that they entered the family through adoption or information on their birth family is withheld.  It is in the judgment around our “blood” and around biological relationships.  It is in the self-judgment of women who make the most complex decisions of their lives.  It is in the silence of women who choose adoption for their child yet never talk about it again.  My birthmother never had any more children and never told anyone in her family about her experience.

Adoption is about adult decisions (like divorce, marriage).  Adult decisions influence children; however, shame happens when a child views that adult decision as a reflection of who he is and a measurement of his worth.  Shame is not about doing something “bad”, it is about “being bad”.  I remember not wanting to talk about adoption outside of my family when I was little.  Inside my family was great, and I felt afraid of judgment from those outside of our family.  I didn’t have the tools to handle judgment or a place to have a conversation about shame.  Creating a safe space to talk and giving children the words to use are very important.

To side-step shame, use a language that speaks the truth about the adult decision involved in adoption.  It means speaking in the active voice because in the passive voice, it becomes about who you are rather than the decision.

Mary and Dan adopted Jane.
Jane was adopted by Mary and Dan.
Jane was adopted.
Jane is an adopted person.
Jane is an adoptee.

Suddenly Jane is the subject surrounded by limiting labels about a decision that she did not make.

To keep it about adult decisions, you may choose to say, "My parents adopted me."

So how do we handle shame?  Staying in a place of shame actually keeps worthiness away.  Worthiness is not going to come and wrap its arms around you.  Shame has got to leave, and the big shame-buster is bounce.

Giving you an ease in handling challenges, resilience is a slow unfolding of understanding that happens over time.  Resilience deepens as you gain insights, self-acceptance, and skills.  We want our kids to belong and to be resilient.  Resilience is the ability to recognize shame and to move through it constructively.  It means noticing messages that trigger shame for you, and those messages usually have to do with imperfection.  We are all imperfect and we always will be.  And it is those messages that equate imperfection with unworthiness that trigger shame.  Embrace your imperfection and reality check those messages.

Here’s the thing about shame – it happens from a place of innocence when your heart is open.  In the moment that you experience shame, you close your heart.  Recall a time that you felt shame or felt bad about yourself.  Wasn’t it from a place of innocence?  I love what Pam Dunn says, “Shame is damaging to the Spirit of magnificence within you.  To eliminate shame, you must return to open-hearted innocence.” 

In talking about adoption, people mention an empty place that needs to be filled or a wound that never heals.  That empty place or wound is about a closed heart.  The emptiness isn’t remedied by something outside you.   It isn’t necessarily remedied by meeting birth parents or birth children, although that may be part of the journey.  The wound heals with vulnerability and opening your heart.  This concept sounds simple and it is not always an easy journey.  It takes a lot of courage and you may want some resources to assist you on your journey.


I have been curious my whole life about the concept of blood.  What does it mean to really look like someone else, to share features, to share their blood?  Would I feel different in their presence?

When I made contact with my birth family, I discovered that my birth mother had died in her early forties of breast cancer.  Her cousin’s wife sent me photographs of her – everything they had saved of hers.  When that box arrived, I was vibrating.  In those pictures was a woman I had not known whose legs and arms looked just like mine.  It was deeply satisfying.  And I was clear that my curiosity was not a need to be parented by Nina.  I just wanted to know more about her.

The piece about blood was answered this summer.  We were driving in Glacier National Park and a song by the Lumineers came on.

The lyrics were  "So show me family, All the blood that I will bleed".  It is not the blood we share…it is the blood we are willing to shed.  It is the blood we bleed for each other in every heart-felt moment.  Every tender look, every hand held, every tear comforted.  That is the blood we shed and that is family.

I found it wild that the name of the band was Lumineers because they were truly shedding a lot of light for me that morning.  The chorus to the song was “I belong with you, you belong with me, you’re my sweetheart”.  I feel that way about my family, and I feel that way about my parents.  They were my sweethearts and we belonged together.  We did not share the same DNA although it felt like we did because we grew to be alike.  I am so very grateful for them and for Nina.  They were in on this together!

Do you remember the poem by Kahil Gibran where he spoke of our children coming through us and not belonging to us?  My favorite line is “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”  Parents send their children forth, and sometimes it takes multiple bows to send a child forth on his magnificent journey.  That is what adoption is about.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Thank you to Parkland Life Magazine for permission to reprint this article that I wrote about my dad back in 2007.  My dad died in November of that same year, and I miss him every day. 

The renewal form for our dad’s membership in MENSA, the organization for truly brainy people, arrived in my mailbox last week.  On the wall in his den, framed in dignified and serious black metal, hangs his MENSA certificate, a graphic testament to his IQ and to the value he places on intelligence.  Our mother’s 98-year-old cousin candidly states that Dad is the smartest man she has ever known.  She is discriminating and has had a long time to know people, so her tribute is notable.  Our dad will be 86 in November, and he has dementia.  He forgets that our mother died 3 years ago.  He gets confused and wonders if he has to go to work, forgetting that he retired three decades ago.  Our dad has become “old-old.”   Explored by Mary Pipher in Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, the factors that move a person from “young-old” to “old-old” are loss of a spouse, retirement, and changes in health.  Pipher believes that the loss of health is the critical factor.  With the onset of dementia and the subsequent loss of his mental acuity, our dad made the shift earlier than expected.   

On Father’s Day, we will celebrate our dad.  In the years since retirement, ties, belts and dress shirts are no longer appropriate.    There are no more bottles of Drambuie or power tools.  No more waxing of his car as an act of loving service.  He doesn’t have a car any longer.  When he stopped smoking pipes, we were all at a loss for ideas.  Instead, we will celebrate with a new pair of warm pajamas because he gets cold quicker than he did when he used to fish for Northern pike.  We will recall the adventure and integrity of his life.  He is an amazing man who flew B-52s and worked in the “Mole Hole,” deep underground at SAC Headquarters in Nebraska.  During his workday he was in close proximity to the Red Telephone.  His flying missions, complete with an atomic bomb, were the stuff of which movies could be made.  Even with that ominous cargo, he managed to bring me dolls from every country he visited.  He taught me how to pick dandelions, how to study, how to fix things, and the meaning of being a good neighbor.  He improved every home in which we ever lived.  He told great bedtime stories about Sam the Monkey.  He tolerated our pets from dogs to squirrels to roosters. And he hated the cow that he had to milk every morning as a young boy living outside Atlanta.

This man with the high IQ was a participant in the dawning of the computer age.  He proudly walked me across the raised, hollow floor and through the cold, massive rooms at Martin Marietta filled with computers the size of washing machines surrounded by reams of FORTRAN punch cards.  He encouraged me to study computer science, and he supported women’s success in the workforce.  I learned from him that there were options and opportunities.  When I chose dance instead, he drove across Florida to see performances.  Years later, he dedicatedly drove his granddaughters to their Saturday ballet class where I was their teacher.  From behind the glass window dividing the studio from the waiting area, he watched us all plie and tendu and sometimes he laughed. 

He always went the extra mile.  He would come to your aide if you were sick or if your car broke down or if something needed repair.  He was there to be helpful.  He helped my brother as he was dying, and afterwards, something in our dad was never quite the same. 

When I call he still says, “Hi Kid.”  He makes me feel young and hopeful.  Many of the things I love most about my husband, I love most about my dad.  They are both very brainy.  Happy Father’s Day, Daddy, and your membership card to MENSA is in the mail.   

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Summer - A Special Time for Learning Something New

Henry James said, “Summer afternoon - summer afternoon...the two most beautiful words in the English language.”  Summer does bring to mind lazy days, travel, and cool drinks on the porch.  Summer can also be a time to learn.  Having a bucket list of things to learn over the summer can ensure that this fleeting time of year is also a fun adventure.

One summer, my daughter and I decided to take ice skating lessons.  It was not only a lot of fun and a great escape from the south Florida heat but a new physical activity to explore.  I think I had even more fun than she did.  As the only adult who enrolled in the program, two former Disney on Ice Skaters gave me private lessons!  My daughter and I continued ice skating into the school year, and she even had her birthday party at the rink.  Our summer learning was a new adventure, and we created very cool memories.

This summer my daughter wants to learn how to speak Korean so she can understand the K-Pop songs she loves.  We will have her teach us some phrases, and we will visit some Korean restaurants so she can practice.  I want to learn archery, and I’ll teach my family all that I learn.  I look forward to having a large target in our yard and practicing in the cooler part of the afternoon (after locking away the dogs so they don’t become moving targets!).  Bass Outdoor World has archery lessons for only $10.  My husband is taking up beekeeping.  We will learn along with him and enjoy the benefits of honey!
Here are 20 things that you can do together as a family this summer to create incredible memories and come away having learned something new:

You can learn to…

1.   speak a foreign language
2.   make jewelry
3.   write songs
4.   play a musical instrument
5.   ice skate
6.   swim or dive
7.   dance
8.   make ceramics
9.   knit
10.      write poetry
11.      paint
12.      take photographs (handy on your family trips!)
13.      bake desserts
14.      make pasta
15.      scrapbook (handy for documenting your family trips!)
16.      sing
17.      do yoga
18.      make lemonade from scratch
19.      roller blade
20.      snorkel, water ski, or scuba dive

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Boys into Men: The Power of Words

My daughter and I went out for an early dinner last week, and our table was next to a large table of adults and children celebrating a young boy’s birthday.  He was probably five or six.  The children were having a great time.  Then we heard the voice.  

Influence versus Force 
The voice was that of the birthday boy’s mom, and she had an agenda.  She wanted photographs of him with his guests, and she wanted those photos to be picture perfect.  Candid photos of him actually having fun were not OK.   He had to stand a certain way and he had to smile a certain way.  Her harsh tone sucked all of the fun right out of the party.  She was not influencing her son to be a happy part of the picture; she was forcing him to be a part of her picture.  When he didn’t comply, her next words were, “You are upsetting me.”  My daughter looked at me with very wide eyes that seemed to say, “Yikes!”  

Emotional Responsibility 
Mom was making a five-year-old responsible for her reaction and her emotions.  Her repeated claim - “You are upsetting me” – sounded like a threat of impending doom.  Something cataclysmic was about to happen when she actually reached the point of upset.  I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t sound pretty.  

Boys into Men: Big Decisions  
Our words are very powerful.  Our children are making decisions about the world, relationships, how men are, and how women are based on their interpretation of feedback from the important people in their lives.  These are very influential decisions that will guide their worldview.  “You are upsetting me” muddies the water about ownership of our emotions.  

I was very curious about what this young boy concluded from his interaction with his mom.  I wondered what he decided about having fun, pleasing others, and handling emotions.  I wondered what he decided about women.  Are women’s emotions his responsibility?  I have a hunch that he had probably heard those words from his mom before the birthday party.  She probably lets dad know that dad upsets her, too.  How dad responds to mom then paints an even bigger picture for this young boy.  From his father’s response, he gets feedback on how men relate to women.  Words are very powerful. 

In this moment at his birthday party was he thinking that he must comply with the requests of others in order to be loved?  Did he conclude that being upset was bad and having someone become upset was something to be avoided at all costs?   Maybe he simply concluded that mom was weird or bossy or not much fun or gets tense at high stakes birthday parties.  

The Birthday Gift  
I won’t know the answers to those questions.  I do hope, if we were to fast forward twenty years, that the decisions he made at his fifth birthday party have led to a happy relationship with his wife or partner and to lots of fun in his life.  Mostly, I hope he is crystal clear that although he does indeed powerfully influence others, others remain in charge of their emotional responses.  I hope, too, that his twenty-fifth birthday will be full of warmth, a professional photographer, and many candid photographs.