We adoptive moms love our children. In many ways, we are no different than any other mom. We juggle many balls, we worry, we get annoyed, lose our patience, and we brag about, fight for, and adore our children. Just like any other mom. In other ways, though, we are not like other moms. Our children came to us in different ways and sometimes at older ages. We share love for this child with other parents, known or unknown. Sometimes our children have been hurt in ways we can hardly bear to think about before they joined our families. And all of our children will need to navigate in their own way what it means to be born to one mother and raised by another. For some, this will be an easy path, and for others it will be long and difficult.
Often the hard parts of adoption are not understood by an adoptive mom’s friends. Sometimes an adoptive mom’s friends and community assume that adoption is all sunshine and rainbows, and don’t even realize that adoption comes with hard parts. Without personal experience of adoption, friends may see that an adoptive family is struggling somehow, but they may be baffled about why or what they can do to help.
So what can you do to support your adoptive friend?
Learn about adoption
You probably won’t have to work very hard at this, just ask your friend. Most adoptive moms are more than happy to ramble on and on about adoption, but they also try to keep the ramblings to a manageable level. Not everyone wants to understand the ins and outs of the process, but to support your friend, it does help. You will learn that there is nothing simple about the process. You will learn that domestic adoption is not better or easier than international… or vice versa. You will learn the level of intrusiveness by social workers and governments that every adoptive family voluntarily subjects themselves to. You will learn that it is quite possible to fall in love with a photograph of a child. By learning these things, you will be able to ask intelligent questions, rejoice at the successes, and commiserate with the delays. A friend who can work up enthusiasm about correctly executed notarial statements is as good as gold.
Listen more than you talk
This is probably good advice for any relationship, but it is also very important to a friendship between an adoptive mom and a non-adoptive mom. Your friend is entering (or has entered) territory that is new. Her views are being altered by the experience. Knowledge can be an uncomfortable thing, whether it is the reality that foster children negotiate on a daily basis or what orphanage life is really like or just knowing about the sheer number of children who need permanent families. Knowing these things, experiencing them first hand, changes a person. If your friend has adopted a child of a different ethnicity, his or her world is also changing. Minorities and people of color live a different existence from the majority culture. It can be uncomfortable to learn this and act upon it. Raising a child with a physical difference or a visible special need changes how the parents view how the culture at large treats people of differing abilities.
As a friend who is not personally experiencing these changes, your friend’s new opinions and ideas may seem out of character. You may actually disagree. You may feel uncomfortable. If you value this friendship, take the time to listen. Try to understand what your friend is experiencing. Discussion of these new ideas is fine, dismissal is not. And remember, your friend is not adopting or sharing with you about orphans needing families or about current social injustices to make you feel bad or guilty. She is sharing because she wants someone to listen, to be interested, and to help her process what she is experiencing.
Remember your friend is not Super Mom
Your friend is still your friend even if she has done something (such as adopt a child with special needs) that you think is completely outside what you see as possible. No cape came along with the adoption papers. No super powers were acquired. She probably wishes sometimes that there were. Instead, she is still the same person you always knew, but she is learning to do something different as well. Trust me when I say she probably has no idea what she is doing or if she can do it. Parents do not adopt children with special needs because they think they have some sort of special ability, but because they fell in love with a child, and that child happened to come with some extra challenges. Your friend needs you to treat her as the same old person she always was… because she still is. She is not better than you or more able than you, she has just had some practice at parenting a child that might need a little more care. Bestowing halos is not needed or helpful. Let your friend be human and imperfect, because she is.
Be careful with advice
You might have lots of experience raising children. You might be really good at it and have a lot to say. You might be watching your friend with her adopted child and thinking, “Boy, she is doing that all wrong. No wonder her kid is such a mess. If she would only…” Let me just say, STOP! Don’t do it. Just don’t offer advice under those circumstances. I can write this because I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been the experienced mom of successfully raising many biological children. That was back when I was a good mom and knew what I was doing. I have also been that mom struggling with the adopted child in the midst of what probably looked like a mess. Through our struggles, we found a way to parent him so that we actually started to see healing. That’s my now, where I’m the recovering good mom and freely admit I don’t know what I’m doing half the time.
You see, many adopted children are affected by the past trauma in their lives. That trauma rewires their brains, so that what works and makes sense to an emotionally healthy child doesn’t make any sense at all to a hurt child. Traditional parenting often doesn’t help, and instead hurts these children. So we parent in rather non-traditional ways. Ways that don’t always make sense to people looking in. What others see is a child who can often seem out of control and parents who don’t do anything about it. What the parent is seeing is, instead, a child for whom none of the usual parenting tricks did anything. If they had worked, the child would now be perfect. It isn’t that the parent hasn’t done the right thing, usually they have done the ‘right thing’ repeatedly to no effect. Instead, it is that the parent has learned to address the underlying reason for the outward behavior, and there is no seemingly cause and effect process that we often so like to see.
If you have never experienced a child who lives with the effects from trauma, your advice, though well meant, is not going to be of any use to your friend. Instead, all you will have accomplished is both criticizing your friend’s parenting and making her feel inadequate at the same time. Instead, asking questions is better. How can I help? Do you want to talk? What can you teach me about what is working for your child? Your friend is more likely to answer you truthfully if she trusts you enough to listen. Be the friend who listens.
Adoption is life changing, not only because of this new person who has been added to a family, but because of everything that is learned and experienced as a result. Friendships can be difficult to maintain if the friend does not come alongside and join the adoptive parents on this new journey of learning and loving. It might not always be easy at times, and can be downright uncomfortable at others. But the friendships that last are the ones where both individuals support each other as they both learn and grow. Real friends are worth every uncomfortable moment.