The Reluctant Family

When the "adoption option" comes to the table, there may be spouses — or several family members — who are reluctant to move forward.

A reluctant spouse can put a strain on marriages

It's often played for laughs in TV shows and movies — the nervous husband who jokingly asks if there is a money-back guarantee if he is unhappy with the adoption. But when prospective parents — or their closest family members — do not agree on the decision to adopt a child, it is no laughing matter.

"It is common for people to be in different places about adoption, yet it is something we do not often talk about," says Jill Smolowe, an adoptive parent and author of an adoption memoir, An Empty Lap (Pocket Books). "That makes the person suffering through it feel alone. I thought my marriage was flawed in some fundamental way when my husband and I couldn't agree, and yet I struggled in isolation."

Even if your mate — or your mom — is against your decision to adopt, it doesn't mean that your relationship is unhealthy, or that you won't eventually find common ground. Here's how you can help naysayers feel better about heading down this road with you.

Reluctant Parent-To-Be

You wanted your baby home yesterday — but your mate is dragging his feet and raising new concerns daily about taking this path toward parenthood. While such an imbalance is frustrating, it's also incredibly common for one half of a couple to lead the charge toward parenthood.

Reluctance to become a parent often centers around what must be given up, or anxiety about meeting expectations. Ask yourself and your spouse these hard questions, knowing that some may be unanswerable until you're living with the changes a child brings.

  • Age: Am I too old to be a parent? Will I have enough energy? Enough patience? Enough love?
  • Money: How can I save for a college education when I need to save for retirement? Will we ever get to take a vacation again?
  • Time: Will a child be too disruptive? Will I have to curb my work hours? Do I want to?
  • Family: Will my parents reject an adopted child? Will my children from a prior marriage resent me for starting a new family? Will I repeat my parenting mistakes?
  • The unknown: Who will the child be? What genetic surprises might be in store? Will I be able to love an adopted child as much as a biological one?

"Couples are rarely at the same point at the same time in approaching major life events," says Ronny Diamond, director of the adoption counseling team at Spence-Chapin in New York City. "One will be ready to get married, buy a house, have children, before the other will. This isn't necessarily reluctance, it's just an indication that you're out of sync in your timing."

Complicating this particular decision is the fact that adoption, in many cases, symbolizes giving up on a dream. "People usually come to adoption because they can't have a child biologically, or because they have not yet found a partner. They bring these feelings with them," says Joni Mantell, director of the Infertility & Adoption Counseling Center in Pennington, New Jersey. "Adoption is not the way they expected to form a family."

Before you try a hard sell, consider backing off and giving your mate time to come around on his own. He may surprise you. "My husband was reluctant to adopt after our infertility treatments," says Stacey Snakenberg of Olathe, Kansas. "He worried that adopted children turn out bad. I insisted that he attend one informational meeting with me. When he still seemed hesitant, I let it drop. One day, out of the blue, he asked if I was ready to pursue adoption. After meeting a couple who had just returned from China with their 15-month-old daughter, he was sold."

For others, talking it out is the way to get both partners in step. This conversation may be fraught with emotion — especially if one partner feels blame for the need to be on this path in the first place. "A couple can have difficulty communicating about family building, because the stakes are so high," says Smolowe. "I'm talking about bone marrow-deep differences that, as happened in my case, can put a marriage on the line. Differences so fundamental that some marriages bust up as a result."

The key is to acknowledge the reluctant spouses concerns and fears, and take them seriously. "If one partner has gone to informational meetings and done some research, she's going to be more comfortable with the idea of adoption," says Diamond. "Her spouse's concerns are legitimate, and he may need to cover some of the same ground before he gets on board." Join a support group for couples considering adoption. Hearing other's reservations may help both of you consider different angles and explore what's fueling the reluctance.

Smolowe and her husband chose counseling to deal with his reluctance to adopt, which she strongly recommends. "A therapist doesn't take sides, so concerns may be addressed without the pressure of expecting a particular outcome." If therapy isn't an option, you could ask your adoption agency to put you in touch with other adoptive parents who faced this challenge. A phone conversation with a formerly reluctant spouse (who is now a proud parent) could be incredibly reassuring.

Reluctant Relatives

When you announce that your family will be growing, you expect family members and friends to rejoice. But adoptive parents are sometimes shocked by unenthusiastic reactions to their big news.

"It was not that they were reluctant, just apprehensive," says Charity Hale, an adoptive mom in North Port, Florida. "My parents had simply never considered adoption as a way to build a family. They had questions, concerns, and fears that they had to deal with before they could be excited. It took them around six months to get on board."

It may hurt to have loved ones question your decision, but keep in mind that they probably have the best intentions. "For the most part, a relatives concern is rooted in love and care for you, and it's important to take it that way," says Diamond. But you should also prepare to be firm. "You can tell them that you appreciate their concern for you. Say that you're open to answering questions that they may have, but that you've made your decision. Now you need their support."

To ease their minds, share some of the research you've done to prepare yourself for adoption: A little education can go a long way. Give them books about adoption, such as Patricia Irwin Johnston's Adoption Is a Family Affair! What Relatives and Friends Must Know. Connect them with programs and workshops at a local agency, or find online support groups to teach them more about adoption.

If you're adopting transracially, you may have extra educating to do. "We all have beliefs about people, and some of our beliefs lie in stereotypes," says Diamond. If your relatives seem uncomfortable about your child's ethnic heritage, or express prejudices, speak up now. "Tell your relatives that it's a good time to examine their assumptions, as you have yours," Diamond recommends. "If they resist your request for an honest discussion, say that you know they want to be the best uncle or aunt they can be." Be aware of subtle stereotyping, as well as outright racism, advises Diamond. "Don't let it slide if someone says, 'That's great that your daughter will be Asian — they're all so good at math!' You might respond by saying, 'Each of our children will be an individual, and we hope that you'll treat each one as such.'"

Even if family members don't support the adoption decision during the wait, most parents find that their loved ones come around when their child finally comes home. "I wouldn't make too much of their negative reactions until they finally meet your child," recommends Mantell. "Once someone meets her new grandchild (or niece or nephew), fears and reluctance often melt away."

Robyn Chittister, of Antioch, California, was pleased to discover that her biggest critics became her biggest cheerleaders when their son finally came home. "[My husband's parents] had said that they weren't sure that they would love an adopted grandchild as they might have loved a biological grandchild," she remembers. "Any worries I had were dispelled when they met Jack. I had never seen my mother-in-law cry until her first visit with Jack came to an end. And my father-in-law, who used to seem afraid of babies, holds him and plays with him with such love. As soon as they met Jack, and saw that we're a family, they just got it."

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The Reluctant Spouse Revisited

Jill Smolowe wrote candidly about her husband's reluctance in a 2001 AF article. Here, she reflects on the many apprehensive adopters she's encouraged in the years since.

It was bad enough that it took years for us to come to agreement about starting a family — years, it turned out, that cost us our reproductive options. But then we found ourselves embattled over adoption. Well, that's when it occurred to me that there was something seriously defective about our marriage. Everyone else brought children into their lives without drama, didn't they? My own husband signed on and off to adoption so often that, by the time we boarded the plane for China, in 1995, I wasn't sure that Joe would stick around after we returned.

Long story short: We went. He saw. She conquered.

Later, I realized that, happy ending or no, my pain and anxiety would have been eased had I known that our differences were not unique. In 1997 I published a memoir, An Empty Lap, as my way of reaching out to anyone who thought herself alone in her agonies over adoption. Almost immediately, a steady trickle of phone calls began. Each caller — always a woman — was desperate to adopt; each feared that adoption might shred her marriage beyond repair. Though I couldn't promise anyone a happy ending, I could listen. Invariably, these calls ended with the woman saying that it helped just to talk about her marital crisis with someone who empathized.

Four years later, when the editors of Adoptive Families contacted me about writing an article, I said, "How about something about reluctant spouses?" By then, I'd heard from enough women to know — for sure — that Joe and I were not freaks. After that article came a new wave of tearful phone calls. They continue to this day, as the article finds new readers on the Internet. These conversations have become so familiar that my first question to any married person considering adoption is, "Are you and your spouse on the same page?" I'm always surprised when the answer is "Yes."

Because most of these women called only once (sometimes there was a second call, to put her reluctant spouse on the line with my once-reluctant spouse), I don't know how many of them eventually adopted. But as each year comes to a close, I receive a few holiday cards featuring smiling babies and return addresses I don't recognize. I stare at the names, and then it hits me: Another couple has found their way to a happy ending.

Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap and co-editor of the anthology A Love Like No Other.

Helping Relatives Come Around

In most cases, all it takes to cure a family member of reluctance is one meeting with your new child. But if your relatives struggle with your decision to adopt long after your child comes home, here's how to make peace.

  • Give them time. If a relative isn't ready to welcome your baby with open arms, postpone that first meeting. "Help him work this out, so that you aren't exposing your child to hurtful attitudes," says Joni Mantell. Many relatives will come around quickly, as they realize how eager they are to meet a new family member. "Try to separate initial reactions from entrenched feelings," adds Mantell. "If getting used to adoption is the issue, time may be all that is needed."
  • Let them know what you expect. While you can't always change your relatives feelings, you can ensure that they treat your child with the respect they'd give a biological child. "You have to set limits," says Ronny Diamond, and you have the right to insist on fair behavior. "For instance, if you have a biological and an adopted child, tell relatives that, if they don't want to bring gifts for both children when they visit, they shouldn't bring any gifts."
  • Set limits. If a relative simply wont come around, draw the line. "Tell her that you won't let your child be treated differently from other children in the family. If she won't change the way she acts, you can't spend time with her," says Diamond. "Your first responsibility is to protect your child."
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