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By Cristal Lake-Sanders, LPC, M.Ed.
Published in Resolve, for the Journey and Beyond, Fall 2009
The rite of passage into parenthood holds great importance in virtually every culture around the world. And when one becomes a parent in a way that varies from the family-building "norm" (e.g.,adoption), there are other considerations of which to be aware. No matter how we get there, generally speaking, prospective parents experience the same feelings and emotions, such as excitement, fear, anxiety, and elation. However, those of us who build our families through adoption enter a complex world where we must truly earn this rite of passage into parenthood that seems to just happen for others. For the most part, prospective adoptive parents have spent at least some time on the infertility roller coaster. Transitioning from infertility treatment to adoption and, ultimately into the parenthood mindset, takes a real shift in one’s thought and emotional processes. While in the adoption process, it is important to reframe your situation to the fact that you are having a "psychological pregnancy."
While you are "expecting," there are things you can do to make the shifting role to "parent" more real and you as the parents-to-be more ready for what is ahead. The same is true for any prospective parent. Once you announce your family-building intentions, you should begin to explore your feelings surrounding registering for baby items and allowing your family and or friends to host a shower in your honor. While it is completely understandable to be apprehensive about registering and to want to wait until after your child is placed with you to have a baby shower, it can be incredibly important and validating to honor all that you have been through in your journey to parenthood, which is what such a celebration would do. In addition, the act of decorating and furnishing your baby’s room can be a cathartic experience and one that can certainly bring the reality of the situation into focus.
No matter what the level of your child care experience, I would also recommend participating in a baby care class,specifically geared toward parents who are adopting. Even though I had plenty of babysitting experience, the thought of caring for an infant (not even a newborn, in our case) was a daunting prospect for me. When my husband and I were in the process of adopting our first child, I attempted to find a baby care class, only to be disappointed that none were offered in our area specifically geared toward prospective adoptive parents. We finally did find a parenting organization that offered a class entitled, "Adoptive Parenting" and, while helpful, the class did not address actual "baby care" such as diaper changing, bathing, feeding, nail cutting, etc. It did, however, cover child development, attachment and bonding, and briefly addressed coping with comments from others. In my opinion, a class that covers everything from baby care to attachment issues would be ideal for any parent. Look in your area for a class or workshop specifically catering to parents through adoption, and if you don’t find one, think about suggesting to the local hospitals that a baby care class for adoptive parents would be beneficial to the community.
Another way to prepare for parenthood is to determine the parenting philosophy that best matches your own and digest the related literature. (See the "Suggested Reading" list at the end of this webpage.)
However, adopters, particularly those who have experienced infertility, "are [often] reluctant to allow themselves to fully experience the joyful anticipation of a psychological pregnancy" (Johnston, p.207). It is understandable that prospective adoptive parents want to protect themselves and will take only a "cautiously optimistic" stance. But it is important to allow yourself to believe that you are going to be parents and act accordingly. "[Giving] yourselves permission to experience this psychological pregnancy begins the process of claiming, bonding, and attaching between parents and child earlier and tends to result in a less anxious transition upon arrival" (Johnston, p. 208).
When you are becoming a parent through adoption, and you find yourself in that general parenthood mindset, there are some specific considerations to take into account. These may include the importance of reading adoption-related literature; the benefits of creating a support system; finding an adoption-friendly pediatrician; dealing with comments from others; and the importance of setting realistic expectations during your adjustment to parenthood.
In addition to adding general parenting books and a comprehensive medical care resource to your home library, it may also be helpful to have several adoption-related books and resources at your fingertips, such as Raising Adopted Children by Lois Melina and Adoptive Families Magazine. More suggestions can be found in the list at the end of the article.
Also, in order to assist you through the transition into parenthood, it is extremely important that you reach out to other families who are in the same boat. Consider joining an adoptive parent support group (check your local RESOLVE affiliate and adoption agencies in your area). In our area, I co-founded a support group of families who have children adopted from a Latin American country (namely, Guatemala), and that has proven to be a wonderfully enriching experience. We hold monthly playdates, quarterly parent meetings, annual service projects, and family potluck dinners twice a year, all of which provide our children an opportunity to see other families who look like ours as well as create a connection to their rich heritage.
It is imperative to find a pediatrician who not only has experience with adoption (whether it be international or domestic), but who also has a positive view of adoption in general. When interviewing pediatricians, it is best to simply ask how he or she views adoption as a family-building option and how he or she would determine whether issues are general developmental ones or ones that are adoption-related. You will know if you are comfortable with the answers, and those answers should help you make a decision on who will be collaborating with you on your child’s health and development over the next several years.
People are naturally curious and, most of the time, others’ intentions are not borne out of malice but out of an attempt to make a connection with you. With that comes the possibility of family, friends, and even strangers you meet, making comments or asking questions about your child. This issue is especially pertinent if your child happens to be of a different race or ethnicity than you, but it can also be something you encounter if you are very open with family, friends and acquaintances about how you built your family. As a parent of two Latino children, I was not quite ready for the truly invasive and personal questions I have, at times, been asked. Be prepared for, but try not to let yourself become overly anxious about, the comments and questions you will undoubtedly get as you venture out more and more with your child. Remember that in the future your child will look to you for how to react, so do your best to remain calm and collected, especially when you are on the receiving end of a “not-so-nice” adoption remark.
Finally, we all know that having a baby and becoming the constant caretaker of another human being is by no means an easy task. As a matter of fact, becoming a parent is one of the most stressful life events one can experience. You need to allow yourself time to adjust to your new role. Be prepared to renegotiate and readjust the relationship between you and your spouse. Do not expect that your lives will be completely blissful and happy as you transition into your new role. No doubt you have waited longer than most for the chance to be a parent and you may think you have to be perfect. No doubt you will experience incredible joy as well as sadness (it can be common in adoption to feel not only the gain of your child but the loss for the birth family). The experience can be quite overwhelming, and add to that the likely lack of sleep, the stress of travel or waiting for paperwork to be finalized and signed, and the seemingly sudden change of focus in your life.
While one cannot be completely prepared for what parenthood will bring, you can begin the process of changing your mindset and taking action to bring the fantasy into reality and the time spent hoping into time spent being a parent via adoption.
Johnston, Patricia Irwin (1992). Adopting After Infertility, Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press.
Suggested Reading List
Cristal Lake-Sanders is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Virginia. She can be reached at email@example.com