Last month I shared a Tuesday Topic titled, “What Can You do When You Don’t Love Your Child?” The question was sensitive, and the responses were, for the most part, kind and encouraging. One comment was posted anonymously by an adoptive mom who lost her own parents as a teenager and was adopted. I loved what she wrote and posted a request that she email me. Thankfully she did, and today I have the honor of sharing Rebecca’s words with you. I hope this impacts you the way it has me.
My most sincere thanks to Rebecca.
Several weeks ago I posted a comment on a discussion about a mom struggling to love her older adopted child. Lisa asked me to share more, so here goes.
I changed homes at the age of 16. After months of family turmoil, my mom died suddenly and my siblings and I (four altogether) entered into the best possible U.S. foster care scenario: the home of our aunt, uncle, and cousin. We remained in the same school, in the same small town, with the same people and the same friends. We didn’t change countries or cultures or languages, just homes.
There’s nothing quite like being a foreigner, though, and life is foreign in a house that isn’t yours. The food is different. The rules and expectations are different, and whatever circumstances brought you to a new home make life all the more complex.
We call our adopted kids “kids from hard places,” and it is a fair description. But they are also kids who have survived hard places, kids who have learned to cope in difficult circumstances and (for many) to parent themselves. The mechanisms of survival these older children bring into adoptive or foster families aren’t conducive to easy adjustment to life with parents who take care of all your basic needs and feel like they know what is best for you.
As parents, we want so badly to give older adoptees a childhood. We want them to let go of their need to be in control and allow us to help them navigate life. When you parent an older child from a hard place, though, that child has in many cases been the adult. She has learned coping skills and survival skills you may have never had to use. She may have parented a dying parent herself or parented other children in an orphanage. She has learned some means of self-sufficiency. Her brain isn’t wired to forget having to care for a dying parent or beg for food at a young age. Our brains aren’t designed to discard the hard stuff when easier days appear to be ahead. We are creatures of survival, and once childhood is gone, through whatever means it is lost, it is gone. With it, the dependence of a newborn baby is gone, too, making it really hard for an older adoptee to attach to a new family and just as hard for a new parent to attach to an older child.
Recognizing the challenges, though, I argue that adoption and foster care of older children is absolutely positively worth it IF you can manage your expectations. Your expectations must be set very low. It may feel like that child is yours after only a short time. However, you may never feel like that child is yours. In the same way, children who come to you with a decade-long history somewhere else may never feel emotionally “attached” to you, either. That doesn’t rule out a relationship with an older adoptee that is just as good as any other relationship as long as you don’t impose your relationships with your other kids onto your expectations for your relationship with an older adoptee.
There is a very sad (and lopsided) article circulating among the adoption community that talks about adoption from the perspective of older children adopted internationally to the United States who still don’t feel connected to their families for various reasons. Reading the article made me feel even more strongly about what you must do when you adopt an older child. As a parent, you must provide a safe place for all of your children. This is your primary responsibility. This comes before making them productive citizens, helping them to adjust to your expectations, or feeling the same way about them that you feel about other children. It is not an option to hurt them, and it is not an option to allow them to hurt the other children in your care. You must give them room to breathe and to grieve. If you need to grieve the loss of your own dream of how that relationship was going to look, give yourself room to do that, too. It is okay to be sad that adoption isn’t easy. You must give your older adoptee clear boundaries and expectations. You must give them a predictable schedule and household. You must give them a home base. In this environment and with any professional support needed, I believe any child can build relationships as long as we don’t expect those relationships to be perfect.
Several years ago, a mom on an adoption forum who had adopted one or two older children said something like, “I have determined that my daughter and I may never have the relationship of a mother and daughter. I have begun looking at myself as a sort of benevolent aunt, one who cares for her but with different expectations.” I have never forgotten that statement. Sometimes, we settle for “benevolent aunt” status because it gives everyone in the relationship permission to enjoy a close relationship without the pressure of making it look the same as that of a newborn baby and admiring new mother.
I am so thankful to hear Rebecca’s perspective, please let her know how much you appreciate her willingness to share. Feel free to ask gentle questions as well.
Blessings to all of you parenting children who joined your family at older ages and who are (like me) navigating these complex and tender relationships.