I’m an Adoptive Parent and Here Are the 6 Things I Want You to Know

Advice for Adoptive Parents - An illustration of a smiling woman crouched down with her arms outstretched to a shy, apprehensive young girl. There are heart emanating from the woman and question marks emanating from the girl. It is all on a pink background.
Paula Boudes for PureWow

Kristin Fasy is an adoptive mother and director for a Colorado-based nonprofit focused on supporting youth and families impacted by foster care and adoption. She adopted her 11-year-old son four years ago. Here is what she wants anyone considering adoption to know.

1. There Are No “Blank Slates”

A child of adoption is a child that has experienced trauma, what psychiatrists call the “primal wound” of losing their biological parents. As such, there are no “blank slates” (even if you adopt a newborn). If you choose to walk the path of adoptive parenthood then you are committing to not just raising a child, but to facing and addressing your own triggers and traumas, so that you can support your child and family in a lifelong healing journey.

2. Examine Your ‘Why’

The summer I turned 10, the family across the street started fostering a little boy. He was about 18 months old, shy and watchful. I was fascinated by him, gazing into his eyes for evidence of the troubled past the adults whispered about. Then one day in the fall he was suddenly gone, and the young foster mother explained that the boy’s mommy was able to take care of him again and it was time for him to go home. “But I thought this was his home,” I said. She smiled at me. “It was.” Before meeting the boy I had never thought about what happened to children whose parents couldn’t care for them, but that summer something clicked. From then on, I knew that foster care and adoption would play a part in my life.

It's not a requirement to know from an early age that you want to adopt like I did. Plenty of the adoptive parents I know did not even think about it until adulthood, either because they learned they couldn’t have a biological child, they felt called for religious reasons, they learned about the number of children needing families in their community, or they met someone connected to adoption.

There are many valid reasons to consider adoption, but these sparks of interest must be followed by close examination of your attachment style and beliefs about parenting.

Entertaining the idea that you will “save” a child by adopting him, believing that “love is enough,” wanting to show the world how anti-racist you are by adopting a child of another race, or wanting to adopt so that others will think you’re a good person are ill-informed and ego-driven motivations. If these thoughts have crossed your mind, it’s OK! But take them as a signal to do a deep dive into what adoption entails before making a decision. Adoptive parents that do this are much better equipped for the road ahead than those who take the plunge based on desire for a child alone.

3. Don’t Expect Them to be Grateful

Before my son came, I had read and studied enough about adoption to know that any child coming to our family would require lots of love and support to healthfully attach to us. I knew that it would not be a straight line to love and stability, and that my role was to create an environment where he could feel safe and heal, not to smooth over his traumas or re-frame his pain. I knew that gratitude was a ridiculous thing to expect from him. Yet, my subconscious didn’t care about what I “knew,” because once he came home and I began observing my feelings and reactions, I was forced to admit that gratitude was on my mind.

When my son would complain that his sister—my biological daughter—had more stuffed animals than him (after we had stocked his room from floor to ceiling with games and toys in preparation for his arrival), it rankled me unreasonably. When we bought him a bike and he left it in the park just a few days later, I seethed. Same for the scooter, the skateboard, and the Kobe Bryant sweatshirt he begged for. When my daughter did something similar, I felt annoyed but was able to move on pretty quickly, whereas I would feel frustrated for weeks when my son did it.

It was hard to acknowledge this ugly, involuntary reaction, but I forced myself to face it. Yes, I admitted, a part of me expected gratitude, and I was ashamed. Even though I “knew” his emotional age was years younger than his chronological age; even though I “knew” he was doing the best he could in every moment; even though I “knew” he was healing from a profound trauma and that none of it was his fault. To know and to feel are two different things. Now when I feel indignant, frustrated, or disappointed, I remind myself that those are gaps in my compassion and understanding, not his shortcomings. I take a walk or some deep breaths, or text my therapist. And I forgive myself.

4. Fake It Til You Make It

I have heard from some adoptive parents that they “instantly fell in love” with their child. That sounds lovely, and while it may feel true for some, for most of us it just doesn’t work that way. When I met my son he was 7 years old, wearing a yellow windbreaker and hand-me-down jeans and smiling nervously at me from the stairwell of his foster home in Ethiopia. He had no reason to love me, a stranger who his caregivers urged him to call “Mom.” I knew his face only from pictures, and he was so beautiful, so small and vulnerable, that it was easy to try to convince myself that I loved him at first sight, but I didn’t. My mama heart beat fast as we hugged awkwardly, polite and shy with each other, and as he took my hand I thought how his hand fit like a puzzle piece inside another woman’s, not mine; I wondered if he was thinking the same thing.

My instinct to protect him was immediate and visceral, and it is what fortified me in the months that followed, when I found myself wishing I could fast-forward to a future in which we shared a version of the deep, eternal, satisfying love that my daughter and I enjoyed. Each night, after another anxious, tantrum-filled day, I would cry when he finally fell into restless sleep, hating myself for being glad to be alone, questioning why I ever thought I could be what he needed. “Bear your own discomfort,” my therapist gently instructed during our weekly call. “Your small daily actions, your calm consistency no matter what, is planting seeds of trust. Keep stepping—the love will come.” So I faked it. I patiently endured his efforts to push me away, showing up for him every day with love and warmth, even when I didn’t feel it. When I lost my temper, I would look into his eyes and apologize. “I’m sorry,” I would say gently, exhausted and despairing and not feeling very sorry at all. “I shouldn’t have yelled, I’m working on that.” The days were long and our moments of true connection were far between, like a radio with bad reception—the occasional blip among the static.

One morning, a few months after he moved in, my son came downstairs and hung uncertainly in the doorway, watching me as I read a book on the couch. “Good morning,” I said with a gentle smile and returned to my book, my body tensing for a tantrum. He inched toward me, chewing his lip, eventually sitting down and resting his head on my shoulder. “Can I sit with you?” he asked shyly, not looking at me. “Sure, buddy,” I said, my heart racing. I continued reading, wrapping my arm around him as he burrowed against me and drifted off to sleep. That day we had several bursts of music among the static, and as the months passed those bursts turned into songs, then albums. Four years later I no longer “fake it,” but that doesn’t mean we’ve “made it.” If anything, I work hard to remember that it’s my job to earn his trust and love every day. That is a delightful burden to bear, because the love we share is wide and bone-deep.

5. Find Your People

Your bio mom friends won’t get it. When they ask you how it’s going and you describe a fight or a power struggle or an issue at school, they will inevitably say, “that sounds just like my Jack, that’s what 10-year-old boys do!” And you’ll smile and agree and say thanks and hang up the phone, and then you’ll call your adoptive mom friend and tell her the same story. She will listen, and say how f*cking hard it can be, and sit with you in your bewilderment and frustration and pain, and crack a crass joke, and drop a care package off on your doorstep on a weeknight after work even though she has three kids of her own to take care of. And when she calls you the next week with her own story, you’ll do the same for her. Because it is beautiful and life-changing and difficult, mundane and rewarding, and you’re going to need your people to walk with you and help you laugh and cry through it all. So go find them.

6. Be Kind to Yourself

I remember passing a boy and his mother in Target when I was newly married, before I had kids. The boy was waving his legs like an upended cockroach on the floor and screaming while his mother casually browsed the jewelry selection a few feet away, sipping Starbucks. I watched, appalled, as she glanced at the wailing boy, then put her headphones in and resumed perusing the racks. I thought something along the lines of “no child of mine would ever behave that way,” then flounced off toward the makeup section, smug in my own conviction. 

Fast-forward four years: I have stood on my porch drinking coffee while my son ran naked down our quiet, tree-lined street screaming like a banshee while the neighbors watched. The week he turned 8, after he voiced a need that neither he or I knew he had, I cradled him in my arms for hours while he drank from one of my daughter’s old baby bottles and fell asleep against my chest. I replaced the rotten bananas he hoarded in his backpack with fresh ones every week until his need to hoard food subsided—I must’ve spent a grand on bananas that year. Once, sleep-deprived and irate, I screamed at my son and pushed his grasping hands off my arm so hard that he stumbled and fell against the stairs, his eyes wild with fear.

In short, I have done things as a parent I could never have predicted, things I’m ashamed of, things I would have judged others for not that long ago.

Over time I’ve realized that there is no magic bullet. That trauma-informed training class for adoptive parents is awesome….except it doesn’t always work for our family. The advice from my therapist, friends, or partner is great…until it isn’t. Prioritizing my own sleep, alone time, and interests means that my kids get less of my time…and that’s OK, because we’re all happier and healthier. Being a “good parent” isn’t any one thing, but rather a stew flavored with all the advice, observations, trial-and-error, and hard-earned lived experiences that accumulate over the years. I’m not perfect, and I’m working on being OK with that.

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Freelance PureWow Editor