Year in Review: 7 Things I Learned as an Adoptive Parent

It is Christmas time and just like every year, my mind lingers through the memories we made over the last twelve months. I am reflective by nature. I enjoy thinking about the things that went well and the things that didn’t work out as great to see if I can make an improvement in the future. I love the holiday season, but not because of the hustle and bustle. I like the feeling of moving towards closing off one year and opening another afresh reflecting on what I have learned. 

As a family, we have a tradition of filling a jar all year long. Any family member who felt something was a really good experience (or, a big experience, for better or for worse), or who wants to record something significant, writes it out on a small piece of paper, and puts it in the jar that sits on our piano. Most of the year, the jar gets a little dusty, and we might forget about it a time or two. Sometimes, months go by before someone exclaims, “The jar! I have to put some memories in there!”. On New Year’s Eve, we empty out the jar and read the contents out loud. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, and sometimes we are just super confused (we’ve had more than one little person submit their favorite fart joke or some rather unintelligible comment scrawled in crayon). We take each entry, every single one, and paste them into a scrapbook. Then, we flip through the years gone past to see what things we have recorded previously. We note past adoptions, children that we fostered years ago, birth parent visits, injuries, illnesses, and everything in between. The feeling is nostalgic, and we all look forward to these special, shared moments. 

As a parent, I love to look at old photos and read old memories to remember all the stages my kids have gone through. As an adoptive parent, sometimes the memories are painful: long hospitalizations, a foster placement that was especially challenging, the death of a relative. Adoption always starts off with a bit of pain. That primary attachment between mother and child—parent and child—has been severed in adoption. Because of this, many of my adoption memories are of absolute beauty tinged with just a bit (or more) of pain around the edges. This is a little bit of how I feel about the end of the year, too. As an adoptive parent, I have been stretched beyond what I knew I was capable of, many times. I have experienced losses I wasn’t expecting, anger I didn’t know was coming my way, behavioral issues I didn’t know existed, and a bone-weary stack of papers (that really didn’t ever stop after the adoptions). I have also felt ecstatic and overjoyed by the successes my kids have made and by the joy that our family brings to my heart. I find myself at this place again: a time for a year in review.

This year, as an adoptive parent, I have learned so much.

1. Count Your Blessings

I’ve learned to count my blessings. I think that I have always done this, but this year, in particular, it really hit home. Our adoptive daughter who was on a feeding tube for six and a half years had clearance to do a trial tube wean at the start of the year. We were hesitant to be hopeful because we had tried in the past only to wind up having her hospitalized yet again. Combine this with Covid-19, a surgery, rescheduled surgeries due to a global pandemic, and we were often heartsick and concerned. Provincial orders barred us from seeing friends and family. Many people were lonely and hurting. Looking around my own life, I learned to stop right where I was at and give some thanks for all the good. At times it doesn’t feel like there is much to be thankful for, but I did learn that there is always something. Some days, that looked like being thankful for a new sunrise. Other days, I was thankful for a lively toddler that kept making me laugh. At some point, I recorded my blessings and found that every single day, even the ones where I was stuck at home due to lockdown issues, I had so much to be thankful for. Just the simple idea that I am an adoptive parent is a blessing. I can come back to that over and over again. I know others that want to adopt so badly. As a three-time adoptive parent, I have so many blessings. I’ve learned not to forget that.

2. You Will Survive 

I learned that when things are bad, I always survive. I can’t count the times I have thought to myself, “Ok…this is bad. Really bad!” You know what? It is almost the end of the year. And I survived every single one of those really bad days. From explosive behavior that resulted in holes in the wall from a precious, but struggling, child to ambulance rides and unknown medical issues. Birth parent anger even brought me to my knees and made me sob. Each time, in the moment, things felt impossible. Things felt ugly and, to be honest, rather bleak. I learned, this year, to say, “I can’t wait to be through with this and look back at how we did it” because, each time, we did move beyond the hard. Each time I learned completely new things and gained skills that will help me the next time things are difficult. When I am going through difficulties in my adoptions, it is easy to think that I will be stuck in that difficult place forever. I heard a saying this year that has become my banner: “A few more steps, and we will be out of the rain”. I tell myself this now whether it be a hard day or a hard season. I have learned that I am always just a few steps away from walking out of difficulty.

3. Find the Good

I learned that there is great joy in everyday life. I realized that I was often waiting for an exciting day—a big day—one of those extraordinary days. Somewhere along the line, I decided that every day is extraordinary. I have been a stay-at-home mom for 13 years. During that time, I have always had a little side business or part-time work that I find meaningful. I’ve been a foster parent for 10 years and an adoptive parent for nine years. Some of those years, life has felt mundane and, like all, I have done laundry, dishes, and spent copious amounts of trying to keep mischievous toddlers alive. This year, I learned that if I expect joy, I will find it. I learned that my own outlook and attitude have far more to do with the joy I experience in a day than the actual events of the day.

4. Laugh

I learned that laughter fixes almost everything. My kids and I love to laugh. As an adoptive and foster parent, I often have challenging or difficult things on my plate. Sometimes I would feel a bit bogged down by the circumstances I was aware of or that I was dealing with. This year, I decided to laugh more. We never laugh at others or misfortunes, but we laugh in a way that releases the tension and brings the joy back. The toddler pooped all over the couch right before you need to leave the house? Let yourself laugh and share this story. I found out other people I would share with would laugh at these antics and, rather than becoming a point of frustration, it became a conversation. Of course, serious things happen that you have to deal with. If I can’t laugh at the actual situation, I have learned that it helps me to relax if I find a funny joke, meme, or video clip to take the seriousness out of my day. I have learned that it is better to laugh than it is to stew in anger or frustration.

5. Relax

I have learned not to take life too seriously. Almost anything that happens today will be manageable. It might feel heavy now, but in time, it will be another event you survived. Or, another something you thrived in if you can get to that mindset. Even when things look grim, I’ve learned to ask, “Is this a life and death situation?” If it is not, I have learned to not take it too seriously. 

I have learned to let go. This means I have had to learn what is truly important. As our family size has grown, I have had to let go of things that no longer serve us. I laughingly look back at when I was a child and think about when I grumbled at my own mom for such silly things as not having matching sheets for my bed or matching dishes for the table. As an adoptive parent in a big, bustling home, I see how utterly unimportant these things are in the grand scheme of life. Sure, many things are nice to have or to do. I am in a place where I would rather have peace in the home and more time on my hands to enjoy life than I would be striving to have perfection in the little things. I have let go of super cool, themed birthday parties, lovely crafts, picturesque holidays, and matching outfits for family photos. Actually, I let go of all of us being in the same family photo this year altogether! In an attempt to bring the crew together for a family photo, we found that it just wasn’t our year. Instead, we embarked on two photo sessions. One for the kids and one for mom and dad. I printed out both photos for the Christmas cards this year and didn’t care that although the outfits did match, one child was in gumboots, and another had pink, striped socks pulled up to her knees that totally clashed with the dress she was wearing. I was immediately asked by a few people if we had a photo of all of us in one picture. My answer was “Nope!”, and I let it go. If it isn’t helpful to my everyday life or beneficial to my kids and husband, I let it go.

6. Learn

I’ve learned that I really don’t know very much, about anything. As an adoptive parent, I have been a speaker at conferences, I have done some peer mentoring, and I have spoken to prospective adoptive parents and those seeking guidance about openness in adoption. I did think that I sort of had the hang of things. But, true to life, new experiences this year showed me that I still have a lot to learn and that I am often wrong. I have yet to live every experience and there are many birth moms I haven’t worked with. The result is the realization that I don’t know much. I might know a lot about some things, but it is so important to keep learning. We will never know it all. I learned to be humble, and seek to learn, rather than to teach. I’ve learned to be open about each new situation, especially in adoption in foster care, and go in thinking “I wonder what I will learn”, rather than, “This will be easy, I know what to do”. 

7. Reflect

As this year comes to a close, I encourage other parents on this adoption journey to take the time to think back over the last year. I encourage you to let your mind wander and ponder the days gone by and think about what you might learn from your experiences. I encourage you to think about areas you could benefit from gaining more knowledge in (behavioral issues, openness, aging out, etc). I encourage you to step into the New Year with courage and joy as you parent these children that were entrusted to you. My prayer for you is that as you walk this path, the one that only a select few will travel, and forgive easily, love abundantly, walk boldly, and continue to proclaim the importance of foster care, adoption, and caring for children in need. 

Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.