Carissa Woodwyk is an adoptee, therapist, mother, wife, and author who is passionate about educating and encouraging others. Her book Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory is a one-of-a-kind resource for adoptive families.
Rachel: What should others know about you, personally and professionally? What is your connection to adoption?
Carissa: My human heart and mind and spirit are on a journey just like everyone else’s is—awakening to the reality that life is hard and messy, beautiful and sacred; and then learning what it looks like to respond…with acceptance, because of grace, in love. And then laughing, a lot.
I am a Korean-born adoptee. I was adopted into a pastor’s home at the age of five months after living both in an orphanage and with a foster family in Korea. I have a Caucasian brother who is also adopted. For much of my life, adoption and the story before I was adopted, was not a regular or natural topic of conversation within our family or amongst friends. Adoption was an event that happened, I adapted, and then life moved forward. It wasn’t until my twenties when I was introduced to the idea that not being raised by or connected to my “first parents” could have a significant impact on the way I viewed and related to people, myself, and even God. My journey of going “inward” has invited me to find more of who I am, what’s inside me, and what I have to offer the world. And, at the same time, brought more healing, more wholeness, more grace, more love, more connection. As hard as the process has been, and can still be, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Rachel: On your blog, you write that being a counselor has changed you “in profound ways.” Has being a counselor taught you anything about adoption (or affirmed what you already knew) and any adoption related emotions or concerns?
Carissa: I don’t consider myself to be an adoption expert, especially in the counseling space. But, as I’ve met with birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted persons, their experiences have confirmed my own experiences and beliefs—that in all adoption stories, there is loss and fear and shame for all persons in the adoption triad. I’m grateful to be able to use my experiences and voice to speak truth and understanding and hope into the hard and hurting places. And in doing so, it feels redemptive in my own story, to my own heart. I hold a strong belief after listening to so many stories: the “adoption world” needs more education and equipping and empowering. We have to—I mean get to—listen to one another more in order to move forward together, well. Because when we do, our collective listening has the ability to bring about collective understanding, which perhaps will lead to collective healing.
Rachel: You co-authored Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory, where the back cover expresses, “As parents, we will never be able to fix our child’s fragmented beginnings. We may never have all the answers our child will want or need, but we can offer a message of hope in the midst of it all so one day she may understand God’s heart for her, His response to her loss, and his plans for her future.” In what specific ways can a lifebook benefit an adoptee? What should adoptive parents keep in mind when putting together a lifebook for their child?
Carissa: A lifebook is a practical tool to help parents tell the story of a child’s beginnings, a vital part to being human. It’s not just a “picture book,” even though pictures are great to include in it. It’s meant to describe the places and faces that a child touched, smelled, saw, tasted, heard…BEFORE they were adopted. It captures the milestones and messages, the significant people and connections. It holds a child’s known world—the great, the sketchy, the in-between—before that known world profoundly changed, forever. It’s the full story, in layers, in age appropriate descriptions. It’s important to know where we’ve come from in order to know where we’re going.
From what I’ve gathered, because the beginning parts of an adopted child’s story always includes loss and brokenness, many adoptive parents hesitate to revisit something that could make their child feel badly, or maybe even themselves feel badly. As parents, we want to protect our children from pain. We want to keep them and ourselves forward facing, hopeful. So, it’s understandable why writing or telling this story is something many parents easily and naturally minimize or dismiss or even try to forget. Yet…those missing and fragmented and broken pieces happened. They’re true. They shape an adopted person’s story—his/her heart and mind—immensely, forever.
Revisiting and naming and grieving and rewriting that story with truth and empathy and grace has the ability to lessen the negative power and replace the faulty messages. It has the ability to help an adopted person to know that the relinquishment or abandonment or rejection—the severing of relationship—wasn’t his/her fault. It has the ability to expose the wounds where healing is needed. It has the ability to help reclaim an identity that got derailed and distorted. It has the ability to allow new things to be birthed…for all. It’s crucial for both the beauty and brokenness to be named, for everyone in the adoption triad, so that gratitude and celebration and joy can grow, so that the “letting go” process can begin, so that redemption can emerge…not in spite of that someone has come from a hard place, but because someone has come from a hard place. But, it takes guts to “go there” for both the adoptive parent and adopted person. Yes, it’s risky. Yes, it’s hard work. But…it’s freeing. It’s redemptive. And…it needs to be done together. Healing and wholeness can’t be done alone. WE NEED ONE ANOTHER.
Rachel: I know many adoptive parents, those who are motivated to do everything they can to be the best possible parents to their adopted children, sometimes get overwhelmed by everything they read and hear about adoption. Many of the experiences and opinions adoptive parents hear are internalized as this: we can never, ever get it right and our children are doomed to have major issues because they were adopted. What message of hope and encouragement can you offer adoptive parents?
Carissa: Bringing a child into your home who has come from a “hard place”? It’s not easy. Building trust, cultivating healthy connections, giving and receiving love? It’s not easy. Life? It’s not easy. I often tell parents (adoptive and non-adoptive) that it’s not our job to fix or rescue or heal. We can’t. It’s not our responsibility. All we can do is create the kind of space where healing can happen.
Part of that is educating and equipping ourselves, learning (or maybe un-learning) how to use our position and role and strength and tenderness in new ways, helpful ways. There are some really great adoption-specific resources available.
Part of that is having the courage and humility to allow the adoption process to change us, open us…to our own healing and transformation, to re-building our own trust, to learning how to respond to our own glad and mad and sad and scared and to our own shame, to nurturing our own connections, to strengthening our own attachment—to ourselves, to others, to God.
Part of that is shifting our belief system from, “I have to” to “I get to”…I get to teach and model and mentor and nurture and encourage and empower and affirm and love. Because that is who I am, that is the kind of parent I was created to be.
Part of that is listening to the deep heart of a child…with empathy, with compassion, with interest, with belief. And then learning how to respond (not react) with a voice that says, “Everything that you hold inside of you is important. I’m glad about the good parts. I’m sad (and maybe mad) about the hard parts. It’s all OK. You’re going to make it through this. We’re going to walk through this, at your pace, and make sense of what we can, together. Because your heart is worth fighting for. Because I/we are for you.”
Part of that is to awaken to the reality that there is a bigger story being written through the adoption process. It doesn’t start or end with your family’s story. There are thousands and thousands of writers writing a compelling heart story of entering in and letting go, of compassion and grace, of intimacy and love, of trustworthy relationship. You don’t have to write it alone. You’re on a journey with multitudes of others, advocating for the human heart. And part of your story, in this bigger story, will include different people in different seasons who will help send the message to your children: YOU ARE LOVABLE. YOU ARE CAPABLE. YOU MATTER. YOU ARE WORTH BEING KNOWN.
Rachel: What is the single best piece of advice you can offer individuals and couples who are considering adopting?
Carissa: There’s not just one single piece of advice an adopted person can offer pre-adoptive and/or adoptive parent(s). That feels a bit daunting and overwhelming. Adoption (and all this word holds) is such a multilayered and complex topic and experience. My time spent listening to adoption professionals and adopted persons and adoptive parents has actually moved me away from giving a single response and has invited me towards articulating multiple, broader responses and expressions. Mostly, though, my hope is to keep the conversations going, that we could keep moving forward, together, not needing to land in one place or in one stance or on one idea. Let’s keep inviting honest and hopeful voices to the table so that we can glean and learn and become more whole, together.