The call woke me up late one December evening in 2012. I was out of state at a training seminar for work and was already fast asleep in my hotel room. Seeing that the caller was my sister, I confess that my first, half-asleep reaction not quite joyous as, between the two of us, she is definitely the night person. But when I finally became coherent enough to understand what she was saying and her words – “You’re an aunt.” – sank in, I knew my life had just been irreversibly changed.
I now think of it as among the best days of my life.
What makes it different from, perhaps, the “typical” experience is that my precious niece came to our family through adoption. Now, 18 months later, I can’t get enough of her smiles, her kisses, and her words that are coming at a faster pace by the day.
Perceptions – and misperceptions – of adoption are undoubtedly too many to count, from the idea that people adopt only (and always) because it’s their only option to have children (wrong) to the idea that children are placed for adoption only because they are unwanted (wrong again).
As I’ve watched my niece grow these past months, and now as I watch my sister and brother-in-law pursue adopting four siblings, I’ve had my own perceptions challenged, reinforced, obliterated, and tweaked – in varying degrees.
While I certainly can’t give ‘advice’ as (or to) an adoptive mother, perhaps a few things I’ve learned can help others whose lives have been changed, blessed, and enriched in some way through adoption – or those who aren’t quite sure how to respond to a friend or family member who has chosen to adopt.
1) Every story is different. Before assuming you know the reason for an adoption, realize one thing: you probably don’t. Assumptions, if stated, can be hurtful – to birth mothers, to adoptive parents, and to the children involved. Just as every child is unique, so, too, is every story unique.
2) People ask some stupid questions. Yes, it’s true. While I haven’t gotten some of the downright rude questions my sister has gotten, I have gotten questions such as “Where did she come from?” “Did they adopt because they couldn’t have kids?” Etc. By and large, these questions reflect ignorance more than malice. And truth be told, I’ve probably asked these exact questions in my past (although never again). So, to all my friends who will be asked these questions, take heart, you’re not the first to face them. And to those thinking about asking these questions, think twice. If your purpose is simply your own curiosity, perhaps restraint is the virtue of the day.
3) “Adopted” does not mean “unwanted.” It’s all too easy and tempting to imagine that a birth mother places her child for adoption because she doesn’t want the child. After all, how could anyone “give up” her child? Before going any further, stop. Just stop. Unless you know the whole story, you don’t know the whole story (And even if you know the whole story, you might not know the whole story.) Certainly, those instances exist. But so do many, many cases of birth mothers showing incredible love and courage by relinquishing their children to someone else’s care.
4) Adoption does not define a child. My niece is not my “adopted” niece. My niece is my niece, who so happened to come into our family through adoption. Certainly, the fact that this is her story will impact her life. But classifying a child – any child – by the fact that they entered a family through adoption is no different from classifying them based on other factors, which we wouldn’t dream of doing.
5) If you haven’t adopted a child, don’t pretend you understand. How tempting it would be to tell my sister – or anyone pursuing an adoption – that I understand the stresses they’re going through. All that paperwork? Well, yeah, I’ve done my taxes before. All the uncertainties? Sure, I’ve been uncertain of things before. But the reality is that I have no idea. And chances are, if you haven’t adopted, neither do you. To offer our support, we don’t need to know it all or pretend that we do.
6) Adoption will change your life in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. When I first met my niece, I couldn’t begin to imagine the joy she would bring into our lives. Certainly, things changed. But it was the kind of change you never knew you needed but now can’t imagine life without. And if and when more children join my niece, I know that a year from now, I’ll be saying the same thing.
This list could be much, much longer – and I’m sure I’ll be adding even more to it in the coming months and years. But until then, I’ll be enjoying as much time as I can with the little girl whose arrival has already taught me so much.