I’ll never forget an encounter I had with an acquaintance, about a month before we left for Ethiopia. This woman was young, and newly married and lacked, apparently, a filter between her brain and her mouth. She told me that she was very excited for me, and that she’d always wanted to adopt. She wasn’t having much luck convincing her husband, though.
“He says he doesn’t think he could love someone else’s child as much as his own,” she explained.
I know there are plenty of people who feel this way, and it used to make me crazy. What rarefied bloodline, exactly, did these husbands think they were preserving with a natural-born child? Why would you put your body and your marriage through emotionally crushing fertility treatments when adoption was such a wonderful option? Why wasn’t my choice good enough for them? Were they judging my family as lesser? And worse yet, were they judging my beautiful boy as lesser, because he wasn’t our biological child?
About a year ago, Bini started having nightmares. We thought, initially, they were a combo of his super-active imagination and Halloween, which kinda freaked him out. As the dreams dragged on into December, and no one was getting any sleep, Steve and I were exhausted and panicked. My dear friend Robyn, who has been a nanny for many years, called me.
“I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” she said. “But maybe there’s something more going on here, like maybe related to his being adopted.”
It was a hit-your-head moment. I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t recognized that at the bottom of these dreams, which nothing we did could make better, was a deep-seated anxiety and grief. To be fair, all of the adoption books we read said to expect that kind of stuff a little later. It was a reminder, though, of something that we often forget: Bini is adopted.
Most of the time, parenting Bini is just like parenting a biological child. He’s hit or surpassed all of his developmental milestones just fine. He’s social and ebullient and full of energy. He’s a natural athlete and adores music. He loves reading and being read to. He loves to color. He thinks most girls are icky. He loves superheroes. But every once in awhile, Bini will act out in a way that we need to look at through our adoption “prism,” and assess whether what he’s feeling is typical of his age, or something more. That’s just what you do, when you’re an adoptive parent.
And so, I’ve changed my mind about adoption. It’s not for everyone. And if you don’t think you can do it, don’t.
When you adopt, you’re becoming a parent to a child who already has parents, living or dead. And that separation is traumatic, no matter whether you adopt the child as a baby, as we did, or as an older child. Your adopted child will come to learn — because you must be honest, no matter how painful it is — that his birth parents gave him up. Even if the life you’re providing is wonderful and full of promise, that loss will always be there. Always.
And so, to be an adoptive parent, you must be strong. The first time your child tells you that she wants her other mommy, you cannot go to pieces. You must hold your child in your arms and tell her you understand. Later, you can go into the bathroom and cry your eyes out. But you must never make her choose between loving you, the mommy who is parenting her, and her birth mommy, the one who relinquished her.
If, on Mother’s Day, your son sabotages the breakfast plans by acting out, you cannot, as I did, flee to Starbucks in tears. You need to remember, preferably ahead of time, that this day may be terribly confusing to him. All week long, he’s been hearing about Mother’s Day at school and making a card and thinking: “But I have TWO moms.” So next year, you resolve to do something to honor both of your child’s mothers, and you make sure to talk about his birth mom as often as he’s comfortable with.
To be an adoptive parent, you must recognize that you are part of a large extended family now, whether the adoption was open or closed. Your child will want to know his history, and he has a right to that. As I heard in a day-long adoption training this week: You are the gatekeeper of your child’s past. Take that responsibility seriously.
To be an adoptive parent, you need to trust your gut. If your parents tell you to let your brand-new adopted child “cry it out” at naptime, and it feels so, so wrong, you should ignore them. You should go to your newly adopted child if it feels right. And if your parents tell you that your newly adopted child needs to learn to soothe himself, you need to have the courage to tell them to piss off.
To be an adoptive parent, you must be patient. Your child may test you more than a biological child. Your child may act in ways that are more appropriate for a child younger than her. But because you know that she has deep hurts that she doesn’t understand, you will not send her to her room when she’s screaming, however tempting that may be. You will sit next to her for a “time in,” which attachment therapists believe are much more effective and less frightening for adopted kids.
To be an adoptive parent, you must be willing to ask for help. When we realized that Bini’s dreams might be a result of adoption grief and anxiety, we found a therapist to help us. We’ve sought advice from other parents, read books and attended support groups. These are things that bio parents do too, I know. But the stakes feel higher with an adopted child, because there is that undeniable layer of loss that you can’t erase, that you can’t love away.
You also need to be willing to get help for your own issues. When Bini came home, I had trouble attaching — something I wrote about a bit here. I didn’t tell anyone but my closest friend and my husband, because I was so ashamed. That was a mistake — one that keeps me up at night still, some four-and-a-half years later. However, it was my son who forced me to get help for the eating disorder that had ruled my life for 26 years. Being Bini’s mom made me realize that I couldn’t simultaneously continue my destructive behavior and be a good parent. My three-year-old son got me to do what I hadn’t been able to do myself: Face down my demons, and win.
To be an adoptive parent, you need to address your infertility grief, and move on. I fell down the rabbit hole of infertility and it was dark, dark days. But once I closed the door on all that, I closed it forever. Really. I never, ever think about what it would be like to have a biological child because if I’d had one, I wouldn’t have my Bini. Why would I ever wish for anything different?