Unasked for adoption advice... or braving the flames of the internet

Either I'm not writing things people are finding interesting to read recently, or the entire blog reading world has stopped reading blogs. To try to reverse this trend, I thought I would write something potentially inflammatory. That's always fun, right? We'll see. It all depends on how flame retardant my computer is.

There are some things that I want to say... a lot... but when I'm talking to a person either via email or by phone, it is not the time nor the place to say such things. It is often long past the time when any of these things would be helpful or beneficial. Now, before you chime in with your good version of some of these things, I know that there are exceptions to everything. I know things work out well for some people. I know everyone is different, every situation is different, every child is different. These are general ideas, that even if you are choosing differently, you should at least be aware of why others might suggest against it. What is frustrating is when parents only discover after the fact that other people recommend against it, or that this was something other people already knew, or just that someone should have told them ahead of time. And now I'm starting to sound cryptic, so let's all suit up and get going. Hold on tight!

My own personal and unfiltered adoption advice.

1. You do not know your child. I feel as though I say this over and over and over again. You do not know your new child based on other's reports, the child's file, or even because you spoke with them over Skype or (gasp) hosted them. You do not know how this particular child will react to the stress and trauma of the adoption. You do not know if any of the 'facts' in the file are accurate. You do not know if your child was performing for the video chat or during the entire hosting trip. You. Do. Not. Know. Sure, often these things prove accurate, but not always. Not accurate enough that you should go into adoption with a sense of this is how things are and how they are going to be. Hold onto those 'facts' lightly... because you do not really know. If this is a deal breaker for you; if having this child be different from how you imagine means you do not want to parent this child, please do this child the service of stopping the adoption before you meet. This is the grown-up and mature thing to do.

2. Understand trauma. While I fully believe that you can never truly understand what it is like to live with someone who has experienced trauma until you are actually doing it, you can educate yourself. You can read enough to understand what trauma physically does to the body... how the stress and fear of trauma reshape a person's brain, patterns of thinking, and even reshapes the body at a cellular level. (Yes, that last one is true. Bizarre, but true.) Trauma changes everything. Unless you are willing to believe that current brain research on trauma is accurate, then do not adopt. Really good parenting that worked with other, healthy children is probably not enough. Setting reasonable boundaries and applying consistent parenting is probably not enough. For children deeply affected by their pasts, there is no quick and easy fix. If an agency is telling you that this is all a particular child needs, find a different agency because they are either stupid or unethical. Understand that parenting a hurt child is a long-term investment of time and love and sacrifice. Is it worth it? Yes. Is it quick or easy? Heck, no.

3. Be skeptical of your abilities. This may sound odd, because often I'm telling you that parenting a lot of children or children with different needs is something that anyone can do if they choose to. I still believe that. What I want to say here is to work up those skills slowly. Just like a weight lifter doesn't start lifting crazy heavy weights right away, but instead gradually works up to them, I personally believe adoptive parents should think the same way. Hone your mad therapeutic parenting skills slowly. Here is where I make more than a few people unhappy with me. I think the wisest course of action is to not adopt a child older than you have parented (outside of the baby and toddler ages) nor to adopt two children at once unless you have adopted before. Some agencies have these rules, some don't. I know the desire is to find as many children as possible families, but I also wonder if the price is too high.

I understand the desire to not follow these guidelines. I've been there. When we were first thinking about adoption, somewhere after B. but before A., there was a little girl, somewhere in the 9, 10, or 11 year old range that I saw on an agency's waiting child list. I fell for her. Hard. She was adorable. She needed a family. I wanted to love this child and be her mother. I carried her picture around with me all the time. (I can even still picture her now, 20 years later.) I could totally do this. I was a good mother. I had a lot of love. I could totally picture it. I just knew what life would be like when she joined our family. It was going to be great! She was going to love it! We were going to be so happy! But that agency had a rule against adopting a child older than we had parented, and we were not eligible. It was so unfair! I was the perfect mother for her! How could they say we were not a good family!


I look back at that period now and just wonder at myself. How clueless could a person be? Pretty darn clueless it turns out. We were saved from my own misplaced desires and imagined capabilities. Because the truth is, while it is a pretty amazing road, this parenting journey, there can be parts of it that are extremely difficult. There are some stretches where this journey feels less like a walk down a path and more like army crawling over horribly rocky terrain. Having some experience with a smaller part of it, with one child, can make the journey a little (or a lot) more manageable. Knowing what an age looks like in a child you've known for a while, gives you a sense of how to parent a child at that age who is just joining your family. Knowing what it is like to be handed one child who is struggling can help you if you are then handed two children who are struggling. It gives you experience and perspective that have already been hard won.

4. Special needs are often no big deal. Adding any child to your family changes the dynamics, regardless of whether they are born into it or adopted. Whether they are neurotypical or have some sort of special need. Adding a child changes the family. The trouble is, we cannot always predict the ways in which a certain child will affect a family. We think we can, but we can't. I realize that what I'm about to write is not the standard line, and I also realize that it has taken me quite some time to reach this point, but let me just throw it out there, and I'll duck.

I think families should all be open to more than minor special needs.

Families are urged to consider children who have a special need that they feel they can manage. On the face of it, this is pretty good wisdom. No one wants a child placed in a family where the needs of the child outweigh the resources of the family, either monetarily for medical reasons or just the sheer time that some special needs can take to manage appropriately. This makes sense. But too often, it seems that people choose what special needs they can manage in an arbitrary way... what will make them most comfortable, what will be easy so they don't have to change anything in their life style, what is going to cause the least disruption.

I will only speak for myself here, but I've learned something. A whole lot of special needs are actually far more 'manageable' than one would think. Making accommodations for our various children so that they can fully participate in the life of our family is just not that big a deal. I know I say this a lot, but I fear that people don't believe me. We love our children, and so we do what they need us to do... and it's OK. It turns out that it wasn't as hard or as difficult as we imagined it would be. In some ways, it wasn't actually hard at all. Now, it's just what we do. It's life, and life is good. Sometimes I'll show a picture of a waiting child to J., and he is the first to say something along the lines of, "It's just not that big a deal," referring to whatever special need that child has.

Now, before you start writing the comments, I agree some, to me at least, are a big deal. These are the ones that are life threatening or degenerative. It's not because of the actual special need, but the emotional complications that arise as a result. It is never easy to voluntarily open yourself up to be emotionally hurt, yet I know many people who do just that. As a good friend asked me, as we were considering Y.'s still scary file, "Is it better for a child to die alone, or in a family with a mother and father?" I find it a clarifying question.

There, have I stepped on everyone's toes now? I haven't even touched on things such as my thoughts on hosting or education (though my guess is that you probably already know them.) Our families, and thus their formation, are extremely personal and touch us at our core. It is no wonder that the issues surrounding adoption, and by extension, our families can be a volatile topic. I know some people purposefully do not bring these issues up, because they see any negativity in regards to adoption as hindering a child from getting a family. I'm all for children finding families. I'm all for families adopting. But to not talk about hard things leaves people unprepared and uneducated for the battle before them. And make no mistake, it can sometimes feel like a battle. To be clear, the battle is not against our children but for them. We are battling their hurt past in order to claim their hearts for our own. Why would we send anyone out to fight ill-equipped or out numbered when this doesn't have to be the case? I want children to find families. I want families to desire children. But I also want those same children and families to come to a place of health and healing and without proper support and education, we make those goals just a little bit more difficult to reach.


Anonymous said…
So, we are a family of 5 who adopted 5 siblings....making a total of 8 children. Crazy, beautiful, but REALLY hard on many days. We homeschool as well. That being said...what does your morning routine look like? The children have been with us for 3 years and I still have struggles with one who seems to NOT be able to make up her bed, get dressed, tidy up her room, and sweep a hallway in less than 2 hours everyday. I have one more who seems to think the world is coming to an end every morning and 90% of the time is in a bad mood. It doesn't make for pleasant mornings since it delays everyone else. Do you have a morning routine? We do live on 12 acres and have goats, pigs, chickens, and rabbits. So there are a bunch of chores that need to be finished before breakfast? Any suggestions? We also live on a farm, so there are animal/outdoor chores.
Donna said…
Perfectly said, and you know I agree 100%.

To elaborate on the special needs point-- I sometimes worry that when people choose a special need that they can "handle" that that mentality in itself sets up expectations that could be wildly unrealistic. Cleft lip and palate as an "easy" need is one example. It is not life threatening, not highly visible, does not impact daily functioning which means it is a "comfortable" need for many people. However, it often means multiple hospital stays, years of therapy, several specialists and educational issues. That is not so easy. I completely agree that we need to be honest about what we can handle emotionally, time commitment, and financially, while at the same time letting go of the preconception that choosing a certain set of medical needs, as opposed to others, will preserve family life as we know it. By definition adoption will change that. Thanks for speaking up. Let me know if you need a fire proof suit!
Anonymous said…
I think everything you wrote is true. I think even the most ethical agencies need to be looked at closely to see if the info you are getting makes sense.

Can you love a child that might not love you back and maybe doesn't even like you very much? Read a lot, ask people who have adopted a lot of questions, especially people with children who were older when they were adopted.

Take a step back, think hard, look at your life as it is now, do you want it to change, can you live with the change even if it's hard and disrupts your life as you know and love it. Parenting is hard no matter what.
Shaun G said…
In this post, you say, essentially:

*people pursuing adoption should be more open to adopting a child with special needs, because special needs are often no big deal and eventually the family will find a way to make it work;

* even if a family isn't looking to adopt a special-needs child, "you do not know your child," and it's very likely that parenting the child will be different than you imagined, so you need to be open to that.

But then you recommend against adopting out of birth order, or adopting sibling groups unless you've adopted before, because it's like lifting heavy weights without any training.

Is there really so significant a different between adopting a child with special needs and adopting a child a few years older than one you've parented? It would seem as if in both cases, you're dealing with something new to you as a parent, and you need to learn how to adjust.
thecurryseven said…
Hi Shaun,

Thanks for commenting. As I reread my post, I don't think I really mentioned adopting out of birth order or adopting siblings. We have virtually twinned, adopted out of birth order, and adopted two children at once. It would be the height of hubris to say that I am the only one capable of doing these things.

Adopting can be hard. Not always, but the potential is always there whenever you accept a child. I also know full well that adopting a young child does not exempt you from going through the trenches for a long, long time. But there is a difference between a young child deep in the throws of being affected by trauma and a teenager deep in the throws of being affected by trauma. While many children adopted at older ages do just fine, some don't. And when they don't their scope for acting out is so much greater.

Parenting children going through adolescence has its own challenges. While my children have been pretty easy in those ages, they are still doing some important work that doesn't always have a pretty side. They can be volatile, unsure of themselves, and the push-pull of the need to be autonomous while still wanting and needing to be a child can create some pretty crazy behaviors. And that is is emotionally healthy children. I'm on the older side of parenting now and have had many friends who have had children go through adolescence. It is a roller coaster. When you add in trauma on top of everything, it becomes even more so. A parent who has not weathered this particular developmental stage with a child with whom they have a long history is going to be knocked for a loop and perhaps not in the best position to help a newly adopted teenage child grow and heal.

Yes, parents should be prepared for anything with their children, especially medically. And yes, I still believe that unless you are truly open to more than minor special needs you are not emotionally prepared for what can be coming your way. I also don't think that this is at odds with my stance on parenting older children without some experience. Here's why... in general (and notice I am not saying in all cases, but in many) medical stuff is actually a walk in the park compared to the effects of trauma. For the most part, medical issues are diagnosed and treated or managed. Sometimes it can take a while to diagnose and figure out a treatment plan, perhaps even surgery, but rarely is a child never diagnosed. Other people can wrap their heads around medical issues. As a parent you receive compassion and understanding because the medical issues are visible and comprehensible. There may be seasons that are harder than others, but you deal and move on.

[continued below]
thecurryseven said…
[continued from above]

Raising a child affected by trauma is completely different. There is no easy diagnosing... especially when psychiatrists themselves are completely at odds over what our children are suffering from. (If you want more detail, the internecine war over whether developmental trauma syndrome should or shouldn't be included in the DSM-V is a case in hand.) There is no generally accepted treatment plan. There is no surgery or pill or device that is going to make our children's suffering go away. There is no general compassion for parents raising hurt children because so very often our children appear so functional and charming to the public at large. Parents are blamed instead of offered help. Unlike medical special needs, trauma tends also to have significant impact on all other family members. Trauma begets trauma. And, unless you have lived with a child coming from trauma, you can have no idea how bad it can be.

I talk to a lot of parents. I talk to a lot of hurting parents. This is the common theme: "I didn't know it could be so bad." This is hard enough in a small child. You still have some control (even if you don't feel like it) over the situation. In an older child, one who can just leave or refuse to do anything, it is completely different. Or if you have two who are suffering and this is your first experience, then yes, you may all survive, but at what cost?

The bottom line? Emotional damage and disease is far worse than any physical damage and disease. This is what my post was intended to convey.

Anonymous said…
I just wanted to say thank you. We started to contemplate adoption, and I found your blog through an article I read on adoption.com. I've jumped around and read a bunch of your posts (somewhere between 15-20) and I am warmed by your humanity, humility, and honesty. Thank you so much for caring, for sharing what you've learned, for trying again and again to stretch yourself just a little further, for writing about loss and hope, for opening up in a way that help other people on their own life journeys.

I wish you and your family much health, happiness, and success!

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