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My full response:
Here is my opinion about the case with the "uncertain aunt". First of all, no she is not selfish for being hesitant. It is in fact very evolved of her for being true to herself with her feelings about taking on such a task despite how it might make her look. If we didn't have hesitancy on complex decisions like this, we would be learning by way of hindsight, which happens too, but of course it's not ideal. So I would give congratulations for being honest enough with herself at the cost of not looking like Mother Theresa. If I were speaking to her now I would say "Now feel free to take a deep breath. :) You are not a monster."
Regardless of the family situation, what matters is that you both seem clear on your "no", so let's start there. I wouldn't open the "can of worms" as you call it by asking if there will be financial compensation because that's not at the heart of the issue. I am hearing that you both don't want this choice for your lives. Unfortunately, we still live in a society that privileges heteronormative family systems to eventually have children. We often hear, "Why don't you have kids yet?" and then when you have one, "When are you having your second?" Generally speaking, society is not yet at a place to acknowledge that there are adults who don't want to have children and that there is nothing wrong with that.
Now let's talk about the children in this situation, the ones least empowered to make major decisions like this to shape their outcome in the family system. One of the worst things a child can experience is losing their parents at a vulnerable time in their life, but it's not much better to be cared for by reluctant caretakers who didn't sign up for this journey.... And as much as I, an adoption therapy specialist, like to see children be placed in natural kinship supports, it's not fair to the children to have new adoptive parents who are not up for the task. We don't also want to automatically assume that these kids would be in foster care either, let alone be separated from each other. This process takes many steps with many people and no one can predict that this will be the outcome, because it's not the only one... just the worst one. Take a moment to think about your relationship with these kids. Do you love them? Do you want them in your lives? What do you imagine that to look like? Do not lose sight of the most important players in this conversation: the children, and your connection with them. Really get clear on how you want that connection with the kids to look like even if you do not end up becoming their guardians. Focus on what you can and want to do, and very briefly on what you can't and are not willing to do. So in essence, it may be helpful for the both of you as a couple to be really honest with your brother-in-law and talk with him about how you would like your connection with your niece and nephew to look like. Then lastly, the part that is out of both of your control is how he will respond and how the extended family will respond. That is out of your control, unfortunately. If you feel you need some support, you can opt to look for an experienced family therapist to guide you through this conversation(s). You don't have to do it alone and there might be more solutions available than you might know. The adults talking about it together in a respectful and collaborative way is a start. The children deserve no less.
Check out my featured educational consult on adoption secrets on The Jordan Harbinger Show Episode 720: Should You Confess You Know He’s Not Your Dad?
My full response:
It's common for folks when they think of adoption, to think of the obvious heart-tugging scenario of an orphaned child being chosen by a loving, and maybe childless couple, who then receives much praise from their community for their charity. This is only one, and a socially preferred, example of a legal type of adoption. There are many "unofficial" adoptions as well as legal ones that happen every year: (a) grandparents who take on parenting while a birth parent works multiple jobs to make ends meet, get rehab, or addressing some other limitation(s), (b) step parents emotionally "adopting" their partner's children even without legal custody, and (c) for many recent past adoptions, where out of wedlock pregnant teens took "leave" from their studies to give birth secretly in religious convents while the orphaned newborns would be domestically adopted. Not so long ago even legal adoptions have been shrouded in secrecy and shame. Along this continuum of adoption scenarios of which there are many more, there is this writer's story of adoption, that lands on the secrecy end of the spectrum. In all these examples, one thing remains missing... how the narrative, both spoken and unspoken, impacts the adopted person!
For this writer, who may never have identified as an adopted person, may also have existential issues about their identity and experience grief that is felt by all, even if none of it was explicitly explained. Having healthy honest conversations about such matters is the job of the adults when their children are still children. I would affirm to anyone whom their stories resonate... that they absolutely deserve to know the truth! Not only do they deserve this, they have deserved the truth all along.
Now this writer has grown up into an adult, 52 years old, wanting to talk about "the elephant in the room", that is, the truth. This often brings up a lot of grief... for loss of time, identity, connections, and relationships (to name a few). It is complicated in any parent/child relationship, whether one is adopted or not, to talk about how their grief was the result of how the parents handled things. "I want to talk about my shitty experience, but please don't reject me for it" is often the subtext from the "child" to their parent(s). And perhaps as this writer described, having a lifetime of experiencing in subtle and some not so subtle ways an adoptive parent's unresolved feelings, like Frank, may or may not leave one to grow up believing they deserve the lack of affection, lack of emotional attunement, rejection, and abuse.
In a situation like this, I would ask, "what are you hoping for in talking about the 'elephant in the room' with your adoptive father?" I would encourage them to get honest with themselves about the reason(s), because it is from this place one could really be clear as to how to go about this conversation and give them a sense of agency and empowerment. And although what happened to this writer is not their fault, it is their responsibility now that they have grown to know what they are needing from themselves and others. Being prepared in this regard will help them get the most out of their inquiry to talk about the truth, and especially a truth that was so protected in a family system like this one. And in my experience, with a family therapist who is trained to talk about "elephants in rooms" can serve to do some major healing... perhaps for this writer, it may be a start of a lifelong journey to relearning who they are, as no more or less legitimate and loveable than anyone else. Maybe this process has already begun for them. :)