We here at Indiana Adoption Program love adoption. We love adoptees, adoptive parents, adoption case managers, adoption agencies – you name it. We like to celebrate adoptions – the ones we’ve helped facilitate, the ones we hear about on the news or social media, the ones that have helped make our families and friends’ families. Adoptions of infants? Love ‘em. Adoptions of siblings? Oh yeah! Adoptions of teens who are near to aging out of foster care? Really love ‘em. We love adoption because we believe in family, and in the importance of every child having a place to call home, a person to call theirs, a place to “land.”
But – full disclosure: we are not adoptees. Some of us have adopted children from foster care. Some of us went from being an only child to being one of six when our parents adopted a sibling group. Many of us have friends who have adopted internationally. We delight in celebrating families and the many ways they can take shape. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to get into a celebratory mood – especially during National Adoption Month – and forget that adoption is not all about celebrating.
And let’s be honest: adoption is hard. Adoptive parents know this: it’s a lot of uncertainty, unknowns, and what-if’s. It’s people in your home asking questions about your upbringing, relationships, finances and communication styles. It’s a perpetual lesson in patience. And you can get lost under the mountains of paperwork. Adoption can mean adjusting your parenting style for a child who brings with her some very intimate experiences of grief and loss. It can mean re-learning what you thought you knew about child development, adolescence, parent-child communication, and attachment. It’s exciting and scary and exhilarating and exhausting.
If adoption is sometimes taxing on adoptive parents – imagine what it feels like to an adoptee. On the one hand, a child gains a family. YAY! On the other hand, the child only needs that family because they have lost their family of origin. Not so yay. Children adopted as infants may never meet their biological parents or grandparents, and may always wonder if there’s anyone else out there who looks like them, has their laugh, or shares their facial features. If a child is adopted from foster care, there’s a good chance that she’s been in multiple foster homes…or has gotten her hopes up about being able to go home to her biological family, only to find out that’s not possible…or has had to say goodbye to her friends and teachers and pets, over and over again. If a child is adopted from foster care, he may have had to say goodbye not only to his parents, but also siblings and grandparents. He may have had a favorite stuffed animal that has been lost in the transition from one home to another. He may be behind in school, not because he’s not trying, but because he’s changed schools three times in just a year.
All of those experiences contribute to some very big feelings that adoptees may not be able to articulate; or if they can, they may not want to – and they certainly may not be up for celebrating their adoption for a whole month. So what can we do to acknowledge the intertwined grief and hope in the adoptee experience? How can we make sure we’re creating an environment where adoptees feel seen and validated?
Acknowledge the conflicting emotions that many adoptees grapple with. One adoptive mom tells of how her young daughter will sometimes say, “I loved the day I got to have the same last name as you.” And just as often, sometimes only a few minutes later, she will also say, “I wish you had never adopted me because then I could live with Mommy K and my brothers and we would be happy.” That child is learning how to be an adoptee and adjust to a new family while not feeling “disloyal” to her birth family.
Be respectful of the adoptee’s need to have a connection to their birth family and their past. It doesn’t mean that they don’t love their forever family. It just means that they love their biological family too.
Be aware of the power of language. How we talk about adoption matters. Talking only about the warm and fuzzy parts of the adoption journey diminishes the adoptee’s experience. Their life before adoption matters. How we talk about it is important – and creating a safe space where they can talk about it is just as important.
Have you navigated these sometimes choppy waters with your own family – and do you have some insight to share? We love to learn from our adoption community, so please tell us in the comments below!