Today’s question is from Tsedal: How did adoption impact your marriage?
Like a cyclone followed by a tidal wave.
Steve & I have been through some tough things in the 12 years we’ve been married, but nothing has come close to the challenge of adopting from foster care. Nothing. There was one night, back when we had Princess Peach, where I looked at Steve and thought, Holy crap, I forgot you have green eyes… These moments freak me out, and lead me to a frantic place of How do we go back to being connected? But what I’ve learned is that we don’t go back. We set our eyes on a new place and swim ahead to meet there.
There are two major stress sources we’ve dealt with in this process.
The first is DCF. Massachusetts has one of the worst foster care systems in the nation. You know those states in the deep south where folks don’t believe in government sponsored social services? Yeah. We’re below those. For all the talk about us being a part of the liberal elite, this is one place where we are definitely not elite-ing. I have thoughts on surviving this, but I’ll talk about that in a future post, because it’s kind of it’s own thing. But I’m thankful to say that our DCF experience adopting the Cherubs was much better than our DCF experience with Princess Peach.
The second stress source is the one I think Tsedal was asking about: the challenge you experience when you add two more people to your life.
Steve and I went into our adoption with some solid reserves in the happily ever after department. We’d started our marriage terrified that we’d blow it, and so spent those early years searching out good advice. Most of what we received was total crap, to be honest. I wrote about this in my second book, how useless we found the common marital wisdom: Communication is the most important thing. Sex matters less and less once you’re married. Get in touch with your feelings, they’ll never lie. Thank God we didn’t go with that.
The best advice we got – that we still use today – came from a video of a conference where a group of no-nonsense, straight talking African American pastors (I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the way the black church doesn’t mess around pretending abundant life comes via three easy tips and a “God loves you” refrigerator magnet) pulled no punches as they talked about what it takes to build a marriage. They told us to put God first, ahead of each other. The said we should pray about things that bothered us before discussing them (sometimes rather than discussing them, at least in the heat of the moment). They insisted that we should never ever speak negatively about each other to other people – no girl talk about frustrating habits “all men” have, no guy talk about nagging/overspending/sex-withholding wives. Engaging in that talk is CURSING YOUR MARRIAGE, they said. Don’t do it. They quoted a Proverb that warns, “A wise woman buildeth her home, but a foolish one plucketh it down with her own hands.” They talked about the call of God on wives to build up our husbands with our words – not imaginary flattery, but with the truth of who God made him to be. She said this was an act of war against the things that daily life tempts us to settle for. And then finally, in perhaps the most hilarious part of the conference, there was this powerful declaration: Ladies? You need to give that man some s*x! They explained how this is intended by God to be the bonding agent in marriage; how it’s not about being in the mood, it’s about building and reinforcing the strength of your marriage. (I apologize that I only remember the things wives should do part of their advice – it was far more balanced that that.)
These are the things we’ve tried to do.
Adoption has made them as close to impossible as I’ve ever experienced.
Perhaps the most unexpected part of adoption for me has been how much of it is a power struggle. Who is in charge? Who is most important? What takes priority? Does the squeaky wheel always get the grease? If not, then HOW DO YOU STOP ALL THE SQUEAKING?
Kids demand to be the center of the universe, of course. We know this. But when you adopt, you also know that these particular kids have gaps in getting the love & attention they need to thrive, and you want to fill in those gaps as quickly as possible. So you pour EVERYTHING into that, and then some. This worked well for us at first, and then it didn’t. Then we had to set our house in order, so to speak.
At first, the Cherubs HATED it when Steve explained the God first, marriage second, Cherubs third prioritization system. #2 Cherub in particular (the one who genuinely doesn’t understand why we won’t give her the master bedroom) was offended. So we explained (repeatedly) how putting God first adds security to our marriage, and putting our marriage next, above them, adds security to our parenting. This is good news, we told them. Watch and see…
Then we struggled to live it out.
When you adopt, you’re told you need a strong support system. You have no idea what that means, so let me tell you: It’s not just friends & family who think what you’re doing is cool. It’s friends & family who can pass a CORI background check and will babysit.
You’re told to plan date nights (or nights out with a close friend if you’re single) so you can recharge. This is so good in theory. But if you’re four months sleep deprived and starting to twitch at human contact? The last thing you can pull off is a date night — it’s too much restaurant selection, too much non-mom outfit finding, too much expectation to figure out where you left your eyeliner six months ago when you last used it.
We are just getting a handle on this, almost two years in. I wish we’d done it sooner, but it was simply beyond us. (Some might call this depressing. I call it being a lifelong learner :) )
Date nights are where we remember that we prefer each other. It’s a chance for Steve to say, “Let’s have sushi, I know it’s your favorite,” and me to say, “I’ll drive home so you can have a beer,” because most of our everyday life is about the kids, rather than each other. Date nights give me time where my head is clear enough to even think of how to encourage Steve, because the exhausted hour after the kids’ bedtime (when we’d both rather be watching Madame Secretary) is barely enough for basic maintenance, let alone team building.
So we’re trying to get good at that. Pray for us.
The one other thing I’ll add is how late I was to recognized that (despite all the ways Steve & I share parenting), setting the tone and emotional temperature for our home is almost entirely up to me. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve discussed it with other adoptive parents and this seems frustratingly true: If you’re a woman? You’re probably the happiness thermostat for your household. So I’m working on keeping it at a good temperature. This is good for the kids, but even more important for us. It’s so much easier for Steve & I to have a good marriage when I am generally happy. So I’m getting really intentional about having my own work to do that isn’t related to the kids, responding to their drama in a calm, even tone, and using what Princess Peach used to call “the firm voice” to quash nonsense quickly, before it spirals. This way when things come up, they’re real things, not just the vague malaise of overwhelm that creeps in if I’m not vigilant.
That said, we’re getting the hang of it. It has taken longer than we expected, but we’ve reached a point now where we’re building reserves again rather than draining them, which feels good.
If you’re thinking of adopting? Take a dream vacation. Get a big fluffy dog. Move to Greater Boston and join a great church with people who will pray for you AND babysit your new kids when you’re forced out on a date night. Build up your reserves so you have the time you need to establish your new normal.
It’s not easy. But it’s worth it.