Friday, November 16, 2012

What They Don't teach You in Adoption 101

I sit here tonight, far from home but in the next room over from me is my own mom, and I am reflecting on an article today on Huffington Post which really, really captured something important, something that is never taught in adoption training.  Here is the article by Adam Saenz, author and adoptive father.  The article is entitled, "A Letter to My Adopted Daughter:  On Family".  Please, do take a moment to go read it, then come back:

Before prospective parents are approved to adopt, they must go through a predetermined number of hours of training.  Every state is different in their requirements, but the basics are covered:  Warnings about the backgrounds of available children, explanations about various types of behavior you are likely to see exhibited, emotional stories shared about loss and its effects.  Agencies try their best to prepare parents, to help them see it is not Fantasyland and that these are very real children who come with very real issues. They have you read all the right books, they do everything they can to help you step into the shoes of your as-yet-unknown child so you can better understand their needs, and they teach about the alphabet soup names of the various diagnosis your kids might come bearing.  RAD, SID, CAPD, FAS, ADD, ASD, CP, FAE, IEP, LD, and so many more are terms you quickly become familiar with (We have had all of the above used at various times to try and label our children, some were correct, others were not).

What is missing from the training though, is the most important piece.  It is how adoption effects you as the parent. It completely misses the target by not explaining how out of control your life might feel for a very long while, how hard it can be to reach your newly adopted child's soul, how awkward and uncomfortable it can be to feel as if you are strangers now thrust together and you really don't have a clue how to move from feeling like housemates to loving family.  Somehow, that part you just have to figure out on your own.

Adam Saenz's honesty and insight was so true to our own experience as adoptive parents of both infants and older children, and I didn't really understand what was being asked of me until Joshie came home.  Matthew was easy, Joshie was hard.  Damn hard.  What made it harder was not knowing what was really necessary, what God was going to ask of me.  Gradually, I figured it out, and over time it helped not only Joshua, but Kenny, Angela and Olesya as well as they adapted to new lives, and began the process of healing from old ones.

What I needed to be, and the only thing that was ever going to allow me to draw close to the hearts of my children was something totally unexpected.  I had been under the completely false impression that it was my emotional strength that would help them heal, and while that was somewhat true it wasn't the key.  I also thought that it would take my Great Wisdom to help them heal, and a little of that was needed even if it wasn't actually all that Great.

What my kids needed, what was never shared with me, was that they needed me to be willing to be emotionally stripped bare before them, they needed me to somehow be willing to be vulnerable and to feel me join them in their fear and doubt.  Sounds the complete opposite of what you'd think would work, doesn't it?  It's also why it is so hard to "teach" in adoption classes, because it is more about instinct, about sudden awareness, about presence.

In his letter to his daughter, Adam writes:  

"I knew last night that something had to give, and in the quiet stillness of this morning's coffee, I realized: it's me.

I must find the humility to empty myself of my agenda: my need to control you, to fix you, to heal you, to make you like me. Our differences have made me face my own brokenness -- my failures, my doubts, my fears and my sins."
Oh, how remarkable it is that this father saw this, admitted it, and wanted to change it!! Yes, our kids need to sense that we are strong and can handle anything, they need that for security because those adults who were supposed to be strong enough to care for them properly turned out to be weak and unable.
But what our kids need more, and what oddly leads to deepening love and respect, is to see   us struggle as they do with the emotional parts of our relationship with them.  They need to see us cry in frustration as we try to reach them, they need to hear us admit how helpless we feel in the face of all they have faced.  Sometimes, what they really, really need, is to be joined in their despair and great sorrow, then have it modeled for them how to be healthy enough to climb out.  The fact is, they do not know how to open the door to their heart, because it was slammed shut long ago and someone took the key and hit it.  
As Adam learned, we adoptive parents, must go through some valleys in which we are confronted with our own brokenness.  What is amazing though, is that in doing so, we actually leave open chinks in our emotional armor for our children to crawl into and discover our hearts.  The doors to our own hearts have to be pried open to let this new stranger in.
I remember Joshua when he was so tiny and so angry.  We had suffered together for about a year or so, and one night after waking for the 6th or 7th time to try and rock his prickly,unyielding body back to sleep, he yelled and cried, and there I was in the rocker, completely and utterly broken as the sobs came in great big heaves.  You know the ones, those that rise up from your very core and thankfully come seldom in our lifetimes, but can no longer be held back.  We sat there in the wee morning hours, rocking, crying together, each of us more exhausted than anyone would ever understand from our daily expeditions into the Battlefield for the Soul.  Suddenly, Josh stopped.  I felt his body relax just a little, and his hand reached up to touch my face tenderly.  It was one of two moments when I knew we were eventually going to make it.  He felt joined in his wordless grief, and somehow my vulnerability made him feel less alone, and I became more human in his eyes.
Adam also shares:  "When you first arrived, we hid from each other. You pretended that you weren't feeling angry, afraid, guilty, sad, and confused. I pretended that I could parent you from a distance. We looked good to everyone on the outside -- we were pleasant to each other -- but we were superficial and fake. It was a three-month honeymoon of pseudo-family."
I never walked the tightrope more carefully than when we adopted the girls, and Angela's wary truce was eventually called so we could at least give this family thing a try.  Oh, how I just knew what that cost her!  Such risk and courage!  But when we became real with one another, the moment we really and truly became mother and daughter was not when a judge banged a gavel and ruled in our favor, and it was not when we left the orphanage with her and Olesya.  Our joining together at the heart happened one very difficult night after we had been home about a month and I was still getting the cold shoulder and sharp retorts that were her defense mechanism to keep proper and perceived safe distance.  I opened my heart to her in anger, sorrow and frustration, sharing with her how I had longed to be their mother for so many years.   I explained through copious tears how she would never be able to understand how hard we had tried to move things along faster, and how desperate I was to get her and Olesya home before it was too late and her heart had grown too hard.  I named what was happening, and my fears for our future together.
It was then that we moved from Adam's aptly described "pseudo-family" to simply "family".
Many would have advised me not to "show my hand", to project only strength in the face of her behavior to "show her who's boss".  Angela didn't need that, she had already experienced enough of that in her 11 years.  What she needed was to see someone she perceived as strong be able to show the strength to expose vulnerability and softness. She knew how to be tough, what she had no clue how to do was to show softness or how to let her guard down.  It had never been safe to do that before.
I have willingly and unreservedly spoken with all of our children on multiple occasions, admitting my parenting "fails" and asking them for forgiveness.  I have openly shared my fears for us and for them, and for our relationships both now and in the future.  I have tried to help them learn how to express a full range of emotions, and to see that there is strength in vulnerability, for it means you actually have enough confidence in yourself to share your deepest parts with others.
That is the stuff they don't teach you in Adoption 101.  
The experts don't explain to you that your two year old might look you square in they eye and ask why you don't hate them like their first mommy did.  They don't give you pat answers to use when your children break down in front of you as they relive old horrors for the first time.  Adoption agencies don't tell you that your heart will break a thousand times, and that it is not only OK, but imperative that your child sees your heartbreak for the life they had before.  No one says it, but it is probably the single most important thing for any adoptive parent to know.
I didn't learn it from an agency representative, and I didn't learn it from any classes or books.  That kind of wisdom can only be taught from very special sources.  I learned it from my beloved children.  I watched for clues, I listened to their hearts, I tuned in for any signals that would help lead me down the road to their healing, and I didn't let them travel alone.
I wish that was taught in Adoption 101.  But I think I ended up with the best teachers ever, and daily, 12 years into our adoptive parenting journey, I continue to learn from my best teachers.  


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this link! Yes, I often wonder why they even bother with the pre-adoption classes. I don't think anyone can really "get it" until they're in it--deep deep into the hurt, confusion and pain. And I say that even as a mom of a child whose challenges, compared to many, are minor. Has long seemed to me that post-adoption support groups would be much more beneficial than pre-adoption "training" . . . which is the main reason I am and avid reader of your blog. In many ways, you are my support group. You give me strength, often when I need it most. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm also grateful for your posts, Cindy! While your issues are far different from my own, with my post-stroke husband, there are some definite points of contact, and you give me hope at times when it feels like there is no hope. So thank you.
Peace and blessing!