Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) 39th Annual conference, which was held near my home in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (co-sponsored by The Adoption Council of Ontario and The Adoption Council of Canada). Previously, my conference attendance had been limited to work-related conferences. I didn’t know what to expect and was very undecided about attending the conference at all, despite its proximity to my home. I finally registered 6 days prior to the start of the conference and set my mind into “student” mode, which is no easy feat, considering my mind these days is more focused on what time camp ends and what time Wild Kratts comes on TV and what are we having for dinner. To say I was a bit nervous to venture back into the world of intelligent, coherent adults for 3 full days was an understatement.
However, despite the financial, physical and emotional toll the 3 days took on me, it was a fantastic experience. Here are ten of the most important things I learned from this conference:
1. I am not alone. There are LOTS of people out there that worry themselves sick about attachment, attachment disorders, behavioral issues, post-adoption support, developmental delays and the many other challenges (and joys!) that fill the minds of parents via adoption, adoptees and professionals working in the field of adoption. It felt good to come together in one place with so many others who get it. People that I didn’t have to explain to what those previous words all mean. People that I didn’t have to provide a long, in-depth tutorial to about what adoption means to all parties involved. I learned the feeling of community.
2. Knowledge is power. Education = knowledge. The more I listened and learned, the more I felt empowered to be the best possible parent I can be, and isn’t that what being any kind of parent is all about, but especially parents through adoption? As parents of children we adopted, we cannot simply pretend we gave birth to our children and parent them accordingly. Any adoptive parent who does this is simply begging for trouble and causing their child undue hardship. I have always been an avid reader of books and online resources, but this conference provided me with a new forum of knowledge – information provided by professionals working in adoption-related fields, adoptees and other parents through adoption put a voice and face to some of the information that I’ve read. In addition, the conference provided me with new information that has once again made the wheels of my mind turn. There is a reason many professions require annual educational updates. If the teachers that spend all day teaching our children must attend educational workshops and seminars, why do parents think they should be exempt from continued education? We owe it to our children to continuously strive to increase our knowledge about how to love and support our children in the manner that is best-suited to their needs. Only education can do this.
3. ALL children who were adopted have special needs. This isn’t really a new thing I learned, but the conference did indeed confirm for me what I have told many people – do not believe for one second that a child who was adopted has no special needs. They may be invisible needs, but their losses are hardwired into their brains even if they were adopted on the day of their birth (this is a scientific fact). Even in the absence of any physical special needs, these losses require support, understanding and often special parenting techniques that don’t apply to bio children.
4. Parenting a child you’ve adopted is hard work. And it’s ok to say that. And it’s ok to feel frustrated and angry and sad and resentful. Just because you didn’t get pregnant and give birth to your child doesn’t mean that you’re not entitled to feel ALL the same negative emotions that biological parents feel. Just because you travelled ALL those miles to get your child or you spent ALL that money in procedural fees or waited ALL that time for your referral, it doesn’t mean that you have to be unbelievably in love with your child 150% of the time and overjoyed with the joys of parenting 180% of the time because, hey – this is what YOU wanted, isn’t it? Wrong. Adoptive parents can feel ALL the same frustrations as bio parents, and in fact, can and will often feel MORE frustrations because parenting a child you’ve adopted has about 10 more layers of emotional baggage than parenting a bio child. If a 2 year old bio child is having a tantrum – it’s simply “the terrible 2’s”. If a 2 year old child that was adopted is having a tantrum, his or her parents must consider yes, “the terrible 2’s” but also whether or not the child is having a flashback to some previous trauma, whether the child is having an attachment issue, whether the child is feeling rejected because something triggered the primal sense of loss and rejection that is hardwired in their brains or a cornucopia of many other possible reasons for a tantrum that just don’t apply to bio kids. Sadly, this doesn’t end when the terrible 2’s end. This is a LIFELONG suitcase of parenting considerations that parents via adoption must continuously open up and rummage through to try to support and understand their child.
5. I am not good at getting up at 5:30am to catch a commuter train into the city for 8am and sitting through 8 hours of workshops and then catching a commuter train back home to get home by 8pm to fall into bed exhausted and do it all over again. Times 3. Comfortable shoes is an oxymoron when you attend a conference and aren’t staying at the venue the conference is being held at. I will not do that again simply to save money. Despite wearing orthopedic flip-flops (they aren’t quite as ugly as they sound) on the first day of the conference, I also stupidly decided to walk from the train station to the conference venue instead of taking the subway. My
lazy fragile feet not-so-gently reminded me with numerous blisters that this was not something they were used to doing, and for the following 2 days, continued to vent their frustrations by refusing to enjoy wearing ANY of the various shoes I tried to put on them. Ok feet and body – I get it. Next conference will require physical and stamina training ahead of time.
6. There are many kinds of adoptions. This was not a new lesson, either. Each one of them has its own unique circumstances and challenges. Each one has its own elements of beautiful love and support and understanding, along with its own pain and sad history. No kind of adoption is better or easier than another adoption, just different. Kinda like people – we’re all different, yet we’re all the same. Didn’t want to miss an opportunity to reiterate one of the running themes of my writing and I did find it very interesting that this theme also applies to adoptions.
7. Children who were adopted grow up to become adults that can feel a complex range of emotions, from feeling really good about certain aspects of their adoption to also simultaneously feeling angry and bitter about certain aspects of their adoption. But every single one of them has some sort of residual pain. Sometimes the pain has nothing to do with the parenting, sometimes it has everything to do with the parenting. Sometimes the adult adoptee’s pain is a sad mixture of their pre-adoption history, their adoption circumstances, their lack of post-adoption support and sometimes even their own personal emotional challenges. I met adult adoptees who were positive, happy, well-adjusted humans who saw adoption through positive eyes, even while they openly shared their sometimes painful memories of their lives. I met adult adoptees who were angry, bitter, resentful humans lashing out at the world for all the pain they had endured and who were looking for someone, something to blame for all the hurt they have inside. ALL of their pain is valid and each adoptee is entitled to deal with that pain in the manner that feels right for them personally, even if it makes other people uncomfortable sometimes.
8. Adoptive parents need strong egos. That adoptee pain I just talked about? We take it on. We absorb it. These are our children and when they hurt, we hurt. Sometimes we cause that hurt. Sometimes we cause it knowingly, sometimes unintentionally. Sometimes our children blame us for that pain. Sometimes we deserve that blame, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can help our children with that pain, sometimes we cannot. But in order to help our children, we need to be able to separate our ego from our parenting. Not an easy task. Not an easy thing to support your child on a journey that we did not create. Not easy to accept our child’s hurt yet not feel guilty for causing it somehow, even if our child thinks we did. Not an easy thing to hear a child say “you’re not my REAL parent” or “I want to find my birth family” or “I love my birth family more”. Not an easy thing to self-reflect and ask ourselves “Am I doing enough?” to help our children cope with the pain of their past, their losses, their traumas, their racial differences from their family and community. Ego gets in the way. A lot. For all parents, not just adoptive ones. But once again – the onion of adoptive parenting has many more layers to be peeled back than that of bio parenting. Strong egos that are willing to stand aside for the emotional growth and healing of our children are mandatory.
9. There is a HUGE demand for post-adoption support that does not seem to be getting fulfilled right now. For myself personally, I have not felt this because I belong to an amazing support network of families who also adopted from South Africa. The conference helped me to once again recognize how very special and important this network is to me, my daughter and our family (in fact, our network actually won an award at the conference for being such a great network!) In addition, our social worker/adoption practitioner has 30+years of experience and a wealth of resources that he has been very helpful in providing to us, as needed. I myself am very resourceful in researching via books, groups, professionals, blogs – you name it. When I want to know about something, I go after it like a dog sniffing for his buried bone. However, I learned at the conference that not all adoptees or parents of adoptees are so fortunate. There seems to be a sad gap in the area of support for both parents who have adopted and adoptees themselves. It seems that resources for payment do exist in some larger urban areas, but public resources are in limited supply everywhere. This is sad and needs to change. As stated previously, being a parent through adoption is hard. Being an adoptee is hard. Public awareness and funding needs to be directed towards the needs of these groups so that proper support is available.
10. Listening to the stories of other parents who have adopted as well as the stories of adoptees, coupled with listening to the advice of professionals on how to cope, deal, support, understand and help our children with their myriad of challenges was extremely heavy emotionally. In addition to the disruption to my usual sleep/activity patterns, I absorbed buckets of other people’s emotional burdens while tapping a direct pipeline into my own and my daughter’s. It was hard. It was emotional. It was depressing at times, although it was also sometimes very uplifting and inspirational. It was overwhelming and has taken me 4 days just to be able to talk about it and write about it. My brain and my heart are still working together to process all of the information and experiences I received. I grossly underestimated this aspect of the conference prior to attending, but I’m not sure how knowing this now will help prepare in advance for the next one. I think that like adoptive parenting, this is just another thing that we jump into with both feet and slog through emotionally, hoping we are doing our best and that we will come out on the other side with some useful knowledge and understanding along with the ability to be the best parents we can be to our children.
My Baby Girl deserves the best that I can give her.
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