Top 20 Things I Wish I Had Known About Adoption Before I Adopted

Note: A version of this post appeared in Scary Mommy. The changes between that post and this one reflect my growing awareness of adoption over the years. I have placed an asterisk before the pieces of advice that contain changes.


I recently cobbled together a list of wisdom and advice I wish I had gotten prior to forming a family with children (by any means: adoption, foster care, step-parenting, birth, etc.).  Since our family was formed through both adoption and birth, though, I thought I’d add the top 20 things every parent should consider before adopting as well:

*1.  Adoption has long been advertised as a wonderful way to form a family. Indeed, many wonderful families attest that they were formed through adoption. As we hear more and more from adult adoptees, though, there are a variety of reforms required within the realm of adoption in order to make it truly ethical. For this reason, I no longer view adoption as a means to forming a family, but as a last resort when finding a family for a child in need of one. I’ve written more about that here,

2.  No matter how simple or rosy your adoption might seem, all adoption is predicated upon loss.  Even if you are the lucky one-in-a-million to “catch” baby in the hospital and you celebrate with the birth mother as she joyfully signs parenting rights over to you, your child will be affected by the adoption.  Your child’s birth parents and extended family will experience loss.  You will feel the sting of not having carried your child.  Everyone will miss the medical history if there is none available. You will have to deal with the emotional scars of adoption.  Even if it doesn’t look like there are any scars, there are.

*3.  Make sure your family is surrounded by supportive people who will shower you with some of the appropriate rituals that traditionally come with forming a family with children.  The two showers we were thrown made us feel like we were a real family (despite the many messages out there that we were not). Be careful, though, that these rituals are appropriate and sensitive to the needs of the child.

4.  Some people will treat you like you are not a real family.  Our first social worker — I said SOCIAL WORKER — was pregnant.  She constantly communicated to us that while she was forming a family, we were apparently playing house.  When she did a home visit, 8 months pregnant, she stopped at the nursery and said, “Oh…hmmmm…I guess I wouldn’t recommend setting up room for a child since, you know, you might not get one.”

Before firing her, I asked, “Do you have a nursery set up?”

“Yes,” she said, pointing to her swollen belly, “But, you know, mine’s a sure thing.”  Ouch.

*5.  Set aside two to three times more money than the agency tells you you will need for the adoption.  If you need it, it is there.  If you are lucky enough not to need it — consider a college fund or donations to families who are trying everything possible to parent their children against all odds.

*6.  Make absolutely sure that you have a community of people surrounding you throughout your adoption process. Make sure this community reflects the needs of the child you are adopting. If you do not have such a community, one that can offer your child what you cannot (e.g. racial mirrors, gender mirrors, ability mirrors), you should wait before considering adoption.

7.  Most people, when they inquire about your children, really do have good intentions.  Some are just curious.  Some are considering adoption.  Some have already adopted.  Some are grandparents awaiting a grandchild through adoption (we meet a lot of these).  Some are from your child’s country of origin.  Many are innocently curious children.  Be kind.  Give them the benefit of the doubt when they are asking questions — until they have proven that their intentions are not good.

8.   Occasionally, you will meet people whose intentions are not good.  Feel free to tell them it is private, ignore them completely, or in extreme cases, ask them an equally rude question.  Once a lady pointed at my kids and asked, “Where did you get those and how much were they?”

Hoping to educate her on the language a bit, I responded, “They joined our family through adoption.”

She pushed, “I can see that, but what’d you do to get them?”

I asked, “Are you considering adoption?”

“No,” she responded incredulously, “I just want to know where and how you got ’em.”

Sobering up to the situation, I asked, “Do you have children?”  She nodded yes.  I rapidly retorted, “Were they born vaginally or did you have a c-section?  When you conceived them, what position did you use?  How much was the hospital bill?”

She walked away and the checker plus the 2 other people in line at the supermarket all applauded.

That was the only time I can recall where I felt the need to be rude in response to an adoption question.

9.  Respect your child’s place of birth and family of origin.  While it is important to be honest if they come from a family or culture with big challenges, always be respectful.

10.  If you are adopting because you believe the child you wish to adopt is a heathen or going straight to hell without your help, DON’T.  If you are repulsed by the potential child’s cultural heritage and are adopting to save them from it, do not adopt.  That is not love.  That is not respect.  In doing so, you strip the child of dignity.

11.  Before even beginning the process, know this: you are in this for the long haul.  If your child develops in a way you did not expect, you are still their parent.  Do not assume that you can do anything with your child through adoption that you would not/could not do with a child from birth.  Yes — adoption can be difficult.   As I mentioned, there are often scars.  Sometimes those scars can be incredibly challenging.   You need to know that before you sign on the dotted line.  If you would not “return” a child born to you with a severe disability, don’t expect to “return” a child from adoption who is emotionally scarred.  If your child needs a level of support that you cannot provide by yourself, it is your job to find the necessary resources AND continue to support the child as a parent should.

*12.  At some point, no matter how much you have reenforced positive adoption language, your child, most likely a ‘tween, will scream for their “real mother/father” when angry with you.  It will sting. Let them cream it anyway. They need to process.

13.  Likewise, if your child is not able to have a relationship with their birth family, they will fantasize about living with them — and the fantasy will often times look better than their real life.

14.  Numbers 12 and 13, as well as other painful scenarios — like your child running away to find their birth family — are perfectly normal.

15.  Normal, age-appropriate challenges will be both punctuated and informed by your child’s adoption.  Often times, that which punctuates and informs those struggles is 100% unknown to you.  This is hard on everybody.  As difficult as it is for you as the parent, though, imagine how tough it is for your child that you and they don’t necessarily know what they have been through.

16.  The lack of medical information, should that be an issue, is a challenge for the parent.  For many children, it is confusing at first (0-7 years), then embarrassing (8-11 years), then devastating (12+ years).

17.  Any amount of loss that you are feeling because you did not carry your child in pregnancy, did not know your child from birth, etc. is multiplied by a great deal for the child.  While you sort through your own loss, recognize that their loss is greater.

18.  Most of your friends and family will not fully grasp the labyrinth of emotions involved in adoption.

19.  Find people who do fully grasp the labyrinth of emotions involved in adoption.

20.  Adoption is still a subject that requires some careful treading in many circles.  People will tell you that the issue you are facing is a normal, age-appropriate issue.  That may well be true, but adoption adds another layer and you, as the parent, must be prepared to dig in and work through the issue with your child.  Other people will respond to adoption thoughtlessly (the grandparent who treats children who were adopted differently, the teacher who points out your child any time adoption is a topic, the neighbor who is uncomfortably nosy).  In choosing to adopt, you are also choosing to be both your child’s protector and your child’s advocate.  You will be responsible for educating the uncouth teacher and nosy neighbor.  It is your job to have the difficult conversation with the thoughtless grandparent.

BONUS: There are some significant myths about adoption that you will have to sort through BEFORE you adopt if possible.  I have written about them here.