Paying It Forward: A Fulfilling Reframe By Lawrence Rubin, PhD, ABPP on 12/4/18 - 2:50 PM

In one of my recent blog posts, I wondered aloud why the cobbler’s children have no shoes, and by association, the therapist’s kids don’t heed their parent’s sagacious advice. This bit of wondering was the epilogue to the latest chapter in our family’s chronicle, “children, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” My subsequent blog was on the therapeutic use of metaphor as a means of making sense, when none seems apparent.

I don’t believe that I told you that every living creature that draws breath in our home was born elsewhere. This includes cats, dogs and our two precious children. Yes, they are both adopted. When I was more actively practicing as a psychotherapist, I sought out and perhaps was sought by families immersed in the drama of adoption which I consider to be sacred clinical ground. And I do strongly believe that adoption is in so many ways a drama whose seeds are sown in loss. Nancy Newton Verrier went as far as to refer to adoption and both its antecedents and consequences as a primal wound.

Mind you, not all adoptions are fomented in or are the result of trauma or leave deep and unyielding wounds. In fact, the flipside of adoption-related loss is being found or finding ways to connect either with birth parents or adoptive families…like in ours. And psychotherapists who work in the field of adoption would do well to appreciate the sheer joy, fulfillment, and connection experienced by multitudes of adoptees, adoptive parents, and families.

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However, the very real and oftentimes enduring legacy of disrupted attachment, loss, trauma and a lifetime search for connection do indeed swirl around and roil within the lives of those impacted by adoption. Just as the joys of adoption have been identified by clinicians and researchers in the field, so too have they chronicled the very real challenges, pains and manifestations of the adoption narrative in the lives of those involved in the process.

So, with that said, and as I typically do, I refer to a recent experience that my wife and I have been trying to reconcile as both of our adult children are now “out there” in the world, free perhaps of our immediate gravitational pull, and trying to either find or make a place in their own worlds that makes sense to them. Perhaps in this telling, adoptive parents, adoptees, and psychotherapists who work with these individuals will benefit.

If you promise not to tell anyone, I will reveal a confidence known only to my wife and myself. And that is: we secretly take credit for the wonderful characteristics that our children display and blame the rest on genetics. Nature versus nurture working for us. Yeah, baby, or should I say "yeah adult adoptees." It has been a most useful reframe for us during those painful moments when our kids’ behaviors have made no sense and my wife and I look at each other and say, “where the hell did that come from, must be genetics.” On the other hand, when our children shine, my wife and I are the first to belly up to the self-congratulatory bar and bedrink ourselves into comas of self-satisfaction-patting ourselves and each on the back for a damn good job of nurturing. I am fully mindful that some of you analytically-oriented clinicians out there might label this at best cognitive distortion or denial, and at worst, “folie a deux.” I, however, like to consider it as a self-serving reframe. Don’t we use these every day in our therapy practices if not in our own lives? I paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s “Big Chill” characterization of a radio shrink who dryly asserted (as only he can and still does), “I can’t get by a single day without at least one good reframe.”

So, my wife and I received a phone call today from our son who recently, and seemingly abruptly, relocated two thirds the way across the country to live with new friends and their family. With distress, he told us that a member of that extended family was in dire need of support, so he was going to drive yet further into the wilderness to render the equivalent of missionary salvation services. This revelation came while we were still trying to make sense of how and why our daughter has herself seemingly adopted her own new extended family.

Desperate to make sense of these life choices that our children were making, which are so distant from the plans we had for them (which is probably the rub), my wife and I again turned to each other and rather than blame genetics, the adoption narrative, or the experience of loss for our children’s decisions, we invoked Article 1 of our adoptive parents’ constitution: when in doubt, reframe! And like magic, it worked. Because, in that moment, we were able to fully acknowledge and embrace the beauty of the adoption narrative which we chose to center around saving and being saved. Our children were simply yet powerfully paying it forward.

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