Once upon a time, there was a young (or at least they felt that way) couple with some children. The children were all blond and blue-eyed and who made stair steps when standing in a line. The parents were good parents with high expectations, consistent consequences, and lots of love. That must be why the children were all so bright and pleasant and well-behaved. They were a happy family, and other than the comments about there being five stair steps, walked around their world with little notice or comment from outsiders. Life was easy and the family was happy.
Yet something… or someone… seemed to be missing. So this young(ish) couple decided to pursue adoption. They were good and loving parents, surely they could offer a home to a child who needed one. Then they would be a happy, pleasant, easy-going family with one more child. Sure the transition might be a bit rough, but they’d raised these children through some hard stuff. They’d be fine.
If only it were that easy.
That family is happy, generally pleasant, and easy-going today, but the road to get here for this family, and others I’ve talked to, was a journey that was unexpected. Sometimes surprisingly hard, sometimes surprisingly joyful, and sometimes just plain annoying. Let me share how adding to our family changed our family’s dynamics.
1. You will become conspicuous.
I’m am writing as the parent of children who do not share my ethnicity as well as the parent of children with visible special needs. If this is not your potential reality, then this item will probably not pertain to you, but for so many adoptive parents, it will become their new reality.
No longer will you be able to be one of the crowd or fly under the radar. If you and your children do not match or if your child is visibly different physically, you will be remembered. Your family will be commented on. You will stand out whenever you go somewhere. This can take a little getting used to. Sometimes these interactions are positive, some are benign (but also can be annoying), and some can be downright unpleasant. I just never know which sort of comment to expect when a new stranger approaches. I’ve been sworn at for not adopting from my own country. I’ve heard, “You have your hands full!” more times than I can remember. I’ve had people tell me how much they loved growing up in a large family or that their sister (cousin, daughter, next-door-neighbor) also adopted. And I’ve listened to a rather loud stage whisper, as my family walked by, telling her companion that, “If that were me, I’d kill myself.” You will be noticed. Going to the grocery store for a gallon of milk with your child or children in tow can become yet one more experience of being reminded that your child does not look like you and that your family is different from everyone else’s.
It is what it is, and you kind of get used to it. But sometimes, you just want to be like everyone else and fly under the radar. In fact, I kind of long for the day when people see a family like mine and it is not worth commenting because all families are seen as normal.
2. You will discover that love is complicated.
Parenting my first five biological children was pretty easy. They were born into a family with emotionally healthy, financially stable, well-educated parents who had been raised by emotionally healthy, financially stable, and well-educated parents. My children’s own emotional health and well-being was a reflection of that generational stability.
My adopted children? Well, for a child to be available for adoption, it means that somewhere along the line, there was loss and hurt. Possibly loss and hurt compounded by societal pressures which made it necessary for a child to find a new home. These losses cause trauma and trauma makes physical changes in the brain; changes which affect a child systemically. The most obvious of these changes in how the child interacts with the world, and anyone who has raised a child with a hard past knows that trauma creates some rather unpleasant behaviors.
While it is extremely important to love this child, you quickly realize that love means you may have to change the way you parent. Traditional, consequence-based parenting often does not work with a traumatized child, and in fact, will make behavior worse. Loving means that you may need to be humble enough to find outside help in the form of therapists and doctors. Loving means that you may have to overlook some rather horrid behavior as you work on the root need of safety and security. Love means that you might have family members or friends think you are bad parents because you do not discipline your child as they think you should. Love is complicated.
Combining a new child with a traumatic past with your emotionally healthy children can also be tricky, especially if you are changing how you parent. Older children can resent that this new child is not held to the same standards that they were. They can also be confused and angry that this new child has so very much disrupted what they once viewed as a calm, happy, and safe home. Parents will need to learn how to meet the needs of their new child while doing their best to maintain the safety and security of their other children. It can be a rather difficult tightrope to walk. It involves creating a family environment where every family member feels safe to speak how they feel. It means finding outlets for existing children to still enjoy peaceful family times. It means a lot of overt explanations as to why a child behaves as he or she does, in an effort to engender compassion even in the midst of chaos.
If you go on to have other children, there is the possibility that they can experience their own trauma as a result of living with a struggling older brother or sister. We have had seasons where we have set up emergency plans for who would take the littlest children and where they would take them if another sibling had become dysregulated to the point of raging. We focused a lot on felt safety for everyone during those years. It was tiring, and we had times where we did not have a lot of hope that things would ever get better. Sometimes love and how to best live it out is complicated and painful, and you wonder what you were thinking to sign up for this.
3. You will discover you have hidden strengths.
All of this can sound kind of hard. Okay, some of this not only sounds hard, but it is hard. I look back on some of our seasons and wonder that we survived them. We had a lot of support in the way of friends, family, and therapists. We learned to ask for help. We humbled ourselves (which is always hard) and asked for forgiveness. We changed how we parented. We grew and stretched and became different people. It was hard, but we did it.
The other area I have learned I have hidden strengths in is the medical realm. I didn’t ever want to pursue any career in the medical profession. I didn’t even think I would make a particularly good special needs mom. You know, that was for other people; people who knew what they were doing; special people. That wasn’t me. We chose a healthy child adoption the first time around. And then that healthy child rocked our world, and suddenly, medical stuff didn’t seem quite so scary anymore. In fact, in some ways, it seemed infinitely easier than the psychological and emotional side of trauma.
All of this to explain why, at two different times, I found myself injecting saline into a port in my daughter’s head in order to stretch the skin for a tissue expansion later. No one wakes up one morning and decides, “Yeah, that’s something I can do.” No, instead, when at the doctor’s office in the informational meeting prior to the port implantation, it was all I could do to stop myself from running around the office, screaming, and flapping my arms. It’s what I was doing on the inside though.
I’ve now sat in a pre-op room over 10 times waiting with a child who was about to have surgery. I’m actually on the low end for children’s surgeries compared to some of my special needs mom friends, but since I thought I could handle zero, it feels like a pretty impressive number. One season, we were at the hospital for surgery so often, we felt like old friends with the nurses in the unit.
It turns out, I am a lot stronger than I ever thought I was when I had those first five children. I would never have known that if adoption hadn’t changed our family.
4. Your idea of what family is will expand.
Family is more than a husband and wife and several biological children. That is the first lesson you will learn, possibly at the first doctor’s appointment with your new child when they ask for documentation they would never ask for one of your biological children. You quickly discover that other people expect you to justify your family’s existence because it is different from the norm. Along with that, fending off annoying questions such as, “Is she yours?” or “What happened to her real parents?” or “Are they really sisters? No, really, you know what I mean,” becomes one of those annoying, but inevitable, parts of life.
The second lesson about family is that there cannot be too many people who love your child. There is room for others, especially in the form of your child’s birth parents. I know plenty of people who chose international adoption because the idea of not knowing anything about their new child’s birth parents was appealing. There would be no one around to lay a claim on their child. Most of these people also learned that birth parents are there whether they are known or not. Our children’s connection to their birth parents is deep, whether they can remember them or not. You will learn there is enough love for your child to love both them and you.
If you truly love your child, then you want what is best for them. What is best for any child is to feel secure in who they are now and with their past. Sometimes we just cannot know about a child’s past and that can be difficult. It can hurt because it hurts your child. My children have different memories and experiences with their birth families, but if I could, I would give each of them contact. Just because they love someone else, does not change their love for me, but I love them so much, I want this for them.
My children each started out in a different family. It is egotistical and naïve of me to believe that my love can negate their need to know and understand their origins. If I could invite each of these families into mine somehow, I would. My sense of family has grown… it is broader, more accepting, and less fearful.
5. You will find more joy.
As you could probably guess, we have had seasons that were exceedingly challenging; the kind of challenge which makes you wonder why you ever agreed to this. Yet we did, so we went on. You learn a lot going through the hard parts of life, the most important is you learn to value the normal, the everyday, the boring. You don’t take them for granted anymore because you know how incredibly valuable they are.
When you adopt a child with special needs, you also begin to see the world differently. Yes, surgeries, seizures, and intellectual delays can be hard and scary. You can hurt when you see your suffering or struggling. I can wish with all your heart that you could wave a magic wand and make everything better for them. (And if I’m being truthful, for you, the parent as well.) But once again, it changes your perspective. Small triumphs feel huge. They are not what is often celebrated, but when you have a child who has spent the past three years trying to remember her age, and she does, everyone celebrates. When you have a child who struggles with cerebral palsy and she teaches herself to ride a bike, everyone celebrates. Even a child learning to walk downstairs alternating feet is cause for celebration around here. When you learn to celebrate, really celebrate, the little things, the amount of joy in your life increases.
And just having more children in the family brings more joy. Sure, there’s more laundry and bigger grocery bills, but there are more mouths to laugh, more arms to hug, more heads to kiss.
Adoption, by its very nature, is a hard and joyful thing. It is filled with loss and belonging all at the same time. It is complicated. Is it so surprising that the families who open their arms to adoption are also complicated, with the hard and the joyful living side by side much of the time?
Once upon a time, there was a (not-so-young) couple who had 12 children. These parents often looked at their loud, sometimes crazy, often not normal, usually loving and compassionate children, and wondered at how they got there. They were not so terribly sure how it happened, but were so very, very glad that they did.