Often in life, we lament what we could have known, should have done, or wished we’d learned. “Hindsight is 20/20,” right? When we look back at how our journey has shaped us, we can usually see more clearly how we’ve been shaped and what we needed to succeed. From that position of lived experiences as adoptive parents, today we are offering advice to our pre-adoptive parent selves. Hopefully, we then use those lessons to invest both in our kids and other adoptive parents coming up behind us.
This is the first installment in a series of advice to our younger selves. We’ll also share guidance to the pre-adoptee self and the pre-foster or -kin self in the coming weeks. Our online community shared their rich experiences, hard-fought wisdom, and practical ideas for the adoption journey to share with those still early in their journey.
Learn All You Can
We found one strongly recurring theme in the advice from the experienced adoptive parents. No matter how much you think you know before becoming an adoptive parent, there is still so much more to learn. It might sound like plain old common sense, and in many ways, it is. However, when preparing for a new child to join the family, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by what your agency tells you to learn. Considering all the other moving parts of an adoption process, doing the minimum required education can feel like more than enough. It’s also common to stop “taking the courses” or reading the books once that new little one is under your roof and life is settling into its new normal.
“Find resources and study hard before the child arrives. Don’t let anyone tell you it is just like being a biological parent. It isn’t.”
However, one risk of taking a break from learning can be complacency. We get it – the dogged pursuit of more education can make its way to the back burner of your busy life. Another risk is reliance on lessons from your own life thus far or falling back on “how it’s always been done.” That often doesn’t work when parenting adopted kids.
Recognize that what you learn will require implementation that is unique to your child and your family culture. There’s no way to make everything fit each of your kids the same when it comes to adoptive parent education.
“By all means, devour everything you can, be prepared, but (also) realize your child is not going to follow a script in a book or blog. Once you know your child, it’s time to parent in the way they need it, and that will look different for everyone.”
What Exactly Should You Be Learning About?
By far and away, the most common topic our adoptive parents told their pre-adoptive selves to study was trauma. That’s not terribly surprising in today’s culture as the issues around trauma are everywhere now. It’s easy to find resources to learn about trauma-informed parenting, trauma-informed education, and even trauma-competent therapy supports. Still, many community members mentioned the limited access to trauma-focused resources they faced when building their families. There are many excellent resources available to us now.
“Educate yourself on the realities of trauma and adoption, the good, the bad and the ugly. Your child will not need you to be the mom your mom was to you, their story is completely different from yours, you’ll need to be a whole new kind of Mom, and nobody in your family has a clue of what and how to do it. To find resources outside of your lived experiences and your family history, this is a whole different deal.”
Just as importantly, several parents reiterated the importance of continuing to learn about trauma as your child’s ages and stages of understanding develop:
“Recognize that adoption creates a primal wound that manifests throughout your child’s life. Educate yourself and keep those books handy as your child reaches new developmental stages.”
2. Transracial Adoption
Closely related to learning all you can about trauma was advice to seek information about transracial adoption, transracial adoptee identity, and living as a “conspicuous family.
“My 19-year-old daughter has told me one of the most helpful things I did for her was create a community of other adoptive families who look like ours–that is, other transracial adoptive families. My daughter feels tremendous relief at not having to explain her situation because everyone in the group gets it…”
3. Open Adoption
Finally, our community advised their pre-adoptive parent selves to keep learning about open adoption. Encouragement was offered to learn from other families about how their open adoptions work and listen to the other voices in the adoption triad. This wise counsel included learning how to listen to what open adoption is and isn’t, with an open mind,
“It (open adoption) is not scary. It is a true gift. It does not make you less of a parent to your child. Yes, it is different than the norm, but that is ok.”
“Don’t be afraid of an open adoption. Having your child’s birth family in your lives can be a beautiful blessing. That said, set some boundaries from the beginning. You don’t need to be friends on FB or have them to your home if a neutral meeting place is more comfortable.”
It’s Going to be Hard Work
The second central theme of advice from our experienced adoptive parents was the encouragement to dig in for hard work. Educating oneself across the lifespan of your child’s adoption is necessary and valuable, but the hard work doesn’t end there. Implementing what you learn and being a safe, loving place for your child to process is its own kind of hard, that will need support and intentionality!
“It’s going to be wonderful and wonderfully hard. You will get through it, and you won’t give up because you have what it takes…”
Build a Community
One of the most challenging things that our experienced parents talked about was how different adoptive parenting looks from the model your peers follow. We’ve found in our online community that this is especially true of trauma-informed parenting and foster parenting. The advice to seek support and create a community that “gets it” is spot on! Learning and digging in for the hard stuff of adoption is easier when you know you are not alone.
“A lot of people are not going to understand that and definitely give you some side-eye. Ignore them! You do what you need to do for your family. If you feel like you’re alone, reach out to other adoptive families, and you’ll find out how much in common you have.”
“Find others who understand adoption and create a support network because many of your friends and family without adoption experience will not understand the complexities and layers of raising an adoptee.”
Guard Your Child’s Story
No matter how or when your child comes to your family, you must protect his privacy and respect his story as his to share or not to share. From the many folks in our community who adopted from foster care, we heard things like this:
“Be respectful of your child’s history. People can and will ask you deeply personal questions about your child’s background; you are not obligated to share this information. Your child’s background, including their relinquishment story are theirs to share, not yours. Please do not share why your child came into care, their birth/1st family details, and other personal background information without your child’s consent (especially when your child isn’t old enough to give informed consent).”
Respect the Birth Family, Too
In guarding her story, remember that your child’s story includes her birth family. Openness with them should adapt to meet your child’s needs. However, remember that her birth parents have a history that informs how they process this adoption too. Changes in their needs and abilities to connect should be respected as well.
“What is decided at the time of placement will more than likely change a lot over the years. Don’t overthink it, just recognize that lots of contact may become little or nil. Extended birth family members may come and go. A birth mom who may not be able to connect at the time of placement may want more updates in the future. Take it as it comes, shelter your little one as much as possible from any major changes, so that their life remains as stable as possible.”
No Matter How Hard, It’s Worth It!
As difficult as these hard-won lessons have been for our adoptive parents, we also saw powerful encouragement to keep pressing into the challenge. One mom said,
“…(our) children continue to develop through 26-27 years of age… odds are they will mature and find their place in the world despite their trauma history. There is hope no matter how dark some days may feel.”
Doing hard things with our kids shows them that they can handle the hard things of adoption. There’s great stuff waiting on the other side of it, if you are willing and open, as this mom said,
“…Be ready to change and be a better person. You can’t stay the same.”
Isn’t that fantastic? When we open ourselves to learning and embracing the hard stuff of our family’s adoption journey, we can come out the other side changed. While we certainly cannot change the past, there is tremendous value in sharing the past experiences to help impact others who are starting their own journey as adoptive parents.
Stay tuned for next week’s advice from a few adult adoptees to their pre-adoptee selves.
But while you wait for that, tell us in the comments what you would say to your pre-adoptive parent self if you could.
Imaage Credits: Nenad Stojkovic; Hobbies on a Budget; Eugene Kim