In part six of our adoption odyssey, Angie and Alexandra become our children in the eyes of the law. In our hearts, that had happened months ago.
by Kathryn Reiss and Tom Strychacz
If we had to choose a watershed event that marked the end of our adoption odyssey, it would be the adoption ceremony at which Alexandra and Angie legally became our children.
It happened in September, more than a year after the girls came to live with us. Our family had already been “finalized” in our hearts many months before the court date, so it was a symbolic ending, an arbitrary date selected because that’s when the judge was available. It came several months after the last legal hurdles: a final hearing for termination of their birthparents’ rights, extensive reports filed by the social workers, countless forms which we filled out with our children’s new last names. It was the culmination of a long journey that began when Child Protective Services decided that adoption (rather than reunification) was our girls’ best chance for happy childhoods and productive lives.
That Thursday morning, none of us went to work or school. Instead, we all dressed up and drove to the county courthouse. Our social worker, the adoption coordinator who had connected us with our new daughters, and the head of our agency all met us there, and we waited together in the hallway for the judge. Our kids seemed awed by the atmosphere.
There were more forms to sign, and then we were asked to raise our right hands. Do we, the judge asked, solemnly swear to raise these girls as our own, nurture them through sickness and in health, and love them forever? “We do,” we vowed. (“I can see a tear in your eye, Mom!” declared Alexandra.) After the ceremony, our judge told us this was the first adoption he had finalized. “People told me that adoptions are the best part of the job,” he said, shaking our hands. “And they were right!”
We drove home together, subtly altered. That weekend we had a party. “Hooray for Angie and Alexandra!” the icing on the cake spelled out. Tom gave a little speech, thanking the guests for being so welcoming to our girls during their first year with us. Kathryn lit seven candles—one for each member of our newly completed family. We saved the cards and photos from that day to gather into albums.
Something else to celebrate: The finalization meant the immediate vanishing of all social workers from our lives, along with the mandatory bimonthly inspections. (This is not to say we were abandoned; our social workers urged us to call if we ever had questions, and to stay in touch.) Our daughters were surprised to learn that social workers would no longer be checking on them. They had never experienced life unsupervised by Child Protective Services. That parents were now the sole authorities, the ones who would meet their needs and keep life running smoothly, was a concept our girls had never before seen in action. For our part, we were relieved at no longer being foster parents and no longer having to provide monthly accounts of our expenditures.
But becoming part of our family did not mean that Alexandra and Angie completely lost touch with their past. Older children adopted from foster care do not have to contend with the mysteries facing those adopted as infants: “Who am I?,” “Why couldn’t my birth parents raise me?” Our girls know their background, they know the people, they know where they came from, and why. And though the story isn’t a happy one, it is full of the sort of details many people adopted as infants long to know.
We had worried at the outset that our daughters’ ties to birth siblings would hinder their transition to a new family, but our fears proved unfounded. Angie and Alexandra are happy to see their birth siblings and grandfather twice a year, and they keep in touch through cards and occasional phone calls. They are pleased that their birth siblings—some in adoptive placements, some with relatives—are doing well. But they don’t seem to need much more than that. Their lives with us are full and engaging. On the day he brought the girls to stay, our adoption coordinator told us that, in his experience, children identify with an adoptive family within a year. In our case he was right.
For all of us, our adoption odyssey has been a positive experience. Now, having five children instead of three is our norm. Our family feels complete. We no longer feel the urge to talk about the adoptions to people when we first meet them, and it’s not the first thing our girls share about themselves when they make new friends at school. Adoptions helped form our family, but adoption isn’t our central theme.
Recently, in preparation for this article, we asked our children how they felt about our adoptions. Isabel, now 11, declared: “I thought it was a good idea to adopt Angie and Alexandra, and I still think it’s a good idea. I’m happy with the way things turned out, and I like having them for my sisters!”
Nicholas, Daniel, and Angie were pulled from a deeply exciting role-playing battle to answer our query. “The adoption?” said Nicholas, age 22 and home on college break. “What adoption? Haven’t they always been here?”
Daniel, 17 and grinning, had this to say: “I think it was a horrible idea and the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the world.” Then, as he saw his words being recorded, cried, “Wait! Not really! I’m just kidding! Angie and Alexandra are really cool and they’re pretty much just my regular sisters.”
Angie, who just turned 15, was more reflective (and less silly): “Signing the papers didn’t really mean anything because that wasn’t when the adoption was finalized in my mind. That happened way earlier, when I felt like I belonged in this family and knew I was staying forever. It wasn’t like in a foster home, not even a nice one.” She added that she knew she was truly one of us when she knew the inside jokes, and the “family language”—our culture. “And I like having serious conversations with people, like the time Nicholas and I sat on the couch and he told me all about the Big Bang theory, and I felt really in the family.”
Alexandra, now 13, looked up from her book. “Well, if you ask me, adoption is a really good thing! I think everyone should be adopted.”
In a sense, she is right. Families are made in all sorts of ways, through marriage and re-marriage, through birth and adoption, as step-families and extended families and groups of friends who can’t imagine getting along without each other. Whether we come into each other’s lives as babies or adults, as teens or grandparents, or as older children fresh from foster care, our connectedness is what makes life worth living. This happens every day, as families form and reshape themselves. The legal finalization is important—but it is only icing on the cake.
Kathryn Reiss is an award-winning author of suspense novels for children and teens. Tom Strychacz writes books and articles on American literature. They both teach at Mills College in northern California, and are the parents of five incredible kids. This article concludes their six-part series about adopting from foster care.
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