I have twelve children. Seven of them joined our family in the usual way and five of them arrived via adoption. I love them all. I am their mother and they are my children, but I would be lying if I claimed that there were no differences in parenting between the two groups.
Now, first, everyone take a deep, cleansing breath. Maybe you should take another one. Before you all pick up your flame throwers and aim them at their computer, please listen to what I am saying—or not saying, as the case may be.
Parenting is not just what parents do, and it is not just what children experience; it is the complex interplay between unique parent, unique child, and past and present circumstances.
I am NOT saying I love or care for one group less than another; I am merely claiming that I love them differently. Different doesn’t really have a value judgement with it, though we often want to assign one. Different merely means not the same, not better or worse. Truth be told, I love every single one of my children differently from the others. They are different people and my relationship with each of them is different. What a dull world it would be if everything and everyone was the same, and how maddeningly unfair it would be to be treated the same regardless of our obvious differences.
There, having gotten all of that out of the way, let me go back to my original statement, that adoptive parenting is different from traditional parenting. Here’s how.
1. My relationship with these children didn’t begin before they were born.
Since we have always adopted older children, it didn’t even begin in infancy. They had other lives which involved other people and other experiences of which I was not a part. Not only wasn’t I a part of them, I wasn’t even thought of or imagined.
My biological children and I started our relationships together at the same time, slowly getting to know one another, with the relationships growing as the children matured and grew themselves. There are no holes, no unknowns, no empty places for them.
With my adopted children, we needed to take the time, and sometimes it was a long time, to get to know one another. To figure out who the other one was and what we liked and what we disliked, and slowly, slowly, slowly begin to hear the stories from each other’s past that we missed. We need to do this while still taking care of normal parent-child things. It can sometimes make for a slow, awkward, and painful dance.
2. We don’t match.
My adopted children are Asian. I’m not. My biological children and I look very much like mother and children.
When I am out with all my children, there are often comments that have to be fielded. Are they all yours? Do you run a daycare?
If I am out with just one adopted child there are times when I need to identify myself as the parent, especially if it is one of my children who is younger or more prone to wander. These are not things I have to do when I have just the blondes in tow; no one questions or starts to look for the matching parent.
I try to be understanding, but it is also not so nice to always have to justify your family to other people, especially when your children are aware of what is happening. My adopted children have to live with a reality that includes constant suspicion about whether they belong in our family. This is very different from the reality my biological children live.
3. My children have dealt with loss and hurt at a very deep level.
For my children who were born to another mother, they have already, in their short lives, lived out every child’s nightmare . . . losing their parents. Some of them have memories of this, some don’t. Some have then gone on to lose multiple other foster parents. I was never the first choice.
In a perfect world, these children would not be mine. And yet we do not live in a perfect world and so they are. Parenting adopted children means living with a tension of claiming your children as your ow, yet at the same time acknowledging that you are not the only parent that matters. Some children may not have any interest in their birth parents and their birth stories, others care very deeply. But I need to allow my children to feel what they need to feel about these important people, without whom my children wouldn’t even exist.
4. The trauma caused by loss, hurt, and abuse has rewired their brains.
For a smaller group, the trauma has affected them on a global scale. It means that life is more difficult, and a completely different parenting paradigm is needed. It was easy to parent my first five biological children, but then they had a leg up on life. Their brains weren’t changed by trauma. Cause and effect made sense to them and consequence-based parenting was effective. This is not the case for my adopted children, nor is it the case for my biological twins who have some of their own trauma effects going on. How we parent these trauma-affected children was turned on its head as a result. Parenting a hurt child is not even close to the same as parenting an emotionally healthy child.
Parenting is a dance in which the steps, rhythm, and tempo are constantly changing. Each of my children is my partner in this dance, and each of our dances, clumsy as they may be at times, carries its own unique beauty.
So there: different. Not better or worse, just different. At the most fundamental level, all parents understand that each child is different and each child requires her own unique parenting. For adopted children, though, these parenting differences are magnified. Parenting is not just what parents do, and it is not just what children experience; it is the complex interplay between unique parent, unique child, and past and present circumstances. Parenting is a dance in which the steps, rhythm, and tempo are constantly changing. Each of my children is my partner in this dance, and each of our dances, clumsy as they may be at times, carries its own unique beauty.