Focus on the Family

Adjusting to Life After an Adoption

from Focus on the Family

My wife and I have two adopted children—our boy and girl were both born in Russia. Before we brought either one home, other adoptive parents warned us of two distinct challenges.

The first challenge was surviving the process. Between the two adoptions, we both needed medical clearance twelve times. The Federal and Colorado Bureaus of Investigation checked, re-checked, then checked our backgrounds again. We filled out reams of forms, including the emotionally-taxing "Type of Child" form. ("No— we can't accept a child with hydrocephalus," "Maybe—we will consider a child with a missing limb or who is deaf or blind," "Yes—we will accept a boy or girl born with a cleft palette.")

The good news is the adoption process came to an end. The second challenge has proven to be our greatest challenge: raising a multi-cultural (or transcultural or transracial) family.

Before we even brought our daughter home from Russia, we knew that we— as new mom and dad—would need to adjust, and we also knew that, first our daughter and later our son, would need time to get used to their new environment. Luckily, our social worker and kind, adoptive parents shared a few not-so-usual parental questions to consider:

  1. How do we respond to rude or well-intentioned comments our friends, relatives or strangers make about our children's ethnicity? Better yet, how do we teach them to respond in kind?
  2. Will our family members accept a child of a different race or ethnic background?
  3. How do we help our kids understand that they are God's gift to us?
  4. As their identities blossom, how do we give them familial roots, not only as a part of our immediate family, but also with their birth country's heritage and traditions?
  5. How do we encourage teachers and other authority figures to respect their unknown family history and, at the same time, to avoid singling them out because of their adoptive past?

Remember, parents, you have to adjust to this new parenting situation and face the aforementioned challenges. But your children have to answer questions about living in a transracial or transcultural family on a daily basis. It's a formidable task, and you must ready them.

So start—from the moment you bring that bundle of joy home—by making your home a safe and loving environment. Talk to them about it, and don't think that it is ever too early to start. Many books are available from your local bookstore or library that can help make this introduction. If you're thinking about adopting an older child, invade their privacy; find out what other kids or adults say, and make sure they are secure as a part of your family.

Most importantly, make Ephesians 1:4-6 your family's mantra, mission and prayer:

"In love He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves."

Three-quarters of a million households with kids who have come in contact with Focus on the Family, research tells us, feel we helped them raise healthy, resilient children.

The Importance of Being Mommy

Learn how one mother experienced the joys and sorrows of bonding with her adopted daughter.

by Carolyn MacInnes

I'll never forget the taxi ride back to Moscow the day I became a mother. As the car bumped and jostled over worn out Russian roads, I wept for the stiff, shifty-eyed 15-month-old in my lap. Though I'd offered her my finger to hold, she chose to clutch a damp, stinky Cheerio. Swollen sores and rashes enveloped every inch of her tiny body, and the orphanage workers had tried to hide her shaved head and scab-covered scalp beneath a flowered bandana. But they couldn't veil her eyes, glassy with confusion and pain. She had to be wondering, who are these people speaking so strangely, dressing me in new clothes, removing me from the only life I've ever known?

I vowed at that moment to offset her suffering somehow, to compensate for the struggles she had endured before joining our family. I would quit my job, bake cookies with her, and teach her the motions to Itsy Bitsy Spider. We would snuggle under homemade quilts and she would fall asleep every night with a smile on her lips. I knew she would thrive with a mother's constant care, and I rejected the warning of our adoption training instructor. "It doesn't matter what you've 'saved' these kids from," she'd said. "Kids are selfish by nature. Don't expect them to suddenly love you or treat you like a hero."

As months passed, our daughter settled in to our rules and routines. I appreciated her good behavior, but her hugs remained stilted and eye contact sporadic. She impressed her new friends and relatives with her emergent vocabulary: she could say "doggy" and "daddy" almost immediately. Then, "Elmo" and "Dora." My repeated attempts to add my name always generated dismissive squirms. Her cousin Michael made the list. Then my former boss, Shelly.

"Maybe it's just too hard for her to say 'mommy,'" a friend suggested. But even the variations I introduced to her – mama, mom, etc. – met with disinterest. By the time she said "mailman," I'd had it. My spirits began to drag the ground like the baby dolls she hauled from room to room. Even they had names she knew.

Irrational as it seems, I started to resent waking up every day to the loveless wail of an egocentric stranger. If she wasn't howling for bottles, diapers or food, she was falling off a chair or riffling around in a drawer. Through constant, demanding cries, she reached out for me – but only because I was near enough to provide the things she needed.

My apparent lack of significance to her made my drastic life changes all the more agonizing. During those lonely days, I mourned the passing of my career. Coworkers might once have described me with adjectives like congenial, competent, commendable. Now, I was just cranky…and concerned. We'd amputated half of our income. Adoption bills mounted, along with the tension in my neck and shoulders. I'd forfeited nearly all sources of adult conversation and affirmation to spend my days tending an indifferent toddler.

Had I given up everything I cared about – my life savings, my friends, my free time – to become a babysitter? In my misery, I found myself firing off quick prayers as urgent and jarring as a car backfiring:

Help me!

Fix this!

Change things!

And then, like that moment of bliss and buoyancy when your kite finally catches the air, everything did change. Nearly six months after legally becoming my daughter, she touched my chest with her little fingers and said, "Mommy." She wasn't asking for anything, wasn't upset or cranky. She was simply telling me for the first time, "I'm starting to understand who you are."

Once she called me by name, our relationship developed clarity and momentum. She remained inquisitive about her world, but always returned to proclaim the critical new truth she'd learned. She began inviting me into her toy kitchen, patting the seat of her little red folding chair and announcing, "Mommy! Tea!" She dragged me around the house by my finger to discover the wonders of life with her. Nodding confidently, she told strangers in stores that I belonged to her.

I stopped dreading the static of the baby monitor each morning. I knew the whimpered request for "Mommy" would be next – and I would gladly rush to her side. I felt like I'd been transformed from slave girl to Cinderella. Through this same magic, holding her at night ceased to be a responsibility and became a gift. Her little arms clutched my neck as I whispered, "It's OK…Mommy's here."

Just when it seemed life couldn't get any better, we received unexpected funds that helped pay off the adoption! My prayers had been heard, and my needs met. But a pang of guilt overshadowed the relief I felt.

After all, my methods of getting what I wanted had been just like my daughter's.

I'm no different than a lot of people. It's natural to shoot prayers at God in times of crisis. Even if we never set foot in church or pick up a Bible, we cry out to him like children when discomfort or discontent overpowers us.

Still, I was always taught that God loves us like a dad loves his kids. Now that I'm a parent, I'm starting to get that. I don't want my daughter just to follow the rules. I don't want her simply to ask for things, though I would give her the moon wrapped up in ribbons. I want her to know me, to embrace me, to clutch my finger and walk through the world with me.

It's easy for me to become like a toddler, indignant when I don't get my way. My first inclination is to blame my provider for falling down on the job. Then I think about the frustrating early days when I tried to clean and medicate my daughter's wounds. She jerked away, screaming, and I wanted to shout:

How can I make things better if you don't let me get close enough?

Maybe those are the words God wants me to hear.

I don't want to live like an orphan. I don't want to settle for a sugar daddy when I can have a father. If God knows my past, my issues, my fears, then I doubt he has expectations of me becoming the model child overnight! I have to believe he's pleased when his kids take even a small step toward his open arms. So I'll start today by acknowledging: "I've got a long way to go, Father – but I'm starting to understand who you are…"

Real Families

People often want to talk about adoption. Unfortunately, they sometimes don't know how.

by Carolyn MacInnes

The night after Mrs. Richardson's class talked about family histories, Preston Bradley slept on the stairs.

"What are you doing here, Sweetie?" his mom asked the next morning.

Preston grasped his mother's arm and clung with all his 5-year-old strength. "I thought you would leave," he said.

The previous morning, Mrs. Richardson had cheerfully offered her version of Preston's life story to the kindergarten class: "Preston was abandoned at an orphanage in Mexico by his real parents. Now he lives with the Bradleys."

If his real parents could sneak away like that, why not his new parents too? Preston decided that if he slept on the stairs, he would hear them trying to escape, grasp their ankles and beg them to stay.

Most of the Mrs. Richardsons of the world mean well. They're genuinely interested in the adoption process. They want to talk about it. Unfortunately, they don't know how. Often their well-intended questions and comments may actually harm members of adoptive families — especially kids.

It's fair to assume that most Americans view adoption positively. Families in the U.S. adopt over 120,000 children each year. Adoption "success" stories abound in our newspapers and magazines. Churches and social organizations affirm its value.

Unfortunately, our nation's adoption vocabulary tells a different story. Many people's comments contain subtle implications that adoption is an inferior or illegitimate way to start or join a family.

Marietta Spencer, a social worker specializing in adoption language, notes that words shape our impressions of ourselves and the world around us. She concludes that, for the sake of adoptive families and birth parents, people should learn to speak differently about this family-building method. Spencer even developed a list of phrases she described as Respectful (or Positive) Adoption Language (RAL/PAL).

When I first heard of RAL in adoption training, I was skeptical. Wasn't this just another example of political correctness gone awry? But as people began to ask us questions about our Russian daughter, I started to comprehend the nuances Spencer discussed. Surely our coworkers didn't believe creating a real family was contingent upon giving birth. Surely our friends would never intentionally make our daughter doubt she belonged with us. But their comments could easily confuse a child developing her identity.

Below are examples of questions we received from friends, family and strangers. I'll also share what I wish they'd said:

QuestionInterpretation and Explanation A Better Way
"Do you think you'll ever have one of your own?" Adoptive parents will feed, clothe, nurse, educate, support and love this child. Comforting her when she's sick, attending soccer games and counseling her through tough times will fall on their shoulders. This child is "their own" in every way that matters. (This question could be particularly cutting and invasive to a couple who has tried unsuccessfully to conceive.) If you must ask, try "Do you plan on having any birth children?"
"Do you know anything about her real parents?" What or who is a "real" parent? Conceiving and carrying a child are important, but those are small steps in a much larger process. As a verb, parent means "to raise and nurture." Alongside this definition, many dictionaries include a fitting quote by sociologist and author Ashley Montagu: "A [creator/life-giver] who does not parent the child is not its parent." "Do you know anything about her birth parents?"
"Was she illegitimate?" No child is illegitimate! Each human being is precious. Children born out of wedlock or in other less-than-ideal circumstances still have the potential to impact the world in amazing ways. Being branded with ugly labels may keep them from reaching their full potential. "Was she born to a single mother?"
"What kind of person would give away/abandon such a beautiful child?" Sadly, this may be what happened. On the other hand, birth parents may have agonized over the decision and chosen to do what was best for the child. It's important not to pass judgment without knowing the facts — particularly in front of a child. Additionally, adoptees often wrestle with abandonment issues all their lives. Your positive words may help assure them they are valuable and wanted. "It must have been sad for someone to relinquish such a beautiful child! But it's great that she has a good home with you!"
"How much did she cost?" People are not bought and sold. The process may be costly — the agency fees, travel, etc. But this question suggests children are commodities rather than human beings. It's best not to ask about the cost unless the parents offer information or you are earnestly researching adoption for yourself. If you're just curious, stay that way. "If this isn't too personal a question, how much does the adoption process cost? If you'd rather not discuss that, I understand."
"So, this little one is an orphan?" or "What a sweet girl. Is she an adopted child?" Our daughter was an orphan. She was adopted. But now, she's just our daughter. You wouldn't say, "This is my caesarean-section daughter." How she came into the world or into our family isn't the issue. Now that she's one of us, our goal is to focus our similarities rather than our differences. "So, she joined your family through adoption? That's wonderful! She laughs just like you do."

Life Books

These special memory albums can help your adopted child piece together the past.

by Carolyn MacInnes

You know that movie where the hero's memories get erased? OK — there are dozens of films like that. Pick one. Why did you pity this character? Maybe because his eyes flickered like a caged animal — angry, frightened, desperate. Maybe you raged against the injustice of his plight. Maybe you realized that, without answers, he could never get on with his life.

Unfortunately, millions of adoptees feel these fictitious heroes' pain. Every day, they wonder who they are.

Once upon a time, people rarely discussed adoption. Well-meaning adoptive parents believed no good could come from exhuming the past. Their silence left children with little knowledge of their birth families, medical histories, or the circumstances surrounding their relinquishment.

Experts today encourage candor within adoptive families. Adoptees live happier, more fulfilled adult lives if they were permitted to communicate openly in childhood. So how should parents begin to convey difficult facts? How can they fill in the gaps when they don't even have solid information?

For many adoptive parents, the ideal conversation starter is a homemade memory album called a Life Book.

Anatomy of a Life Book

A Life Book is a special, dynamic record book for children who no longer live with their birth parents. It's part scrapbook, part photo album, and part historical document that grows as the child does. Most importantly, a Life Book bridges the chasm between mystery and truth. As they review tangible information about themselves, children can discuss confusing issues openly with their adoptive parents. Life Books help address questions like:

What does adoption mean? In Raising Adopted Children, author Lois Ruskai Melina says kids comprehend various aspects of adoption at different ages. They may not understand giving birth until kindergarten or first grade. A few more years will pass before they recognize the cultural significance of "blood" relationships. And before they understand the law, they may doubt their security as a member of your family. When parents consider these developmental milestones, they can initiate age-appropriate discussion about adoption, using the Life Book as a visual aid.

Will my birth parents come back for me? Children often fantasize about their family of origin. After a fight with their parents or a tough day at school, they may envision a birth parent rescuing them. When a child receives permission to discuss his birth parents, however, he can begin to visualize them as real people rather than mythic heroes. Adoptive parents can use Life Books to paint a kind but accurate picture of the birth mother and father. They can provide added security by reiterating that "we're your real parents, we love you, and we're not going anywhere."

Will I be just like my birth parents? Even a young child can understand that her eyes are blue because mommy's are. By extension, many adopted children believe that genetics will determine their future behavior. If Julie's birth mother got pregnant as a teenager, Julie may suppose this is her fate as well. Children raised with a set of values different from their birth parents may also find it difficult to forgive the "sins" of the past. Through Life Books, parents can provide compassionate explanations about the birth parents' decisions while empowering children to make wise choices in their own lives.

How will I explain my adoption to others? It's tough for an 8-year-old, bombarded with questions like "Why don't you look like your mom and dad?" or "Why didn't your real parents want you?" Using Life Books, parents can help assure kids that their unique situation is every bit as legitimate as living with birth parents. Kids should know that this special story is their own; they are not obligated to share details about their history if it makes them uncomfortable. Families may even wish to develop a script to use when confronted with unwanted questions.

Telling a Life Story

A Life Book doesn't need to be fancy or follow a specific format. It can be as unique as the child for whom it's created! Here are some possible items to include:

Pre-Adoption Information

Items from the Adoption/Placement Process

Memories of Life in the New Home

Update the book regularly (maybe annually) to keep it "alive." You may want to provide new pictures and list some of the child's friends, favorite music, teachers, accomplishments, dreams and aspirations. You can also have the child draw a picture or submit a meaningful item.

Life isn't like the movies. We don't always get the answers we want. But with a little help from loved ones, kids can build their own identity out of the material of the past and present. Life Books offer insight into a child's origins. More importantly, though, they tell the story of a "forever" family who loved him enough to cross the state, the country or the world to bring him home for good.

Adoption Options

Adoption options include: open, closed, international, domestic, preborn, waiting child, transracial and embryo.

by Alexandra Lütz

Adoptions can be divided into a number of different categories, the broadest being related (when the child is adopted by a family member or stepparent) or nonrelated. Approximately half of all adoptions in the United States are related.

In nonrelated adoptions, there are two main categories: domestic (when a child is adopted within the same country) and international. The wait time for international adoptions is typically shorter. There is greater opportunity to specify the age and gender of a child, and there are fewer restrictions for who may adopt. Common drawbacks are that the children are rarely newborns, there is more legal paperwork, and the process can be quite costly — although the fees are often more predictable.

Most international adoptions are closed adoptions, meaning the identity of the birth mother is unknown to the adoptive family. This can be a disadvantage to the child's emotional development and to her physical development when medical history is unknown.

In open adoptions, there is a relationship between the birth mother and the adoptive family, before and/or after birth. These agreements range from simply leaving records open for the child to investigate later, to regular pictures and updates, to scheduled visits and contact. Regardless of the arrangement, persons from all sides of the process benefit when the terms are secured in writing. Most adoption professionals consider open adoptions a healthier situation for the child and both sets of parents.

Most independent adoptions are open. A birth mother and an adoptive family choose each other and make an adoption plan that is completed by an attorney. Birth mothers and the adoptive families can determine their own terms for the adoption, offering less privacy but more peace of mind. Although they are often faster, less expensive and allow for more freedom — especially from the birth mother's viewpoint — independent adoptions are illegal in a few states. Families in all states may identify their own adoption plans and then bring it to an agency to complete.

Agencies may be public (funded by the state) or private (profit and nonprofit). Public agencies place children who are wards of the state due to abandonment, abuse or neglect. They are the least expensive with the shortest waiting time of all adoptions. However, most children placed by public agencies have special needs, and few are healthy newborns. Families may have the option of foster parenting before completing the adoption.

Private agencies can place these children, but they may also place children who have been brought to the agency by the mother before or after birth (giving her the opportunity to choose the family who will adopt her child). Private agencies are more selective of both birth mothers and adoptive families. But while waiting for both parents' custody relinquishment, children may be placed in foster care or risky placements, and families may lose significant amounts of money when placements fail. Profit agencies may place children more quickly but they are more expensive than nonprofit agencies. You should choose only a reputable agency that is licensed in the state in which it operates.

In a transracial adoption, children are placed with an adoptive family of another race. This type of adoption may fall under any of the categories previously listed and amounts to roughly 8 percent of all adoptions.

A new option available to parents, and especially attractive to infertile couples, is "embryo adoption." Couples who are attempting pregnancy by in vitro fertilization often create more zygotes than are used, which are subsequently frozen for storage. The genetic parents may choose to place these zygotes for "adoption," making them available to another couple for pregnancy through an embryo adoption agency. The transfer of the zygote is not legally an adoption but a property transfer. But after acquiring the embryos, they are implanted via in vitro fertilization into the adoptive mother, making her also the legal birth mother — able to experience pregnancy, childbirth and nursing.


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