“Resentment is poison.” I’ve heard that saying and I repeated it daily to myself for over a year. Whenever I thought about the foster home and where she lived for over three years, I felt bitter, angry, acerbic feelings towards them. We adopted a kid that had experienced trauma; we also got a kid with so many bad habits that needed to be reshaped or eliminated. I felt overwhelmed by how much we could address in therapy and at home. After months of living with her, I felt genuine concern over how much we were offsetting the balance of the household.
Spring – a time for renewal
The summer she moved in with us started out with a bang. She literally moved into our home the weekend after school let out. Everyone was happy and eager to go to the pool and to sleep in and to play outside. The boys loved going to a field two blocks from our home — they were in and out of the house all day long. They returned for bathroom breaks, water bottle refills, and food. They got tan, they always looked sweaty, they had fun. Even before she moved in with us, I had romanticized the idea of joining them with our third child. Next to the field is a playground. Every day I took her. And every day after walking past our house, she burst into tears and cried out that she was too tired to walk there. The same when returning to the house. The child who had been a couch potato in her foster home had very little energy living with us. Once we got to the playground she did manage to climb the play structure and slide down a few times. She seemed to love doing chalk drawings on the blacktop. She eagerly approached strangers – young and old – to engage in conversation.
The truth is, I really did not want an open adoption. Initially, I was eager to explore international adoption. I think part of that fantasy was whisking away a child from tragic conditions and letting her start a new life with us in the U.S. I imagined meeting with the staff of an orphanage and receiving her case file. I would have information on her biological parents. Later we would decide if we wanted contact and how to go about doing so.
In reality, we adopted a child from the state foster care system. While she lived in a foster home, she had sporadic visits with her biological parents — who were no longer a couple. Over time, they were deemed no longer fit and the judge changed her plan to adoption. Over time their interest in keeping contact diminished. Both failed to keep their appointments with the court mandated mediator. Months after she moved in with us, we were told there was not a mutual agreement in place; we would not be able to maintain contact with the biological parents. Sorry. Actually “wooo-hoooo!” was my response. Yes!
Who knows what things may be like when she is an adolescent; when she re-examines her values, ponders her life’s path and questions her identity. She may want to re-establish contact. We don’t know what forms of social media will be in fashion and what efforts are needed to find her biological relatives.
For that first year, I wondered about them. Not in a strange, inappropriate way. More along the lines of wondering about the grocery store clerk who helps you each week. Or the custodian at school who makes eye contact and gives a little nod in passing. Or the owner of the black lab that you see often on walks– she comes from the opposite direction, is bundled up with a scarf and walks briskly. I just wonder about people sometimes. Maybe I did think about her birth parents more deeply. Did they agonize over the responsibilities of child caring? Were they relieved, maybe a little, when the judge changed the plan to adoption. Did they berate themselves? I wondered if they made efforts to change their ways and turn their lives around.
Forming an Attachment is Hard with Adopted Children
As a foster and/or adoptive parent, you will use this word endlessly. Attachment. I remember in college viewing black and white videos on Margaret Mahler. She was a psychiatrist who originated the two year process of separation-individuation between mothers and babies. This is significant to forming one’s sense of identity. There are two things that have stuck in my memory. One is that when you heard her voice in the voice over, in her East European accent, she repeatedly made a little whistle sound. I remember thinking that’s an unusual speech impediment. The other key recollection is how young the subjects were in this classic study. Babies.
“The attachment needs to come first and be strongly established,” our therapist Beth informed us. Until then, there is anxiety around the following: will I be accepted, will I be loved always? will this last? is there a trust? She told us that working on the problematic behaviors now is ok, but most changes will occur once the attachment is strong.
Our adopted daughter is tight with my husband. I see the beginning of an attachment to him. I hear it in her requests to have him make her lunch, to take her to school, and in her sobbing when she watches out the window as he backs out of the driveway to run an errand. I know it’s hard on him that she is this way, it’s actually not as gratifying as it should be. He feels badly and a little guilty that I don’t have IT yet. Our therapist explained it is more complicated with me, the female parent, the primary caregiver. Our daughter has formed relationships with not one, not two, but now a third mother figure in her short lifetime. She knows that I am the keeper of the household. Beth tells us that more is at stake in investing feelings with me. I’m a strong person. I’ve worked in mental health. On a logical level, I get it. But it does hurt. And sometimes I let out a sarcastic remark: You really want to wait for Daddy to get home to make your lunch…? Ok! Whatever!
I embraced my new position of soon-to-be adoptive parent. I was educated on her early trauma by professional mental health workers. My kid was removed from her biological parents as an infant. She was placed with a few different relatives, all of whom could not be long-term resources. She was transferred early on in her first year of life to a foster home, where she lived for over three years. We welcomed her into our home when she was 3 years 8 months. I anticipated several months of adjusting to our home. Three years later the storm has still not calmed down.
Peeling off the layers
Understandably, she has emotional issues because of being removed from her biological parents. She may not remember her first year and what that entailed. But I am sure that somewhere in her psyche is this primitive response to not getting her meals on time and not being soothed when in distress. She is still aching for that satisfaction. She is like a bottomless well with us. It does not matter if we just spent two hours interacting — playing, cuddling, singing, reading, eating– she will turn to me and ask frantically what are we going to do now? and often with tears, she will ask: will you play with me now? While leaving the children’s museum, she whined when are we going to the zoo? we haven’t gone! I let her pick out a decoration for an upcoming holiday, her response was why can’t I have three? The give me, give me, gimme syndrome. If you ask her thirty minutes after a huge feast if she is hungry, she will nod emphatically and say yes. It is never enough, she does not feel satisfaction or a state of content. Continue reading →
We adopted from the state foster care system a few years ago. She was just under four years of age. Several months later, our therapist informed us that she has special needs. The concept of special needs is broad. And for most of us, we need professional help to really understand these kids. Children who have experienced disruptions to their home environment will likely have emotional and behavioral problems. Some will present with temporary difficulties, others with long-standing. A number of children in foster care have significant psychiatric conditions. I highly recommend finding a therapist who specializes in foster and adoptive families.
I have visited several blogs by parents who write about having kids with special needs. My heart goes out to them. I truly appreciate these amazing people who have taken on children with severe problems. The bloggers identify the medical conditions and/or psychiatric disorders that they have, that they live with all day long. Their days are long. The spectrum is vast and long. I am not sure exactly where my daughter falls on the scale. Some days her placement is higher, other days low. I wonder if it is fair to other families to even consider my kid as having special needs. I don’t want to be in any way disrespectful. Is it ok for me to gripe about my difficult days? Is there a catch phrase that I can use for my life with a kid who has maladaptive behaviors, but is smart and who does not require a teacher’s aide? What group are we in…?
In any case, parenting a child with developmental issues off the usual course is challenging. Adopting a kid that was raised by others for a period of time is challenging. Adding a child to a home which has biological children of the parents can be challenging. My intention is not to compare difficulties or challenges, but rather to reach out to anyone who struggles with parenting. I never know what kind of day we’re going to have, ever. I just know that I am not alone. I remind myself each day, or at least I try to, of how far we’ve come and I give myself a lot of credit. Somebody has to.
We adopted from the state foster care system. It was risky, the outcome unknown. We found our child from a single page narrative written by her caseworker. The first paragraph was about what had brought her into the state system– a few sentences about neglectful parenting. The second covered her placements. The next had a brief description of her foster household. Then, a few statements about the current lack of medical conditions or developmental concerns. At the end, there was a descriptive sentence of a preferred permanent home. The caseworker was hoping for a loving, non-violent home where the caregivers are willing to provide to the child’s needs.
Any child removed from their initial environment and placed in another home is likely to have an adverse reaction. A kid with multiple placements is more likely to be traumatized. The age of the child can be an additional major factor. Our child was removed from her biological parents when she was an infant. She was placed briefly with a relative, then lived in the same foster home for 3+ years. When we read that she had been in this one home I figured we were getting a less traumatized, less problematic child. I was wrong.
When you adopt from the state foster system, you are adopting a child that will be susceptible to emotional disturbances related to the disruptions in their home life. You are also adopting a kid that was raised by others. Yet, no one tells you in detail about the nurturing and child caring practices used in the foster home. I made assumptions about them. No one told us what we had to do or should do or what is expected when it comes to contact with the foster family. I was not prepared for how different we could be.
Soon after we were informed that we were matched to our child, the foster mother emailed us. Mrs. Foster informed us of their daily schedule of activities– wake up time, breakfast, one tv show, outdoor time, lunch and so forth. I was told by the caseworker to try and follow the schedule as closely as possible when she was in our home.
The Actual Domestic Adoption Process that We Endured
We plowed into researching options for domestic adoption. After making the decision to pass on international adoption, I called the 1-800 number and had a lovely conversation with a worker about adopting from the foster care system in Oregon. It was a little strange to call the Department of Human Services. There had been a number of years when as a social worker I had been a mandated reporter and had to call the DHS hotline. I had this conversation in December. The next step was to take classes, another round was scheduled for January.
We took several hours of classes at the local DHS site. The classes were in the evenings. At first we took turns attending, then we hired a sitter for the boys and went together. Alone or together, it didn’t matter, these classes were boring, painful, and dry. As a former social worker and as a decent parent, I could not believe the course content for these classes AND the questions from the class. One class was devoted to logistics of being a foster parent. The dos and don’ts. I did not get why I had to listen to countless questions of: when I buy a pair of shoes for my foster kid, what form do I use to get reimbursed. Or, when we go on a weekend trip to another state, why do I have to get approval?
I really felt like so much of the coursework should have been divided between foster families, kinship homes and adoptive families. The fosters had different questions than the kinships, the kinships had all sorts of issues related to their kin being the children’s failing parents, and us adoptive people just wanted to get a kid into our home. Finally we completed the course work and had permission to get assigned to an adoption worker. His name was Mike. He came to our house several times to interview us. We also had to fill out piles of paperwork, including essay style questionnaires on our childhoods, family of origin, interpersonal conflicts, methods for handling stress and childrearing. He did a thorough walk through of our house checking off boxes on his list: bedrooms, smoke alarms, stairs and so forth. He interviewed the boys. He interviewed three personal references on us as parents. We both got background checks done. A part of me was impressed by how thorough the inquiries were, another part of me nervous. Would we pass the test?