We all begin the adoption journey with a vision of the outcome already in mind. We dream about the way our new child will be lovingly woven into our family. The way that a loving big brother will dote on his baby sisters. The way a pair of siblings will round out your little family. We may float through the training process unfazed by strong admonishments about the task ahead as we dream about tiny socks in the laundry or playing catch in the yard. We’re happily distracted in much the same way we envision ourselves basking on sunny beaches while buying expensive airline tickets to a tropical destination. These visions can be inspiring and motivating on the front end of adoption, but down the road when reality is at odds with the dream, these visions may become an anchor holding back your family’s progress.
A Naive Beginning
Our personal adoption story began as a foster-only story. You may be laughing to yourself if you also were once confident your role in a child’s life was only temporary. We had a spare bedroom in our home and extra love to give. Fostering seemed like a positive opportunity for ourselves and our three biological children. We set out naively believing that all foster children were reunited with their families or swept into the loving arms of infertile couples eager to adopt. We saw ourselves as a bridge, serving children who were in limbo between their traumatic past and a more certain future.
Although we realize now that it was a statistical anomaly, 100 percent of the first 15 children we fostered were reunited with parents or extended family. Although the children were sometimes challenging, we practically skipped through those first five years of foster parenting. We cared primarily for children under the age of eight, and many were infants and toddlers. Over time we began accepting sibling groups of two or three. We felt stretched at times, sometimes overwhelmed, but always reassured that we were making a difference.
And we were. Kids were safe and families were healed.
Beginning to Understand
But our perspective was forever changed when we began to explore our state’s photolisting website of waiting children. Over the course of two years, we watched a young man in care battle leukemia through a series of photo updates on the website. His features became puffy and distorted from treatment and his bright copper hair fell out. All the while he waited—waited for parents whose family wouldn’t be complete without a lanky, 14-year-old, redheaded son with leukemia. The weight of this reality—and of the slim chance that he would be adopted—broke our hearts. As we investigated further, we learned that few children over the age of 12 will find adoptive homes, and that by 8 children are considered hard to place.
Our quaint misconceptions about how foster care worked were shattered.
So we saw our role as foster parents changing. Instead of a bridge to forever, we would be forever. We decided to adopt an older child. Although we had read many adoption books and attended conferences, support groups, and trainings, our expectations were deeply rose-colored. Nothing could have prepared us for how this change in trajectory would affect our lives.
The Decision to Adopt
At night, we would lay in bed talking about our plans to adopt. We discussed practicalities like bedroom arrangements and birth order. We dreamed about a child who would one day walk the stage at graduation or hit curbs learning to drive our beat-up Volkswagen van.
We decided to adopt a son so that our oldest biological daughter would remain the oldest girl. We felt that, with children ages 2, 4, and 6, a boy between the ages of 10 and 15 would be a great fit. We tried to look at this new adventure from every angle, and explore all possibilities before we moved forward. We even threw around the idea that should this go as well as we felt it would, we might just adopt again after this child graduated and went off to college!
Looking back on these moments, we admire our heroic passion, but shake our heads at our ignorance. We assumed that this child, plucked from a life of poverty and trauma, would quickly and willingly acclimate to our middle class, college-educated lifestyle. Needless to say, we were in for a rude awakening when our almost-16-year-old son walked into our lives.
We called our agency on a sunny Wednesday in September to say we were open to adopting an older boy. We were matched with him three days later, met him the following Monday, and he moved in forever that Friday afternoon. The moment our son emerged from the group home he lived in, our hearts skipped a beat. We were in love—in love with every awkward, greasy-haired, oversized-clothed inch of this man-child who would be our son. We’re aware that not all adoptive parents feel this way and, admittedly, we’ve adopted again and didn’t have this instant gush of affection upon meeting them all. But with this guy, our whole future flashed before our eyes the moment we shook his hand then pulled him into a big bear hug.
Taking a Journey Together
We’ve had to verbally apologize to our now-adult son for the entire first year he lived with us. What happened next was a long series of fumbles, power plays, triangulation, tantrums, and lectures. We would hunker down in our room late at night plotting a new strategy to combat his many challenging behaviors. After much trial and error, taking one step forward and two steps back, we began to find real traction. We’d known the importance of attachment, but now we learned that there is so much more to life than that. We allowed ourselves to grieve the “normal” relationship with our son we’d dreamed of and delight in our real son’s talents and personality despite our tenuous bond. We valued education, but learned to let Spanish and math take a back seat to healing. We discovered the gaping holes in our son’s story that no person, timeline, or CPS file could complete—parts of his history lost forever.
Somewhere along the way we started a silly game with our son. We would watch a movie that had parents in it. Any movie with parents: Free Willy, The Karate Kid, Taken, Tarzan, Free Willy 2. The whole time we’d watch how the child in the movie interacts with his or her parents. Then we’d ask our son, “How about those parents?” And our son would explain what he liked and disliked about their relationship. It was free therapy over bowls of popcorn! Who knew that our son thought the Karate Kid’s mom was too permissive?!
We kept the conversation light-hearted, but learned so much about our son. Through this process we began to discover that he had expectations too. How on earth had we overlooked that truth for so long? He expected us to give up on him. He expected he would one day cross an invisible line in the sand and have gone too far.
After two years of stumbling forward with little progress, we became more aware of the unspoken expectations we’d layered on our son. Although we saw the trajectory of his life making a positive change, we began to slow down and enjoy the journey instead of running headlong towards an imagined finish line. We allowed ourselves to revel in small, daily victories in our parent-child relationship. We found ourselves laughing at inside jokes. Denise knew that our son wanted lettuce and tomato on his burger, but no onions or pickles. A healthy ease settled over our home. Tasks like keeping passing grades, maintaining a tidy room, remembering to take out the trash, avoiding foul language—while noble efforts—were moved to the back burner.
Letting go of many of our expectations was a step in the right direction. Board by board we tore down the scaffolding that had strangled our relationship with our son. The facade we’d built successfully disguised many of our struggles but had also stifled growth. Now, unencumbered by the weight of those misguided expectations, our bonding began to grow anew. It sounds poetic, but it was, in experience, one of the most painful processes we would ever endure. But he was and is totally, unapologetically worth it.
We’ve approached things differently in our subsequent adoptions. We’re more humble and hopeful. Less controlling. We’ve tried to stop watching the clock. What a lengthy journey it took for us to realize that restoration has no finish line. We stopped asking, “When is he going to accept that we won’t give up? When will he know he belongs here?” We’ve decided to stay busy focusing on a child’s freedom from the baggage of the past, from our expectations, freedom to heal and move in a dance where sometimes we lead and sometimes we follow.
In the end, we’ve found freedom for ourselves as parents as well. If we cling to visions of what might have been, and use those visions as a measure of success for our family, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Our lives may not look much like the images that flashed into our minds so long ago, but life is still beautiful. It’s just not the beautiful we expected.