When people ask me if I have any advice about adoption, the first thing my experience tells me to say is, “Expect the unexpected.” I was the mother of two healthy birth children when I decided that the best way to grow my family would be through adoption. I felt particularly drawn to older or special needs children because I knew that their situations would be greatly improved through adoption. Adoption, I decided, is about my children and not so much about me. Every child has their own set of circumstances and challenges, but it is incredibly important not to just look at what is wrong, but to look at a child’s strengths, to look relentlessly for resources, and to remember your commitment to help your child grow into all that he or she can be.
My first child through adoption came home from China in 2005. Her referral said “repaired club feet.” I had sent a photo album with pictures of our family and home, with my address tucked in, via a family travelling before us and it got to the group home where she was staying. They sent me a letter that included a medical assessment from a western medical team that had evaluated her just a few months prior, outlining her additional and significant orthopedic needs and her new diagnosis of arthrogryposis. When I wrote back and thanked them for letting me know so I could have resources ready when she got home, they seemed shocked. “You’re still coming?” How could I not come, that was my daughter!!
Each of my adoptions had unexpected twists and turns. One was 2-½ years older than the file stated and was experiencing significant effects of PTSD. Two had reactive attachment disorder, in spite that their treating therapist from domestic foster care had told me they were “sweet children, just ready to be loved.” One was thought to have ADHD, but it turned out was academically gifted and bored. One was said to have “language delays” but turned out to have never developed language and had global developmental delays.
Some of my children adapted readily to the family, others turned us upside down to the point that it almost seemed we would break. I think, however, that knowing we would experience the unexpected and that these children depend on stability and permanency to thrive, kept me anchored and focused on hope. I worked very hard at finding resources to assist with my children’s needs. Sometimes this required considerable creativity and I will be forever grateful to my brave and stalwart friends who helped out while we dealt with the worst of the hazing before my RAD kids got past their initial resistance and accepted this as home. I am grateful for teachers and other helpers who look at my kids’ struggles and help me to look at what they can do and build on their strengths. I am grateful for other adoptive parents who share their experiences and remind me of how much kids can grow. I am grateful for my children. They are so much more than what their files said or what challenges they face.
Had I known my children’s full stories before I adopted, I might have been afraid to bring some of them home because on paper, their needs would have sounded too big and too hard for me. And yes, sometimes I laugh with them and sometimes I cry over them, but always, I can not imagine my life without them. They are living, breathing, imagining, loving people who are so much more than a diagnosis or a set of issues. I look at where we started and where we are now, and I have grown just as much as my children as we have walked together through the challenges of all of the unknowns. And just so you know how some of the stories unfold… my daughter with arthrogryposis that I was told might never walk is a competitive dancer. My daughter who was severely and profoundly language delayed in early childhood is academically gifted with strengths in the area of language, as well as being a talented acrobat. My kids with RAD show attachment to the family and are both talented athletes, very creative, and funny. My son who came with PTSD, well, you would never know any more. He’s an honor student, active member of several high school clubs, loves his after school job, and is a doting big brother. My littlest one with the profound language delays and significant global delays- we don’t know what his future will hold, but I can tell you he is the sweetest little people lover, who melts hearts wherever he goes.
The reality of adoption is that adoptive parenting comes with inherent challenges and the unexpected will happen. Do your research, develop your support system, and be prepared for a journey you had no idea you would be taking. Children are living, breathing beings and it’s impossible to predict everything about them. As their parents, we are here to meet their needs and help them to have the resources they need to grow into their potentials, unexpected surprises and all.