Clare from Northern Ireland is a mother of three, including one adopted child. She has experiences of fostering and adoption both personally and professionally. For National Adoption Week Clare spoke to Relate NI about some of the challenges and joys of adoption, and how her family were supported by Relate NI Family Counselling.
Please note that Pseudonyms have been used to hide the identity of the interviewee and her family.
A few years ago, we added to our family of four by adopting our daughter Cora. We had positive experiences of fostering before, and we decided to become early permanent carers. This means that we acted as foster carers to Cora from a very young age until it was approved that we could adopt her, and is designed to reduce the impact on children of being moved around through the care system.
We were advised that the process would take around 6 months, but it ended up taking over two years. This was quite difficult as our family had grown to love and become attached to Cora over this time, but there were anxieties about it not being official.
During this time, we often felt that we had to ‘look good’ for social workers and others, we were afraid to reach out for support because it might make us look like we were not good enough. We were determined to make everything be and look normal.
The reality is, what you are doing is totally unusual. In families where a parent has given birth to their child, the parents don’t get their parenting scrutinised at every point. They also have the ability to talk to other parents or family members, but because Cora and our circumstances had to remain somewhat confidential, we didn’t have this peer support.
People who adopt sometimes approach this life transition from an already stressful period of time perhaps after experiencing fertility issues or unsuccessful IVF. For us, we already had two birth children, and we had previously had a long term foster child, so the process although we wouldn’t change it for the world, did put some strain on our couple and family relationships.
I always think about being on an airplane where the oxygen masks have come down. You have to put yours on first before assisting others to do so. Looking after yourself, and maintaining your relationships is really important for adoptive parents, as it is for all parents. Do not feel guilty if you prioritise yourself from time to time, yes your child should be front and centre but it’s okay to also have a cup of tea and run a bath.
Remember that you can have somebody approved to help with childcare, a secondary attachment figure, and I would really recommend doing that at the beginning of the process. Doing so meant we could even pop down the street for a coffee for an hour sometimes, otherwise extended family would not have been able to help with childcare.
I should mention that your family and friends may not know how to handle your adoption. For example, they may want to celebrate with you like they might if you told them you were pregnant. I think it’s really important that you do this, just make sure to be honest with them about what you would like and what is appropriate for you and your child if the celebration is coming after they arrive.
Afterall, your child has been removed from their birth parents and perhaps the only home they have ever known, regardless of the context of their previous situation they may not see the occasion as celebratory. Having your family write meaningful cards that your child can appreciate later on can be a nice thing to do.
Adoptive children don’t always experience a level playing field as other children. They may have been subject to adverse experiences which affect their development. The most important thing to do is not to compare your child to others. This means don’t worry if your child is taking longer to learn something which other kids their age are already able to do. Similarly, while it is important to celebrate your child’s achievements, try not to overdo it and make a massive deal when they complete a task you might find remedial for other children. Your child is on a trajectory, it won’t happen overnight but they will naturally grow toward optimum health and development.
Both single parent and LGBTQ+ adopters are rightfully on the rise. You may feel some insecurity around becoming an adoptive parent, and it’s really important to feel secure in your sense of self first. But please keep in mind, your family make up may actually be preferable for some children’s situation.
I once heard about a child who had been a victim of abuse and found it difficult to be around and trust men. The child was placed with a single female adoptive parent which was actually preferable for them and their situation.
As long as you make an effort to understand child development and what they will need, and are prepared to deliver all roles, you are perfectly able to provide good enough parenting and a safe environment for your child.
People tell you it takes a village to raise a child and I remember always thinking – Where is this village!?
Never be afraid to seek out support. This can also be difficult because family and friends also like to tell you “What you are doing is amazing!” or something to that effect. While they are trying to be nice and motivate you, what I would have found more helpful is recognition that I was sometimes struggling.
We eventually reached out to Relate NI for what we thought was support for our children. However, when our counsellor asked to see myself and my husband alone it was wild – we hadn’t realised just how much we were carrying around. When you are the people who look after everybody else – who is looking after you? We felt really validated in some of our struggles after that.
The family counselling also created a space for our children to open up about how they are feeling. It turned out that our older son had not gotten over that our previous foster child returned to their birth family. The whole time he had been worrying that this might happen to Cora, because we hadn’t correctly explained the difference between fostering and adoption to him. We hadn’t assured him enough that Cora would be part of our family forever. This was a bit of a breakthrough moment that we may never have realised were it not for taking part in Relate NI family counselling.
Relationship counselling can also be beneficial for children to help them understand the narrative around their birth parents, their adoptive family and their place in the world. It gives them an impartial space to talk about their feelings without feeling threatened, and the emotional support to move forward.
In hindsight I realise that I should have asked for help for our family faster. It doesn’t mean you are not coping well or are not good parents – what you are doing is unusual and besides, all parents and families are allowed to get support!
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