Adoption: “Real” Moms, Insight for Adoptive Moms
So you've adopted a son or a daughter. Maybe more than one. Perhaps your children have been "yours" for years or perhaps they are a recent addition to your family. Maybe your kids found you after years in the foster care system or maybe you first met in the hospital's delivery room. But regardless of how you got them or how long you've had them, the truth remains that they are now "your" children and they are a part of your "forever family." What an incredibly beautiful, difficult, rewarding, confusing, and life-changing journey you are now on!
Society gives us many confusing and paradoxical messages when it comes to adoption. Adopted children are often taught that they should be so grateful to their parents for "rescuing them" from less than ideal circumstances. Other adopted kids don't need to be taught to be grateful because they well remember some of the horrors of life with their birth mothers and/or birth fathers. To further complicate matters, some adoptees remember past trauma and yet, they still don't seem very grateful for the sacrifice that you are making as an adoptive parent. Beyond all of this, however, there remains a nagging doubt. The ever persistent question of "Who am I?" lies deep within the heart and soul of any adopted child. And the ways in which your son or daughter will seek to find answers to that question can outnumber the stars.
Here are a few things to keep in mind while traversing the deep waters of adoption as you seek to raise your child(ren) in a way that is honoring, respectful, and healthy.
Get yourself the support that you need as an adoptive parent. As much as they might try to, your best girlfriends can't fully understand some of your frustrations as an adoptive Mom if they haven't adopted children themselves. You need to find a support group composed of other people who have experience in the field of adoption so that you have a solid source of support. No man is an island. Life is comprised of a journey within community and parenting is the same way. While there is not a manual on "mothering," there is a lot to be said for surrounding yourself with people who are walking through similar situations and who have traveled farther than you have down a similar road.
If you are married, be intentional about cultivating your relationship with your husband. It is mandatory that you and your husband present a united front to each of your children – adopted and biological. The likelihood of an adopted child creating a triangular relationship with you or your husband (in which he or she encourages you or your husband to generally side with him or her; thereby pitting you against your husband) is much more likely to occur. Set aside time to be alone with your husband. Show him how important he is to you. Show your children how important your husband is to you. Let them know that he is your first relational priority and that they will not be allowed to pit you against each other.
Talk honestly about your feelings with your child(ren). Let your kids know that you are a safe place where they can ask questions and share their feelings – however confusing, ambivalent, or scary they may be. Encourage discussion about adoption-related topics, while respecting them during moments in which they don't want to talk about it. If you have recently adopted a child from the foster care system and your suspect abuse or neglect on any level, create an individualized safety plan as well as a touch contract to ensure that your child can feel safe in your home. Over the various milestones of childhood and young adulthood, encourage your child to talk about the things that are confusing as an adoptee. Don't worry about not having all of "the answers." The important thing is that you are there for your son or daughter as he or she is attempting to make sense of a great deal of confusion and ambivalent feelings about many of the core issues of life as a relational being created for intimacy with others.
Tell your kids that you will love them "no matter what." And then act like you mean it. When they begin pushing the envelope and testing you on the various limits that you have created, be consistent in reminding them that "there is nothing you can do that will make me stop loving you."
Acknowledge the fear of abandonment and/or rejection. If we are truly honest, we all fear abandonment and rejection on some level. Adoption is unique only in that it causes this issue to be pervasive throughout the life span and throughout your child's development. Most of us, particularly as children and through adolescence, lived with a fear that we would be abandoned or rejected if we were ever truly known. Often in the case of an adopted child, they have already experienced this rejection (again, on many different levels – some much more hurtful than others). In light of this knowledge, it is important that you be aware of this powerful theme and this potentially ongoing fear. Talk about the reality of what happened with your child's birth parents. Talk about the permanence of your "forever family." Assure your child that you will not abandon him or her, however also acknowledge that you will let him or her down from time to time. Assist him or her in developing a clear understanding of the difference between human disappointment and complete abandonment.
Be willing to consider therapy (for your children or for you – maybe both) if appropriate. If you have concerns about your child's early years in light of his or her seeming inability to attach to you or your husband in a way that is healthy, take him or her to see a therapist who is trained in attachment therapy and have an assessment for reactive attachment disorder. If your concerns are less about attachment and more about the overall impact of the adoption on your child, take him or her to a trusted therapist who specializes in working with children and/or families.
Allow your child to discuss his or her birth parents. Don't faint when your son starts asking questions about his birth mother. Don't ignore your daughter when she starts making comments about her memories (or lack thereof) of her birth father. These are significant issues and they are not an indication that your child is second guessing his or her placement with you as a parent. Don't take it personally. It is a natural part of the adoption process. Some children are more interested in learning about their birth parents than others at different times, however it is quite common and it should not be ignored. These questions and comments are not about you. They are about the identity formation of your child. As always, ensure that your answers are age-appropriate. If your daughter asks you questions that you don't know or can't answer, be willing to help her find some of the answers without jumping to the conclusion that she is unhappy with you as a Mom.
Read books about adoption and attend conferences about adoption. Education is helpful. Connecting with other people who have (and are) experiencing similar things can provide valuable insight for you as an adoptive parent. Be teachable. Remain open to learning new ways of relating to your kids – while being mindful that their styles of learning may be different from your own.
Tell the truth. Again, use wisdom and discretion when determining what is age appropriate for your child(ren). But always tell them the truth. Be open about your feelings and remind them that you are a safe place where they can come when they have questions or confusing feelings. Be approachable. If hearing your daughter's questions about your birth mother makes you sad, share those feelings with your husband. Do not add to the confusion by further burdening your daughter. Don't give her the message that you are too insecure to hear about her questions and her own confusion.
Acknowledge the differences. Part of being honest with your kids means that you will acknowledge the fact that there are differences between you and them. Your son might not have grown inside of your womb. You might not have been present for your daughter's first breath. You might not even look anything like your adopted child. But don't pretend like those differences are not there. If you do, they can become like the elephant in the room that is huge and ignored. Instead, move toward your children by bridging the differences between you. You cannot move toward them unless you acknowledge the ways in which you are different.
Find out as much as you can about your son or daughter's birth parents so that you can later answer some of the questions that will inevitably arise. Then encourage your son or daughter to discuss both the good and the bad aspects of his or her birth parents.
Highlighting the complexities of adoption is not intended to overwhelm you (or your child), but rather to validate the experience of your son or daughter. The process of identity development is lifelong, however it looks much different for someone who has been adopted. Acknowledge this confusing process with your kids and offer your presence in the moments when you don't have easy answers. Such safety within your parental relationship is one of the greatest gifts that you can offer your son or daughter.
Written by Sarah Kamienski for iMOM
Sarah Kamienski is a Mental Health Counselor who is passionate about encouraging and strengthening mothers. She has worked with children and their parents on issues ranging from developmental disorders and adoption adjustment, to drug and alcohol addictions.
Sarah received her B.A. in Psychology from Wheaton College, and her Master's in Mental Health Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary. Her practice is based in St. Augustine, Florida.
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