Every day, families are growing through adoption. Nearly 120,000 children* are adopted each year, and in any number of ways – through private agencies, international organizations, via family members or through the foster care system. But no matter the path, the questions that prospective parents ponder are often the same: What is it really like to adopt? How can I prepare our family? Will I be ready?
Think through the process
Whether you’re becoming a first-time parent through adoption or adding to your existing family, experts say it’s important to learn all you can about the unique experience of the adopted child.
“All adoption starts with loss,” says Carol A. Lawrence, a licensed professional counselor in Mason who specializes in therapy for foster and adoptive families, and the mother of a 12-year-old girl, whom she adopted. That loss, even if experienced in infancy, can have a profound impact on a child’s life.
For some children who are adopted, establishing trust may be a challenge. Parents may find that their adopted child may have a hard time with separations, developing relationships or managing transitions, especially if they’ve had difficult early experiences. “When you have trauma in your background, you may not be emotionally the same age as your body,” Lawrence says. “But it’s attachment and connection with their parents that helps them continue to grow like others. It’s not a permanent state, it’s just an important difference with how these kids grow.”
On the practical side, if you’ve never cared for a baby or young child before, you will need to know the basics of child care, learn what is developmentally appropriate at each stage and be ready to invest the time and energy required to be up to the task. If you have other children at home who are much older, it’s wise to really consider how much your life will change caring again for a baby or young child.
“It’s different reading about adoption in a textbook than it is seeing it at home,” says Gabi W., of Anderson, a social worker by trade and mom to a 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, both of whom are adopted. “The best way to learn about adoption is to talk to someone who’s adopted, who’s placed a child or an adoptee. That’s the only way you’re going to get a real experience.”
Many agencies that facilitate private adoptions or those through foster care offer training and education opportunities for prospective parents. Other resources include www.AdoptAChild.in.gov, www.AdoptUSKids.org and www.DaveThomasFoundation.org.
Expect an emotional journey
No matter what route you take to adopt, every parent and expert will tell you that you should expect some twists and turns along the way.
For Gabi, she and her husband were in the first stages of talking about adopting when through a friend of a friend, they were quickly matched with a birth mother six weeks from her due date. Despite her experience as a social worker, Gabi remembers not feeling ready. “I wasn’t prepared for the fears that come with adopting. Is it going to happen? As a first-time mom, am I going to have maternal instincts?”
Less than a year after adopting their daughter, Gabi’s husband posted on a Facebook page looking to connect with other adoptive families, but instead, he was contacted by the family of a 7 month old boy who, born with special needs to parents with intellectual disabilities, were considering adoption. After working with an agency that specializes in special needs adoptions, the little boy joined Gabi’s family earlier this year.
“I worried about my son, just knowing that he had special needs and that he was coming to us a little later on. I thought, ‘Is this child going to want to come to us? Is he going to be freaked out because we’re not who he’s used to?’” Gabi says. “But the first time I met him, I went to hand him back to his birth parents, and he reached out for me, and we just all knew it was meant to be.”
Prepare for the long haul
After the joy of welcoming a new child into your family, the real work of parenting begins. You may worry about how to talk with your child about being adopted – now or in the future. You may have to help your other children adjust to having a new sibling. You and your partner may have to navigate a new role together. You may have family or friends who don’t truly understand the complexity of emotions that comes with adoption.
As your child grows up, they’ll likely have questions about their adoption and birth parents. Sometimes kids who are adopted are afraid they will hurt their parents’ feelings if they ask about their birth parents. Initiating the dialogue yourself by saying things like “I bet you sometimes think about ____” or “Do you ever wonder about ______” can help lay the groundwork for positive conversations. And although you may get a “You’re not my real mom/dad!” thrown at you at some point, Lawrence says many kids eventually say this. “As an adoptive parent, you have to learn not to be reactive, even when it stings.” Talking with others who have been in your shoes can be a great support. Equally valuable can be talking to adults who were adopted, to understand and learn from their experiences.
The World Association for Children and Parents, a national nonprofit adoption agency, estimates that nearly 81.5 million Americans have considered adopting a child. If even just one in 500 of those individuals adopted, every child waiting in foster care would have a permanent home. The path to adoption takes planning, patience and a lifetime commitment. But by educating yourself on the process and accessing the many supports available to you, it can be a beautiful way to grow your family.
* According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the Children’s Bureau, the Administration for Children and Families and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.