Fantasy Island

I have worked for a private agency and two different county agencies that place children for adoption. Two of these agencies also write home studies and provide pre-adoptive trainings. I have sat in on another private adoption agency’s training. I am now working for an organization that does not place children, but provides pre- and post-adoption training.

What I have found is that there is a very wide range of information available to prospective adoptive parents depending on the agency they choose, the area in which they live (access and availability), and the type of adoption they choose. But most of the trainings I’ve attended are pretty good. A lot of information is shared; including the difficult aspects of adopting a child. Most of these trainings cover all the range of behaviors, diagnoses and challenges that come with children. A few trainings have been down right reality check smack-downs for prospective parents. I’ve seen the shock on some prospective parents faces as they learn for the first time that adopting a child isn’t just a magical fantasy.

And yet…

I talk to adoptive parents three, five, ten years later. And they tell a similar story. No matter how much they were taught in the trainings, they were still caught up in the fantasy. They realized they didn’t believe what the trainers were telling them. They were optimistic, thought, not my child. Not me.

I think that often times those prospective parents that have the most realistic sense of what adoption will be like are those who have actually been knee deep in children. It is rare to find a couple in their 30’s or 40’s – whose only experience with children are their nieces and nephews – who truly have an understanding of the wide range of behaviors, diagnoses and feelings of adopted children. Maybe it’s just a greater learning curve that has to happen.

Not to say these couples can’t parent well – of course, many can. And I might be over-generalizing. But based on my experience, couples often come in thinking their adopted children will behave like, well, children who are born to them. That is, without any trauma or history of loss. Without a culture of origin. Because after all, they (the parents) love their adopted children as if they were born to them. These couples I compare with couples who wait until they’re financially stable and at a good point in their careers to have children and then have these impossibly unrealistic ideas of what their children should be like. Like children who sit quietly at the dinner table and eat all their vegetables and always remember to floss.

I’m absolutely not against women waiting to have children, and I am not saying that either age or careers alone have some causal relationship with having unrealistic expectations of children, adopted or biological. Maybe having been a young mom, with no real role models outside my own experience of being a child of a young mom, I didn’t have a standard of perfection or an ideal of a perfect child. I was flying by the seat of my pants a lot of times.

I’m not saying age is a factor when it comes to adoptive parents expectations as much as I wonder sometimes if the older one is, the more time one has had to imagine the "perfect" scenario. For adoptive parents who choose to adopt after infertility or reproductive troubles, there is often an extra, added pressure to have the "perfect" family. Too often, I have witnessed this expectation of the "perfect life" and the crash and burn when their kids don’t live up to the fantasy.

It’s great to have ideals, but as my 14-year old daughter reminded me a few nights ago, "you can’t wait for an ideal world. They’re called ideals for a reason, because it’s not reality."

It’s time our society got off the island and started being real.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. I think that all first time parents have unrealistic expectations and emphatic proclamations of the kind of parent they will be and the kind of child they will have. Regardless of their age, background or whether their expectant child is biological or adopted, fantasy is the norm.
    It is just that in the case of adoption, especially an older child who may have had a difficult past, the unrealistic expectations can have a traumatic impact.

  2. I expect (given where we live) that one of the adoption agencies you reference in your post is mine. I certainly remember very clearly 3 years ago when we attended a weekend-long pre-adoption seminar (PAC)there (pre-Hague) & afterward I felt like I had been through the ringer. The first moms that were on one of the panels haunted me. I could not reconcile the potential gain of my becoming a mother beginning with this primal loss of another. I let the application material sit for weeks before I had the courage to pick it up again. I was so thankful for the PAC experience because it forced us to keep our “eyes wide open” – that was your give away BTW. We took advantage of every pre-adoption educational offering available to us through our agency – why wouldn’t you? I never subscribed to the notion that parenting would be a fantasy-tale. I was scared shitless then, and now that my daughter is here – I’m still scared shitless.

  3. Generic comment… much of the adoptive parent training is useless… not concrete enough… not reality based.
    Sure you can say that children may have a honeymoon. They are on their best behavior. But what are some specific examples on what foster/adoptive parents see and feel?
    The best training class that I received was PRIDE foster care training. I believe it was 32 hours of training.
    There were 2 instructors who were tag teaming. And one was an experienced foster mom.
    We had homework (create a relationship network diagram). We did a question/answer session with teenager foster kids. We watched movies and discussed them. We did some role playing. We practiced the approved retraint hold, but were clearly told to avoid it if we aren’t comfortable. And we can always get away and call 911.
    In other words the best training had multiple senses involved. We had time to think about topics. We tried to see the world from a child’s point of view.
    The WORSE training session that I attended. Someone talked while power point slides were projected.
    I feel for people putting together training. How do you share information without scaring people to death? Especially when there isn’t a standard in the medical field….
    For example there is so much going on with FAS. The medical field is using the FAS label differently then it used to be used. And the DSM is being revised and will hopefully include FAS finally (fingers crossed).
    So how can you educate families on an issue that is fluid in definition?

  4. I want to build on AngelaW’s comment: “How do you share information without scaring people to death?” I agree it is important for prospective adoptive parents to be prepared; they need a sense of the challenges they might face. But I wonder if some of the trainings are *so* negative that it scares off some prospective adoptive parents. And I wonder whether some of those who stick with it are the most idealistic, least realistic, and thus perhaps least well prepared ones; whereas some of those who are scared off might actually be better prepared due to their more realistic understanding of the potential challenges, and so in fact they might be *better* able to parent kids – if only they had some encouragement and knew they could rely on post-placement services when needed.
    Also, it is an interesting question you present on age. I would think that one of the advantages of older individuals (maybe even infertile ones, and not just grandmas caring for their kin) would be that they have had a greater extent and diversity of life experience, and this could help prepare them to handle parenting challenges. But it does make sense that a lack of direct experience with children could lead to unrealistic expectations.

  5. Based on my personal experience, I could not disagree with you more. “Experienced parents,” meaning bio parents who have been “knee deep” in kids are among the folks I like least to see adopting older kids. They are so clueless when it comes to what it takes to rear older children to adulthood. Adoption workers love them, but that’s because everyone thinks rearing pretty normal bio kids is somehow translatable to rearing damaged older children who have been in the system for awhile. Two of my five daughters came from disruptions–both were initially placed with two-parent families who had other, bio children. Frankly, the girls were much better off with me, notwithstanding that I hadn’t even babysat that much prior to taking on my first daughter who came to me with RAD and FAE. Overall, it was handier being a lawyer (given how much I had to interact with the system and with schools) than having prior parenting experience.
    Did I have unrealistic expectations? You bet. In fact, I had them with each subsequent adoption. Not even the reality of rearing one attachment-disordered child kept me from hoping that things might be different with the next one.
    I think adoption workers who are placing older children are better off looking for strong advocates who will take on societal systems on behalf of their children, parents who will not have all their personal self-esteem bound up in their child either loving them wholeheartedly in return or suceeding in life, and people, who once they take on a child, will never, ever give up on that child even if the child cannot be managed within the home. JMHO

  6. Sadly, we chose an agency that was strictly in it for the money. They made the process look wonderful, downplayed issues of trauma, neglect… and when assistance was needed once home they offered no resources.
    We did not get proper training. We were prepared for travel, immigration, medical conditions to watch for in China (scabies etc.) where to do the best shopping and sightseeing.
    We were absolutely not prepared for the huge realities of international adoption. No transracial topics, minimal (if any) attachment talks, no trauma or grief discussions.
    It was all pretty dreamy until we saw the reality of post-institutional behaviours, sensory issues, anxiety etc.
    Thankfully we do have a bio-child and some experience so we knew that we needed to work harder and learn as much a possible and we also recognized that this was not about us being failures as parents, just that we were not even remotely prepared for the realities of IA.
    Actually I am so surprised when I hear that others do get great training and disappointed that we didn’t!
    Do you really think that many of the smaller agencies or even larger ones that are in it for the money offer training? I am amazed if this is the case! Impressed, but amazed!!

  7. I had that fantasy (hell, I STILL fantasize that every day can be a good one – it is what keeps me sane) and I felt like I had good training. But also agree with Julie. Had I been older I would have been exhausted with my daughter and had I had bio-kids…well, there wouldn’t have been enough time to properly address her issues when she first came home. My kids have all had disruptions before our family. If I include my son-to-be, they have more than 20 placements combined. If I had bio-kids first, or a lot of experience with non-traumatized kids I don’t know if I would have lasted. Those folks that disrupted my kids all had bio-kids and were considered “experienced” parents. They never knew what hit them when my kids came along. I, on the other hand, just braced myself and fought like hell to get through the rough spots.
    I wonder if you can really even say what is the ideal family. I know of a lot of big families that have like 10 bio kids and then go on to adopt a bunch of older kids and they do great.
    Also, I guess you can say I am infertile since I haven’t popped out any poopers/screamers but that just makes me believe that this all happened so I could take care of my kids and focus all my attention on them. Some of the most determined parents I have met are those that have been through infertility hell.

  8. I’m an adoptive parent, prospective adoptive parent, and a longtime lurker. I really enjoyed this post. My husband and I attended our adoption “education” very early on in our adoption process. We knew nothing about anything at the time, and yet we still knew that the two day, $350 class was a joke. What a letdown. If we had not had the following almost two years to educate ourselves up and down, we would have been living in that fantasy to which you refer and would have faced an overwhelming reality when we finally brought our son home. Instead, we were prepared and still, it was tough. It is still tough. We had no fantasies, but if we had, it would have turned our worlds upside down.
    I find what you said about being knee deep in children very interesting. I didn’t have much experience with children before our son came to us, but I’m also not “older” and advanced in a career (I’m in my late 20’s and took time away from a legal career to parent). My husband is in his mid-30’s and also had VERY limited experience with children.
    And finally, I believe that *if* we had chosen to have biological children, I WOULD have been one of those parents with expectations of an ideal child, which is not at all healthy for any child, biological or adopted. Instead, by having our family through adoption, I carefully examined myself and my thinking and believe that in the end, I’m a better parent for having adopted my son. (I’m not at all saying I’m a great parent. I’m just saying I believe I’m a better parent than I would have been if we had chosen to have biological children.)
    Thank you for all that you share. I know that you don’t write for us – adoptive parents – but what you share is an unbelievable resource for many.

  9. This is cool. I didn’t realize so many other adoptive parents read the blog.
    I adopted an older special needs child as a single mom back in 2000. And if I hadn’t self-educated I would have been lost post-adoption. I completed my foster care training after my daughter’s adoption.
    I have to strongly disagree with the statement that parents who have been knee deep in kids have a more realistic sense of what adoption will be like.
    I think people who are willing to invest time in self-education on post institutionalization issues… and how much neglect impacts a child’s brain.. These are the parents that I see successfully parenting an adopted child.
    I educated myself over a year’s time frame prior to actually starting my adoption. I think this greatly helped me out.

  10. Well, I won’t try to say I have any idea what’s coming having only been an adoptive mother for 3 months but my search for more information is one of the reasons I’ve been lurking here for a year.
    The training our adoption agency gave us was quite superficial, in particular the “transracial” training was an endurance exercise for me as both a Chicana and a MSW. The lack of depth provided by our agency is one the reasons I looked for info like this blog and those of other adult adoptees (even though some were difficult for me to read)
    I try to be cognizant of the possible issues we will be addressing with our daughter, but for me one of the greatest barriers not discussed here are my family and close friends. They all seem to want to pretend our daughter was not adopted and act uncomfortable whenever the smallest bit of adoption relation information is brought up. I am very close to my mom and my sister and they both have said I’m over-analyzing and I should “just be happy.”
    My point being, its not just that adoptive parents aren’t being well prepared or are making themselves “exceptions” (not that this isn’t happening as well) but also that those closest to us would be more comfortable with the fantasy and try to draw us into it as well.

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