People have lots of theories and ideas of what being an adoptive family is all about. I’ve heard some of these theories and ideas from family, friends, and strangers alike who are either curious about adoption or have heard about or glimpsed bits and pieces of adoptive family life. I also have spoken with and spent time with hundreds of adoptive families through a local adoption support group. So what does it mean to be an adoptive family? Having been part of one for over a decade, I can only offer my firsthand experience on what it means to my family as there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to what any family forged biologically or otherwise truly means.
What Is Family Anyway?
According to Merriam-Webster, family—as it pertains to a group of people living together—is defined as the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children, any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family, or a single-parent family. It also lists variations such as a group of persons of common ancestry or a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation.
In The New York Times opinion piece, How Do You Define Family, student writer Michael Gonchar poses the question, “What do you think holds a family together? Is it biological relationships? Love and support? Sharing the same home?” He cites author Claire Haug, who says, “Family should be, above all else, about love—I hope we can all agree on that. Perhaps it’s time for us to prioritize finding love through community and friendships in the same way many of us prioritize finding romantic love. Maybe one day that will be conventional.”
Family can be viewed from a technical perspective of bloodline and genetic code as well as long history and place of origin. Ancestry.com has made a fortune off of those intrigued by the idea of tracing their family history or learning more of their ethnicity. Family can also be viewed from a sentimental perspective—those people in your life, not out of obligation, but of free will who love you unconditionally and who are there with you and for you, and you for them, through the good and the bad of it all. Family tends to either be a word that brings about a smile and sentimental feelings of Norman Rockewell-like memories or angry sparks of family feud resentment of bygones that were unable to be left as bygones. The whole “blood is thicker than water” phrase does not always hold true. Sometimes, family is simply the people or person you know who are willing to climb the tree with you to the bitter, brittle branches end regardless of DNA or labels.
What Does Being an Adoptive Family Mean to My Family?
In her Adoption.com article “Adoptive Family,” writer Lita Jordan says of the typical media portrayal of the adoptive family, “There are hundreds of thousands of adoptive families in the world who all represent wonderful families who are figuring out the intricacies of adoption along the way.”
I only knew what I knew about adoption before we adopted from doing my online research, completing our home study with our wonderful social worker, and getting to know other adoptive families through a local support group that we’re still very much involved with 12 years later.
I have since met and come to realize that we all have our own definitions, understanding, and realization that there is no cookie-cutter version of what it means to be an adoptive family. We have different dynamics, different experiences coming into adoption, and different relationships with our significant others, extended families, and our children. Our children’s stories are different, too—their here and now stories with us as well as their social and biological backgrounds.
For me, being an adoptive mom is an honor and a privilege. It’s a serious matter that I don’t take lightly. It’s a goofy zoo of us living together, working together, playing together, and trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make that so easy to do. It’s passing on traditions from my and my husband’s families at holidays and celebrations, and it’s bringing in new traditions to honor our children’s birth family and culture. We’re just like any other family, really, rushing around to jobs, school, and activities; discussing the breaking headline news of middle school life around the dinner table; and trying to make time to catch up and slow down in between it all.
Is It Difficult?
Being any kind of family is difficult. I’m not sure why, but I get a lot of pushback from biological families when I point out that traditional/conventional families face just as many difficulties—whether it’s spousal strain, children getting into trouble at home or school, children who have strayed from the family as adults for one reason or another, differences in opinion of parents in raising their biological children, or the basic, everyday differences in child-rearing that we seem to call each other out on (grrr social media) in bringing up a baby. Adoptive families certainly do not stand alone in bearing and dealing with internal structural issues.
I’m not sure if it’s because of stereotypes, myths, or misunderstandings, but I sometimes feel as though families of adoption come with their own personal X marks the spot target. As in should something go wrong, should the child get into trouble, should there be choppy waters at home, the first thing some people do is blame it on adoption. “Oh, well, he’s adopted,” I’ve heard people say with a knowing look. Or “Do you think it’s because she’s adopted?” As if being adopted automatically equates familial turmoil and chaos.
Statements like those make me laugh and boil my blood at the same time. As if adoption is a condition just waiting to explode at any given minute with an audience of the misinformed on standby to say, “I told ya so.” I sometimes wonder what then is the excuse of conventional families who undergo similar if not worse circumstances. If it didn’t happen as a result of adoption, then why? What was the catalyst of little Joey cheating at school or Jill developing an eating disorder at 8 years old? What about David developing depression in middle school? Matt becoming a neighborhood bully or Sammie being bullied on the playground due to low self-esteem? Why did their marriage fail if producing biological children supposedly bonds parents for life? That said, I am not blind to the fact that adoption can and does change family dynamics, and it is especially important for parents to be aware of this and research and learn about adoption before adopting. It’s also important for adoptive parents to ensure their children feel comfortable sharing their questions, feelings, and concerns and that adoptive parents understand that as the family changes and grows (in age) so will the questions, feelings, and concerns.
The process of adoption itself is difficult. No question. Adoption on the part of the birth family who is losing a child is difficult. The adoptee who has lost his or her birth family is open to facing many difficulties throughout life—even though he or she may have been adopted into the most loving family on the planet. And adoptive parents will spend the rest of their lives doing their best to make the best choices they can for their family and for their adopted children.
The one thing adoptive families can’t do is erase the past or make the loss and pain go away. But what adoptive families can do is accept what was lost as part of their family dynamic, recognizing that while their family was built on love, its foundation was lost. By understanding this basic concept and acknowledging they may need to be more cognizant of their child’s feelings—spoken or not—life can and often does go on, and in a good way.
Most of our days are not spent grappling with the heaviness of adoption but are more focused on what’s for dinner, who needs to go to what activity and when, and can so-and-so sleepover? Make her stop kicking me under the table. Should we play cards or watch a movie? Can you help me find my sock, shoe, shirt, bracelet? Oh, and I need two teal folders by tomorrow morning for a science class, or she’ll take points off.
What Makes Us Different?
We are family, but we are an adoptive family. Just like there are families of divorce, families with one parent, families who are close with relatives, families who have no contact with relatives, families with stepsiblings, multicultural, and transracial families, families led by grandparents who have stepped in, families with foster children in the mix, families living with dysfunction, families where dad is never home because he travels 80% of the year, families where mom works night shifts while dad works day shifts, families that believe in different religions, families that don’t believe in religion at all, families that live with abuse, families that deal with chronic illness, families with older parents, and families with very young parents.
At the end of the day, none of us truly gets to choose what sort of family we’re either born into or come into by other means (adoption or blended families) and/or by marriage.
What we can choose to do, however, is to look past the labels and the differences and recognize that at the heart of the matter, we should all want the same thing for all of our families: acceptance, love, and understanding.
What does it mean to be an adoptive family? How does that make us different? We four met in a room far away from our home, far away from family and friends, and started our journey as a family far differently than most traditional families do. My husband and I embraced that difference and reminded ourselves along the way that our children were counting on us to be the family that they deserved no matter how or where we began our story together and to be honest and true and embrace their stories before becoming a part of ours. In doing so, we have gained not only two amazing daughters, but also a new culture and new respect and appreciation for birth family that we didn’t understand before becoming an adoptive family.
She Looks Like You
We share brown hair and brown eyes. We both have long arms and piano fingers. She, like me, wasn’t into girly clothes or hair bows. And we both loved being outdoors, digging in the dirt, and didn’t mind getting messy while doing so. When our oldest was younger, I’d get the comment that “She looks like you,” quite often. I’d typically respond with a simple “Thank you” and let it be. And while I know it was said in a positive way from those saying it and those saying it meant well, it always caught me off guard. In truth, my adopted daughter and I are not blood related, and while we may share some resemblances, she most likely looks like her biological parents. I am okay with that. It would actually be pretty weird if she looked just like me as she is not mine genetically but via adoption.
Adoptive parents do not wring their hands at details like this. We are not upset by physical differences, and we aren’t shocked or surprised when our children may not share our personality traits. What does it mean to be an adoptive family? When it comes to genetic differences, it’s a bit of an adventure and a mystery. I am sure that there are adoptive parents who may not feel the same way I do about these things. And I know that, for a while, these differences were confusing for my girls when they were younger, but because we have embraced our family and situation for what it is, they are comfortable in their skin and comfortable and proud of our physical differences. And in strange and different ways (nature vs. nurture debate), oddly enough, our girls have picked up on some of our personality traits: the good and the bad. Go figure.
Do You Love Them Like Your Own?
I have caught conversations of friends who wonder if I could possibly love my adopted children as much as they love their biological children. The easy answer is a firm, Yes. In truth, I couldn’t love a biological child more if I tried. Just like when a man and a woman get together and have a baby and hold their little one for the first time nine-ish months later, falling fast in love, the same was true for me, and I’m sure most other adoptive moms. No, I didn’t carry my girls for nine months, but I’d thought of adoption for many years. And when the day came that I was finally blessed with the opportunity to hold each one for that very first time, the love I felt was pure and genuine and unlike any love before.
What does it mean to be an adoptive family? I guess it’s never crossed my mind not to love my children like my own because they are my own, through adoption.
Do They Love You?
My girls tell me that I’m a strict mom. Well, not as strict as some they say, but more so than most. They usually tell me this after they’ve broken a family rule, be it trying to get out of homework (nobody else’s parents even care if they do theirs), being on a device when they’re not supposed to be (did you know everyone else has an iPhone, and their parents let them use it at 2 a.m.?), or staying up too late again after having been asked to go to bed three times (nobody else’s parents enforce a bedtime). The list goes on.
My girls, like most of my friends’ kids, have their moments of asserting their independence: trying out new words, phrases, jokes that may or may not be appropriate; testing boundaries; and trying and skirting the rules when they think mom and dad aren’t watching.
They also show great love and compassion toward us, toward each other, and toward others when they want to. They have grown to treasure real family time, and even when they protest (sometimes) they enjoy when we scrape together time to be together as a unit. They have come to love our family traditions and often push me to get moving on one if I’ve fallen behind because they notice those things now, and they are just as bonded to the traditions that my husband and I have laid out for them as we are. And no matter if they’ve gotten in trouble or not from Strict Mom, they will hunt me down at the end of the evening, even if I’m tucked away still working, to come in and tell me “I love you,” and “Good night,” sealing it with a kiss.
Adoptive Families Are
“Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten” –Lilo and Stitch
So what does it mean to be an adoptive family? Really, it’s not much different than being a traditional family, but it means embracing the fact that you are not. Or perhaps adoption has been a part of your family for generations, in which case, being an adoptive family sort of is traditional after all. Mainly being an adoptive family means what you make it. Your family is more than a definition in a dictionary, more than DNA, more than a one-dimensional family tree, and more than what your neighbors down the street think it means.
If you are considering becoming an adoptive family, please check out Adoption.org to learn more about adoption, the birth family, adoptees, and how you can be understanding and supportive and receive help and support in parenting an adopted child.
Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.