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Adoption: lessons learned

As I’m writing this post, my son, who we recently adopted, is almost eight weeks old — which is to say, I’m definitely not an expert on this subject. It all happened pretty quickly for us, which is pretty rare in adoption. I haven’t read many books (yet), but I’ve been thrown into one of the most emotional, exciting experiences of my life.

So far, I’ve already learned some important life lessons, both about adoption itself (open, in our case), and one of the most important parenting lessons of my life as a mama, one that applies to both my children (even my biological one).

Here’s what adoption has taught me.

Out with the old: new adoption terminology

Photo by TheOnlyAnla

The phrase that most commonly rolls off the tongue is “giving up for adoption,” but a year ago, when our adoption journey began, we learned that term has long gone the way of “groovy” and “psych” in the adoption community.

And while the new alternative, “making an adoption plan” might sound like merely a euphemism, in reality it is a much better representation of the situation. In most cases, much counseling, deliberation and planning goes into the adoption choice.

The new, positive, terminology is more fair to all parties involved– not in the least, to the child. As I raise my son, I want to use a vocabulary that shows how much I value his birthparents and their role in giving him life and his unique genetic traits.

Here are a few examples:

  • old: real or natural mom/dad/parents; new: birth– or biological mom/dad/parents
  • old: He’s adopted; new: We adopted him (adoption as an action, not a description)
  • old: to give up the baby; new: to place the baby
  • old: to keep the baby; new: to parent the baby

Myth busted: the truth about birthparents

When we started our adoption journey, the biggest misconceptions my husband and I had were related to birthparents. Unconscious, stereotypical ideas went through our minds of uncaring, unloving baby-makers. When we were finally introduced to real-life situations and relationships (both through reading and through our agency’s orientation), we began to see some of the truths.

Often, the birthmother actually wants to be a parent but simply feels unable to at the time she finds herself pregnant. This was something I hadn’t thought of before. She has a deep love for the child, a love which allows her to give life to her child, and to choose a family to raise and nurture him or her.

Our birthmother has given us space to connect and bond as a family, although I know she desires to remain in contact with us and our son over the years. This is not the heart and attitude most stereotypes attribute to a birthparent.

The relationship is unusual, even awkward, as it is unlike any other relationship we’ve ever had. But thanks to this squishy, sweet bundle of joy, we now have an intimate connection with two people we barely know. Over the years, I’m sure even more truths will surface for us.

The biggest parenting lesson I’ve learned (thanks to adoption)

Photo by Weird Beard

As the mother of children both through adoption and through my own pregnancy, not every lesson I learn in parenting (and in life) will apply to my children the same. But going through the process of adoption — the waiting, the unknowns, the roller-coaster of extreme emotions, the lack of control — has taught me one big and general lesson.

It’s simple, really.

I have to hold my children loosely in my hand.

In California, where I live, the threat of an earthquake is always looming. For this reason, bridges and freeway overpasses are built with expansion joints — little gaps in the concrete — that will serve as space cushions in the event of movement.

As I raise my children, I can’t hold onto them with a rigid, possessive grasp. My grip is tender and protective, yet flexible enough to allow for freedom and movement.

Because, the truth is, I’m ultimately not in control. Whether I gave birth to them, or made the choice to adopt them, I must see each of them as “a treasure on loan from above,” as a friend of mine says.

Instead of frantically grasping them tighter, I daily remind myself to commit them into the strong, capable hands of the One who created them.

What’s the biggest parenting lesson you’ve learned so far in your journey? If you’ve adopted, what’s the biggest myth you’ve had busted?

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  1. Laura

    beautiful post, so true. so true. so thankful for our caring birthmothers & their caring loving families.
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..On my errands today… =-.

  2. Dena

    Thank you so much for your post. I needed it. We live in a situation that’s prone to increase a parent’s fears for their children. But really, there’s nothing I can do except what I can do. I can’t do what’s humanly impossible. Thank you for reminding me to daily commit my children to God. That’s really the best thing I can do, anyway.

  3. Michele T.

    Thank you for sharing. I am a birthmother and you are correct about the common misconception. Adoption begins and finalizes with love. Nothing less.

    Congratulations on your new family members. My daughter is almost 16 and we love that our sons can know their sister and her adoptive family. They have a bond that not even us parents will ever understand.

  4. April

    Thanks so much for your post. I have 3 biological daughters, one adoptive daughter, and another adoptive daughter due in August. Our adoption was super quick and I was completly unaware of exactly how emotionally exhausting the process was going to be. The birth mom to our daughter is the same for our new baby. I have a whole new view on birth parents. She is a lovely woman who has been dealt some serious blows in life. She loves these babies enough to give them life, and to bless our family. She will always be in my prayers.

  5. Molly

    My cousin adopted an adorable baby boy last March. On Mother’s Day, she reminded us that her son’s birthmother is the most selfless person she knows – and she gave my cousin the best gift ever.

  6. Katie ~ Simple Organic

    Thank you for this post, Nicole! We have just started our adoption journey – we are in the middle of all the paperwork associated with the homestudy. We hope to bring home a little child from Colombia in the next year or two! And we have so much to learn…. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Lee

    I started reading this post without thinking of myself at first, which is funny because our daughter joined our family through international adoption 4 and a half years ago. I tend to not think about the adopted part very often anymore.

    One myth that I was glad to dispell was the idea of “abandonment” in China. They of course use a written language that does not translate letter for letter like our own. So each symbol represents an idea or concept. There is a character that applies to my daughter that means “left to be found”. As she was carefully placed at the gates of the orphanage right before the start of the shift, the distinction from “abandoned” is important. Clearly her birth parent(s) wanted a chance for her to be safe.

    I often refer to her as the child of my heart, as the adoption process was similar to pregnancy in terms of preparing heart and home to welcome a child (I have a biological child as well to draw comparisons from).

    This is getting long, so in conclusion, congratulations on your newest family member.
    .-= Lee´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  8. Amber

    Great thoughts – thanks for sharing – especially in the newness of it all.

    One amazing adoption book I suggest is 20 Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed. My son is now 3 1/2 and I just read this a few months ago and it was SUPER helpful.

    One of the biggest myths that I have busted (only recently) is that adoptive moms do not need to feel guilty. As you stated, the birth mom dearly loves her baby. The moment that the child is handed over to the adoptive parents is extremely emotional. I have rarely experienced a moment where joy and sorrow are co-mingled like that. You are overjoyed w/ the sweet little bundle that is given to you, but at the same time, you look across the room at the empty arms (and in my case) sobbing birth mother and feel tremendous sorrow for her. I struggled w/ feeling guilty for quite a while because of her loss. The reality is, she does have a huge loss in her life. She will always have that – regardless of me. It is not my responsibility to undo that for her. I can love her while at the same time not carrying that weight around. Wow – has this been freeing for me as a mom and as a woman in an ongoing relationship with my son’s birth mom!
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..~ Join Swabucks Today! ~ =-.

  9. Vina

    I love this post! We have yet to adopt but we hope to, no, we want to. And I love reading other’s journey as I feel like it prepares me somehow. I love what you said, about holding our children loosely whether we adopt them or give birth to them. I like to think of parenting as practicing the ultimate hospitality in that we generously provide the resources our children need yet giving them a wide open space to be their own person and take their leave from our lives when they choose to do so. Thanks for this post, Ginger!
    .-= Vina´s last blog ..10 Nourishing Ways To Serve The World From Home =-.

  10. AllieZirkle

    Love this! Oh so true and such a great reminder.


  11. Kristen

    I read the first part of your post with interest because we have considered/are considering adoption…and also because my mother was adopted 2 days after her birth. For her, a closed adoption typical of the time period, she WAS adopted, not is adopted. Its something very much in her past. An action that is completed.
    The second part just rang so true about parenthood in general. Especially, “the waiting, the unknowns, the roller-coaster of extreme emotions, the lack of control.” I try to do right by my kids: teach them right from wrong, feed them healthy food, read to them often, make sure they brush their teeth, etc. But I can not prevent them from misbehaving in school, getting sick, struggling with speech, or falling and knocking out a tooth (all things that have happened in the last month!). Simply, they are not my possessions, but people in their own right who I am gifted to know and love. A difficult on-going lesson for mommy!

  12. Becky

    I love hearing about your story, and those of others here. Anything that shines a positive light on children being loved in a forever home is wonderful.

    There is one side I think is missing. We hear so much about international adoption. People are less likely to flinch when they see a beautiful chinese baby with parents that are not chinese. This is a very positive thing. There is, however, a huge population of children right in our own backyards (sometimes literally) that are in need of homes.

    I know in Connecticut alone there are 6,000 children ready and waiting to be adopted. There are no costs associated with the adoption. The children are provided with health insurance throughout their childhood and youth, as well as money for any college at UConn’s rate. And while it in no way takes care of all expenses there are sometimes stipends given to the new family to help with the costs of raising a child.

    I think adoption is wonderful, internation or domestic, private or state. Just remember to look at all the options to see what, or better yet who God is calling you to add to your family.

  13. Kimberley

    Thanks so much for posting this, I have found that most people are very undereducated about modern adoption and its terminology. Since we are talking etiquitte, please do not ask adoptive parents why their kids birthparents didnt want them Especially in front of the children! Its their story and if they want to share fine, otherwise please realize that every adoption story is different and special in its own way. Our kids birthparents are a married couple who already have 3 children. They are Christians and dont believe in abortion and felt that God was using them to help create family for those who couldnt have kids…like us! They are wonderful people and they will always have an honored place in our lives.

  14. Michelle

    Hi Nicole,
    Thank you so much for this post. I am a “birth-mom” who fits your description… just too young and immature when I found out I was pregnant at age 16 but wanted the best for my daughter and new someone else could do a better job. Thank you for addressing that myth and sharing honestly… b/c it is akward but sweet at the same time.


  15. Brooke

    Such a great and informative post. Proud of you Nicole. xo

  16. Kellie

    I am an adopted child with children of my own now. I want to thank every parent out there that cares so deeply to take on a child that is not their biological child. I had the best parents – without them I would not be the person I am today. Thank you all.

  17. Paula@Motherhood Outloud

    I love what you said about “holding our children loosely”. That is such a powerful and true statement, no matter how our children joined our families. There is so much fear in the world today and it can rob us of the joy of parenting, it can even scare people away from the prospect (especially in adoption)! But we are held tightly by One who knows all and loves us dearly. Thanks and congratulations!
    .-= Paula@Motherhood Outloud´s last blog ..What’s in a Name? =-.

  18. Sharon

    We have 4 children, 3 biological and our youngest (age 5) was adopted from Ethiopia in February of this year. The words you shared are so important. It is critical that our kiddos realize that adoption is a positive part of their story…and that it doesn’t define them.
    The process of adoption and our time in rural Ethiopia reminded me (again!) just how what a GIFT and BLESSING life is, and children are….unfortunately, sometimes I lose sight of that in my day to day. I have been so blessed.
    .-= Sharon´s last blog ..The money is rolling in… =-.

  19. Carlynne Hershberger

    Congratulations on your family. I wish you the best. As a mother who lost a child to adoption I would like to clarify a point or two though. The terms birth mother and biological mother are actually quite offensive to a lot of us out there. We really do prefer natural, real or just mother. It doesn’t need a prefix. I also don’t believe for a second that any mother “didn’t want” their children. In most cases it was dire circumstances that meant they didn’t have much of a choice. Mothers don’t want to give their children to other people to raise. Please hold your son’s mother close, the pain a mother feels when signing those consent forms is unfathomable unless you’ve been there and it’s a pain that never goes away.

  20. susan j

    Carlynne, thanks for your thoughts as a “mom who lost a child to adoption” & Nicole, thanks for sharing your sweet walk into parenthood again. We who have adopted don’t hear much from those who have givenchildren up & we have so many questions, thank you for sharing.
    I think if I could bust one myth it would be regarding older children. We adopted our daughter when she was 2 & our bonding was instant. Now as we plan on adopting again, we are considering elementary aged children. Now that I have elementary aged children, I can’t imagine them NOT having a real home, or the comfort of a mom or dad. I know there are alot of elementary kids out there that would fit fantastically into my home & while there will be issues (wouldn’t there be anyway??) I think the way there life will be changed by having stability & love will far outweigh the hardships, just food for thought…

  21. Carlynne Hershberger

    Susan, thanks for being open to hearing from us. I also want to say a HUGE thank you for adopting an older child. There are so many older children in need, I wish more prospective parents would consider them rather than only looking for a newborn. It was 30 years ago when I surrendered my daughter (we’ve been reunited for 8 wonderful yrs now) and it was a closed adoption. It’s the most horrendous kind. There’s too much pain for not only the mother but the adoptee also. I was coerced into it along with millions of other girls and the agencies of today are still out there recruiting young mothers, just using slicker tactics.
    So, that’s enough of that, this was a happy post and I want it to go back there so Nicole, thank you for posting and may you have many, many happy years with those sweet children. I loved seeing that photo too since I am currently waiting for the phone call that’s going to tell me I’m a grandma again – she’s due on the 14th 🙂 New life is always exciting!

  22. Heather Brooks

    We are currently in the midst of the rollercoaster, however, we are adopting from the foster care system, so the circumstances that our future children will come into our home will be slightly different. (Although I will even venture to say those that have had children permanently removed from their care don’t neccesarily love their children any less but simply do not have the mental health, support systems, etc. that we have. That is important to understand when honoring the family and history that our children have.) The question that most people ask is: aren’t you afraid of the court/system “taking” them away from us? However, the lesson I have learned from parenthood in general is that every moment I get to experience as a parent (currently to one biological son) is a gift and could be taken away. I didn’t choose not to parent my son because of a fear of loss and I will not shy away from a calling to parent those that do not have parents that can take care of them out of that fear, either.
    .-= Heather Brooks´s last blog ..{You Capture} Fun =-.

  23. Franticmommy

    Wow Nichole. Your post took my breath away. we too are adoptive parents and our case as well was considered “rare”. “Rare” because we met our birthmom through a fluke (fate) connection, and ours was FAST. We went from 7 years of struggle to being parents in less thank two months time! WOW. We were as green as grass too as far as parenting. Our Big Boy is now 7 and it’s been fabulous. 🙂
    .-= Franticmommy´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Email and Bacon =-.

  24. Claudia Cruz

    Well, I don´t really know how to begin my post. I guess i will just stick to your questions. I live in Guatemala and have 2 adopted children. Here things are different. I wish we were more opened about having “support groups” especially for things like this. Most adoptive families I know keep it as a secret. Even I didn´t know I was also adopted until last December. They is still a lot of shame in men and women who can´t have children and perceive themselves as “not normal”. I can bearly talk to anyone freely about how i feel and when i do with my very close friends i don´t always find enough empathy since they biological moms. So I´m always on the look for this type of stories. I have to say, though that i admire how you can have this open relationship with the biological mothers. I have put myself into that scenario and I just can´t.

    Back to your questions. There are two particularly mythis that I had “debunked”. First, blood doesn’t make us what we are. Blood doesn´t define who will be. My two children, have already surpassed beyond expectations whatever people thought they “could do” because of “where they came from”. Both are mayan descendants. They respond to every single stimulation they receive and have developed more than ok. Also, blood doesn´t “make us love” people. In Guatemala many, to many i guees, people think or feel they can only “love” whoever they share blood with. That’s not only stupid but false. I guess what i have learned as an adopted child and an adoptive mother is that one received love from whoever we have given love to.

    Second, little children do not get “traumatized” by knowing they are adopted neither all adults feel our lives are distroyed for knowing we are adopted. I for sure have witness and experienced both.

    greeting for all from Guatemala.

  25. Wendi

    Both my son and daughter were abandoned at the hospital. They are my world. The one myth I always try to bust is the “how could someone leave their baby like that”. I always say that for that birth parent, the decision had to be the hardest anyone could of ever imagined. That the love and selflessness it must of took to walk out those hospital doors without their newly born child must of been the most agonizing intense feeling. I for one think of them as giving the ultimate sacrifice. For me, it is the greatest gift. I will be forever greatful of my children’s biological mothers.

  26. Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith

    Thank you for your post, Nicole. Both of my daughters are adopted, the oldest internationally from China, the youngest domestically from a family member. I think it is important to remember that the birth parents chose the precious gift of life for our children.
    .-= Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith´s last blog ..No net gain? =-.

  27. bonnie

    Thank you for this post and the discussion that follows. I have three children, none of which are adopted. I just wanted to say I think you are all amazing to so selflessly offer your home to a child in this way. Parenting is such a challenge even when you have been with your child since conception. There are so many unknowns and emotions. I cannot imagine the added emotions of adopting a child. I don’t doubt that you love them as much as your biological children. But I imagine the relationships with their unique cultural pasts and their biological families must be immense. Having said that, I think we all have many lessons to learn from your post that relate to all children, biological and adopted. Thank you

  28. mary ann

    We adopted our multiracial daughter domestically when she was three months old. Her birthmother actually was adopted from Korea herself, and she knew when she got pregnant that she wouldn’t be able to provide the best care for the child. When we were in the Catholic Charities offices, waiting to hear if the birthmother actually surrendered her parental rights in court that day, the social worker returned to say that there was no doubt among anyone in the courtroom that the baby was loved. There wasn’t a dry eye there, she said, when the birthmother described why she wasn’t able to parent her baby as a single mother. Even more unselfishly, now that our daughter is 2.5, her birthmother has decided to stay in touch but not visit again … until our daughter decides she wants to meet her birthmother (if she ever does). She doesn’t want to force a relationship and will leave it up to our daughter to initiate it. So we will stay in touch via email and photos/videos, but that’s it for probably many years. To us, that is a true example of unselfish love.

    One other note … for whatever reason, I sometimes am annoyed when strangers assume our daughter was adopted internationally. True, we live in a very small town in the upper Midwest, my husband and I are white, and there aren’t many people of color around here. But in this day and age, it seems odd that people would jump to the conclusion that our multiracial daughter was born in another country and that we jumped on the international adoption bandwagon because it is a “fad” (yes, I have heard that comment). I try to not to sound irritated and just use it as an opportunity to educate the person about domestic adoption. Sigh.

  29. Susan O'Quinn

    What great stories! What a great way to capture these precious moments and to increase awareness about the realities of adoption. Love the post and the discussion it fostered! 🙂

  30. Gina

    Our adoption route started with foster care. Although she was a little over a year old when we adopted her, I’ve been saddened for the last year or so to see the pain in our now 8 year old daughter. It’s an open adoption, and I thought loving the birth mother, speaking only positively of her, and loving our daughter would make things alright, especially since she was a baby when she came to us (seven months). She “joked” with the birthmother at a visit, though, and said “Yeah, why’d you give me up?” We were stunned, and I filled the silence in after giving time for the birth mom to answer. I always tell our daughter that her Mom didn’t want to but couldn’t raise her at the time. Therapy wasn’t working, at least the therapist we chose. We keep trying to open communication lines but she won’t talk about it. Now I try to let it be her decision whether she wants to continue the visits (twice yearly). She still does. It hurts that no matter how much we love her, we can’t take away the pain. That’s what I’ve learned. I hope and pray she turns to Jesus for that.

  31. Stephanie

    What a great article! For as long as I had adoption in my heart, I knew I would love our little two year old boy (adopted from Kazakhstan — we also have two biological daughters, age 5 and 8). However, the biggest lesson I learned is how very much like “falling in love” it feels as it grows day by day. I also learned that in the beginning it’s okay to act “as if” you love your child, when those aren’t exactly the feelings I was feeling readily and right away as my 2 year old was displaying violence and aggression (and understandably so, of course) with me and our daughters during our first month as he was learning how to live in a family after such stark and less than optimal beginnings. Trust was built over time and I can happily report that at a little under 4 months home, it has been a remarkable transformation for everyone involved. He doesn’t even look like the same child to me, his face is softened and he looks bright and full of joy. It feels like a miracle to me and adopting our little boy has been the greatest thing our family has ever done. I can only imagine what the next 4 months and beyond will bring.

  32. Nina

    I haven’t adopted but a good friend did. her oldest is 8 now and it is an open adoption. like the entire extended family has been involved with her daughter. she said it was great, the grandparents lived in her neighborhood and were around all the time. I don’t think its ever a bad thing to let a child know they are/were loved. I think that would be one of the hardest decisions EVER to not be able to keep your child, I’ve never thought they were thoughtless, unloving people. I guess part of it is I’ve known several people who gave up (sorry can’t remember what you said is politically correct) their kids for adoption and it was a long thought out process and they thought about and mourned not having that child the rest of their lives.

  33. Ommax3

    🙂 As a mom of 3, two of whom were adopted many years ago, and one biological child, I just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts. As a mom quite a bit further down the road, I thought I would share my biggest myth buster…you do not need to keep talking about adoption and adoption issues all the time with your child. Our agency really stressed the importance of sharing and open communication, but I have seen some take it too far. My children are normal kids, who just want to fit in…and while they may look different(we adopted them from Korea) from us, in many ways they are just like us. We wait for them to bring things up, and if something strikes us as important, we discuss it with them…but we don’t talk every day about Korea, being unique…etc. We do tell them we love them and that they are our most precious gifts…all 3!


  34. A

    Thank you for this interesting post. We have three biological chilcren and we foster a fourth who is in weekly contact with her mother. I have a brother who we adopted. I find myself drawn to these blogs that are discussing adoption. We have close friends at church who have recently adopted two elementary school aged girls provincially and are having a hard time. I struggle to know how to best support families who we know God has called together and for whatever reasons are not clicking yet. My heart breaks for these children in the foster system who are older and have such baggage, and for those parents who have wanted nothing but to be parents. We know that they need love and prayer but we also want to “do” what we can to support them as a family. Sometimes we just don’t know how.
    Do any readers have any suggestions?

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