“Are you ever going to have any of your own kids?” a new friend says at a birthday party. No matter how many times I am asked this question, it still catches me off-guard. I still don’t have a good answer to it. I usually end up answering what I think they mean by that: “Am I going to have any biological kids?” But as I answer, I can still feel the sting of the question. It stings because my children, though not biological, are very much my own. They have caught onto my sense of humor; they say the same phrases, and we share in some pretty hilarious inside jokes. We have family shows, favorite family restaurants, and special traditions. When people ask about having my “own” children, it feels like they’re saying that my family isn’t a real family. It is a way that people (usually unintentionally) insinuate that my family is less valid than a traditional family. Because of their own experience, they assume that no love compares to the love of a mother for her biological children. But surely, biology isn’t what defines the love of a mother. The love of a mother is defined by her everyday choice to love her child.
Questions like this prove that, in our society, we still do not understand adoption or adoptive families. There is still a lot of confusion about how adoption happens, the emotional and behavioral states of adopted children, and the struggles that adoptive families face. This article is going to address what an adoptive family is and what an adoptive family is not, with the hopes of clearing some of the confusion.
An Adoptive Family Is a Real Family.
In a conversation with my adopted child, I told him that I loved him when I first heard his name. We had just received our foster care license, and it was our first call. I was at a professional development day at my school, and I went into the hallway to answer the phone. I turned to the back of my planner and started to write down some of the details about the boy who would later become my son. Although I have never had the experience of being pregnant or giving birth, I have had the experience of welcoming into my family children who bring us joy and love in a million different ways. Although we don’t share the same DNA, we do share laughter each day. Although other people would look at them and know that we don’t genetically belong together, we choose to belong together. Along with the beauty of family, we also experience the same struggles that other families do. We get annoyed with each other; we mess up; we say sorry, and we ask for forgiveness. An adoptive family is no less real than a traditional family.
An Adoptive Family Is Dynamic and Beautiful.
While an adoptive family is a real family in every sense of the word, we definitely have unique characteristics. Our children have two legitimate families: the one that they live with and the one they share DNA with. In open adoptions, adoptive parents maintain relationships with the birth family in a healthy way, allowing the child to experience love from both adoptive and birth families. Having relationships with birth families (even just siblings) brings beauty and joy to our lives as well as our children’s. It also gives our children’s birth parents a chance to restore a relationship that was broken, even if only in small ways. Regardless of an adoption being closed, the birth family is a part of the adoptee’s life, whether they are physically present or not. This is a dynamic characteristic of adoptive families that traditional families do not experience.
Adoptive families often have a mixture of races, cultures, and sometimes even ages that wouldn’t traditionally make sense. My husband and I are both 28 years old and white, and we have two African American children ages 14 and 11. Before ever experiencing the joys of the newborn phase, we are learning how to parent preteens and teenagers. We have different skin colors, different cultures, different smiles, different physical and personality characteristics, but we come together as a family. Adoptive families love one another by understanding, appreciating, and incorporating one another’s backgrounds, races, and cultures.
An adoptive family can also be created in multiple ways. Some people choose to adopt internationally; others adopt domestically. Some people have open adoptions while others have closed adoptions. Some people adopt infants through a private agency, and some adopt through foster care. No adoption story is the same. All adoptees have experienced loss but in different ways, making each adoptive family’s journey towards healing unique.
An Adoptive Family Is Resilient and Perseverant.
Adoption is born from a loss: the separation of a child from his or her birth mother and father. It is significant. Most adopted children, however, have also faced more than the trauma of separation. Many have experienced the trauma of a mother’s stress during pregnancy, abuse of drugs and alcohol in utero, physical, emotional, and/or mental abuse, or neglect. At such a young age, this trauma affects the brain tremendously, impacting every aspect of the young person’s life: his academic, emotional, behavioral, and even physical well-being. An adoptive family will often feel the ramifications of trauma on a daily basis (though it varies depending on the amount of trauma experienced). She can experience heightened meltdowns, learning disabilities, attachment disorders, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, mood disorders, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and more due to trauma. Many of these disorders and disabilities require speech therapists, occupational therapists, and counselors.
Most adoptive families are experiencing special needs within their family as a result of trauma. These special needs, however, can be invisible to outsiders. People do not know or understand the daily, sometimes hourly, struggles that adoptive families face because of trauma. But the struggles faced are nothing in comparison to the love and willingness that adoptive families have to help their children work through and heal from their past. Adoptive parents choose to love their children through the pain, and adopted children also have to work really hard to heal and love again. An adoptive family must persevere through the difficult times together, coming out stronger than before.
An Adoptive Family Is a Process.
Most people know that the process of becoming a foster or adoptive parent is long and sometimes painful. No matter how you adopt, the process is arduous and involves paperwork, home studies, and waiting. But adoption is also a process after the child comes into your home, even if she or he has already been in your home through foster care. It may take children a while to become acclimated to calling their adoptive parents “mom” and “dad,” especially if they knew their biological mom and dad. They may not be used to normal “family” activities, the nurturing love of parents, organized structure, and set routines. They will probably act out with behaviors that would seem completely unreasonable for their age.
While adoptive parents choose to love their children, it will take the children a while to develop those feelings of love and attachment. Many adults in their life have proven untrustworthy, so it will take longer to earn their trust and for them to feel safe. Having a sense of normalcy and peace in your family and home takes time and intentionality. I try to take the time to intentionally look my children in the eyes and tell them that I love them and that they are precious to me. This small act can go a long way, and it may seem unnatural at first, but it has helped my children feel safe and loved when all else seems to be chaotic in their world. Even if they don’t return the love for years, it is an investment I am willing to make for their sake. Adoption can often feel like an uphill battle, but it is one worth fighting—for the sake of our children and our families. No matter what, our children deserve families who are willing to fight for them, to stand up for them, and to love them right where they are.
An Adoptive Family Is Not Special.
I don’t want this to come across the wrong way because an adoptive family is beautiful, wonderful, and different. However, many people come to believe—from the media, social media platforms, and other news sources—that adoption makes a family special. Adoption is a beautiful act, but in no way do we want to be put on a pedestal and made to seem like our family is a sight to be seen. We don’t want to be known as “special”; we just want to be known as people. We are real humans in need of love, support, and occasional breaks from the life we love and choose, but that can also be hard. Sometimes, being seen as special can cause isolation for an adoptive family because they feel like they should be doing a better job than they actually are. It can make adoptive families feel like they are failing.
In the world of Instagram, you can find adoptive families with a quick search: #adoptivefamily. When you look up adoptive families, you will see children with signs telling how long they were in foster care and that today is their adoption day. Some have signs that talk about how they were “chosen and special.” These portrayals of adoption are wonderful, but they also can create unnecessary stressors on adoptive children to be special because they are adopted. We are all just people looking for love, acceptance, and belonging within a family. Adoptive families are not superheroes, and adopted children were not meant to fill the hole in their adoptive parents’ hearts. These are outlandish expectations for adoptive families that just create unrealistic expectations.
An Adoptive Family Is Not Healed.
Not even three years ago, I viewed adoption as “before” and “after.” Before, a child didn’t have a home to live in; now, she does. Before, a child was in a horrible situation; now, he is in a good situation. But adoption doesn’t work like that; it is much more complex. Throughout the entirety of adoptees’ lives (and adoptive parents’ lives), they will be working through the adoption and what it means in their lives. Adoption is a lifelong journey, and just like every other life experience, it is filled with ups and downs.
Adoption does not fix the trauma from the past; it simply provides children with a home and family that will love them and help them navigate the trauma of their past. In adoption, we go to counseling and implement Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI parenting), from Dr. Karyn Purvis, whenever possible. We embrace compassion as a starting point with most behaviors. Our children are in the process of healing their hearts and brains, so we show up as their parents to guide them through the pain. But the adoption in and of itself does not bring healing to their weary hearts—time, consistency, and love do.
An Adoptive Family Is Not Normal.
It is important to acknowledge that while adoptive families are very much real, they are not normal. While undergoing the stress of an enormous change in our lives (adding a new child to our family), we are dealing with trauma behaviors and other life stressors. Adoption was never the original plan or way it was supposed to be.
After both of our adoptions, it felt as though people expected us to be adapted the next day. Understandably, people didn’t know what to expect from an adoptive family. But behind closed doors, we were really struggling. We needed people to walk alongside us and support us, even after the adoption, because adapting can be really difficult for all parties involved. As adoptive families, we want to be seen and known as real families, but remember this: we’re not special superheroes. We also want others to acknowledge our struggle and walk with us through it.
An Adoptive Family Is Not Without Hope
Being an adoptive family can be very challenging, but it is not without hope. Last summer—our first summer with two children in our home—was very difficult for us. We were experiencing many fear-based behaviors such as hyperactivity and extreme anger. In the middle of it all, I tried to show up and love my kids the best that I could. I tried to do fun things with them, to kiss them goodnight, and to bond with them in as many ways as possible. Now, I see evidence that the investments I made in my children then were worth it. They are paying off. I can see them start to open up and trust us. I can see them making wise choices because they want to do what is right. I can see their smiles widening and their hearts healing. There is hope for adoptive families.
Being an adoptive family means that we get questions about our family at the grocery store because we look different from one another. It means that we navigate relationships with our children’s birth parents and siblings whom we have never met in real life. It means we will undoubtedly have trauma meltdowns and learn how to cope with deep-seated feelings of abandonment and rejection. Being an adoptive family does mean we all have different skin and eye colors, different backgrounds, and different traditions. But being an adoptive family mostly means that we wake up each day, and we choose to love one another no matter what. We are in this family, no matter how difficult, together.