It seems kind of obvious to say that adopting a child would be accompanied by ups and downs, but there have been some very unexpected ups and downs that have shown up throughout our adoption journey. I have found that the ups are often very high, and in turn, the downs are very low. Depending on your individual experience, you will likely find things come out of nowhere and they can completely knock the wind out of you or take your breath away.
I feel the need to share that my perspective comes from my experience after adopting a child from the foster care system. Our daughters were five and three when they joined our family. They are not biological sisters, in fact, their adoptions happened a little less than two years apart. Both of our girls came into our lives as adoptive placements, but their lives up until that point looked very different.
Each child who has lived a life before joining your family will bring with them a life akin to a puzzle that will be put together over time, without you ever knowing what image you are trying to build. You are given a loose framework when the child arrives, and over time the pieces will appear. Sometimes you will get a piece while in therapy, but most times, the pieces show up when you least expect it. This is totally normal. Each piece brings insight into the child you love and each time they trust you with a new piece, they are risking attachment and rejection. It is a complex part of your new family life, but will likely become just another part of your new normal.
Puzzle Piece One of Adopting a Child: Riding in the car
Early on in our adoptive/foster license training classes, I caught wind of adoptive and foster parents sharing stories about how a child would disclose something about their life or experience while riding in a car. This is a common way one of our daughters has shared her puzzle pieces with us. Isn’t that strange? I thought so too! However, when you think about the sensory experience of riding in a vehicle, it kind of makes sense. You see a variety of things. You smell everything from regular old car smells to fresh-cut grass and everything in between. You hear screeching tires, sometimes crashes, and often, songs. Sometimes you even taste things, just by smelling them. There are also many things that involve the sense of touch. It makes sense that memories would be triggered. When a memory or feeling is triggered and it finds its way from your child’s mouth to your ears, you are given a new piece of the puzzle. It is funny to think that this could be one of the ups and downs of adoption, but when it happens, you will understand.
Once I was running errands with one of our daughters, while the other kids were at school. It was a beautiful day. The bright blue sky was cluttered with big puffy clouds and rays of sun poured through our open sunroof. We were chit-chatting about nothing in particular when our daughter got quiet. She went from a million words a minute to eyes that held the weight of the world and tear-stained cheeks within a millisecond. She had only been with us for a couple of months and I had not seen a transition like this with her before. I reached my hand back and tickled the tip of her toes and asked what she was thinking about. In a tiny little voice she said she was just really happy and that she was glad I was her mommy. Words cannot express the high of that moment. It has been years, and thinking about it still makes my heart jump. Nothing could have prepared me for that moment.
As with most of these moments, her eyes held another piece of the puzzle. Her words expressed the powerful feeling of love that was seeping in through the cracks of her walled-off heart. Her eyes told me that she missed her first mommy terribly, and loving me felt like a betrayal. I have come to expect that the highs and lows are often intermingled. The truth is, adoption is a mosaic made of hurt and healing, life and death, and attachment and rejection. It is a delicate dance of past, present, and future all existing at the same time. The high of her feeling and embracing my love made my heart sing. The low of knowing she was fighting an inner battle of trying to accept the love of a new mommy must be a deep betrayal to her first mommy. Imagine trying to sort that out as an adult?
In adoption, we ask a child to process the complexity of two mothers co-existing within one tiny broken heart. That day I was given two pieces of her puzzle. I held them tightly in my heart and loosely in my hand. I wrote them in a journal that I kept at the time. One of the most important parts of being handed a piece to the puzzle of your child’s life, is that you keep it safe. You look back at it for reference and perspective, and you revisit it with the child when he or she is ready.
Puzzle Piece Two of Adopting a Child: “Mommy”
Nothing could have prepared me for the immense joy I would feel when I heard the word mommy fall from the lips of my children. My journey into motherhood began with a miscarriage but my journey was then brought to life by my biological sons and then rounded out by the gifts of my heart-born daughters. When my sons called me mommy, it was so exciting! I remember calling my own mom each time they said mommy for the first time. It was so pure and said with confidence. It made sense and was a natural title, as I was their only mom. In contrast, when my daughters started calling me mommy, it was almost as if they were trying it on to see if it fit and how it felt. Then one day, each said mommy with a new intimacy. There was just something special about the way they said it, like it has made its way from a title to a declaration of who they see you as. This is a beautiful piece of the puzzle and it made my heart explode. It was a very high high.
Puzzle Piece Three of Adopting a Child: Traumaversary
This puzzle piece makes up a big part of our puzzle. If you have come across any of my other articles, you will see a theme of trauma in most of my writing. This article is no different. When adopting a child, you must know that they experience trauma, whether it be stress while developing in utero, separation from biological mother at birth, or abuse/neglect in life, the body remembers the moment. It is as if the body and mind take a snapshot and no matter what is going on for that child, certain times of the year present challenges. Over time you will often see patterns surface. For instance, if social workers start visiting the child’s home in January and he or she is taken into foster care in March, you may see a rise in negative behavior during that time every year. It is just an unconscious response to something that happened to that child, and the body remembers. This can be very, very difficult.
Obviously, traumaversaries carry with them very low lows—a lot of them. On the flip side, when you make it through a season that is historically a traumaversary, yet it doesn’t disrupt life, the high is unbelievable. When the trauma is showing up in destructive ways, your child is likely pouring puzzle pieces that will need to be decoded. You will get bits and pieces of a single piece and you will have to work a puzzle within the puzzle. However, when a season that is typically shrouded in difficulty passes with peace, you may get more insight into the pieces you have been given in times of distress. That is why it is crucial to keep a record of the pieces that are entrusted to you. When you experience peace when you expect to experience distress, you breathe in the beauty of the high.
Puzzle Piece Four of Adopting a Child: Birthdays
For an adopted child, Birthdays can be a beautiful time in the life of a family, but they can also be tough. We have found that they are often both beautiful and difficult. Remember when I mentioned that the highs and lows are often intermingled? Do you see what I mean? For one of our daughters, her birthday is what she lives for! She is the kind of kid that wants to start planning her birthday party 11 months before the day. She will pick out a theme and beg me to let her scroll through Pinterest so she can decide what she wants her cake to look like and what decorations we should have. Until this year, she was always joyful on that day. This year, she gave us new pieces of her puzzle. She asked a lot of questions about her birth mom. Thankfully, the day allowed for us to have some quiet snuggle time, just myself, my husband, and the birthday girl. She asked hard questions that showed us she was mourning the loss of her first mommy on the very day that we celebrate the gift of life that that mommy gave her.
The hard truth of her not being able to see her birth mother on that day, in particular, was very hard. She was working through the hurt and loss of her family of origin while lying in the arms of her now and forever mommy and daddy. There were no tears, just questions. There were no lies, just truths—hard truths. She handed me puzzle piece after puzzle piece of the silent hurt that she is just starting to explore. She is brave and curious. She is walking this road with careful steps. She is not one to jump into the deep end until she has spent substantial time letting her body acclimate to the temperature of the water. The lows of knowing the excitement of her favorite day of the year was being tempered by the reality of the crushing loss was so painful. The high of being able to hold her and process the loss was palpable.
Puzzle Piece Five of Adopting a Child: Mother’s Day
I cannot write an article about the highs and lows of adoption without sharing one of the hardest parts of our adoption journey so far. It is April, and Mother’s day is just weeks away. I am already bracing myself for the day. Our first daughter had been with us for about two months when we celebrated our first Mother’s day together. We had nothing big planned for the day. We went to church, then visited with my family, and finally spent time with my husband’s family. I had planned a special way of acknowledging and honoring our daughter’s first mommy. The day started off with excitement as our biological sons greeted me with hugs, kisses, and homemade cards. Our daughter was very agitated. Her agitation understandably turned into anger and age regression. It was an outward expression of inner turmoil and the natural desire to be with her birth mom on such a special day. It was a terrible day. I expected her to have complex emotions that day, but what I didn’t expect was to feel like I was taking the place of her real mom. When I tell you this was a low low, I mean it. I felt like I was dying inside.
That day, I was not just given a piece of her puzzle, I was also given a piece of my own puzzle. You see, one of the ways adoption changes you is that it reveals hidden hurt and insecurity that you may not even know have taken residence in your own heart. It is through those moments of shared pain that a deeper connection takes root.
I have shared five real-life experiences from our life after adopting a child. The thing about walking through hard things together, is you create new memories and over time those memories will begin to fill in some of the missing pieces of the puzzle. When you feel the highs of a child genuinely calling you mommy or experience the lows of holding a hurting child processing the loss of what was never meant to be broken, you cannot help but change. Our adoptions continue to reveal parts of my own story that are broken and bruised. They have also shown me the capacity I have to fight for those I love. That love continues to blossom and grow over time. I am so grateful for the highs and lows because through those emotions, lives are being changed, bonds are being formed, and healing is happening. And, over time, the puzzle will be complete and together we can work to fill in every missing piece.
Becky Dell is a Staff Storyteller for adoption.com. Now married for over 20 years, her journey to motherhood started with a miscarriage, followed by the birth of her 2 biological sons, and brought to completion with the domestic adoptions of 2 daughters. You used to be able to find Becky baking cookies and playing trains with her two tiny sons, but now, you will find her learning to parent through the rough and rewarding world of adoption, attachment, and trauma. She is a fierce advocate for adoption and processes the many facets of adoption through the written word.