Toddler adoption is cuh-razy. I'm going to type it again because it's worth repeating. Toddler adoption is cuh-razy. But parenting in general is crazy, right? I think that the biggest shock to me was that we ended up with a toddler. When I showed up in Congo to adopt our son almost 2 1/2 years ago, we thought that he was going to be about 9 months old. His foster mama put him down on the ground and that "9 month old" walked across the room to me and opened his mouth and flashed a full of teeth- two year molars and all. That's the beauty of international adoption from a third world county where records aren't kept very well and street children don't carry their birth certificates around. By looking at Miles, I would have guessed that he was 6 months old. After all, he only weighed 12 pounds and he was teeny tiny. Turns out that Miles was somewhere between 2 (one doc even said 3) at the time that we picked him up instead of 9 months old.
All that to say- we wanted a baby. We asked for a baby. We never thought that we were "equipped" to adopt a child that wasn't a baby. But the child they placed in my arms was EXACTLY what was right for our family, even if it scared us at the time. It wasn't what we expected- it was even better. We just didn't know what we didn't know when it came to adopting toddlers. We thought that a baby was right for us because that's what we knew. We knew babies, we were comfortable with babies and there were rumors flying around in the adoption community that babies were what was "desirable". People- I'm here to tell you that toddler adoption rocks. And toddler adoption is messy, and full of hurt, and wonderful, and trying, and it will make you want to pull your hair out and laugh all at the same time. But that's parenting!!!!
Ending up with a toddler instead of a baby was such a huge blessing in disguise for us. It has opened our eyes to older child adoption and I'm not sure that we would ever be embarking on a journey to adopt an older girl out of the foster care system if Miles had been the baby that we had hoped for.
Here are a few of the best lessons I've learned along the way about toddler adoption.
1. DEVELOPMENT VS. ATTACHMENT: When my two biological kids hit 2 years old they hit what I dub the "I do it self" stage- aptly named for the zillion times that they said, "STOP MOM! I do it self!" whenever I tried to put on their shoes, or dress them or brush their teeth or pretty much anything else I tried to do with them. All of the books I read about adoption talked about trying to take our adopted children back to this place of nurturing them like an infant to teach them security. I think that I took this too far. This is great for things like rocking to sleep, and bathing. But the other stuff- like giving him a bottle? Did not fly around these parts. I took it intensely personal. The books said I was supposed to be doing all these things for my son to help us bond and he didn't want any of it. I thought that meant that I was doing it wrong and that he hated me. Nearly two years removed from it, I see that he was just going through the normal stages of development that a toddler goes through- just like my other kids did at the same age. He was naturally trying to assert his independence and I was holding him back. I assumed that if he didn't want to melt into my arms and let me feed him like a six month old that I was doing it all wrong. Turns out that 2-3-4 year olds don't find mom feeding them with a spoon airplane style very amusing.
There are still great ways to build attachment without always "going back to infancy". Rocking and reading at night is a great one. Rubbing lotion on Miles was one of the things that he let me do that helped promote bonding. He often tried to do it himself- but realized that it felt good to have someone massaging lotion into his back and legs. At first this was too intimate for him if I tried to make eye contact while applying lotion- but in time this became something I could do with him while we practiced making eye contact. Give yourself grace and don't take a natural quest for independence as a slap in the face! Do what works for you- what you read in a book is not always the right thing for your child!
2. Early intervention is our friend: most states offer early intervention programs for kids under 3 or 4 years old. Most of our adopted kiddos (especially ones who experiences neglect) are often really overwhelmed by sensory input. Imagine how people holding you feels if your body has never experienced that. Or how overwhelming police sirens are when you've never heard that kind of noise. Or how bright the lights in Target are if you've never even had electricity! Sessions with an occupational therapist can be extremely valuable when teaching kid's bodies how to process all the stimuli we have here. Both of our boys greatly benefitted from early intervention. Early intervention also provides speech therapy, physical therapy, behavior therapy, nutritionists, psychologists, etc. Sometimes early intervention is just what a kiddo needs to help them get over the hump. All those therapists can give us parents great strategies to help our kids thrive! If you google the name of your state coupled with early intervention you can find the number to refer your child for an evaluation. (or ask your pediatrician) Remember to keep your expectations in check. Kids who have been in care are often developmentally delayed. Give them time to catch up. Don't expect Rome (or a tower of blocks or talking in sentences) to be built in a day.
3. Take care of the siblings. Adoption is an endeavor that affects the whole family. I found that when our son came home, EVERYONE was all about him- often to the neglect of our other children. When we went anywhere, everyone wanted to know about Miles and I think that most people forgot that we had two other incredible children who needed and deserved just as much attention. They were going through the crazy transition of adding in a sibling who had a whole host of issues going on and they had big feelings about it. About 3 months after Miles came home, we noticed just how much our other kids were suffering through the transition. (NOT suffering because we adopted, just not coping well with the adjustment)
Sadie began pulling out her eyebrows and eyelashes until she had pulled them ALL off. We worried so much about how Miles was transitioning that we honestly did not consider how it had turned our entire family upside down. Not realizing this sooner is one of the biggest regrets that I have about our entire adoption journey. We got our kids involved in therapy. They needed someone who was removed from our family to talk them through it. They needed to learn healthy coping strategies and ways to talk to us parents about what they needed. They needed a safe space to talk about how they felt about having a little brother who was sick all the time and who got a whole lot of attention everywhere we went. Getting everyone in therapy was AWESOME. It really helped us all get on the same page as a family and helped us make sure that everyone was being taken care of and was heard while we figured out how our new family was going to work.
4. Have a script: People are dumb. They are well meaning, but they are dumb. Complete strangers will say very insensitive things to you when you have a family whose skin doesn't all match. And our adopted toddlers? They know what people are saying and they are watching our every move and how we respond. Let me paint you a picture: Woman walks through the grocery store with two kids in a cart and one kid walking next to the cart. One kid is screaming, one kid is trying to run away and the other one is whining about not getting her favorite cereal. Stranger walks up and feels like this is a good time to talk. Stranger says, "Oh my gawd! You have your hands full! Is he adopted?" Ahhhh, is he adopted. Seems like an innocent question, but it really singles our son out. We have taught all of our children to say, "We are an adoptive family." That simple phrase lets my toddler and the stranger know that we are all in this together. Usually that question is followed up by more questions that get personal really quickly.
It is not the job of my kids to be poster children for adoption. It is their job to be children. However, I do realize that many times we may be the only family that looks like ours that some people will ever talk to. So we try our hardest to be gracious- even when it's not convenient. When questions get personal, (How much did he cost? Do you get to keep him? Is his real mom dead?) I cut off the conversation. I don't want to educate someone about the intricacies of adoption and appropriate adoption language in the middle of the cereal aisle. Here is my script:
- I love to talk about adoption and how wonderful our children are! But, as you can see, it's a little difficult to talk about it in front of the children! Here's my card. Please feel free to email me and I'll be happy to talk to you about it!"
Since I use these cards when I speak at conferences or churches, I included more on it than is really needed. But if you just want something simple that has your name, email and blog address (if you have one) to hand to people you meet along the way, you can get some freebie cards at Vista Print. I can't tell you how many times this has saved me from being rude or having an awkward conversation in front of my children.
6. Trauma is real. All kids have fears, but our adopted children have fears that are very, very real for them as a result of their past experiences. They have fears of being abandoned, being hungry, being abused and all sorts of other things that children who have grown up with a loving parent who meets their needs don't have.
All toddlers go through stages of wanting to hit other kids. We have to teach them that hitting other children is not appropriate. With Miles, we had to teach him, by word and by deed, that moms and dads also don't beat up on their children. He had those fears because of past trauma. Miles was scared of animals. Miles was scared of black women. He tried to do things to our other children that had been done to him that were not things that you do to your brothers and sisters. His past directly played into how he functioned in his daily life. Seemingly small things would trigger uncontrollable tantrums in him. We had to learn to be accommodating of these things. We also had to teach him how to give a voice to these fears. ("Mommy and daddy keep me safe. They will not let animals hurt me." or "When I was in Congo, some people scared me, but mommy and daddy's friends are nice and will not hurt me."
Two years later, Miles still has trauma triggers. For example, when we went camping the last time, when it got close to bed time, Miles started acting strange. He sat down in his chair and whispered over and over, "Mommy and daddy keep me safe in my bed." What we realized is that he didn't think that same amount of safety applied when he wasn't sleeping in his bed and was instead sleeping in a tent. Those fears creep in and affect his behavior in some really strange ways. As parents, we have to learn to be patient and realize that even as time goes by (even as years go by) that our adopted children have experienced losses that we can't control that will affect them on very deep levels. I totally recommend reading Parenting The Hurt Child and The Connected Child for some great strategies for coping with trauma. I can't do justice to how trauma affects families in a couple of paragraphs, but just know that this is a very real thing and our kids need help learning to cope.
7. It's okay to ask for help. Sometimes we all get in over our heads. Too often we feel guilty and feel like we are never good enough parents. For an entire year, I felt like I was not doing an adequate job of parenting Miles. I thought maybe he would have been better off in a family where he would be the only child. Or that he would be better with a working mom so that he could be in day care since he thrived in more structure than I ran my house with. I lived with that guilt for far too long before I talked with our family therapist about it. Saying how I felt out loud made me finally realize that although I am not a perfect mom that I am the perfect mom for the kids that I've been blessed with.
I find that as adoptive parents we feel like we have to act like we have it all together even more so than parents of biological children. After all- did we not have to prove our worth as parents in front of countless agencies, social workers and embassies? So when things get hard, we feel like people are going to judge us more harshly. Know this- ADOPTION IS HARD. BEING A MOM IS HARD. (No matter how your children come to you) It's okay to not know how to do it all. Reach out to other people. None of us are meant to do this alone. Suck up your adoptive mama pride and ask for help. There is something magical that happens when us moms drop the pretense with one another and just be vulnerable. We actually get to a place where we can learn from one another and can be better moms to our kids.
8. Honor memories. Toddlers don't come with a blank slate. As a mom, this was a hard one for me knowing that my son had a whole other life before he came to me. I had to learn that honoring that life that he had does not make me less his "mom". It makes him know that his first culture and his family deserve respect and that he can talk about it and feel about it however he wants.
Toddlers come with little brains full of memories. Miles swears to me that when he was in Congo, he went to the river, caught a fish, "rolled it up"(his words) and then took it to his mom. This is the one memory that he comes back to over and over. He talks about it fairly often. I'm almost certain that this story could not be anywhere near true. But this is his perception of his life and if that is a memory that he wants to hang onto, I'm going to let him hang on to it. Our children's stories, birth families, birth cultures and their memories deserve to be honored.
8. Celebrate the joy: One of the most awesome thing about toddler adoption is that these little people already come to you with some really awesome personalities. I think that sometimes in adoption, we tend to focus on the things that we want to fix or help our children heal from. We sometimes (myself included) get so focused on attachment and healing and trauma that we forget to marvel in our kids. Sometimes when I look at Miles my mind just gets blown at how neat of a kid he really is. Someone else is responsible for coding his DNA with all those intricacies of his personality, but I'm lucky enough to get to be the one that nurtures those aspects of him. And that is truly cool!
I can't recommend adopting children that aren't babies enough. Sure, it comes with a unique set of challenges, but what parenting situation doesn't come with it's own unique challenges? Toddlers and older children are so deserving of families. Even though our adoption story hasn't always been a fairy tale and our transition was hard, I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.