The popularity of Halloween proves that humans love to be scared. The more scared they are, the better Halloween is for them. People want to watch horror films, hear frightening tales, visit haunted attractions, and wear terrifying monster costumes. While Halloween is expected to be scary, adoption journeys should not be. Unfortunately, the reality is that adoption can be scary like Halloween.
Masks Are Worn
Recently, with the arrival of COVID-19, the wearing of masks has become an everyday occurrence. Previously, folks typically associated the wearing of a mask with the annual celebration of Halloween. Not only were costumes donned, but the face was covered to extend the disguise.
While those participating in an adoption won’t literally be wearing masks, figurative masks can be an issue. Just as Halloween masks cover a person’s face, individuals may put on a figurative mask to hide who they really are. Why would they want to do that?
One reason is that they might be rejected if they reveal their true selves. As noted by Karyn Hall, Ph.D. in her blog post, “Wearing Masks,” avoidance masks are utilized to avoid a negative outcome. People wear such a mask in order to avoid the pain of having others reject them or judge them.
The characters most often wearing a mask in an adoption context are a birth mother and a prospective adoptive parent. They stand to lose the most if they reveal what is underneath their mask. A birth mother may be rejected for a match by a prospective adoptive couple if she reveals possible addictions, mental health issues, or bad habits such as smoking and drinking. A prospective adoptive parent may be denied approval for the placement of a child if he or she reveals an issue that may be contrary to a birth mother’s standards. Because these members of the adoption triad want adoption to go forward, they may cover up negative information and behavior to achieve that end.
When a Halloween mask is worn, it is easy to deduce that the face seen is not the true face of the person observed. Discerning that a mask is being worn by a birth mother or a prospective adoptive parent is not quite as easy. In fact, short of administering a lie detector test or having documentary proof (such as a positive drug test or an arrest report), it may not be possible to detect that a mask is in place.
Prospective adoptive parents may grumble when asked to undergo a probing and extensive background investigation in the form of a home study. But such an investigation is needed to make sure that a mask is not hiding pertinent information. Disinterested third parties are required to make this determination because much is at stake—a helpless child is being placed in a home where his or her safety and well-being need to be assured as much as possible.
Part of that background check is following up with references. Are people who have seen the prospective adoptive parent in various settings such as work, social gatherings, family interactions able to confirm that someone is the type of person he or she portrays? This process is not foolproof, but it is necessary and a prudent step.
Birth mothers likewise can wear a mask when engaging with others about an adoptive placement. Sometimes, there is a temptation to use an avoidance mask and pretend to be someone she is not in order to not be judged and rejected. A birth mother may downplay the circumstances of her pregnancy. Birth mothers often feel judged by others because of the circumstances surrounding an unplanned pregnancy. Because of this, a birth mother may resist genuine vulnerability as to save face with an adoptive family.
Unfortunately, the facts that a birth mother may mask are key pieces of information that are needed for making appropriate choices about a match and the placement of her child. The adoption professional is not out to judge a birth mother, but she is tasked with finding a home for the child which can meet the child’s needs.
Having the birth mother interviewed by a trained professional such as a social worker or a mental health counselor may also assist in determining if there is a different face under the mask. The latter may spot mental health issues not readily apparent to a layperson. The former may be able to build a rapport with the birth mother who may feel more comfortable and then open up to her.
Things Can Jump Out and Go “Boo!”
Jump scares are a classic horror movie trope that keeps everyone coming back for more. Adoptions have their own jump scares when the unexpected happens. One minute everything is fine, and the next moment brings horror. And when it is real, it is even scarier than a movie plot.
Unexpected pregnancy complications are one form of a scary situation you may face on your adoption journey. Especially for hopeful adoptive mothers who have experienced so many problems with infertility, there is a very real fear associated with pregnancy. If circumstances allow hopeful adoptive parents to attend doctor’s appointments before the birth and placement, a hopeful adoptive parent may definitely approach each appointment fearful of the worst-case scenario. These fears are completely valid and normal.
Likewise, unexpected issues with a baby can arise even though regular prenatal care has been obtained. Several years ago, a baby was born with a club foot. No one had the slightest inkling that this physical issue existed. The birth mother obtained ultrasounds during her pregnancy, but not one of them had shown this defect. The prospective adoptive couple who had been matched with the birth mother was aghast when this issue was identified post-delivery and felt unequipped to take placement of the child under these circumstances. They decided not to proceed with the adoption, but their loss was a blessing for the couple who did adopt the child.
Fear of the Unknown
Another gimmick commonly found in horror movies is the fear of the unknown. Some character (usually a minor one who won’t have much screen time) decides it would be a wonderful idea to go down into the dark basement alone to see what a mysterious noise is. While this character descends the stairs to sudden doom, the audience is squirming in their seats, watching the scene unfold through the fingers of their hands covering their faces.
What could such a scenario possibly have in common with an adoption? The answer is the unknown. Adoptions are full of unknowns that can be downright scary for those on an adoption journey. It is normal to be wary of major life changes.
One possible unknown in an adoption situation is the birth father’s involvement. A birth mother may not always be able to identify the father, the father may have chosen to withdraw involvement in the pregnancy and placement process, or he may be completely invested and opposed to the adoption.
Other fears of the unknown come from a lack of medical history from both biological parents. Does the birth father have health problems? Is there a family history of mental illness? Is the birth mother honest in her own medical history? Total transparency on everyone’s part is in the best interest of the child long-term.
The future health of a child is another scary unknown. In some cases, fetal alcohol syndrome proves to be a major challenge for some adoptive parents. In some tragic cases, children are born addicted. Could there be developmental delays down the road not apparent at birth or placement? Movie characters can turn on a light to go down into a basement, but there is simply no light switch for prospective adoptive parents to see into the future. This should not, though, prevent an adoptive parent from embracing a child and taking on every challenge together despite the fear.
Halloween activities usually take place in a dark setting; the darkness is part of what makes them scary. Lights are low in a haunted house, trick-or-treating is normally done after dark, and Halloween movies involve things that go bump in the night. What we cannot see can frighten us.
The lack of light and clarity is also present in the adoption journey. The starting point of the adoption journey is known, and the desired destination is well-defined; however, the path to receiving an adoptive placement is dimly lit. Timing and details are lacking. This often leaves a waiting couple in a scary, dark limbo. Will we ever get a placement? Will this match go through? How is this going to work out? How long will this take? Only time will shed light on these answers. Every adoption journey is different.
Remember that a great resource to light your path along the way is a trusted adoption agency. Adoption agencies can answer the questions you have that make you feel like you are in the dark. They can help reassure you when you begin to lose hope. They will be your trusted friend with a flashlight and back-up batteries during a long waiting period. Never hesitate to reach out for support along your adoption journey.
Sometimes It Is Bittersweet
A highlight of Halloween for kids is the treats they collect while trick-or-treating. There is so much excitement that accompanies the pounds and pounds of candy that come home with a little trick-or-treater. Children eagerly sort through their candy, trade with their siblings, and eat as much as they can before a parent can swoop in (steal their favorite chocolate) and tuck their child’s winnings away as the sugar rush sets in. Every high has a low, though. And everyone knows that too much candy will result in a tummy ache.
The ultimate treat for a prospective adoptive couple is, of course, a baby. Adoption has a great outcome, but the bitter will almost always accompany the sweet. Sometimes, the bitter comes from the success of an adoption in the first place. The decision whether to make a placement is entirely within the control of the birth parent(s); for hopeful adoptive parents, waiting can feel like a chronic tummy ache. The bitterness can also come from a difficult post-placement transition. As wonderful as it is to welcome a child into a forever family, there is often associated trauma that comes from adoption. Adoption is born out of brokenness. Navigating this trauma while celebrating a new family introduces the bittersweet feelings once again.
Trick-or-treaters might also face the horror of having their treat taken away. Upon returning home, their parents may inspect the gathered treats and determine they are not safe or suitable for the child; as a result, the treats are removed from the child’s possession. In a similar fashion, a birth mother might choose to place her child with a prospective adoptive couple, but then later, change her mind. She could revoke her consent if allowed under applicable state adoption law. Who could imagine a more dreadful outcome for a couple who has taken a baby home and bonded with him or her? Unfortunately, this is a scary reality that many adoptive parents need to be aware of. Although it is not extremely common, it is important to understand that the adoption process and finalization is not complete until the ink has dried. It is also a good thing when a birth mother feels she is able to parent her child.
While it is enjoyable to be scared when celebrating Halloween, no one wants to experience that sensation while on an adoption journey. Unfortunately, as with Halloween, the path can be scary for several reasons: masks can be worn, unexpected developments can startle people, the unknown must be faced, the path can be dark, and the results may be bittersweet. But as scary as Halloween and an adoption journey may be, they can each result in wonderful experiences and cherished memories. This year as you celebrate Halloween and continue on in your adoption journey, remember to approach the path ahead prepared and with courage in facing the unknown.