Every day, families are growing through adoption. Nearly 120,000 children* are adopted each year, and in any number of ways – through private agencies, international organizations, via family members or through the foster care system. But no matter the path, the questions that prospective parents ponder are often the same: What is it really like to adopt? How can I prepare our family? Will I be ready?
“Adopting a child, just like adding a child to your family in any way, is an adjustment, and there are always changes that come with that,” says Sharon E. Pierce, President and CEO of The Villages, which offers foster care, adoption and family services across Indiana. “What we tell parents is to anticipate how adding a child will change your family and help everyone involved adjust to the idea.”
Think through the process
Whether you’re becoming a first-time parent through adoption or adding to your existing family, experts say it’s important to learn all you can about the unique experience of the adopted child.
“Sometimes, when we focus only on the positives of adoption, we forget that for a child to ever need to be adopted, there must first be a great loss,” says Brooke Randolph, an Indy-based licensed mental health counselor and mother of a 10-year-old son, whom she adopted. That loss, even if experienced in infancy, can have a profound impact on a child’s life.
For some children who are adopted, establishing trust may be a challenge. Parents may find that their adopted child may have difficulty with separations, developing relationships or managing transitions. Randolph says that if you’re considering adoption, you should, “Read, read, read. Read what professionals and therapists and people are teaching about these things, and read from the adoptee’s perspective; they’re the ones who’ve lived it. You have to be prepared for a lot of work and to do things differently.”
On the practical side, if you’ve never cared for a baby or young child before, or you have biological children who are much older, you may need to get updated on the basics of child care, learn what is developmentally appropriate at each stage and be ready to invest the time and energy required to be up to the task. “Right now in Indiana, 50 percent of children coming into the foster care system are under 5 years old,” Pierce says. “If your children are grown, it can be difficult to remember that parenting a young child isn’t quite as flexible as when your children are school-age.”
Many agencies that facilitate private adoptions or those through foster care offer training and education opportunities for prospective parents. Other resources include www.AdoptAChild.in.gov, www.AdoptUSKids.org and www.DaveThomasFoundation.org.
Expect an emotional journey
No matter what route you take to adopt, every parent and expert will tell you that you should expect some twists and turns along the way.
Sonja and Alex Overhiser’s adoptive experience lasted nearly a year, punctuated by mountains of paperwork, months of anxious waiting and three potential adoptions falling through at the last minute. Each time, after the shock and grief, it was back to waiting, or “treading water,” as Sonja calls it, often for months at a time. Finally, Sonja and Alex were matched with their fourth birth mother and in February 2017, Larson was born, with Sonja in the delivery room. The family remains close with Larson’s birth mother, whom he’ll see several times a year.
“The day Larson’s birth mom signed the paperwork, it was just a beautiful ending to a really long journey,” Sonja says. “When you’re going through it, it’s hard, but you can’t compare yourself to other people; a lot of people are in the adoption process, a lot of people are having biological children. You just have to trust that there will be a child at the end of this process, and you don’t have to get there first.”
Prepare for the long haul
After the joy of welcoming a new child into your family, the real work of parenting begins. You may worry about how to talk with your child about being adopted – now or in the future. You may have to help your other children adjust to having a new sibling. You and your partner may have to navigate a new role together. You may have family or friends who don’t truly understand the complexity of emotions that comes with adoption.
As your child grows up, they’ll likely have questions about their adoption and birth parents. “Oftentimes, children who’ve been adopted are afraid they’re going to hurt their parents’ feelings if they ask about their birth parents, so you have to start a conversation,” says Randolph. She suggests starting a dialogue with phrases like “I bet you sometimes think about ____” or “Do you ever wonder about ______.” And although you may get a “You’re not my real mom/dad!” thrown at you at some point, she says this is a normal part of development, even though it can be very trying. This is why she strongly encourages parents to get connected with other families who’ve adopted, and adults who were adopted, to understand and learn from their experiences.
The World Association for Children and Parents, a national nonprofit adoption agency, estimates that nearly 81.5 million Americans have considered adopting a child. If even just one in 500 of those individuals adopted, every child waiting in foster care would have a permanent home. The path to adoption takes planning, patience and a lifetime commitment. But by educating yourself on the process and accessing the many supports available to you, it can be a beautiful way to grow your family.
* According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the Children’s Bureau, the Administration for Children and Families and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.