Motherly Collective

You’ve endured the home study and the adoption wait. Finally, a baby is placed in your arms. The hard part is over, right?

That’s what I thought 22 years ago when my daughter’s birth mom selected my husband and me to parent her child when she wasn’t able to, and again two years later when my son’s birth mom did the same.

Today, I’d tell others who think that becoming a parent is the end of the hard road—“not so fast.” Instead, that moment is the beginning of a brand new journey, one that’s long, hilly and twisty.

Adoptive parenting is a whole new thing. It starts the moment you legally become parents, and it never ends while you and your child—underage or adult—walk the earth.

My actual experience with adoptive parenting, and my experience co-writing a book with a birth parent and an adoptee, confirms that there is a whole lot more to adoptive parenting than meets the eye. 

Here’s what I know from deeply listening to adult adoptee and birth parent viewpoints.

When what you “know” isn’t so

Adoptive parents tend to be ill-prepared for the extra layer adoptive parenting brings. We are steeped in a culture that tell us:

  • A baby is a blank slate
  • You are the real parent
  • You are so amazing for giving your child a better life

These societal suppositions are simplistic at best and downright wrong at worst. 

A baby is anything BUT a blank slate

As the title of the book by Bessel Vander Kolk, MD, tells us, “The Body Keeps the Score.” The baby’s body and mind knows Mom—-her rhythm, her gait, her heartbeat. Baby knows Mom’s sounds—her voice and her body’s processes. Baby knows Mom’s scent. When a baby emerges from the mothership and is eventually placed in “forever arms,” they seek familiarity in all senses.

But Baby doesn’t get it.

All is not lost

Separation from one’s very first connections involves wounding, no matter what comes next. But attuned parents can support the adoptee’s process of healing by creating space for grieving and opportunities to melt the defenses that instinctively enter. Parents need to have the ongoing capacity, over time, to acknowledge and make space for that grief. The grieving process cannot be overlooked, glossed over or cut short.

Biological ties

While researching and writing my new book Adoption Unfiltered, with co-authors adoptee, Sara Easterly and birth parent, Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, I discovered that babies are born not only with implicit (preverbal) memories that began before birth but also that inside each of their cells is a tie to their ancestral line.

Clearly, a baby whose body and mind have existed before birth is not a blank slate. Parents who can be open and curious about this are in a better position to see the adoptee for who they are and to more effectively tend to the wounds of separation.

You ARE a real parent but you’re not the only real parent

When our society uses such language to declare there can be only one real mom or dad in an adoption arrangement, adoptive parents may feel threatened.

And what does the qualifier “real” mean for my co-author, Kelsey? She placed her son for adoption seven years ago, and she is pretty real to him, as are my own son and daughter’s four birth parents to them.

“We get stuck in a binary mindset, and that doesn’t serve the child you’re parenting,” says Kelsey. “Open adoption isn’t co-parenting, but it can be collaborative. We can all be real without taking away from each other.”

“Understanding that we have two sets of parents and that both are real is a complex concept to grasp,” says Sara, founder of Adoptee Voices and the adoptee in our Adoption Unfiltered collaboration. “Adoptees can feel pressured by our parents or culture to choose one ‘real parent,’ which feels like a lose-lose situation.”

Besides being real enough, adoptive parents may also grapple with feeling good enough. This is where the “better life” narrative can become problematic.

You may be amazing, but not for giving a child a better life

Sure, it might feel great to think you’ve elevated a child from a worse life to a better life, but what does that line of thought feel like to an adoptee?

“It’s an inherent judgment of our first families that suggests we need to be saved from them,” says Sara. “And that intensifies the divide within us. It can confuse and silence us. Adoptees say over and over that we weren’t necessarily given a better life—factoring in the losses as well as the gains—but merely a different life.”

Adoptive parents: How to level up in 2024

As Sara and Kelsey reveal to adoptive parents, adoption’s complexity is vast and can’t be simplified. We serve our children better when we unfilter the ways we consume adoption information. Seek out adoptee-created writings, podcasts and films. Search for birth parent voices to better understand and honor your child’s origins.

“We need to know our parents will keep growing and showing up for us, no matter what,” says Sara. “That you’ll always be committed to our flourishing and forever work to win our hearts.”

You’ll find, like I have, that when we are open to understanding the perspectives of adoptees and birth parents, we are better able to level up as parents in an authentic way. We have more tools—better tools—to help us tune into our child’s specific needs over the entire hilly and twisty parenting journey.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.