Adoptive parents are haunted by many things. Perhaps I shouldn’t make such an overarching assumption. Let me put it another way. As an adoptive parent I am haunted by many things. I wonder what it might have been like to have held any one of our ten children as they entered the world, pink-puckered flesh and surprise-filled lungs filling my welcoming arms. What were their first steps like? Were they born bald or with lots of hair? What were their first words? What was their life like before they lived with Claudia and me?
Part of my personal haunting is based upon logical, rational needs to know. And part of my personal haunting is more emotional and less rational. It is for emotional reasons that I wonder if my children will be as attached to me as they might have been to their birth parents. Do they regard me as their father or as some pseudo-parent doing the best he can but not quite the same as the “original”? I’m sure that my questions reveal more about my own inadequacies than about my childrens’ feelings, but I wonder sometimes about their lives before me and the family Claudia and I have created through adoption.
The mystery of their lives before us preoccupies me. Claudia and I have done our best over the years to be respectful of our childrens’ early years and of their birth parents. We choose to speak factually, but not negatively, about why it is that their birth parents were unable to be with for the duration of their lives. We pray for their birth parents and thank God for giving birth to the children we now love. But I am haunted by the early years.
With my anxiety-prone existence I wonder, too, about what their lives will be like after us. What will happen when the time comes for them to leave the nest? Who will I be when they are legally adults, emotionally independent enough to stand on their own, making decisions they will be fully responsible for? Will they continue to see me as their father, or will their primal roots hearken them back to another place in which I will be relegated to the sidelines? My conscience chides me for such self-centered, protective thoughts. My logic reminds me, “That’s part of the risk of being an adoptive parent.” My sense of fairness says, “You cannot deny your children access to their past.” Yet I wonder, what will my life be like as an adoptive parent of adult children, the life after the one I currently know?
Recently I heard the words of a retired United Methodist pastor speaking to a group of us clergy about the loss of his wife of many years. While still actively engaged in vocational ministry he was (and is) a respected pastor, a passionate preacher possessing a refreshing human warmth. In reflective tones he reflected with us about the early days he and his wife shared together. He reminisced about the camp experiences he and she had shared together as children and young adults, and recalled to memory several of her boyfriends in those early years before they were together. “It has been so comforting to me,” he said, “to remember that she had a life before me. I am comforted because I know that if she had a life before me, she will also have a life after me.” And he was OK with that.
The beauty of his words is that they speak on a number of levels, including the spiritual (his hope in eternal life and eventual reunion) and the emotional (that she had been all right before she was with him and that she would be all right now that she wasn’t).
Perhaps this is what I need to understand. That my children had a life before me (checkered as it was with abuse and neglect, but also, I presume, moments of happiness), and my children will have a life after me. And it will be OK. For me and for them.