Honor: to regard with high respect.
Honor is a scarce commodity these days. As Americans, we honor very little. We laugh at SNL skits mocking our leaders, attend church services with Starbucks in hand, and give our dads Father’s Day cards about beer and farts. When I think about who or what I “regard with high respect,” very little comes immediately to mind. In struggling to write this, a picture of honor does emerge. My husband travelled without me to pick up our son from Ethiopia (I was home with our first three children). While there, he had the unexpected occasion to meet our son’s birth father. The agency in the capital had arranged it. Our son’s mother was dead, but his father was living in a very remote, rural region of the country. Traveling with an interpreter, my husband and an agency worker came to a prearranged meeting place with Mr. M——. My husband was haggard from travel and the wear of meeting our new, terrified four-year-old for the first time and was surprised by this unexpected meeting, sprung on him in-country. Thinking of his description of the meeting still tears me up now, eight years later. Mr. M——- arrived, very bright and deferential, wearing an ill-fitting formal men’s suit, every button buttoned. He was there to honor my husband. Through the interpreter, he told my husband of his wife’s death when his son was two months old, his struggle to parent him, his despair when the child’s sickness wouldn’t stop, his prayer that his boy would be taken to America, his dream that he would one day pilot an airplane. He told of giving his son to the traveling aid worker going through their village. He told of his dead wife, that she had been the strong one in the village, the one who helped others when they were sick, and then how she had a bad headache from which she didn’t recover. That was all. The meeting was short. My husband was so humbled. Humbled by the buttoned suit, humbled by the great responsibility that had just been entrusted to him. My husband and I honor Mr. M——–. I don’t want our son to ever think that his Ethiopian dad “gave him away” because he was too weak, or too unloving to care for him. I want him to know that he comes from a brave man who put his own feelings aside for the good of his son. I don’t want him to think of his Ethiopian mom as a starving woman on a UNICEF poster. I want him to think of her as the strong one who helped others in the village. I want these things because they’re true and also because I see how fragile my son’s identity is. Without expressing it articulately, I see that he wonders why his family couldn’t take care of him. Why does he have to be the one to whom school friends say, “You’re adopted? That’s so sad.” I know that much of his identity formation will come not just from us, but from the fantasies he has, whether consciously or not, of who and where he comes from.
Certainly, there are many birth families who may present as much more difficult to honor. The birth mom whose child was detained by social services at birth because the baby was born addicted to methamphetamine. The mom who has lost her other children to the system already. The father who simply disappeared. You don’t need to, nor should you, lie to your child. But you do owe it to your child to help them understand that their parents are more than their bad choices. You have a responsibility to seek out positive information about your child’s birth parents. Maybe the meth addict has an incredible heart for animals. Maybe she knew she was broken, but made a choice to place because it was so important to her that her child be raised by a mom and a dad, which she didn’t have. Find something positive. Your child will, at some point, fantasize about their birth family. Help them frame their birth parents in a positive light. They hear people tell their friends all the time that “you look like your dad,” or “you laugh just like your mom.” They don’t get to hear that. But if you have met or keep in contact with their birth families, you could give them that gift.
Make sure that you give your child opportunities to ask about his birth family. Remember that, as a child grows, new questions will emerge. Be sensitive to those times and be prepared to answer your child’s questions honestly, but with love. Plan in advance what you can share that is positive about his family. If you have an open adoption agreement, make sure that you keep it. It’s important for your child to see you honoring their birth parents as well. Be careful of anything you say about them that may be overheard. If you don’t have an open adoption agreement, be sensitive to your child’s needs and interests concerning their roots. If they indicate interest in pursuing a relationship, help them do that, even if you’re not obligated to.
Ultimately, honoring your child’s birth family is really about helping your child honor his birth family in his heart and mind. In doing so, he will be building more positive feelings towards them, his adoption, and himself.