Tessa was distraught after a Halloween party for not getting the nod for a sleepover at her aunt’s house. The excitement of the kid-oriented haunted house, the disappointment about the sleepover, and a sugar high made for a meltdown.
I got her into the car and she continued to wail about how mean her dad and I are. My husband and son were in the other car (long logistical explanation), so Tessa and I had some rare alone car time.
The wailing changed tone as we headed home.
“Why can’t Crystal and Joe be my parents!? I have never even been with both of them at the same time!”
I silenced the GPS lady so I could focus. Here’s a slowdown of my processes during moments like this.
- Calm, center, open. Breathe, and be aware of my breathing.
- Listen. Let her do most of the talking.
- Assess. What is she really saying or asking?
- Trade places. What might this look like, feel like, to her?
- Abide. Give her space to feel her feelings.
- Speak. Equal parts head and heart.
Following are the salient parts from the ensuing conversation, which lasted about a half an hour and culminated while we cuddled in her bed.
“Tell me more,” I said while driving home.
“If they got together, maybe they would LIKE each other. And then…”
“And then…?” (pause) “And then they could be your parents?”
“Yes.” (pause) “But Joe is married, and Crystal has Luke.” (pause) “They will never be married, will they, Mom?”
Now, the best thing I did here was not personalize this and make it about ME. Her words, and the thoughts behind them, had NOTHING to do with her feelings for Roger and me, her attachment to us, her love for us. The best way for me to help her find resolution about having two sets of parents, and about her own road not taken is NOT to pretend that one set of parents doesn’t exist, is NOT to feel bad that I can’t be everything to her, is NOT to “fix” it for her by pointing out all she does have.
It’s by giving her space and support to find her own way.
“No, Sweetheart. They were together many years ago, but they were not a good match. You know, don’t you, that they both love you?”
“Yeah, I know that. But why aren’t they my mom dad?”
“Would you like me to tell you the story again? After we get home we can cuddle and talk.”
10 minutes later we pulled into the garage. Tessa got on her jammies and brushed her teeth. We climbed into her bed, about an hour past normal bedtime.
“Crystal and Joe were very young. Twenty may not sound like young to you, but it’s a time when some people don’t have a lot of skills in dealing with other people, with being frustrated. You know that class we took together, Taming the Anger Monster? Well, at that time, neither Crystal nor Joe had learned how to tame their anger monsters.
“They broke up because they were hurting each other. With words — you know that words can hurt. And as much as they both loved you, they knew that neither one was able to give you a stable home, a calm home. At that time. You needed a forever family then, though. And that’s what you got. Daddy and I will always be your mom and dad, no matter what.
“The Crystal and Joe you know now are different from who they were then. It’s OK to imagine what life with them would be like. What do you think?”
“Well…I would have an older brother from Crystal. And a younger sister from Joe. I’m not sure if we would live at Crystal’s house or at Joe’s house. And I would probably go to a different school. One I don’t even know. I might not even know Reed. Or Grandma and Grandpa. Or the OTHER Grandma and Grandpa. And all my aunts — I wouldn’t have any aunts! That would be weird.”
“It would be very different, wouldn’t it? You can tell a thousand stories of what your life is not. And only ONE story of what your life IS. This is your life, Tessa. Lots of people around who love you now and forever, including Crystal and Joe, daddy and me. All of Crystal’s family, all of Joe’s family, all of our family.”
“Mama,” she said sleepily, the anxiety and sadness gone for now, “I love you.”
“I love you, too Tessa.”
There probably were wiser words I could have said, and things I shouldn’t have said. I’m putting this out there because in this space I try to share (within the limits I’ve set regarding Tessa’s privacy) as many facets of open adoption parenting as I can. It’s important to know that “open adoption” isn’t just something you do when you exchange photos, send emails, have a visit. It’s something that can come up even when you have other plans.
UPDATE: Please see my response to the reader comments (below) at my follow-up post, Hotel Rwanda and open adoption parenting.
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.