The reality of adoption is often different than the dream. Adoptive parents need time and support to settle into the new normal.

Adoption is full of hope and promise, but the reality is often hard, sometimes very hard, especially at first, and especially if you are adopting older kids or more than one at a time. The initial hoopla and excitement shared by all your family and friends dies down mighty fast. Everyone else gets back to their own lives, but you can’t get back to your old life because everything has changed.  Your old life is gone.

Post adoption behaviors can overwhelm even the most prepared parents. Many adoptive parents feel so alone because they are afraid that no one will understand because after all, they asked for this right?!? Well, I’m here to tell you that it is one thing to prepare, but a whole other thing to live it.  Fortunately, most families find their footing, settle in, and begin to thrive in the new normal. It helps to remember this when you are in the thick of it.

When writing my book (The Complete Book of International Adoption) I included excerpts from the over 100 interviews I conducted at the end of each chapter. For the last chapter, “Back Home”, I interviewed quite a few newly adoptive families several times of the course of a year to provide perspective on how life and feelings change over time.

One Month Home with Newly Adopted 2 & 5 year old

“Our first month home has been very difficult.  We adopted two girls who were 9 months and 3 years old when we accepted the referral, and were 2 and 5 when we brought them home last month.  It took almost 18 months to get them home. The extended time in the orphanage was especially hard on our oldest daughter.  I now have 5 children, ages two to ten, and make it each day, moment by moment by the grace of God.  I’m still in my learning curve and everyone is still adjusting as best we can.

The three that are at home (5, 3, and 2) are like triplets.  The 5 year old is in many, many ways like a 2 year old.  The 2 year old is somewhat like a two year old, with some of the challenges of a much younger baby.  My 3 year old bio son is as much trouble as the 5 year old because he is defending his position as the baby with all of his might.  At times, I sit with all three while they all cry and jockey for position on my lap.  I wake up at 5:00 every day to prepare breakfast for everyone and lunches for my school bound kids, and after that, it is non-stop.  I am exhausted all of the time.

I am completely incapable of meeting my own needs.  I am juggling so many appointments with doctors and specialist to meet the girls’ needs that I have no time for me.  I can no longer go to the gym because I can’t leave the baby in the child care yet, and it is impossible to get up any earlier to exercise.  Can you imagine my laundry or the state of my home under these conditions?  That wouldn’t be so bad except I am one of those people that disorder makes CRAZY!  I don’t have time to eat and when I do, sometimes I am too tired to be hungry.  I have lost a lot of weight and most of it is muscle.  What little time I get to myself, I read the Bible, journal, and pray—without prayer I would not survive.

The five year old is a bundle of contradictions: she alternates between telling me she doesn’t want me to asking me to hold her all the time and carry her like a baby.  She is grieving for her old life– at times she tells me I am not her mother and she is going back to her house mom.  She does this and yet she needs me desperately.

They all need me- all of the time.

My husband is working a lot right now and he is my only help.  I am very isolated.  One close friend just moved and another doesn’t understand our adoption and somehow this whole thing has separated us.  My church is great and brought meals after we brought the girls home, but my day to day, moment to moment existence is very alone.

I keep telling myself it won’t always be this hard and I know it is true.  I am trying to practice asking the Holy Spirit for help when I have no answers or strength.  Just last night I said, “Jesus, you said you are a very present help in time of trouble and I am in trouble. Help!”  Anytime I have prayed that prayer he has shown me practical help.  He is faithful.  Always.

But I am still tired.”

Three Months Home

Well, thing are getting better—at least I have time to eat now.  I feel less isolated and exhausted. I still really, really miss going to the gym and some days I think I just can’t bear it unless I can do that more regularly.  But on the whole things are definitely better.

The two year old is doing well.  She still has some challenges developmentally and easily becomes nervous in new situation or around non-family members.  But overall she had adjusted very well.

Our five year old on the other hand is still a bundle of contradictions.  She loves me and has attached strongly in some ways, but just when I think things are getting easier, she will hit me with something out of the blue that takes my breath away.  She will tell me she would rather be in Haiti with her house mom and that I don’t love her and she doesn’t love me.  She has built a fantasy world around her house mom: her house mother only took care of her and no one else, she let her do whatever she wanted, she did not hit her with a hair brush, she loved her best.  I just say, “Yes, she loves you.  We both love you.  She took good care of you but I am your mother and I will take good care of you.”  And yet still she struggles.  I understand these behaviors rationally, but somehow it still hurts when I am trying so hard to love her well.

One thing I was not prepared for when adopting “older” children from an orphanage was the negative social behaviors that they learned.  Both girls are very selfish and have a “dog eat dog” mentality.  Our five year old hoards her possessions in her hiding spots.  She clings to her things rather than her family.  It is getting better but it takes a tremendous amount of work.

I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I am also very realistic; this life God has called me to is a life of hard work.  It reminds me of a plant growing.  Plants grow so slowly that they appear to be making no progress at all when if fact a miracle is happening.  Adoption of older kids is miraculous and beautiful but sometimes progress is extremely slow and hard won.

Six Months Home

Wow, it seems like an eternity since I felt those feelings I described. I can’t say for certain when things started to improve, but I am certainly in a different place now than I was even three months ago.  There are days when it is still hard, but now I can also see that it is miraculous on so many levels. Looking back, I see that the first months home are very similar to the post-partum feeling I had after giving birth, and they fade just the same. The improvement was gradual. The children learned the routine while I learned how to best parent them, and slowly things calmed down for all of us.

My advice to other parents who are struggling at the beginning is to find some way of being good to yourself. For me, I had to make it a priority to go to the gym.  Another thing that has helped me immensely is connecting online with someone who is at the same stage in adopting. People who have not adopted older kids don’t understand what it is like, and even though they mean well, they really aren’t able to support you and understand you.  I have become close to a woman I “met” on my agency’s adoption forum. We found that to really communicate we needed to use private e-mail rather than the forum. She lives half a country away, but we feel so close to each other because we understand what the other is going through.

Are These the Happiest Days of My Life?

These feelings of being overwhelmed are common with new adoptive parents. Jen Hatmaker, a mom of five, two adopted from Ethiopia, wrote this powerful, viscerally honest assessment of her feelings in a very well written blog titled After the Airport.

If you ask me if these are the happiest days of my life (which a ton of you have), and my eyes kind of glaze over and I say through a tight-lipped smile like a robot, ‘Yes. Sure. Of course. This is my dream life’…I am lying. I am lying so you won’t feel uncomfortable when I tell you, ‘Actually, I haven’t had a shower in three days, I lost my temper with my uncontrollable daughter this morning and had to walk outside, I’m constantly cleaning up pee because uncircumcised tee-tee goes sideways onto walls, and sometimes when my two littles are asleep and we’re downstairs with the original three kids who are so stable and healthy and easy, it creates a nostalgia so intense, I think I might perish.’

I have no doubt Jen will make it through these trying times and come out a stronger, better woman.  She is a woman of deep faith surrounded by a caring community.  She sounds like the essence of resilience, but still she is struggling.  She points out that it is not just newly adoptive families that are struggling.  We are surrounded every day by folks that are suffering, and all struggles are draining and lonely.  “Oh, let us be a community who loves each other well. Because someone is always struggling through the “after the airport” phase, when the chords of human kindness become a lifeline of salvation. Let us watch for the struggling members of our tribe, faking it through sarcasm or self-deprecation or a cheerfully false report.”

Amen, Jen, amen!

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy

(With thanks to Carol Lozier’s great blog In My Child’s World-Strategies for Foster and Adoptive Parents for first bringing Jen Hatmaker’s blog to my attention.)

First published  in 2011; Republished in 2017
Image credit: Alpha