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The Truth About Older-Child Adoption

The first year after bringing home an older child is complicated, messy, isolating, utterly frustrating...and incomparably amazing.

by Jen Hatmaker

I get asked all the time: "What is adoption really like?" Well, sit down, because I'm going to walk you through the first year of adoption, with only a moderate amount of hyperbole.

Of course, our story is not everyone's story--we adopted unrelated five- and seven-year-olds from Ethiopia, with no major health issues, after we already had three biological children. But whether you're adopting from foster care, from another country, adopting children with severe needs, or don't have other kids at home, some stages are universal.

PRE-STAGE: Waiting for Your Kiddo

This stage bears virtually no resemblance to any phase that follows. This is the hungry, manic process of paperwork, court dates, and travel, as well as unforeseen interruptions and an obliterated "timeline."

Here is the upside: This is the stage at which you realize God can put a vicious fight in you for a kid who doesn't have your blood coursing through his veins. Those early doubts about loving a child without the instincts of biology are put to rest. You don't know this kid yet, but you love him in your heart, in your bones. You'll fight like hell to get to him.

STAGE 1: Honeymoon (the first 4 to 6 weeks)

She is home. You can't believe it. It's been months or years since you started this process, and here she is, sitting at your dining room table. Look at her sitting there! Look at her eating eggs! Your bio kids are treating her like a pet and are more helpful than they will ever be again. People are dropping food off on your porch. This is Fake Life, and everyone is smiling.

Your new one seems compliant and easy-going, and, Dear Ones, this is because she is about to have the Most Epic Freak-Out of Her Life. For her, this is like the part of the sleepover when you just get there, and the games and toys are awesome. But then, all of a sudden, it's bedtime, and you realize: Wait a minute. This is not my bed. That is not my mom. This is not my space. Good feelings are gone.

STAGE 2: Spaz Out (4-6 weeks to 3-4 months)

Who knows what the straw that breaks the camel's back will be--one more food he hates, one more conversation he can't decode, a moment of discipline--but something will happen, and your little one will finally lose it. Once the dam has broken, the flood will last for months.

There will be screaming, kicking, and full-out meltdowns. You may chase your beefy eight-year-old into the middle of the street, where he ran, barefoot and screaming, throw him over your shoulder, and lug him back home. Then the two of you will hunker down for two hours, drenched in sweat, as you hold him tight and whisper love into his ears, and he will thrash and yell until he passes out. Your child is grieving. It is visceral. It is devastating.

You and your spouse are haunted, unshowered, unhinged. You stare into each other's eyes, each begging the other to fix this: What have we done? What are we going to do? Your biological children are huddled in the corner, begging grandparents to come and rescue them. You can't talk to anyone because everyone is still beaming at you, asking: "Is this just the happiest time of your life?" You scour adoption blogs and Yahoo groups, desperate to find one brave person to say how hard this is. You've ruined your life. You've ruined your kids' lives. Your marriage is doomed. Your adopted child hates you. You want to go back to that person pining away in the Pre-Stage and punch her in the liver.

STAGE 3: Triage (4 months to 8 months)

Somewhere around the fourth or fifth month, you realize that the fits last less than 10 minutes and happen only every fourth day. This alone is reason to live. You're out of the weeds. Evidence of her preciousness, her real self, keeps peeking out. She is feeling a teeny bit safer, and is beginning to trust your love.

As for you, you're coming out of the fog. You start returning phone calls. You brave a Date Night. You look at your bio kids and say, "Oh, hi there. So how have you been the last seven months?" You color your two inches of gray and get a haircut. You step on the scale and realize you've either lost or gained 10 pounds from the stress. OK, gained. I'm just trying to give you hope.

STAGE 4: Rehab (8 months to 12 months)

The meltdowns are over. Your new son is telling jokes in English. He is reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid by himself. He is a soccer phenom. You start grooming him for the Olympics. (No, you don't.) (Yes, I do.)

You start dealing. You start a lifebook and research creative ways to honor his birthparents and birth country. You get serious about addressing his brooding and manipulations or whatever coping skills he's trotting out. You're no longer resorting to things like, "Um, I really like the way you buckle your seatbelt. Totally nail it," in order to praise him.

You remember how your social worker told you on your three-month visit, as she looked into your bloodshot eyes and you burst into tears, that attachment takes time...for everyone. Biology helps us love that screaming, non-sleeping baby madly, irrationally. But in adoption, it takes everyone time to fall in love. And that's OK.

So in those first few stages, you might feel like you are raising someone else's hysterical kid. You might be full of resentment, disappointment, and regret. Love may feel elusive, even impossible, for a while.

Normal, Dear Ones. So very normal. You are not a terrible person, nor is your new son or daughter a lemon. There is hope for everyone.

I've never forgotten what Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the first year of adoption:

Put Feelings on a back-burner. If you could express your feelings right now, you'd be saying things like, "Oh my God, I must have lost my mind to think that I can handle this...I'm way way way over my head. I'll never spend time with my spouse or friends again; my older children are going to waste away in profound neglect; my career is finished. I am completely and utterly trapped." You see? What's the point of expressing all that right now? Put Feelings in the deep freeze...Let your hands and words mother the new child, don't pause to look back, to reflect, or to experience emotions.

Here is the good news: Eventually, you can pull Feelings from the deep freeze, and you'll discover genuine love sneaking up on you for this kid. You'll find out: Oh! He's funny! She's sassy! He's good at science! She is compassionate! I had no idea!

Is adoption easy? No, it is not. Is it simple? Nope. Complicated and long-term. Will bonding be immediate and seamless? Maybe, but probably not. Is adoption worth it? Yes! And anything worth fighting for is worth fighting through.

Jennifer Hatmaker, an author and speaker, is a mom to five through birth and adoption. She blogs at, from which this piece was adapted with permission.

PHOTO: Brandon, Jen, Gavin (13), Sydney (11), Caleb (9), Ben, and Remy (8 and 5, Ethiopia).

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We adopted an older child two years ago and went through the phases you discuss. It is very difficult, no doubt. However, I really find it hard to understand when people say that they felt love for someone they haven't even met yet. You don't even know the person. Love has to grow. It is two years out for us, and we are still working on the love and attachment. Sometimes the situation turns out to be even more complicated than what has been described. We adopted an older child with a "minor" special need. That is to say, it is considered minor here, but in Her native country, children with this special need are considered bad luck. it was obvious to us from the get-go, when the orphanage director had only negative things to say about our child, that she had been severely neglected, even rejected. We have also come to learn that she has a variety of diagnoses, possibly the result of her treatment in the orphanage and possibly the result of her genetics. Her special needs are a lot more involved than the simple one we knew of up front. So, not to be a downer, but what adoptive parents of older children still do is put the happy ending at the one year mark. Many times, difficulties persist, especially as the child reveals herself, and you and the child are faced with a challenging, long road ahead. Adopting an older child is very difficult and not for everyone. The truth needs to be told that these stories don't always have happy endings, or that sometimes the happy ending takes a long, long time to get ro, and there is lots of grief (on both sides) along the way.

Posted by: Debbie at 10:52am Dec 11

"You want to go back to that person pining away in the Pre-Stage and punch her in the liver." Ha ha! Yes, exactly. We are in the process of adopting our wonderful teenage daughter from foster care (she wants to be adopted, but DCF is fighting us because it's "too much paperwork") She's a great kid - kind, resilient, brilliant, with a good moral inner compass. But she's also been heavily traumatized. We've had to deal with our share of rage, oppositional behavior, lying, manipulation, two huge bouts of illness and severe depression, intense nightmares, anxiety, pretend-illness, hoarding, gorging on food, etc. She wanted to relieve her child hood with us, acting as a baby, a toddler, a little child - asking us to hold her, wash her face, cut up her food, read her stories, etc. We've witnessed tremendous grief, held her through it, and seen her beautiful, tentative, courageous healing. Our "honeymoon" ended at six months, when she flipped over night from seeming to adore me to "hating me to the core of her being". She was one angry kid, though it never became physical (don't take it personally, said her therapist - she's really mad at her abusive mother and you are a safe person to take it out on. It's actually a great sign -she trusts you!). We're good loving pals now,and she refers to us as mom and dad though she still has trouble trusting us at times. Our family life, nearly three years into this, is generally a thing of peace and joy. But hard won! This is a really different kind of parenting, and it's great to see an article that's honest about it. It's hard sometimes, exhausting sometimes, but what a joy to see her gradually becoming the person she was meant be, before all the bad things happened to her! We're already thinking we'd like to do this again, and add another teen to the family.

Posted by: Susan at 6:32pm Dec 11

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