An adoption life book is like a roadmap to your child’s past for when they get older. It is filled with things that are important to you and the birth family. These things will be important to your adopted child as he or she grows older and learns about identity and origin. An adoption life book looks different for every family. They can be photo albums made online and through services that put something together pre-arranged. They can be photo albums with photos stuck in the little pockets with little notes written on the back of pictures and stickers and letters tucked inside little sleeves. They can be an elaborate scrapbook, that each page took several hours to complete and arranged and cropped to look just right. The most important part is the history that will go into them.
If you can manage it you may want to have letters from birth parents and birth grandparents in your adoption life book. If they are willing to share, have people write to the adoptee about biological family history and things that happened before the birth. Have notes about the birth mom’s favorite song and the birth dad’s favorite color. Talk about how the birth mom and dad met if that’s appropriate. You might want recipes from the birth grandma and pictures of birth mom and dad: how they looked as babies. When your child gets older, they can look and see “Oh I have my birth mom’s eyes and I have my birth father’s smile and I look a little bit like my biological grandmother.” It will help them resolve some feelings of confusion having to do with their story, about where they came from, and who they are.
As they age, many adoptees begin to feel a sense of loss that is difficult to discuss without adoptive families feeling defensive or hurt. Adoption life books are meant to help bridge that gap for adoptees and adoptive parents. You can sit together and page-by-page outline for your child where they came from. You also get to include your part of their story. If you were there for their birth and cut the cord, by all means, tell them the story. Write about the feelings you felt when you saw them for the first time. Write about the emotions that welled up, the feeling you had when he or she was placed in your arms and it felt like a dream. Tell them about the tears that wouldn’t stop rolling down your cheeks when you saw their little face for the very first time . Write about how nervous you were to meet the birth parents—afraid that, perhaps yet again, you would be rejected for some unknown reason.
Emphasize to them how important they are to your story. Be sensitive as you discuss the difficult circumstances surrounding the decision of a birth mother to place a child for adoption. Adoption is both beautiful and tragic in that it both builds and breaks forever families. As an adult who has adopted children and who has parents from difficult childhoods, I find it hard to believe that a loving God wishes for biological parents to not be able to parent. There is just too much pain that comes from that line of thinking to be able to reconcile it. When thinking about your child’s story being “beauty from ashes ” think about how much you would appreciate at ages six or 10 or 15 having your history described as ashes.
All that to say, the adoption life book gets to be your child’s history book. It answers the question of who they have come from. It answer’s simple questions like “What did my birth father look like?” and more complicated questions like “Why couldn’t my first parents keep me?” And though those are difficult questions to face, when you face them together, you can both grow from the experience.
Your child will have questions. It will probably catch you flat-footed. If you were adopting an infant placed for adoption, you have the benefit of getting to interview birth parents. Those of us that have adopted from foster care have a smaller pool of information to glean from. The first time my then-two-year-old looked me in the eye and asked “why didn’t my other mommy want me?” I thought I might pass out. I was able to assure her that her first mommy wanted her but had made some unsafe choices with her and her siblings. A judge felt like they wouldn’t be safe living with her and that is why we adopted them. She was unsatisfied with that answer and later went to discuss her question with her older brothers (out of my knowledge or earshot) who lacked the discretion that my husband and I, myself, have. They were 11 and 12 at the time and far more descriptive then I wish they would have been. Nevertheless, my sweet girl got a glimpse of her history. She was sad and confused, but when I was able to sit down with her and look at pictures of her first mommy holding her and show her a picture from the day that we met and the day that her brothers came into my home to be fostered with her, she was able to find some peace. She was two. She is now six. Her questions have gotten more probing as she ages. She is inquisitive, intuitive, and skeptical beyond her years. In discussing things with her older brother, she has decided that she is better off with us. I am happy she has come to that conclusion.
No matter what, I still make an effort to explain to our child that she was never abandoned, never unwanted, never a mistake, and her papa and I may not have even been God’s plan B or C, but we are wholeheartedly delighted to get to parent her. My other daughters who are of a similar age make my life significantly more complicated because there is not a big brother living with us who knows their collective history. Who can help me sort out the details? I did have a thorough caseworker, but they came from a foster placement, not a birth family. It was the sixth of six previous placement—history had become discombobulated. Despite our attempts to document a history and the reasons they came to be with us, as they age and as their questions get more complicated, we still look for the answers together. Right now they are content with the answers we do have: we saw their pictures, we submitted a home study, we conducted interviews with caseworkers, we took them out on McDonald States, and we decided they needed to be ours.
Obviously if you get to pick up your baby from the hospital, your story will be different than mine, I hope that you take the time to sit down and think about how you would like to construct your child’s adoption life book.
I am glad for adoption. I am glad that my children have an alternative to sitting in an orphanage because their parents couldn’t take care of them or keep them safe. I know for all of my children, having been adopted from foster care, that would have been their fate some 50 years ago. There are adult adoptees that have no desire to know who their birth families are. They don’t feel loss. They don’t feel remorse. They don’t even feel grief over what could have been. But there are equal numbers of adult adoptees who will say that they didn’t want to ask their adoptive parents these things because they didn’t want them to feel that period.
A life book helps your child learn his or her story. For two of my daughters, their life books consist of a very large bin. When they get older, it will also consist of Their CPS case files. There are some details that I wish they would never know, but it feels wrong to keep it from them. Their life book has pictures they drew in day care long before I knew them. There are cute little polaroids of them in church with some of their foster parents. A fellow foster parent friend was able to find birth moms Facebook and found a number of infant pictures of both of my girls that I have downloaded and printed out so that they can see themselves when they were babies. I have them displayed in our home because I’m proud of my girl and I love her and it delights her to no end to see pictures of herself on our wall. When my other girls moved in at ages three and four, I didn’t have any pictures of them besides the one that had been with their broadcast. I found a small biography of one of my girls and a darling little picture of them in the newspaper.
You might want to have family pictures taken each time you bring in a new foster child or after an adoption is finalized. Perhaps if you can arrange it with birth family so that your child can see all of you together in one place it may add some cohesion to their story and help their brain sort through some of the confusion about their feelings. Put together something and make sure that you continue to add to it as your child grows so that they can look back with fondness on important milestones and important people in his or her life.
Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree of Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.