Updating Lifebooks with an Open Adoption


Yesterday, I took two hours and rewrote the girls’ story, pre-Canada.

The last time I wrote the lifebooks, I did it for three year olds. Then, I focused on the details that were meaningful at the time: what they ate in the orphanage, who their friends were, and the little that we knew about their family.

What a difference almost 5 years and several trips to Ethiopia does make. Of course now I’m writing it for almost 8-year-olds, but the level of detail is so much higher. I don’t think I could tell the girls as much as we do know, if we didn’t have an open adoption and I haven’t been to visit their family. The story is so much more complete… And make sense when you have multiple viewpoints. I’ve spoken to the orphanage, the adoption agency, their caregivers, their family, and even included little details from things I have learned while traveling.

If you’re not familiar with lifebooks, the point is to facilitate your child’s understanding of their life before they came to you. Lifebooks are not about the adoption process… There about the child’s life, and what is important to them. We all know how children forget details as they grow, and so the lifebook is a concrete reminder of where they came from. It also helps prevent magical thinking and filling in the gaps.

When people hear that I have a life book for the girls, they often ask about format. But the format is very simple. I just chose a pretty page layout, put a picture at the top of each page, and wrote little paragraphs of the story along the bottom. Some wonderful tips I got about lifebooks are:

  • Tell the story in the parent’s voice to the child directly. Use the second person.
  • Tell them what we don’t know, so that they don’t fill in the gaps,
  • Frame the story chronologically, and fill in details as they grow. It’s also important to include ages, but dates are not as important.
  • Include as many pictures as you can. But don’t put in people that aren’t the real people. They may fantasize that a random Ethiopian is indeed their mother/uncle/friend. So for pages that don’t have family members or real people, a drawing or a background picture is a better choice.
  • What I don’t do is include the official documents of their adoption. This is recommended for children who need concrete evidence of their adoption and their legitimacy in the family. However, my girls always remember through the process of stories. So for them, the more storybook approach is more relevant.

    To celebrate the new lifebook, we all laid on the bed last night and read through one of the copies. The girls were engaged and interested, and the language is easy enough that they could even read parts of it themselves. One of my daughters is very uncomfortable with feelings, so she pretty much jumped on the bed the whole time. But she said she enjoyed herself afterwards, and thanked me with a big hug. The other one craves for information and pictures, so she sat quietly, reading along with me. Funny how twins are so different, even if they share the same story.

    Oh, about the twin thing. I actually have exactly the same book for each of my twins. They really do have the same story… There are only a couple of details that are individual. So I just change the name on the cover. I do have a copy for each, printed and slid into plastic sleeves. That way, they can play with their own book, as much as they like, without worrying about damaging it. They each keep it in their “private” suitcase under the bed, and haul it out whenever they like. We also make a routine of dragging it out every few months, and reading it through. It’s a wonderful conversation starter.

    I would love to know how often people update their lifebooks. After all, their life pre-adoption doesn’t change… But sometimes, especially in open adoptions, our understanding does. And of course, there is a language development as they grow.

    Have any of you dear readers updated your lifebooks?

    8 thoughts on “Updating Lifebooks with an Open Adoption

    1. Thanks Arnica! I just sat down today to do our son’s lifebook.. he has been home over 3 years now but I haven’t made the time to do it yet. But with the next two on the way home soon I decided I better do it now! These tips really helped me!

      • Oh good! I’m glad they were useful. I got them from this hard-to-find self-printed book about Lifebooks. It was better than anything else I ready, but it’s out of print now. If I manage to find the name, I’ll write it here. I got it through an inter library loan when I was waiting for the girls to come home… 🙂

    2. This is so good to hear. I’ve been working on books for both my kids, but didn’t want to include information that isn’t age appropriate for them. It’s good to know that someone else is updating them as the kids mature.

      • Yes, and it’s not that we are lying or anything ink… But some detail is more appropriate as they age. The interesting aspect of an open adoption is that we didn’t KNOW some of the details the first lifebook edition. In fact, the girls said “I wonder what we will add to our book after this next trip to Ethiopia?” I wonder too….

      • There we go!!

        Thanks for that resource, Joyanne! I’m so bad with names and titles. And yes, it was the best reference I found (from many sources. I have the best librarians ever…)

    3. Hey awesome. I have done a life book for Thula with pretty much all that you have mentioned there. I read somewhere to get as many faces as possible into the book, every person who had cared for, held, changed a diaper, played with etc. Even without names, those faces are wonderful to look back at. One of her favs is the day I found her. She is well dressed and in the company of 3 nurses, all well dressed, pretty and smiling at her, obviously caring about her. It makes one warm to look at it, inspite of a very tough sitation for the baby.

      I also have this one terrific photo of her in the arms of “tall gogo.” (who is actually not random, as i know her and “gogo” means grand mother.) I echo Arnica’s comments about the fantasy back fills. In Thula’s mind this has become “her Gogo.” Thula is completely abandoned and her birth family is unknown, so for those of you with children in this position, I caution you about the “back fills.”

      Lucky for us, instead of updating the book yearly, I travel to Swaziland, as I do work service work there (run an NGO) so Thula gets to revisit some of the sites and her caregivers. On our most recent trip, in Oct ’13, we stopped in on “tall Gogo’s homestead.” In the face of the real-women who graces our picture wall, suddenly Thula was in a stunned silence. I filled in for her, we took new photos and her understanding of who this tall and graceful women really is/was took on new light. Bit by bit as their consciousness evolves, the story gains depth.

      Also interesting, prior to this trip, she had been asking to visit one of the sites critical to her story. Once in the country, however, it seemed that this visit could remain on a distant-fantasy-wish-list, as when presented with it as a possibility, she actually declined. Honouring her abilities and readiness, I told her that I’d go anyway and take more photos. These could go in an updated life book, I suppose.

      So, I guess our life book is an annual trip, lucky us (although it is a pant-load of work (and $) to take her each year,) but overall VERY worth it, especially, I believe with no actual family members to return to.

      We also pull her book out randomly and have long and sentimental visits. It is often out when we have visitors and Thula is known to intice anyone who’d like to visit her book and her country with her, into about a 30 min long session. It is awesome!


      • That’s really cool, that she loves sharing her Swazi roots with everyone!! And it is also awesome that you have this ongoing, real life narrative with her. It’s amazing how kids’ ability to understand changes over time….

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