Thursday, 14 June 2012

Telling Stories, Telling Lies

Wow, it's really complicated having kids who suddenly want to talk about stuff.

Kids in Britain (and America, I think) live in this really weird space where every story that we tell them is positive and joyful. Their storybooks are full of lions and crocodiles, and in these books those vicious carnivores gambol happily with an assorted cast of prey-animals, with nary a thought of dinner. If they fight, it's not a to-the-death bloodbath, it's an argument about something cute, with a moral, like who is going to help Mr Leopard bake a special birthday cake for Mr Rhino. And in the end, they all help, because they all have different skills and everybody is different and that's just what the world needs.  (The biggest exception on our bookshelf- I really want to eat a child.
 This book about a hungry crocodile is hilarious, in a slightly-wrong, very French way. Unlike most of us, the French don't seem to feel the need to make children feel safe, and it makes their books pretty confronting for British and American audiences. A few times in bookshops I've looked at books that have made me go Whaaaaaaa? and then I've looked at the back and seen translated from the French by..... and though oh right, okay then and usually I put it back down again and pick up something lovely by Sam Lloyd).

Anyway. We are still very much in this rainbows and unicorns stage in our house, and I think it's an entirely good thing. Life is going to get hard soon enough - I want them to have a period in their life where the world feels as safe and calm and secure as possible.


We look at their 'special book' a lot at the moment. And they want to hear so many stories about themselves, all the time. Pink, in particular, has a need to hear her adoption story again and again and again. I think a lot of this is just normal little-girl-ness. She's becoming very aware of family relationships and working out her place in the world. She's working out (because duh, I'm telling her) that she was born from another lady's body and so we talk a lot about how we adopted her and how we are a family. Right now, I know this is absolutely the thing that we need to focus on. Security, certainty, family. And the stories always include how we said to the judge 'yes! We want them to be our babies forever!' and she beams and I tell them both how happy we were when they were finally ours. And they are used to hearing this; they know that it's true. I know that their little minds are thinking 'well of course you were happy when I turned up; I am awesome. What was not to be happy about?' (Also, Blue is thinking 'enough with the stories. Can we have cake now?')

But of course, truth is, I wasn't really all that happy to start with. I was totally freaked out. I was practically having kittens.  I wonder about this a bit sometimes. I find it hard to know - when we tell them stories about their lives, where is the line between developmentally appropriate and outright lying? Even if I had been outrageously happy, there's a lot about their story that isn't happy. How much of that do we talk about now? There's a lot of adoption loss that we need to talk about, and that we do talk about.  There's a fair bit of information out there on how to talk about birth family and the complicated emotions that surround that, but that's not really what's complicating things for as at the moment. As well as skating lightly over Mummy's slight and temporary nervous breakdown, I'm totally stuck on how to talk about where they lived before they came to us. At the moment, a lot of their interest centres around the care home where they lived before they met us. They want to talk a lot about it, and I always say positive things - because they are two- but actually I want to shout that place was horrible! Being in that place nearly killed you! Instead, I'm all oh, look at all these lovely children in the pictures! and hoping my pants don't catch on fire.

There are lots of really good reasons why they needed to be adopted. There are not lots of really good reasons why, for example, their care home was so bad. I still feel angry about it (can you tell???) and I know that some of that anger makes it hard for me to be objective about how we should talk about it.  (Just for the record -this place was not like an American agency care home. Believe me when I say it was bad). There aren't really any good reasons why I struggled and struggled during the first few weeks they were with us, either, but that's the way it was, although I don't really think it would do them any good to hear it.

We need to keep their story simple for them at the moment, because they are only tiny. But the story itself is far from simple. I don't want to give them more than they can handle, before they are ready for it. But I also don't want there to be a horrible moment when they realise we've been sugar-coating bits of their life story and the reality was actually pretty different. I'm sure that a lot of this is not just adoption-related. Mothers who had post-natal depression must have similar issues when they look through their children's baby books with them, I guess. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile what my kids need right now with the fact that they also need truth. I don't want to be one of those mothers who keeps things cosy and it's too late to get real. Also - to be honest - Pink has started talking a lot about how she wants to visit Ethiopia (Eee-feee-o-papa, she says - it's adorable). We want to take her - of course - but she keeps talking about how she wants to visit the care home, and I've suddenly realised that when we do that, it's a loooong, long way from the image she has built up in her little baby head and I know it would distress her - both the place itself and the disappointment, the difference, between what she expected and what it really is.

I guess that is what started me really thinking about this whole thing. I was hoping that writing this down would give me some clarity, but it hasn't.


  1. I'm glad to read this post; sorry that it didn't bring you clarity though! WE have just taken custody of our 2 yo son and there is much of his story that is also not within the scope of our intended narrative. His story is clean and clear and ethical on paper (except where it's not) and he received excellent care (except where he didn't)and on and on. I haven't even published his "special book" yet because I'm scared to commit the glossings-over to printed word. Ugh. So complicated.

    1. I am also glad to read this as it really articulated many of the thoughts that are circling like angry bees in my head. In our case its not so much the care received rather the reason she came in to orphanage care. We suspect it was due to her special need. Most parents in this case use the line about not being able to provide care so the first parents had to make a hard choice, that is simply not true for my girl, in no way shape or form is her need life threatening. Her need is going to be a big part of her self identity and I can't bare for it to shoulder the "blame", that would be murder to her self esteem. Yet it is going to be very hard to deny that it did not play a part. Experts say we should tell her we just don't know why. I am trying hard to believe that my self so that I can convince her too, but it still seems off. Nothing seems right though.

    2. It sounds like you do not know FOR SURE that her special need was the sole reason. It might be the proverbial straw that broke the back... I actually have trouble with parents who over-simplify the reason their kids were placed for adoption, "Poverty" It is often so much more than poverty. I think the most important thing is to teach out kids, "life is incredibly complicated and until you have walked a mile in someone else's shoes you just do not know the answer." And, (much, much harder for me) we have to get all our own stuff/anger processed so we don't attach our emotions to the facts. There is stuff in my husband's history that makes me very angry at his parents. But they do not pose a threat to our children. Trying to never let my anger about things that happened decades ago interfere with their relationship with their grandparents can be a challenge, but is worth it.

    3. Sylvia, I can see how complicated that must be. First parents are such an important part of a child's identity, and for your little girl, her special need will be too. Trying to dovetail the two (possibly contradictory) ways that might make her feel will be.... complicated. Hard, hard stuff in this for her as she grows up.

    4. Nora - it took me more than two years to do our special books!! And we haven't actually got many words in ours - partly because I knew we wouldn't finish ours if we gave ourselves that extra task, but also because we wanted to be able to talk about the pictures fluidly depending on what they wanted to talk about at the time. It's worked pretty well for us so far, not committing any words to paper! I recommend it. Also, it means that they can show their 'photo album' to visitors if they want to and not be showing their entire story.

      also - SFM - I know you are drive-by-commenting!!! But Sylvia wasn't saying she thought it was the sole reason. Sorry to be a pedant but I think it's still a really hard thing to come to terms with, considering that your special need might have even been a 'straw'.

    5. Claudia, I think I was clumsily trying to agree with what I thought Sylvia was really trying to say... is that enough qualifiers? Not sure I could be less clear if I tried.
      There is actually an element of this in our own adoption that I am also always processing.
      Sylvia - I sincerely hope I didn't offend.
      Now I have to go look up pedant.

  2. Hi! I've been reading for a while but haven't had much feedback to offer until now. I am Mom to a former 25 week preemie who spent six brutal months in intensive care. He's two now, healthy and happy, and we'll probably look to adopt in the near future.

    From pregnancy to the birth to, well, about six months ago I can easily say that this has been the most traumatic and horrible two years of my life. Rather, I hope it turns out to be the worst because worse than this and I don't think I can manage. We're talking 9 emergency surgeries during his 6 months in the hospital plus 8 more admissions since for scopes or follow-up surgeries, including an episode where he required 5 minutes of CPR. So, bad.

    My point. I have to find a way to talk to him about this period that doesn't result in him equating my lowest point with who he is. We may be at a slight advantage because he has so many surgical scars. I can explain that this scar came from an operation when the doctors had to fix his belly, etc, because he was sick when he was a baby. But! He was so fierce and lively even when he was tiny, he overcame. I figure stories like this have to come in layers - he might be ready for the outline of how his infancy differed from the Hallmark card now. He sees photos of himself with the leads and tubes in our albums. Maybe by the time he's 6 or 7 I can introduce some of the emotions around it - we were sad and worried, he had to see a lot of doctors, but he came out well. And he was funny, too! More layers get introduced as he grows and can understand how his experience was so different.

    I don't think he'll be ready to hear about my emotions around the experience until he's an adult. Who could be? I think it takes a level of emotional security and self-knowledge to hear about mom's sadness without seeing it somehow as a reflection of your worth. So that will take a while.

    1. I have to find a way to talk to him about this period that doesn't result in him equating my lowest point with who he is.

      Yesyesyes!!! That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. I'm so sorry you've been through such an awful time - so glad he's well and happy now! Lovely to meet you!

    2. Dinei, Wow, mom to a 28 week preemie here and hearing you loud and clear. And Claudia, REALLY struggling with life book right now because of ALL this stuff. Stressing me out big time actually.

  3. Similarly, I have a lot. LOT of well... anger that I haven't come to grips with. There is much that I myself need to find peace with. Not that any of it was good and peaceful- but just get to a point of- this is the truth of it and be able to leave the "how could you?!" "jackdonkeys" wantokickfaces feelings behind. Until then - i fake it and leave the truth with him. Not ALL the truth because well... he's 5 and still parsing it together himself. Good luck with it all. This, I think is one of those pieces in adoption that can not be written about with any certainty.

  4. Tight schedule. Not reading other comments. Are you ready for some obnoxious, bullet-point advice?
    Here is comes.
    1) Someday they can here the care center sucked. Not for a long, long time. Probably in the context of "we were really worried" and/or in the "why we didn't get out and explore Ethiopia more."
    2) There is only two reasons to tell them about your personal tough time a) if someone you know goes through something similar and they are old enough developmentally to hear "this happened to Mommy, too and it turned out okay." OR b) they announce they are going to become parents and you can talk about how to prepare for what might be difficult for new parents.
    Otherwise - THAT is not their story, it is YOUR story. And it is not something they need to know either for a long time, or possibly ever.
    3) Maybe, it will be totally awesome because when you go to visit Ethiopia, their care center will have improved. As for us, Little Dude's rural care center is already shut-down and his AA care center has moved. Plus, I believe our agency will be closing their Ethiopia program long before we visit. Regardless, worrying about their reaction to their care center at this point in time is just borrowing trouble.
    4) I just gave away a box of "fairy tales" at my garage sale - who reads that crap to their kids????? However, I am starting to be a little more realistic about what animals eat which animals in the real forest/woods/world. Tip-toeing into something besides "The Wolf, Rabbit, Small Child and Polar Bear skipped off into the woods holding hands and singing Kumbaya."

    1. Yeah..... to point 1), that doesn't work so well if we go back in 12 months time!! ARRRGHHHHH!!!!!!

      And as for 4) - get yourself a copy of 'I really want to eat a child', girl!!! Sounds like your kids will be ready for it!

  5. Oy - Hear not Here

  6. Well, you're going to love this story. It has nothing to do with your post but here it is:

    we've been having some going to bed and staying there problems. The other night D goes to a movie, phones me and says he miscalculated so he'll be home a bit later but in the meanwhile he's going to a bookshop.

    he comes home with not 1 but 6 books for the kids. The funniest thing is they're all on the theme of "you're in a big bed and you need to stay there"

    I laughed so hard when I was reading them I was crying.

    But they're staying in their beds. So best R350 we've spent for awhile!

    Of course they're all UK books "Mummy" instead of "Mommy".

    So I need to look out for these French ones - i'm all about real life :)

    Seriously, just answer them as appropriately as you can and pray when (not if) they start to ask the more difficult questions.

  7. BG has been home for Almost 7 years now. We have done searches two times. Each time we came up with more information which changed what we "knew" about her story.

    Initially, the place where she was abandoned, according to her paperwork anyway, made me have certain feelings towards her Birth Family. Like "here? really? how could you? what kind of birth mother would do that?" None the less, I created her first lifebook within a month or so of her coming home with this finding spot in the narrative and tried to spin her story as best I could.

    We then did a search and found out that might be the spot but the story went a little differently. It changed my feelings very much towards the birth family and her story and I created a second lifebook.

    I read the book "Message From An Unknown Mother" by XinRan about Chinese birthmothers and had all sorts of empathy towards birthmothers and the possible scenarios they face. We did a second, more through search and got more details and I made another lifebook that says plainly, We do not know why this happened. These are the facts as we know them, the motives we cannot not know.

    This is the truth. We want to give them a nice story, but we can't. I include pictures of the orphanage which is not nice but it is what it is. She WAS THERE. I include a photo of what they tell me is the finding spot. It is harsh to think of. But this is what we have as her truth. she has grown up seeing it so it didn't sting when she was little, if she saw it for the first time when she could understand exactly what she was seeing.....yeah. That would be hard.

    Ok, so this is way more than you need in the comment section. What was the question anyway? I got carried away here.

    1. "And I made another lifebook that says plainly, We do not know why this happened. These are the facts as we know them, the motives we cannot know." I love this so much and want to steal it. Because YES. Exactly.

    2. yes. I want to do this too. But my kid is 2.5 and he is so so vulnerable. He has made it clear he does NOT want to talk about life before he was adopted yet. Now what do I do??

  8. Our son is 5 and parts of his story are also not very nice at all.
    I think telling simple truths is the best policy. Simple truths that the child can understand /developmentally appropriate.
    JMHO, but it seems that once you sugar coat or leave out important details that lead the child to have incorrect impressions, you run the risk of being seen as having lied.
    Using the example of the care home--if Pink thinks it was lovely, she could be surprised /disappointed/upset when she learns the truth.
    How about a simple version of the were in a care home where they took care of you, but it wasn't the best place for a child...then leading to this being one of the reasons for adoption (vs. staying in the care home). Not sure if this fits your child's truth exactly...just trying to give an example of how you might handle it.
    An example from DS's story might be more clear.
    Truth (which we know b/c we have contact with birthmom): when birthmom told birthfather that she was pregnant, he told her to get an abortion and left her.
    We've told DS a version of his story from when he came home, age 9.5 mos. Realized one day that we'd basically left birthfather out of the story, when, out of the blue, at a hockey game (who knows why?), DS asked me "Did my birthfather help make the adoption plan, too?"
    Simple truth we told him: "No, actually he didn't. When bmom was pregnant with you, your birthfather wasn't ready to be a father. He left it up to your birthmother to make the plan."
    Obviously, I left out the details. But tried to give him a version of the truth.
    Of course, when DS processes all of this, when older (and he gets more details), it will cause him pain. I feel awful about that. But don't think there's any honest way to avoid it. And I'd rather that he get developmentally appropriate snippets of the truth along the way, than finding out at a certain age that the narrative he's been hearing over the years, from me, wasn't accurate.

  9. I don't have anything to add, but will be facing these conversations at some point. It sounds like a constantly changing, difficult conversation to have--it will be good for us to think about well in advance. Thanks for posting this--I am learning a lot from the post and from the comments.

  10. Oh, and the author of "I Really Want to Eat a Child" also wrote "Monsters Eat Whiny Children". :-)

    1. Cory, you have GOT to see the link that Sian left below. Murder, death.... it's all there. Hilarious and terrifying!

  11. I'm feeling like I didn't explain myself very well... I'm not so much talking about answering questions - we do our best to answer those at an age-appropriate level. I'm talking about the big blank space when they say 'tell me my STORY, mummy!' ten times a day. And they are at an age where they want to build up fantasies about things and people (do they ever grow out of that????) and one of our kids is getting kind of carried away along those lines. I don't really want to be more specific than that .. its complicated. Obviously!

  12. I'm struggling with this as well. I really worry about the whole sugar coating thing. There are some really tough layers to my son's story and I just don't know when to introduce them. I don't want to drop a bunch of heavy stuff on him suddenly and have him think we were lying. It's so complicated. I'm actually thinking of seeking professional help in order to get some advice.

    1. That's a good idea. Please let me know if you get good advice! I could really use it!

    2. Emily - Like Claudia and all the other commenters, I am really struggling too. I hardly ever even talk to Lottie about Ethiopia because I'm not sure what to say, which is NOT the way I want to handle this. I hadn't even thought about seeking professional help. I would love to hear what they have to say.

  13. You've seen this, right?

    1. Sian, I hadn't seen this, and I just laughed SO HARD that I nearly choked. Unbelievable. And hilarious. The captions are priceless!

      (Everybody else, you MUST click on this link!!!)

  14. Hmmm, I am not adopted, but I grew up hearing some unpleasant but true things about my arrival in the world, and you know, I didn't need to. It was not helpful. I agree with SemiFeral on this point - the time to share about mommy's struggles is when the grown child is talking about becoming a parent. I didn't need my mother's recounting of my horrific birth and her sadness and isolation as a new mother to shade my sense of self. In that spirit, I have not yet talked to my son about his two bouts of critical illness pre-adoption. I will. I will add layers to his story as he matures. He has a right to know that. But right now his self esteem is too fragile, his fear too great. No one benefits from being considered a sickly child.

    As for the care centre, that's harder. Of course, no care centre is ever good enough. Could you take the angle that children need parents because it is not healthy to live in an institution and no one gets the care they need in an institution? It is true; it avoids details that might not be age appropriate. There are aspects of the care centre where my son stayed that are very good, and in major ways that seriously hurt him, they fell down. And that goes in the story for later about how sick he got.

  15. Another very interesting post. We just passed court and are a few months away from bringing home our 4.5 yo boy from Ethiopia. I've always planned do a life book for him, but hadn't ever really thought it through. As in, what will it look like?

    His story . . . well, he's old enough that he probably knows quite a bit about his story. We're supposed to have a birth family meeting on our Embassy trip, and hopefully we'll learn more than what we know from his paperwork.

    But reading this post and the comments today has given me the idea of doing more than one book. A first one, with mainly pictures and a little bit of narrative, will be good for now. He loves looking at pictures of himself. But as he learns English and opens up about his experiences and his memories of Ethiopia and his birth family, I want to make a record of that for him, too. A lot of what he remembers now he probably won't remember forever, at least not in any detail. And I don't want him to lose that.

    And if we learn more about his story by using a searcher, we can incorporate that as well.


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