You can study and learn lots about the HIV/AIDS, how a child may become HIV positive, how the child will fare, what medications are available, and even how contagious the child is to other family members. But all the facts still do not answer the questions that every prospective adoptive parent must ask: “What is it like to raise an HIV Child?”; “What does the future hold?”; “What will others think?“
Before you adopt a child—any child—it is only natural to consider what the response of friends and family will be. After all, this is one of the steps in the adoption process—telling others.
As with all adoptions, your family members may expect that you will adopt a child who will be like a birth child. But instead of announcing that you are adopting a healthy, newborn infant, you may then be explaining to them that you are adopting a child of another race, an older child, or a child with special needs. So while you have gone through the process of deciding on the type of child that you are equipped to parent, your family and friends probably have not experienced all the education, angst, discussions, and prayers that you have been through. They are envisioning a sweet, chubby nearly newborn infant, while you may find yourself telling them that you are considering adopting an HIV positive toddler from Uganda. That news may be quite startling to extended family members who, like you, must now readjust that image to a slightly older child who has a disease that has profoundly changed our American culture and only 20 years was a virtual death sentence.
Expect that there will be some friends and family who will greatly fear a child who is HIV positive. In fact, do not expect your family and friends to be knowledgeable about HIV infections. One study found that most people still have 25-year-old information about HIV/AIDs, from a time when AIDS was a deadly disease. They probably know of medication to control the virus, but they may have the image of a household of rubber gloves and alcohol bottles in every room and all clothes faded because of constant bleaching. Because HIV is so well-controlled here in the US, chances are your family and friends know someone who is HIV positive, but do not know their HIV status.
You can reassure others that HIV is transmitted only through sexual contact, infected needles, blood transfusions, and from mother to child through pregnancy, birth, or breast milk. The virus is not in urine, feces, tears, nasal mucous, or saliva. It is found only in semen, vaginal fluids, blood, and breast milk. There are no known cases of household members becoming infected from each other. The HIV virus is not contagious through living in the same household or sharing the same drinks and foods. In any non-sexual situation, HIV is only transmitted through blood.
Before making any difficult decision—especially as related to adoption, we must face our fears. So what are the fears that you have in adopting an HIV positive child? These are most likely the same fears you can expect that those in your circle. As those with Project Hopeful write, once you begin the journey of adopting an HIV positive child, you become an advocate, which means you also become an educator. Make sure that you have lots of information for your family, friends and church group, but do not overwhelm them.
They may react emotionally at first. They may say things like, “There are so many other orphans in the world; why adopt a child who is HIV positive?” Some might suggest that it is better to adopt an HIV negative child from Uganda, where everyday far more children each die from malaria than AIDS . And then there is the usual, “Why not adopt a child here in the U.S.? Why go overseas?”
Unlike other medical conditions, HIV infection carries with it many unearned implications. Others may fear that your child can spread the disease from casual contact. Some fears may be based on misconceptions, and some fears can be alleviated through the taking of proper precautions.
What your loved ones may really be saying is that they are concerned—concerned for you and your family and that the child will not live long enough to reach adulthood. Few families are seeking to adopt children who have illnesses or conditions that drastically limit the child’s lifespan. You can share that most of these children can live well into adulthood and even have a normal lifespan.
You may also worry as to how others will treat your child when they learn the child is HIV positive. Although you cannot control how every last person reacts to your child, you can control a number of factors. Just as you will share with some people that your child is adopted, this is not a fact that you will necessarily share with everyone. You share this information within a context as with any other personal information. Adoption is to be celebrated, but it is not a label. Likewise, being HIV positive is like any other condition; sometimes others need to know and sometimes it is really none of their business.
You and your child’s day-to-day interactions with others are what make life fulfilling and rich. Being concerned how others will react is a normal concern. There may be some people who will not be your friends any more. That is sad, but it may be a good way to eliminate people that you probably would rather not have in your life. Before you begin the process, you will want to make sure that you have a strong support system in place—for yourself, your other children, and your adopted child.
Remember, that some adoptive families tell of less than enthusiastic responses from others when they initially announce their adoption plans—regardless of the age, race, or health of the child. Yet, most family members, when they meet a child, naturally see the child and not the child’s illness. You will probably find that many of those who initially had concerns will embrace the child once the child becomes a member of your family.
In our next blog post, we will discuss the day-to-day living as an adoptive parent of a child who is HIV positive.