Emotions and Birthcountry Visits
SM MACRAE, Ph.D
Cycling Through Emotions
Over the course of a visit to a transnationally adopted child’s birthcountry, especially if it’s planned to visit their institution or foster family, it’s likely that the child will run the gamut of every emotion. Even simply planning a birthcountry visit can produce emotion…our adopted children often fear the unknown, fear transitions. With a birthcountry trip the fear is of the unknown, yes, but also of the known, however unconscious the knowledge of their birthcountry has become. Children also may become hugely energized about making the trip… We parents need tools to deal with the emotions we and our children almost inevitably will experience.
A birthcountry trip with every emotion possible sewn into its fabric needs careful preparation. Experienced families have found that preparation with books, drawing pictures, and using maps to deciding the route is worth-while preparation for the trip. The child is entitled to be party to the planning. More, it makes planning for the trip a family task; that is a huge safety net for a child unsure he or she wants to make the trip. It helps an anxious child feel secure that the whole family are going – and the whole family are coming back!
Then, we parents need to understand that in making return visits to their birthcountry our adopted children may cycle through all of the four basic emotions of fear, anger, sadness and happiness. For those families who make just one visit, it is likely that the tour through the emotional wheel won’t be sequential, that emotions will present and re-present in a patchwork response as the child struggles to come to terms with feelings. Often, too, the child will freeze these feelings, pack away the emotions, and families will find that it is months after coming home that the child dares to release how they felt. On a first trip it is very likely that work to grasp the feelings were will continue well into returning home. For families who have made more than one trip, feelings about being in birthcountry often arise and can be dealt with straightaway; the child feels secure enough about being there to let emotions out and let parents deal with them… For these families, rather than emotions packed away to deal with later, we come home unpacking how we’ve dealt with it.
Let’s take a quick tour of the emotions that may arise in a birthcountry visit, and how we parents might think to deal with them.
Fear may begin before the trip. Fear of “going away”, fear of “going somewhere”, it’s shorthand for the journeys our adopted children made to us, even if they are going back with us.
And arriving in birthcountry? The fear is intensified by the immediate sounds smells and colors. It’s not easy to prepare for this. A Chinatown in the west, for example, isn’t the same as a town in China. And then, on landing, the fear is made instantly worse because - as children do - our children look immediately to us, their parents, for help. And what might they find? They find parents who are flummoxed and tired, unable to figure how to call a cab or find a train, unable to speak with their normal confidence to others and ask for help. The parental edifice of strength crumbles in the eyes of the child. Where is the child going to hide? Will we (parents) regain our normal strength and confidence? If not, what? And if the child becomes afraid, s/he may turn away from us. Both parents and children, not coping.
How can we help these initial fears? It’s important for returning families to take time after touch-down. Try to get sleep as soon as possible and try to grab some easy food. Then hang out together very quietly to regain family composure. Go for an easy walk or two, and get the hotel to write directions back to the hotel and the names of places you want to visit for cab drivers. Stay close to your child. Hug and carry your child as much as s/he will let you. Get a room with one big bed (and ignore strange looks). Eat foods you can share. Don’t criticize if your child if your child doesn’t like local food. Do take time to mooch round supermarkets and wonder at ‘same and different’ from home. We parents have to lead on opening up the dialogue with birthcountry…
An orphanage trip
Fear comes as baggage in trips to the child’s first place of care. It’s not just being there, it may even be going there. The journey may upset the child emotionally. The decision to visit should be worked out beforehand. Not all kids can cope. The orphanage trip need not be part of a birthcountry trip if parents feel it might overwhelm. Nonetheless, we parents have to remove our own anxieties from making this connection. Children often cope far better in reality than imagination. On the other hand, our parent agenda for visiting the orphanage (delivering gifts, seeking information) should not drive the visit. If needs must we can deliver our agenda without taking along the child. But many families find children grow in understanding of their first months and years by reconnecting. For some children, for whom birthparent searching is well-nigh impossible, connection to the orphanage is the deepest connection to birthcountry they can achieve.
Dealing with fear
How do we parents deal with fear? By hugs, by closeness, and by acknowledging that fear is a proper thing to feel when you feel out of control. An orphanage visit is hugely heady, and indeed may trigger memories even our children didn’t know were held deep inside them. What tools do we adoptive parents have to hand? Parents can help regulate children with a quiet compassionate hand on shoulder, an acknowledgement that we too feel strange, but that fear dissipates when you face it… It’s the pre-worked signal (a squeeze maybe) that means a child wants to leave now. It is empathy and true parenting – knowing exactly when a child has faced quite enough, and needs to retreat to recharge strength and ability to cope. Re-charging? My image is that of a child with a smaller sib seated on their lap, sitting on my lap, with all of us rocking for stability…
After fear comes anger. Adopted kids on birthcountry visits can be very angry. Anger at being taken out of routine, anger at parents’ not coping, and anger at all the wrong foods. Children need supported in their anger. We as responsible parents need to remember that anger very quickly surfaces over deep feelings of loss. We parents may be at a loss ourselves to deal with the feelings of raw anger which may be freed in our kids when they arrive in birthcountry. We have to be in a place to support our children. We have to be abler to contain our own emotions.
Loss of “fit”
Children feel anger at loss of fit. They ask why they had to be lost to their birthparents. What was that caused this (are they to blame?)? We parents then feel guilty: are we right to ask our children to look at these losses, to have brought them back to birthcountry to confront them?? My elder girl has enunciated her anger by saying sharply that being in China can make her feel extremely angry and very sad. She sees families in what she feels must be equivalent situations to hers (mainly women begging with kids) still WITH their children. She is angry at her birthmother for not trying harder to keep her. She asks why if these mothers can do it, why not hers?
When we very often can’t do other than offer other reasons for our child’s loss, how do we deal with this sort of anguished anger? What are the tools?
~Allow the anger. It is the children’s right to have it. But remember in birthcountry and afterward, we parents may have to defend or explain the societal reasons that underpin our children’s need for adoption. We have to do this even when there is a part of us that screams at birthmothers, birthmother, you were wrong to leave my child.
~ Give all possible answers truthfully and appropriate to age, and don’t offer an untruthful safe way out. Over time as our children grow and re-question events, they may be better off allowing anger early so that in teens this anger is put where it belongs. It is our job to make safe our children’s connection to their birthparents, because if we don’t, who will?
After anger comes maybe a resolution. Families often find that as anger resolves, there is a catharsis. Many families fear catharsis, thinking that if they avoid birthcountry visits any crises our children may have in belonging to our family will be averted. But, these are crises waiting to happen, and the fact that they happen IN birthcountry may in fact be healing... Why? Because facing anger and fear in birthcountry is supported and made possible because our adopted children come to birthcountry within OUR family. Finding out about the losses that began a child’s journey an adoptive family is hard for that child to bear. Finding out about losses is beyond even thinking about first family and first community of care. It brings with it great sadness for what might have been and what was. But dealing with this sadness and loss in birthcountry allows the first glimmering of understanding of how to bind all this into the future.
When we parents take our children back to their orphanage, their first community of care that cared for them after birth family, we ask them to meet who ‘they were’. It is likely they will meet current children from that community, and will draw comparisons. They may also find themselves drawn by the staff back to the status of “a child from there”. For adopted children, this other previous identity, another view of “Who I Am, at base” is very hard. It may diminish esteem; it may make the child feel labeled an orphanage kid…
What tools are there for sadness?
~Allowing sadness is so important. Allowing the child to pick up the emotional pieces of their past life and examine them within the circle of current family is so important.
~Realize that it is important to allow that the examination of past life may not be peaceful! The child may feel anger at looking at all the aspects of sadness just described. We parents have to be very strong, and not let our emotions round wanting to protect our children get in the way of letting them simply FEEL. Hug and touch are very important, but the lightest of touches may seem to burn our children when they are emotional, so keep to the lightest of touches…
~ Claim the children! When the children are confronting the past, it may be that we parents have to act as a barrier to stop invasion of our children by people from their past. Don’t be afraid to claim your child when fear and anger and sadness are showing. This may be necessary at the orphanage. We parents will need to engineer a delicate balance of social custom and claiming… such a hard tool to hone. Roughly translated? If the staff invade, hold your child tight.
And then there is the happiness of being in the birthcountry - and in coming home. Our children are entitled to both, adoption brings that privilege.
It may be good to come to birthcountry not to make a pilgrimage but just to meet friends. Families who make more than one birthcountry trip often find the children are aware that they are not who they might have been in birthcountry. They may look the same, but they do not behave the same. How they ‘are’ is foreign. Would this still pertain if they are with birthcountry friends – when we parents are absent? Yes, because social behavior is cultural and most adopted kids take the ethos of our families and the behaviour of our societies. Our kids fall between the stools of fitting in by face and being set aside by social ‘mores’. Can being in birthcountry make up for that lack of fit?
What makes children happy when in birthcountry? It is perhaps having family with which to explore it? Our families are security for our adopted children, a way of reaching out to birthcountry. Without our families, our children would not be socially recognized. As former orphanage kids, they may have lived in a community, but it would not have been a family, nor recognized socially as one. So through us, they have a right to be treated with respect in birthcountry. At child level, though, what makes children happy in birthcountry? It’s doing things. Things we never could have taught them. Things that seem to defeat standard literature on innate and learned behaviour. “Mum! Watch me!” is the cry, and there they are accomplishing feats they didn’t learn from us. In China I have learned to stand and watch when my children ‘perform’. In shops, on the road, walking, in play parks, under bridges watching dancers practice. Swimming, swinging, Tai Chi, Wushu. Some of the narratives my children’s actions tell astonish me. Am I looking at their parents in them? Whatever, I see children enthralled in happiness being just a little bit part of the people of their birthcountry.
My children ‘own’ their birthcountry. My elder girl says that is her job to show us her birthcountry, and she says it with an expansive wave of her arms, see MY country. She feels strongly she belongs there as much as here; we as her parents must let her share her birthcountry. Just we shared when she first came into our home.
People say that transnational adoption is a bit like a broken jigsaw. Pieces that fitted when new don’t fit any more, bits are missing, and perhaps some of the pieces are from different puzzles. AH but the birthcountry visit can act a little like a kaleidoscope; turn it and new patterns emerge, new puzzle pieces and a different fit. What also emerges is the importance of family. The ability to support a gamut of emotions.
It’s doing things together as an adoptive family in birthcountry that matters. More, it is letting the children feel the gamut of their emotions while cradled by the strength of our family that is the key to an adopted child’s sense of security in birthcountry. Our family underpins, tacks and then helps sew together all the other emotions of fear, anger and sadness that arise, and allows for happiness and pride to emerge. We adoptive parents are the rock on whom our children lean as they find roots in the country of their birth. And as they experience all the heady emotions of the trip....
© SM Macrae 2004-2008 All Rights Reserved
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