My soul sister friend, Beth O’Malley, is a national adoption expert and the author of Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child. She had a lifelong long career as an adoption social worker at the Department for Children and Families (DCF). She was adopted from foster care as an infant. She and her husband adopted a beautiful spirit over ten years ago. She blends her knowledge about adoption which is a blend of profoundly personal and professionally extensive and warmly accessible.
She has published workbooks for kids in foster care as well as children adopted from China. Her website is http://www.adoptionlifebooks.com and she has just started blogging at http://www.adoptionlifebooks.wordpress.com – YAHOO! I am so glad because she has so much wisdom to share.
We met at a workshop about the home study process for adoptive parents. We had seen each other at events at Wide Horizons for Children where she was a vendor and I helped plan cultural events. Since then, we have been friends and our daughters, born only ten days apart, have yearly cookie baking and summer outing and crafting sleepover traditions which are yummy and fun rituals for all of us.
The reason I’m mentioning her here, on my blog, is because she has asked me to write for her newsletter about divorce from the perspective of an adoptive mother. I have and share that piece below:
I never planned to be a stay-at-home mother. I was a feminist who earned the same as my husband when we decided to adopt a child born in China. Our daughter Kai’s attachment needs trumped my politics. I stopped working, woke up many times a night to feed her bottles and soothe her terrified cries which lasted for years.
I needed to differentiate myself from the staff people who had been in the orphanage, show her what it means to have a loving and available mother available who is responsive. Her secure attachment was my priority. There would be no passing her around like a hot potato at family events, no babysitters each week or weekends away without Kai. We lived to protect, feed and nurture her physical and emotional development. We didn’t believe in letting her cry it out – ever.
So when her father and I decided to divorce during her first year of kindergarten, not only did I feel like I failed at marriage, but at being her adoptive and attachment parent. Adoptive parents aren’t supposed to divorce. Our babies come into our lives already having experienced loss. We are supposed to love, heal and nurture not re-traumatize or be the cause for tears.
At therapy, with an adoption specialist, I agonized. How can I do something “right” for me when it feels “wrong” for my daughter? But trust between her father and I was shattered. Adoptive parents aren’t supposed to have addictions, mental health issues, trust issues and remnants from childhood trauma still unresolved – they do. We did. Our children might have anxiety, depression or attachment disorders but not us.
We didn’t know how to reconcile our failings (which is how they felt) because adoptive parents are supposed to be make life better, not worse, supposed to have answers – not questions. No one expects divorce but adoptive parents feel a unique brand of guilt because our children have already lost their birth parents, their first parents and we know the profound loss, the transitions in foster care, orphanages or homes.
We had devoted five years to Kai’s growth and development, learning about malnutrition and being a bicultural family. Adoption conferences, books and magazines filled my “free” time as did organizing a cultural play group. But I couldn’t keep my marriage or Kai’s family together. It didn’t make sense.
We tried an in-house separation, sleeping in different bedrooms, considered buying a duplex or building an addition to remain under one roof while apart. Nothing worked. Trust was shattered between us and we didn’t want our tension to be a skunk perfume so strong it could be tasted, so overwhelming it was hard to breathe or pay attention to anything else.
Together, at the therapist’s office children’s blocks were on the floor, Korean art on one wall and photos of families on another, we got coached on how to talk to our daughter, what to say and not say, what to do and not do.
Don’t get a dog too soon to try to replace Daddy. Don’t be Daddy Santa Claus and only do fun things when she’s away from home. Cry enough to show feelings but not so much you frighten or burden. And of course, reassure her that you will always be her parents, together or apart, and that she was blameless.
On our dining room floor we all sat and her father and I took turns with sentences. I explained Daddy was moving out. He said he would be close by and see her often. We both told her none of our “grown up problems” was her fault.
“Why would it be my fault?” she asked. That sentence was the one ray of sunshine that warmed. There was little else to celebrate. Kai pointed out “perks” to our divorce saying, “It’s just girls in the house now,” or “Can I have the extra close?” She seemed more bewildered than sad.
There were school concerts and Halloween, then the holidays to get through and spring cleaning. My camera worked and I took photographs as I had done each year of her life. I’d load the pictures on Snapfish but put off developing them. Photos of her father and me on the first Christmas morning with strained smiles as she opened gifts. He had showed up at 6:00 a.m. and stayed through lunch. The intentions were good. The photos were not frame-worthy.
There were photos of events I attended without Kai because she was with her Dad. Her absence all I could see. The time she waved to me from the booster seat in the back of her father’s car the first time she went to sleep at his apartment is an image I will never forget. Her hands out the car window waving to me and mine out the kitchen window waving to her. They couldn’t reach or touch. When the car rounded the corner I sobbed. No cameras. No witnesses. That is stored in the solitary confinement of memory.
We didn’t write away to Chinese Consulate for Adoption Affairs seeking permission to parent expecting we would do child support calculations one day. There were no books or pamphlets on how to divorce adoption-sensitive and attachment-style. We struggled to factor in the needs not factored into any state formulas or parenting plans. Could we keep her home and school life consistent as her family changed? Would I work full-time or part-time? How much of her schedule would we disrupt?
Divorce is not ideal. It can be painful and messy – and she’s not even a teenager. It isn’t an experience, like a surgery, that has a clean end date. It took time to accept our new normal, four years before I could get old photos printed, organized and into albums.
The heaviness of my avoidance finally lifted. I realized not all the photos had to be turned into scrapbook pages with hearts and smiley faces. Kai didn’t need a four-year gap in the visual archive of her childhood because some of the images were difficult. It felt right to capture memories and experiences of our whole family life so she will have them for later. Space and nothingness won’t be used to deny reality.
Once, Kai said she was going to write a book called “My Divorce” for other kids. I wanted to correct her, to tell her kids don’t get divorced, don’t ever get divorced from their parents. But how could I say those words to her? She had lost her birth parents, country and language before her first birthday. Parents can be lost and sometimes forever. It was her divorce too. It was the end of a family life she had known.
We are not the family we were, the one we dreamed we would remain, but Kai’s father and I adore her when together or apart. We swap Christmas lists and co-host her birthday parties. We sit together at school outings and sometimes grab a meal together. We share stories and concerns, celebrations and report cards. He has the keys to my home. I have the keys to his apartment. Both places Kai calls home.
We are doing our best to nurture, co-parent and provide stability. We are “doing” divorce as attachment-aware and adoption-sensitive as possible.