What We Should Tell New Adoptive Parents
The path to parenthood through adoption isn’t quite like the biological route. Adoption doesn’t fit neatly into any one box, and becoming an adoptive parent comes with a steep learning curve. Adoption is unpredictable, emotionally charged, and often misunderstood. People will say awkward things about your family, or not know what to say at all. They will ask intrusive questions, and you will learn to guard your child’s story closely. Particularly if your family is comprised of different ethnicities, be prepared to face a barrage of unwanted attention. Agency trainings address some of these topics, but adoptive parents overwhelmingly report that the agency did not prepare them for reality. So what advice do seasoned adoptive parents want new parents to know?
Guard your child’s story closely. Whenever someone learns that your family was formed by adoption, they will be curious. Hollywood has painted a stereotypical picture of adoption, and it can be tempting to either reinforce or refute that narrative by oversharing your child’s story. The thing adoptive parents must remember, though, is it is not our story to share. The circumstances and brokenness that led to our child’s adoption is sensitive information that only the adoptee should make the choice to share. A classic text in the adoption community, Telling The Truth To Your Adoptive Or Foster child: Making Sense Of The Past, by Schooler and Keefer can help adoptive parents share age-appropriate details with their children at each stage of development. This will give our adult adoptees the power to understand their own story and choose how they themselves will share it.
The bottom line is you don’t have to answer anyone’s questions about your family. Sometimes a simple, “Why do you ask?” in response to an intrusive question will shut the conversation down.
Be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster. In many ways, the day-to-day parenting of adopted children might not feel differently than what families of biological children experience. But forming your family by adoption adds an emotional undercurrent to everything. Expect to feel grief over what your children have lost. Sometimes the sadness and brokenness of their journey will wash over you and overwhelm you —know that you're not alone. The smallest thing might tip you or your child over the edge some days. You'll have nights you comfort your child to sleep and cry into your pillow as you wrestle with everything their tender little heart has to process. Joining in your child's grief as they process their story isn't weak, its rooted in love and empathy.
Know that it is OK if bonding isn't instantaneous, for you or your child. From infant through teenager adoption, bonding is a process. There will come a moment, though, when that love will wash over you like a tidal wave. It's worth it.
You might have days you feel wholly unqualified and unworthy of raising this child. Days when you feel like a failure and wonder how an agency every deemed you worthy of handling your child's unique needs. You've got this, though. They need you — don't give up on them.
Listen to adult adoptees. The adoption literature market is flooded by material produced by adoptive parents, counselors, and social workers. The most underrepresented voice in the adoption community is that of adults who were adopted. Seek out these voices, because they have walked in your child’s shoes and have so much to teach you. Listen to the hard stuff they share — even if it makes you uncomfortable.
The Adopted Life project, founded by adult adoptee Angela Tucker, features videos and stories from many adult adoptees. In Their Own Voices by Rhonda Roorda is another close look at the underrepresented voice of the adoptee that parents should read. Take advantage of local trainings or adoption events where adoptees will speak, and take copious notes. They are experts on what your child is walking through.
Value your child’s birth family. Your child’s story may include difficult details about their birth family and the circumstances that led to their adoption. Maybe they were placed voluntarily for adoption, or maybe they were removed against their parents’ wishes. It can be tempting to disparage their birth family, particularly if harm came to your child. Remember that the birth family is still a part of your child, and they are likely to go through a range of emotions about these sacred connections throughout their life. Listen to your child and validate their feelings, but keep your strong opinions to yourself.
We don’t always have a full grasp of the poverty, lack of resources, addiction, mental health issues, or myriad of other issues that can lead to adoption and our judgement can be harmful to our child. James Gritter helps parents explore a new framework for understanding birth parents in Lifegivers: Framing The Birthparent Experience In Open Adoption.
Remember that the birth family is still a part of your child, and they are likely to go through a range of emotions about these sacred connections throughout their life.
Honor your child’s culture. Particularly in cases of transracial adoption, it is important to make sure that your child grows up with a positive racial and cultural identity. Overwhelmingly, adult adoptees (remember, those voices we need to listen very closely to…) share the irreparable damage done by being raised in racial isolation. Being the only Black kid in their school, the only Asian child on their street, the only child who looks like them on a daily basis makes it hard to develop a positive sense of self-worth. Surround your family with positive racial role models for your child, from teachers to pediatricians to the shows you watch and the books you read, to the art you display around your home. Move, if you have to.
White millennials were raised believing that colorblindness was kind, but according to PBS, this experiment failed us. Acknowledge and celebrate the beauty of your child as you fight for justice and stand against racism and prejudice.
Be your child’s biggest advocate. This goes without saying and crosses all types of parenting, but particularly with adoptive parenting is key. Seek out professionals that understand adoption and trauma, from pediatricians to psychologists. Be prepared to advocate for your child in school, whether it be for an IEP or for a “family tree” or “baby picture” project that will make them feel isolated and othered. Seek out post-adoption services and be proactive about counseling support rather than waiting until there is an issue. Even if your child came to you as a newborn, adoption is trauma. Be vigilant and hone your stink-eye for use on nefarious strangers with a staring problem, too.
Remember you are the lucky one. You will hear it so many times that you will lose count, “Oh my! They are adopted! Aren’t they so lucky??”
No. It is “unlucky” to lose your first family. It is “unlucky” to go through the trauma of being placed into a new family, no matter how loving. Our kids aren’t lucky to be adopted. Luck implies getting something we didn’t earn — we are lucky to win a gift basket at the raffle, or lucky to find $5 on the street. Every child in the world deserves a family, and so our children are just getting what they should have. No luck involved.
We get to raise these amazing tiny humans. We are the lucky ones.