Eight years ago, when we decided on international adoption, I had expectations about how things would go. And you know what? To say our adoption journey didn’t go as planned, is an understatement. Here are 10 things I didn’t expect.
We might not get a child: We investigated domestic adoption first, met with a couple adoption attorneys and spoke with one open adoption agency in our city. In each case we were dissuaded from adopting domestically due to our ages and the fact we’d only been married for one year. We were told that birth mothers would be more likely to choose adoptive parents who could demonstrate a long relationship history. I’d also heard several heartbreaking stories of prospective adoptive parents whose adoptions fell through at the last minute, on one occasion several days after they’d taken custody of the child.
So we decided to pursue international adoption. When we started out, I remember saying, “Well, the road might be long, but in the end we’ll be parents.” I’d never known anyone who adopted internationally have an adoption (or even a referral) fall through. Until us. One trip to meet a child with significant special needs who we decided to pass on, one disrupted referral, one referral that never became official, two trips to register a child only to have that adoption fall through ten days before our court trip. We made a total of five trips before we brought home our daughter. Although our story was “a first” for our adoption agency I have now heard a number of stories (all involving different agencies and countries) where adoptions were disrupted, or where the prospective adoptive parents had to travel multiple times before finalizing an adoption and bringing a child home. Which brings me to…
“Scope creep”: Whenever you tackle a home improvement project, everyone warns you it will cost more and take longer than you expect. The same is true for international adoption. Granted, our adoption took MUCH longer than we (or anyone else) expected but, in general, the trend for international adoption is longer wait times and greater expense–in part because you end up needing to renew many of your documents, and your dossier, as you wait–sometimes for more than five years–just to receive a referral.
Creating, and renewing, a dossier costs a lot of money. Our dossier was made up of two dozen documents. Each document needed to be notarized and then apostilled by our secretary of state, to the tune of $25 per document. You can read more about the “ABCs” of apostilles (for any state) here. There were fees to a social worker for our home study, fees to our adoption agency, fees to obtain police and FBI clearance, acquire “vital records” (birth certificate, marriage certificate among others. And there were also fees to apply for permission from our government to adopt.
Any time I hear someone say (to a woman struggling with infertility) “Well…you can always just adopt,” I cringe. There is no such thing as “just adopting.”
Attachment might be difficult: I can’t tell you how many people, including our social worker, told us “Your baby will be less than one-year-old when she comes home. Attachment will go smoothly.” But it didn’t.
My first clue something was amiss was when my daughter took the hand of a complete stranger at a park…and walked off. Then she started climbing into the laps of other adults while rejecting us, me in particular. We started to become concerned, in part because her behaviors indicated she was having a difficult time attaching to us, and also because we worried for her safety.
We also made a big mistake in our first weeks together as a family. Our daughter toured around strapped mostly to my husband, a mistake we made because we’d heard adopted kids more frequently reject their father. So we figured we’d offer her more closeness to Dada up front. And it backfired. Because then she had trouble attaching to me (and had a very anxious attachment to him).
We made some other mistakes too. For our first day home, weeks, maybe even months, we should have been the only adults to touch or hold our daughter. Even close family members should have been held at bay until our daughter really caught on to the idea that we were her primary caregivers. We were the ones, the only ones who she should come to for affection. But we have wonderful, supportive, loving family members who we asked to help us out. And boy did we need help, especially that first night home after being up for 36 hours straight, on planes for 16 of those hours, with a 12 hour time difference…and we were sick. In retrospect, we now think we probably should have “manned up,” with a lot of Tylenol and good coffee, and flown solo as parents for awhile, difficult as it would have been.
So how have we worked through all of this? We sought the support of an amazing attachment therapist. I now know our daughter’s struggles with attachment are not atypical for an adopted child, even one adopted as young as our daughter. I also understand that because she had eight nannies who cared for her on rotating shifts, her needs were not immediately met. In her mind, the “moms” could not be trusted to be there when she needed them. Whichever nanny was watching her was certain to leave and be replaced by another. So rejecting the “one you’re with” but charming the one who might be your “mom” next was her way to protect against rejection and assure her someone new was lined up.
And, having sought out medical and psychological professionals, we now also know our daughter has ADHD, which probably explains some of her challenges with snuggling and being held. She simply could not stop moving. The kinds of comfort we wanted to offer, were uncomfortable for her.
In the two years we’ve spent in therapy, our daughter’s attachment to us has strengthened significantly. She knows more about how to be a “family girl,” and is less likely to be inappropriately affectionate with people outside our immediate family and a few trusted caregivers. As a mom, I still worry about the risks she might take as she grows up, but I am more confident we have the tools now to help her make safe choices.
Attachment might be a difficult–for us: Wow. This one really threw me. I’d longed to be a mom and have a child. My husband and I spent years in what turned out to be one of the most difficult journeys to adoptive parenthood I’ve heard of. Here I was with a child. A really cute, smart and charming child. Everyone who met our daughter adored her. How could I not be totally gaga in love with this child–my child? What was wrong with me? I felt so much fear and guilt and anger at myself. Sure, I’d taken the pre-adoption courses, read books and blogs about how attachment is a two-way street yet I never, ever–even for a brief moment–imagined this might happen to me. But it did.
Once again, thank goodness for a good therapist–mine. And a few adoptive mom friends who got it…and maybe had even been there themselves. And my husband–man, what would I do without him? We don’t always see eye to eye, but we are a good team, “a force to be reckoned with” he’s said on more than one occasion. He stood by me when the going was tough. He still does when it is. And sometimes it is.
I admit I am envious of the moms and dads who fell instantly and deeply in love with their child. But now I know it doesn’t happen this way for everyone. Every relationship has its own timeline. So if you find yourself in this boat, know you are not alone. You aren’t the first and won’t be the last mom who’s ever felt this way. Try not to retreat or berate yourself. Reach out for help, because it’s out there. You will get by…with a little help from your friends.
Our child might be different–possibly very different–from us: I am not talking about racial or cultural differences here (though, for many families, these are weighty issues), but personality. Ironically, our daughter looks a LOT like us, me in particular. But our personalities couldn’t be any more different. Both my husband and I are somewhat introverted and quiet. We like solitary pursuits: photography, gardening, astronomy. Our daughter? She is the life of the party! Loud, extremely extroverted, dramatic. She likes–needs–to be around people. She is very active, hyperactive even.
I’m not of the mindset that families need to look and be alike, but I freely admit the differences between us can be a source of frustration and stress. Our differences make it challenging to be the kind of parent I want to be, that I hoped to be. I’ve had to rethink a lot of the things I expected I might do with our daughter, because it’s just not her gig.
Some people will not like us because we adopted internationally: I knew I’d run into well-intentioned–but clueless–people who would ask intrusive questions: Do you know who her real parents are? How much did you pay for her? I expected I’d even occasionally run into uninformed people who might say hurtful things: Why didn’t you adopt from your own country? Aren’t you too old to be the mother of an infant? But what I did not expect were the people who were completely opposed to our adoption, sometimes vehemently so. On my blog, I’ve received my fair share of hate mail. People who say I have no business adopting, or adopting from the country we adopted from, or that I am a despicable person for taking my child from the country of her birth. That if we had left her there, she would have been adopted by someone in her country or taken in by family members. And, if not, that she would have been better off left in the orphanage.
There really won’t be much information about our child’s social and medical history: Much of the time families who adopt internationally receive no information whatsoever about the biological family of the child they are adopting. In some countries, adoptive parents might be told the birth parents names and a few details about why they were unable to care for their child. And there are some countries where prospective parents will meet their child’s biological family. Rarely (though I do know of one country where this is the case) are international adoptions “open” to the extent they are if you adopt domestically (at least in the U.S.).
I think we expected there would be more information. That somehow the medical personnel at the hospital would keep better records. That somehow the staff at the orphanage would divine a fuller picture of the birth family or the circumstances that led to our daughter being placed in a orphanage. That we would receive monthly updates on our child’s progress: her weight, height, head circumference, photos. No one told us that any of this would happen, but we were more hopeful than we probably should have been.
We even conducted a birth family search (a couple years after our daughter came home), with the hope we could find out more about her birth family and potentially develop a relationship with them. In our daughter’s case, her birth mother was not interested in ongoing communication, and although she shared some photographs with us, we found out very little about our daughter’s biological family social and medical history.
Still, I am more fortunate than many parents who adopt internationally. I know the birth mother’s name and how old she was when our daughter was born. I know how many weeks her birth mother was pregnant, a few details about the delivery and that our daughter spent the first three weeks of her life in the hospital. But that’s all I know. When I fill out medical history forms, I can’t answer many of the questions. Did the birth mother smoke, or drink, during pregnancy? Is there history mental illness in her birth family? Did any family members die from hereditary diseases? I do have one piece of medical information that will be important for my daughter to know when she gets older and for that I am grateful.
Adoption is loss: People might say our daughter is “better off” but the truth is, we got to parent this little girl because someone else couldn’t. I know the reasons behind why our daughter’s birth mother was unable to care for her. I know why she wasn’t taken in by her extended family. But I also know they must grieve this loss. I grieve their loss. As much as I wanted to be a mom and international adoption was the route I took, I truly wish there weren’t so many children without homes and families–all over the world.
My daughter will grieve this loss too. She is too young to fully understand the circumstances that resulted in her being placed in an orphanage and then brought half-way around the world to live in our home. As she grows up, I’m certain she will feel many emotions about being adopted. Some of those emotions–I hope–will be happy. That her birth mother chose to complete her pregnancy and place her in an orphanage in the hopes a family might adopt her. That she now has two parents and many extended family members who think she is the bees knees. But I also know she might feel anger and sadness. And those feelings are okay too.
Adoption is a loss for adoptive parents too. People tend to make a big deal about how our adoption was “meant to be,” that kids find the family they were meant to be in and adoptive parents find the child they were meant to parent. But my husband and I are the “last in our line.” When we are gone, there will be no more us–no more of our genetics being carried down through generations. It’s hard not to feel sad about that, to wonder what might have been had we been able to conceive and give birth to a child.
International adoption is a crazy train: If someone had told us how crazy, how insanely crazy adoption would be, I wouldn’t have believed them. That’s the thing about expectations. By definition expectations are “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” I expected our adoption would go fairly smoothly, even if the process took a long time. I expected our bonding as a family would be a walk in the park. Those expectations weren’t very realistic. I know that now and I knew that when we started, but somehow I convinced my brain otherwise.
Adoption builds families: For all its imperfectness, loss, struggle, challenges adoption builds families. Children are raised in a home with a family who is able to care for them and meet their needs. I’ve seen many articles written about this topic where the author ends by saying if given they option, they would do it all over again. Whoo-boy, that’s a tough one because I sure wouldn’t want to relive those crazy train years. Our adoption experience was one that–quite honestly–I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It was long. It was hard. It was expensive. It was emotionally, psychologically and spiritually draining.
But I’ll be darned if what I said at the very beginning isn’t how turned out–for us anyway. In the end, we did become parents and one little girl found her forever home. The path was not straight but there was a path. And love may not have been instantaneous but love grows.
It’s all about the journey,