Adoption stories are as complex and intriguing as the individuals involved. There are kids in foster care craving a place to heal from past hurts … babies in foreign orphanages needing “loving rescue” … couples struggling with infertility wondering if adoption might be the right path … and parents who welcome kids from all over the world into growing families with a more-the-merrier attitude that makes others shake their heads in wonder and awe. Here is one Harwich family’s story, as well as parenting advice from local adoption therapists.
With an 8-month-old screaming to be fed now, one would expect Sara Sargent to be a bit rattled. Instead she exudes calmness and joy, and with her confidence as an experienced mother, there’s no doubt she’ll have him settled in no time.
Sargent and her husband, Shane, are just starting to get to know the tiny new person who is to be their son if all goes as planned. Jack is a “happy, healthy, developmentally on-track baby boy,” says Sargent, “but he was born addicted.” While legally free for adoption, which means his birth parents’ rights were terminated, he is under the custody of the State’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) so he can get the support he needs. “Right now, we have a waiting period with the state of six months,” says Sargent, “and then we will be able to submit adoption finalization paperwork and have his Forever Day.”
Jack is the second child Sargent and her husband, a firefighter and paramedic with the Dennis Fire Department, are adopting through DCF. The Harwich couple’s first child, Ava, is now 4 and attending preschool.
“We are so happy, relieved that we have the second child we were hoping for, but we also want to make sure Ava knows how special and important she is to us,” says Sargent. Her voice resonates with affection as she recalls the first telephone conversation she had with Ava when the little girl was just 19 months old, just before her adoption. “It was such an emotional thing. It changed my life forever.”
Now, with the arrival of Jack, Sargent explains, “Adoption is one of those things you work for. There’s no question about whether you want to be parents, but there is so much planning and hoping and imagining that goes along with the process – and the paperwork!”
Ava’s adoption process took the Sargents two years and two months. From the time the paperwork was complete and approvals given to the time Ava came home took four months. With Jack, on the other hand, she notes, “There was no time to prep Ava for the huge change that was going to happen. We barely had enough time to prepare mentally.” While savoring this early “honeymoon phase,” Sargent doesn’t kid herself about the challenges that lie ahead. “Anything that comes down the road in the future is like with any other family. We deal with it as it comes,” she says.
National Adoption Month
Families like the Sargents need support, which is why National Adoption Month is celebrated. The monthlong observance, which happens in November, was proclaimed in 1995 after years of being a national weeklong event. The original concept originated in Massachusetts in 1976 to make the public aware of the needs of kids in foster care.
In addition, National Adoption Day is celebrated annually on the Saturday before Thanksgiving – a day when, in courthouses across the nation, hundreds of kids have their adoptions finalized and are placed into “forever families.”
Read about preparing for arrival on the next page!
Preparing for Arrival
How siblings and other family members react to news that a couple is adopting depends on many factors, such as how many children are already in the family and if the existing child in the family is adopted, says Debra Olshever, a licensed clinical social worker and adoption therapist with Adoption Associates in Newton. “In general, preschoolers go with the flow depending on how the parents present it. Elementary school-age kids who are not adopted may have some jealousy or curiosity about why children are available for adoption, and why their first parents didn’t keep them. So parents need to be ready in advance to hit the ground running. … Middle and high schoolers are more able to understand abstractions and reasons for placement than younger more concrete thinkers.”
Adoptive parents receive training through an adoption agency, which is a Massachusetts requirement. Social workers prep them for what to expect and how to field questions.
Jennifer Eckert, a licensed social worker and therapist with Boston Post Adoption Resources in Brookline, says reading books that explain adoption to young children in age-appropriate language can be extremely helpful. (Click this link to see our recommended books on adoption.)
She notes that often with state adoptions, the baby has been removed from a home and there might have been neglect or abuse. “You really need special families for these kids,” Eckert says. “But even if birth parents struggled with drugs or alcohol and could not keep a child for whatever reason, it doesn’t mean the child wasn’t loved.”
“I think sometimes people feel … adoptive parents do it the ‘easy way,’” says Olshever, “but in actuality, their labor is more likely to be measured in years, not hours. And anyone who is up with a newborn every two hours or so is just as quickly as tired as any parent who gives birth.”
Telling Kids They're Adopted
Both Olshever and Eckert advise parents to tell children their adoption stories from the very beginning. “A newborn doesn’t understand, but it is an opportunity for a parent to practice before comprehension so that when the child does understand, it comes off without undue emotion and is calm and rational – just another way to form a family,” says Olshever. “If a child doesn’t ever ask or comment, it is the parents’ job to bring it up, usually quarterly, to ensure that a child can talk about anything with the parent. Preferably parents talk about adoption as only one way families are formed and have explained that all children grow in their mom’s uterus, but not all moms are able to care for a baby so an adoption plan is made.”
The basic premise, says Eckert, is there “are no secrets. We are a family made up of adoption. We’re very comfortable and proud of it.”
Adoptive parents may have their own ways of explaining matters to their children. For example, a mom might tell her son that even though he didn’t grow in her belly, she was thinking about him in her heart all along and from that love is where he grew.
Read more about adoption on the next page!
Whether adoptive parents choose to reveal their adoption stories to others also depends on many factors, says Olshever. She advises that parents do tell their child’s school “so when the discussion of family and community comes up, the teacher has some idea on how to react to the child with appropriate language.” She emphasizes, “Parents need to be aware that what they tell others is absorbed on some level by the child, and becomes a model for how the child will respond, too.”
Eckert echoes the sentiment: “Parents need to be aware of what they’re saying and what their children can hear. There are some cases where a child shouldn’t know certain things about [her] birth parents until [she is] older. A young child can’t understand that the birth mother was involved with drugs or in prison, for example, but this is something you might talk to a teen about. Being open and honest with your child at all ages is critical. Framing difficult facts in a way that is understandable and respectful allows the child to make sense of [her] personal story.”
Sometimes things happen at school that can be emotionally hard for adopted children. Children with no experience of adoption might ask them, “So who is your real mother? Why didn’t she keep you?” Or, in cases where an adopted child is of another race, there can be staring and inappropriate questioning. In handling these things, “a sense of humor goes a long way,” says Olshever.
Eckert notes that kids are often asked to bring in baby photos for projects. “While this seems easy and cute,” she says, “if you were adopted from Korea at 2 years old, you may not have a photo and might come home upset or angry. Stories read in school might also trigger loss or sadness.”
Constructing a family tree, which is a popular activity in elementary school, and doing science labs that involve studying genes may also pose problems for adopted kids, especially those who don’t know their histories. In these cases, Olshever says it might be best for parents to talk with teachers and have them give kids options.
Who Am I?
“Adolescence is about identity,” says Eckert. “‘Who am I? Who am I differentiating from? This includes thinking about birth parents, as well as adoptive parents.” Many kids have fantasies about their birth parents, imagining them to be movie stars or people who would let them do whatever they wanted and not set limits. Some kids at this age, she says, may want to meet their birth parents.
Olshever adds that birth parents “should be talked about in age-appropriate ways from the beginning since that is part of the child’s identity and self-esteem formation.” She suggests, “Sometimes it is great for parents to say something like, ‘Your birth mother must have been a great artist because look at what you create.’”
As for the idea of searching for birth parents and meeting them, “There is no right age for the discussion. It happens when kids need it to,” says Olshever, “and hopefully with the support of a parent and perhaps a helping professional.”
Eckert says, “Most adoptees I know have wanted to search. The adoptee must be emotionally ready and should do it with professional help if possible. There is much to process during a search and reunion, and having outside support can be beneficial for all parties involved.”
Read tips for adoptive parents on the next page.
To a large degree, the stigma that once existed in our country over issues of adoption has been removed, and what a good thing that is, according to Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families – and America (Harvard Common Press, 2011). Pertman, an adoptive father of two and president of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit that works to better the lives of those affected by adoption, writes: “The revolution was long overdue and it is already having a penetrating impact. It is advancing the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity that is a hallmark of the twenty-first-century America, and is contributing to a permanent realignment in the way we think of family structure.”
Tips for Adoptive Parents
• Always be honest with your children and answer their questions, no matter what the topic. Practice this so your own discomfort is not passed down to the child. The most important thing is for them to be able to ask questions and communicate feelings, positive and negative.
• Find supportive people who understand. Choose your audience.
• Realize you will have multiple opportunities to answer questions and build on the conversation. You don’t need to worry about a “mistake” – just say, “I was thinking about what we talked about and want to add …”
• Enjoy all the new skills and abilities adoption can add to your family that you never expected.
• Recognize that there will be differences, and diversity is positive.
• Keep your sense of humor.
• The truth is the backbone of a healthy relationship. Keeping secrets can undermine and damage trust. Open, straightforward and compassionate communication, starting from when your child is young, will build a bridge that will last a lifetime.
• Keep in mind that loss, grief, sadness and anger are natural feelings for the adopted child.
• Tell children the “hole truth” instead of the “whole truth.” Give information that is developmentally appropriate. Omission or oversimplification of some information may be necessary. As they mature and develop a greater sense of social situations, children can be given more complete versions of their stories.
• Use respect surrounding your children’s adoption stories and allow them privacy.
• When children don’t have information, they begin to construct their own information, which is not always correct. If the family does not have any information about the birth family, help the child explore ideas and fantasies about birth family members.
• Talk less and listen more. This is crucial with teens. Listen without judgment or negative comment.
• Put yourself in children’s shoes and imagine what it is like for them when they think about their adoption stories.
• Seek professional advice when your child or you need support. By doing this you will create a stronger and healthier family environment.