The Book Whisperer: “Parenting from the Inside Out”

Book WhispererHappy New Year!

Each time I make something for dinner that one or both the children don’t like, the familiar refrain resounds: “Tell us the story of the baked beans!”

When I was about six or seven, my mother made homemade baked beans for dinner, which I refused to eat. After an hour of watching me poke at my plate, my mother said to me, “You may be excused, Heidi. Maybe you’ll eat a good breakfast.”

The next morning, I ran down to the kitchen expecting to find a steaming plate of oatmeal or scrambled eggs … and found instead the baked beans. Again I refused to eat them, and went hungry until lunchtime. That night for dinner I was given beans a third time, and I ate them — reluctantly — only when my father informed me that I would get the beans the next morning in my oatmeal. (This story is always met with a resounding Y-u-u-u-c-k!)

So when the kids balk at eating dinner, all I have to say is, “So… you want that in your oatmeal tomorrow?” Problem solved.

Long before we become parents, we form impressions of what constitutes a “good parent” from the adults in our lives. Our own parents, for better or worse, provided our first model; other cues came from friends and extended family members.

* The aunt who consistently gave up a career in nursing in order to tend to her growing family and bedridden mother-in-law.

* The neighbor who allowed her daughter use mascara in eighth grade to cover up the fact that her lashes were blonde in one eye and brown in the other.

* The church friend who invited every new family at church for “impromptu” dinners of chicken parmesan.

Sometimes these models were not so heart-warming: the parent who drank or spanked excessively, who exaggerated her children’s misbehavior to win sympathy but refused to come clean with her own dark deeds, who yelled at the kids for making noise while he watched T.V. instead of turning off the set and engaging them in conversation. And all too often, these children grow up and find themselves saying and doing the same things with their own children, despite their firm intention never to repeat the same mistakes.

So what is a parent to do?

In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell explore “the extent to which our childhood experiences shape the way we parent …. and offer parents a step-by-step approach to forming a deeper understanding of their own life stories that will help them raise compassionate and resilient children.” The authors help parents to identify the “toxic ruptures” in the relationship between parent and child, and the interactive dialogue that must occur in order to repair the damage. Each chapter includes “inside-out exercises” to help the reader apply the lessons of their own lives in order to strength the parent-child bond.

During the month of January, I’ll be reviewing parenting resources. If you have a good book to recommend,write to me at Heidi(dot)hess(dot)saxton(at)gmail(dot)com.


The Book Whisperer: “God Found Us You” by Lisa Bergren and Laura Bryant

Book WhispererMerry Christmas! While my family and I are unwrapping our presents, I wanted to share this resource for families whose children experience emotional upsets during the holidays or at other times (such as birthdays) that are typically “happy” occasions.

In Handle with Care, Picoult refers to a “language of loss” that parents and children endure in the most intimate family relationships. Within adoptive families, these losses can be especially complex — if for no other reason, because of the number of people involved in the family bond.

God found us you

As parents, however, we must be willing to see – and help them articulate – the pain of our children as it surfaces. Sometimes the expressions of grief will surface at unexpected times. For example, the other day I was reading my children a book entitled God Found Us You, by Lisa Bergren and Laura Bryant (HarperCollins).

This happy, gentle story about a mother fox and her adopted baby fox, who asks her to tell him the story of how he came to be with her. The kind of books adoptive parents love, because it ties up the future in a lovely, reassuring bow. We read it to our children, hoping it will give them the feelings of love and security we so much want them to have.

The first I read this book to my kids, however, their reaction was mixed. While they want — and need — the reassurance of my love for them (just as Mama Fox reassures her little one), the book also brought some unsettling feelings to the surface.

“It is those who have been most deeply wounded by grief that have the greatest capacity for joy.” I can’t recall where I heard this bit of wisdom, but it seems to fit here. We cannot “fix” or wipe away the pain, cannot silence this language of loss. But if we are doing our job as parents, our children will find in us the compassion they need to make sense of their world.

The Book Whisperer: Two Special Books on Adoption

Book WhispererTo kick off my first “Book Whisperer” column, I thought I would share some wonderful adoption resources. If you have other recommendations, why not send me a note?

ten days Continue reading

The Book Whisperer … “The Art of Spiritual Writing”

Book WhispererArtSpiritualWriting_BlogTour-socialAt Ave Maria Press, I enjoy working closely with authors to help them “develop their craft.” Rewriting and platform-building are two of the most challenging tasks for any writer, so I am always looking for helpful resources. Vinita’s new book, The Art of Spiritual Writing, is one I highly recommend for those new to the spiritual writing genre, or for authors who simply want to write with greater clarity and conviction. (For those looking for a good resource on platform building, I recommend Mike Hyatt’s Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, now available on Kindle for $2.99.)

In The Art of Spiritual Writing, Wright articulates well the difference between “private” and “public” writing, and outlines the process that every writer needs to engage fully in order to connect with readers. She also makes it abundantly clear that the spiritual writer’s calling is different from that of a teacher or preacher — and yet there are some sobering similarities.

“The writer of the New Testament book of James warned Christians not to hanker after … teaching positions, because the responsibility was great, and when a teacher made an error, it affected many people,” Wright explains. “The same is true for writers, and especially true for writers who broach the realm of spirituality. We hanker after those book contracts and speaking engagements. But should we be so eager? Do we realize, from day to day, the power we wield when we send our words out into the world?”

Novice and veteran writers (and editors) alike will appreciate Wright’s practical advice, such as . . .

Five Things Every Spirituality Writer Needs to Know

  1. Nothing makes up for poor craftsmanship. “Writing is a craft, and it is a different form of expression from speaking, teaching or preaching,” Vinita observes. (I’d add that writing a book is a different form of expression from blogging, as sustaining reader interest for two hundred pages requires a different approach than getting a reader to “click through” to peruse 350 words.)
  2. Save teaching for the classroom and preaching for the pulpit. “You want to write so that the matter unfolds and the reader experiences the unfolding. You explore a topic, and the reader comes right along with you. … The writing itself must be seductive. … If you write in a preachy, didactic, and overbearing way, you will attract the audience you don’t want, and you’ll repel the audience you hope for.”
  3. Fiction is about storytelling, not teaching. “With nonfiction writing, often we are building an argument or system of thinking. The structure is probably linear, with one point leading naturally to the next.”
  4. The reader becomes engaged when she has to do some of the work. “Write so that the reader can imagine herself in your situation and growing right along with you. Write with balance: honest but hopeful, encouraging but challenging.”
  5. Personal writing must be transformed in order to work as public writing. “Many of the details that are important to you will be meaningless to readers. … Your task is to pick and choose among the thousands of details, standing back from the story to understand what a stranger would need to know and what would capture the stranger’s interest.” Later in the book, Wright points out that public writing is shaped not according to the author’s needs and preferences, but for the intended audience. “Public writing takes the concrete details of a single, personal experience to generate a discussion of the more universal experience readers will relate to.”

Speaking both as an editor and as an author who understands how difficult it can be, this fifth point is possibly the most valuable skill any writer can acquire. While there must be enough of our own story to let the reader get to know us, and learn to trust us, we need to fully engage the writing and rewriting process, so that our private thoughts are pruned and transformed into something truly life-giving.

The Art of Spiritual Writing is now available as a paperback or on Kindle, through Loyola Press or

Song of the Beloved (The Love Project, Day 19)

RED-TULIP_From Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen, in which he explains the love of God to a secular Jewish journalist.

The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness?

Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody — unless you can demonstrate the opposite.”

These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection. Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity and power can, indeed, present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection….”

He goes on to say that self-rejection most commonly comes in two forms: arrogance or low self-image. If he had been a woman, perhaps he would have recognized a third way: In the compulsion to base our worth on what we are doing, rather than in our identity as beloved daughters of God.

Today’s Love in Action: Do you ever experience self-rejection? When do those feelings most commonly surface? Tape this note to your bathroom mirror or over the kitchen sink: “I am a Beloved Daughter of God.”

“Marriage is like an amplifier…” from “Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious” (The Love Project, Day 16)

gohnToday I was reading Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious by Pat Gohn (Ave Maria Press), and was struck by the following passage about marriage. Can you relate?

Everything I liked or disliked about my man before I married increased in volume after marriage. I ran headlong into a wall of my selfishness and struggles for power, not to mention my own anger issues that erupted from my quick temper…. Putting others’ needs ahead of my own was harder than I had thought. I bristled when I could not control things.

Motherhood intensified my struggles, often reducing me to tears. I was profoundly disappointed with the shortcomings of my loe — my lack of achievement! I was trying to achieve in my marriage and achieve in my mothering the way I succeeded at school and at work, as if there were a performance scorecard attached to my efforts. “No greater love” required something more than the tyranny of perfectionism; it needed my attentiveness, my surrender, my sacrifice.

I don’t know if this is an experience common to all (or even most) women … but I could relate. The greatest challenges, I felt, was not in accepting the weaknesses and flaws of my family, but coming face to face — each and every day — with my own foibles and shortcomings.

I finally turned a corner when I came across this quote by St. Francis de Sales:

Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them – every day begin the task anew.

Today’s Love in Action: What’s the one bad habit or character flaw you hate most about yourself? Got it? Good … now, what virtue do you need to put into practice that serves as the “antidote” to that particular bad habit? How will you start . . . today?

“We Have the Power to Change Things”: A Review of Adoption Nation by Adam Pertman

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a publicist, asking if I would review Adoption Nation, which had been recently updated and revised.  At the time I was in the throes of completing my master’s thesis, and the author’s name did not immediately register (Pertman is the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Institute).  But the title caught my attention, so I asked her to send it. (My thesis is on the historical and theological foundations of adoption, so I figured one more book on the topic wouldn’t kill me.)  

Last week I finally picked up the book . . . and nearly dropped it. My mind flashed back to November 2008, when I posted an article on Catholic Exchange entitled “Anti-Adoption Advocates: How Should We Respond?”  The article was originally intended as a response to an NCR article by Melinda Selmys, “It is in Love That We Are Made,”  which I felt painted adoption in an overly negative light.  As a relatively new adoptive parent (Craig and I foster-adopted in 2002), I was sincerely puzzled that anyone would see any aspect of adoption as anything but good. 

I soon discovered otherwise.  However, in my eagerness to defend adoptive families, I classified several groups and individuals as “anti-adoption” who considered themselves “pro-adoption reform.” For about a week, I opened my e-mail with one eye open, bracing myself for yet another diatribe against my own ignorance, idiocy, and religious fanaticism. The general consensus was that I should stop writing about adoption until I knew what I was talking about (apparently four unwed pregnancies in my immediate family and foster-adopting another sibling group was not enough to form a legitimate opinion on the subject).

The more constructive and charitable respondents suggested that I stop reading the National Council for Adoption website and check out the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute instead.  

So when Adoption Nation arrived in the mail, and I realized that Adam Pertman was the executive director of the Donaldson Institute, part of me was scared to crack it open.  But I’m glad I did. Although I didn’t agree with him on every point (I still think he casts the NCFA in an unnecessarily negative light), he doesn’t resort to straw men or name-calling.  Rather, he articulates the issues and supports them with cold, hard facts. That in and of itself makes the book worth reading for anyone who wants to learn about the realities of adoption as it is practiced here and now.

Open Adoption

As open adoption (in which birth and adoptive parents meet before and sometimes after the adoption is finalized) becomes increasingly common, the affects of this form of adoption on children – in particular, their bond with the adoptive parents — will require continued scrutiny.  However, Pertman summarizes the present-day scenario succinctly:

“The bottom line, though, is that greater openness, for adoptees, means an upbringing rooted in self-knowledge and truth rather than equivocation or deception; for birth parents, it helps diminish angst and permits grieving,[1] and therefore increases their comfort levels with their decisions; and, for adoptive parents, it eases personal insecurities while establishing a steady stream of information for their children and for making critical parenting decisions (based, for example, on the birth family’s medical history)” (p.17).

By way of comparison, the NCFA in their Adoption Factbook IV included an article by Thomas Atwood, “The Jury Is in Regarding Adoption Openness”.  Atwood indicates that the research supports NCFA’s position that issues of privacy and openness should be resolved by “mutual consent” rather than by across-the-board legislation:

Until recently, the research has been inconclusive regarding the optimal level of openness in adoptive placements. But now, Professors Grotevant and McRoy have published, with Yvette Perry, a finding on this issue that the adoption community has long been waiting in Psychological Issues in Adoption: Research and Practice … In the article, the authors conclude from their research that “a one-size-fits-all approach” regarding “the desirability and undesirability of fully disclosed or confidential adoptions . . . is not warranted. … [T]he development of adoptive identity is quite varied, depending on individuals, families, and aspects of the kinship network …. But …. this variation does not appear to be significantly dependent on level of openness (p.453).

Open Records

Pertman recognizes both the complexity of adoption advocacy and that a number of issues pertaining to adoption reform (such as open records legislation) can be polarizing. And while Pertman comes down strongly on the side of mandated open records, he acknowledges respectfully the existence of alternate points of view. (Even this much of a concession is a rare thing.)  

To his credit (back to the book) Pertman does not vilify “the other side,” though clearly he is no fan of the National Council for Adoption, and is critical of NCFA’s efforts to prevent mandatory open birth record legislation.  Yet he acknowledges that those who testified against the proposed legislation may have had legitimate concerns. “They undoubtedly were sincere about their views, and some presumably had legitimate anxieties about the effects a specific reform might have on their particular situations. What they were not, however, was representative of the populations for whom they purportedly spoke” (p.149).  From Pertman’s perspective, this minority opinion should not unduly influence the outcome for the (presumed) majority.

Pertman argues persuasively, and between his book and my thesis research I found myself re-evaluating some of my own assumptions about adoption in general and the relationship between adoptive and birth families in particular. And yet, at one point I felt the author overstated his case with respect to the issue of open records (as opposed to the NCFA’s standard of “mutual consent of both parties”).

Earlier in the book (p.124), Pertman writes:

There is no evidence that unsealing these [adopted children’s birth] records increases the rate of abortion – or, for that matter, that it decreases the number of adoptions. Similarly, there is no evidence from any of these states that adoptees who get access to their birth certificates then go on to stalk their birth mothers or otherwise disrupt their lives.

A couple of pages later, Pertman recounts the story of Gail Gilpatrick, “a thoughtful and articulate woman in her fifties who loves her adoptive parents and, by her own description, doesn’t do ‘crazy stuff’” (p.128).  The author goes on to describe how this woman contacts her birth mother three times, being told each time that the contact was unwanted.

While Pertman should be commended for his willingness to look at both sides of the issue, this example was troubling.  Nor is he entirely successful on explaining it away: “Adopted people rarely become as obsessed as Gail or tread so close to becoming stalkers. The adoption world is filled with far more accounts of happy reunions, and even the problematic ones are rarely as one-sided or unnerving as this one. But I chose to tell this story because it shows that even in extreme cases, adoptees don’t seek to embarrass or expose anyone. They only want to fill the void in their own souls. Gail would have stopped her pursuit the second her mother said, ‘Yes, I did this and here’s why.’”

Okay, let’s think about this. Just how “rarely” does this kind of thing happen?  A simple of “birth mother stalk” produced several stories, including this article about New Jersey adoption legislation and this article on “Faith and Family,” in which a 65-year-old adoptee contacts a birth sibling (who knew nothing about her mother’s first child,  conceived by rape) who confronts her mother – an 83-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. Additional stories include adopted children being stalked by birth mothers.[2]

Next, Pertman insists that Gail would have stopped stalking if the woman had admitted to being her mother. How can he know that – and does it justify her behavior?  Would this explanation suffice in other circumstances?  For example, if a couple who entered into an adoption agreement with a birthmother, who later changed her mind, would they be regarded with understanding and compassion if they continued to park outside the young mother’s house, despite repeated warnings that their attentions were unwanted? Would it matter that they “only wanted to fill the void in their own souls”? Of course not.  No one would deny their loss – but neither would this conduct be tolerated.

As I said, this was just one point in the book when I felt the author failed to drive home his point. And in many other respects, the book is well worth reading for anyone who wants a good overview of adoption as it is practiced in contemporary American society. 

Foster Adoption

I especially appreciate what Pertman has to say about foster-adoption. It was this section, more than any other, that won me over (my husband and I foster-adopted a sibling group in 2002). Pertman also argues strongly in favor of shifting the focus of prospective parents from international adoption to adopting from state agencies, using a line of reasoning I found particularly insightful, comparing the needs of children in foster care to those adopted from international institutions:

There aren’t nearly enough adults willing to do the hard work [of adopting older children from foster care] that children like these require. The bitter truth is that they are our equivalent of institutionalized children from overseas, and, to varying degrees, most have incurred the same kind of harm anyone would if subjected to mistreatment and deprived of intimacy and stability. They are classified as having “special needs” not only because their complexions are dark or because they are no longer infants, but because they have truly special needs. Most have experienced traumas and losses that can lead to behavioral and emotional problems if they are not helped to heal, and some have developmental disabilities due to early drug exposure or other maltreatment.

                The picture looks bleak, but the children’s prospects needn’t be, because, like their counterparts from abroad, they can markedly improve if given sufficient attention, affection, and services. Nearly every study of boys and girls who spent their early years in foreign orphanages, in conditions generally worse than those of children in foster care, shows the great majority rebound impressively after they’re adopted. Yet middle- and upper-income Americans eagerly spend large sums of money to adopt from other countries rather than seek sons or daughters who are available within the United States for next to nothing (pp. 205-206).

Again, there were some points regarding the appropriateness of foster-adoptive placements for children with which I did not entirely agree, but overall the information is presented (both the need and the solution) in realistic yet hopeful terms.

While I did not read the book in its entirety, what I did read I found helpful enough to recommend to others who are contemplating adoption or foster care.  Pertman’s book reminded me that where adoption is concerned, in the words of human-rights activist Lenny Zakim (quoted on the first page):

“It doesn’t take much to start a revolution of thought and spirit. It takes one person and then another and then another. We have to have the willingness to be respectful of each other and not to let differences become obstacles. We have the power to change things.”

Editor’s Note:  In writing this review, my intention was simply to alert my readers to a resource that they may find helpful. Because the subject of sealed/amended records tends to be polarizing, I have closed comments on this post.  (Adam Pertman advocates for open records, yet he is willing to acknowledge the hard cases that have been used to argue other points of view so I recommend him to those who are still undecided.)
When I was given the opportunity to review this book, I seriously considered declining precisely because I didn’t want to get caught up in a lot of heated rhetoric. So I’ve decided to take the same approach to this topic as I take to holiday dinners with my non-Catholic relatives: take a deep breath, acknowledge the differences, and agree to disagree.
I recognize that this is easier for me to do than for those on the other side of the issue:  Fact 1: the vast majority of states continue to hold a standard other than mandatory open records. Fact 2: As an adoptive parent whose children already have access to their birthparents, this is a non-issue for my family. Fact 3: Nothing I could say here would possibly change the minds of those who are intent on changing Fact 1.  Therefore, I go with the “holiday dinner” approach, choosing not to spend time endlessly arguing over a topic that tends to draw more heat than light.

[1] Some have suggested that open adoption – particularly among teenage birthparents – has the opposite effect. One article that is especially worth reading is Dr. Marianne Berry’s “The Risks and Benefits of Open Adoption.”:

[2] That the “mutual consent” standard protects children as well as birth parents from unwanted contact is seen in this Salon story about a birthmother stalking her child:   Birthparents stalking their children through Facebook: