Adopting a Child: the Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected

If you have decided to start on the adoption path, you have an incredible journey ahead of you. This adoption road is the road less traveled, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. The path to adopting a child isn’t easy—there are twists and turns, uphill portions, and potholes here and there. The truth is, adoption is not a fairytale. Living happily ever after is the goal, but reality, like in every other part of life, is that it isn’t all a simple, straightforward process. Let’s break it down and take a look.

Adopting a Child: the Good

This is my favorite part—talking about the good. And there is so much of it! What’s good about adoption? 

Adoption gives children homes

Adoption itself is a good thing. Adoption places those in need of a family into a loving family in a forever home. Adoption gives them a place to call their own, a place of belonging, and a place of peace. For some children, especially those who have waited for a forever home while in foster care, it may have been a long wait. It might have felt like it would never happen. It might feel too good to be true. My home province of British Columbia has really strict privacy laws around Canadian children waiting for adoption. Our neighboring province, Alberta, is quite different and often features children in foster care waiting for adoption during the nightly news in something called Wednesday’s Child. These featured children are usually older, often teenagers. They exude hope and a desire to be in a forever home, and I always find my heart anxiously praying they receive one soon. Children coming from orphanages may also have been waiting a long time for a family in less than ideal conditions. Regardless as to whether it was through private adoption, direct placement adoption, kinship adoption, foster to adopt, international adoption, or any other form of adoption—and savior complex aside—what’s good about adopting a child is that it places a child in a forever home. 

Adoption grows community

Another good thing about adoption is that it fosters and grows community. Most times, adoption weaves together two previously unrelated lives to create a completely new tapestry. Connections are made between people that might not have known the other existed before. Where there is openness in adoption, a beautiful, sacred relationship forms. Roots that weren’t there before grow down deep. People are curious about adoption, and people tend to love to hear adoption stories. When adopting a child, I find that it usually opens new doors. You have created a new family, and people around you want to celebrate that and celebrate you! The child you bring into your home then goes out into the community and makes friends and connections themselves, bringing about a circle of love and balance to your new family dynamic.

It changes people forever

The good about adopting a child is that you are forever changing the trajectory of a life. I’m not talking about savior complexes or any form of lifting oneself high for doing a good deed by adopting; no, I am talking about choosing to create a life with a child who needs a forever home. UNICEF estimates that there are 153 million orphans worldwide. The good in adopting a child is providing a safe, stable, loving, and permanent home for one of these children—each one just as deserving as the next—and learning to love them in their uniqueness, raising them to be their own person, and celebrating where they have come from. 

Adopting a Child: the Bad

At first glance, it might be easy to ask, where is the bad? Can there be bad in adoption? To be realistic, yes. There are hard things. Let’s talk about a few of them.

Things aren’t always easy as an adoptive family 

Children are human beings with likes and dislikes. Particularly when adopting older kids, things might not jive right away. You’ve not grown together over the years, and you have to learn about each other. I told you that it isn’t a fairytale. The hard work of adopting a child is worth it, but it is still hard work. Children of international adoption may not speak your language at first, might be completely unaware of your customs, and may have to get used to your climate. You better believe that there will be frustration and pushback. Some children from hard places have attachment issues, which can be particularly hard on caregivers. It is easy to read an adoption profile and think, “I can handle that” when in reality, some behaviors are far more severe than you realize or are far harder to manage than you thought. Sometimes, it might feel as if the adoption profile wasn’t that accurate, given the behavior you see now. 

Few people will be able to relate to you 

You may be struggling with openness, behaviors (and the related assessments and diagnoses), and the people around you will have no clue what that is like. During some of the hardest times in our adoptions, we were not able to find a babysitter that could handle a feeding tube, we couldn’t find people that understood what it was like to wait to find out if we could adopt our foster daughter, we couldn’t find people who were comfortable around our emotional messiness. We felt people pull away from us more than once, and that is painful. The bad news is that sometimes your adoptions might be too much for other people.

There are long days 

There are long days of waiting as you do your pre-adoption paperwork and as you inch your way through criminal records checks and a home study. There are long, long days as you wait for a match (or wait for a transfer of guardianship to see if you can adopt your foster child or any other number of things). And one of the hardest parts of adoption, the part I hate to bring up because people usually think it can’t be so hard and don’t want to take it on, is that the honeymoon will one day be over. After the long road to placement and adoption, there is a glorious period often referred to as the honeymoon stage. At this stage, parents are exuberant. They are confident. According to age, often children are on their best behavior as everyone puts their best foot forward. This is normal! We usually only let our guard down around those we are comfortable with, and new adoptive parents haven’t earned that yet. We can’t live in a honeymoon world forever. It isn’t realistic. Post-placement is when the rubber hits the road. It’s all you, as the adoptive parent. Hopefully, there have been plenty of supports put in place. That doesn’t change the fact that you are now solely responsible for the health and safety of another human being. Even with a long, thoughtful transition process, some families are hit hard. Sometimes, children don’t take to their adoption the way we thought they would. Sometimes they are incredibly sad—or angry—and that is hard on a family (even worse on the child, I am sure). The bad news is that almost every adoptive family will, at some point, go through some discouragement. Unrealistic expectations contribute to this immensely. Being aware that adoption will have hard moments and talking about this topic are incredibly important. Having a hard time does not mean you’re doing something wrong—it means you need time, support, help, love, and understanding. It also means you are trying.

Adopting a Child: the Unexpected

The unexpected—that term makes me shudder. As a planner, I like to think of everything. I know that I spend too much energy trying to ensure everything turns out right because most everything is actually out of my hands. No matter how much we try to examine everything from all angles, something unexpected most often still happens. How about the unexpected in adopting a child?

Openness 

Openness is a huge variable, and I think it is because it is so incredibly and emotionally charged. On top of that, every person experiences something like openness a little bit differently. For example, a birth parent, a foster parent, a child of adoption, and a biological sibling may all attend the same event together and come away with vastly different feelings. Openness is also something that needs to be fluid because it is constantly changing. A part of this is the fact that children of adoption get older, naturally, and their developmental stages (and hormones, later on in the teenage years) greatly affect how they view and deal with the facts about their adoptions. Unexpectedly, a child might go from being excited for a birth parent visit to seeming sullen and uninterested. The child might be gaining an awareness of the circumstances their birth parent is in (homelessness, addiction, et cetera), or might feel torn—to whom do they belong? A birth parent can never be replaced, but children often feel like they need to choose or that there is something wrong with them for being adopted. They may ask, “Why couldn’t my birth parent change for me?” As the parent, at times you might find openness stressful or taxing. What was working for a long time might unexpectedly feel heavy and unsustainable, but remember to relax. The good thing is almost anything can be reworked. If handled with love, respect, and care, the unexpected in openness is manageable.

Behavior

Behavior is not static. The good thing is that this goes both ways. Children that were struggling immensely can have a huge breakthrough and make unexpected gains. At the same time, children who seemed quite settled can also suddenly be in turmoil. Sometimes these changes only last for a season (we can be relieved or stressed about that fact alone). Behavior is driven by deep needs from within and always needs to be taken quite seriously, especially when changes are abrupt. 

Joy

Joy! I wanted to end on a positive note. One of the most unexpected things in our adoptions has been the tremendous amount of joy we have felt. Sometimes on an ordinary day, I will just look at my children and be flooded with emotion about our journey, our experiences, and about the family that has risen around us. I’m usually caught off guard by this quite unexpected feeling. Of course, we always have joy in our lives with our children, but often adoption brings waves of emotion. Sadness can be mixed in there, but always, always remember the joy.

Adoption is a journey like no other. It is really important to remember all of the good things when you are going through the hard things. No life is perfect, and storms rage in any life. Illness, injury, and job loss can happen to anyone; if something like this happens to an adoptive family, it can create crushing weight. Adoptive families are often dealing with far, far more than non-adoptive families. Adoptive families, on top of having normal responsibilities, also have to think about the following: openness, Gotcha Day, trauma, assessments, difficult diagnoses, school projects that leave out adoptees, attachment issues, language barriers, cultural differences, cultural support, positive adoption language, appropriate child care (not all babysitters can care for children from hard places), increased appointments and therapies, and holidays and special days (Mother’s Day, for example) that may affect the kids. The list goes on and on! The responsibilities of an adoptive parent can seem endless. Self-care for adoptive parents is incredibly important and should not be overlooked. Realistic goals and a realistic view of what your adoptee can manage socially and behaviorally go so far in fostering an environment in which the hard days are manageable. In many ways, adoption is unexpected; it is like a rare find, a surprise in a place you initially weren’t even aware existed. Adoption has painful moments, and adoption has hard truths that come with it; adoption always starts with pain. But this is your great chance to overcome, link arms, tackle the giant, and create something new. I know one thing for sure: I have had bad days as an adoptive parent—many of them. I’ve had many, many unexpected days and, with that, some unpleasant experiences. But most of all, I’ve had joy. Don’t ever forget the joy!