The Day I Met You For the First Time: Preserving Memories Through Lifebooks

The Day I Met You For the First Time: Preserving Memories Through Lifebooks

What child doesn’t want to hear the story of their birth? Or the story of how you met them for the first time? All children wish to hear their story again and again. According to Dina MacPhail, Child Protection Worker in CCAS’s Adoption Department, these stories take on an even more important role for adopted children. 

“In the 70’s and early 80’s, we found that children growing up in their adopted homes couldn’t picture their birth or foster homes. There was no record of their birthdays, school events, activities or pets. We felt that these children really needed to know where they came from and using pictures was the best way to tell them the story of their life,” explains Dina. Hence the evolution of lifebooks, which create a permanent record of a child’s birth and placement history to provide continuity and to make sense of what might appear as fragmented history. They are intended to validate the child’s sense of self, and help anchor milestones in meaningful ways. 

When lifebooks became a new phenomen in the early 80’s, adoption staff discovered that many families needed guidance on how to go about preserving memories on paper. In 1982, Dina rose to this challenge, and designed Ontario’s very first Lifebook Manual—a how-to guide for foster parents, caregivers and adoptive parents. 

Ever since then, CCAS’s Lifebook Manuals have been considered the industry standard. The manual included a quote from John Polanyi, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry and Rita McNeil on the importance of pictures and photo albums in preserving and sharing memories. This helped reinforce CCAS’s efforts to place increasing value on the life histories of children in care. 

Following the successful production of the printed manual, our adoption staff went on to produce how-to videos. “We sold both across the province for many years. They were really popular; hundreds of folks kept calling and asking for them,” recalls Dina. 

Today, lifebooks have become a critical component of each child’s case history. At CCAS, lifebooks are microfilmed and stored as a permanent record, and a copy is always  available. 

A lifebook is part scrapbook, part photo album, and part historical document that follows the growth of a child. According to Dina, they can be as unique as the child they’re about. 

“Our how-to video includes tips from a foster mother who talks about one of her foster children whose favourite activity was to stand in the play pen and rip off the wallpaper. So she decided to include a piece of the ripped wallpaper in his lifebook. This became a perfect example of how caregivers can individualize lifebooks with anecdotal history. You can include ordinary things from a child’s life, such as clips from the first haircut, artwork, and memorabilia that end up making lifebooks precious pieces of history. The message is that someone cares enough about you to do this for you,” says Dina. 

Lifebooks are not limited to the child’s life. They may also include information about birth parents. Dina and her team have used videos to capture birth parents telling their stories, and these have become cherished parts of their children’s lifebooks. 

“Some of our lifebooks are exceptional, especially those created by our foster parents. When you hand such books to adoptive parents, there is no question that their child has been lovingly cared for,” says Dina. Both adoptive parents and their children come to appreciate the importance of lifebooks very quickly. Many adoptive parents find that lifebooks are the perfect way to introduce children to their birth and adoption story at a young age. 

“After we place children for adoption and give them their lifebook, we often ask adoptive parents how they’re using these books. One family told us that their adopted son frequently turned to his lifebook to “visit” with his foster families. It was the most useful tool they could ever draw on to help him gain strength and support by reliving positive memories from his past,” remembers Dina. 

CCAS’s Adoption Supervisor, Brenda McNeely agrees about the importance of lifebooks. “It’s a touchstone for children. It helps them become familiar with their story, and prepares them for a time in their life when they may have more challenging questions,” she says. 

For more information about preparing a lifebook, speak with the adoption liaison worker at any CCAS branch.