The best social life I ever had was when I was thirteen. Being Jewish and growing up in a largely Jewish area makes for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration at least every weekend (sometimes multiple parties per weekend). As a parent of a current twelve year old (and two older teens) living in a very non-Jewish area, although not the rocking party scene that I had going on in 1978, I have attended many Bar Mitzvahs in the last several years.
I have written extensively about my work with adopted kids in my therapy practice. I have had the privilege of not only working with adopted kids, but also enjoying wonderful relationships with many adopted adults and children adopted into families of my dearest friends.
At a recent Bar Mitzvah service of a close family friend, I glanced to my right during the singing of a Hebrew prayer. My eyes fell upon three Jewish girls of Chinese descent belting out this beautiful song. My gaze lingered on them as if stuck in a trance and I found my eyes filling with joyful tears.
This scene hits me again and again. I am blessed to be surrounded by many adopted children of all ethnicities at our synagogue and am repeatedly touched in a very profound way. At the Jewish summer camp where my children attend, the staff are excellent at providing photographs to us eager parents on a daily basis. I may or may not peruse many of the photos (not just those of my kids) to get a richer view of all that is camp. During my
hours few moments a day spent looking at the camp fun, I again see children born from a multitude of ethnicities who are being raised in Jewish homes that are singing Hebrew songs, praying at Shabbat services and whooping it up at this Jewish camp.
I am trying to articulate what I find so emotional about witnessing these children of varied ethnicities (Asian, African, Columbian, Russian etc.) being raised Jewish. I have friends who have adopted domestically and are raising their American and, most often Christian born children, Jewish as well. I am similarly moved by their experience, yet the adoption issue is less obvious at a quick glance since the Caucasian kids adopted into Caucasian families more often resemble their parents (a common topic in therapy sessions with many of my internationally adopted clients).
Adoption is often so much about identity. Who am I? Where did I come from? Who did I come from? Who am I now? Why why why was I given away? I am constantly aware of the beauty and complexity of the adoptive family; the joy of the parents who have brought their child into the family, the bonding that has occurred, the variety of cultures involved and the whispers of ghosts of the birth family.
And, for many, Judaism is very much about an identity; not just a religious identity, but one of huge cultural significance as well. The food, the jokes, the sayings, the holidays, they are all part of the culture of being Jewish.
As one who studies and counsels children who are seeking an understanding of both their birth and adoptive identities, adding this rich Jewish identity, something very meaningful to me, is rather touching. These little girls that I saw singing at the Bar Mitzvah lived in orphanages in China, they are now being raised in loving families with a strong Jewish heritage with which to embrace. My hope is that when they are feeling those moments of loss or sadness that can be inherent in an adoptive child’s experience that there will be something loving and warm that they can grasp from their Jewish upbringing.
I have always been interested in adoption. I remember when I was a young girl thinking about the few adopted kids that I knew and wondering about their stories. I liked reading books about adopted kids and seeing the occasional movie that would come out pertaining to adoption. Of course, it is no secret that in the late 1970’s the subject of adoption was rarely on anyone’s best seller list.
Fast forward to 2005 when I worked for Prince William County Community Services Board. I attended a conference where Debbie Riley led a workshop on adopted adolescents. Ms. Riley is the CEO of The Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE), and she had just written a book, Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens. I can picture my seat in the front row (a learned behavior, I need to sit in the front row or I will be distracted by everything around me. Geeky, I know, but it works) with Ms. Riley standing in front of the group talking about adoption. I absorbed every word she said and then some. I asked many questions (refer to the previous mentioned “geek”) and was absolutely enthralled.
I began reading all that I could on the adoption triad , attending more workshops on adoption and
harrasssing paying special attention to anyone in my life that was involved with adoption. I have a friend that found his birth mother in his late 30’s. I practically moved in with him to witness his search and subsequent reunion with his birth family. I have another dear friend that has adopted two beautiful girls from China in the past five years. What a gift it has been to be a part of their journey; from being a reference in the homestudy to Skyping with them in China after meeting their second daughter, greeting them at the airport for the two homecomings and now watching the miracle of the girls becoming part of their family.
In my clinical practice, I slowly began seeing more adopted kids, mostly teenagers. Many of my adopted clients come to therapy presenting with depression, anger or school problems. Adoption is just a part of their story. As the treatment unfolds, I weave the adoption into the therapy. Many of the kids are resistant to discussing adoption. The most common response when I gently tug at the adoption cord is “I don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter”. Over time as my clients start to feel more safe with me and the therapy process, the shell begins to crack.
I worked for years with an adopted boy who was very angry and struggled in school. He had terrible self-esteem and was frequently fighting with peers and his family. After some prodding, he would talk about his birth parents and described a “hole filled with fire” inside of him. He was able to label it as rage; rage at his birth parents for giving him up for adoption. The rage penetrated his outlook on himself and his relationships fueling conflicts on a regular basis with both family and peers.
Like many of my adopted teenage clients, this boy felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with him which caused his birth parents to relinquish him for adoption. I ask these kids to imagine a baby; a sweet, innocent and beautiful baby. I ask whether a baby could do wrong, mess up or make mistakes? My clients usually agree that other than a poopy diaper or some crying, a baby is generally innocent. I ask how an innocent baby could cause it’s own adoption? I ask when they were this young, how they could have been “bad” enough to have been given away? I try to make the connection for these teenagers that it was not they who brought on the adoption; the adults in their lives made the decision based adult reasons and adult resources. The adoption was out of their control, nothing they could have done either positive or negative could have effected the outcome ; they were simply the innocent player in this story of their own life.
There are so many emotions that come with the territory: rage, sadness, loneliness and confusion. There is also love, gratitude, appreciation and joy. On some days, my clients can feel one, another or ALL of these emotions at once. It is normal and confusing and again, comes with the territory.
If you have questions or thoughts, please contact me.