Professionals evaluate us. They decide if we qualify for parenthood. This process can leave even the most resolute prospective parent reeling. Only those with enough dedication and commitment will power through to completion and fulfill the dream: a child born from another mother joins the family. To outsiders, placement (Homecoming, Arrival Day,) may appear to be the happily-ever-after end of the story.
In reality, it is only the prelude because adoption is not an event; it is a lifelong process that will influence our children, ourselves, and our extended families. Permanently. Sometimes, this influence will be minor and at other times, adoption may be a dominating driver of complicated and challenging emotions, beliefs and choices. Sounds daunting. So how do parents prepare to succeed at adoption? The answer is: develop a high AQ, a thorough education and preparation for basic adoptive parenting in particular and parenting in general.
At any given moment, parents ask themselves is this situation adoption-driven or simply typical kid behavior? The answer is not always clear but it is important to not always fault adoption as the obstacle. Adoption is only a part of what shapes our children—a pivotal one--but still only one of many driving forces.
It is important to recognize adoption as a family experience. When we adopt a child, we are bound in a relationship of love and mutual caring. Together, we become an adoptive family. Notice that “family” is highlighted. Think about that for a moment. Adoption reshapes parent and child and connects us for a lifetime. Fortunately the journey is not a solitary. We rely on each other. Shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, we live in partnership. We celebrate joys, mark milestones, divide troubles and bear shared witness to one another’s lives.
Adoptive families face the same challenges all families confront. Plus, we also support our children through the complex process of braiding their birth and adoptive heritage into a healthy, cohesive whole. (Lori Holden, author of The Open-hearted Way to Open Adoption calls this unifying biology and biography.) We travel the extra mile to become the parents our children need us to be. We understand that parenting based on the strategies our folks used to raise us will not serve us. Adoption creates additional needs and challenges for our families and this requires additional parenting strategies and skills. Our parenting tool box must suit the realities of the task set before us.
Thus, we dedicate equal intensity and commitment to becoming educated on how adoption alters the parenting equation. This requires that we apply several types of “intelligences” to our strategies: Intellectual, Emotional and “Adoption –attuned.” We at GIFT (Growing Intentional Families together) Family Services, refer to this as developing an Adoption-attuned intelligence, a high “AQ.”
Considers how adoption influences a child. The umbrella of AQ*includes:
Adoption-sensitive parenting techniques
Sound adoption language
Knowledge of the attachment process
Consideration of grief and loss issues
Respect for birth parents
Validating a child’s need to know, talk and care about birth parents
Modeling healthy boundaries
Educating family, friends and teachers on adoption
Remembering that a child’s story belongs to him
Recognizing adoption is a family experience
Encouraging playfulness & humor as a family value
Integrating a child’s birth heritage
Validate/acknowledge child’s losses and gains in adoption
Adoptive parents shape the breadth and depth of what we share as a family. Kids take their cues from us. We set the tone, establish the boundaries of “safe,” “welcome,” and “permissible” conversations regarding adoption and the wildly diverse emotions that it evokes. We recognize that the gains our children accrued through adoption do not erase their very real losses. We know love is essential and that it is not enough. We must go the extra mile time and time again.
We regularly and authentically invite adoption conversations. Periodically we drop seeds for future teaching moments. For example, we suggest that a talent, trait, or interest which our child demonstrates that is not generally seen in our extended family may be one of the gifts that emanate from their birth parents. This could easily segue into a chat about what a child thinks/feels/wonders/worries about regarding their birth parents. The conversation becomes a shared moment of intimacy where parents offer a safe harbor in which to explore a child’s hard thoughts and ideas.
In the absence of clear permission to discuss such things, kids assume that the topic is forbidden. They shoulder the burden of their concerns in isolation. Instead of a bridge strengthening the bond between parent and child, a gulf is created, a “Do Not Talk Zone.” Unless parents sail beyond the calm illusion that all is perfect, kids lose the opportunity to inform parents of their struggles. They act “as if” everything is AOK but inside, they wrestle with complex issues they are too young to understand and for which they lack adequate coping strategies. As parents we wish that our kids didn’t have to confront the pain of their losses and we recognize that loss is an ineradicable fact of their lives. We do not withhold their story; we support them through it. Step-by-step, in age-appropriate, truthful language, we talk about it honestly.
High AQ* parents steep our families in a presupposition of adoption as a “both/and” relationship. We do not make them choose sides and pledge loyalty to only one. We can never be loved by too many people nor must we love only a limited number. Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao adoptee, adoption counselor, author and coach asserts in The Family of Adoption that adopted children have both adoptive and birth mothers and fathers but only one set of parents: their adopted parents. We coexist and we all are an integral and permanent part of our children.
We enjoy engaging in “claiming” behavior that highlights ways our kids are like us. We demonstrate equal pride in the ways in which children are different from us and how that uniqueness enriches the family. By valuing their uniqueness, we prevent kids from inferring that they cannot be who their DNA programmed them to be because they mistakenly fear we would then reject them. Even if our children had been born to us, we could not love them more. An in depth knowledge of AQ* helps us to parent our children better, with empathy, information and understanding.
High AQ* parents understand that the parental experience of adoption varies in some profound ways from the reality of adoption which our children experience. Our delight at being parents does not blind us to some of the emotional struggles and ambivalent feelings that are part of an adoptee’s reality. We maintain an “open door” policy on adoption that clearly communicates to our kids that our commitment to them is permanent. It does not require them to surrender their interest in or attachment to their birth heritage. There are no contingencies on our commitment or our love. It is forever.
Gayle H. Swift is the co-founder of GIFT Family Services, an adoption coach, adoptive parent, former foster parent and co-author of the multi-award-winning, "ABC, Adoption & Me: A Multicultural Picture Book." She blogs regularly at “Growing Intentional Families together” She also writes an Adoption-attuned blog titled, “Writing to Connect” which reviews books through a High AQ lens. While some are specifically about adoption, most are not. She strives to help parents notice teachable moments in whatever books they share with their children.