Lifebooks: The Hows and Whys
By Katie Smith, LCSW, a Bethany family therapist in Georgia
“Our children exist before we meet, no matter how young they are when we become a family. This is a given of adoption. Lifebooks simply offer a way to document their lives before we came into the picture.”
Adoption Lifebook: A Bridge to Your Child’s Beginnings
Lifebooks are an irreplaceable gift to children, providing them with a vital link to their history before joining your family. Think back on the “storytellers” in your own life—the people who told you about the silly things you did as a child, how cute you were, how your big brother reacted when you first came home from the hospital, etc. Those stories form a sense of your history, your beginnings as a person, and your first beliefs about what makes you who you are. Lifebooks capture those storytelling voices for adopted children. They are similar to a scrapbook, containing photographs, important documents and letters, and text that record your child’s birth and journey throughout life.
In her book, Brothers and Sisters in Adoption, author Arleta James outlines several ways that Lifebooks benefit children (pp. 362-367):
- They help them adjust their expectations of what life is like.
- They help them make sense of their experiences.
- They help them separate fact from fantasy.
- They enhance attachment between parents and children as parents enter into the child’s world and experience.
- They integrate children’s past, present, and future, promoting healthy self-esteem and identity development.
- They bring about changes in children’s behavior as false beliefs or irrational thinking change in light of facts and truth. As painful as it may be, recording the reasons for the child’s adoption is important because truth dispels false beliefs that children may otherwise have that they somehow caused their separation from their biological family and false guilt that may affect their self-esteem or sense of worthiness of love.
- They facilitate the expression of grief for the loss of birthfamily, siblings, foster families, familiar surroundings and items, and traumatic experiences. Grieving these past losses and hurts allows your child to move forward in his or her development.
- They help portray an accurate view of birthparents that identifies both positives and negatives and makes them real people.
The key goal to keep in mind about your child’s Lifebook is that it is, first and foremost, your child’s story. If you have kept a journal of your own journey to adoption, that will be a special keepsake as well, but the purpose of a Lifebook is to focus on the child. With that in mind, it is important that the Lifebook begin with your child’s birth (or even during pregnancy, if you have information about that time) rather than with his or her adoption, and that the focus stay on your child’s journey through life. Even if you do not have a lot of information about your child’s birth because of abandonment or information getting lost throughout the years, it is always better to include the information you do have than to skip over it entirely. Adopted children need to know that they were born in the same way as everyone else.
A normal developmental experience for children is going through a time when they create ideal or “fantasy parents” who would never make their children clean their rooms, feed the dog, or eat broccoli! Children who have been adopted face a challenge during this normal stage of development because the reality is that they do have another set of parents in the world.
When there are gaps in their own memories of who those parents are and what life with them was like—either because of how young the children were when they were separated from their biological parents or because of trauma—resolving the differences between fantasy and reality can be difficult for adopted children. Lifebooks help to fill in these gaps. They also reduce the likelihood that your child will experience further loss of these precious pieces of early history.
If you have very little factual information about your child’s beginnings, this is the opportunity to do some detective work. Go back and talk to people who “knew your child when.…” There may be caseworkers, orphanage staff, foster parents, friends, or biological family members who are available to share information with you. If you can get handwritten letters from people relaying their thoughts and memories of your child or of important people in your child’s early life, those letters can go into the Lifebook for your child to read.
You can also try to revisit some of the important places in your child’s life to capture photographs and descriptions. If gaps still remain after your research (and they likely will), that’s okay. There is value in being able to document your efforts to learn more, and it is always possible that more information will be available with time.
One important guideline is that if you don’t know a piece of information or an answer to a question, say so, rather than guessing or creating an answer that may not be the truth. This is true for photographs as well. If you do not have your child’s baby photos or photos of important people in his past, it’s fine to draw people, but do not use photos from magazines or other places, even if it is a picture of someone who you think might resemble your child or an important person.
If your child’s pre-adoptive history includes abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse, or other difficult history, be honest, age-appropriate, and clear in communicating that your child was not at fault for what happened to him. Also keep in mind that you and your child can add to the information over time. Jayne Schooler provides suggestions for discussing specific situations in her book, The Whole Life Adoption Book.
Here are other tips for the creation of a Lifebook (from Lois Melina in Raising Adopted Children, Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler in Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, Gregory Keck and Regina Kupecky in Adopting the Hurt Child, and Arleta James in Brothers and Sisters in Adoption:
- Prepare yourself in advance to explore truthful information with your child, both the positive and the painful.
- As much as possible, according to age and development, co-create the Lifebook with your child. Encourage him or her to add drawings, questions, letters, journal entries, pictures, song lyrics, or anything else that helps tell the story. Also encourage your child to write the text of the Lifebook. If your child is not yet old enough to contribute much, leave plenty of extra space for her to add her own thoughts later, but even preschool-age children should be able to participate in creating their Lifebook.
- Be honest but respectful of birthparents.
- Be age-appropriate, but leave space to add to the story as your child grows in his understanding and has new thoughts, questions, or reflections.
- Develop empathy with your child by trying to imagine the types of questions that he might ask based on the information in the book and think about how you might respond.
- Make it easy to revise and still keep in chronological order: use a three-ring binder and protective sleeves so you can easily add and remove pages.
- Make it child-friendly: Keep your original but make a copy that you can give to your child so he can keep it and look through it or add to it at any time. Be aware that it is not unusual for Lifebooks to bear the brunt of intense feelings at times, including anger or sorrow related to the events that led to separation from birthparents or experiences that took place prior to adoption. The Lifebook may even be damaged or destroyed. That’s okay, but be prepared by having multiple copies.
- Include information about the future as well as the past (school-age children can talk about what they want to be when they grow up; adolescents may want to include more details about their hopes, dreams, and plans). This may be more difficult for children who experienced trauma prior to adoption.
- Teenagers may be especially interested in incorporating more artwork into their Lifebook, including collages, poetry, short stories, videos, journals, or music.
- Don’t try to complete the entire book in one sitting. You will need time to reflect and put yourself in your child’s shoes, thinking of questions that he or she might have. If you are working on the Lifebook with your child, you will need time to process and talk as you go.
One reason to take breaks in the creation of your child’s Lifebook is that working on it is likely to stir up many feelings, both in your child and in you. This is normal and creates a powerful opportunity for your child to learn the healthy expression of emotion as he sees you model it for him (Arleta James, Brothers and Sisters in Adoption).
You can be sad together over information that remains unknown, things that your child experienced prior to adoption, and relationships that have been lost. Your child may share with you sadness or anger that she could not stay with her biological family. This is not a reflection on how she feels about you, but it can be hard to remember that in the moment if you are not prepared for it or have not worked through some of your own feelings of sadness related to infertility or about missing out on your child’s early life.
Your child will only be comfortable sharing these crucial parts of who he is with you if he gets the sense that you can handle it, so you may find it helpful to find another adoptive parent or someone who understands adoption to help you process your feelings about the difficult parts of your child’s history.
If all of this information is overwhelming, be reassured that the biggest step is just getting started and that the Lifebook is intended to always be a work in progress. What’s most important is that your child has one.
As therapists and authors Gregory Keck and Regina Kupecky relate in their book, Adopting the Hurt Child, it is “perhaps the most important, least implemented, and seldom understood tool available to help a child. The life book is a process, not a finished product—an autobiography that incorporates the discovery and discussion of a child’s life experiences” (p. 156).
See the resource list at the bottom in the article “Lifebooks—What Goes Into One” for help in getting started. Author and adoptive mother, Carrie Kitze, sums up the importance of Lifebooks beautifully in “My Daughter’s Most Important Story” (Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections, pp. 240-241):
Writing a lifebook isn’t easy. It forces us as parents to look hard at how we are presenting information to our kids that really isn’t ours. We are just the caretakers of their story, the ones providing information in an age appropriate fashion. I was never left on a street corner, alone, scared, and crying loudly so that someone would hear me. But my daughter was. Somewhere inside she remembers that feeling of being alone and every now and again, she goes back there. The lifebook has allowed her to realize that the feelings she has have a root, a reality. And that reality is hers…. In the reading and conversations we have had subsequently about her life story, we have grown closer and more connected. We have laughed at the funny things that were her as a baby and cried together at the sad things no baby should have to endure. I have learned to listen to her heart and help her learn it is okay to listen to her heart too.
What Goes Into a Lifebook?
Many items can be included in your child’s Lifebook:
- Photographs of people: your child at birth and subsequent ages; birthparents; biological siblings; other biological family members; foster families; caseworkers; orphanage workers; friends in prior homes; teachers; etc.
- Photographs of places: the hospital where your child was born; prior orphanages or homes with relatives, foster parents, or adoptive parents; schools; churches; parks; the state or country where your child was born
- Documents: birth certificates; adoption decrees; passports; adoption paperwork; social/medical history (including talents, personality, interests, and likes/dislikes of biological family members)
- Letters: any letters you have or can request from birthfamily members, foster parents, orphanage workers, teachers, friends, caseworkers, etc.
- Journal entries from your wait or your travel to the country where your child was born
- Developmental milestones
- Sensory memories (smells, sounds, tastes of food, sights, textures, etc.)
- Your child’s early likes and dislikes
- Your child’s early experiences
- How and why your child came to live with your family
- Stories about your child’s early days and years from people in his or her life at that time
Keepsakes that are too large to fit in a book can be incorporated into an accompanying Lifebox:
- Clothing that came home with them
- Baby blankets
- Small toys
- Stuffed animals
- Mementos from your travel to meet your child
- ID bracelet from the hospital
Remember to make the Lifebook child-friendly! In addition to the original, make several copies and give at least one of them to your child for him or her to keep in his room. If your child is younger, you may want to laminate the pages of the copy or insert the pages in protective sleeves that can be wiped clean.
Before You Were Mine by Susan TeBos and Carrisa Woodwyk, provides parents with practical information about what a Lifebook is, what information to include, and how to put it together.
Adoption Lifebook: A Bridge to Your Child’s Beginnings, written by Cindy Probst, addresses the hows and whys of creating a Lifebook, as well as some of the emotional issues that can come up for adoptive parents and children alike in the process.
Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child, written by Beth O’Malley, an adoptee, social worker, and adoptive parent. Additional workbooks for specific populations (China adoption, adoption from foster care, adolescent adoptees) are also available.
My Lifebook Journal: A Workbook for Children in Foster Care, written by Therese Accinelli, offers activities and fill-in-the-blank pages that help guide children and parents through the creation of a Lifebook. It was written specifically for children who were in foster care prior to adoption.
“Lifebooks: Every Adopted Child Needs One” by Beth O’Malley, for the adoption website www.ComeUnity.com.
Lifebooks for Children from the Child Welfare Information Gateway provides links to articles on Lifebooks and downloadable pages. www.childwelfare.gov/
“What Happened Before I Came to You?” by Mary Ellyn Lambert and Doris A. Landry for the book, Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections, offers parents a wealth of questions to explore as they work on a Lifebook in order to help them connect more with the questions children often have about their adoption.
Lifebooks: Creating and Telling Your Child’s Story is an online class from Adoption Learning Partners on the value of Lifebooks for children and tips for creating one. www.adoptionlearningpartners.org/
Scrapbook Mania from Adoptive Families magazine offers articles on creating Lifebooks along with links to other websites that provide layout ideas, supplies, and digital services. www.adoptivefamilies.com/