Every so often on discussions within the adoptive special needs community, I will come across the phrase, “A normal life.” As in, if I adopt this child, will we still be able to have a normal life? Or this child had so many more needs than we expected, and I don’t think we will ever be able to have a normal life again. I understand the sentiment behind this questions, but I also wonder about that phrase, a normal life.
What exactly is a normal life? I think it probably all depends on who you ask. One person’s normal is another person’s odd. But for sake of argument, let’s take the standard, popular culture view of normal. According to that, it is a two-parent family, with two children, probably living in a house, with possibly a cat or a dog as a pet. Both parents are probably working and the children are in child care. It’s very good child care, and they love it. Vacations to fun and educational destinations happen at least once a year, as do fairly elaborate birthday parties. Children are often involved in multiple sports and activities, and the parents are heavily invested in their children’s achievements. Everyone is fit and well-coifed and their kitchen counters are pristine.
What, this isn’t you? This isn’t me, either. But this image has a powerful hold over us, doesn’t it? It is easy to imagine that this imaginary family exists, including the clean counters. We always assume that other families are more functional and better off than we are. Our self-induced guilt for not measuring up to the ‘norm’ can be huge. These are the “shoulds” of life. The things we imagine are important because everyone else is doing them, or so we suppose. It’s as if we never quite leave junior high behind us.
Ultimately, we long to control our lives.
While this idealized normal life is powerful, I think we usually do a pretty good job of recognizing that it is unattainable. This must not be the normal life parents are talking about, the one curtailed by having a child with special needs.
Hmmm… a life curtailed.
There is the crux, I think. It’s not the normal life that is suddenly not possible, but the desired life. The life seen as better. The life that was chosen as opposed to forced onto us. Suddenly this isn’t an adoption issue, but a life issue. Ultimately, we long to control our lives. While we do have some control over our own lives, there is much that is out of our control. The more people we have in our lives whom we love, the more potential we have for these out of our control events to happen. At any moment, one of our loved ones could have something catastrophic happen and the course of our life will be changed. Our normal life will be gone. This can happen to a child we gave birth to, to a spouse, to ourselves. There are no guarantees.
Oh, sure, we have some degree of control over the smaller things: What we eat, where we live, what job we work at. (Though even some of these basic life choices may be outside of our control at times.) And many of us make the conscious decision to parent. While there are unintentional pregnancies, there are no unintentional adoptions. Even if parents are presented with the opportunity to adopt a child, there is still the conscious decision to complete the adoption process. There’s too much paperwork involved to have it otherwise. And this creates a powerful illusion of control.
When we adopt a child, there are also no guarantees, though the process can give the illusion that there are. Prospective adoptive parents read files, look at videos, ask the opinions of myriad doctors, try to only adopt from ‘good’ orphanages, all in the hopes that the unknowns can be mitigated and the variables can be controlled. They are lulled into a false sense of control. In reality, we have no more control over the accuracy of files and the prognosis of an adopted child than we do over a child we give birth to. We cannot control the outcome of this process we have chosen to set in motion.
Adoption is no more under our control than anything else; it just gives the illusion that it is, mainly because we had a choice in the process. We think because we choose to start and proceed in the adoption process that we can control the outcome. But we can’t, really, any more than we can control the outcome of a pregnancy. Either can end wonderfully… or tragically… or somewhere in between.
The question really comes down to why you want to parent. Some see parenting as a personal challenge to be experienced, like climbing Mt. Everest. Others simply adore children. Some feel compelled to provide a family and a home for a child. There are all sorts of reasons why people decide to become parents, but there are fewer reasons that will see those parents through the hard parts of life. The only real reason that will see you through is that you want to love a child. You want to be connected to that child regardless of the circumstances of your life. This is the choice we can control: to choose to love a child without conditions.
When we commit to love someone, we are doing so knowing that our future together may not look as we first imagined. Our life together may be easier than we anticipated or it may be more painful. If you worry about lifestyles being compromised or freedom being curtailed or priorities needing to be rearranged, I wonder if adoption, or parenting any child, is for you. Because children will do that, both those with special needs and those who are typical. Parenting can turn your life upside down in ways that you never planned and in ways you never thought you wanted. Compared to your life before children, there’s a good chance that you will never have a normal life. But parenting, especially parenting children from hard places with many needs, gives us something else. A new normal, one that has the ability to refocus our priorities on things that are more important than ourselves. A normal that changes us in fundamental ways. A normal that helps us see people, all people, in a very different light than before.
We have many children, and many of them have special needs. No, our life is not normal, and yes, it presents us with many unexpected twists and turns over which we have no control, but I would not choose anything else.