If you’ve been here before you probably know that this summer marked the end of one aspect of our adoption: The hope that The Cherubs would consider us their Mom & Dad. Not their only parents, of course, but equally real to the others.
We’ve given it four years of solid effort, but alas, no dice. To the extent that the Cherubs mention us at all in the future, I suspect it will be as something like, “Remember those people we lived with for awhile? The ones with the big dog…”
It’s taken a few months for us to metabolize this truth. It’s been brutal, to be honest. Steve and I worked impossibly hard and flung ourselves way out beyond our natural capacities to try and make this work…and it didn’t. At least not the way we hoped.
But this is also true – giving up on something that isn’t working? Is a huge relief. You can heal from broken heart if you stop banging it against the same brick wall that did the damage.
Here’s what we’ve learned: As it turns out, when you’re talking about relationships, all parties have to buy in for it to work. In hindsight, it’s kind of wild that no one ever mentioned this to us in the training for this challenge, and even wilder that Steve and I – both the survivors of all manner of relational breakups before we met Jesus and each other (I’m giving credit where credit is due) – never once thought to ask the kids if they wanted to build a family with us.
Okay, maybe we thought of it.
But we were afraid they’d say no. We (along with the social workers, lawyers, judge and pretty much the entire outside world) thought that we knew better. We believed that our best first decision as their state-selected new parents was to make this choice for them, and impose it on them, regardless of what they thought.
These kids weren’t babies. They were 13 and 10 when we adopted them.
Holy Crap, no wonder it didn’t work.
Making something a legal reality doesn’t make it a heart truth, and all the adoption decrees and new birth certificates in the world can’t bridge that gap. (Let’s pause for a moment and consider the sheer insanity of those fraudulent new birth certificates, which declare as legal fact that the kids were born to Steve and me. Even though Steve and I hadn’t even met when #1 Cherub was born, which makes him quite the miracle baby.)
To be clear, we all still live together. Steve and I function in more of an in loco parentis role: we provide food & clothes, fill out all the forms for school, enforce bedtime, and say No when the ask if they can do something outrageous with their friends. We laugh when something funny happens and cheer them on when they have a win.
But we’re no longer trying to force these component parts into a family.
And in that, we’ve learned some things. I’ll share the biggest one here, in case it helps you or someone you know. Because if we could go back in time, we’d still adopt the Cherubs. 100%. But we’d do things very differently.
Were we to adopt today, the main thing we would do is ignore the FOREVER FAMILY rhetoric. We would NOT grab that banner, we would NOT force the Cherubs into that narrative, and we would NOT pretend that this was all going to work out just because we decided it should.
Of course, we love the forever family concept. It satisfies our need to know kids are safe, to believe that welcome and acceptance can blot out rejection and disappointment. We want kids to have people who won’t run out on them. That’s a basic human need. And foster care is so unfathomably grim, we as a society grab on to anything even resembling a positive outcome and stuff it full of with all the Happily Ever After we can dream up.
But the reality is that any relationship between people who don’t know each other, who aren’t actually related? Is by definition provisional. There was way to much pressure on the Cherubs, from everyone around them, to BOND with us. To accept and embrace us as their New Mom & Dad, from before they even met us. That’s insane.
Were we to do it again, I’d strike all mention of the word BONDING from our thoughts for at least three years. It might happen, it might not, there’s no way to tell in advance, but you can’t force it so for the sake of your sanity & theirs, don’t try.
I’d dial way back on the family aspect, and instead pitch to the kids an offer of a safe, loving home for them to grow up in, a place where they can stay together. (Because most siblings in foster care get split up). We’d pick something ahead of time for them to call us, something undemanding. I might even go old school and have them call us Mr & Mrs. Ryan. That might seem cold to an outsider. But inside their pressure cooker world of How the Hell did this all happen to us? it might feel like space for them to figure things out.
If the Mom & Dad thing came later, if they wanted it? Great. But we wouldn’t assume it, and we wouldn’t expect it to happen.
We’d act like parents in all the practical ways: providing food & clothes, showing up for them in all the places, insisting that yes, they do have to brush their teeth, go to bed early, and change their socks on a regular basis. We’d still make them go to church, because God is the best thing we know, and even if they decide they don’t believe, it’s good life training to be able to sit still for an hour in a ceremony that’s not about you. We’d take time to get to know them and let them get to know us. But casually, the way most human relationships form. We would not fill the house with family-themed decor (oh Lord, deliver us from the scourge of family themed decor because NO DINNER ON EARTH CAN EVER BE THAT SPECIAL). We would not insist on eating together as a family every night, or refer to each other as “your Mom” or “your Dad” (As in, “Go tell your Mom dinner will be ready in about five minutes”) as one of the expert books advised.
We would not gift them these special medallions that say CHOSEN, because no matter how loving that intent might be, they never asked to be put up for us to bid on.
Here’s how I know that eliminating so many of these recommended bonding practices would have worked: it’s working now. As Steve and I dial way back on the whole nurture part of our parenting narrative (which has been incredibly hard, not to mention counter-intuitive) the kids are doing so much better. They’re more relaxed. They pick fewer fights, and the atmosphere of misery that has hung over our home for the past four years is mostly gone. Now that there’s no pressure to be a family, even the normal battles over what they are and aren’t allowed to do aren’t weighted with all the internal YOU’RE NOT MY %^&*$ PARENTS HOW DARE YOU TELL ME WHAT TO DO fury that was always in the air before. Now, if we say no to something, they might be bummed out, but they don’t look like they want to rip a door off its hinges. I call that progress.
Here’s the truth: Some adoptions end up making forever families. It’s awesome when that happens, and it’s an okay thing to hope for. But it’s a lot more likely to happen if the titles of Mom & Dad are given voluntarily, rather than assumed and imposed.
And in all of this, I’m still glad we adopted the Cherubs. I’m still glad that know them. I’m glad to have experienced the absolute insanity that is American parenting today, because truly, I did not understand why most parents looked so miserable, and now I know that it’s not the kids, it’s the system. This is good information to have. And I’m glad the four of us are doing better, at least for now, and that even though this isn’t the life I dreamed of, it’s the life I have.
And I’m glad to have some hard-won wisdom to share, and the hope that if you’ve ever considered adopting a kid, you still will, and that this will give you more of a fighting chance.