With an injured finger, it took me over six hours to wrap our kids’ presents. I did it in two shifts and didn’t finish until nearly midnight. It took them about thirty minutes to undo all the work I’d done, but my work was worth every minute. All three-hundred-ninety of them. Oddly, it wasn’t the shouts of joy that made it all worth it. I did appreciate the shouts of joy; don’t get me wrong. It was the tears of sadness that touched me the most and made my heart swell though.
I devised an intricate gift-wrapping scheme. Every gift was color coded so that I could tell: (1) who it came from, (2) who it was meant for (those two in case I ran out of gift tags), and (3) whether or not it was special. No, I’m not OCD at all; why do you ask? Seriously, that way, the girls could hold up the present they wanted to open during the gift-wrap-tearing frenzy, and I would know at a glance whether or not it was okay to open. There were two presents that I repeatedly told them not to open, because I wanted to save them for last.
You see, my daughters aren’t like most kids. They’re my children, but they didn’t grow in my belly. They’re sisters, but they didn’t grow up together. Our oldest, Little Miss, is twelve years old, and has been our daughter for a little over a year now. Our youngest, Roo, is eight years old, and has been home with us for six months. We adopted Little Miss last November and have been fostering Roo since this past July.
These last two presents were simple presents that most people would take for granted: photos of their families. Our daughters are part of our family, and always will be, no matter where they live. They are also part of another family though, a family that came before us; and those people will always be part of their family no matter where they live. Often, I feel that people who haven’t grown up adopted or in foster care don’t understand this. I was adopted at birth, so I never knew my first family, but my girls did. Their memories of their first families may be tenuous at times, and may not even be pleasant; but they had a family before us, and I think it’s important to honor that.
Our youngest, Roo, saw the photos of her family and broke down into tears. We hugged and rocked together awhile as she looked at her pictures and cried. They were tears of sadness and grief, but it was also a release. She asked to have her picture frame hung right away. It’s currently at eye-level in her bedroom—at her eye-level, right where it belongs. My husband and I may have to bend down to look at it, but we’re not the ones who need to see it.
Sometimes it’s hard, as an adoptive or foster parent to bring up our kids’ first families. We may harbor grudges against them for not protecting their children, or worse, for actively hurting them; we may be jealous of our children’s loyalty to them; we may fear that these people will “take away” our children; we may honestly believe we are doing them a favor by not bringing up a potentially painful subject. But to our kids, these people are still their mommy and daddy, their grandparents, their sisters and brothers, their aunts and uncles. And in most cases, I believe that bond will be there forever. They may go through daily life in the here and now; they may act lovingly toward us and call us mom and dad; they may not talk about their first families; they may even express anger at their first families. They may do all of these things in an effort to please us, or to fit in though. That’s why it’s important for us as adoptive and foster parents to put aside our own grudges, jealousies, and fears, no matter how well-founded they may be, and talk to our kids about their first families.
How can you honor your child’s first family? These are some things I’ve figured out so far in my experiences as an adoptive and foster parent:
- Don’t correct your children when they call their first parents mom or dad. If they self-correct, let them know you knew who they were talking about, and weren’t offended.
- When they ask for pictures of their first family, if at all possible, move heaven and earth to get them.
- When they get teary-eyed about their first family, let them cry. If they want to be close to you, hold them and rock them (no matter how big they are); if they want to cry alone in their room, let them know you understand and give them their space.
- Listen to, and accept whatever emotions your children express about their first families, no matter what kind of pain it brings up in you or how misguided you may think those feelings are.
- Never, ever bad-mouth your kids’ first families to your children, even if your children are doing it themselves. While our kids are figuring out who they are, their identities are still strongly bound to their first families; if you bad-mouth your children’s first family, you might as well be bad-mouthing your children.
- Try to help them find at least one good memory if they can’t immediately think of one themselves.
- Understand that at times, especially around holidays, our children’s minds may turn to their first family, consciously and subconsiously. They may act out those feelings if they don’t feel safe expressing them, if they worry that expressing those feelings will hurt you, or if they are simply uncomfortable expressing their own painful feelings. If you suspect your child may be doing this, you might bring it up in a roundabout way, such as, “Some kids might act inappropriately because they miss their first families, what do you think?” This way, they aren’t talking about their own uncomfortable emotions, they are talking about other kids.
- Any time you have an opportunity to create traditions or act out old traditions from your family (such as holiday traditions), ask your kids what they did with their first families. Incorporate some of these traditions if you can.
Try to remember the little things that you may take for granted: a faded photograph of from your childhood, your annoying brothers’ and sisters’ birthdays, baking cookies with your mother during the holidays. These little things tie you to your past just as surely as they tie our children to their pasts. Just because parts of their pasts may be painful doesn’t mean that we must cut them off and set them adrift. Find ways to honor them, because it honors our children.
What have you done to honor your children’s first families? Or if you grew up in foster care or as an adoptee, how did your family honor your first family? Or how do you wish they did?