Planning for independence


Cathy Gilbert
Focus on Adoption magazine

Can we predict which of our kids (or kids waiting to be adopted) will be able to live on their own, in whatever manner we think people should as adults?

When I talk to adoptive parents who are considering adopting from the foster care system, they often say they will only consider a child who will be able to live independently as an adult.

I think that was one of our criteria the first time we applied to adopt, too.

But as our journey through parenting birth children and those who joined us by adoption has spanned three decades, we’ve evolved. What appeared a worrisome future for a child does not carry the same weight in comparison to many of the other challenges we’ve faced along the way.

I think what many of us mean when we say we want our child to live “independently” is that they will be able to move out when they are old enough, get a job, pay their rent/buy a home, etc. That they will become young adults who call you to tell you of their achievements, buy you birthday gifts (actually remember your birthday), and come home for dinner under their own steam once a month or so, bringing the delightful grandchildren with them in due course.

We soon discovered that this doesn’t happen much, or at least for a long time.

The moving out happens eventually, with most kids. The level of independence, and the ability to do that other stuff varies greatly.

The first child who joined our family by adoption was profoundly impacted by prenatal exposure to alcohol. We figured living independently was not going to be an option for him, probably ever, and adjusted our vision for the future.

Here was a child who barely understood simple concepts at age four, who needed extra time to learn basic things all the way through school, and who stopped performing at grade level in early primary classes. He was also a son who loved dinosaurs (like his big brother), bugs, cars, climbing trees, riding his bicycle and making weird noises (also like his big brother). He loved hugs and tickles and cheesies. At age 18 he got a job, and shortly afterwards he left home to share a place with friends before bouncing back after becoming unemployed, home for a year or so, an attempt to finish high school, and then out again, this time into his own apartment where he’s been ever since. Is he living independently? You betcha. He shops for himself, keeps his place mostly tidy, pays his rent on time and seems overall to do ok. He doesn’t have a phone so he’s hard to reach, and he doesn’t have a driver’s license (or a car). But he likes to visit, and is always happy to see us when we drop in on him. So, surprise, surprise. The son we least expected to live independently, is doing it. He’s not doing all those other things on my list. He hasn’t brought home any grandchildren, and he certainly doesn’t remember our birthdays. But the last couple of Christmases he’s brought gifts, and he seems to be maturing in varied ways all the time.

Can we predict who of our kids (or kids waiting to be adopted) will be able to live on their own, in whatever manner we think people should as adults?

We have 11 kids, who are aged 18 to 32 and all living out of the home. As I write, this it looks like one of our 19-year-olds may move home for a time; but the rest are living somewhere else. Our 18-year-old has moved in with his birth mother, our son with a brain injury from a motor vehicle accident (which took place long after his adoption) lives in a “home share” situation with a caregiver and another adult with disabilities. Five of our kids are in long-term relationships (married or engaged); four have kids. One of our young adults is struggling more than the others but odds are very good we could never have predicted the kinds of issues that are making her life hard, and her ability to cope more challenging still. So in terms of living “independently,” we seem to have lots of our kids doing it. Some of them wouldn’t have been thought of as able to do so way back when.

So when pre-adoptive parents say they want a child who will live independently, I nod my head. I know what they mean. I do too. I hope to have a few good years left after the last child has grown up to once again remember what it’s like to cook for two.

Cathy Gilbert is the adoptive mom to 17 kids: four by birth, 12 by adoption, and one she’s currently in the process of adopting.