When my kids struggle or act out, my antennae are always up for what might be below the surface of an issue. All parents do this, right? But wow, do adoptive parents ever have to bring their whole brain to it, using use their x-ray vision to see right down to the bone.
Here are two stories that illustrate the “below the surface” concept that amazes some of my friends who have little experience with adoption.
We had two lovely dogs when my first son came home. It quickly became clear to us that one of them was less than enamoured with our new son. We found a wonderful home for her, and while we were sad about saying good-bye, we knew it was best.
About three years later, while looking at pictures, our son asked what happened to that dog. I answered that she had been aggressive with him and that to keep him safe, we found another home for her. He started to cry hysterically, repeating, “Please give her another chance, please give her another chance.”
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. The innocent story of our parental instinct to protect our baby had, for him, become a personal story of abandonment and rejection.
I quickly started to talk about the love between the dog and her new owner, how we wanted the best for her, and how they are now a family and nothing would ever separate them. Just like how he would never be separated from us.
Mother’s Day grief
The next story takes place on Mother’s Day, the first one we celebrated with Ethan. My husband asked what I’d like to do. I replied that I would love to go to a nursery and choose some annuals for our garden. I don’t know how I missed this, but Mother’s Day—one of the most complicated days of the year for a child adopted at an older age?
Anyway, oblivious, we entered the nursery, and within minutes I saw my little boy standing in front of a potted
plant. He was immobilized, tears streaming down his cheeks. He couldn’t talk. I looked at the plant he was standing in front of, and realized the plant and his birth mother shared the same name.
He looked at me with pleading eyes. I nodded slowly and wrapped my arms around him, letting him know that I understood.
We brought the plant home and found a place for it in our garden. My son tended it carefully. What a wonderful way to bring his birth mother into our lives, I thought. A constant reminder that she’s part of this extended family. A constant reminder…
Solutions aren’t always obvious
By the next day, he was in a full-blown meltdown. “I didn’t know how hard this was going to be!” he screamed at me. Trying to play emotional catchup, I asked him if he wanted me to take out the plant. “Yes. No. Yes. No!” Argh. I could see what was happening. I asked him if taking out the plant would make him feel like he was rejecting her. He nodded through his tears. I realized he needed me to take charge.
The next day, I moved the plant into a planter with wheels. He made a feeble attempt at a protest—which was clearly edged with relief. We now roll the plant to the side of the house when we don’t want it to be in our space, and roll it to the front of the house when we want to show it off. It worked out.
Sometimes the solution isn’t obvious. We have to learn to pay attention to what’s under the surface.
Claire’s 10-year-old son was adopted from a Russian orphanage when he was 19 months old. Her second son, Ethan, joined their family from foster care at age seven. In this 12-part series, Claire shares the “fast and furious learning” that she and her family experienced when they adopted an older child.