“Your son is so lucky.”
As mother to an 11-year-old who came to our family via adoption four years ago, I hear this comment a lot. Friends and strangers alike tell me that my child is fortunate, that he “seems like such a happy kid” and “You would never know he’s adopted, he’s so well-adjusted!” Some say these things within earshot of my son or my biological daughter.
I know that their comments are mostly well-meaning, so I usually just change the subject, not wanting to start a weighty conversation at the grocery check-out line or at school pickup. But what I want to say is, “He is not ‘lucky.’ He will never ‘adjust.’ Adoption is trauma, and no child — or birth parent — should ever have to go through it.”
It took me a year to find an adoption-literate therapist who could take us on (at $200 per week, no less) and longer to find a trauma-trained caregiver.
Yet ahead of the anticipated overturning of Roe v. Wade, many opponents of abortion rights held up adoption as an antidote for unwanted pregnancies. After the draft opinion leaked in May, Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in a typical comment, told ABC News’ “This Week” that his solution if abortion were outlawed would be “increase the services for maternal health, to increase the services for adoption services … We want to invest in those areas that will help those women with very difficult circumstances of the pregnancy.” He did not elaborate on what specific “adoption services” he would invest in, or how much, or where the money would come from. It’s almost like he hadn’t thought about that part.
He certainly didn’t acknowledge what those services entail, and how they can never compensate for the difficulties adopted children or their parents face. As life without Roe becomes a reality in the United States, lawmakers must understand the toll they are foisting on families if they don’t allow women to pursue abortions.
My son is funny, gregarious and wise, with arresting almond eyes that take up a third of his face and a killer jump shot. If anyone is lucky, it’s us; being his mom is one of the great joys of my life. But that joy comes with trauma — his, ours, his biological family’s — that has forever changed us. We chose to adopt and therefore accept the humbling, messy, demanding work of navigating the road toward healing and connection. Our son did not get to choose, and soon thousands of infants and birth mothers may not have a choice, either.
In my work as the director of a nonprofit supporting child welfare-involved youth and families, I’m well aware of how there is already a serious lack of accessible, effective trauma-healing resources for children, birth mothers and adoptive families in this country. But then I experienced this first hand after bringing our son home.
Though my husband and I had ready access to experts in adoption and trauma via my work, a supportive network of family and friends, and the time, money and desire to provide every available resource to support our son’s healing, we struggled. It took me a year to find an adoption-literate therapist who could take us on (at $200 per week, no less) and longer to find a trauma-trained caregiver who we trusted to watch our son for even a couple of hours.
We needed help addressing his intense rages, in which he punched himself and the walls while wailing from a place so deep inside that it sounded primal — which it was. He would fight in school and run away; he scrawled “I hat u mom and dade” in Sharpie on his bedroom wall. Despite being loved, wanted and safe, he was operating in fight-or-flight mode 24 hours a day, his pulse racing under my tentative fingers even as his eyelids drooped during book time.
No amount of training or education could have prepared my husband and me for the force of his pain, but slowly, day by day, we inched forward. We threw “normal parenting” out the window, battling our own triggers so we could model calmness and safety even as he tantrumed. We patched the holes in the drywall without a word and stopped chasing him when he ran away.
Over time our son’s nervous system came out of overdrive, and he stopped perceiving everything and everyone as a threat. We started to see glimpses of the compassionate, silly, creative boy trapped inside that shell of fear. Exhausted but hopeful, we stayed the course.
Not every adopted child will rage, but every one will carry trauma that manifests in diverse ways until it is faced and processed. The son of a friend, adopted at birth from a mother who experienced food insecurity, suddenly began hoarding food as a teen; an adult I know, adopted at two months old, was a self-described “happy, perfect child” until she left for college, when seemingly out of nowhere she began cutting herself, failing classes and fantasizing about suicide. The transition of leaving her safe hometown, where everyone knew her as so-and-so’s daughter, and going to college, where her dorm room photos raised questions about why her entire family was white though she was Asian, opened up the wound of her early trauma.
As for birth mothers, the young women who never wanted to be mothers in the first place, they also suffer complicated losses — the loss of their freedom to choose when and under what circumstances they give birth, the loss of the children they never intended to have.
Four years later after his adoption our son is thriving, though the impact of his past has changed him — and us — forever. He steps out of that shell of fear almost every day now, but it is always there, just as the ache for his first parents will always be there, too. He trusts and loves me but remains hypervigilant, anxiously asking “What’s wrong, Mom?” when he observes even the tiniest micro-expression of frustration or annoyance crease my brow. He wakes often at night and paces; at 11, he worries about the future.
Republican lawmakers are prepared to take away a woman’s right to choose without any sign that they’ve given earnest consideration to, let alone resources for, the long-term effects of such a decision. Adoption, a fraught reality for many that is made more complicated because it contains both beauty and pain, should never be propped up by lawmakers as the easy solution to a problem they created by wielding their outsized power over millions of Americans.
Adoption requires a lifelong commitment, and serious patience, time and therapeutic interventions. It should never be forced on anyone. Lawmakers should strive to understand, plan for and fund trauma-healing support services for the thousands of youths and families in the United States already touched by adoption, instead of committing thousands of more Americans to it without their consent.