"I would love for my bio mom to meet me—to see that I’m happy with what God has done and the way the story has turned out. And for her to see that she’s a part of that."
Lynne Ellis-Gray knows what it feels like to wonder about biological parents. Adopted as a baby, her parents did the “right” things by sharing her story in a positive way and made her feel chosen and wanted. As she grew, she wondered and explored for information about her birth mother. Her interest in adoption led her to write her master’s thesis on adoption issues that adoptees face.
When researching information for her thesis, Lynne found that adoptees talk about consistent themes, such as loss and grief, rejection and identity, but their reactions may often be on a spectrum. “Everybody has something tied to their adoption,” she says. “It’s just that the triggers are unique to each person.”
For example, she herself had a difficult elementary school experience in which she was picked on and bullied. She realized as an adult studying the different aspects of adoption that the rejection and loss theme that resulted from the experience were still being played out into adulthood. “It’s still one of the pieces—an element in my life that comes up from time to time.”
Additionally, the identity questions of “Who am I” and “Where do I fit in” and “Who do I belong to” made her still feel a bit of an outsider, even as a child. “Pieces of who I was didn’t quite fit—and I didn’t navigate it well.” She was allowed to feel what she felt, but usually she cried on her own, rarely getting help or encouragement to unpack what was going on inside.
Themes for adoptees
Loss, grief, identity and control over certain aspects of life are common themes for adoptees. Everyone has a different piece they talk about, as well as different triggers that hit them emotionally.
For example, Lynne is triggered by joy and tears, especially when related to adoption stories or stories about families being reunited. These situations hit a sweet, tender spot in her own heart. This trigger has prompted a desire to search for her own birth mother, but her search and reunification haven’t happened yet. Although everyone’s motivation is different, there seems to be a deeply seeded desire to find that missing puzzle piece.
“I sometimes just wonder about my birth mother’s circumstances—what her story was. I would love for my bio mom to meet me—to see that I’m happy with what God has done and the way the story has turned out. And for her to see that she’s a part of that.”
Lynne believes that regardless of when a child is adopted, even if it took place as a baby, there is still a separation. There is an emotional/physical memory in addition to cognitive memory that is simply a part of who you are. “Even my daughter, who I adopted from China, has shown changes in demeanor about a week before her birthday—and I wonder if it’s her body still dealing with the separation and loss.”
- Who am I? – Even as an adult, this question can reverberate deep within.
- Rejection – Adoptees often have to work hard to not go to an extreme place in their mind when conflicts with friends or in work situations. “Our reaction can be extreme to the circumstances,” explains Lynne.
- Singleness – Will I be wanted, taken to a deeper layer when connected to the rejection theme.
One important thing to remember for adoptive parents or friends and family of adult adoptees is to make sure not to downplay someone else’s emotional journey, Lynne advises.
Advice for Adoptive Parents
Lynne encourages parents to not be afraid of to let adoption be a natural part of their conversation…and don’t wait for your child to bring it up. “If you don’t initiate the conversation, you are telling them it’s (adoption) not okay—you’re making it into a negative.” (Listen to Jayne Schooler’s podcast for additional information about initiating conversations – www.theforgotteninitiative.org/s3e1)
What should adoptive parents do regarding attachment?
Lynne believes that kids grieve differently than adults and that their grief journey can last most of their childhood. It’s not as if they are constantly grieving, but there are moments when layers get opened up and they have to deal with separation, attachment or other adoption issues again.
Her advice for when children get overly emotional is to hold them and let them be over-expressive in that moment. “They are usually crying about something in their heart, not their hurt knee or whatever started the tears,” she says. They need the physical touch, and the overreaction is often adoption related.
“Life is hard enough,” says Lynne. “You don’t have to teach your kids to be resilient in every situation. Resilience isn’t about the absence of…but allowing the feeling to be, then figuring out how to get through it.”
Adoption issues can rear up even for adult adoptees. “I actually don’t believe adult adoptees are not affected by adoption. There may be other issues at the forefront, but the triggers and issues are always there on a spectrum,” she adds. For example, not searching for a biological mother is not indicative of not having adoption issues.
Parenting transracial adoptees
It helps a child to feel like they aren’t alone if they are surrounded by others in similar races. “Integrating culture is super important,” suggests Lynne. “But it’s also important for same race adoptive families, too. Be sure to show your children a global perspective.”
Lynne encourages parents to be intentional about putting their kids in front of other people of their race as well as other cultures. “I try to put my daughter in front of all kinds of people in all kinds of professions—I purposely seek that out.” Unfortunately, racism is everywhere. Some may be subtle, some overt, but it does get played out.
Her own daughter, who was adopted from China, can take it or leave it—“I’m the one who keeps integrating cultural things,” says Lynne. The message she wants her daughter to understand is that “our story doesn’t always match everybody else’s, but it’s a sweet family that God is building.”
If extended family is not supportive of your adoption, limit your child’s interaction with them, and be extra vigilant about topics of conversation when they are around. Things do get said, and a lack of sensitivity causes hurt. “All it takes is one comment to reinforce that you’re not quite whole in this family,” explains Lynne.
How can adoptive families prepare for adoption and attachment?
“Be prepared to surrender your need or desire to be a mom, and be a healer first,” suggests Lynne. This means focusing on attachment—helping a child or children feel like they are a part of the family.
Struggles with things like hoarding
For children who have been through trauma, control is a common issue. Food hoarding and toilet training are common problems, but those are two examples of the few things that a child can control. Instead of setting more rules or boundaries (which can often trigger the issue they are trying to control), Lynne suggests allowing the child to have a little control, even if it ends up being an undesired outcome.
Instead of focusing so strongly on stopping the behavior, show some compassion to help them feel in control and not as if they are doing something wrong. For example, if a child is having trouble wetting her pants, rather than scolding and trying to train or bribe her to do better, maybe just show some compassion in the moment. This can help the healing process. Parenting by love and logic is a helpful parenting tool in these situations.
Ways to support your children
- Be sure to focus on your own spiritual and emotional growth—it will have an effect in your home.
- We are not perfect, so don’t beat yourself up. Create some space for the Holy Spirit to show up and draw you close to God.
- Your kids have issues. Period. It often has nothing to do with your parenting. Period. Don’t try to fix or second guess everything.
- Focus on attachment. Build a bond through relationship.
Hopefully, this episode has helped you right where you are on your foster care journey. That’s the goal. If you enjoyed it, will you tell others?
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Meet Our Guest
Dr. Lynne Ellis-Gray, MSW, D.Min, loves to talk about adoption stories. She is an adult adoptee who then adopted internationally as a single parent. She serves as missions pastor at Overlake Christian Church for Serve the World. Her passion for people, God’s call on their lives and His story in the world are re-occurring themes in her conversations as she empowers people to take steps of faith. Lynne and her husband and daughter live in Woodvinville, Washington.
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