In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Sara Stockinger
I was unprepared. I was unprepared for fostering, for the adoption following it, for the open adoption which unexpectedly blossomed, for raising an African American son as a white woman. I was unprepared for all of it. I didn’t know what we were getting into despite my prolific reading on the subject. Adoption caught me by surprise.
Years before any of this had occurred, my husband and I were asked in premarital counseling what our plan would be if we were unable to conceive. “We’ll adopt!” I’d chirped resolutely. We’d talked it over before, both of us believing in providing a family for children in need regardless of whether we had biological children, and how could it be that different from raising children you birthed other than lacking the physical pregnancy?
When we did experience infertility unexpectedly, (which is generally the way infertility rolls), we carried our plan out and began the process of adopting domestically. I’m going to skip some details here to bring us to the point when we decided instead to become licensed foster parents and were placed soon after with a two-year old boy. Again, I read and researched, (now also about transracial families), but there was no amount of preparation that could have readied me for the life we now live.
It must be said that I am uncomfortable but not embarrassed to reveal the beliefs I initially held about adoption. What I’ve learned since is how desperately greater society wants us to believe in the flowers, the rainbows, the beautiful family closure adoption is supposed to provide for everyone involved. This is the loudest dialogue and how do you know what you’re not hearing if you aren’t even aware that there is an alternate view?
The shift in thinking for me began gradually after we were introduced to my son’s first (birth) family. (That right there? How I now use ‘first’ instead of ‘birth’? That is an example of one of those shifts I’ve made because I’ve grown to not like the term ‘birth family’ or ‘birth mom’ because to me it seems to imply a one-time event. Usually when talking with my son, we just refer to them as the rest of his family and only use the ‘first’ term when a distinction needs to be made.)
Our relationship with his first family began as state mandated parental visits through the foster system. Our caseworker introduced us, and there was a palpable level of wordless sizing up from both parties involved. Slowly, we began to see each other as something less terrifying than a maternal other woman. A tentative friendship began to blossom. It was my undoing, or rather, my rebuilding.
I could no longer view adoption through rose colored glasses after that. I realized how deeply emotionally taxing it was, (on all sides), and navigating the brambles was more complicated and heart wrenching than anything I’d previously experienced. And yet, slowly, we became a larger (albeit still complicated), beautiful family unit; our son’s first and adoptive families weaving together in genuine affection.
So, when my son’s first mom unexpectedly passed away only a few years after our initial meeting, I was devastated. I had seen the importance biology played in my son’s life, and I could glimpse what he would now be lacking in her absence. At the funeral, the picture used on the pamphlet was one I’d taken of her with her three children: our son and his two siblings. We’d all met up, and in the picture they are smiling and they are a family in their own right, and it broke my heart as much as it swelled it up. Adoption is complicated.
To add another layer to our story, we are a transracial family; my husband and I are white and our son is African American. It took some honest (sometimes painfully so) words from our son’s first family before they were comfortable with the idea of us raising him. I’m sure there are still concerns and there may always be, and there is a plethora of literature affirming the basis for these fears. I sometimes literally keep myself awake at night thinking of how to address them.
So here we are, raising a child birthed by another woman who is experiencing life through the lens of a different race, and all of us trying to navigate unfamiliar waters. I feel conflicted when asked about adoption because, now that I’m in it, I don’t completely know how to respond. On one hand, there is a dire need for adoptive families, particularly for children in the foster system, who are desperately in need of a safe haven family. Families should be encouraged to seek adoption.
On the other hand, I know how intricately complicated it is. I spent a lot of time early on feeling like the exception to the adoptive parent rule: this isn’t all beautiful and this isn’t the same as raising a biological child and why am I the only one who feels this way?!
Only when I started blogging about it with as much honesty as I could muster did people start telling me how they had experienced something similar. Parents of biological children also told me about how they’d felt they were somehow lacking something that everyone else seemed to have down. Raising children in any familial structure is a challenge, particularly when you are trying to do so in a society that silently directs us to carefully temper our voices away from full disclosure.
I can only respond from my own experience, but I’d narrow it down to a few pieces of advice. First, read all you can about adoption. Read the voices of adult adoptees and read words from other adoptive parents. Don’t stop reading when it hurts, because it will. It can be scary and make you wonder what in God’s name you are doing. Take breaks, but keep reading. Read about your child’s race or ethnicity and talk to people who also fall under these categories. Consume as much knowledge as you can get your hands on.
Second, understand that biology is massively important, even if a child is adopted at birth. I’ve seen it. There is a bond there that, no matter how much it pains me, will never exist between my son and me. As hard as it may be to consider and in as far as it is physically safe, I encourage you to consider open adoption. Although initially I couldn’t have imagined doing what we’re doing, I now can’t fathom it any other way. Work hard not to hand your own adoption baggage down to your child.
Finally, hear me saying that I would do it all again in a second. (And probably will in the future.) Don’t let what I’m saying scare you away from opening your home and hearts to a child in need. Going into adoption with your eyes wide open prevents so many surprises once you’re already walking that road.
I wish that I would have heard more open dialogue prior to adopting, because I think it would have saved me from much of the loneliness and anxiety I initially felt walking through it. I wish I would have been able to read my own words, to be able to have someone else share their truths with me and follow up by still encouraging me to press on.
It is our story and it is complicated but it is beautiful, and I am thankful every day for the grace, forgiveness, and love I’ve learned through adopting our son.
Sara Stockinger is writing her way through faith, parenting, adoption, infertility, and occasionally, raising chickens. You can follow along at her blog, Family Rewritten (www.familyrewritten.com), or follow her on Twitter @Sara_Alissa
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