Ally’s #5: The Family of Adoption by Joyce Maguire Pavao

I had an intense evening last night with this book and a glass of merlot. Like my Tina Fey book, I also read this in one sitting, but for very different reasons. Jim and I have known we wanted to adopt since our second date and have been talking about starting our family for the past year or so. My mind has been eager to learn more about parenting and the adoption process, and this book had me absolutely engrossed.

The author, Joyce Pavao, is herself adopted, and is the founder of the Pre/post Adoption Consulting Team, the Family Connections Training Institute, and Center for Family Connections in Boston and New York City. To say that she is a wealth of knowledge is an understatement. The book is fairly short (118 pages + epilogue and glossary), but it answered a lot of questions I had and some I didn’t realize I needed to be asking.

The book is divided into six sections. First, Pavao addresses the rites of the birth parent(s). I’m actually just now seeing that she is emphasizing the “rites” and not the “rights.” In this chapter, she does not simply address legal standing, but the psychological struggles birth parents endure when choosing or being required to give up their children. Pavao uses stories blended together from her cases over the past 25 years to drive her point home intellectually and emotionally. Holy cow, was she successful! This chapter in particular helped me move past seeing the word “birth mom” as a label and to instead see a living, breathing person that is about to endure pain and loss that I cannot fathom. And that pain never goes away. This chapter gave me a whole host of ideas about how I can be praying for a birth mom.

The next chapter is about the parental rites of the adoptive parent. A lot of emphasis was given to couples who adopt and are dealing with infertility. It was difficult to identify with this because Jim and I aren’t convinced that achieving pregnancy will be a problem for us, but I think Pavao did a great job of identifying the sense of loss that both the birth parents and adoptive parents have to deal with.

I also appreciated her encouragement to protect privacy, but to not be secretive. I’ve heard a lot of adoptive parents express regret and confusion over dumb questions extended family members and strangers ask about adopted children, sometimes in their presence. In this chapter, I realized that I shouldn’t jump down people’s throats for being idiots because I take offense to it as the parent. Instead, I need to be aware how uncomfortable it can make a child feel to have such a sensitive topic discussed in a public place with a perfect stranger as though they weren’t present or couldn’t understand the conversation. Note taken, Ms. Pavao.

The next four chapters discuss the particular needs adopted children have at various stages of development, as well as how to support and encourage their connections with their birth heritage. I learned a great deal in these sections about how begin talking to a child about his/her adoption, how to keep an eye out for normal developmental issues that are amplified in adopted children, and how to demonstrate respect for the birth mom and birth heritage so the child doesn’t feel alienated. Pavao also includes some pretty heavy stories about reunions with birth parents. When you first read the details (ex. your birth mom is also your sister; you are the result of incest), you can’t imagine how such a reunion could possibly go well, but as you read on, you realize that the truth, however horrible, is what adopted children are seeking.

Pavao is most definitely a proponent of open adoption. In the final chapter, she gives a summary of how adoption has transformed over the last two centuries in America (I really wished she would have put this at the beginning) and where she believes it should go. I could write more in praise of this book, but instead I’ll leave you with a few quotes that speak for themselves.

Adoption is about finding families for children, not about finding children for families. (p.24)

Many of us were told that our birth parents were poor and unable to parent, so we gravitate toward a lower socioeconomic group of friends at certain periods, or we work with this population in order to give something back to ‘our people.’ We take what you say very seriously. If you put down what we know or imagine is our background in any way, it only adds to our loss of self-esteem. When you express love and respect for our culture, for our race, for our religion, our ethnicity of root family, as well as for what we’ve gained from our family by adoption, we hear you. (p. 90)

Even more than legal openness, I’m concerned about emotional openness in the family of adoption. I often see families with adolescents who are acting out in some way and parents who don’t accept that they are all being affected by the issues that inevitably arise in an adoptive family. Although they may talk openly about adoption in general, they are rigid when they talk about it in terms of their own family. There’s a sense of closedness which makes it difficult for the children to feel they can gain information about themselves without hurting their adoptive parents. These families are often committed to appearing as if they are a biologically related one. This is stressful and demeaning for the children, who know this is not true. (p. 109)

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