We agreed for a little girl to live with us while her parents sorted things.
Dad is in jail, mom was on drugs but is trying to get clean.
She is ten, with thick, frizzy brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Round, sweet face, eyes made owlish by thick glasses with dark purple frames.
She wears a purple puffy jacket, which should be my first clue it’s a dream.
Those went out of style decades ago. Then again, trends cycle. Maybe she’s ahead of the curve.
We meet at a small, family-owned restaurant with a store attached. Evidently this is where she has spent her after-school hours starting back in pre-school. Her babysitter used to work here but is long out of the picture.
“She was such a good little girl” that everyone else agreed to jointly keep an eye on her until her mother sent a ride home or wandered in to pick her up. Someone noticed she wasn’t growing much in kindergarten and they started providing after-school snacks and a hearty dinner. The undernourished waif grew into a hale and healthy ten year old.
The last few months, they’ve been giving her rides home at closing. A light was always on and she had a key, but finally the cook decided to walk her to the door and found mom sprawled on the floor in a drugged stupor.
She called the police, who called social services. Our small town had no other foster homes available. Since the cook claimed to be a distant cousin and had a clean record, they let the child stay with her for 48 hours while the social worker looked for a foster parent.
These people have been her family for six years. None of them are happy to learn I live clear across town.
“You have to bring her back to see us. Come for dinner at least once a week. On the house,” the owner cajoles.
The cook chimes in, “yes, please do,” in a tone I recognize as, “I’m asking nicely but you can expect a consequence if you don’t comply.”
The child has gone back to her small play area in the rear of the store to tidy up. I follow.
As I pack her things into a plastic green suitcase, the social worker calls my cell. Mom entered the rehab program. This may be a very temporary placement.
For their sake, I hope so, but I won’t mind if this sweet girl stays with us longer.
Suddenly I realize we never finalized sleeping arrangements. I guess we’ll put her in the guest room for now. I wonder if our two will be jealous she gets the big bed.
For that matter, how will they all get along? Will a new addition send them into a tail spin?
Should I put her in class with one of them or in one of the other 5th grade classes?
It’s getting late. I haven’t even thought about dinner. I tug her heavy case toward the door, starting to feel overwhelmed. Will she even like us?
I pause by the door, ready to call her name and realize I’ve forgotten it.
The cook gives me a piercing glare.
“What?” I say.
She replies, “nothing,” but I feel her eyes on my back as I turn.
I shake my head, stress washing over me.
What was I thinking, taking this on? I just started a new job. My kids may not respond well and I forgot to tell them about it. Hubby’s out of town for a week. Wait, who is with MY kids? I suddenly can’t remember.
The girl reappears, hugging the staff as she makes her way to me.
“I’m ready,” she tells me, pushing past through the wooden screen door to the country porch.
I follow, panic rising, and stop, face to face with a huge young buck. I eye his antlers, uneasy with the proximity, and glance around for the girl.
He snorts, demanding my attention, and stomps his hoof on the echoing porch floor boards. He touches his nose to mine, huge brown eyes glaring.
I wake, wild-eyed, stressed and panting, nose-to-wet-black-nose with my German Shepherd.
He needs to potty. He snorts and stomps his paw on the bed once more.
I shake my head and let him pull me out of bed.
Thank God, it was a dream.
Later that day, I pull up photo listings on adoptuskids.org, searching for a round, sweet face with owlish eyes.
Thirty years ago, families with biological children were unlikely to adopt. In our present culture, considering adoption has become almost trendy, thanks to celebrity endorsement, movies like Annie and educational campaigns like National Adoption Month. Individuals, couples and families with children (both young and grown) are adopting.
In spite of the increase in attention, 102,000 children in the foster care system alone wait for an adoptive family (adoptuskids.org). This number doesn’t account for children awaiting agency placement. So, should you consider adoption? Here’s why you shouldn’t (should).
1. “Adoption is too expensive.”
Cost is a valid concern. Our friends adopted from China; the total was well over $30,000. Agency adoptions in the US can be just as expensive. Shelling out that kind of cash is not an option for most people.
Here’s the good news: simply search “Financial help for Adoption” to find hundreds of available resources online. Private funds, special interest group donations, government grants, personal loans. The friends I mentioned? Thanks to donations, almost the entire cost was covered. In adoption through foster care, costs are minimal, usually $0 to $2500. Depending on the situation, health care and other benefits may be provided for foster children, even after adoption.
Communicate your need and be willing to accept help.
2. “My family is against it.”
Yes, support from your family is important, but you’re the one who will live with the kids. Take into consideration how often you see the individual and whether you’d rather adopt or have this relationship. Adoption requires commitment. If you can’t decide whether adoption is worth the loss of this individual, you may not be ready to adopt.
Here’s the one exception: if the people you live with aren’t ready, wait. Adoption is emotionally and physically grueling, both before and after the official paperwork is signed. Our adoption succeeded because my husband and I were committed to each other and to the adoption. Without the foundation of support from all members, your household may fall apart, damaging the adopted child even further. If you feel strongly about adoption, explain, educate and campaign all you like, but start the process only after you have everyone’s agreement.
My friend’s father experienced war in their adopted child’s country. He told her he could never love the child, having seen what “those people” had done to his soldiers.
When we first announced our intent to adopt, most friends and family were supportive, but a few were concerned. One approached my husband. “Have you guys even tried to have your own kids? Adopting is a bad idea. You don’t know what kind of child you’ll bring into the family.” Luckily I wasn’t present, because I would have said, “Actually, I’m more worried about the kind of people I bring to the child.” Probably not the best way to foster a friendly family relationship.
As soon as the issue surfaces, sit down with the family member and ask about their concerns. Take time to make them feel heard. Attempt to address the problems, if possible. Be firm but gentle. Try saying, “I’ve researched and considered all outcomes, but my final decision is to adopt. I’d like you to be a part of the loving network supporting us. If you are unable to do this now, I’m happy to give you as much time as you need. When you’re ready to be a positive, supportive part of our lives, please let me know.”
Relationships won’t always mend, but in the case of my friend’s father, I had the honor of being present the day he told her, “I hope you can forgive me for what I said. This kid has changed my entire perspective; I am so glad you adopted her.”
The people who truly love you will learn to support you.
3. “What if I get attached and it doesn’t work out?”
Especially if you’re working through the foster care system, this is a scary thought. Initially, my husband and I ruled out foster care. We didn’t think we could survive being separated from a child we’d grown to love. Then, a former foster child asked me, “Why do you want to adopt? If you’re trying to fill your own emotional need, get a puppy. If you’re truly interested in helping children, be a foster parent. These kids need a loving home. They’ve been ripped away from everything they knew. You can give them love and stability, at least for a while. Even if they are returned to their biological family, the time spent in your home will be life-changing.” Are you willing to change the life of a child forever?
Note: I’ve had some private feedback on this point. One reader is concerned about adoptive parents with a “hero complex.” Another noted that a puppy does not fill the void of a human being. Both good thoughts. Feel free to share yours.
Ask yourself: “Am I in this to meet my own need, or for a greater purpose?”
4. “Older children come with too much baggage.”
It’s true. Kids have memories. For most of us, memories filled with emotion (fear, anger, love) dominate our recollection. Baking with grandma in a warm kitchen. The track of your first big roller coaster dropping away beneath you. The day your parents argued, loud and angry, and you wanted to yell at them to stop it. Your first kiss. You get the idea.
Older children remember the fear, the violence, the trauma. Depending on their age, they may or may not be able to voice their emotions. Often, the strongest emotions manifest through their behavior.
Once, I found our son smashing a huge plastic helicopter into toothpick-size pieces. He couldn’t tell me why. A few hours later, he asked if his bio grandparents were dead yet. Last year, our daughter was smiling, dressed in her uniform and ready for practice. As we walked outside, she started screaming. Several pizza boxes from last night’s dinner with friends were by the door, and she stomped, tore and threw them. We don’t know if the boxes somehow triggered a reaction or if they were just collateral damage. I’m just glad we didn’t have a box of old Ginsu knives waiting for the trash pickup.
Our kids are learning to verbally communicate deep feelings of loss, abandonment, betrayal and anger. They finally understand that we will not toss them aside like the multiple foster homes before us. I recently found a note on my pillow: “Mama, I love you more than the sun and the moon. And the universe.”
Baggage is only heavy if you carry it alone.
5. “What if she prefers her birth family?”
Except in rare cases (for instance, a friend’s child was found on the police station steps; no information about the bio family is available), most adopted children will be able to track down family. Technology now affords us many ways to find people, even those who prefer to stay anonymous. If they’re online, they’re available. Every adoptive parent considers what will happen when their child meets the bio family. Will he love them better? Will she want to move in with them? Will he forget me? Will the birth parent break my child’s heart?
The last question above is a real risk. The others are unlikely. A grown adoptee recently reassured me: “You love both your kids equally, right? Do either of them have reason to be jealous of the other? Of course not. They’re both different, and you may have more in common with one or the other, but you love them both infinitely. Why is it so hard to imagine your child loving both you and a birth parent?”
Another friend, also adopted, said, “my birth mom gave me life, but my adoptive mom is the one who held me when I cried and celebrated when I succeeded. She’s my ‘real’ mom.”
If we do our jobs right as adoptive parents, our children will develop the capacity to love many people well.
Here’s the bottom line. Money, family, attachment, baggage, rejection…these all sound like legitimate concerns, but ultimately, they’re just excuses. If you feel called to adopt, don’t let them stop you.102,000 kids are waiting.
P.S. If adoption truly isn’t for you, please don’t feel left out. Adoptive families need a support web. Some of the most important people in our lives are the individuals who encircled our family and loved us through the toughest times.