A new adoptive mom recently asked a question that brought me right back to a dilemma with which I occasionally wrestle, even though we adopted over 10 years ago. She asked me, “How do you cope with all of the things you don’t know about your child? Coping with the unknowns in adoptive parenting is indeed a topic with which many of us wrestle.
It’s easy when you are waiting for your child to join your family to focus on the great stuff of life you’ve missed. Wobbly first steps. Blossoming language skills. Two-wheeler bike rides without the training wheels. Then the crashes and kissing of boo-boos that follow.
It’s also easy to get stuck in sadness over the hard things that your child had to face without you. Regret feels heavy over the trauma he experienced before landing safely in your home. Grief can pile up when you realize that you know so little about the circumstances that led to that trauma or how his little heart responded. There is so much else you don’t know when you choose adoption to build your family.
If you’ve been parenting for a long time, it might be a little harder now to connect with that sense of what you don’t know. But if you are anything like me, it just takes one well-placed question like that mom asked, to re-connect with that overwhelming sense of what is unknown. What do you do with those unknowns in adoptive parenting?
Coping with the Unknowns in Adoptive Parenting
1. Focus on what you DO know.
No matter where you are in the process of adoption, you DO know what you are doing and why you are doing it. Hold fast to your “what” and your “why.” During the long wait or in the early days of transition, what you DO know will be a key to surviving the many changes and expectations you have of each other.
If your child is newly home, remember that you DO know this child now. You recognize, of course, that it’s incomplete knowledge. But it’s a foundation upon which to build. If you’ve been parenting this child for a while now, you know what makes him tick. You see if he’s a morning person or a night owl. You are intimately aware of what triggers his anxiety and what makes him giggle until he gasps for breath.
My point is that you are not without some knowledge of this precious new human being that has joined your home. When you feel overwhelmed by all of what you don’t know, tell yourself – out loud if you have to – what you DO, in fact, know. Take it one step further and tell yourself what good you are doing for your family with what you already know.
2. Focus on what you NEED to learn now.
Many of us are parenting kids from hard starts to their lives. There is a ton of information out there, to equip and support us as we learn about what our kids need. Figuring out all that you can learn to parent this little person is likely not going to be your problem.
However, you might find all of the information out there is just too much all at once. That’s okay. Take a step back and focus for now on that which you NEED to learn. What you can learn about might have to wait while you attend to that which is the most pressing priority.
Is Your Child’s Health at Risk?
For example, if your child comes to you in a health crisis or with an unmanaged, chronic illness, find reliable, evidence-based information with which to educate yourself. Get referrals from your pediatrician for local specialists and other trustworthy information sources. Connect yourself – online communities are helpful for this – to other parents living with these needs and learn their tricks and tips.
Is Your Child’s Education at Risk?
Another example with a school-aged child would be a middle-of-the-year placement. If your child needs an IEP or has a history of extensive academic struggles, he needs you to shore up your educational advocacy skills and “momma bear” voice. Again, online parent groups for IEP support can be a great resource. Ask for a meeting with the school team (A friendly tip from experience: do all your education-related communication in writing) and attend to the transition to the new school setting.
A Word of Caution
Focusing on what you NEED to learn can be overwhelming. Take the old adage about eating an elephant – you know, “one bite at a time” – to heart. You cannot possibly learn all you want to learn to parent this child all at once. But you can take it one bite at a time. If you need help figuring out what that “first bite” should be, reach out to your social worker, school counselor, or adoption community.
(By the way, figuring out who to ask and how to ask for help is its very own healthy tool to cope with unknowns.)
3. Focus on one thing you WANT to know next
Once the thing that you need to learn now is being handled, you can start to move your focus to the next thing. If you are in the heat of the immediacy of the “need to learn” you might feel motivated by setting a goal to attend a webinar on a single adoptive parenting topic that intrigues you.
Believe me, I know there will never be just one next thing to learn. But you can cope with the many unknowns in adoptive parenting by choosing only one skill on which you WANT to focus next.
Looking ahead to that which you WANT to learn is a hopeful act of coping. It says, “I’m in this for the long haul.” Planning for the future together, even amid so many unknowns, is like cement that will hold that foundation you are crafting together.
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Be flexible with what and how you WANT to learn. The nature of adoptive parenting requires that you adapt and adjust to the ever-changing needs of your child. Keep that desire to grow and to equip yourself even if you have to step back to attend to the needs that crop up in your home.
Making Peace with The Unknowns in Adoptive Parenting
There will always be things that are unknown about our child’s story. It’s just a truth about adoptive parenting – and it’s harder for some of us to face than for others. But ten-plus years in, I’m learning that when I make peace with what I cannot possibly know, I more easily give myself grace for what I already do know about my child. I’m much more present and capable of learning what I need to know and what I can look ahead to learn next. That peace is a gift I can give myself and my child as we learn together.
How do you cope with the unknowns in adoptive parenting?