What NOT to Say to Prospective Adoptive Parents. And What to Say Back.
Would you walk up to a pregnant woman and tell her about your friend’s cousin's daughter whose infant died of a rare disease, offer her the unsolicited tale of your hairdresser's daughter's home birth gone wrong, tell her about every mother you know visiting her teenager in rehab, etc.? Would you walk up to a woman expecting a baby and volunteer every horrific possibility parenthood could potentially offer? Of course you wouldn’t. Because it would be both entirely inappropriate and cruel. Yet, when you're involved in the adoption process, this is precisely what many people do. Mention you're adopting, and people will often lean in with bizarre schadenfreude shining in their eyes and share some terrible story of a friend of a friend whose adopted kid with an attachment disorder burned their house down.
I can give you my ten-cent analysis of why this happens—I think it basically boils down to the fear of difference. For our purposes, the motivation behind the behavior isn't really that important. I’ve been at this for a while now and have, by trial and error, developed really good boundaries. In fact, this kind of ignorance affects me personally so little now that I see it as an opportunity to educate—hopefully with gentleness and compassion. But when you’re first in the midst of the adoption process, it can be shocking and disturbing, and, worst of all, can hold up a mirror to all your deepest fears.
It’s not my mission in life to talk people into adopting. It’s a very personal decision and it’s not right for everyone. I do know that if you choose to walk this adoption road (this, in my opinion, glorious and rewarding road) you won't be doing it alone. Make sure you seek the wisdom of the people walking beside you, not the onlookers shouting from the sidelines.
A friend sent me desperate late-night email yesterday. It echoed so many emails I get I decided to address it here. This is some of what she said:
I’ve been afraid to talk with a few of the women I know and love about our plans to adopt because they talk about how: One’s sister adopted and the child ended up in prison. Another’s cousin adopted and the kid had such a learning disability he ended up dropping out of school and is working a minimum wage job with no future (both adoptive parents are college professors). How “nature” cannot be corralled by “nurture”—it's a huge crap shoot. Everyone thinks she'll get lucky by getting a "great kid" but not everyone does. How I am irresponsible to adopt when I already have two kids, and my resources will be taken from my lovely children when they need me. In fairness, I know they care about me. They are coming from a place of great concern. And they are trying to help me reconsider this whole adoption thing from a rational POV. They are basically playing a track of GREATEST FEARS Volume One.
Exactly. Greatest Fears Volume One. A tape which, by the way, all expectant parents have in one way or another. But most women walking around with a baby bump don't have every random acquaintance at Pilates echoing her tape with a terrifying anecdotal story. If you want a thousand antidote stories of incredible adoptive families, call me. Or talk to any adoptive parent you know.
Read the literature. For inspiration, I love Carried in Our Hearts, by Dr. Jane Aronson or More Love Less Panic, by Claude Knobler. For instruction, I love The Connected Child and everything else ever written by Karyn Purvis. Those are just a couple of an amazing plethora of offerings. I adore this post from Jen Hatmaker called “How to be the Village.” Reach out to your adoption community. If you don’t have one, start building one. Read the blogs. A few of the greats: Rage Against the Minivan, Flower Patch Farmgirl, White Sugar Brown Sugar, A Musing Maralee, The Eyes of My Eyes are Opened.... there are so many.
More immediately, here is a general guideline of how I deal with it: Second-hand experience is irrelevant. Only people speaking from the inside the adoption community are allowed to tell you anything right now unless it’s about how they just bought you a duffel bag full of awesome baby clothes from Chasing Fireflies. People are often ignorant and careless about adoption related issues, and they will rarely ask if you want to hear what they have to say. They'll just launch in.
This is where you get to work on boundary setting, which I realize can be very hard for women because we are so reticent to offend anyone or create an awkward social situation, regardless of the personal cost. Try to look at it as excellent opportunity to develop this very important skill. I’m sure it’s a skill you want your children to have. You can better impart it if you've cultivated it in yourself. Say, “Thank you, I understand you mean well (or love me, or want the best for me, or whatever is appropriate to the relationship), but I don’t want to hear any negative stories about adoption right now.” THE END.
When they say, “BUT….” And they will. I don’t know why this is, but the need to tell these horror stories is almost compulsive and they will not want to shut up. This is the hard part and it’s very important… Cut them off. Then repeat yourself verbatim. Do this as many times as is necessary for them to hear you. Rehearse this at home. I’m not kidding. Have a friend or spouse role play it with you. It's not an easy maneuver, and you'll be much better able to execute it in the moment if you prepare in advance. Then hold your head up and proudly walk your path and know that whatever trials and joys it brings, you will not be walking it alone.
Reach out your hand and you will find there are so many on this road who will hold it. I'm an adoptive mama who has had a pretty challenging go of it. In spite of (or maybe because of) our struggles, there has never been a day, not one, that I haven’t thanked God for all adoption has brought to my life. It has brought my own parents for one (I'm also adopted)! It has also brought my beautiful children, immeasurable love, personal growth, a stronger marriage, a profound sense of gratitude, a faith in the world and in myself that I never believed possible.
I’m copying and pasting the letter I sent to friends and family when we were in the thick of things with Bright Eyes, and I was sitting in a hotel room after having visited him in his foster home every day for a week, preparing him for the transition to our home. It was a hard, scary, wonderful, transformative time. I was touched by the outpouring of support and curiosity from friends and family but was also totally overwhelmed and unable to respond personally to everyone. Instead, I wrote this. Please feel free to use any or all of this, if it seems useful to you:
Dearest Friends and Family,
We wanted to reach out to our inner circle to let you know the new developments with Project Lil' Shriner #2...This information is strictly private right now—just close friends and family—so please be conscious of not sharing anything publicly until we do so first. Also- legally no pictures can be posted until there is an official adoption. So, if we're ever hanging out and things start to get instagramm-y, please be aware of that!
And now I have totally buried the lede...As you all know, we've been embroiled in the process of a second adoption for the past year and it has been moving at roughly the speed of a Tarkovsky film. But during the last couple of weeks, things have ramped up to the pace of a Transformers sequel! We are wildly excited to tell you that next week we're scheduled to meet a precious 3-year-old boy—let's call him Bright Eyes for now. If all goes well with the next couple of steps, we'll proceed to visiting and transitioning him slowly, and hope to have him home by mid-December. Possibly earlier!
We need to stress all the “maybes” and “probablys” and “ifs” in that paragraph...We know that adoption is super confusing, so here's a little primer of what's going on. We're adopting through LA County DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services), so Bright Eyes is currently living in a foster care placement. There are many, many steps before we can legally adopt him, and a number of things could come up that derail the process. It could take months. It could take years. It could not happen at all. We just don't know. There will be lots of court dates and visitations and ups and downs and, well, we don't even know exactly because this is such a different process from last time.
We ask that you live in the moment, with all of its uncomfortable uncertainty, along with us. Right now, we're proceeding with cautious optimism. We promise to tell you when it's time to jump up and down and truly celebrate. Trust us—we can't wait for you to meet him when the time is right. See the FAQ below for more details.
The next few weeks will tell us a lot, and during this time we will be very, very busy and focused on our family-in-transition. We won't want to discuss every detail of the process. We will most likely miss your holiday party. We may not send a card. We may not call you back. Please know that we love and treasure you. We could never do this without you—our beautiful extended family, both given and chosen. We're so grateful for all you bring to our lives.
Love, Jillian and Scott
FAQ: 1. Wait, what happened to Baby J?
We were fostering Baby J. on an emergency basis. Baby J. wasn't up for adoption, and we were never under the impression he was staying. We were lucky enough to share a brief moment with him. We all miss him. We will think about him with both joy and sadness for the rest of our lives. Hopefully we'll see him again somehow. Bright Eyes is a totally separate case and the two have nothing to do with each other.
2. So, do you get to keep this one? What's the deal? Is he yours or not?
We hope so. We think so. We don't know for sure yet. I know- it sucks, right? But that's the deal.
3. All of this is so exciting! I really want to talk to you about it! But I'm so busy and I don't have the time to read this whole email. Will you explain this to me over and over again every time I see you?
We know it's confusing and we know everyone is excited. We're also excited- and overwhelmed and nervous. Every email from our social worker could either be the best or the most heartbreaking news ever. It's a heavy time. It's a lot for us to have to explain every step of the way. We promise we'll let you know about the big milestones.
4. I just heard a terrible story about an adoption that fell apart (and/or read an awful adoption story in the news) and I really want to share it with you for your own good- should I?
5. I went through this, and I have some tips or legal advice that I feel could help you- should I share them with you?
YES! Please do. The process is pretty opaque and most of the useful things we've gleaned have come from other adoptive families, who have been through a similar process.
6. When can I meet that little nugget of joy and give him a squeeze?
We don't know yet. Probably not right away. Every child processes the trauma of separation and the transition into a new home in their own unique way and at their own pace. We plan to give him all the time he needs to feel safe before all you crazy pirates start coming around. Again- we'll let you know!
7. Will you be having a baby shower or a welcoming party?
Yes! We need to see how it goes, and how everyone is settling in. When it's time, you can be sure we'll have a party. We're the Shriners, after all.
8. How can we support you?
We treasure your messages of support. We need all your love and cheerleading and prayers and good thoughts and white light and GF brownies and whatever else you get into. And we're so grateful for your understanding if we're MIA for a while. Also—extra special love for Tariku (movies, playdates, airplane-spotting expeditions...) will be very much appreciated over the next couple of months.