by Jillian Burden
My husband and I adopted our son from Russia in November 2012 when he was 2 ½ years old. When it came to the idea of adopting, I like to say we were both always in the same “chapter” but not always on the same “page.” We both wanted to adopt, but when it came to questions of when and who and from where etc., it took a few long conversations with both each other and trusted friends who had already adopted to get us on the same page. We’ve learned since that time that it is very common for a couple to be on different pages when it comes to adoption. Although I write a blog that is mostly read by women, today I’m addressing three frequently asked questions by men who are considering adoption: 1) Can I love a child who is not genetically mine? 2) What if I don’t bond to the child? 3) What if the child has special needs?
Can I love a child who is not genetically mine?
In a word: yes! I once heard a man say that he struggled to know if he could love a child to whom he was not genetically related until someone pointed out that he wasn’t genetically related to the person he loved most in the whole world: his wife! Love is not a genetic relationship.
You can probably call to mind someone in your life who has an amazing relationship with a person to whom they are not related: it could be adoptive parents and their child, it could be best buddies, or it could be a married couple. On the other hand, you can probably think of someone who has a terrible relationship with their genetic family. Having a genetic relationship doesn’t guarantee love nor is it a prerequisite for love. Love actually is a choice you make: a choice to be patient, kind, generous, protective, compassionate, and loyal among other things. Love is changing diapers, doing finger paints, wiping up spills, helping with homework, teaching your child to hit a baseball or cook dinner or drive a car. Love is an action word, a choice, a bond that transcends personality differences, skin tone, height, eye shape, and any genetic link.
What if I don’t bond with this adopted child (or he/she doesn’t bond to me)?
Great question. Bonding and attachment are actually very important issues in all families, but we think about them more intentionally in adoption because, by its nature, adoption means that the child (even an infant) has already suffered a great loss. That loss can impact their desire to bond again. You might think of a friend who has suffered a break-up and declares with anger that he’s “given up on women” and “will never love again.” What the friend is really saying is that he doesn’t want to be hurt like that again. In a more serious way, children who suffer the loss of a parent or caregiver before their adoption may resist bonding because they instinctually want to resist the pain of loss.
I think it helps to demystify bonding by simply saying that bonding is not a magic emotion that you either have or don’t have; there are actually lots of things adoptive fathers can do to build those feelings of attachment with their child! When you go through the homestudy process before your adoption, your social worker will give you lots of ideas for how to build those feelings of closeness, trust, and safety with your child. If you adopt an infant, you will be encouraged to cuddle with your baby, skin-to-skin, for example. If you adopt a toddler, playing games like peek-a-boo that require eye-contact or playing a game of “chase” that results in you scooping up your breathless, giggling child into the safety of your arms will help build those feelings between the two of you. With an older child, you can build closeness by sharing in your child’s particular interests whether that means going to the batting cages, cooking together, or reading (and discussing) the same book.
For children and parents who struggle to build that special bond, there are many resources available to help. Dr. Karen Purvis’ “The Connected Child” is a highly recommended book in adoptive circles that focuses on this very topic. There are also therapists who specialize in attachment issues; your social worker can get you connected to one even before you bring your child home, if you would like. Sometimes talking to a professional who can help you know what to look for and how to promote a strong bond with your child can help relieve the fears you have about attachment.
If you go into your adoption educated about how to promote a healthy attachment with your child, you have absolutely every reason to hope for success!
What if the Adopted child has special needs?
Being fearful about parenting a child with special needs is not unique to adoption. Parents who have children by birth also worry about whether their child will be healthy and how they will cope if he or she is not. Don’t be ashamed of these feelings; they are normal.
Especially in the case of international adoption, when you decide to adopt, your social worker will probably give you a form with a long list of special needs ranging from correctable heart surgery to Down Syndrome to HIV to cleft lip or palate. You (and your spouse) will be given the opportunity to say which special needs you would consider in a child and which ones you would not. With domestic infant adoption, you will have the opportunity to review whatever information is available about the birth mother’s health and pregnancy. You will not knowingly be matched with a child who has the special needs you decline, however just like when you have a child by birth, it is important to know that there are no guarantees.
More and more adoptive families are actually choosing to bring children with special needs into their homes. These families are not superheroes! They are normal families who realize that these children need families just as much as healthy children. They probably considered their child’s special need, looked at their own family’s and community’s resources, searched their hearts, and took a leap of faith. Adoption is not just about giving a family a child, it is about giving a child a family and all children deserve families!
There are plenty of adoptive families who set out to adopt a healthy child and have done just that. However if your child has special needs you will do what families of children with special needs (whether by birth or by adoption) have done for a long time: your best. You will go to the doctor’s appointments, rely on your friends and family to support you, ask for help when you need it, learn to see life in a new way, grieve, get tired, keep going, find courage you never thought you had, and be surprised by immense joys you never saw coming.
As I was responding to each of these three questions I was struck with how much I wanted to write, “It’s okay! It will be fine! Just adopt!” I know that desire comes from the fact that my husband and I have had such a tremendously joyful experience with our son! Adopting him has not been without fears and challenges, but his presence in our home has transformed our lives in the very best of ways. We love him with an overwhelming love. We take great pleasure in hearing our names “Mama” and “Papa” on his little lips. And we have absolutely no regrets about bringing him home. When we saw him for the first time, all our fears about adopting him were overwritten with one small phrase: he’s our son. Whatever challenges came into our lives with his adoption were welcomed because he was ours and as any parent will tell you: you will do anything for your child!
To all those prospective adoptive fathers out there: it’s okay to ask your questions and be honest about your fears. We had them too. I pray you come out on the other side ready to take that leap of faith because the joy on the other side is worth it all! Absolutely worth it all.
Credit: Jillian Burden and her husband John are Mama and Papa to their little Russian boy, home since November 2012. Jillian writes about her adoption, infertility, and faith journeys over at her blog www.addingaburden.com