Dear Adoptive Families,
You may be wondering why I’ve called you all here today. You are probably already on the defense, expecting me to ask you all sorts of inappropriate questions. You have little laminated notecards in your purse with “auto-responders” for queries such as, “How much did your kids cost?” and “Are they real siblings?” and your personal favorite, “Do they know they’re adopted?” (My family gets that one, even with obvious ethnic differences.)
Well, guess what? Today’s your Gotcha Day! And by that, I mean, today you get to talk to someone who gets you. I am not a parent, but ten years ago my parents adopted four kids from Haiti. A year and a half ago they adopted my youngest sister from Latvia. Including the three siblings I had already, that makes me a sister to eight. Including my two siblings-in-law and nephew, we eat a lot of birthday cake.
In order to give you a little break from the myriad of questions that range from ridiculous to totally innocent but still annoying, I am not going to ask you anything. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I already know about you. Ready? Enjoy.
1. I know you are not an angelic, saintly hero.
If any non-adoptive folks are reading this, you may want to sit down. Just because someone adopts, doesn’t mean they are the offspring of superman and Mother Teresa. As a matter of fact, adoptive moms are 78% more likely to lose their cool on a Sunday morning. Okay, I just pulled that statistic out of a misplaced shoe, but adoptive families are just as flawed as any family. If you adopt in order to be someone’s “hero,” you will be in for a long, luxurious fall from your high horse. Kids aren’t asking to be saved, they are asking to be loved and accepted. That goes for the kids you adopt and the kids you give birth to. Same needs, no matter how they come into your family. If we teach kids that it’s heroic to adopt, they’ll take their victim mentality and “charity case” label to college and beyond. Tell them we adopt because we want to be their parents, same reason people choose to get pregnant.
2. I know you love all of your children…and feel uniquely about them.
This is a tough one for everyone to grasp. It took me quite a while. You can love all of your children and feel uniquely about each one. If your son came to you via stork, you will always be able to look at him and remember the first time he was placed in your arms as a tiny baby. You will remember how your body’s hormones were ready and waiting to love, nurture, and protect your little guy. Those feelings are strong and lasting. Your daughter might’ve come to you via social worker. You don’t have those newborn, hormone-heavy memories with her. Instead, you will remember tucking her into bed for the first time, trying to calm her fears of being in a new place. You will have unique memories, struggles, relationships and feelings for each of your children. That doesn’t mean that you’re playing favorites (that would imply treating one child better than the other) or that you’re a bad mom (/dad/sister/brother). It’s perfectly natural and absolutely okay.
3. I know you don’t mind all the questions. Until you do.
We already mentioned the awkward questions adoptive families often get asked. I know you don’t mind the innocently curious folks in the checkout line or the prospective adopters who want advice. Every once in a while, you run into someone downright rude, but even they probably don’t understand what they’re implying. But sometimes you’d like a break from the conversations that single out some of your kids as more fascinating than others. And you wish people who need answers would wait and ask you in private. After all, every child has the same need to feel loved and accepted, and hearing his or her personal history discussed on the cereal isle is not meeting that need.
4. I know your family probably has (invisible) special needs.
This is one so many people still don’t understand. Your family might have special needs that are easy to see. Many children with physical setbacks need families. But more than likely, the special needs in your family are impossible for strangers to see. Maybe your family suffers from the effects of an attachment disorder, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or something similar. Maybe your child is a sweet, cooperative cherub at school and a major stressor at home. Maybe you are afraid of your friends from church finding out that when you go home, you’re dealing with lying, stealing, hoarding food, acting out sexually, foul language, violence, destructiveness and/or massive tantrums. If you are, you are a member of a huge, underground operation of families going through the same thing! Adopted children are traumatized children no matter how you slice it. Maybe the kids in your family have academic setbacks, irrational fears, obsessive tendencies or some other issue that’s hard to explain to grandparents. Be patient with people who want to understand and do what you know is best for your kiddo.
5. I know that your calls for help often go unanswered.
Because the needs of your family are difficult to understand, your calls for help (and heaven knows you need help!) often go unanswered. Your youth pastor doesn’t understand why your son cannot attend that overnight camp. Your babysitter doesn’t agree with “how harsh” you are being with your daughter. Your friends think your kids need “more freedom.” You ask for help, but his teachers think everything’s fine and you need to loosen up. Maybe you have even sought out professional help and counselors and therapists have blown you off. If that’s your story, you’re in good company. When your child’s needs are “invisible,” it’s really hard to get help. The answers folks give you might work great for a perfectly attached child, but your child’s brain scan would show visible brain damage, simply because they were traumatized by abandonment. I know that you are tempted to carry a copy of that scan everywhere you go and use it like an FBI badge: “Excuse me, sir, I’m going to need you to just trust me on this one and not give my daughter that snow cone. What you don’t understand is that that snow cone could potentially ruin the entire week for my entire family and I don’t think you want to see that happen, now do ya? Didn’t think so.”
Carry on, brave warrior.
6. I know you wonder if you have ruined your (bio) kids’ lives sometimes.
Um, bio kid here. Life intact. Life changed, for sure. Life entirely redirected. Life totally impossible for some people to understand. But life ruined? No. There was a time when one of my adoptive siblings was making home a very unpleasant place to be. It was challenging, painful and not fun. But that’s real life. That season has passed and I’m a stronger, wiser person because of it. Now I’m a grownup who writes about adoption and advocates for adoption, because even though adoption complicated my life, I still believe in it. Look out for your bio kids. Don’t let them get pushed aside when you adopt, but don’t worry too much that they’ll never forgive you for adopting. In my experience, most adoptive siblings turn out to be mature, healthy, high-functioning adults.
7. I know that adoption was not part of God’s original plan.
So maybe this one isn’t so much about you, but it’s something you wish more people accepted. There was no adoption in the Garden of Eden. Adoption is a response to the devastating results of sin. Adoption is a good thing, but in a perfect world, it would be obsolete. In a perfect world, there would be no abuse or neglect or abandonment. There would be no CPS and no foster homes and no orphanages. Sometimes I hear young, naïve girls say they “dream of adopting one day.” I know that what they are saying is totally sweet and born of a pure heart, but it makes me sort of laugh inside. To me, that’s like saying, “I dream of marrying a divorced man.” Maybe you will fall in love with a man whose marriage fell apart and have a very happy life with him, but why would you wish that to be anyone’s past, and why would you dream of carrying that baggage into your marriage? Adopted kids, as precious as they are, come with a boatload of baggage with labels such as “insecurity” and “instability” and “abuse.” In other words, LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE ISN’T REAL. Many of the same people who will applaud you for being an angelic, saintly hero will think your children are all cow-eyed Precious Moments figurines. Let’s just take a moment to chuckle about that, shall we?
8. I know that adoption is a picture of The Gospel.
So adoption wasn’t part of God’s original plan, but God does love adoption. And I hope that if you adopted, it was because you felt God was specifically asking you to. Sin wasn’t part of God’s original plan either. It separated mankind from their perfect birth parent. But through Jesus, we were adopted into the family we belonged to in the first place. I’ve written about this a lot before, but the more I think about it, the clearer the picture of The Gospel appears in the parable of adoption. When we were kicking and screaming because we didn’t want a family and we wanted to do whatever the heck we wanted and thought it would be fun to be an orphan, God The (Adoptive) Father loved us. Wow.
9. And lastly, I know you are SO not alone.
The whole reason I started this letter was to tell you this. Being part of an adoptive family can be brutally isolating. There’s a lot of stigma, responsibility, judgment, unwelcome advice, and misunderstanding surrounding your choice to open your home to children from hard places. You might feel like you have to put on a fake smile for the world and pretend that everything is A-OK when it’s actually A Nightmare. You might wonder if your kids are in fact the only ones who do (fill in the blank). Yeah, I’m pretty sure they’re not. You might feel discouraged when it seems like your child is attaching to everyone…but you. You might wonder if you made a mistake, but you’re ashamed to ask. You probably have huge mountains of fear regarding your kids’ futures.
All of this stuff you’re dealing with every day is real. I hope you know it’s valid. But I hope you also know that your burdens are not yours alone to bear. Yes, you signed the paper and took responsibility for your child, but that doesn’t mean that you have to fly solo from here on out. Continue seeking help when you need it. Continue (kindly) educating the folks around you about adoption. Continue loving your children, even when that means disciplining them, even when that means taking a moment away from them to breathe, even when that means rocking your nine-year-old to sleep, even when that means getting professional help for your teen, even when that means smiling and walking away from an unwanted advisor, even when that means switching schools, even when that means going way, way out of your comfort zone.
God has given you a “special ops” job as a parent. You have a very difficult mission, if you choose to accept. But don’t worry, you have a legion of brothers and sisters who won’t leave you behind.
(a sister who gets it)