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.