Fourteen hours… That is the number of training hours that the state required of my husband and me before adopting our first child from foster care. In fourteen hours we learned why children come into care and how that experience may manifest in the behavior of the child. We learned that there is loss, grief, and trauma in adoption and we learned about A LOT of policies and procedures. What we did not learn was how much we didn’t know.
Thirteen years later I can assure you that fourteen hours could not possibly have adequately prepared us for the job of parenting, particularly parenting an adopted child.
Those fourteen hours did not prepare me for the tough questions that always seem to come from the backseat of the car. They did not prepare me for knowing when and how to share the tough parts of his story. They did not prepare me for the identity issues he would face as a bi-racial child living in a white family. Though they taught us about trauma, they did not prepare us for it to manifest years later or how to explain that to others. They did not prepare us for handling the effects of prenatal exposure that did not manifest themselves until adolescence and puberty. And NO training of any kind for any parent could adequately prepare you to parent through puberty and the teenage years! (Oh the smell of teenage boys!)
Fourteen hours gives you just a glimpse into your journey as a parent and most importantly lets you know that you still have a lifetime of learning ahead. There is no easy path and no magic manual that spells it all out for you, however, there are a few things I have learned over the last thirteen years that have helped tremendously.
- Find your community. From day one of our adoption journey we have been intentional about surrounding ourselves with other adoptive families. Some of these families have privately adopted and some have adopted from foster care. Many have children in the same age range as our son and some are farther along on their journey. We have learned from each other and supported each other. Sharing resources, having an ear to listen, and a shoulder to cry on have been some of the biggest blessings of finding our adoptive community. They remind me that I am not crazy and I am not alone.
- Every age and stage is different. As our adopted kids grow and mature, so do their questions. Not only do the questions change, but our responses have to as well. What my son could understand and emotionally process at age five is very different from what he can understand and process as a teenager. Educating yourself about the emotional development of children will help you know what to share and when. It is their story and they have a right to know, but sometimes they need just enough for right now.
- Trauma is real. As beautiful as adoption is, the reality is that there is real grief and loss. Even if your child came to you as a newborn or infant, they have experienced great loss. To be the best advocate for your child, adoptive parents need to understand trauma and the effect that it has on their child. Educate yourself about trauma!
- Give yourself a break! Don’t reinvent the wheel. Parenting is hard! None of us have it figured out. Read, read, and read some more. Find blogs that you connect with. Find print or online magazines that share both professional and personal articles about adoption. Follow adoption agencies like Nightlight. Glean from those that have been there.
Fourteen hours… That is how long it will take you to figure out that this journey will be a lifelong learning experience.