I was talking to a dear friend today about her impending adoption of a sweet girl from overseas. There is so much work, toil and strain in completing an adoption, and often placement seems like the finish line. But, it’s not. Those first days, weeks, and months are amazing, and they are hard. The heartbreak and simultaneous joy are like emotional whiplash, and the details of learning how to live with each other are overwhelming. So, here are my practical thoughts on making the transition go a little smoother. It is rarely smooth, but it can be smoother.
Plan on stopping your world and stepping off for a while. Stay home as much as you can. As much as you want to introduce your new child to all aspects of your life and your people, refrain. Keep your world small and manageable. They’ve just been removed from everything familiar to them, and they don’t know anything about how to relate to you and your family. Joshua had not seen a flushing toilet or a refrigerator. He’d never been immersed in water for a bath. He was pretty freaked out by it all. He’d been surrounded by babies but no one was talking to him directly in the orphanage, and all the attention and relationship was overwhelming. Caleb was unable to communicate and move, and he had not had people expect him to even put food in his own mouth. The transition was hard for them. They didn’t need to be navigating crowds, stores, or playgrounds for quite a while.
We took Joshua into HEB (that’s the grocery store, for non-Texans who might be reading) – he was in a sling attached to my body, and he was frantic. He cried and howled and while he was just a little guy, and he wasn’t talking yet, we think he was upset because he saw all that food, just right there, and he didn’t know why we weren’t letting him eat everything. We learned not to take him in there, and we didn’t, for about 6 months.
Also important is learning who mom and dad are, and what they do. Don’t let other people give too many gifts or provide food or cuddling directly to your child until the little one starts looking to you for those things. When toys are distributed, only give one at a time. It’s overwhelming.
Smell is a very important sense to little kids, and more so for kids from hard places. We decided to go with a vanilla scent for our house, and we got candles and we loaded up on Vanilla Brown Sugar stuff from Bath and Body works. When the boys were new to us, we were careful that the whole family smelled the same, as did the house. Forgive us if we smelled too strongly! Last month I worked at Joshua’s school for the day and he and I drove home together, and we were the first people home. I had a stuffed up nose and couldn’t smell anything, and the puppies had been in their kennels for several hours. I asked Joshua to sniff around and let me know if he smelled anything. In my mind, I wanted to know if the dogs needed a cleanup. But he heard it different and wasn’t thinking about the accident prone puppies. He sniffed the air and threw his backpack down in the office and said, “Smells like love to me.” and ran outside to play. Therefore, I’m declaring this scent endeavor a success. And as an aside, the puppies had kept themselves tidy that day. Hallelujah.
Another important thing is keeping medical intervention to a minimum. Yes, they need care and a trip to the doctor is in order. But please hold off as long as you can on painful or invasive procedures. The older the child, the more important this is. They don’t understand the language or the medical system. They are afraid of rejection, and they don’t need a message that they need fixing up. They need to know they are loved the way they are, and that they are worthy of care and help. That’s a hard thing to communicate, and add in emotional turmoil, language barriers, and immaturity. Be careful. Be balanced. We waited 6 months before Caleb had any work done. We waited a year before we had a minor surgery that Joshua needed. It was way more important for them to feel secure and loved. Now I am not talking about life and limb issues here – obviously follow your doctor’s advice.
Another thought – so much depends on where your child is coming from. Joshua came from an orphanage and we didn’t leave him in group care for a whole year. We went along to Sunday School class with his age group with him. He was terrified of being left, and he still has some of that fear of abandonment in him. We did not leave him. Caleb was a different case though – he was in foster care, and his foster parents had used child care centers, and had always come back to get him, and he didn’t mind going to class. Caleb is not anxious about being left, but he is concerned about being late or being left out. The only way to learn these things in to spend a lot of time with your kids. Again, this takes stopping your world and getting off for a while.
In closing, I would add that there are way too many lists, rules, and advice blogs out there. I saw one go by my feed today that Steve Jobs says NEVER give a kid an iPad. Sorry Steve Jobs – but you’re not my go to for parenting advice. Others say things like don’t let your kid eat packaged food. Eat Organic, home school, breastfeed, send your kids to private school, do sports, don’t do sports, I could go on forever about the many opinions out there. Here is my bottom line – there is no substitute for time and love and relationship. Read the books and see what Dr. Purvis has to say, for sure, but what your newly adopted child needs is unique to them. You are also unique people, and while you can take some of the wisdom and experience of others, every parent and child has to forge ahead with their best guess. Do a lot of praying. Having had 6 kids across many years, I will tell you this. There are kids that do well in the worst of circumstances, and kids that do terrible in the finest of homes. They’re the exceptions, sure, but they exist. What we do matters, but no one is perfect and when you are trying your best and forging ahead, don’t let anyone make you feel like you are “doing it wrong”. Are you committed, invested, and caring for your child? You’re doing great. Your work matters. Give yourself the same grace that we need to extend to our newly adopted kids as you transition. It’s hard for parents too. It gets easier. Be encouraged – you are doing a great and important thing. Don’t give up or despair.