Adoption is a beautiful thing; or at least, that’s what the movies/books/stories tell you. It’s about an orphan finding a family and a family getting to have a child who needs them. It’s Hallmark, teary-eyed, slow-motion, running-through-a-field-of-wildflowers-towards-each-other moment. It’s “I love you mommy!” and “I love you baby” and happily ever after. I suppose that could be true for some families; or at least I can imagine that some families can portray that out in public for others to see. 

The truth is, as, with every family, there is more than meets the eye. While some families really are as happy and content as they seem, there are probably 10 others who are putting on a mask to go out in public. Adoptive families may even be more likely to play pretend when they go out. Adoptive families aren’t just one thing. They’re born out of someone’s heartbreak. In the adoption triad of the birth parent, child, and adoptive family, it is possible that everyone is grieving. 

Everyone loses with adoption.

Birth parents make a difficult decision to place a child for adoption. Societal norms may influence feelings of shame or guilt in birth parents. The truth, however, is so different. (This is why supporting birth parents, especially, with communities and resources is so important.)

Birth parents made the decision to carry the child. They made the decision not to parent. Out of that decision, they did the hard work of finding someone to raise the baby. People can look amazing on paper and be horrible face-to-face. They sorted through the hundreds of profiles and finally found one that they felt confident in. Then they carry the emotional burden of handing their precious child off to someone else to raise. I cannot even begin to imagine that.

There will be a loss, and feelings of doubt in the mind of a child who was adopted, no matter how well-meaning and loving their adoptive family is. 

The adoptive family, no matter how wonderful, may also experience feelings of inadequacy. They may be the parents who hear, “you’re not my real mom.” They may forever wonder in the back of their minds if they are doing a good job for this child not born of their blood but born of their want to have a child to love. Were they selfish? Are they doing this right? Did they make the right choice? Those questions may haunt them. They may lay awake at night and worry if they can ever be enough. 

Gratitude should not be expected from adoptees.

Adoption is born out of difficult situations. Asking an adopted child to be grateful for their adoptive family is asking them to be thankful someone else couldn’t parent them. It’s asking them to be grateful for the confusion and pain they feel. It’s asking them to be grateful for loss. While an adoptive family may feel grateful for the opportunity to parent, gratitude should never be expected from an adoptee.

It’s not a family secret.

My adopted kids look reasonably like me. However, their hair is very different. Beautiful blonde and strawberry blonde mops of hair adorn their precious little heads. And my hair looks nothing like theirs with its dark, dark brown. So well-intentioned strangers ask them “Where did that pretty hair come from?” and they expect, “from Daddy” or some other close family member. My kids are just now old enough to say “From my birth mommy.” Though, usually what happens, is they look to me with imploring, startled eyes and want me to answer for them. 

“They’re adopted,” I say with a smile and stroke their pretty heads. “They get their hair from their birth family” Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes the stranger will let it drop. Other times, it turns into Storytime at Aldi and some new person is aware of what foster to adoption is. It’s a whole thing.

I have friends who have adopted children who are a different race. They are Mexican-American and their children are very, very obviously Caucasian white. It is obvious to anyone that their family isn’t traditional. And since people can be inconsiderate, they are often approached by strangers asking invasive questions. 

It’s really, really difficult sometimes.

My kids attend counseling every other week year-round. My son can literally go a whole week without saying anything to me. That’s not hyperbole, that’s actual fact. Now maybe he would be that person regardless of if he was adopted or not, but there is a real worry that I’m failing him because I can’t read his signals. 

My daughters are all emotionally needy in different ways. One needs to be attached to me physically in some way most days. But other days, a gentle pat on the head is too much and will make her angry. 

One of my girls was exposed to drugs during gestation. Her brain doesn’t process things well sometimes and that looks like rage. She may hulk out and start throwing heavy things toward my head. Then, five minutes later, she will be pliant and sweet, She’ll apologize for having been nasty. She’ll want to cuddle. I, on the other hand, am usually licking my wounds and am feeling no desire to speak or to be the bigger person in these interactions (which is a “me” problem—yes). But the emotional whiplash is exhausting. 

You may question your decision.

I’d like to say I feel 100 percent 100 percent of the time. I wish I felt that way. But sometimes while walking through some huge emotional trauma with my kids, I wonder if I’m the right person for them. I mean, we will always have each other regardless, but that doesn’t make the “what if” monster any more silent. 

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.