Adoptive Families readers share the when, what, and how of announcing their decision to grow their families.by Colleen Calvani
After years of infertility, Denise Wood and her husband had come to terms with their fate. They filled the void with a menagerie of puppies, horses, and even goats. But one day they made The Decision, the one that millions of families have debated, discussed, fretted over, and celebrated: They decided to adopt.
“We called our parents first, and then our siblings. Everyone was excited for us. Some even asked, ‘What took you so long?’” Denise said.
For the Fowlerville, Michigan, couple, telling their extended family their good news was the natural next step. For other families, it’s a trickier process. Whom to tell first? When do you let friends and coworkers know that you are expecting a child…in a month, or maybe next year? How do you share painful details, or answer prying or inappropriate questions? What if your family is “against” adoption?
Adoptive Families talked with moms and dads whose experiences announcing their adoption decisions were as varied as the makeup of the families themselves. One lesson emerged again and again: This is your family’s decision; those you tell can get on board or not.
The Supportive Family
Even if you’re sure your family will receive your news enthusiastically, your announcement should involve more than updating your Facebook status.
- Send it in writing. Phone calls and e-mails are obvious ways to share your news. But many families turn to the written word in announcing their decision to adopt. [See “Dear Friends and Family,” below, to read a full sample letter.]
Tracy Brooke and her husband, Rob, sent a letter as soon as they were on a list to be matched with a birthmother. Though they didn’t expect any negative reactions, the letter allowed them to dispel lingering stereotypes and out-of-date information about domestic adoption.
“Older family members might not realize that adoption is a lot different today from what it was in the past, when it was shameful or was something that you hid from everyone,” Tracy says.
- Teach positive adoption language. The Brookes also hoped to avoid repeating basic information about adoption by supplying a list of appropriate adoption terms, such as “birthmother,” “unable to parent,” and so on.
“We included the list in the hope that our children won’t ever have to deal with a relative asking about their ‘real’ parents,” Tracy explains.
- Be prepared for some painful questions. Cynthia Vissers and her husband wrote a letter to family and friends while they were working on their homestudy. The San Diego, California, family tried to preempt what they guessed would be the most common questions: Why they were adopting, why South Korea, how does adoption work? Even so, says Cynthia, “People came up with more. A lot more.” She advises parents to “be prepared for questions that are going to hurt your heart.”
- Decide what you’re ready to share about infertility. If infertility played a part in your decision to adopt, ask yourself whether you are ready to discuss it. Addressing infertility in a letter can set boundaries for what is appropriate to ask about, advises Cindy Modrosic, mom to U.S.-born Liam, now two. She suggests writing, “Feel free to ask me about my infertility treatments, but please don’t ask me about my miscarriage. It is still too painful to discuss.”
In her announcement e-mail, Modrosic wrote: “We are happy to share our fertility issues with everyone now, because we finally have happy news to share.”
- Let family in on disappointments along the way. Karen Sauer, of Indianapolis, is waiting to adopt an older child from U.S. foster care. She has been writing about her experiences on Facebook, which has its benefits and disadvantages.
“Having to tell friends and family that a placement did not work out” was painful, she says. At the same time, letting people in on the process early can help you build a support network to get through the tough times. “Because I have talked about it, I can share my grief over losing that child, instead of trying to shoulder the burden alone,” Sauer adds.
- Get creative. When adopting baby No. 2 from South Korea, the Vissers family decided to wait a little while to share their news. They didn’t tell anyone until they had the referral in hand. No one was more excited about their plans than their older son, Jack. He got to make the announcement at a family gathering, by wearing a T-shirt with the Hangul character for “older brother” printed on the front and the words, “I’m a big brother!” on the back.
“Jack really liked being the one to share the news,” Vissers says. “It was his first official duty as a big brother, and it made him feel special.”
The Skeptical Family
Chances are, you’ll have to deal with some outspoken naysayers. Naomi Wilensky’s in-laws were very skeptical: “They made comments like, ‘How could you love a child who is not your own? Why would you want to do that, when you already have three biological daughters?’”
Even though the in-laws came around, their comments still sting. If you are unsure about the reactions you might get from your announcement, how should you proceed?
- Be direct in requesting support. Amy Gonzales, who’s adopting a newborn domestically, was surprised to receive negative reactions from several people, including her mother.
“She asked questions like, ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you giving up on being pregnant?’” she says. “I got to the point where I simply said, ‘I can understand how it may appear that way, but we have given this a lot of thought, and we are doing what we feel is best for our family. It was not an easy decision to make, and we would really appreciate your supporting us in this.’ That was the most diplomatic answer I could come up with.”
Gonzales’ mother eventually realized that “family is not necessarily about blood—it’s about who loves you, and who cares for you.”
- Explain the steps and players involved. If your adoption ends up taking longer than you expected, you’ll start to flinch at your aunt’s most benign queries.
After Patrick and Paula Boland, of Hillpoint, Wisconsin, decided to adopt from China, they had their paperwork “done in two months and were logged into China within four,” Paula says. “And then everything slowed down.”
The Bolands ended up waiting 40 months for the referral of their daughter, Jadyn—fielding questions for much of that time. They were the first in their extended family to adopt, so a lack of understanding about the process drove most of the questions. “After we explained how it works, the inquiries let up,” says Paula.
Gonzales set out to teach her mother about birthmothers, and help her see that adoption plans are made out of love. “That’s what helped her the most,” she says. “Understanding how much the birthmother loved my daughter.”
- Formulate a stock response. Even after educating their families about the process, the Bolands’ long wait frequently prompted questions like, “Are you still adopting?” Paula recalls. “We would answer, ‘Yes, we are still adopting, but we don’t have any news to share. Our daughter may not have been born yet, or is not yet ready to come home. Until she is, we’ll wait.’”
- Get family involved. Gonzales advises trying to make the wait as “normal” as possible. She prepared a gender-neutral nursery, and began buying the essential items on every expectant mom’s list.
“If skeptical family members see that you are preparing for a real child, they start to think, ‘This might work,’” she says. “The more open you are, and the more comfortable you appear to be with the process, the more normal it is.”
- Put the unknowns in perspective. Skeptics worry about the unknowns in adoption. But, as Gonzales points out, “there are no guarantees in pregnancy, either.” After listening to countless concerns, she finally said, “Mom, besides the millions of things that can go wrong, what about the things that go right? I need to know I can turn to you and that you’ll help me.”
Her mom thought about it. Then she started shopping for baby clothes.
The Unsupportive Family
If you’re afraid your family won’t be able to overcome their prejudices and concerns about adoption, take this advice from families who have “been there.”
- Set boundaries. It may help to tell the naysayers sooner rather than later. To avoid a power struggle, set boundaries at the start. You might say, “We are considering adoption for our family. Knowing how you feel about adoption, I am telling you now, so that you will have time to get used to the idea, and to learn as much as you can about what the process involves.”
- Make it clear that the decision is up to you. Naomi Wilensky recommends planning a conversation with the skeptics. She gave her in-laws a written list of points about what adoption means and why she and her husband had chosen to adopt. The most important line? “This isn’t about you. It’s about us, OUR family.”
- Don’t let negative reactions steer you off your course. Adam and Christina Whitman* knew it was going to be a tough road ahead. Christina admitted that she was “nervous” about telling her parents, saying she was unsure how they would react. And so the couple waited until their adoption was well underway before doing so, by giving them a handmade book that included a letter explaining their decision, information about their agency, a poem, and photos.
“They claimed we’d ruined their weekend, as well as the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,” Adam recalls. “They said we were ‘living in a fairy tale,’ and that it would never happen.”
The Whitmans’ son has been home for two years now, and they’re happy to report that Christina’s parents can’t imagine life without him.
- Put your child and family first. As the Whitmans found, even the most reluctant relatives tend to come around after they meet your child. But if a family member remains disapproving of your adoption, you may need to give her an ultimatum. “Say that you won’t let your child be treated differently from other children in the family. If she doesn’t change the way she acts, she can’t be part of your lives,” says Ronny Diamond, a social worker with the Post-Adoption Resource Center at Spence-Chapin, in New York City. “Your first responsibility is to protect your child.”
- Find your own support network. Just as adoption is about love, not genes, creating a surrogate family of friends and other adoptive parents will be invaluable, suggests Tisha Holt, a mom of two, with a son on the way, via domestic adoption. Holt’s parents struggled with her decision to adopt.
"I have girlfriends whom I can call day or night to process my fears, concerns, confusion, or joy,” she says.
You might be surprised at what you learn when you open up about your plans, says Dana Richardson, a mom of two, who is waiting to be matched with a birthmother. “Several of my friends responded, ‘We have thought about adoption, too,’” she says. “It was pretty cool.”
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.
COLLEEN CALVANI, a former associate editor of Adoptive Families, lives with her family in Chicago.
Photo: The first time the Vissers family decided to adopt from South Korea, they wrote a letter informing their families. The second time, they clued in their families by having their son, Jack, wear a T-shirt with the Hangul character for "older brother." Courtesy of the Vissers family.
Already parenting? Your children will have opinions about your decision to grow your family through adoption.
+ Welcome responses and answer questions.
Patrick and Paula Boland expected a positive response from their three sons—but their reactions surprised them. "Trenton said, 'No,'" recalls Paula.
When asked why, he couldn’t give a reason, except to say the family already had a girl in the house—their dog, Siri. The Bolands explained to the boys why Paula wasn’t able to get pregnant, and why a baby might need a family other than the one she was born into. “Once they knew that we could care for a little girl who did not have a family, they all said, ‘Yes,’” Paula says.
+ Don't let your child influence your decision.
Just as you shouldn’t adopt merely because your child is asking for a sibling, you shouldn’t let him nix the idea either. Dana Richardson, who is waiting to be matched with a birthmother, didn’t tell her kids until the process was underway. “If we were trying to conceive, would we be asking our children for permission?” she asks.
+ Prepare them for some ups and downs.
Richardson took care to discuss with her children, who are seven and 15, what happens in the case of a failed adoption. They discussed a birthmother’s rights and the fact that she might decide to parent her baby. “I said that if that happened, we would know that he should be with his birthmom, who loves him very much.”
+ Revisit your child's story.
Let your child know that the new member of the family has a birthmother and birthfather who love him, just as he does. Look at a map and trace the journey you will make to meet your child’s new brother or sister, whether it takes you to Missouri or Moscow. [Go to adoptivefamilies.com/talking to find sample language.]
"Dear Friends and Family"
If you're adopting domestically, use the following letter as a guide when composing your own.
Many of you know that we have struggled with infertility for years, and have faced many complications along the way. After all that heartbreak, we’re happy to announce that we’ve decided to adopt a baby. We may continue trying to have a biological baby, but we’d like to give my body time to rest before undergoing in-vitro fertilization.
We’ve completed our homestudy, and all the paperwork, and are waiting for a birthmother to choose us to be her baby’s family. We’ll most likely bring our baby home from the hospital (although we’ll have to stay in the baby’s birth state for up to two weeks while paperwork between our two states is finalized).
Our adoption will be semi-open, at the very least, meaning that the birthmother will choose us, and we’ll keep in touch through letters and photos after placement. We hope that knowing that her baby is happy, healthy, and loved will reinforce the good decision that she made.
We know that adoption may feel a little scary, especially if you don’t know much about it. We’ve enclosed a list that explains some of the terminology that is now used. You can, of course, find a lot of information about adoption on the Internet—but you may also encounter those who don’t support adoption.
The waiting period is a lot like a pregnancy, except that we have no idea how long it will last. We could be chosen next week, or it could take several years for the right birthmother to come along. In the meantime, your support will mean a lot to us. We’re excited about starting our family, and hope you’ll welcome our baby with open arms when he or she finally arrives!
The toughest part of announcing your decision to adopt comes after you break the news, when you have to respond to questions and “warnings” from relatives, neighbors, and coworkers—many of which are grounded in persistent myths. Here are tried-and-tested answers to help you through those conversations.
"How can you be adopting in the U.S.? Is that even possible?"
"Every year, about 25,000 children are placed and adopted at birth in the U.S.—more than twice as many international adoptions completed in 2009."
"Be careful—the birthmother can show up at any time to reclaim her child!"
"Once the adoption is finalized in court, we’ll be recognized by law as our child’s only parents."
"Aren't all adopted children emotionally disturbed?"
"Ongoing research has shown that adopted children are as well-adjusted as their non-adopted peers, mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally."
"Are you going to tell him he was adopted?"
"Yes, we plan on talking about adoption openly and joyfully from the day we meet. Actually, we hope it's not something he’'l remember having been 'told,' that it’s something he'll just grow up knowing."
"Aren't you afraid you're going to get scammed?"
"Thank you for your concern. However, we'll be working with a large, nonprofit adoption agency that's accredited by the U.S. government (or an attorney who specializes in adoption), and we've researched it thoroughly."
"I bet the birthmother will be a troubled teenager, right?"
"We'll be keeping information about our child's birthmother private, but most birthmothers these days are actually single women in their twenties who don't have the resources to raise a child."
"Can you really love a child who doesn't look like you?"
"Love and attachment aren't connected to, or guaranteed by, biology. We're ready to be parents and will love our child with all our heart."
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