Monday, February 27, 2012

Sharing More About Adopting An Older Child

I’m often asked what it’s like to adopt an older child. There can be wide variances in family’s experiences. Each adoption is so different and based on many factors including your child’s background, what loss they’ve experienced, the amount of time spent in the orphanage, what your family dynamic is (e.g. siblings, birth order, etc.), how you attach/bond to your child, and the list goes on. In some cases, a child who has lived with their birth family for a while, has formed secure and loving attachments and then is adopted may have an easier time adjusting than a toddler or preschooler age because they understand what is happening. The best advice I can give if you’re considering older child adoption is to read books and talk to fellow adoptive parents about their experiences.

That is just what we did when we found out that Etta’s older sister had been relinquished. We had not planned to adopt again. One of those bigger than life things that comes your way. But despite the fact it was so unexpected, we couldn’t imagine not bringing her home. And while we were so excited for her join our family, we also set out to prepare ourselves to help make the transition as smooth as possible (I will say that no matter how well prepared you are, there will still be times when you just have to live in the moment, follow your gut, because nothing can really prepare you for everything). 

Overall, our adjustment with Meskie has gone incredibly well. I attribute a great deal of this to her personality (she’s a happy, loving, confident girl), her birth sister already being home (whom she remembered and was close to), as well as our family dynamic in general (brothers/family who also adored her). We love her and can’t imagine our lives without her.

It’s not always been smooth sailing, however. And I think it’s important fellow adoptive parents be transparent with their experience since adoption can sometimes be overly romanticized. So I will speak to some of the challenges we faced with her transitioning into our family. The issues were really more behavioral than anything else. We feel so fortunate she was so loving from the beginning....we weren't dealing with a child who wouldn’t look us in the eye, or didn’t want to hug us. My heart goes out to families dealing with a child who is struggling with attachment.

So here are some of the things we dealt with the first bit of time home:

·         Defiance. Clearly she experienced very few boundaries in Ethiopia. A few months ago, once she knew enough English (she came home not knowing any), she actually told me "Mama, in Ethiopia, no brushing hair, no shower, no brush teeth, no do this or that....just run and play." I get it. Of course she was going to balk at any boundaries. We made a point to really pick our battles, but we needed to establish some core boundaries and stay consistent with them

·         Tantrums. Especially when it came to transitions. We're talking major meltdowns because we finally made her come inside to eat after spending 6 hours outside. Or because she couldn't take her 5th bath of the day. Or at bedtime because she didn't want to stop playing. I believe language played a huge part as to why she would throw a fit. We couldn’t communicate well with each other and she would get frustrated. We had a difficult time explaining the why or preparing her for transitions. Her tantrums gradually went away as she understood the boundaries and the language barriers was gone

·         Eating. She would need to eat frequently and know she had food and water accessible to her at all times. So I would have healthy snacks she could eat any time. And whenever we went anywhere she had a little purse in which she carried snacks. This has pretty much gone away. She is the best eater ever (in terms of what she eats and the quantity) and she is secure in knowing there will always be enough food

·         “Shopping” for her needs. This is extremely common. She is a very social and friendly child and she would go around and want to be hugged or picked up by others she didn’t know. We had to limit this since it interfered with her bonding to us. She needed to know that we were her parents and we were going to meet her needs. This also gradually went away as she learned that we were her forever parents and would meet her needs

·         Grief. It’s difficult to prepare yourself for the level of grief your child will likely experience (and continue to experience at different times in their life). Most of these kids have gone through so much and as a parent, it hurts to see them hurting. But they are resilient. Meskie has grieved. We were so lucky that when she was sad, she would share openly with us. One of the benefits of adopting an older child is they are able to share about their experiences…the good the bad and the ugly. And you get to hold them, love them through it all. For Meskie, the moments of grief were often brief, intense, but then she was back to her happy self shortly after. It’s been a while since we’ve seen her grieving so she has worked through a lot already.

So what is life like now? Meskie is super happy, well-adjusted, well-behaved and rarely has a meltdown. It just took her some time to feel secure in the love we have for her; to learn this was her new home for good, and what the new norm looks like. She gets along so well with her brothers and sister and just fits right in personality wise. All of them are awesome playmates. And she and Etta have a special bond. To see the two of them together makes your heart happy. No jealousy, no bickering. And she is re-creating Etta’s memory by sharing all the stories of their life in Ethiopia.

We feel so fortunate we were given the opportunity to raise such a bright, caring, loving soul. We are all settled in as a family of six and this is how it was supposed to be. One of my favorite quotes that sums up this past year: “We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” (Joseph Campbell)