Welcome to the sixth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
My husband and I were the parents of two little boys – twins – and we wanted one more child. After eighteen months of trying without success to get pregnant, I was diagnosed with secondary infertility. Making the decision to adopt was easy for us; we both were crazy about kids, and any baby that you put in our arms was instantly ours.
After a two-year adoption process, we adopted a baby girl in 2001. From the moment she was born, we adored her. She was spectacular. Even-tempered, quick to smile, early to talk and walk, a gorgeous head of straight black hair and huge blue eyes – she lit up our days like the morning sun. Our boys coddled her, sang to her, and celebrated her every milestone. She was their baby girl. She followed them from room to room, their devoted fan.
Our relationship with her birth family is good. Our contact, while not frequent, has always been warm. They live across the country, and we get together every few years. Our daughter is loved, both by us and by her birth family, and she knows it. We tell her how much we love her every single day of her life.
When our daughter was seven years old, we caught her in her first major lie. I was missing a bracelet, a special and beautiful piece of jewelry that had belonged to my grandmother. I searched everywhere – in the laundry machines, behind the beds, in the pillows of the sofa – and I asked my kids repeatedly to keep an eye out for it. They saw me crying over losing my bracelet from my Grandma Gertie. My daughter put an arm around my shoulders and told me not to worry.
About three months after I lost the bracelet, I was cleaning my daughter’s room, sorting through her drawers and moving her outgrown clothes into bags for donation. I pulled out a pair of mittens that was bizarrely placed in the back of her T-shirt drawer. Something heavy was shoved inside one of the mittens. I reached in and pulled out my missing bracelet. My heart almost stopped. I sat there, trying to breathe, wanting to make sense of how my bracelet had ended up in her drawer.
When I told my daughter that I had found it, she didn’t bat an eye. She looked right at me, smiled, and she said, “Oh, yeah, I found it next to the washing machine last night. I was keeping it safe for you and was going to surprise you with it today.”
I felt like throwing up.
That was the beginning of the stealing and the lying. We found a child therapist for her, but the lying and stealing continued. We tried talking, consequences, talking, behavior contract plans, talking, being firm, talking, all to no avail.
When she was ten, the physical aggression started. At school, she was polite to teachers, eager to participate in class. But at home, she had regular meltdowns. She hit me and pushed me hard enough to knock me down. She hoarded food, stole from her brothers, broke things in her anger. Every time we tried to discuss her behavior, she screamed and cried that we loved the boys more than her. Any attempt to give her consequences was met with indifference. “Take away everything, I don’t care, I hate you, Fuck you!” she would yell, reckless in her rage. Her grades fell; her hair became tangled and unkempt.
I worried that our whole family was going to be destroyed. I missed many mornings of work because she refused to leave for school on time. She threatened to hurt herself every time we asked her to do something she didn’t want to do. More than one person raised the question of whether she should be in a residential program. But my husband and I believed that if we sent her away, even for a weekend, it would confirm every secret fear she ever harbored about us not loving her enough. How much is enough love? We tried to prove it to her in every way, but it was never ever enough.
We found a new therapist, because our daughter was deteriorating. We surrounded her with love and boundaries. We again established consequences for her actions. She did a little better at home, but her problems shifted to school. She became rowdy in the classrooms; she instigated conflict; she misread social cues again and again. She physically attacked another student, a boy. When the principal called me, I asked for the name of his mother, so I could call her to apologize, but the school wouldn’t release the information to me. I cried nonstop for three days, broken-hearted by the idea that my child had hurt another child. Every time the phone rang, I felt intense anxiety. What would be next?
In the middle of eighth grade, she lost all her friends after lashing out at them one night at a birthday party. They were frustrated with her for the constant lying, the stealing, and the drama. We understood why the other girls no longer wanted her in their friendship group; nevertheless, it was devastating to see our daughter ostracized and alone. She grew depressed, and we grew frightened. My stomach hurt all the time. My daughter, my life.
Every day for the rest of eighth grade, she waited alone at the bus stop. Her old friends pointedly ignored her, standing in a vivacious, giggly group a few feet away. My daughter pretended like she didn’t care, but I heard her crying at night in her room. I would sit on her bed in the dark, stroking her silky black hair, trying to get her to open up about her feelings. But she never wanted to talk.
I told her that her father, her brothers and I would always be there for her, no matter what. I told her that, unfortunately, the loss of her friends was a natural consequence of her behavior. It may sound harsh, but I wanted her to make that connection, so that she might take accountability for the role she played in her problems. I also encouraged her to start over, to make new friends, to have a fresh beginning. I cried alone in my room at night. All I wanted was for my daughter to be okay. I couldn’t look at old pictures of my smiling, happy-go-lucky little girl; it was too painful to remember a time when she was carefree and lighthearted. Why was this happening?
I often wondered what had gone wrong. Our boys, now in high school, had never had these types of troubles. Was it a girl thing? Was it an adoption thing? I searched on the Internet, and when I typed in the behaviors my daughter was doing, the results kept talking about attachment disorders. I read everything I could, but most of the articles attributed these behaviors to children who had been abused or neglected or who had spent a long time in foster care before being adopted.
It didn’t make sense to me. We had adopted our daughter as a baby, and she had never known a day of abuse or neglect. One of the reasons we did an open adoption was that it was supposed to help the child feel more secure in her identity. I felt as if we had put all the best practices in place, and yet our child still seemed to be struggling with her adoption as much as if she had spent years in the foster care system.
It made me less naive about the complicated inner emotions of some adoptees. I had believed that with enough pure love, our daughter would be a seamless part of our family. But she was clearly having a hard time, and I didn’t know how to help her. As she floundered, so did we. In response to questions from our families about why we weren’t punishing her for her unacceptable actions, we explained that traditional punishments often don’t work with adoptees, and how we were focusing on repairs and natural consequences as much as possible. They probably thought we were crazy.
But parenting means you never never never give up. We as a family had somehow contributed to our daughter’s decline, so we as a whole family needed to re-examine our relationships together. Maybe we had pushed her too hard to do well in school? Maybe we had hovered too much when she was young? Once again, we found our daughter a new therapist, but this time, it was a woman who had spent decades working with adoptees. She had seen it all. She helped us understand that our daughter was stealing and lying as a way to communicate, because she was so afraid to express her real feelings. She kept her true feelings buried so deeply that she wasn’t even sure why she acted the way she did.
I wanted to learn more about how I could support my daughter. I joined adoption blog communities and found Portrait of an Adoption. I read (and then reread) every post in the 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days series from every year. I read every book I could find about adoptees, birth parents, foster children, and grief, even the books that are really difficult for adoptive parents to read, such as Primal Wound and I realized that any adoptee – even an adoptee who was placed in infancy and had never known a day of abuse or neglect – was susceptible to struggling with issues of loss, attachment, and abandonment.
Even though I thought my eighth grader might be too old for Portrait of an Adoption’s new chapter book, Jazzy’s Quest, I gave it to her. She actually loved it. I read it too and worked hard to validate my daughter’s feelings and let her know it is okay to be sad and mad. My daughter devours any chapter books that feature adoptees; it is one of the reasons she is such a fan of the Harry Potter books.
We kept telling our daughter that she doesn’t have to pretend everything is perfect to protect herself or to protect us. My husband and I viewed ourselves as emotion coachers, and our primary parenting job was to teach our daughter how to be emotionally intelligent.
We also began going as a whole family to therapy with an adoption specialist. This was new. Previously, my older sons had not been part of our daughter’s therapy. But we realized that they needed to be there. It came out that our daughter was deeply jealous of the boys for being our biological children. She resented them and loved them at the same time, creating terrible conflict inside her. One minute, she was loving and kind with them, and the next minute, she was destroying their stuff and trying to hurt them. Once they understood more about why she was behaving like that, it was easier for them to resist responding in anger or even retaliating.
Our daughter began working with an adolescent psychiatrist, who started her on antidepressants. Over the summer, she made some new friends at our church’s youth group. She also made a new friend on her soccer team. The other girl lived a few towns away, but my husband and I were willing to do the drive as often as possible so that the girls could see each other. The pain of our daughter’s lost friendships eased as she developed this new relationship.
One night, I heard my girl singing loudly in the shower. I smiled and then cried. Such a lovely sound. The soft summer sunlight brought warmth and hope back into our family.
In the middle of our daughter’s freshman year, my husband and I looked around and realized that there hadn’t been any major meltdowns in months. So we stayed the course. We kept up with the weekly therapy, the support systems, the focus on positive interventions – our girl was stabilizing, and the last thing we wanted to do was remove the things that were helping.
The seasons changed again, and peace still reigned. There were no more phone calls from the school about stealing or fighting episodes. Her grades were all A’s and B’s. She was gentler with us at home; she came to me for hugs at bedtime. Things weren’t perfect – she still felt lonely at school sometimes, and she was prone to sneaking food, but the violent outbursts were gone. The aggression was gone. The nights of her sobbing alone in her room were gone. The girl who used to dread going to school was now awake and dressed early every morning. Her teachers said she was a leader in the classroom.
And so it was that our girl came back to us, bit by bit and month by month. She loves us. She knows we love her. I have told her that we didn’t love her any less when she was struggling. It is important that she knows our love is unconditional, and I am not so foolish as to think there won’t be hard times again. But when they come, we will wrap our arms around our girl and carry her through. Because adoption means love, and love is forever.
Still, life is certainly easier now. Easier, more fun, lighter. Our family is genuinely a happy one. I couldn’t say that a few years ago. My daughter, now a thriving sophomore in high school, is actually proud of being adopted, and she often mentions it when she meets new people. Her brothers are in college, and she texts with them almost daily. They miss her.
Just last night, I was sitting next to my daughter in her room. She was giving herself a pedicure, and I was talking with her about something she rarely discusses — her adoption. “Sometimes I feel guilty for thinking this, but I’m glad that you couldn’t have another baby,” she said softly, “because then you wouldn’t have adopted me.” I took her hand and said, “I can’t imagine a world in which you aren’t part of our family.”
Fifteen years into our adoption, I can say that I absolutely believe in adoption, in its hope and in its possibilities, but I also know that it can come with some inescapable pain for all involved. The best thing I can do is help my daughter feel and express her pain in healthy ways, support her when she struggles, and cheer her on when things are going well.
But isn’t this true of how we treat ALL our children, regardless of how they came to be in our family? As a parent of children both biological and adopted, I can firmly say that I love all of my kids with the same amount of devotion. I would do anything for any of them.
I was so scared to write this essay, and for the sake of my daughter’s privacy, I am keeping my name anonymous. But I also think about how desperately I needed to read an essay like this a few years ago, when things felt bleak and I feared I was losing my way as a mother. That’s why I’m writing this now.
To the other mothers and fathers out there who are going through hard times with your kids — be they biological OR adopted children — stay the course. Let your child feel all the feelings. It’s okay. You are okay. Perhaps the ultimate reassurance I can offer you is this — I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. Not ever. Because parenting means you never ever give up. And adoption means love like I’ve never know before.
The author of this piece is happy to share that her daughter continues to do very well. She offers light and hope to families everywhere.
Are you looking for awesome children’s adoption books? The second book in the Jazzy’s Quest chapter book series for adoptees is HERE!!! Be sure to get your copy of Jazzy’s Quest: What Matters Most, the sequel to Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing!
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