There are a lot of obvious benefits built in to kinship adoption: the adoptee has racial and cultural mirrors, are already part of their adoptive parents' family, and they and one or both of their birthparents are known to them as part of their extended family. But the more difficult aspects of kinship adoption are often glossed over, or ignored entirely. Families are complicated, and full of history, and that history can impact the adoption dynamic in unexpected and difficult ways. Joining us on July 12th at noon, CST, we welcome Clemencia Deleon, a birthmother who placed her child in a kinship adoption, and will be unpacking the complexity of kinship adoption, and the importance of honesty and emotional intelligence in navigating this form of adoption. She sat down with us this week to give us a bit of her story, and how she came to understand the importance of radical honesty, both with yourself and with others.
What is your relationship to adoption?
I placed my son in a kinship adoption when I was 18 years old, so that would make me a birth mom. I like the term birthparent or birthmom only because it's my one claim to motherhood, with my son. I gave birth to him; he grew inside me and he came from me.
Is your adoption open or closed?
It started out as an open adoption: open adoption as in, I had access to him. Not open communication, not openly talking. Just open as in I could come over and visit, or I can come and stay the night, or I can take them out for ice cream. We could do holiday things, sleepover things, that kind of thing. That was prior to him knowing he was adopted.
Now that he has found out that he was adopted, the open access has been pretty much shut. It’s a closed adoption now. But I've been told that I am welcome any time at his house. So, I don't know how to answer. It's closed: it’s closed-ish. It's complicated. I don't say open because its like, I have a cell phone number and I can text him, but he doesn't respond. I can see him at family functions. I believe because of how he found out, that caused him a bit more trauma and pain, and I believe now he is emotionally afraid of me; he doesn't know what to expect, so he's really distant when we're at a family function. He seems nervous and kind of standoffish, which I understand completely. If we're there a little bit longer than an hour, two hours, he kind of starts to warm up and become soft and a bit more playful. But typically, we're not in the same space longer than a couple of hours. It's been a long time since I've had the softer version of him.
When we were originally talking to you about coming to speak at Activism in Adoption, you said something that really struck us in a profound way: if there is no honesty, the adoption isn't open. Can you expand on that?
For me, being radically honest, as honest as possible. In order for there to be any real authentic openness, there has to be radical honesty — honesty with yourself and honesty with the child — honesty about who you are, and why you chose adoption. I think these questions are critical when deciding how you are going to tell your child: Did you come to adoption to do God's work and save children from premarital relations, or was it the last option for many failed attempts with fertility treatments, or a natural intrinsic desire to mother or to parent, you know, where did your desire to adopt come from? And to be honest about it: honest about where the child came from, who they came from and why they were placed in an adoption situation. Not the surface reasons like, she wasn't ready to mother or he wasn't ready to be a dad or they couldn't afford to keep you, but the deeper reasons: what happened in mother or father's life that led to an unwanted pregnancy, finding out the parents background, you know, why was she not ready to be a mother, what life events happened that led her or him down the path to relinquishing rights. Were they addicted to substances, and what happened in his or her life that led to the substance abuse? Were they neglectful, in cases from the foster care system? What was their childhood like? Were they themselves neglected, or a part of the foster system, or generational adoption themselves? I say all this while keeping appropriateness in mind. I understand five-year-olds may not understand substance abuse but they may understand that they have a mommy and a daddy that are sick and are unable to provide a home right now. And leaving it at that for the time, knowing the conversation needs to evolve as they grow older and begin to understand more abstract thoughts and ideas.
The point is, be honest with yourself. I lie to myself all the time. I'm a master liar to myself. I'm a master manipulator to myself and personally I have to have accountability from somebody on the outside to say, I think you're lying to yourself. Having somebody on the outside to hold you accountable, even when it's the most uncomfortable thing, or you feel like lashing out and you get defensive, learning that it's okay to be held accountable, and it's okay to be honest with yourself about why you're making the decision that you're making, because it's such an impactful decision. It impacts not only you and the child, but also the child's parents, your extended family, the child's extended family, it touches everybody who touches you and your child. To me closed adoptions are not even an option. But if you have a closed adoption, at some point, you're going to have to be honest with the child - at 18, 21, 34, on your deathbed - you're going to have to be honest with the child and to me, honesty means openness.
Many of the parenting decisions adoptive parents make when their children are very little can have hard consequences when those kids get older. How do adoptive parents make sure that they are not making decisions when their children are infants that are going to affect them negatively as they grow up?
I think it goes back into being honest. If you can't be honest with yourself, sitting down with a knowledgeable therapist and saying, Hey, I need to be checked. I need to make sure that I'm not lying to myself or manipulating myself. Here’s what's happening. Here's my thoughts. Can you teach me or tell me or show me because I don't want to harm my child. I want my child to have, you know, the best love and care and if that means me being honest about my own thoughts and actions, and discovering whether or not you’re being honest with self or not.
You know, if you don't have a trusted therapist, maybe you have your partner or a really close friend or a family member, that is super honest with you all the time, someone you trust and your relationship is based in honesty. And you can go to that person and you can ask them Hey, will you help me? Will you hold me accountable? Or will you help me process through this because I am adopting and I don't want to harm the child. I don't want to emotionally hurt the child. And if you're not able to really go deep and dig deep and ask yourself, why am I doing this? Finding somebody who is knowledgeable, educated in honesty and honesty work and adoption work. Honestly, if you can have that outside honest perspective from someone who knows about honesty and adoption then I think you'll be able to practice the storytelling and honestly working through what's best for you and your child.
A lot of that what you're describing is emotional intelligence. How do you develop emotional intelligence especially if you are not at a place where you are able to be radically honest with yourself?
That's a really good question. How do you develop emotional awareness if you can’t even admit that you're lying to yourself? First you have to at least be open to learning about emotions. Second, start learning about the human brain, how it develops, what are some of the best ways to help my brain develop. I would also start to learn about how emotions are made, where they come from and what purpose they serve.
My family growing up were very emotionally ignorant, and I don't say that to be mean or nasty. I use the word literally: they had no clue about their emotions. The adults around me never asked why I felt sad, or angry or pointed out joy or elation they never discussed why I couldn’t have or why they were feeling some way. All of my influencers shut down their big emotions until they could no longer contain them, then they would cry or have emotional outbursts. Their emotions were always on the surface no matter how hard they tried to push them down or avoid them.
My first introduction to emotional awareness was through a school curriculum named: Conscious Discipline from Becky Baily. I learned so much about my language, how the different parts of our brains work and about my own behaviors. From there I continued to learn more in detail from other leading minds about trauma, brain development, and what it really means to be aware of one’s feelings.
I started to see myself and all the things that I felt and an awareness grew within me and then I started to talk about my adoption and how all of that had affected me and then things that happened in my childhood and how that affected me. I had no real formal training on “emotional awareness” other than what I’ve read and learned on my own. I’m self-taught, and I think anyone who is open to learning can be too. That’s a start. Even if you’re afraid, be afraid and do it anyways. I think you'll discover some really interesting things about yourself or your child – Being open and taking an initiative in the betterment of your future and thus your child’s future.
So many people grow up like that, and as adults, end up either exactly the same way, or push back against it and become incredibly emotionally intelligent.
Yes. After placing my son and having my daughter, I was trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my life. I fell into childcare because I was surrounded by babies and was able to get my fill of toddler and baby stuff, because I missed out on all of that with my son. Part of my coursework was child brain development, and then, I got into adoption education, and I learned even more about brain connections and trauma connection: what happens when prolonged stress occurs in utero and how different chemicals are more developed or less developed, and how all of that tie into your bond and connection as a mother and adoptive parent. It’s almost like I needed to learn about this, so I could understand why I placed my son for adoption, and even why his parents feel the way they feel; so it could make sense for me, because none of it made sense to me: why they lied to me, why they lied to him, why I was feeling so chaotic. I felt worthless and valueless, and you know, all these things and I was like, why, I need to know why. And then once I learned brain development and emotional awareness, it just made so much more sense to me, and I think at the beginning, before I understood, I was bitter towards his parents. I didn't hate them. I didn't like at all how they were handling the situation. It was really hurtful. But I didn't understand what they had been through with their infertility journey and their fears. I didn't understand it. And then once I learned about it, I became more empathetic towards their journey and their fears. And I'm not bitter with them anymore, I’m wanting resolution and to speak and not pretend like nothing ever happened. But I’m not expecting them to turn around and be aware of their own stuff. I kind of almost feel sad for them, because they're afraid, and they feel like maybe they might be alone in this situation. And there's such a huge community, but they're not open to learning. So, I think I just feel sad because they're missing out on such great support and community for themselves. And for my son.
Talk to us about kinship adoption, because there are a lot of misconceptions about it in the adoption world. Is there anything that you wish that people knew about kinship adoption that isn’t usually discussed in adoption education?
A lot of people assume that because a child is “still in the family” that child will be better off. When majority of the time the reason bio mom is in the situation, she’s in is because of family dynamics. But family dynamics can make it very complex, and if there is not a healthy mind and heart within your immediate circle then chances are the generational cycles of (insert trauma) will continue and affect the child as child grows up.
Another one is that the birth parent won't miss the child because they're still in the family. This is false because grieving still happens. Separation still occurs and both mother and baby feel all of this every time. When apart and when they come together, they feel each other. For me I feel like it was worse because I was allowed to be around him so much and we did so much together, at the end I would still have to leave him and go a separate direction.
Lastly, because of family complexity, I was pressured to be silent. Family pressure is a huge and a real thing. In my family if you are an elder, you get respect no matter what. So even though they are my siblings I had to respect them because of the massive age difference. I'm the baby of the family, everybody is years older, like 18-30 years older than me. They all had hands in my raising. There were points where I was being grounded by my brother and his wife and I had to ask for permission to do things from them, you know, but he was still my brother. And so even for me, it was confusing as a teenager, and now as an adult, with him being the father to my son. Thinking that I could stand up for myself and tell them that they did something wrong was pretty much impossible for me.
Sometimes I wonder if a stranger had adopted my son, would I have felt the pressure to be silent?
Would they have been open to being honest, would be know me as his biological mom and his sister? Would he know himself better or his emotions?
What advice do you have for potential adoptive parents considering kinship adoption?
When I got into the kinship adoption, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew it existed because of generational kinship adoptions [in my family] that had already been discovered. I knew that it was something available; that somebody in my family could adopt my son and I could still be a part of his life.
My advice to potential adoptive parents is to learn your roots, your emotional roots. This goes back to being radically honest. Now I say this with all gentleness and love, you may not at all be the parent you think you are in your head.
You may think you can do a better job, or that you’re saving the family. Listen no one can save the family, only themselves. And secondly, you already lost thinking that parenting is a competition. Find out why this family member is wanting to relinquish rights to the child, is it financial reasons, being a single mom reason, wants to focus on school or any other reason. Then if family member is not getting counseling for her options, then help her get to one. If family member never receives the mental and emotional help and support, she will need after placing the child, she will be very hard to build a relationship with.
When we first talked to you about coming to speak at Activism in Adoption, you said something so profound that it has really stuck with us: by the time they are old enough to ask, they should already know. What advice would you have for adoptive parents about building healthy communication and relationship with their child’s birthparents?
Learn to be vulnerable, authentic and honest. Tell the child's birthparents how you feel if you feel afraid, tell them why you're afraid. If you feel sad, tell them why you're sad. If you're uncomfortable with something they did or said or you're just uncomfortable with something, period, let them know in a kind and respectful manner. If the birthparents aren't in a place to return the vulnerability or honesty continue leading by example, continue to be the voice of reason and in control of your emotions. Lead with empathy and understanding. And if the birth parent chooses to stay away, speak mindfully and honestly of them to your child and consider them in your daily life with your child.
To learn more about kinship adoption, radical honesty, and the importance of cultivating emotional intelligence in adoption, join us on July 12th at noon. Tickets are free for the live event but registration is required in advance.