My previous article with Lisa Qualls focused on what parents should know before adoption. You can check out Part 1 here. In that article, we covered topics like considering reasons for adopting, finding support, understanding how adoption will change your life, and realizing the importance of respecting children’s birth families.
In part 2, we will look at life after adoption. What are the challenges adoptive parents might face after the court documents are signed and the celebration is over? How will our lives change after adoption as we start the work of knitting together as a family? Lisa shares her experience of bringing home her four adoptive children and overcoming the new challenges of meeting the needs of children with trauma.
As background, Lisa and her husband Russ had seven children when they decided to adopt from Ethiopia. They brought home three children in 2007; and just a year later, they brought home their fourth child. Lisa has a wealth of experience with extreme behavior challenges, trauma, attachment care, and learning to meet the needs of all children in her home.
Autumn Knapp: How has your life changed as a result of adoption?
Lisa Qualls: Adoption gave us four more amazing people to be in our family. Our family is so different because of them. Just one person changes a family, and we added four! They have added so much richness. And because our kids are transracially adopted, their presence in our family has opened our eyes to how much we didn’t know. There is so much we are learning and a lot that we still need to learn about race, identity, and racism. So I’m thankful for that.
Adoption Expanded Our World
Adoption has made our world so much bigger. Before we adopted, our friends and our circle looked quite a bit like us. And I don’t mean just racially. I mean that their life was quite a bit like ours. Adoption opened our world so much wider to know so many more people. My best friend now is someone I met through adoption. And with my work, I’m in contact with adoptive parents all over the world.
Adoption has led our lives. We’ve allowed a lot more people to touch our lives, and we’re touching a lot more lives. We’re connecting with more people because we adopted. Adoption has truly changed almost everything about my life.
The one thing that has been an absolute constant is my faith in Jesus and my belief that nothing happens in my life that doesn’t come through His hands first. I trust Him. We’ve walked through some really hard things, but I trust Him. That sure knowledge has helped me walk through the hard and the good. I believe He is a good Father to my kids and me. And He is going to give me wisdom, and He is going to give me strength. And I need a lot of both to parent to be a mom.
Adoption Changed Our Original Children’s Lives
Probably the hardest thing for me is that adopting new children who had already experienced severe childhood adversity dramatically changed the life my other children knew. Our whole home had to change, the way we parented had to change, the way we educated changed, and our kids had to change. Even the church we attended had to change. So much changed.
Some of our kids had very challenging behaviors that brought fear into our home that had never been here. Our home had always been the refuge: the place to go out into the world, face some hard things, and come home. And you’ve got mom and dad, and you’ve got your siblings, and you’re surrounded by love. When we brought children home who had experienced so much, and some of their behaviors were overwhelming and scary, our home didn’t feel like that anymore. That is probably one of the things I’ve grieved the most over the years.
We adopted children from hard places to bring them into our safe and loving family. And as a result, my children and my safe and loving family became children from hard places too. That’s probably the saddest and hardest thing for me. I wish I could have protected them from all of that.
The flip side is that the things we’ve gone through as a family and even the things that my kids have suffered have shaped us all. I love the people they’re becoming. They’re all teens, young adults, and even adults ranging from 15 to 35. I can confidently say that the hard things we’ve been through have shaped them in many good ways to be the people that God wants them to be. They’re just so much more compassionate and accepting of people. They understand mental illness, and they understand what woundedness looks like. They have eyes to see beyond outward behavior. I guess that’s one of the things I appreciate. Even my high schoolers, when they have seen somebody behaving in a way that people wonder, “why do they do that?” have some insight because they’ve walked through hard times with their siblings.
Trauma Has Changed Our Adopted Kids’ Lives
Before our kids are adopted or come to our families, if they were adopted internationally or through foster care, they experience layers of loss; sometimes, they’ve had significant traumas that affect their brain, how they view the world, and relationships.
Families may have to learn a different kind of parenting from their friends’ parenting. They must be willing to learn about parenting by creating connections and building attachments. When a child comes to you after having lost their first attachment figure—let’s say they lived with their biological family for some 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, but true obedience comes from a desire to please a parent. And, we believe, if the child is mature enough, a desire to please God. But without the foundation of trust and attachment, children are not likely to respond to traditional parenting.
When we talk about little ones—they don’t know consciously how they view the world, but their nervous system and their brain know. Their brain realizes they had a trusted adult who was gone, who should have been trustworthy and wasn’t, and their needs weren’t met. They’ve been deeply affected by trauma. And so we have to anticipate that these children will have different needs than if a child had just been born into our family. And those needs will change your life.
Celebrating Our Adopted Kids
Autumn: We’re about to finalize our sixth child’s adoption, so I’ve been thinking about how we should celebrate. What are your thoughts on how parents in the adoption world celebrate our kids?
Lisa: I strongly feel that [these days] should not be called “gotcha day.” I know that people are well-meaning when they talk about gotcha day, but it feels very sad because it ultimately seems to erase the child’s biological family. It feels like it’s all about the adoptive parents instead of the child.
When we celebrate the day our kids joined our families, it should be about them, like their birthday. It shouldn’t be about us. We’re trying to communicate to our kids that we will always be here for them. We are always going to be family to them.
Depending on their circumstances, it may not feel like a happy day for some kids. We have to be sensitive to our kids. When my kids were younger, we did celebrate the day they joined our family. But, I found there have been some years that we have celebrated and some years that we haven’t. It depended on what the kids seemed to need or what I could manage. We had to ask, “do we feel like celebrating this year?” Maybe, maybe not. We’ve kept it pretty understated.
And that wraps up our time with author, parent coach, and adoptive mom Lisa Qualls. For more stories about Lisa’s adoption experience and strategies to use with your kids, check out her book, The Connected Parent.