Adoption has been the most challenging experience I have had in my lifetime, but also the most beautiful. It has quite literally brought me to my knees in simultaneous desperation and praise. Hardship, sorrow, and difficulty are “normal” in my household, but so is love, joy, and restoration. Adoption is the epitome of “both/and.” It is both trying and wonderful, both exhausting and life-giving, both hard and incredibly worth it.
As with any life endeavor, there are significant challenges that come with adoption, especially since it involves the loss of primary caretakers who were supposed to be the people you attach to, the people who take care of you, the people who love you and walk you through your life and childhood. Since there are so many different types of adoption, I tried to narrow down the list of challenges to ones that may apply to several different types of adoption: international, private domestic, and adoption through foster care or matched adoption.
The first challenge that adoptive parents may face is the waiting process. Any type of adoption is accompanied by paperwork, a licensure process, home studies, training, and home safety procedures. And then, after all of the requirements are met, comes the waiting. For international adoption, this could take years. Many agencies even encourage you to come meet the children you are going to adopt on the first visit and then return to bring them home the second trip. For private domestic adoption, you will have to wait for a birth mother to choose your family for her child. When adopting through foster care, a child may be in your home for years before he or she becomes eligible for adoption. And through matched adoption, it may take several calls before you inquire about a child and receive the go-ahead to start the process. The waiting can be grueling and overbearing at times, especially when you are anxious to meet your child or start a family.
Additionally, there is a lot of uncertainty that comes with adoption. Will this child fit in with our family? Will we be able to provide the kind of healing that he needs? Will this child accept me as her mom or dad? Will I be able to handle the myriad of needs my child will have, given that he will have experienced trauma from birth and possibly additional traumas? There is no way to ensure that a child will accept you, that the trauma and mental health issues will not be overbearing, or that you won’t face challenges in providing your child with all of the culture and identity that she needs. Transracial or transcultural adoption is going to be part of your story. In fact, it is likely that one or all of these fears will come true in the adoption story.
All adoption is transcultural, as it is removing a child from one culture, one way of life, and transferring them to another culture. Some adoption is transracial, as it involves people of one race bringing a child of another race into their family. This brings forth a myriad of challenges that are not impossible to overcome but can be very challenging. If you are transculturally or transracially adopting a child, it is important to note where you are in your journey of multiculturalism before adoption. How many friends of different races do you have in your life? Different cultures? Do you live in a neighborhood with people who look exactly like you? Do you attend a church with people who predominantly are of the same socioeconomic status, race, and background? What kind of music do you listen to? What about the movies you watch? What kind of artwork is portrayed in your home? What authors do you read and what podcasts do you listen to? When you are opening the door to different cultures and different races before you adopt, you are broadening your perspective of the world, which will help you tremendously on your adoption journey. Having people of different cultures will definitely help you if you have a cultural or racial question such as with cultural norms, hair care, or even just mentorship for your adopted child. But it will also help your children to see that you care about and connect with their culture outside of them. You will never be able to fully understand the world through the eyes of your adopted child, especially if he doesn’t look like you. Transracial and transcultural adoption is difficult, but doable with the right people in your corner.
In my personal experience, the greatest challenge of adoption has been parenting a child who has faced significant trauma. Contrary to what many believe, all adopted children have faced trauma, even if they were adopted as a baby. Separation from a child’s birth mom causes trauma, which manifests in different ways in the lives of adopted children. In addition, if you adopt from the foster care system, these children have also experienced some form of abuse or neglect, forcing them to have lived in “fight or flight” for a significant portion of their lives. As adoptive parents, we must recognize that our children are coming from a place where they have experienced significant trauma, and we must become educated on how this affects their brains and behavior. In turn, we should then adjust our parenting techniques to serve our children and provide a healing home for their precious, worthy souls. Because children from hard places have experienced such adverse environments, we must be willing to compassionately provide the care that they need through parenting through connection, as Karyn Purvis outlines in her book The Connected Child.
My husband and I started foster care with a passion to provide a healing home for a child in need. We didn’t know that we would end up adopting, but here we are two years later with two beautiful children and a wonderful life we did not expect. However, I will not lie to you and tell you it has been easy. But don’t the most beautiful things come from hardship? In the world of fast information and beautiful pictures, it’s easy to believe the lie that adoption, if done the “right” way, is all beautiful, all precious, all heartwarming and not challenging, burdensome, and just plain hard. It exists simultaneously in the realm of “extremely hard” and “totally worth it.”
Part of the struggle I have faced in adoption is my expectations. I was prepared for difficult behaviors, therapy appointments, and the uncertainty of it all. However, I was not prepared for much of the pain and anger to be unloaded on me as the adoptive parent. I truly and genuinely wanted to be the channel of healing for my children. If they were anxious about scheduling, I could fix it by making a calendar. If they were angry about their trauma-filled past, I could hold them until the pain subsided. If they didn’t like the chicken and rice, I could make them a grilled cheese sandwich. I didn’t anticipate the slammed door because the calendar with the schedule didn’t fix the social anxiety. I didn’t prepare my heart for the trauma-filled anger being directed towards me. I didn’t foresee that after two years of my son being with us, he would still struggle with eating the food that I lovingly prepared for him. Frankly, I just didn’t know that the trauma they have faced would manifest in behaviors directed at me. This is not an easy load to bear, and therapy has been a very important part of my journey. Without counseling and the support of friends and family, I’m not sure we would have been able to handle the difficult transitions, meltdowns, and everyday struggles. I could never do this adoption journey alone.
Do It Anyway
If you’ve made it this far, then I applaud you. You’ve read through some difficult truths that may have hit you hard and made you question your desire to adopt. But here’s my advice:
Do it anyway.
There are a million reasons why you should adopt even though it is hard, but I’ll leave you with three important reasons:
1. The overwhelming number of children in need of a home. There are over 120,000 children awaiting adoption from the foster care system right now. Without the prospect of adoption, they will likely be placed in a foster home or a group home until they age out of the foster care system. In some states, they “age out,” meaning they are no longer eligible for foster care services when they turn 18. In other states, the age is 21. Imagine starting your adult life with no family support. Many of these children who age out will become homeless, imprisoned, trafficked, or have unwanted pregnancies. When we view adoption as a way to provide a safe, healing home for a child in need of one, rather than a way to grow your family, it can change the trajectory of a child’s life forever.
2. There is hope for healing in adoption. Although adoptees have experienced significant trauma, and we shouldn’t downplay this (as it is a lifelong journey), it is possible for them to heal. Through patient care, therapy, meaningful connection, and love, children can heal and become an integral part of your family. You will wonder what your life was like before their precious soul entered it.
3. Adoption is not about us (parents). This is a hard but important truth. If you adopt to fill a hole, to mend a wound, or to fulfill a need, you will be sorely let down. Adoption is not about you. It is about the children who come to you, in whatever state they come. Yes, it will be hard, but you’re not signing up for easy, are you? You’re signing up to become mom or dad to a child who needs one. And when you sign up to become mom or dad, you are signing up for forever, through thick or thin, whatever may come. Hardship in parenting does not deny us our responsibility of parents. The most difficult challenges in life can produce the most fruit. It can open our eyes with compassion; it can widen our perspective, and it can flat-out change our rigid hearts to see the world anew.
Children Are Worth It
I would take a million hard days with my children over one good day without them. Because when it comes down to it, I just plain love them, and my choice to adopt them was not about me anyway. The love that I have for them isn’t a magical formula or a mystical feeling. It is a conscious, daily choice that I make. I choose to love my kids, and that love grows every day. When we choose adoption for the purpose of providing a family for a child instead of finding a child for a family, this drastically changes our perspective in terms of what we are willing to endure for the sake of our children as adoptive parents. Even more, the “suffering” we endure is nothing in comparison to the intense pain and trauma our children have suffered. Are we willing to endure a small fraction of the suffering they have endured in order to lighten their load? Can we bear their “hard” for a little to provide them a safe, healthy family relationship that will positively impact them for the rest of their lives? Are these children worth the meltdowns, the rejection, the education of trauma-parenting, the waiting, and uncertainty? Are they worth the hard?
Yes, yes they are.
Karly Pancake is a foster and adoptive mom, Spanish teacher, and wife to TJ. They live in Denton, Texas, where they adopted two children through foster care. Her children have changed her life forever in all the best ways. Nothing about her journey to motherhood has been what she expected, but she has certainly loved the adventurous ride. Karly is a big fan of University of Kentucky Basketball, running, and, of course, pancakes. She is passionate about fostering and adopting older children in the foster care system and has been a foster parent since 2017. She started writing to process adoption and becoming a mother, and she hopes to help others on the adoption and foster care journey through her writing. You can find more of her writing at her blog Foster Truth or on her Instagram WeFosterTruth.