No one has parenting completely figured out—especially adoptive parenting. Some parents-by-adoption may be offended by anyone saying their family is anything other than typical, but the truth is that there are certain considerations that have to be made when parenting because our children have experienced a tremendous loss as the foundation of their lives.
There is a crack there, and that doesn’t mean something incredibly strong can’t be build upon that same foundation, but it does mean that we have to build with caution, re-engineer our plans over time, and listen carefully to the moans and creaks of the building as it grows.
We have to trust our children as they work through their feelings, ask questions, request more or less, and express their needs.
The hard truth is that no matter how much adoption becomes a part of our lives, this adoption is not ours. We may have seen our dreams realized in an unexpected way when our children joined our families, but it doesn’t mean we own these adoption stories. We are a part of someone else’s story—but the loss and their trauma is hers (or his) to own. Their loss and trauma is ours to help them work through, and that’s all.
Our son is five, but his questions are more on par with a child years older than him. Here are five reasons (one for each year he’s kept us on our toes) we let him set the pace for the adoption discussions we have in our home:
1 – There is no textbook or guidebook.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to do this. The best we can do is listen and support him through whatever current questions or worries he has.
2 – We don’t have it figured out – at all.
Even if I think I’m the expert at setting my own pace, I am nowhere near an expert at setting his pace. Every time I think I have a handle on what his current needs are, he catches me off-guard.
When I’m not sure where he is on something, I put a feeler out there casually. I may wait for a quiet moment and say, “Your hair flips right here in the front just like B’s does. Did you know that?” then gauge his interest. This does two things for him: 1) It shows him I’m open to talking about his birth mom and adoption, but allows him to avoid engaging more if he doesn’t want to and 2) It shows him that the topic is on the table any time and he’s free to casually start a conversation about it, too.
3 – There is a crack in his foundation that we can’t possibly fully understand.
We can try to start conversations, integrate adoption into our daily lives, and provide visits with birth family, but when he is hurt, we need to listen and adjust our speed. If he’s throwing out signals after visits that insecurities are heightened, separation is harder, and anger is spiking, we need to start helping him work through that in whatever way makes him comfortable.
When children reach an age where they can vocalize what they need, parents need to keep from pushing. Even if promises have been made to birth parents, if an adoptee needs something else, the adults in the relationship need to come together to provide that for the child they all love.
4 – This story is not ours to own.
Adoption may be a huge part of our lives, but it is not our trauma and it is not our experience. We may think we know what’s best, and we may be excited about fulfilling our open adoption promises, and we may love talking about adoption, but it doesn’t mean our child is currently feeling the same way. As adults, we can find other avenues for talking about adoption so we can work through whatever issues we may need help with, but that doesn’t mean our children need to be forced to match our pace.
5 – Our pace may be too strenuous.
I was driving my son home from school when he was 3. We’d just gotten a terrible report about his behavior from his teacher that day. We’d just spent the previous week out of town with his birth mom, and he was working through some transitional issues. He had terrorized everyone at school that day, and from the back seat, I heard his little voice ask, “Mommy, if I’m bad, will I have to get a new mommy and daddy?”
His mind wasn’t old enough to comprehend that adoption had nothing to do with behavior, that he had nothing to do with the decisions that were made for him, and that parents are not replaceable. He figured if he’d lost a mom before, he could always lose a mom again. His ability to hear, and his ability to comprehend, had not caught up to one another. He was hearing some very complex ideas from me about what adoption is, but his mind didn’t understand the details that surrounded his adoption.
All children differ, but when I spoke to him when we got home, I realized that the term “mom” was very confusing to him. For a few months, we stopped using the term “birth mom” to him. We called his birth mom by her nickname, removed a few of the photos we had scattered around the house, threw in some comments about how family is forever, and held our breath.
We went from doing what I thought was right (what our agency suggested, what worked for others, and operating out of guilt that we needed to make his birth family extremely present in our home through photos and regular discussions) to doing what we felt he really needed. We noticed a huge change in him over those few months, and slowly things returned to normal, but he had to choose that pace and we had to respect it.
In earlier years, I almost felt indebted to my kids’ birth families, and would talk about them and adoption almost daily to assure they were present in our home. I believe in doing that, I overloaded my son’s circuit board and asked him to match my pace at a time in his life when his comprehension was far below the complex situations I was pushing into his life.
I believed I was being age-appropriate, and I fully believe we can’t tread so lightly that we avoid important discussions with our children, but we do need to listen. If our children seem confused and we realize they can’t comprehend adoption in the way we’re approaching it with them, we need to tone it down a little and find a more appropriate way to tell their stories.
Some children may need one concept introduced at a time, while others may be able to digest the entire story all at once. As a mom, I need to help my son by jogging alongside him when he needs to jog, taking a breather beside him when he needs to rest, or sprinting alongside him when he wants to take off. Together, we can do this, but it’s not my job to push him to go faster than his body and mind feel comfortable doing. We have to trust our children as they work through their feelings, ask questions, request more or less, and express their needs.