September 10, 2008

Supporting Family Members Who are Adopting

A (long) while back, a reader asked what I thought adopting parents need/don't need from family members as they go through the process. (I need to take a second to tell you about this cool woman. She's not adopting--someone in her extended family is--and she's reading adoption blogs to learn what waiting families need or want from their extended families. Don't you love her? She's reading through all of our navel gazing for the sake of someone else in her life. I just want to give her a hug and clone her for other waiting families.)

With the caveat that this is just me speaking out of my own experience and each person is different, here are my thoughts on how to support family members who are adopting:

Don't treat us differently
We're bringing another grandchild/cousin/niece/nephew/etc. into the extended family. Period. More than anything we want our kids to be welcomed with open arms by you, their new family. It troubled me when family members treated us differently than my siblings-in-law who have non-adopted children. Partly because it hurt my feelings, but mostly because it seemed that they were putting my children-to-be into a different (lesser) category. Was our new family not worth celebrating, too? Whatever you've done for other family members when they added to their families--whether it's hosting a shower, knitting a blanket, offering meals, or even just calling to check in along the way--do it for adopting parents just as you would for birthing parents.

Remember that adoption is different
I realize this seems to contradict what I just wrote. But while you're busy treating us the same, remember that we're going through a unique process. Understand that adoption doesn't exactly parallel the pregnancy/birth process, so our reactions and emotions along the way won't always be the same. Adoption often brings up a lot of conflicting emotions. There is immense joy in adopting, but also sadness, stress and uncertainty. On top of the usual adjustments to parenthood, we're also working out what it means to be an adoptive family in a non-adoption world. I hesitated to share those layers of emotion during our first adoption because I worried that people would think adoption wasn't as valid a way of creating a family. I was much more open during our second adoption and discovered that most people appreciated getting that insight into a process they hadn't experienced first-hand. Just having people acknowledge the emotional complexity without judging it meant a lot.

Educate yourself
Learn some basic adoption terminology. If you know the agency, lawyer, or facilitator they are using, visit their website; most will provide at least a basic outline of their adoption process. Needing to explain every step or term to one less person can be a relief. And they'll be impressed when you know the difference between the end of a revocation period and finalization.

Don't ask how much it costs
Seriously, it's tacky.

Let us interpret the things that happen to us
Once, when we had a potential adoption not happen, a friend said to me, "Oh, so this is like a miscarriage." My mom said, "This just wasn't the baby you were meant to have." While those sentiments may have been appropriate for others, they didn't match my response to the situation at all. Being told how we should think or feel about events can be frustrating and isolating, especially when coming from people who haven't been through the adoption process. A simple, "Congratulations," or, "I'm sorry," is usually adequate. When in doubt, a sincere, "Tell me more," is a good response. Then, just listen.

Stick up for us
Sure, we can stick up for ourselves--and we will always stick up for our kids--but knowing someone else in the family has our back feels wonderful. My mom is a superstar at this. She fights for our privacy by deflecting nosy questions (contrast that to another family member who makes up reasons why my kids were placed because he apparently can't utter the words, "I don't know"). More importantly, my mom has defended our adoption decisions to family members who questioned them. Because she's fighting those battles, I don't have to.

I'm sure I've just scratched the surface. I'd like to turn it over to the rest of you. What kinds of support did you appreciate from your family members? What do you wish they had done differently?

ETA: You can find the follow-up to this post here.


luna said...

this is great, heather. I've been thinking of writing a post about things NOT to say to someone who is trying or waiting to adopt. so much of this resonates.

I'd also add that they should treat the story with care. already we are being asked about what "type" of child we are willing to adopt, what race/ethnicity, what type of exposures, etc. I can only imagine when we are considering a situation how many nosy questions we will get. and I know they will continue once a child arrives. some may be curious, but most are intruding and inappropriate. some of it will be my story to tell, but the rest will belong to our child and his/her first parents.

there has to be a fine line between being interested, engaged and supportive, and being nosy, invasive and inappropriate (and judgmental). people should tread cautiously.

call me mama said...

Hmm, Food would have been great, or diapers. Making a gift of savings bonds (if banks still offer those?) would be nice- or just treating them like anyone else's babies would be nice. I erased the rest- I was getting too negative. What a nice person to think of approaching adoption this way!

Anonymous said...

@luna - That's a great point. I was drawing from my own experience, and thankfully didn't face a lot of that kind of intrusion within our families. Maybe because we pretty strongly communicated upfront that specifics like medical history/drug exposure/etc. were off-limits. But showing respect for the child's privacy and toward expectant parents/first families is huge.

Lori said...

Well said. My only addition would be to speak positively about the first family. They are making such a noble, selfless decision and deserve nothing less than our highest respect.

Oh, and one more suggestion from a "don't" perspective. Don't suggest alternative roads to parenthood. Odds are we've considered all the options before making our decision. And only we know what is right for us.

Megan said...

I second Lori on the don't ask about other roads as it makes it appear as if you don't think the road we chose is good enough for you. And I also second her on speaking positively about the birth family.

For me, when I would express my terror over having a last minute placement (which is what eventually happened), I got upset when people would say, "Well, it's the same feeling when you go home with a baby you gave birth to." Having 9-months to mentally prepare and knowing an estimated due date is *very* different to having a day or two with no prior clue as to when it would happen. I know this is often said to include, rather than exclude, but I found it bothersome.

Juliette said...

Your list is very good!
I will add a couple of things to be careful about when the kid is here: as well as speaking positively about the first family, don't say anything negative about the birth country of the child in front of him/her. Sadly even some AP do it and I think it's a no no as your kid can take it personally.
And stop saying in front of our kids that what we did is great and that they are very lucky.

Jake and Emily said...

Great post! :)

Kathy's Korner said...

It really is hard not to dive into the negatives....but I gotta add:

Do NOT say after placement, "oh now you'll get pregnant!" I hate that one.

Also, tell people its OK to talk about birth stories in general conversations....I'll join in if I feel its appropriate...but don't avoid it around me.

Anonymous said...

Heather, thank you!! I can't tell you how well-timed this post is. Based on your great thoughts and your commenters, I think I've been doing ok so far -- and I have NO DOUBT that that's due to my exposure to the world of open adoption via your blog and others'. Thank you, Internet. It will be SO wonderful to see my sister become a mother and I can't wait to be a part of the welcoming committee.

The experience and emotions involved are so complex -- I've felt all along that analogies to pregnancy fall short, but it has taken a while to fill in the blanks (your thought about saying "i'm sorry" or "congratulations" and then JUST LISTENING is a wonderful one. I wish I could bottle that and then spike my parents' drinks with it...).

I do hope that I can kind of be a buffer for my sister as these new-to-our-family adoption related issues and sensitivies come up. I anticipate the "what a lucky baby" statement to be a recurring one -- it comes from a good place (I think) but I can see (now) how that sentiment erases so much of the baby's experience.

StorkWatcher said...

Mar and others,

My sisters were GREAT when we went through the process! One sent em a mother-to-be card on the Mother's Day we were officially waiting for a placement.

Another friend gave me a family journal keepsake album - her faith that our forever family would happen someday, and it would be just like hers - parents and child, loving each other totally and ready to make memories!

Just let her talk to you when things are tough.

And don't ask every single time - HAVE YOU HEARD ANYTHING YET?My poor Dad did that every time he called. I'd just sigh and say, "No Dad. They haven't called yet. It could be a few months..." He meant well, and was trying to show his enthusiasm and support....

Be familiar w/ the process they're having to go through, and that will mean a lot to her.

If you're able, offer to bring her all the basic necessities the minutes she needs them! The morning after our son came home (after having less than 24 hours notice!!!), 2 of my sisters and parents showed up at the doorstep, with everything I'd need to have for the baby for the first couple of weeks. I felt the love in that gesture!

Send her thinking of you cards and emails from time to time. Talk excitedly about planning for the child like you would with any other pregnant or expectant friend.....

You're already going to be a GREAT aunt to this child! Make sure you let him or her know how excited you were before he/she came into the family, and how you had this complete heartful of love from way before the beginning!

Unknown said...

Great post and great comments. I don't have much to add since it has been said so well here already. The only (other) thing I can think of from our experience that peeved me was that I often got the question, "Why aren't you adopting internationally?" Hmm.... I don't really know where that question comes from. Is international adoption better? easier? more humanitarian? in people's minds? Not sure. Anyway, this is along the same lines as what Megan and Lori commented on not asking about other roads, but I just thought I would add this since I heard it many, many times during our wait.

And, yes, food is much appreciated! Diapers! Baby showers! Excitement! All of these are much, much appreciated and those things have helped make our experience so far be amazing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I'd like to pass it around to family but that seems pushy. I wish a fairy would magically deliver it to them! LOL

JJandFive said...

Great post, Heather. For the most part, my family/friends were great through all five of our adoptions.
Love the part about understanding the "conflicting emotions" in adoption. Getting educated about adoption today is so helpful. (Open adoption still freaks some of my family. Lots of "won't they want them back" comments still coming.) : /
I think we, as adoptive moms, can lead by example when one of our family members (or friends) adopt, by doing precisely the things you've mentioned.

Guera! said...

Oh wow, this is a great post. Couldn't have said it better. Just starting the homestudy and many of our friends and family don't even know yet. I am bracing myself for the inevitable comments and questions.

Anonymous said...

Great list, Heather. Now let's print it up and hand it out to all of our friends and families!

Tonggu Momma Husband said...

This is a great post, thank you for saying what hasn't been said nearly enough by so many who are so frustrated with repetitive, nosey, judgmental conversation. I mean really, how many times can you tell the same person the same things about why you chose to adopt? I would add to this list two things. One, the judgmental comments about why we didn't try IVF or any other medical procedure first, or more frequently, or with more dedication to create "your own kids". I mean really, did you just really say that, out loud? Second, don't tell me how lucky my kid is that we saved them from an orphanage. It is us who are lucky, to have the opportunity to raise a wonderful child and to grow our family thru adoption. And she can hear you when you say these things and ask these questions so please keep a lid on it. OK ... now back to reading your wonderful blog.

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