Adoption: A Literary Exploration

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Adoption: A Literary Exploration
Kavanaugh, Claire ( author )
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Adoption in Literature
Children's Literature


Adoption is a legal process in which a child is raised by someone other than his or her biological parents and can be accomplished with varying degrees of openness. Adopted children often experience a period of grief at some point in their lives related to their adoption and their loss of their biological origins. Bibliotherapy is one method of helping children cope with adoption related grief and though most of the adoption books in print are authored by adoptive parents and fail to address the issue of the child’s birth parents in any detail. In response I authored a children’s picture book intended to supplement the available literature—recreational, educational and therapeutic—written from the perspective of a birthmother that focuses on the love involved in adoption. The purpose of the book is to function as a bibliotherapy tool and aid in the healing process of adopted children as well as facilitate a better understanding of the often stigmatized practice of adoption.
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Adoption: A Literary Exploration Claire A. Kavanaugh Counseling and Psychological Services Department Adoption is a legal process in which a child is raised by someone other than his or her biological parents and can be accomplished with varying degrees of openness. Adopted children often experience a period of grief at some point in their lives related to their adoption and their loss of their biological origins. Bibliotherapy is one method of helping children cope with adoption related grief and though most of the adoption books in print are authored by adoptive parents and fail to address the issue of the childs birth parents in any detail. In response I authored a childrens picture book intended to supplement the available literaturerecreational, educational and therapeuticwritten from the pers pective of a birthmother that focuses on the love involved in adoption. The purpose of the book is to function as a bibliotherapy tool and aid in the healing process of adopted children as well as facilitate a better understanding of the often stigmatized practice of adoption. I. Openness in Adoption There are several types of adoption that differ in the way the legalities are handled, either through private attorneys or through adoption agencies, and in the amount of contact allowed between the birth and adoptive families. In closed adoptions there is no contact between the child and his adoptive family and his birthparents; all access that an adopted child may have to his biological origins is cut off until he is an adult and able to search for his birth family himself. Open adoptions, on the other hand, allow for open contact between the two families. This contact can include lette rs, pictures and visits. In between closed and open adoptions are semi-open and semi-closed adoptions that have varying degrees of openness and contact. The most important benefit of open adoptions is the access the adopted child has to his entire history. Children of open adoption have the opportunity to learn about the history of their biological family, their own medical history, ethnicity, genealogy and even whose eyes they have or from whom they inherited their talentsall luxuries children in closed adoption do not have. Adopted children run the risk of not being able to develop a complete sense of self and that risk is even higher in ad options where the child is not able to explore freely his biological origins. No matter what the circumstances or openn ess of an adoption, many adopted children struggle with related grief and loss. While open adoptions can aid in minimizing these feelings by providing immediate answers that only birth parents can provide, the grief


C. Kavanaugh 134 process is one that most adopted children will most likely have to work through at some point in their lives. II. The Grief of Adopted Children In our western society we operate under the assumption that children do not grieve. We believe them to be r esilient and able to bounce back from any loss or injury, be it emotional or physical. Often we conclude that if we si mply do not mention loss or, at the very most, give it only a passing acknowledgment and stay strong, children will do the same and just move on; in essence, if we as adults skirt the i ssue of grief and loss with children then they will remain protected from sorrow and pain. We want so badly to protect the fleeting innocence of children that we have convinced our selves that the best course of action is to brush aside their pain with phrases like youre ok, dont feel bad, and dont worry, and not address their grief directly, or at all, because, after all, they are only children and, therefore, cannot possibly comprehend loss to the extent that an adult is able to. The latter comment may have a kernel of truth, in that ch ildren rarely have to deal with the logistical aftermath of a loss, such as death, but that does not mean, however, that they do not grieve that loss as deeply or personally as their adu lt counterparts. When we shelter children from grief we are really protecting ourselves from addressing our incapability to relate to and help a child through a loss (Fiorini and Mullen, 2006). The fact of the matter is children do grieve. Though their understanding and concept of loss matures with time (a nine-year-old will recognize that death is permanent while a three-year-old may ask when the deceased relative is coming back) they are capable of internalizing and recognizing a loss no matter what their age. What eludes adults and leads us to believe that children do not grieve is the way in which children grieve. They will often act out, or alternate between being sad or angry and being outwardly fine, or they may escape to a world of fantasy (Fiorini and Mullen, 2006). Children are not adults and as such we do not expect them to approach the world in the same way we do, so why should we expect them to approach loss as we do or grieve as we do? Adopted children face a unique type of loss. Their loss occurred very early in life; in many cases right after they were born. This pre-existing loss was one they could not deal with or even comprehend as a newborn, but this does not mean that it is one they will never feel the ramifications of. Adoption is a process, not simply a single, isolated event and will be a large part of a childs story and sense of self; while it does not define a person, it is, nevertheless, a part of who they are (Silber, 1990). Loss can be defined as: the permanent or temporary removal of an important object, person, or event, or failure to achieve a coveted goal (Van Gulden and Bartels-Rabb, 1993, p. 20). Under this definition the loss of an adopted child is the loss of a person, or persons; his birth family. It is also a loss of origins and of a complete self identity (Joshua and DiMenna, 2000). The lack of shared physical traits with family members could create feelings of detachment as physical similar ities are an easily recognizable, outward sign of belonging (Van Gulden and Bartels-Rabb, 1993). This feeling of isolation is further compounded by societal conceptualizations that define procreation and parenthood as indistinguishable entities, thereby facilitating th e notion of real parents. Adopted children face the dilemma of who their real parents are, those who gave birth to them or those who raised them. Their grief may also stem largely from their conflicting feelings as they struggle to integrate the two sides of themselve s: their adopted family, which to them is


Adoption: A Literary Exploration 135 their real family, and their biological family, which society has deemed their real family (Leon, 2002). Family is where you go to belong and feel like an intrinsic part of something. Adoptees, however, lose that biological connection and so may feel as if they do not truly belong anywhere. As a child grows and matures so does his concept of adoption, which may trigger feelings of grief. Adoption loss is certainly a loss that can change and reemerge over time. As children grow they will understand inform ation regarding their adoption in new and different ways. Things that didnt make sense to them as a child may make sense as an adolescent and they may need to grieve and repr ocess their feelings in order to reconcile their new understanding. This cycle can easily take a lifetime and may never be fully resolved. Preschool aged children often grieve by rej ecting the fact that they were born to someone other than their adoptive parents and mourn the loss of not only their biological family but also the loss of a genetic tie to their adoptive parents (Silber, 1990). Adoption related grief typically becomes most noticeable in school aged children at which point they are cognitively able to better understand and internalize adoption and apply its implications to their own lives. They may become angry with their adoptive parents for not being their real parents or they may feel as if they s hould have been born to the parents they live with like many of their friends were (Silber, 1990; Van Gulden and Bartels-Rabb, 1993, p. 34). At this age children may also begin to f eel guilty about being adopted; they may feel there was something wrong with them and that is why they were unwanted by their birthparents and will view the relinquishmen t as abandonment and rejection (Joshua and DiMenna, 2000). In a study conducted by Triselio tis (1973, as cited in Watkins and Fisher, 1993) the main thing interviewed adult adoptees said they would have liked to have been told was that they were not rejected but wanted and loved by their birthparents. As children begin to make sense of their own adoption story they may experience many secondary losses including: Security if their first parents gave th em up why wouldnt their second (adoptive) parents who they are not even biologically related to, in most cases, do the same? Also, what if their biological family came to take them away from the only family theyve known? Control someone else chose who their family would be and what their life would be like. Sense of normalcy if few, or any, of their other friends are adopted, thereby making them different. Innocence they are realizing that life isnt always easy and that sometimes bad or sad things happenespecially if their adoption was in response to drugs, alcohol, abuse, abandonment, economic hardships, etc. Perspective they may view their adoptive parents differently. They are no longer their only set of parents. They ma y even idealize their birthparents and make up stories about their past if not enough information is available to them.


C. Kavanaugh 136 Identity they may feel like they dont know who they are or where they belong, especially if they are from another country or culture. They may feel disconnected from themselves because th ey dont know anything (or little) about their ethnic, medica l and genetic background. They may also grieve the fact that their questions may never be answered. They will have to come to terms with the fact that they may never have the opportunity to know why or have the chance to speak with a birthparent or someone else who can answer at least some of their questions. This unknowing may leave them with a feeling of emptiness. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have been raised by our biological parents undervalue the easy access we have to informa tion regarding our past. We even take for granted the fact that a persons past doesnt begin with their birth but instead encompasses events that happened long before they were bor n, events that involved our family members and ancestors whose actions laid the pathway to our present. For adopted children their adoptive parents past is not their past and th eir own story often only involves the events of their lifetime. Curiosity about ones origins is natural but, unfortunately, it is this natural inquisitiveness that adoptive children usually feel guilty about having. The adoption process involves extremely complex emotions on all sides of the triad (the adoptive parents, birth parents and adopted ch ild) and therefore warrants the same level of openness that is necessary in other relationshi ps (Silber, 1990). They may not want to approach their adoptive parents (the only link to information they have) with questions regarding their birth family as they are worried they may hurt their parents feelings. By asking about their adoption story and genealogy they fear that it may suggest to their adoptive family that they do not love them or view them as their true family. They may even swallow their grief or questions in an a ttempt to fit in with their adoptive family due to fear of further rejection as sometimes adoptees feel as if they owe their adoptive families for accepting them when their biol ogical families did not (Eldridg e, 1999). It is, therefore, up to the adoptive parents to be receptive to their childrens grief and curiosity and encourage conversation to address issues and c oncerns related to their adoption that may arise. Maria Trozzi outlines the three major f unctions that caregivers of grieving children have: 1. To foster honest and open relationships with children 2. To provide a safe and secure space in which children can mourn 3. To be role models of healthy mourning (Trozzi, 1999, p. 11) Children grieving the losses associated with adoption or questioning their self identity and origins need their feelings to be recognized and validated; they need to be assured that what they are going through is normal. Due to possible fear and guilt of the child adoptive parents often need to initiate conversation or at least let children know that its ok to talk about their adoption. It is important for children to know that they can approach their adoptive parents with their questions and that they will share in their grief and search for information. Adoptive parents themselves are not immune to feelings of grief and loss of their own related to adoption. They feel the lo ss of being able to have biological children, loss at having to share their children with anot her set of parents, loss at having to prove to others that they are ready for and would be good at parenting. By sharing in this grief and mourning together parents and children can begin to cope together and will only


Adoption: A Literary Exploration 137 strengthen the bond between them. After all, grief shared is grief diminished (Trozzi, 1999, p.11). III. Bibliotherapy as a Coping Tool Experiences that elicit grief and loss are ones that will cause a child to question how the world works; they will have encountered new experiences and emotions that will ultimately alter their perception (Manifold, 2007). Children generally lack the verbal skills to express complex emotion and thus may rely on their im agination as a safe haven in which they can work through their experiences. Emotionally pa inful experiences can be brought to mind by a sensory stimulus and by understanding the tr iggering event can learn about the emotional response. Picture books can be the perfect means for initiating a deeper emotional understanding in children by providing the exact tools that enable the imaginative mind to interpret painful experiencesrhythm, meta phor, image and simple narrativeand thus tap into a primal way of dealing with emo tional stress (Manifold, 2007). Egan created a framework for the stages of imagination th at a person will go through as they grow (Manifold, 2007). These stages are somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic and ironic thought with somatic being the earliest stage and ironic thought the final stage. Elementary aged children usually relate best to books that utilize the characteristic elements of the somatic and mythic stages: rhythm, metaphor and narrative. Even in older children, adolescents or even adults, when a deeply stressful situation arises the instinct is to regress to the mythic and somatic stages, regardless of current imaginative developmental stage, to begin making sense of their experience (Manifold, 2007). Due to their ability to guide us to personal understanding no matter what our age, picture books can be an important bibliotherapy tool used by both parents a nd professionals in initia ting conversation with children who have experienced a loss. Bibliotherapy is broadly defined as the use of books to address emotional or behavioral issues (Barancik, online). It is meant to create a therapeutic interaction between the audience and the literature (Grier, 2006). When using picture books as bibliotherapy, in which the child is often read to, the child not only interacts with the book itself (both text and illustrations) but also with the reader. It is this added dimension that makes bibliotherapy an ideal way for a parent to open up communication with their child on topics such as their adoption and birth family. The a dvantage of bibliotherapy is that it allows children to step back and take a third-party, objective view of their own personal situation and test out their different emotions and reactions in a safe, risk-free environment (Grier, 2006). A good bibliotherapy book will gently lead the reader to a better, deeply personal understanding of not only their experience or situation but also of themselves. The revelation may be as simple as realizing that, like the character in the book, the reader also isnt a very good listener all the time or as complex as understanding that being adopted means that they were chosen by their adoptiv e parents and will always be loved by their birth parents (Pehrsson, 2006). Books can provide a voice for children who are unable to express what they think and feel and even prom ote an enhanced self awareness and worth, especially valuable to children dealing with adoption losses. By reading about how others dealt with similar situations or by being in troduced to another perspective children can identify and develop their own healthier, mo re informed method of coping (Pehrsson, 2006). Perhaps most importantly is that by using bibliotherapy to approach topics related to their childs adoption, adoptive parents are not only validating their childs feelings,


C. Kavanaugh 138 reassuring them that it is ok to talk about th eir adoption and aiding in their grieving process by sharing in it with them, but they are also strengthening the parent-child bond that will further their emotional growth and healing. Simply reading an appropriate bibliotherapy book is not enough to elicit a therapeutic effect in a child. Rather it is the resulting in teraction, including questioning, exploration, and conversation, that is incited by the book th at will allow the child to apply what they have been read to themselves and their own situ ations. If the child is not invited to relate the story to themselves or make sense of their own situation by questioning different aspects of the book it will have no therapeutic value. Bibliotherapy can also be used in more than just a one-on-one setting. Classrooms are ideal venues for introducing larger groups of children to different points of view. Some grief issues in adopted children arise from being treated as different by their classmates who do not understand adoption. By using a doption related bibliotherapy to inspire discussions in class, students can become educat ed about adoption thus leading to a greater general understanding and acceptance among an a dopted childs peers (Manifold, 2007). Not all picture books are appropriate as bibliotherapy. In order for a picture book to be a useful therapeutic device it must have not on ly meaningful text and engaging illustrations but a successful marriage of the two (Manifold, 2007). The illustrations must highlight and reinforce the important messages of the text and the sophistication of both the illustrations and text must match precisely. For example, if the vocabulary used in the text is appropriate for elementary aged children th e illustrations should not be geared toward preschoolers. The child audience will use the illu strations as an interpretive guide for the story he is being read. Also, the author must approach the central question of the book with dignity and avoid presenting the resolution as th e only possibility to encourage imaginative interpretation by the child (Manifold, 200 7). Finally, selection of an appropriate bibliotherapy book must be done with the child (e .g. his age, maturity and education level, interests, and specific problems) in mind. If the child is unable to relate to or is simply uninterested in the book he will be unable to in ternalize its meaning and it will fall short of its therapeutic, healing goal. It is with the coping process of children and the goals of bibliotherapy in mind that I conceived and designed my picture book so that it would be a useful bibliotherapy tool for children dealing with adoption related grief and loss. The story is meant to explain one possible adoption scenario and explain why bi rth parents might relinquish their child. Unique among most adoption books available it focuses primarily on the birth parents and the dual love of the childs two families. Adoption, while emotionally difficult at times, is a beautiful practice that can lovingly create families and should be celebrated as such. IV. My Piece This is the story Of how you came to be Part of not one But two families There are few little boys As lucky as you Instead of one family


Adoption: A Literary Exploration 139 Why, you, sir, have two It all started way back One mid winter day When I did find out You were on the way I called up my love To tell him the news So unexpected Well, what should we do? We took stock of our lives Took a good look around With school, bills, and youth Nothing promising found No yard you could run in No room for a crib Wallets with cobwebs For bottles, toys, bibs We thought and we thought And came up with a plan Adoptions the ticket! For our little man! Well find him a family With all that we lack A castle to live in Fun toys by the sack! This big decision Was no easy one We wanted forever To be with our son But we knew we could not Give you the whole world For you deserve life, Before you unfurled


C. Kavanaugh 140 We read through the stories Of ladies and lads Who all had one wish: To be mothers and dads We looked at the pictures Read you every word To see which of the couples You liked or preferred We read you of dogs, And apple picking And knew they were it By your joyful kicking After nine fleeting months And long labor and strife You came to try out This thing they call life The three of us played You, your birthdad and I For two wonderful days Till the time for good bye An excited young couple, Your parents-to-be, Had flown cross the country Their son for to see When your parents arrived, Looking elated and smart, Into their arms We handed our heart Through pictures and letters We watch you grow The smiles and adventures Your happiness shows Every so often A child comes along So unique and so special


Adoption: A Literary Exploration 141 Too little love would be wrong The love of one family Just will not do For one so amazing Double the number by two Though so far away We love you so much Theres not a day that goes by That our hearts you dont touch So remember, my love We whisper each night To reach you by moonbeams We love you, good night IV.a. My piece as bibliotherapy I believe this book to be a useful bibliother apy tool because it will facilitate and encourage conversation about and a deeper exploration of a childs adoption history. The piece itself is lively yet heartfelt, simple yet intricat e and focused on adoption but anchored on the universal topic of love. It explains the reasons a birthparent may relinquish their child and reassures the reader that it was not out of malice or disappointment or due to any fault of the childs; instead it was a decision made out of love and wanting nothing but the best for that child, which the birthparents could not provide. The central theme is not sacrifice and the tone is not maudlin or depressed. A childre ns book needs to speak to children on their level. It needs to touch them through both text and illustrations. If they cannot relate to the book or if it simply does not hold their interest it fails to convey its message. The strength of my work is that it gently conveys complex emotions in a positive, interesting way that a child can easily relate to. It will, however, be up to the counselor or parent to engage the child in the story by perhaps asking questions along the way that promote a more complex understanding of the meaning of the text or by going back through the story once it has been read through completely in order for the book to reach its full therapeutic potential. V. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr. Jody Fiorini for he r encouragement and support in preparing this piece and Dr. Maureen Curtin for her vast contributions to my project as a whole.


C. Kavanaugh 142 VI. References Barancik, S. (2006). Best childrens books. Find, read or write. Bibliotherapy: Good book happier kid. Retrieved January 9, 2008, from Eldridge, S. (1999). Twenty things adopted kids wish their adoptive parents knew. New York, NY: Dell Publishing. Fiorini, J. J. and Mullen, J. A. (2006). Counseling Children and Adolescents through Grief and Loss. Champaign, IL: Research Press. Grier, L. O. (2006) Bibliotherapy: Coping with loss. Louisiana Libraries, 69 12-20. Joshua, J. M. and DiMenna, D. (2000). Read two books and lets talk next week: Using bibliotherapy in clinical practice. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Leon, I. G. (2002). Adoption losses: Natura lly occurring or socially constructed? Child Development, 73 652-663. Manifold, M. C. (2007). The healing picture book: An aesthetic of sorrow. Teacher Librarian,34, 20-26. Pehrsson, D. E. (2006). Benefits of utiliz ing bibliotherapy within play therapy. Play Therapy 1.2, 10-14. Silber, K. (1990). Children of open adoption and their families. San Antonio, TX: Corona Publishing Co. Trozzi, M. (1999). Talking with children about loss. New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group. Van Gulden, H., and Bartels-Rabb, L. M. (1993). Real parents, real children: Parenting the adopted child. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Co. Watkins, M. and Fisher, S. (1993). Talking with Young Children About Adoption. London: Yale University Press.