When we asked Pact members what they wish they had known before they adopted, we weren’t sure what kind of response we would get. The feedback we received, overwhelming in volume, was primarily from white parents parenting children of color. Clear themes emerged, underscoring the need for better pre-and post-adoption education and support. We appreciate that these transracial adoptive parents are thinking deeply about issues of race and adoption. Here is a sample of what they wish they had known. May this be of service to other families starting on the lifelong journey of adoption.
The pervasive power of race and white privilege
- I wish someone had said to me as a white adoptive parent who would adopt a child of color, “You are in for the ride of your life. Be willing to get out of—and live out of—your comfort zone, and learn to tolerate it. This will be crucial for parenting transracially.” Continue to do the work you need to as a white person around white privilege, and racism—it will be an ongoing issue throughout your life and the life of you with your child and family. Find trusted people with whom to have conversations about this, people who can be with you, challenge you, and support you.
- I wish I had known about the book Inside Transracial Adoption.
- I wish the adoption agency had required classes about race and racism in today’s world.
- I wish others had been more honest with me about how hard it is sometimes to parent an adopted child of color.
- Contrary to what I was told, hair is not the most important thing to know about when adopting a child of color.
- Never underestimate how early a child becomes aware of race.
- I wish someone had told me that our family’s racial differences could cause stress for my son as early as (in our case) two and a half years old. By age four, we were working with two different therapists for V.’s rageful outbursts, directed ONLY at us and ONLY at home; our son functioned beautifully in pre-school. This whole time, no one ever mentioned that it might cause stress for our little guy to be visibly different from his parents even BEFORE he experienced any racism in society.
- Someone actually told me this, but I just wasn’t able to hear it yet; so what I wish I had heard was that having a diverse set of friends doesn’t matter. Knowing people who are Korean, Pakistani, Japanese, Thai isn’t enough when your child is African American. What really matters to my girl are deep, meaningful connections and lots of daily exposure to people who share her race, look like her, and relate to her lived experience as a black. When she has those connections, all the other ones are nice—and actually helpful. But she needs that strong foundation first.
- How many untold doors of opportunities have opened for us just because our first names are John and Alison? How many calls will never get returned and opportunity doors never open when DeShawn or Taniyah’s names are on the papers in the inbox?
The significance and instructive power of adoptee and birth/first parent voices
- I wish I had known that adopted people and their first parents are THE ONLY true experts on adoption.
- I wish I’d been given reading material written by adult adoptees and birth parents.
- I wish I had talked with birth mothers about their experiences.
- I wish I had been advised more about what “open adoption” means, and its significance in the adopted child’s life.
- I wish I had urged the adoption agency more about wanting to meet and see my daughter’s birth mother.
- Realize when you are not the person your child needs right now, when they need someone who looks like them or who has similar experiences. Find them people they can turn to.
- I wish I’d known to get as much information as I could for my child. Do not assume you will be able to get it later.
Learning more about parenting specific to adoption and open adoption
- I wish I had talked with other experienced adoptive parents prior to adopting.
- I wish I’d had more parent training—including support groups for parents and the entire family—to help navigate and process the unique circumstances of a family coming together through transracial adoption.
- I wish someone had told me that my most difficult and important challenge would be to embrace and be present with my child during her moments of grief.
- Talk about adoption with your child from day one. There is nothing wrong or needing to be hidden about it. It needs to be a natural fact of their lives.
- There is no sugarcoating.
- I wish I’d known about the potential effects of lack of attachment, malnutrition, and delayed social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. I wish I’d known about post-traumatic stress and the signs of what to look for.
- I wish I had known that it’s okay to throw the normal parenting rulebook out the window for our adopted kids. Tiger mother, free range parenting, 1-2-3 Magic, timeouts, sticker charts, blah blah. You might have to ignore all that crap (sorry!) in order to meet your adopted child where she is.
- I wish I’d known that adopted children are a “bundle.” No matter at what age they join your family, they arrive with an already existing story that will play out somehow in your lives together. Some of those stories will have verbal expression, or may have been told to you when you adopted. Many of them are stored in the body and soul of this incredible child that you have adopted. Our job as parents is to support the told and untold stories of this body and soul. Some stories we will never know. Some need to be sought out, and may be found with members of the child’s first family if it is at all possible to have contact or gain information from them.
Preparing extended family
- I wish I had read more books about race and adoption and open adoption. I wish I had suggested books to my family about adoption, race, and open adoption and urged them to do that reading.
- I wish I had discussed with my family early on (prior to the adoption) what it would be like raising a child of color in a white family.
- Don’t expect support from your family; you will need to be your own anchor.
- Expect condemnation of, and lots of stereotypes expressed about, your child’s birth mother from friends and family.
- I wish that I had been educated prior to internationally adopting about adoption-specific tips for raising kids and what parenting books had advice more pertinent to adopted kids (or not). For example, I eventually discovered Patty Cogen’s book, Parenting the Internationally Adopted Child, which was immensely helpful and had lots of specific strategies for enhancing attachment and helping kids make sense of their stories and their emotions.
Understanding and recognizing the needs of our families
- I wish I’d known more about sexual safety for older children adopted from foster care.
- I wish I’d known how to access good mental health services for children, from professionals with experience in adoption and foster care.
- What to do and where to go for services and support, including assessments, school interface, and how to assemble a support team (therapist, school counselor, pediatrician, psychiatrist, etc.).
- Know that your child may have needs that you don’t understand, needs that can be more prevalent in the world of adoption (issues such as attachment, sensory processing, behavioral, educational, emotional, social and issues related to multiple identities).
- If seeking professional support, try to find competent practitioners who share your child’s racial, ethnic, or gender identity.
- Your child is a survivor of trauma, the trauma of growing in the belly of a woman under massive stress for whatever the reasons and whatever the circumstances. Losing a first family and maybe other significant attachments or families before getting to you—this is significant. If you look through the lens of trauma, it may help understand the unique psychology of your child, which may be different from that of a non-adopted child. This awareness can inform you about your child’s way of being in the world. Race is another piece on top of that. There is much you can do to support, understand and help your child and yourself. Knowing that some stuff is hardwired can help you meet your child’s needs.
- I wish I had known about Pact earlier!!
Thank you to Sara Cole, John Gorman, Cheryl Hurwitz, Alison James, Dana Martin, Rachel Mickelson, Ojas Rege, Mary Strimel, Sharon Vandivere, Beth Wheeler, and Lydia Yinger for your contributions.