Adoption is a legal process undergone to legally add a family member; nevertheless, adoption is much more than a legal experience. Human beings are the participants in the adoption process, so it is not a dry, academic one. In fact, it is a wild, emotional journey. Like roller coasters? Expect an adoption to be an emotional roller coaster.
Individuals wanting to adopt are aware they need to be prepared financially for adoption—an expensive process. Therefore, they will get their financial ducks in a row and come up with a plan for covering adoption expenses. Prospective adoptive couples also realize there are legal requirements for adopting such as a home study. Accordingly, they will take steps to gather the documentation and information needed so they are prepared to have a home study completed. But are couples emotionally prepared for the adoption process?
Jon Kinsey, a Florida licensed mental health counselor who has conducted home studies since 1998, would answer that question with an emphatic, “No!” In his experience, adoptive couples are typically in ignorant bliss of the emotional roller coaster awaiting them in the adoption process ahead. To help prepare prospective adoptive parents for this emotional journey, Kinsey addresses the emotional aspects of the process during a home study visit interview and in the required pre-adoption training.
According to Kinsey, one of the most common emotions experienced during the adoption journey is fear. Prospective adoptive parents recognize their worst nightmare could come true during the process. And what is that nightmare? The birth mother might change her mind about making a placement and their parenting dreams will be dashed.
Many things in life are a matter of degree. If you try a new dish at a restaurant, for example, you might think it is the best food you have ever eaten, simply like it, think it’s “okay,” don’t care for it, or can’t stand it. An adoptive placement is nothing like that; there are no degrees. The reality is that a couple will either be joyful because the placement was successful or they will be heartbroken because it was not. The end result will be either very, very good or very, very bad. Either result will cause extreme emotions at one end or the other of the emotional spectrum.
Fear, sadness, and joy are not, however, the only emotions which will be experienced during the adoption process. In fact, prospective adoptive couples should be prepared to experience a wide range of emotions. Their emotional roller coaster journey will cover all of the eight basic emotions identified by renowned psychologist and emotion researcher, Robert Plutchick. Some of these emotions may even be experienced simultaneously resulting in mixed emotions.
Why is such a wide range of emotions inevitable? In the first place, the adoption process often takes a long time. Months or years may pass before a match is made. Even then, waiting is required until the baby is born, the adoption paperwork is signed, and the court process is completed. During that length of time, it is realistic to expect many events will occur and the entire range of human emotions will play a part.
Secondly, emotions are part and parcel of the process because adoption is a deeply personal journey. It is not a cut and dried business transaction. Prospective adoptive parents may have to come to grips with their infertility, deal with the negative comments of others, face their parenting fears, go through a situation over which they have little if any control, and feel the weight of assuming responsibility for a helpless, new little human being. A myriad of events will occur during the adoption process; each of these events is likely to bring emotions to the surface given the high stakes which are involved—the future of one’s family.
What specific emotions should a couple expect to experience during the adoption process? All of the basic human emotions identified by Plutchick will play a part: fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, trust, and anticipation. These emotions are strong and will make the emotional roller coaster ride that adoption is an eventful one.
Fear of the adoption falling through is not the only fear that prospective adoptive couples will face. They are about to embark on a parenting journey to raise a child who is not biologically theirs. Will they be up to the challenge? Fear of failure is undoubtedly a common concern. Financial fear may also rear its ugly head. Even a routine adoption is not inexpensive and will cost several thousand dollars. If the case becomes unexpectedly complicated, the cost will rise. How will those unanticipated expenses be covered?
In some cases, a birth mother will want to meet the adoptive couple face-to-face. If this meeting occurs prior to the baby’s birth and the execution of adoption paperwork, the prospective adoptive parents may fear they will not pass muster with the birth mother. What if she decides she does not like them after all and does not want to place with them? If they say or do the wrong thing, will their world be blown up? What if the birth mother asks an awkward or personal question they do not want to answer or do not know how to answer?
Fear of the unknown is a common human experience. Prospective adoptive parents will quickly find out in the adoption process that there are lots of things they will not know. Medical information on the biological families might be scant. For example, if the birth mother was raised in foster care or has never met her father, her possession of knowledge about family medical history may be extremely limited. If the birth father is unknown, perhaps a cute guy the birth mother met at a bar and with whom she had a one-night stand, medical information about him and his family will be basically nonexistent.
Birth mother’s behavior during the pregnancy is also fertile ground for fear in prospective adoptive parents. Is the birth mother being truthful about how much she has smoked, consumed alcohol, and used drugs while pregnant? What consequences to the unborn child will result from exposure to nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drugs? If the birth mother has received little or no prenatal care during the pregnancy, will those actions cause complications?
Besides fear, another negative emotion which prospective adoptive parents should anticipate experiencing is anger. Why would a prospective adoptive parent feel anger during this time when his or her parenting dreams are shortly supposed to be fulfilled? Matched couples will soon feel circumstances are out of their control because they are, in fact, not in control. Medical professionals control the medical decisions, birth mothers control their behavior during pregnancy, judges control judicial decisions in court proceedings, and lawyers control strategy based on legal requirements.
Unpredictability and constant change are routine during the adoption process. Frustration and anger are common reactions to these realities. Jon Kinsey notes that prospective adoptive parents who are successful overachievers bring that mindset into the adoption process. He advises couples to expect to feel out of control because they will indeed feel that way. Realistic expectations, according to Kinsey, are key. Prospective adoptive parents must come to grips with the fact that nothing is absolutely in their control and “get over it.”
Decisions made by other participants in the adoption process may cause prospective adoptive parents to become angry. Such a reaction may result if they learn the birth mother has not been completely forthcoming with information. For example, if the birth mother denies drug use while pregnant but then subsequently tests positive for drugs, the prospective adoptive parents are likely to feel angry. How could she lie about such important information? How could she act in such a way as to expose her unborn child to harmful substances?
The avalanche of paperwork which inundates a prospective adoptive couple during the adoption process is also a fertile source for frustration and anger. The information required to be revealed or produced may feel intrusive. More than one person or agency, such as the home study provider and the adoption attorney, may require the same information or documentation, inspiring anger due to perceived unwarranted redundancy. The wheels of justice do grind slowly, and the time required to achieve legal results or make legal progress may give rise to frustration and anger.
Every member of the adoption triad (birth parents, child, adoptive parents) will experience loss and thus, sadness in an adoption. While an adoptive couple is gaining a precious bundle of joy, the reality of that acquisition is that they are not birthing their own biological child. A loss of that opportunity may be what gives rise to parenting an adopted child. Sadness for a couple may also be generated by the circumstances of the adoption and how the birth mother is handling her placement decision. When a pregnancy is the result of a rape, for example, a couple is likely to feel sad for the trauma which the birth mother had to endure. If she is struggling emotionally with her placement decision, the couple will feel sadness for the hurt she is enduring to do what she believes is the right thing for her child.
Anticipation is an easily understood emotion in the adoption process. Prospective adoptive parents anticipate the fulfillment of their dream to parent a child. They anticipate being able to see their new family member for the first time. They anticipate the baby’s discharge from the hospital when they can physically leave and take their new family member home. If the case is an interstate one, the anticipation of clearance to return to their home state is to be expected. Prospective adoptive parents anticipate all the parenting activities in which they will be able to engage—naming the child, rocking the child, celebrating birthdays with the child, etc. But, as the popular Carly Simon song goes, “Anticipation is keeping me waiting.” Anticipation and waiting go hand in hand. And waiting is not always easy.
Trust comes into play when adoptive couples realize they are not in control of pretty much anything in the adoption process. At some point, they need to choose to trust those individuals who are in control of the circumstances. While one is more likely to trust someone with whom one has an established relationship, placing one’s trust in someone one has just met for such an important life event is difficult. Selecting an experienced adoption professional to handle an adoption makes it easier for trust to be given. Someone with years of experience in adoptive placements knows the ins and outs of the process and is prepared to address issues that may unexpectedly arise. Pregnancy is a medical condition, so the adoptive couple must trust that the attending OB-GYN’s training and experience will result in the proper decision being made as to the appropriate medical care for the birth mother.
It is no surprise that when an adoption case is routinely characterized by unpredictability and constant change, surprise is a common emotion to encounter. There is no set itinerary for any such case, particularly events at the hospital. Babies are going to be born when they are born; a due date is a target date only. Adoptive couples may be surprised when a baby decides to make an earlier arrival than anticipated; alternatively, the baby may surprise those awaiting his arrival by not appearing until sometime after the due date. Perhaps the method of delivery provides the surprise if an emergency cesarean section is required.
With human beings playing central roles in an adoption, changes of mind by those participants could surprise adoptive couples. Perhaps the birth mother has stated adamantly that she does not want to see or spend time with her baby following delivery. Plans can change as well as a person’s mind, so the birth mother may reconsider her original plan for no contact. Surprise! Perhaps the birth father has been totally uninvolved with the pregnancy but rides in at the last minute wanting to take part. The emotional roller coaster drop that surprises adoptive couples can be tempered if they have the mindset to expect the unexpected. They should be flexible and ready to adjust when surprises pop up.
Although not an emotion one would commonly associate with adoption, disgust can arise while the adoption process is playing out. This emotion is particularly understandable if certain behavior by the birth mother is revealed to prospective adoptive parents. When confronted with the cold, hard facts, couples may feel disgusted with the situation. Conception does not always result from a loving experience between two people. Sometimes a birth mother has conceived as the result of trading sex for drugs or from engaging a one-night stand with a man she picked up in a bar and did not even know. Disgust may also be directed at a birth father who was physically abusive to the birth mother while she was pregnant.
The emotion most commonly associated with adoption is joy. Adoptive parents are overjoyed to have their parenting dreams come true and to hold their little bundle of joy in their arms. Although tinged with sadness, the birth mother may feel joy that she has found a wonderful home for her child and provided him with a life she would not have been able to on her own. So the emotional adoption journey ends on a high. As Jon Kinsey recognizes, once a baby is placed in an adoptive parent’s arms, the worries and stress of the adoption journey are quickly forgotten.
Adoptive parents need to prepare themselves not only financially and legally for adoption, but they should prepare themselves emotionally for the adoption journey. The adoption process is an emotional roller coaster ride which encompasses all the basic human emotions: fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, trust, and anticipation; sometimes more than one emotion occurs at a time. Emotional ups and downs are normal during the adoption process. Realistically expecting to experience all these emotions gives adoptive parents a leg up on more successfully maneuvering through and surviving their adoption journey.
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