Holidays, Family and Adoption:
Special Handling Needed

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     The holidays bring up lots of tender feelings and delicate situations for most people. Dealing with extended Families, spouses’ families, and others, often requires some negotiation. When adoption is thrown into the mix, especially in reunited families, it becomes even more complicated.
     Many of us have a vision of the “perfect” Christmas, with everyone joyously relating to everyone else, seeing each other just the right amount of time, giving and receiving the perfect gifts, everyone being able to afford the money and time required for this perfect season, all with no disappointments, no hurt feelings, and no weight-gain. We may even wish for snow and warm weather at the same time! It is hard to bear in mind that our personal vision of this “perfect” holiday season nay be drastically different from some other family members’ visions. Some may want as many people around as possible, a marathon of entertaining, food, and gifts, while someone else may want a quiet time with very few people, little contact, and very simple gifts or even none. The difficult part is, we tend to make assumptions that others want the same things we want, without openly discussing everyone’s preferences and needs. As complicated as this may be within a family unit consisting of a couple and their young offspring, the usual situation is far more complex—grandparents, in-laws, friends, and for those of us with adoption connections, there may be both birth and adoptive families for one or more spouse, parent, offspring, etc.
     Suppose, for instance, two adoptees marry each other, and at some point, both locate birth families and are reunited. Birth parents may have spouses, too, so the adoptees may now have up to three sets of parents each! Their children could have six or eight sets of grandparents, step-grandparents, assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on. All of these people probably do not live in the same town,; so visiting may involve travel, too, but most of all, it involves a lot of juggling of schedules, priorities, and feelings. Adult adoptees may feel torn in several directions, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of family members, not to mention the pull of various loyalties. Adoptive parents, particularly in the first years after reunion, may have fears that they will no longer be important to the adoptee, and may be protective of the details of traditions with which the adoptee was raised. Birth parents, who may have yearned for many years for holidays with their relinquished offspring, may want to acquaint the adoptee with their customs, and may want to have a Christmas with their child, complete with childhood toys, even though that son or daughter is no longer a child. The adoptee may also want this, or may feel embarrassed or threatened by the birth parent’s desire to recreate the childhood they didn’t share. Adoptive parents also may resent this, interpreting it as a message that their adoptee somehow missed out on some part of childhood.
     In all of these cases, diplomacy and consideration of each person’s feelings is called for. Both birth parents and adoptive parents need to be careful not to put the adoptee (no matter what age) in a position of having to choose between them. They may already be juggling spending time with a spouse’s family and their own children. Birth parents and adoptive parents may or may not be comfortable spending time together. In some cases, everyone becomes one big ex tended family and heartily enjoys it all, with the adoptee feeling free to be with any group at any time. That may develop more gradually for many, or it may never happen. Nevertheless, all parents would do well to put the adoptee’s desires first, if possible, Just because the adult child no longer spends all of the time with the adoptive parents does not mean he/she loves them less than before—it just means he/she is grown now, and has many relationships to consider. A birth parent, especially that first year or so after reunion, may have an intense yearning to spend the holidays with that lost and now found son or daughter, and may be tempted to fall into thinking, “They had him all those years—now it’s my turn.” That’s a dangerous thought—offspring are not possessions or pets, and our past losses do not justify expecting some loyalty or make-up time and attention from the adoptee. It may be perfectly appropriate and welcomed by all for the birth parent to give the formerly relinquished offspring a toy or book they always wanted to be able to give, but it’s a good idea to check out that desire first, so that no one winds up feeling hurt or embarrassed.
     The children of reunited adoptees may look at the whole situation in several ways. They may welcome additional grandparents and other relatives, with the accompanying attention and even gifts, or they may feel overwhelmed by too many new relatives and even by too much attention. It would he wise for their parents to discuss this with them, if they’re past toddler age. Find out if they want to see all the grandparents at once, or each set separately. Of course, adults have to make the decisions about time, travel, and expenses, but open discussion will lead to happier results. Some reunited adoptees have found they need to visit one set of relatives one year and others in different years, or at different times of the year. What everyone needs to bear in mind is that trying to please everyone at the same time usually results in no one being pleased, and leads to resentments and withdrawal. Again, even though the adoptee may be an adult, the various parents need to be mature enough to take the lead in compromise, in encouraging the adoptee to have good boundaries, and in not expecting “loyalty.” Some adoptive parents will be more mature in this than some birth parents, and some birth parents will be more mature than some adoptive parents. A good rule to follow is to be that mature parent, being generous in releasing the adoptee to also spend time with the other parents. The same is true regarding grandchildren, Do not expect children to prove they love one grandparent or set of grandparents more than others, and do not overwhelm them with extravagant gifts in an attempt to buy their love; but also, do not show favoritism toward one child or set of children over another. Many children these days have grandparents, step-grandparents, birth grandparents, and great grandparents of the above configurations. They can absorb lots of love from all of them, hut they don’t need to be the object of competition from any of them.
     For those with adoption connections, holiday conflicts may go far beyond the question of whether to have a star or an angel on the top of the Christmas tree, or even whether to have a tree at all. There may be deep feelings of anxiety about which is the “real” family, the “right” traditions, or the “best” ways to celebrate. The surface issues represent deeper needs to be validated as persons, loved and cared about by the other persons involved. We all want to be valued as parents, as offspring, as spouses, and extended family. Perhaps the best gift any of us can give to everyone else is to verbally or in writing assure them of our continued love, care, and respect. Thank adoptive parents for raising your son or daughter; thank birth parents for having your son or daughter; thank your son or daughter for being in your life. If you’re an adoptee, thank both sets of parents for their roles in your life. Be living gifts to each other during the coming year!

Excerpted from the January 2004 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2004 Operation Identity