Some Thoughts On Surprise Packages

Lines from Lansing…

I once heard a social worker’s comment about a pretty little girl who needed a permanent family. "Don’t let the package fool you," she said, to a man who was hoping to adopt a child. At the time I thought she was rather warped in her outlook. She had a good point, though, whether her words referred to a child with an externally attractive appearance or to one with obvious physical disabilities.

When presented with a disabled child, a child with Down’s Syndrome, with missing legs, or with a large facial birth mark, for example, we know a major part of what we are accepting if we decide to be parents to that child. We have had to come to terms with our feelings about physical disabilities or mental retardation. We have probably worked out the practical details of taking care of a child with known medical or physical challenges. The potential of the child to grow, to love and to learn is our focus, with the physical or developmental challenges openly acknowledged and accepted. Perhaps, however, the emotional damage to the child, due to lack of adequate care, long-term hospitalization, or subjection to unrelievable pain as an infant is overlooked in our eagerness to deal with the more visible disabilities.

When we take a child with a sweet smile and a healthy body who is "emotionally disturbed," we can only begin to grasp what we have decided to embrace. Perhaps we have accepted a survivor, molded from years of being without "good enough parents," now unable to give any parents the right to love and or guide her. We have been told that this child will be slow to bond, but have no certainty that she will ever bond. Perhaps we begin to wonder how to raise a child who has no reason to believe we truly care and no inclination to conform to our wishes out of love for us. What will our life as a family be like if she never develops a loving attachment? We bravely gamble that she will, with help, and that we will somehow all survive together.

Perhaps, on the other hand, we have become parents to a child who wants to give up. This little one has learned that he might as well not grow and develop since the world has been so callous or cruel. We are told that love will penetrate his hopelessness. We gamble that it will but we truly know not what lies ahead. We rightfully worry about serious eating disorders, ongoing depression, or suicidal thoughts and acts.

Some of us have risked in other ways with the children to whom we are parents. There are no certainties with children born to us either, of course. But when we decide to become parents to a child with a rocky or unknown early history we are definitely opting for unknown challenges. Parenting this child will be different from parenting a child from birth, whether deep down we want it to be or not. Social workers can tell us to expect challenge and can sometimes give us an idea of what behaviors to expect: bed wetting, tantrums, head banging, running away, lying and stealing, food problems, sexual precocity. Perhaps a child comes with a fairly complete dossier of past exploits. Still, we have not experienced those things with this child and the descriptions are somehow vague and removed from our lives.

The way we will become acquainted with this child will indeed be unique. Our child will not even be like those we read about in Jewett’s Adopting the Older Child. We will have surprises, or rather shocks, as the getting acquainted process happens. And all of this with a child who may look beautiful and act charming initially, tempting us to believe that he will be just like most of the other seven-, ten- or fifteen-year- olds we know. As soon as he settles in and gets over the initial adjustment to a new family, school and neighborhood, we feel, he will somehow be released from that history and those past experiences. Teachers, friends and social workers tell us how well he’s adjusting and how lucky he is. Perhaps, but his experiences still separate him from the neighborhood kids and make him different, in spite of his "normal" external package.

As the reality of this begins to take shape in concrete ways, it can be quite terrifying. The reality may confront us as smeared feces on a bathroom wall, the $40 missing from a father’s drawer, Fuck You spray-painted on a neighbor’s fence, a young girl molested by an older sibling. Or reality may come as the $140 per week paid to the therapist, the gamble on a year of residential treatment, the frantic search for the right special education setting. Perhaps part of the reality is the strain on a marriage as thought of who initiated all this begin to form and longings for escape from it all become resentment or depression. The constant worry over what will happen next, how we should handle this child or even, can we handle this child may seep into our feelings toward family mealtimes, activities and vacations. It can be difficult to remember the energy and anticipation we had when we decided to be a permanent, loving family for a child who really needed someone. As the months or years go by without miraculous change in the child we probably, on some level, hoped to rescue, it takes more and more energy to accept reality without succumbing to hopelessness. That surprise package may have turned out to be explosive and it could be that we are in danger of burning up or out in an insidious smoldering way or in one major conflagration.

I am convinced that our survival as a family depends on a lot of honesty from the beginning of the adoption process. We need to really take in the information available to us about the child we are considering calling our son or daughter, and we cannot settle for incomplete information from the agency. We must ask good questions, based on what we know about kids who have a chance to make it in a family setting, and think carefully about what "making it" means to us. Further, we must realize that our lives will be changed forever from being an "ordinary" or "normal" family with the acceptance of a child who has had a tumultuous early life. It takes courage to say "no" to a worker who has picked up far a particular child. Working closely together, perhaps a more realistic match can be made. Once the child has become a part of our family I believe there is a need for constant renewal of our reservoirs of personal satisfaction. It is easy to give beyond endurance and to become grim and disheartened. Our sense of fun and enjoyment of the new or not-so-new child and with the rest of the family members can fade rapidly as we experience the realities of our commitment.

It is easy, then, to miss the moments which can truly make us thankful that we decided to "take one more." A grim Mom or Dad might overlook the first real spark of spontaneity in an inhibited little girl or miss a son’s discovery of a book that really interests him after years of hating reading. A tender moment between an older adopted child and a newly arrived baby, both from Korea, might go unnoticed if we parents become too filled with hopelessness. The joy and pride we could feel as our children take even minute steps toward self-sufficiency and competence might very well be lost to us simply because we are too emotionally tired to be aware.

Difficult as it may be in the midst of our hectic days, I believe that it is essential to seek out and incorporate into our lives whatever we need to keep our own senses of worth, purpose and humor. For some, physical exercise and special times away with a spouse or close friends can help. For others, time for music, gardening or meditation helps to bring peace and replenish spent resources. A caring support group can provide an emotional release and boost. So can a stimulating class, a good book, or regular trips to the park or mountains. None of these things changes the reality of our lives with these challenging kids. Rather our ability to put events in perspective, and to live positively through the ups and downs can be greatly enhanced. The secret seems to lie in freeing ourselves long enough to let the loving, peaceful, spiritual side of ourselves become filled again and again. Even though the lively packages we receive may contain continual and unimaginable surprises, if we take care of our selves we will be able to discover and enjoy the gifts as well as to survive the explosions.

  preparing for adoption : potential issues
  emotions and development : strategies for parents
  therapy and support : strategies for parents
  therapy and support : positive thinking
  personal experiences : positive thinking