The Importance of Learning with an Open Mind and an Open Heart

When I started working in the adoption world over 8 years ago, I was in a very different place in my life. I was a young wife and mother of a toddler and an infant, and I had never allowed myself to explore what it truly meant to be an adoptee. In my years of working in the field of adoption, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of introspection, to grow my passion for something that I live and breathe, and to grow in my understanding of the complexities of child welfare and adoption. The one thing I have found the most fulfilling has been learning from parents, youth, and young adults who have experienced foster care and/or adoption.

I have seen adoptive families struggle due to the lack of resources and support. I have heard stories of parents who are unable to sleep at night because their child is threatening to kill them and have already caused them great harm. I have heard from parents who share of the heartbreak of learning that their child perpetrated on another child in their family. I have heard stories of parents who have driven all over the state to find help for their child only to be disbelieved or turned away due to the lack of funding and resources. Too many families are struggling, and these issues are seen across the board—especially in foster care and international adoption.

Because I have not been in their shoes, I cannot fully speak to the thoughts, feelings, or struggles of adoptive parents. But, I can say that I have learned a great deal from them, and I feel that what I have learned has truly enriched my work and my understanding of the impact that the adoption journey can have on parents and families. Just as I know it can be difficult to hear adoptee perspectives, it can be equally as difficult to hear from adoptive parents. While I have heard parents say many wonderful things about their children, I have also heard parents talk about wanting to give up. I have heard them talk about not being able to understand their children. I have heard some say that they wish they had never adopted. These are incredibly difficult messages to hear—especially for someone who struggles with issues of loss and abandonment—but they are messages that I feel I NEED to hear.

I realize that it is easy to develop the impression from what I have shared through my blog that parents aren’t doing enough or that they are clueless. While this may absolutely be true for some parents, the fact of the matter is that I have seen parents fight with every fiber of their being for their children, and I have seen the incredible struggles that a number of parents have endured throughout their adoption journeys. I have seen parents who are eager to learn and want so much to understand their children who were not born to them—a number of whom have experienced a great deal of loss and trauma in their lives.

I won’t ever speak for other adoptees who are sharing their voices, as I can only speak for myself. I am not someone who shares her story to blame or shame anyone. I have a great respect for most adoptive parents—mainly because I have seen the impact this journey can have on them as well. When I share my story and the lessons I have learned through working in the adoption world, I do so in an effort to inform, inspire, and encourage parents to grow in their understanding of their children and what their children may experience at some point throughout their adoption journeys.

I was never good at expressing how I felt as a child—mainly due to the respect and love I had for my parents and the overwhelming fear I had of losing them if I said something wrong or misbehaved. This was the way I was wired and the way in which I viewed the world, but it vastly differed from the reality of the life my parents had provided for me. By sharing my journey, I hope to inspire parents to have open conversations with their children and provide their children with the opportunities to safely share their thoughts on being adopted and allow them to grieve their losses and not minimize what they are feeling.

This journey was never meant to be easy, but I want to share that there IS hope. I want to encourage you to celebrate the successes, regardless of how small they may be. I want to encourage you to keep learning and keep your minds and hearts open to the messages being shared—even when it hurts to do so. I want to encourage you to laugh and find joy in this journey—even when it feels like you have lost yourself and any morsel of hope you once had. It is okay to seek support from other parents and to seek help when needed. I urge you to not feel as though you are failing your child. Your willingness to open your mind and your heart to the perspectives of other members of the adoption triad in an effort to gain a better understanding of what your child might be going through may truly make a world of difference for your family.

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Losing the Joy in Being “Mom”

I always knew I wanted to be a mom—not because I harbored a need to prove myself to be better than my birth mom or because I needed a tiny human who would always love me. I wanted to be a mom because there was something inside me that yearned to be one. I have always had a love for children, and I wanted to be able to bring a little one into the world to love, care for, and guide—someone who would also teach me and help me grow to become a better person. I have always felt like my life began at two, and that I was never given the opportunity for a true beginning of my life—one that seems to bring so much joy and excitement to so many parents, and one that so many look back on as adults through pictures, baby books, and family memories. I felt in my heart that I would be a good mom—I truly did.

When my sons were younger, being a mom felt so easy and so natural. I delighted in all of the joys and amazement that new life brings and felt so much love and pride for my sweet little guys. I continue to be so in love with my sons and so incredibly proud of them and who they are. However, as the years have passed, I have gradually found myself losing the joy that I once felt for being a mom.

I first noticed the change when my oldest was diagnosed with special needs and learning difficulties. As I took him to appointments and attended teacher meetings and IEP meetings, I started to feel as though I had failed him—I felt like his special needs and learning difficulties were my fault. I didn’t know what I had passed onto him genetically and I started to question my abilities as a parent. Did I read to him enough? Did I really do enough when he was younger to help support his development? Was I really a good mom, or was I just in denial? I seemingly had found myself with a son who I felt like I didn’t know how to parent anymore. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t understand what he was going through and, because I didn’t have the struggles in school that he was having, I felt like I no longer knew how to help him or be the parent I had always hoped to be for him. I saw my dreams for him slowly fade away. While I still absolutely have great hopes for him, and truly feel he will achieve amazing things in life—it saddens me to know that the journey will be one with great struggles—those of which I have no doubt he will overcome.

A number of years ago, I wrote about my struggles with my youngest. I wrote about his rages and the hours I would endure of his kicking, punching, screaming, spitting, and throwing things at me—among other things. I wrote about attempting to get help for him and having him test in the clinical range for aggression and other behavioral issues, and then being told by the so-called “experts” that there was nothing they could do for him and that he would grow out of it. I still think back on that day with great disgust and anger. At that time, I was truly afraid of him and had, on numerous occasions, contemplated calling the police on him during his rages. I remember wondering if these “experts” had ever truly experienced what it felt like to fear their children or the sheer terror of watching your normally very sweet child go from the most loving little guy to someone completely unrecognizable and being pushed to the point where you are literally fearing for your life.

His rages are now very few and far between, but I often wonder if I will ever gain a handle on his behaviors. I often cringe at the thought of having to leave the house, because the simple process of getting ready for anything can have him escalating from zero to two hundred in minutes. I feel like I have tried everything, but it seemingly never changes. There are certainly some days when I, thankfully, don’t feel like I have run a half marathon after getting him ready, but those seem to be few and far between.

I am tired.

I am exhausted.

I feel like I am slowly losing the joy that I once felt for being a mom. I am sick of fighting. I am sick of yelling. I am sick of saying things I shouldn’t say and don’t mean because I no longer have the fight in me to even attempt to filter my comments anymore. I am sick of having horrible mornings and sitting at work absolutely consumed with guilt over what a horrible mom I have been. I am sick of lashing out at the people in my life who love me and try to support me because I don’t feel like I deserve to be loved or supported.

I am sure by now a number of you are thinking I am a horrible person and don’t deserve to be a mom. It’s so easy to judge when you haven’t been through it, and it’s so easy to believe that you would do things differently if you were in the same situation. I know I make mistakes, and there are certainly things that I could have done differently. This certainly was not the life as a mom that I had dreamed and hoped for. I love my kids more than life itself and I would do anything for them. Truly. But, it’s hard to find joy in being a mom when you are constantly being beaten down, told that you suck, that you’re hated, that you are the worst person in the world, that he wishes you were never even born, and then having glimpses of hope that are later dashed. How do you find joy in being a parent when you literally are brought to a place where you look at your child and think, “I love you so much, but I really don’t like you right now.” I know you are supposed to love being a parent and everything that comes with it, but I don’t love being made to feel like a piece of crap every day by someone you do everything for and would give your life for. How do you find joy in that?

I know that many people will think that I am wrong in sharing this struggle so publicly, but I know I am not alone in this. Some parents will never admit to losing their joy, and others talk about it openly and are told they are awful parents as a result. I try really hard to be a good mom to my sons and I work hard to make sure they don’t want for anything. I love my sons. I cuddle with them. I laugh with them. I cry with them. I teach and never stop learning from them. We have grown so much together.

Though some days certainly have driven me to the point of wondering what could have been, I won’t ever regret bringing them into this world. I will continue to fight the fight and I will continue to weather the storms with them. I will fight to hold onto the glimpses of joy, but I will also allow myself to say that parenting really sucks sometimes. I won’t ever be a perfect parent and I will continue to make mistakes and say things I shouldn’t say (though, I will try very hard not to). But, I will never stop loving my sons. I will never stop telling them and showing them that they are loved and that I am so incredibly proud of them. And, even though horrible mornings happen, I won’t ever stop taking the time to cuddle with my sons or talk things through with them at the end of the day or tuck them in every night with a hug and an “I love you.”

Though the joy sometimes slips away, I refuse to lose hope.

Exploring the Great Divide in Adoption: Why You’re Not That Different

When I started working in the adoption world, it quickly became evident that there was a division between parents who have adopted internationally, domestically, and from foster care, as well as between the agencies and organizations providing support to them. This observation was further evidenced by one of the evaluations I received from the conference I co-presented at this past summer.

I presented a session that explored loss in adoption and its effect on relationships with one of my good friends and colleagues who adopted from foster care. The adoptive parent who wrote the evaluation stated that he would have preferred to hear the material from someone who was adopted from foster care. Considering the fact that I work for an organization whose main focus is on finding forever families for children in care, it wasn’t a huge surprise to encounter someone with this mindset. This comment really stuck with me, not in a negative way, but because I have had difficulties understanding why there must be such a dramatic division between adoptive parents, regardless of where their adopted child is from. I want to explore this division by just skimming the surface and attempting to make the argument that adoptive parents aren’t as different from each other as they have come to believe.

International (or Intercountry) Adoption

Historically, international adoption has been somewhat glamorized in the sense that there has been a long-standing belief that families spend tens of thousands of dollars in an attempt to adopt “perfect” or “exotic” children from overseas. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Madonna have even made international adoption somewhat fashionable. There is also a belief that parents who adopt internationally have a “pie-in-the-sky” view of adoption and are naïve in thinking that their children will be perfect because of the money they spent to adopt them.

Those involved with domestic and foster care adoption sometimes harbor animosity towards those who adopt internationally because of the hundreds of thousands of kids who need forever families here in the U.S. The fact of the matter is that there are kids all over the world who need families. When I was adopted, Koreans simply did not adopt outside of their bloodline, and it was something that was frowned upon. Being that I was a girl and not a baby, my chances of finding a family domestically were slim-to-none. I spent a year in foster care prior to my adoption, and my belief is that, had I not been adopted internationally, I most likely would have aged out of care.

Most of the internationally adoptive parents I have encountered adopt from other countries because 1) they want to add to their family, and 2) because they are aware that there are children everywhere—not just in the U.S.—who need families.  I have also spoken with a number of parents who choose to adopt internationally because of the overwhelming fear of the birth parents wanting their children back. While there are absolutely some very naïve internationally adoptive parents out there (as with any population of parent), a majority of my interactions have been with parents who are actually quite savvy and have a greater understanding of the issues than they are given credit for.

Most internationally adoptive parents are actually at a disadvantage due to full disclosure issues. A number of children available for adoption overseas either have little or no accompanying information (familial, medical, etc.), or the information they do have has been falsified or doctored. And some countries allow outgoing adoptions of only children with special needs.

An issue that a number of internationally adoptive parents encounter is the lack of post-adoption services. While there are many resources and support groups in the U.S. for adoptive parents, a number of them do not provide services to parents who have adopted internationally. The main reason behind the lack of services is that a number of the organizations and support groups available are funded through county, state, and federal grants that prohibit them from providing services to parents who have not adopted domestically.

I have also witnessed the “you-made-your-bed-now-lie-in-it” mentality projected towards parents who have adopted internationally. In the foster care adoption world, there can be a stigma attached to spending tens of thousands of dollars on adopting children from overseas. The belief is that if parents can spend that much on adopting a child, then they must also have the resources to fund the services to meet their child’s needs. The truth is, most internationally adoptive parents are middle class and a number of them have been able to adopt through grants and with the generous support of their friends, family, and community.

Domestic Adoption

Parents who adopt domestically through private agencies are often those seeking infants to adopt. Historically, private domestic adoption was often done in secret, as there was a great stigma attached to the inability to bear one’s own children. You will often hear of adoptees who were adopted a number of years ago and found out about it very late in life, or they always knew and were not allowed to talk about it.

Private domestic adopters are parents who are more likely than the internationally or foster care adoptive parents to experience the potential heartbreak of being matched with a child whose birth mother changes her mind and decides to keep the child. The laws vary by state, but most states allow a period of time before an adoption can be finalized (it could be a number of days or months) in which an expectant parent can revoke their consent to adopt. State laws also acknowledge the birth father, in that he is allowed to seek custody of the child even after the adoption has been finalized if, for some reason, he never knowingly consented to the termination of his parental rights.

Parents who adopt domestically through private agencies are often viewed in a similar light as parents who adopt internationally. One of the noticeable differences is that they don’t have the added stigma of not having adopted a child from the U.S.

Foster Care Adoption

Due to the nature of the organization I work for, a majority of the interactions I have are with parents who have adopted from foster care and the agencies and organizations that support them. Currently, there are over 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S., and over 100,000 are available for adoption, meaning the parental rights of their birth parents have been terminated. Many of the children and teens available for adoption have spent a considerable amount of time in foster care and have experienced multiple placements. A number of these children and teens have special needs. When a child or teen is labeled “special needs”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have behavioral or physical limitations. Special needs can also refer to a child who is older, a child of color, or a child who is part of a sibling group who wants to be adopted together.

Parents who adopt from foster care do so in an effort to grow their family (as with any adoptive parent) and because they see the overwhelming need to find forever families for the children and teens in the U.S. While there are some initial costs involved with adopting from foster care, they are not nearly as great as those involved with adopting internationally or through private domestic adoption. The resources and supports are more readily available in the U.S. for parents who have adopted from foster care and for their children. Parents of children with considerable behavioral, physical, and medical special needs will often receive a monthly adoption subsidy to help offset some of the costs involved with meeting their child’s needs. These adoption assistance payments are generally very minimal and, while they are helpful to those who receive them, they often cover only a small fraction of the ongoing expenses involved with meeting the needs of these children.

Why You’re Not That Different

There are many reasons why adoptive parents are not that different, but a few of the main reasons are listed below:

  1. Loss. At the core of all adoption is loss. Every adopted child has experienced loss, regardless of where they were adopted from. The loss of one child is not necessarily greater or more relevant simply because they were adopted from foster care as opposed to internationally. It doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t work that way. The same goes for adoptive parents. All parents have their unique reasons for forming their family through adoption. All adoptive parents experience the loss of not having given birth to their child—it affects some more than others—but the loss is there. There are moments of pain and moments of happiness in all forms of adoption. The journey may have started differently, but every journey has its trials and tribulations. It is important for adoptive parents to understand that, while the adoption journeys are different, similar issues are prevalent in all forms of adoption.
  1. Core issues in adoption. There are 7 core issues in adoption—Loss, Rejection, Guilt/Shame, Grief, Identity, Intimacy & Relationships, and Control/Gains (Silverstein, D. & Roszia, S, 1982.) Parenting a child is not easy, and parenting an adopted child can be even more difficult! Most adoptive parents will experience at least some of these core issues at some point during their adoption journey. Some of these issues can be overwhelming, and the need for support in coping with these issues is critical.
  1. The need for resources and support. All adoptive parents need resources and support to help them along their journey. Questions arise at various points throughout a parent’s adoption journey. All adoptive parents need support from people who have been there—from people who understand.
  1. Identity. Adoption changes families, and it can change the way society views your family, especially those who adopt transracially and transculturally. Your traditions will most likely change to embrace your child’s race and culture. The people with whom you associate may change. These changes have the potential to be overwhelming, and the need for support and education will be great.

The pain of one adoptive parent should not be viewed as more significant or relevant than another. Rather than focusing only on the things that set you apart from other adoptive parents, focus on the similarities that can be used in supporting each other. I have seen the power of parent-to-parent support. I have seen the difference it can make when an adoptive parent who previously felt isolated and alone realizes that there are other parents who understand and are going through similar situations. Remember to rally around each other and celebrate the differences, but celebrate the things that unify you as well. You’ll find that you will feel much less isolated, and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn from adoptive parents you may not have previously turned to for support!