Lisa Qualls is a mother of 12 children through birth and adoption. She and her husband Russ adopted four children from Ethiopia in 2007 and 2008 and have also served as foster parents. Her family has walked through plenty of pain and hardship as well as much joy. Her hard experiences and decades of parenting experience make her a rich source of wisdom.
I first learned about Lisa through her podcast (along with Melissa Corkum) called The Adoption Connection. Her words of hope and grace found me when I was drowning in children and feeling like a massive failure as a mother. I knew my kids needed more from me than what my background in traditional parenting was giving them, but I was at a loss. All I knew was a parenting model based on rules and obedience. But that wasn’t enough.
Lisa’s book The Connected Parent was published in 2020 and co-authored with Dr. Karyn Purvis. It gives parents tools to use with their adopted children and hope for a healthy relationship. I’ve reread this book twice a year since it was published because it is just that practical and helpful.
I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Lisa and asking her some questions about adoption. I think her answers will offer understanding and hope for those looking into adoption or are currently serving in the world of adoption.
Instead of giving an exact account of our conversation (since you don’t need to read my words!) here are Lisa’s own words.
Autumn: So, what do you think adoptive families should know before adopting?
Be very clear about your purpose in adopting.
First, they should ask themselves what is leading them to want to adopt? We all come to adoption for different reasons. Some people come to adoption because of infertility. Some people see a great need and decide to become foster parents and want to grow their family that way. Others may have a relative who is unable to care for their child and so you begin doing kinship care and then you adopt. So there are so many different reasons that people adopt.
And there is a difference when you are adopting because you feel deeply compelled by God that it’s what you believe you are called to do. So I would want people to be clear with themselves about why they are adopting and then think carefully about it.
Arrive at adoption from a place of fullness, not of need.
Our children’s needs are going to be significant. And if we come unprepared to meet those needs; if we don’t come emotionally healthy, with our marriages stable, with our families somewhat in order (and I don’t mean perfect!)— if you have kids with a lot of behavioral problems or mental health issues, or you’re having a hard time managing the number of needs in your family; that is not the time to adopt.
You have to adopt knowing that you’ve got the capacity because it will take more than you ever think it’s going to. When people come from a place of need or deficit, they’re just not setting their family up to do very well.
We focus on preparing things like the house for the home study. We need to do a lot more work on preparing ourselves. If you’ve got some shaky stuff you need to work out in your marriage, do it. It’s probably not going to miraculously get better once you add the extra ends of more children. Take care of it, get a therapist, and meet with somebody. Get things in order in your home and your family before adding more children.
Surround yourself with other adoptive parents.
I think it’s really smart to surround yourself with other adoptive parents. If you want to adopt or if you’re in the process, get to know adoptive parents and get to know foster parents. We think we know what it’s going to be like. But until you actually know someone who’s an adoptive parent and spend time with people, you really don’t know what the issues or challenges might be. And it’s not all challenges, of course. There’s a ton of joy too, but it can be hard. Like we say in the Hope Circle, “Where we recognize the hard and celebrate the beauty of adoption,” and I feel like that really sums it up. We have to be honest about the hard aspects of adoption while still recognizing the beauty—because it’s both.
Adoption changes everything.
It’s very important for people to know that adoption will change their lives. We can’t expect to be living our life and scoop up a child and adopt them and continue on with our life as we know it—because it will change. Our lives change when we add a child to our family, no matter what, but when you add a child through adoption, there can be layers of complexity because adoption begins with loss. It begins with a family losing a child and a child losing a family.
So we have to understand that kids are deeply impacted. Even newborns are deeply impacted by being separated from their very first mother. And we know that many kids experience other layers of trauma and loss. And so before they’re adopted, before they come to our families—if they’re adopted internationally or if they’re adopted through foster care—they experience layers of loss and sometimes really significant traumas that affect their brain and affect how they view the world and how they view relationships on it.
Be willing to change and grow.
When you adopt, you may have to learn a new way of parenting. You may have to learn a different kind of parenting from your friends’ parenting. Or, if you’re like my family, where you already raised kids and what you did worked, you have to be willing to learn about parenting based on creating connections and building attachment. Because when a child comes to you after having lost their initial attachment figure—let’s say they lived with their biological family for a period of time—those attachments have been broken.
Then they come to you. You’re going to have to parent with attachment and connection in mind. Your goal has to change. My goal used to be obedience. I had to learn that my goal had to be building trust and attachment because true obedience flows from trust and attachment. We can make our children conform (maybe), but true obedience comes out of a desire to please a parent. [. . .] But without the foundation of trust and attachment, children are not likely to respond to traditional parenting.
Understand that your child’s birth family matters.
If we really believe in the teachings of Jesus, then we have to love our children’s biological families. As we love ourselves, we have to treat them the way we want to be treated and try to see them as much as possible through God’s eyes and not our own. Something led those parents to the point that they could not parent their children, which is very serious. It is not a small thing that someone cannot parent their own child, and whatever led them to that moment had to have been hard.
[We recognize, also, that some biological parents who choose to place their children for adoption do so because they don’t have a desire to parent—those desires are valid and we aim to support all expectant parents who wish to place their children for adoption.]
Some people almost feel a little adversarial, like it’s them vs. us. As Christians, we have to see them as beloved children of God, just like us. And whether we ever have a relationship with them or not, we have to love them and speak of them in the same way we would want to be spoken about. So, that’s not always easy, but it requires us to humble ourselves and overcome some of our fear. As adoptive parents, we’re sometimes afraid of what the birth family might mean to our child—whether our child might love them more or whether or not they’re ever going to be part of our child’s life.
There can be fear. There can be judgement, but let’s follow the most basic command to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Even after being Christian all these decades, I have to pause often and say, “Am I loving that person, as I would love myself?”
With adoption, your child does not come just by themselves. They have other people who have loved them, another mother who has carried them, and those people are present, whether they’re physically present or not.
Faith in God
I think it’s important to have a deep faith and a sure foundation of trust that you are loved by God that your child is loved by God, that God is good, and that He’ll direct you. You know He’ll provide for you, no matter what, in the highs and the lows, in the hard and the good.
You may believe that God is present and that you’re doing what he called you to do. You know, this child was not placed in your family at random. I think that knowledge is important because if we think that we were just randomly given this child, then when things get difficult, I think it’s harder. But if we believe God placed this particular child in my family, because He thought I could do this, then I think that knowledge helps sustain us when things are hard.
It was such a pleasure getting to talk with Lisa and hear her thoughts about the hard and beautiful parts of adoption. I hope it has also been encouraging to you. In Part 2, we’ll cover Lisa’s thoughts on how adoption has changed her family and what she wishes outsiders knew about adoption.