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.