Adoptive families are in a lot of ways very similar to biological families. There is an adult that cares for a child and provides for their needs. There is love and friendship and sibling rivalries. There are doctors’ appointments and soccer games and gymnastics practice. There are family movie nights and driving to see the Christmas lights and visiting grandparents. There are a great many things that make adoptive families exactly the same as biological families. What makes adoptive families different is the way that they got to where they are. Adoptive families are built entirely on purpose. There is (generally speaking) no such thing as a surprise or “oopsie” adoption situation. Where biological families can come about however and whenever (unless infertility is an issue) the parents want; adoption has to be planned for. However, I’m guessing that isn’t what you mean when you wondered, “What makes adoptive families different?” For some personal experiences visit Adoption.com.
The truth of the matter is that adoptive families often have to work harder to feel or appear like traditionally-built families.. Skin tones or hair color may not match. Often times, even among families that have the same skin color, they don’t look very much alike either. My daughters all have beautiful blond hair. Two of them have strawberry blond hair with highlights I would have to pay hundreds of dollars to replicate synthetically. Two of them have beautiful curls. All three have sweet round cheeks and little noses and blue eyes. Without ever trying to, they draw stares from adults around them because of how lovely they all are.
Inevitably, this is what happens when we go somewhere, just us girls. My beautiful daughters ages 6 and 7 are wearing their clothing of choice. This usually involves a dress with a skirt that twirls. This is not parental pride speaking here, it is simply a fact: they are adorable. Their presence anywhere from the grocery store to church draws stares. So, adults all around look and “ooh” and “ahh” at the assumed triplets. They glance from my girls to me and the girls again. There is basically no physical resemblance. Where they are porcelain white, almost translucent, with fair hair and Caribbean blue eyes I am . . . not. I have auburn hair that may or may not be in a messy ponytail, hazel eyes, and tan-ish skin. Where they look like dolls, I look like exactly what I am: an exhausted mother with little time to primp before an outing (and truthfully very little interest in the primping). This will cause older women to feel the need to approach my daughters and compliment them on their looks. They will say thank you and look to me for guidance. Then, the older woman will, staring these innocent children in the eyes, aska variation of “Where did you get that beautiful hair/eyes/skin from?” To which they will have no answer. The woman will press “From your Daddy? Not from your mama. You’re so pretty!” (I’m sorry, what is even happening right now?! Why are people like this?) My children, though used to this unfortunate occurrence, still have no idea how to respond. They should have no need to. The question absolutely shouldn’t be asked. Nonetheless, they look to me for answers. If I’m feeling particularly jaded that day I’ll respond with “well, they are adopted. I chose them, unlike your unlucky spawn. We aren’t really sure who they got it from. Did your kids get your awful brassy hair? They are precious aren’t they?” and leave the person standing there gaping like a fish. It has never once not been uncomfortable to be measured and judged as far-too-ugly to be my children’s mother. It wells up feelings in them because they don’t look like their mama. I have been known to shrug and say “I have no idea” and walk away. If someone seems genuinely interested in my family and aren’t being tragically rude, I will briefly explain that I was blessed enough to get to adopt these dear girls. I explain that they are my treasure and I am absolutely the lucky one in this equation.
I never ever want my kids to come away feeling less than from these conversations. They are a blessing to me and I am proud that they are my daughters. The bottom line is that people can tell that we don’t look alike and feel the need to comment on it. My youngest two daughters are four months apart and not biologically related, but they look very-muich alike. People assume they are twins and then become confused when the math doesn’t work when they ask their ages. By and large, none of this bothers me for my sake. It does hurt my kids. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a person of color with these same children or to have a child of a different ethnicity than mine. I’m astounded by people’s level of rudeness when children are involved. Unfortunately, I’m not the only parent to have experienced this. Visit adoption forums and community to see more examples of others who have experienced this situation.
So, that is part of what makes adoptive families different. There are some other parts too, some better and some worse. For instance: all of my children have been to see a therapist. All of them. This is not universal for all adoptive families; however, i would strongly encourag it. In fact, I recommend that every single person go and talk to a counselor at one point in their lives. Regardless, all of them know what it means to grieve the loss of a family member that they didn’t know. All of them have complicated answers when it comes to family tree, and questions about their first words or first steps (because often, they didn’t happen in our home). I don’t know when my oldest daughter said her first word or what it was. I wish I did, but I don’t. I don’t know what i was like to be pregnant with my kids, because I never was. Some adoptive families may have that information in cases of open adoption or information that was shared during placement. I am not one of them. That is why it is especially important to find a community of other adoptive families and families with complicated stories.
Bonding has to be intentional. I think it should be intentional in all families, but oftentimes, it is a given that a baby will become attached to mama just because they exist in the same space together. I work every day for attachment bonds with my kids. Some days my husband and I knock it out of the park. Our kids go to bed feeling happy, attached, and loved. Other days my kids will fall asleep to the sound of another sibling screaming that “You’re not my real mom and I hate you!” That is one of the more mild insults that have been slung my way. You try not to let it cut your heart out, but still sometimes they manage to hit on just the right nerve to make you cry. Eventually, they’ll come back around and ask for a hug, but it may take a while. Ask any of the parents in the Adoption.com forums and you’ll hear similar stories.
What makes adoptive families different is the way we choose to live our lives. It is a choice to make a family through adoption. It is a choice to read books and attend trainings to better understand what our children may be feeling. It is a choice to chose our children every single day. We chose their safety, their protection, their mental health, their needs over our own in many cases. We allow them to rage because they are hurting and we choose to seek help for them rather than yell back. We choose alternative parenting styles that, from the outside, seem like coddling or enabling; but they are really about restoring. Love, friendship, relationships: it is all earned. Many of us have lost friends and estranged from family members because they do not understand or care to not try to understand what our family is about.
There is an unspoken pain in the adoption world of always feeling inadequate. I read books, attend seminars, watch videos, and attend support groups to try and be the very best parent I can be. I feel I am still going to be considered second-best by society. That hurts, but I understand. Because of years of complicated, archaic adoption laws, there are entire generations who feel like they lost out on their “real family” and they don’t want other children to feel the same way. Consequently, there is a lot of negative chatter in the adoptive-adult world. It is not unfounded or unreasonable in most cases, but it isn’t the full picture. My kids have always known they were adopted and we were thankful that we got to be their parents. I am extraordinarily thankful that their birth parents made the choice to have them.
What makes adoptive families different is the love that flows through them. Yes, biological families are loving and good and happy. This is in no way demeaning to biological families or children. Simply put, there is a core difference in the foundation of that love. It is a hard-earned and fought-for love. It isn’t easily taken for granted and, though I cannot speak for every adoptive family, I can speak for mine: I feel the love of my children more acutely than I might have otherwise. I appreciate them because I understand the miracle that they are to me and the world around them. They are a precious gift. The stacks of paperwork, the waiting, the prayer, the anxiety, and the sweet joy when you’ve been matched is a very different journey.
Adoptive families are different and adoptive families are the same. We may look weird from the outside. Many of us are considered large families by many standards (I have several friends with four or more children) and we don’t tend to match completely. There is a good chance we have two or three kids that are almost the same age, but they are three or four months apart birthday-wise. There is likely to be a lot of noise that accompanies them. Again, speaking only for my family, we are a loud bunch. Lots of laughter, squeals, excitement, and shrieking over who gets to choose the next cartoon is common in our household. There are so many discussions over whose turn it is to set the table, who needs to pick up their laundry off the floor, and what movie everyone can agree on.
What makes adoptive families different? Everything and nothing at all. It all depends on the day, your perspective, your personal emotions, the age the kids came home to live with you, and more. It depends on if it is rainy or you watched a sad movie. It depends on if you had a hard day at work or someone said something derogatory about adoption or your family. Some days nothing is different. Some days everything feels like too much of a struggle. I imagine that I feel similar feelings regarding my kids that biological parents feel about theirs. Some days you love your kids simply because they are yours. It is as easy as breathing. Some days you still have that same love but feeling it requires something extra. It is still like breathing, but like breathing in a strong, cold wind.
I would absolutely not change anything about my children, but if I had the choice I would have met them all much sooner than I did. It would have been planned that they came to me instead of CPS dropping them off at my doorstep. There would be less trauma and fear in their story and more hope. Their biological parents would be more involved and get to see them during their big achievements. What I would never change is the fact that they are mine. There are no words to fully express how pleased I am to wake up every morning and tell them good morning.
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.