Adoption is a life long journey with stages that emerge across the individual and family lifespan. As time progresses, adoptive parents have to accept the reality that adoption is based on a complex developmental trauma. Adoption does not heal infertility.--that grief has to be dealt with on a separate plane. The adopted child is always aware of the slender but strong thread of commitment that created this family.
The family built by adoption
It is a real family but not the equivalent of a biological family. The first stage of adoption resembles an arranged marriage. The parents arrange the “marriage” with the broker in the form of the adoption agency or lawyer. They select the child and often fall madly in love with a picture of a dream. The baby or child is unaware of the machinations moving around him/her as they go about their daily routine. Then a stranger appears at the door and “kidnaps” the baby. Even when the infant appears thrilled (and they may be) they have no idea of the permanency of the situation or the permanency of the loss of their caretaker and home culture (Domestic or international each home has a culture of sounds, smells, foods and more ).
The Honeymoon stage is the second stage. The honeymoon may last days, weeks or years. The world around the family goes into high gear –-rejoicing in the new family unit by setting up nurseries, baby showers, gifts and cards. At this stage, it makes sense to enjoy the Honeymoon of denial and act as if the baby/child came to the family by magic, No past --only a new beginning. The Honeymoon stage is grand but families have to move on to the third stage of infancy and toddlerhood (or just the passage of time)..
Families who become stuck will live on a foundation of lies and the family will unravel if a crisis emerges that tests the family’s commitment to their children as children or adults. The adoptive parents quickly discover that babies are born with their own natures and capacities. Temperament styles quickly emerge and the baby becomes a person bit by bit. At this stage, the outside world tends to be the major source of “adoption” moments. Strangers notice and comment on visual differences in the store. Relatives have biological babies and everyone chirps in about how the baby looks like a maternal or paternal relative.
The fourth stage is Childhood- everybody is just busy-- school, sports, holidays, vacations. Adoption is mentioned in a casual tone. Books shared, conversations on the fly about pregnancy. The outside world brings in real, nosy and stupid questions, which provide opportunities for families to join ranks and educate themselves about adoption at a new level. Nosy questions such as: Is she yours? What does his mother look like? How come her birth parents gave her up?
The fifth stage is Adolescence in which identity and the beginning stages of leaving home emerge. Parents become aware of how their friend’s children are starting to really look like them (or some other relative). Our teens are emerging from their chrysalis into handsome young men and beautiful young women. They are even more who they are. Now is the time for serious discussions about their past and present.
The final stage is Adulthood. The adoption may now include the birth parents and siblings. Marriage complicates the family’s world as new relatives join the circle.. The adoptee is often about to meet their first biological relative when their first child is born. They will be faced with a world of genetic, family medical history, which they have to leave blank. They will experience the miracle of birth and the reality of what their birth parents went through to create them and then give them the gift of life. And they will re- experience the grief of being “given away” as they immerse themselves in the wonder of their miracle. The adoptive families may re-experience grief around their infertility. Grandparenthood may heighten an awareness of the complex, wonderful and alternative universe that is created by the mystery of adoption. Yet most of the time, the adoptive family is just a family- with normal ups and downs. The commitment holds across the life span.
Wendy Haus Hanevold Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and adoptive parent. Her private practice (www.wovenfamilies.com) specializes in families woven together through adoption, foster care, kinship or step family constellations. Her work revolves around building positive and healthy attachments, resolution of complex trauma, acceptance of grief and loss issues, and helping children and families bloom where they are planted. Her work includes therapy, coaching, assessment, training and consultation. Dr. Hanevold is a Registered Clinician with ATTACh (Association for the Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children) , a Registered Clinician/Supervisor with the AAMFT (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists), a Registered Play Therapist /Supervisor.