A few years ago a friend of mine with her husband became custodial parents of a teenage girl after her adoptive family (another family in their ward) decided they no longer wanted her. Initially, things went well with the original adoptive family. They brought her home from far away. She got along well with others. She met the missionaries. She joined the church. And then it was time to go to the temple to be sealed as an eternal family. It went something like this:
Teenage adoptee: “Well, I don’t really want to be sealed to you.”
Adoptive parents (with shock and horror): “After all we’ve done for you? Why not? We love you!”
Teenage adoptee: “Someday I want to go find my mom. I want to be sealed to her someday.”
And that was the end of their family unit both eternally, and temporally. They kicked her out of the house and that’s how she ended up with my friend.
Recently the high profile case of a mother woman sending back a seven-year-old boy _alone_ with a one way ticket to Moscow has highlighted, at the very least, the unrealistic expectations potential adoptive parents often have.
It’s not only adoptive parents that have unrealistic expectations. Parents waiting for the perfect baby to appear from their own making have similar unrealistic expectations. My meager pre-parenting resume included an internship working with abused 2-5 year olds in daily group therapy; 3 summers running group therapy day camp for girls 8-11; volunteering as a mentor for a teen pregnancy program at the University of Utah Hospital; a counselor for wayward teens in an outdoor treatment program; and last but not least, being the oldest big sister of twelve kids. I was sure I’d be bored with only one baby (laughs), and was certain I wanted needed twins first. (The thought of it pains me to this day.) And so I offer you some unsolicited advice, garnered from misapplied parenting idealism:
Kids aren’t notches in our belts. Not adopted ones, and not the ones we bear. They come with their own personalities, likes and dislikes. They aren’t Play-Doh, we don’t mold them like we think we do. They aren’t computer programs, into which data is entered with an expected predictable result. That isn’t to say parents don’t make a difference. Certainly we do. Parents are (arguably) the biggest factor in a child’s development.
If adopting an older child (by which I mean not an infant), know that s/he is already on his/her way to adulthood. The older the child is, the further along that path s/he is. As some parents have learned, you aren’t going to change the essence of who s/he is. And please, consider the impact on a child of suddenly being called Sarah instead of Luba, or Michael instead of Vanya– even if you don’t like it, or don’t think you can pronounce it, or someone at the adoption agency thought it would make the child more “yours“. Don’t try to make the situation different than it is. It’s OK for it to be different. It’s OK if your relationship is not the same as if the child came out of your body and you knew him/her since the very first inhale of the very first breath. Expecting anything else puts an undue burden on the child s/he can’t possibly live up to.
Many hopeful adopting parents often don’t want to adopt within the US foster care system because they see noticeable psychological burdens on the children who bear them. But somehow lost in the idealism and optimism of parenthood is the reality that most likely, children adopted abroad also come with some psychological and/or physical obstacles. Most often children from Eastern European and other orphanages are there because they were removed by the state from custody of their own parents who neglected them, beat them, sexually abused them, and were alcoholics and drug addicts–the very same reasons kids are in foster care in the US.
I’ve seen close up the realities of Russian orphans’ lives. I’ve also seen up close how adoptions can end pretty close to happily-ever-after. I’ve seen up close how attachment disorder can be so disruptive as to leave only a disheveled heap of a family after storms have severed ties that bind. And most commonly I’ve seen families who walk the middle ground, where an adopted child was not quite what was expected, instead struggling with pervasive developmental disorders. But a family loved him and made untidy peace in the end.
I see families that create families from their own genetic pool, experiencing unexpected birth outcomes and are left with the prospect of life-long care for a disabled child. I see parents that question their abilities and doubt their strengths, crushed helpless under their failures as a child struggles with drug abuse. I watched as my own mother and father gave all they had to raise twelve kids, one who ran away but came back, one who struggled with drugs but quit, 5 who graduated from high school, but 10 who went to college, many who were inactive but 9 who served full time missions. They taught me by example that as parents we are the father in the parable of the prodigal son, unsure of the outcome the morning after the feast, but ready to give all for the child who has been lost.
Life has taught me that when it comes to parenting it is not our job to save our children. It is our job to show them where salvation lay, regardless of whether or not our ideal of an eternal family unit is rejected by them. We give them our best, because in the end what every child needs is what we need. What every child wants is what we want, someone to love them unconditionally like our Father in Heaven loves us–someone who will be there with outstretched arms to gather us in.