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We know everyone’s adoption story is different. And one of the best ways to help prepare for yours is to hear other people’s stories.
This blog tells the story of Lisa and her family* Emma 17, Jacob 15 and Madison 11. Some people might see Lisa’s story as one of a single mom adopting special needs children, but she doesn’t tell her story that way. She enthuses about her wonderful extended family and a life just like that of any other large, open family – with its challenges and joys, struggles and triumphs.
Lisa adopted all three of her children from birth, taking each child home directly from the hospital, and she celebrates the fact that they are all open adoptions.
Adopting as a single mom
I asked Lisa if she thought that being a single mom was a potential barrier to any of the birth mothers she had dealings with – those that chose her and those that didn’t. This wasn’t her experience and Lisa thinks that in Emma’s case her birth parents felt that an open relationship, a showstopper for them, would be easier with a single mother than a couple.
She doesn’t know why Jacob and Madison’s birth mothers picked her, saying that when people choose who to adopt their child: “I think they imagine their child with you . . . and the picture fits. Or there’s something in your story that they connect with – it could be your wider family, or it could be how you come across. I had quite a number of failed leads, but when it’s right, it feels right for everybody.”
One of those failed leads was a teenage mother. Lisa was in the delivery room fully expecting to take a baby home, but as soon as the teenager saw her baby everyone in the room knew she wasn’t going to part with her baby. “This happens, you having to be willing to go through some tough emotions finding your children. There can be lots of fails on the way. I say to anyone wanting to adopt – there is a baby out there for you, you just need to work at it. Be prepared for a two-year process . . . it may be quicker, but prepare yourself for the long haul.” She also points out that for couples that have specific requirements, be they physical features (e.g., blond hair or blue eyes) or stipulations regarding the birth parents (e.g., no drugs or a perfect medical history), the process often takes longer.
What does an Open Adoption mean to you?
For all Lisa’s children an open adoption was critical – for the birth parents and for Lisa.
She admits that one of the challenges she has faced is the differing degree of contact her children have with their birth mothers: “It’s been tough for Madison whose birth mom had significant difficulties in her own life that meant she wasn’t able to participate in Madison’s early years. This was hard for Madison, and made harder still when Emma and Jacob received gifts on birthdays and at Christmas, with their birth moms attending most special occasions. This inconsistency was really tough for a little kid to understand.”
Keeping the relationships going is a two-way street. Lisa has worked hard at them. She has never missed a Mother’s Day – sending each birth mother a card, they each get a gift every Christmas, she invites them to all special occasions and ensures regular Facetime calls where this is OK for the birth mother.
Lisa has a PhD and is a former counsellor – she speaks very empathetically about the birth mother’s experience: “The happiest day in the adopting mom’s life is the hardest day for the birth mom. Adoption is born from loss. The birth mom needs support for this. With any loss you need structure to heal. If a baby dies there is a funeral. In death, the purpose of the funeral is to give support for the loss. It’s just the same with adoption, there has to be support for the loss too. The birth mom needs to grieve. And just as each funeral is different – some are joyous, some somber – different birth moms need different things. If you have an open relationship with your child’s birth mom, it’s good to be aware of this – being sensitive to their needs and what they are going through”.
Lisa has embraced her children’s birth mothers to the extent they allow. She truly approaches everyone as a large extended family. Her children and their needs come first – and she feels knowing their birth family is important. “The relationship most people have with their aunts and uncles – that’s similar to the relationship my children have with their birth parents.”
“Many adopting parents fear the relationship with an unknown birth parent. Trust me, once a person has entrusted you with their child, you are going to love them! The best divorces are those where the parents cooperate and support each other. Adopting is not co-parenting, but birth family is important. That includes birth fathers and grandparents and siblings.”
Lisa is all for establishing an open relationship from the outset: “The last thing an adopting parent wants to set up is a surprise relationship after their child’s identity has been formed.” It’s best for your child if they’ve always known they are adopted, with no ‘reveal’ moment that they can remember. And it’s better still if they know their birth parents from the start too.
Lisa adds: “All these issues of course are situational. Obviously, if drugs or safety are issues, then relationships need to be modified."
However, Lisa admits that maintaining relationships with the birth dads has been much tougher.
She also says there was more contact in the early years. She keeps an eye on things, gently ensuring contact continues. “You’ve got to work hard to maintain the relationships – and of course some take more work than others. As your children get older it’s good to encourage them to be the ones to take responsibility for keeping in touch.”
Lisa gives a lovely example of how a good relationship can be a real asset: “A couple of years ago, Emma and I were having a typical teenage / parent argument. She came out with the classic ‘You’re not my mother’. To which I responded, ‘You know what, let’s give her a call and see what she has to say’. And her birth mom was incredibly supportive, and the best thing is I knew she’d have my back.”
Was the home study something to be dreaded?
I asked Lisa about her home study – was it intrusive, was she anxious about it, did she have any specific advice for adopting parents? She replied: “It was no big deal. There’s no need to be anxious. Remember they’re just trying to figure out if you are able to provide a good home – for example, are you financially stable, are there any issues from your own childhood that might interfere with your ability to be a good parent.” Though she did point out that the home study is more onerous in a foster adoption.
Adopting children with special needs
We then talked about adopting children with special needs. It’s a known fact that many adopted children have unique needs, whether that’s learning difficulties, developmental delays or attachment disorders. These can be due to genetic factors, the result of epigenetics (things that happened during pregnancy and after birth) or attributable to nurture (specifically a lack of nurture) where children experienced difficult circumstances prior to their adoption. Adopting parents, even those who try and minimize any potential special needs, need to anticipate some additional challenges.
Adopting parents need to be on the lookout for signs their children are struggling and not be shy to seek appropriate help – be this extra tuition, more time in exams, counselling or medical support.
Telling your child they are adopted
Lisa has no memory of telling her children. As her adoptions are open, she was always talking to her children about their birth parents. There was no reveal moment. She encouraged visits from the outset, so birth mothers were often in and out of the home. It was society that had a bigger issue – it was people like kindergarten teachers that were more awkward. And to be fair it is understandable that they were anxious not to get it wrong and cause any upset.
What advice do you have for new adopters?
It is clear Lisa strongly recommends an open adoption. She tells us: “Take lots and lots of photos of your children with their birth family – for yourself and your children when they are older. And send lots of photos of you and your adopted child to the birth family. This is now thankfully so easy in the digital age.”
The importance of Support Networks
Support Networks are really important, for any adopting family, and definitely for a single mom with three children. Lisa had the support of her parents and an amazing adoption lawyer Susan and counsellor Ellen. “I was very fortunate; they were extremely supportive. Ellen ran a group for adopting parents, we would all turn up, potluck in hand, and the birth moms would sometimes come too. Susan held annual parties. The adopted kids had their own groups. And of course, there are social media groups where you can get advice and feel you are not alone.”
“Being a single parent is really hard sometimes, if you aren’t feeling well or your job adds pressures – my parents were amazing, but some of the birth grandparents helped out too. This is a major proponent for open adoption – the extended family can be amazing.”
It turns out Lisa’s biggest support network comes from the birth parents’ families. “All my birth moms accept all my children, not just their biological child.” This paints a heartwarming picture of respect and support and makes me think of this quote (from person unknown): ’Family is family, whether it’s the one you start out with, the one you end up with, or the family you gain along the way.’
Huge thanks to Lisa for sharing her story and we wish her and her family all the very best for the future.
* Names have been changed to preserve anonymity. And for the same reason we have used a stock photo.