We’ve gotten glib about this very complicated issue. “I identify as she/her, white, mother and Texan.” Or “I identify as a black American.” Though not an adoptee, I am very aware of my experience with identity development. My chaotic family fell short in comparison to those I encountered at church and among my friends. By adolescence, I was sure I wanted my life, my self, to be very different from what I saw in my family. I embraced the humor and curiosity but rejected my dad’s racism, violence, and alcohol abuse. I hope you will reflect on your experience of embracing your personal values, beliefs, and roles, too.
One’s identity is that sense of persistent sameness and that essential character that is recognized as ME. We may outgrow our goal to be a princess, but our interest in our appearance remains central to our daily life. We may learn new ways to oppose it but that part of us that recoils from injustice is unchanged over time. Skills may develop but those core values persist. This is the stuff of which identity is made.
Our identity development begins as small children but in adolescence, it is center stage. We become aware of ourselves as one with lots of acquaintances or just a few close friends. Sexual identity gets attention as our hormones kick in. Our body image becomes a burden or a blessing. We realize that we tend to be the idea person or the one who works out the details and we soon learn strategies to navigate the politics of high school. We seek a way to fit in by capitalizing on our interests and values through participation in sports, the arts, drugs, or service, to name but a few. Our new ability to think abstractly leads us into an exploration of religiosity and spiritual possibilities. Finally, our ethnic identity may come into play, particularly in contrast to those whose ethnic identity is different. Hopefully, this doesn’t become a source of shame or conflict but that is certainly as possibility in our world. Ideally, we leave adolescence with a clearer picture of where we fit in, where we are going and who we are.
It takes some young people a bit longer to figure some of this out. The crisis may come sooner rather than later but a crisis is important to the consolidation of the values, beliefs and roles that make up a commitment to being the person we have recognized ourselves to be. This process is no small task. Now complicate it with the questions that come with being an adoptee. The adoptee isn’t just navigating high school politics but is also confronting where they fit in with their adoptive family as well as their biological family. Probably not for the first time but possibly with deeper understanding they ask why they were placed for adoption, why didn’t their birthparents keep them.
Adoptive families can make the process of identity formation easier or more difficult. Regarding adoptive identity questions, it can help to share as much information as available about the biological family or to even maintain communication with them. This communication avoids any idealization or mystery about their lives and why the adoption was warranted. It also helps to openly share what has obviously been inherited from the biological family. This knowledge helps answer the question about where they fit in. Make a point of acknowledging those traits and behaviors that are unique to this child. By giving voice to these gifts, you can support the process of identify formation. You become a source of information about what this person has to offer the world.
Keeping in mind that your relationship has taught your child values and skills, be open about the sadness that you feel that the biological family may not have been able to overcome their hardships. It is critically important to avoid any shaming or blaming of the birth family lest your child feel shamed or blamed by association. If you feel threatened by your child’s curiosity about their birth family, you will make this process harder and will likely send it underground. You may even introduce guilt over betraying you though this interest is natural and important to their identity development. I encourage you to seek professional counseling and to explore the Internet for discussion groups who can help you or your child in this process.
If yours is a cross-cultural/transracial adoption you have a few more hoops to jump through. Be open about subtle or not-so-subtle racism directed at your child from the public or even your extended family. Just because you have never experienced it, just because it breaks your heart to imagine this happening to the child you love, don’t diminish or ignore what you see or what your child tells you.
Your ability to bring your child’s birth culture to them is pretty much limited to a few holiday trappings, a few books, and a few recipes because, after all, it is NOT your culture. You are going to need to enter that culture to bring your child to its doorstep. By doing so, you entrust the cultural community with imparting the culture to your child, you offer your child role models that look like themselves, and you ensure that your child knows themself as a member of a diverse world in which they fit comfortably. This also makes you look like the coolest parent ever and gives you a whole community of consultants about how to deal with racism or, if relevant, racially unique issues like hair and skin care.
Keep in mind, that a family’s culture shifts a bit every time two people from two cultures commit to a life together. In your case, think of it as 3 people committing to life together and let your child’s culture of birth enter the new, beautiful mix.
- I’m teaching another series about the Neurosequential Model. On Zoom for 6 weeks, Wednesdays, 9/8-10/13 from 7:30 to 9:30 on Wednesday evenings. It is full, but watch for another series in January.
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Our Friday night Happy Hours continue. Some nights find me and a single other participant; others find a conversation among 4 to 6 people. The topics range from silly colloquialisms that add color to self-expression to what hobbies have us in their grip to what life has thrown in our path over the past few days or years. If you ever find yourself awake and wanting a bit of grown-up novelty, consider joining us (check your email for the unchanging link). Watch for news of new dates and times!
- Though pressures are easing, this pandemic continues for those of us who understand what is at stake. Others seem to struggle to grasp that. While we await vaccines for our kids, you are in my thoughts. Reach out if you need an ear: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://www.pcaaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/B21-Insightful-Caregiving-Intimacy.pdf and at https://www.neurosequential.com/covid-19-resources .
Thanks for listening. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.