Thursday, January 29, 2009

Privledged to be a Memory Keeper

Previous to my current job I worked for 4 years in a private agency contracted with DCFS to manage foster care/intact family cases. I LOVED THIS WORK. Okay, not the work per se - but definitely the children and families I worked with. The system is horribly flawed - I'm sure to get on that soapbox at some point in this blog. But that doesn't mean that there are not wonderful, miraculous, and truly life changing stories to be heard. But today I want to talk about adoption. Most specifically foster-to-adopt, but probably a little about international/domestic adoption thrown in.

Let me start by saying that IF AT ALL POSSIBLE children should be kept with their biological parents and biological families. Why? Because I do believe that children and their parents, especially mothers, begin to bond at conception. Even a mother with serious issues, from drugs to domestic violence, has a reason for choosing to have the baby. There are so many options out there to prevent/end a pregnancy - but this mother chose to give her child life. You may claim that this is often done for "selfish" reasons. But can anyone truly say that they chose to get pregnant and raise a child - but don't care at all if their child ever gives anything back to them?

Every mother has expectations about what it will be like to have a child. They dream about what the baby will look like - most hope there will be some individual characteristic of themselves that will be recognized in the baby. Parents can't wait to start teaching children about things they are passionate about - art, music, business, sports - in hopes their child will show a common interest. And what are the first words we try to teach baby? "Mama" and "Dada"! On some level we all have children to fulfill our desires - to love, to teach, to share, to pass on.

And every baby is born with the knowledge and beginnings of attachment to their mothers (and to some degree fathers and even siblings!). At just hours old, a baby will show an obvious preference for the sound of their parents' voice and the smell of their mother's skin. And a mother's breast milk has the specific nutrients to feed their particular baby. As a child grows, they become more attached to their parents, siblings, and family. Even if the parents/family are abusive, violent, neglectful, or simply chaotic - bonding occurs because babies and children are dependent on their parents. Bonding occurs because it MUST occur for their very survival. When that attachment is broken by removing the child from their parent - at birth or at an older age - trauma occurs. This is not to say that children cannot recover from trauma - but it should not be inflicted unless all other options have been exhausted. That is my personal opinion.

But sometimes, sadly all too often, a parent or family cannot care for their child - or even chooses not to. And I do not want to discount the importance of adoptive families - most have good intentions and many succeed in helping children cope with the trauma of separation, in addition to any added trauma caused by abuse/neglect. But too often the long-lasting consequences of separating children from their biological families is overlooked, or shrug off as being "just the way it is". The long-lasting consequences of adoption are that children go through life missing a piece of "who they are".

Think of all the hundreds of times you've heard stories about "when you were a baby" or "one time when you were 3". Think of how often someone has said "You must be John's son - you look just like him!" Or even perhaps when your father has jokingly said, "You get that from your mom's side of the family" in response to you never being on time. Those of us who are not adopted take these for granted, an in fact, are often annoyed or embarressed by the stories!

Now imagine that you were separated from your parents at birth - how if feels when someone says "You look just like your mom!" - but you know that its just coincidence. Or if you were adopted at 3 - and no one can tell you about the day you were born. Or if you were adopted at 12 - and have no idea what you even looked like as a baby or toddler or at 6, because there are no pictures of you from that age! Or in cases of international adoptions - you don't even know your real age or birthdate, because such records are not well kept in many countries. And then there are the family medical histories and possibly other relatives/siblings that may exist, but which many adopted children never know about.

I am profoundly humbled that I, at times, get to be the "memory keeper" of these things for the children and families I've worked with. Not always, because sometimes I've met them after parent's rights are terminated, or because parents didn't want to share that information, or a variety of other reasons. But occasionally I do, and it is sometimes an overwhelming role.

Now, some children don't want to hear the stories. And nothing is sadder than seeing the devestation in a parent's face when I have to tell them that their child has struggled - when they thought surely ANYONE could care for their child better than they could. But most are thirsty for the information. Children especially ask to hear it over and over.

I get to be the one to tell a child about how their mother picked their name - because it meant "angel" or it was their favorite uncle's middle name. I get to tell them that they get their eyes from their mother, but their curly hair comes from a paternal great-grandfather. One little girl occassionally asks me to remind her what her name was "supposed to be" (her mother changed her mind after she was born). And her brother wants me to tell the story about how when he was little he'd beg for a cookie, but always hold up 2 fingers - one for himself and one for his sister.

I've gotten the priveledge of telling a birth mom that her son loves to paint, a hobby she'd loved as a child too. And that all of her children are safe, well cared for, and generally happy - after she had not seen them for 6 years. Those conversations are not always easy, but parents relish every morsel of information about their kids.

I also have been the one that children give the pictures and momentos of their past to - because its too painful to keep carrying them around. I tell them I'll keep them until they are ready to have them back - I will never throw them away. And sometimes I get to help a 13 year old to put together his "timeline" of all the different parents he's had - because memories from when you were 6 are not always reliable.

I have also gotten to reunite parts of some families - possibly the most powerful experiences ever. I got to arrange for the meeting of siblings who had lived together until they were little years old - but had lost contact for 5+ years when they were adopted separetely. I've been the one to give a picture to a birth mom of the children she hadn't seen since they were toddlers - beautiful preteens now. Or recently, I got to hear the story from a 20 year old, adopted from Ethiopia, about her journey to her home country and the reunion with a brother from over 10 years ago - the end to one long journey and the beginning of another.

To be the "memory keeper" is an awesome responsibility - one that I am profoundly humbled by. There are a few children that I am lucky to maintain long-term contact with. It floors me to realize that I have known them for longer than anyone currently in their lives today - including their adoptive parents. I feel blessed that I can fill in these gaps in their lives - even though never I can't ever fill them completely.


  1. Thank you for keeping families together! Read this little girls story of being with held from her family for 17 months.Also,Sen. Pam Roach of Washington had documentation of the curruption in King County,WA.There are 6 stories on King 5 and 8 months on Pam's blog just of this little girl.

  2. Two of my siblings are adopted, it is a beautiful thing. But sometimes I forget that they have unanswered questions about their past, and wonderings as to why they were in the orphanage (International Adoption). They talk about someday going back to their "Home" country. I love and care for them very deeply, but will never fully understand how they feel. Thank you for reminding me to keep that in mind :-)

  3. very nice blog! Couldn't agree more.

  4. Keen to know your take on the "octuplets" issue.When I read her interview, I cant help but notice that she is psychologically disturbed.She said that she didnt feel needed when she was young and her kids make her feel that.That was a big red flag for me.Last night,when I saw her the state the house was in, with the 6 other kids not being properly taken care of, my heart went out to all the 14 of them. At that point, I wished they would be placed for adoption.The siblings will be scattered all over the state but at least they would be brought up in a sound sane environment where all they would get is unconditional love.


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