Breakfast In Bed

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Four Years On: What is it Like to be an Adoptive Parent?

This post has been brewing for a while, but a few things have happened lately which have prompted me to finish and publish it. The summer break is for me the hardest time of adoptive parenthood, when I am the most conscious of being a Different kind of family, and because of that, I seem to spend more time than usual preoccupied with mulling over what it's all about. For much of the time, adoptive parenthood, I assume, feels pretty similar to any kind of parenthood. Many of the challenges,  pleasures and quirks are comparable. But underneath the daily normality, lurks a chasm of insecurity, which never really seems to close up. I know that I love my children, and I trust that they love me, but I worry constantly that this fragile bond will fall apart, that I will somehow break it through my own impatience or inadequacy. Whereas for many people the holidays can be a time of family bonding and shared adventures, for us six weeks with a lack of routine and the daily rollercoaster of New Experiences seems to open up this metaphorical chasm and make our family feel less tight-knit. It shifts us all into an uncomfortable pattern of insecurity and anxiety which takes at least another six weeks to wash out again. I have written about the school holiday phenomenon in another blog post, so I won’t elaborate here, but it is the recent shaky ground which has led me to reflect more deeply what it is to be an adoptive parent, and to attempt to describe how it feels as an experience distinct from being a biological parent.

The Road to Parenthood

It is no secret that most people arrive at adoption having travelled down some kind of traumatic road. Whether they are there because of infertility, genetic or medical conditions that make pregnancy inadvisable, or because they haven’t found a partner with whom to pro-create, there is, in all likelihood, a nest of complication on which the adoptive journey begins. And it only gets more tangled as things progress. I am pretty open about having adopted my children, and will happily chat to people about the experience. Mostly they are interested in the practicalities of it all - the application process and all the paperwork you need to complete in order to be considered as adoptive parents. Certainly there were a lot of forms to fill in at the beginning, but that was the easy part. I actually found the application process quite enjoyable - as we were full of excitement and hope for our future family, yes still free from the ties and responsibilities of parenthood. If anyone wanting to adopt is put off by the initial red tape, then they are probably not cut out for the long-haul, and I guess that is partly the point.

What defines the adoptive parenthood far more is the journey beyond the dotted line: the bumpy, hairpin road that you drive through in a thunderstorm. A road that sometimes never seems to end. And the adoption process does to some extent prepare you for this; at least it tries to. We were given pre-adoption training in attachment theory, and warned about some of the challenges we might face in parenting children who have experienced trauma and neglect. But four days of workshops only really scratched the surface, and of course could not predict what our own individual children would be like, and how they would react to the huge transition and upheaval of being adopted. We were furnished with a certain amount of information about our children's known needs, but it is only now - four years on - that we are really beginning to comprehend the long-term impact of their shaky start in life, and to get our heads around what it is they really need from us. Because we haven't known them since birth, we had a lot of catching up to do, and will perhaps always be unpicking the past alongside our kids as they grow and mature.

Secondary Trauma

Much like professionals who deal with traumatised patients on a daily basis, caring for children who have lived through trauma and neglect can take its emotional toll. This is known as secondary trauma, and is a very real phenomenon. My heart is regularly eaten up by the thought of what happened to my children in the past, and the fact that I wasn’t around then to protect them from it. As their mother now, I feel fiercely defensive on their behalf, and am constantly trying to shield them from further emotional harm, sometimes at the expense of my own friendships and mental wellbeing. Before children, I had only really experienced one period of severe anxiety in my life, brought about by bullying in the work place (now there is a blog post I should really get around to writing), but now I am constantly battling inner demons, feeling wracked with self-doubt, and struggling to stay emotionally afloat, while trying to project a veneer of outward composure and stability for the kids. As someone who has always considered herself a Strong Independent Woman, mental health (my own anyway) is a hard subject to talk about. But talk about it we must. 

The first year of adoption was a complete black hole for me emotionally. I often felt overwhelmed at the scale of the responsibility I had taken on, and unable to express my feelings outwardly, leading to bouts of emotional instability and depression. I was too consumed with this inner unrest to even notice the love growing all around me, and was afraid it would never come. As time has gone by, and I have felt more confident in the bond that is developing between me and the children, the constant anxiety has been replaced with a lower-level one that rears its ugly head from time to time, like in the disquieting six weeks of the summer holidays.

It Never Gets Any Easier

You would think that as time went on, adoptive parenthood would get easier, and that the childrens’ problems would start to resolve. But based on the first four years, I can’t see this being the case. I suppose you just get used to the demands of the job; you accept and deal with them because the love grows stronger and you want to be a good parent. Part of the journey is coming to terms with the fact that it will always be hard, and committing to love them regardless. In spite of my early fears, love has blossomed. It is unlike any love I have felt before, and not how I expected it to feel at all. I am filled with pride at even the seemingly smallest achievements of my two, and compelled to love them twice as hard to make up for the love they lacked in their lives before. I would not take away the experience of that love, even for an easier, more straightforward life.

As they are maturing and becoming more self aware, the children's issues are seeming if anything more complex. We have helped them through the first few years of ‘settling in’ to their new family, and certainly they have both shown amazing resilience, flexibility and progress through that time, but now we face the ongoing challenge of helping them come to terms with their past, establishing their own sense of identity based on a shaky foundation behind them, and giving them the extra support they will need through the emotionally volatile teenage years. So we take a deep breath each morning, and prepare ourselves for what daily life throws at us. Such it is, and so we go on.

Loneliness and Isolation

One of the toughest things to learn to live with with as adoptive parents has been the limitations it has placed on our social life. Of course any parent goes through times of not getting out as much because of having young kids, but our experience has affected our friendships in what currently feels like a long-term (but hopefully not irrevocable) way. Before kids, our social circle was extensive and scattered. We would often meet up with different groups of people every week, travel to see far-off friends, and have people to stay with us. But, much as it saddens me, all that has had to change. We were advised in our adoption prep training to keep things simple for the children in the early days, and not over-expose them to too many new and different places, people and scenarios. To facilitate their attachment to us, they needed to feel secure and to establish familiarity amongst a small group of regular family and friends. What we didn’t realise was that the “early days” would not be only a matter of weeks or months, but would continue for almost four YEARS (so far), and perhaps longer. The friendships that have continued have been those that are entwined with our daily lives - through school, the kids clubs, and those who live in the same neighbourhood. It has been really hard to sustain anything regular beyond that immediate circle, and I have not felt like a very good friend in recent years.

There are a number of very beloved friends and relations who I have regretfully not seen AT ALL since the kids arrived, and many more that I have seen only occasionally and who have yet to meet the kids. New places and people STILL unsettle the children, and their insecurities mean that they struggle hugely with long-distance friendships. We have really only just begun to very gradually start opening up the circle of people that we see with them, and are still unable to take part in big group meet-ups where there are too many unfamiliar faces. It has been impossible to explain in detail to all of these people the intricacies of what has been going on, and why we may seem indefinitely unavailable, so we have had to rely heavily on people’s open-mindedness and acceptance. I am so grateful for the understanding and support of those affected, but I sorely miss spending time with these important people in my life, and indeed knowing what is going on in their lives. 

Because there are relatively few adoptive parents around (compared with those who have reproduced in the conventional way) it can be an isolating experience. Even when friends are kind and supportive, they can’t always put themselves in your shoes. I am lucky enough to have the friendship and support of another couple who adopted, and so can always rely on them for an empathetic ear. It must be extra tough for those adoptive parents who don’t have others around them in the same situation. Of course, I have made new friendships through the children, but even this is more complicated than it used to be. It’s hard finding the combination of parents who ‘get it’ and are tolerant and supportive of the children’s needs, whose children bring out the best in mine and can deal with their emotional ups and downs. And honestly, I just feel like I have less to give as a friend than before. I know that there are many other parents who feel the same, especially those whose children have additional behavioural or emotional needs. So I guess this isn’t something that’s unique to adoptive parenthood, but the powerful desire to protect one’s child from any more loss in their lives - when friendships go wrong or people let them down - perhaps, is. Here I should put in a massive ‘thank you’ to the small circle of friends and family who have been consistent and supportive throughout our adoption journey, and those who have given moral support from afar, along with an apology for not being a better friend in return. 

Because They Are Worth It

Writing this post, I have started to feel a little guilty that it reads like a list of complaints and regrets. It’s not. Yes, it is hard, and yes I have had to dramatically adjust my expectations of what life is for me now, but when I look into their eyes and see happiness where desolation once dwelled, or when a sincere “I love you mum” comes out of nowhere after days of defiance and destruction, everything else falls away. Had our paths not crossed, I would never have known the feeling of fierce, protective, restorative love that comes with adoptive parenthood, or experienced the privilege of teaching another human being how to love and be loved. To have earned their love against the odds has brought unparalleled joy into my life. And although it utterly exhausts and depletes me at times, I would not be without them now. 

Adoption is not the most straightforward version of parenthood, but it is a rare and exceptional experience, and one which is daunting and frustrating and raw and sad and magical and transformative and beautiful all at once. My children have taught me more about myself than I ever knew before; they have opened my eyes to possibilities I had never considered, and they continue to astound and amaze me every day. They feel as much mine as if they had grown inside me, and I cannot imagine life without them.



This is what adoptive parenthood is like for me; obviously I cannot speak for other parents. But I have long been pondering exploring the subject further, and would love to talk to others who are willing to share their perspective and experiences, perhaps for a podcast or vlog. Please leave me a comment or tweet me @Rowstar if you are interested in being a part of this.