These are 10 of the things I wish friends understood about what it’s like to adopt children.
1. The right vocabulary to use
Just to get this straight from the start. I am my children’s real mum. The people whose genes they share are their birth family. Clear? Good. Because making up bedtime stories, mending grazed knees and remembering which one hates tomatoes make me just as much a real parent as anyone else.
“Oh, and please drop the ‘adopted’ when introducing us to others. They’re our children. Full stop.”
2. Our parenting style will almost certainly be different
Yes, I know you’d put yours in a time out on the naughty step and withhold a sticker from her chart. But if my daughter has misbehaved as a consequence of believing she’s had so many sets of parent figures in her short life because she’s inherently unlovable, making her feel bad isn’t going to help me change her mind. If you disagree, either keep quiet or ask me to lend you a book on it.
3. We often feel like outsiders when other mums talk about pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding
I’m well aware that for you, your NCT coffee morning or church toddler group is a chance for you to share everything with people who’ve been there. Marvellous. But our children are all over two now. Get over the birth and the boobs and move on!
I have absolutely nothing to contribute to a conversation about epidurals or breast pumps, and would much rather find out about how to get blackcurrant stains out of the sofa.
4. We will disappear sometimes, and it’s not personal
Especially for the first few months after the children move in. It’s mainly about ‘funnelling’ (making sure the adoptive parents are the only ones to meet the child’s needs, to promote healthy attachment).
It may also be sheer exhaustion as we cope with these hurting little people who have moved house again and are trying to understand it all. Later, it may still be that our children get overwhelmed with a situation (parties or visits to friends in particular) and we have to make a swift exit for the sake of everyone’s sanity. Please don’t be offended.
5. Our children can’t always cope with playing with your children
Sometimes, things your family takes for granted are all a bit new and overwhelming for adopted children. Large groups of people can be scary. Lots of choices or several things happening at once can be hard to process. And a child who’s had a traumatic start in life will respond in ways that worked for them before – this might mean screaming, running away, becoming aggressive. They’re not just ‘being naughty’, so your help in trying to keep things low-key and not too exciting would be great.
6. Sorry, it’s just not appropriate for you to cuddle our children
First they lived with their birth family. Then in many cases they moved through several foster placements before moving in with their adoptive family. So they need to work out that their parents are the right people to go to for cuddles and reassurance, and that we can and will meet all their needs.
I am very well aware that my fabulous children are gorgeous little cherubs and they might well be very willing to jump on your knee or accept your sweets, but please point them back to us until we let you know it’s OK.
7. Yes, all children do X, but not all the time.
Toddler tantrums. Biting. Kicking. Screaming that they hate you. Yes, I know your children have done this too. But many adopted children do this simultaneously and unceasingly for months on end. Yep, at the age of nine. Welcome to Planet Adoption.
So please listen sympathetically while I tell you how extreme it is. And feel free to provide tea and cake with the shoulder to cry on…
8. There are very good reasons why we can’t let you take pictures of our children in the school play
Yes, we know it’s a pain. We’d love to show off our little shepherd/angel/wise man on Facebook too. But there’s a chance that a friend of a friend sees our child online or in a photo on your mantelpiece and puts two and two together, and suddenly dangerous birth family members know where my children go to school and they are put at risk.
9. It’s complicated and there are some things we can’t explain to you
Some things we do as the adoptive parents of previously abused or neglected children will be, well, idiosyncratic. Weird, if you prefer. Because it’s not appropriate to tell you details of why they were removed from their birth family, we can’t always explain why things have to be a certain way.
10. We really appreciate your support. Pass the chocolates…
Not all our friends stick around when we adopt. Then there are those who do stick around and say and do things that aren’t helpful.
“But if you want to be an adoptive parent’s best friend, I have two more pieces of advice: bring chocolates round once the kids are in bed, and read all the books on adoption you can find. That would be wonderful.”