Deciding to adopt is not a small thing. There are lots of questions that people ask themselves. Will I love our new child? What will this mean to our family? What will family and friends think? What will our life look like? And these are good questions to ponder. But here are five different questions, not the usual questions, which may be even more important to answer before one adopts.
1. Why am I adopting?
On the face of it, this seems to be a simple question. Usually the answer is to add a child to a family. Yet, there are some important aspects to this question that need to be addressed. Are you adopting because you feel it is your duty to adopt an orphan? I’m not sure that duty alone will get you through the hard parts. Are you adopting (particularly a child of color) because you feel this is needed to show the world how open-minded you are? Children are not political statements. Are you adopting because you feel it is your only option left? Infertility is painful, but please be sure that you have worked through the grief associated with it before embarking on adoption. No child deserves to be a second-best option. Are you adopting because you want to love a child? Do you desire to see this child through good times and bad; to cry with them and rejoice with them; to be at their weddings; to hold your grandchildren? In my opinion, this is the only right answer. It places significant value on the person of the child, on his or her importance in your family. With this answer, the child is not reduced to a cause or a statement or a consolation prize.
2. What do I think love is?
Do you think that love is the giddy happiness you feel when you look at someone you love? Do you think that being in love with someone means that everything is easy? If so, then what do you do when those initial feelings start to fade? What if you don’t experience those emotions right away? Being an adoptive parent means getting a crash course in learning that love is a verb. Love is more what you do than what you feel. Sometimes it’s hard to love someone, particularly if that someone is not loving you back. Parenting means loving our child even if we don’t feel the nice, cozy feelings. Love can be plain hard work.
Let me give you an example. Imagine for a moment the most annoying child you know. It could be a neighbor, a friend’s child, maybe even a niece or nephew. It is the child that you try to avoid, or at least send home as soon as possible. Now, imagine that this child who grates on your every last nerve has been delivered to your home and you are told this is your new child. He is not going home. You are now his parent… forever. Sit with that for a few minutes. How does it feel? While this exact scenario is never really going to happen, in some ways, one very like it happens to new adoptive parents all the time, particularly if they have adopted an older child. Parents are often surprised when they don’t feel any emotion (at least positive ones) toward this child. The child is not what they expected. They actually aren’t even sure they like her. Yet, these parents need to find a way to love this child regardless of what they are feeling. It is hard work. Practicing the act of love is a conscious choice, not an ethereal emotion. Are you willing to change your idea of what love is, in order to fall in love with your child?
3. How important is perfection?
Competitive parenting has always been around, but it seems in our age of social media, it has reached new heights. Parents want their children to succeed and to feel that they are successful as parents. Ask yourself, do you need to present a perfect face to the world? Do you ever let your guard down and show your true messed up self? (We’re all messed up, by the way, but some of us are just more willing to own up to it.) What if your child can’t make the honor roll? What if college just isn’t an option for your child? What if your child has emotional trouble? Are these things deal breakers for you? Or can you readjust your priorities? It is important to figure out now what place perfectionism has in your life. If it is too important, then maybe adoption isn’t for you.
Does this mean that I think all adopted children are less than perfect? No, it means I think that no one is perfect, but our adopted children have past trauma and loss to negotiate on top of everything else. While some children seem to effortlessly move on with their lives, many others are impacted on a daily basis. Since trauma rewires the brain, this can mean that a child may have difficulty learning, or managing emotions, or managing anything. Life with a child severely affected by trauma is anything but picture perfect. Life can still be fulfilling, but it will not be the perfection we might have initially imagined.
4. Am I able to ask for help?
Even if you are the self-sufficient type, have you ever reached a place where you just couldn’t do it by yourself? Or have you suffered in silence, and somehow muddled through? If you are considering adoption, think about your attitudes toward others helping you. Parenting is not easy to do alone, and parenting adoptive children can sometimes be even harder. Even if it is just asking friends to bring some meals while you are still getting to know your new child, reaching out and asking others for what you need makes the journey a little bit easier. And you may need more help than you expect; you may need translators for language issues, help with court systems, special education advice, therapists, good friends to help you rejoice and offer a shoulder to cry on, doctors, nurses, and social workers. If you think asking for help means you are weak, please rethink that idea. Asking for help means you are smart and willing to find the resources you need for you and your child to thrive.
5. Am I willing to make myself uncomfortable?
This question is particularly for people who plan on adopting interracially. Your child will not match with the rest of your family. This can make for experiences which are less than comfortable. First, you have the whole conspicuous family effect. You will be noticed. People will feel free to comment, either in positive or negative ways. When you are all out together, you will not be able to blend in with the masses. How will you navigate this? Remember your children will be watching and listening and learning from your example.
You will not always be matched up with your child. If your child is hurt at the park, people may looks askance or actually question your right to care for this child who does not look like you. You will be asked why you would adopt a child who doesn’t match. You will be questioned. More than once. Are you ready for the sheer tediousness of this?
Are you willing to go out of your comfort zone to make your child comfortable? Are you willing to befriend other adults of your child’s race or ethnicity? Are you willing to change what you eat… not every meal, but some? Are you willing to be a minority in your child’s culture? Are you willing to listen to diverse voices and learn from them? Are you willing to alter your life for your child? Remember this is what we are asking our new child to do. If we love our child, then we also need to love the people who share our child’s race or ethnicity. Transracial adoptive parents cannot be color blind, and for some of you that statement alone makes you very uncomfortable. Because the truth is, your child will never be white. And if you are white, you will never be a person of color, but by choosing to be uncomfortable, you can better understand what it means for your child to be a person of color in your world. You can help find people who can be a mirror for your child. By being uncomfortable, you can give your child the gift of comfort in their own skin.
These are five important questions with which we all should wrestle. That doesn’t mean that we can know all the answers before we adopt. The experience of adoption will bring us back to these questions over and over, allowing us to discover newer, deeper answers along the way.