The Blend Trend
In this special report, adoptive mother Pamela Kruger reports that more and more of us are adopting after having birth children.
I had just signed up to begin my first round of IVF when I realized I didn’t want to do it. The grueling fertility mill, I decided, was just not for me. My husband and I had a 4-year-old biological daughter and both wanted another child, so we began exploring adoption. Very quickly, we learned that there were many families like us who were opting to adopt after having biological children.
Some couples, like us, had their first child in their 30s, then had trouble conceiving again. Consider Robin and Bill Woehrle, who already had a 5-year-old biological son. The first time Robin heard her friend speak about his foreign-aid work in Romania, she knew she wanted to adopt a baby from there. “These kids need families and we wanted another child,” she says. In August 2001, the Falls Church, Virginia, couple adopted 31-month-old Seth.
Other families had several sons and desperately wanted a girl. Janet and Joe Lasick, for example, had three biological sons when they adopted a 3-year-old girl from Kazakhstan in 1999. The Lasicks weren’t struggling with infertility. “I really wanted a girl,” says the Sumner, Washington, mom. “I thought I’d end up with a family the size of the Osmonds before I had a daughter by birth.”
Then there are the over-40 couples who wanted big families; the older, remarried men and women who wanted to raise children with their new spouses; and the couples who were moved to adopt for humanitarian or religious reasons. When you step back and remember that only a generation ago adoption was seen as the last resort of infertile couples desperate to have children, it’s pretty wonderful to see so many families with biological kids choosing to adopt—and become what adoption experts refer to as blended families.
Adoption’s Changing Face
Twenty to thirty years ago, many of these parents would not have been able to adopt. Domestic agencies traditionally discouraged, if not prohibited, couples older than 40 from adopting. And until the breakup of the Eastern Bloc a decade or so ago, relatively few countries were open to foreign adoptions. Since then, however, the number of foreign-born children adopted by Americans has increased by 150 percent, from 8,481 in 1992 to more than 21,000 in 2002.
To be sure, blended adoptive families have existed in the past. But they seemed to be few in number, barely visible to their community. Some parents didn’t tell their children they were adopted. “It was seen as secret and shameful,” says Adam Pertman, the father of two adopted kids and the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America.
No one knows exactly how many of the estimated 120,000 children adopted last year are part of this trend, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is significant. When the Center for Twin and Family Research at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis began a study of sibling relationships in 1999, they found that 30 percent of the 187 adoptive families they interviewed early in the study had biological children too. And it’s estimated that about 25 percent of this magazine’s readers also have biological children.
A Sometimes Difficult Decision
Though the blended adoptive family may be more visible now, many of us who already have biological children can still find the decision to adopt agonizing. “It’s fraught with fears,” says Paula Kaplan-Reiss, Ph.D., a New Jersey-based psychologist who has a blended family and speaks frequently on the subject. Will you love a child you adopt as much as the one you’ve carried for nine months and parented from birth? Will you wreak havoc on your family by bringing this stranger into it?
Typically, one spouse lobbies for the adoption while the other is opposed or undecided. Sometimes relatives weigh in. Steven Curtis Chapman, a Grammy-winning contemporary Christian singer, and his wife, Mary Beth, started considering adoption in 1998, when their eldest daughter, Emily, age 12, argued it was their Christian duty to help the less fortunate. Steven—who, with Mary Beth, had three biological kids—was thrilled by the idea. Mary Beth, on the other hand, was worried. Her youngest son was age 7. Did she really want to start over again? Unable to decide, they began the paperwork for an international adoption, with the understanding that they could stop anytime.
Less than a year later, when they received a description of an infant girl from China, all doubts evaporated. “Even without seeing a picture, we both felt, ‘that’s our daughter,’” says Steven. In 2000, the couple traveled with their children to China and came home with 7-month-old Shaohannah.
The Chapmans were fortunate. For some families, the decision process can be problematic. Janet Lasick, whose sons were ages 18, 10, and 2 when she adopted in 1999, says her husband’s family repeatedly made pointed comments: “They’d say, ‘Why don’t you just take care of the children you already have?’”
Many of us know that seeing our child in person for the first time can be as wondrous an experience as giving birth. I sobbed when the orphanage workers in Kazakhstan first brought me my 6-month-old daughter, Annie. With her blue eyes, fair complexion, and cleft chin, she took my breath away, and she looked unexpectedly like my biological daughter, Emily.
But the early days of adoption may be tinged with fear. Like so many institutionalized babies, Annie was listless and depressed. She avoided eye contact and barely moved her arms or legs. It wasn’t until our third day that I saw her smile and heard her utter a loud cry, upon being taken from us by a caregiver.
Blending and Bonding
Although many of us instantly fell in love with the children we adopted, others admit it took some time before they felt bonded. “For six months, I felt like I was baby-sitting someone else’s child,” says Lasick. Having been in an orphanage since birth, Jasmine was excessively friendly and didn’t know how to form attachments. “She’d go up to strangers and jump in their laps.”
Some kids actively push away their new family. When the Woehrles brought 21/2-year-old Seth home, he spent hours roaming from their bed to his. During the day, he would kick and bite whoever was near. The couple visited a therapist, who helped the Woehrles see that “Seth had come to us as a hurt child who was grieving,” says Robin. The couple learned that they had to be patient. “The therapist told us, ‘Attachment is a process, not an event,’” says Robin. “She said, ‘Write that down and read it to yourself a hundred times a day.’” Seth is more loving now, and the family is no longer in therapy.
As for the siblings, it’s normal for them to resent a new arrival in the family—but the adoption process can stir up more anxiety than usual. According to a 1999 study by the City University of New York’s Lehman College, it can be especially upsetting because it shakes kids’ beliefs that the parental bond is unbreakable. My daughter, Emily, was thrilled when we told her she’d be a big sister, but after we explained about birthmothers and adoption, her first question was: “I’m going to be with my family forever, right?”
Emily also bombarded us with questions after we brought Annie home: If her parents gave her up because they were poor, couldn’t we send them money? Was Annie sad that she wasn’t with her “first” mother? I always answered truthfully, but I wondered, when my daughters argued, would adoption ever be used as a weapon?
Experts say kids in blended families will make below-the-belt remarks to their siblings, as most kids do. The key is how parents handle it. Beth Hall, codirector of Pact, a Richmond, Californiabased nonprofit serving adoptive children of color, has a vivid memory of the time her sister, who was adopted, broke the head off her favorite doll. “You’re not my real sister anyway!” a livid Hall had screamed. Her mother swiftly punished her. “That was a good thing because it sent us the message, ‘Family is absolute.’” But Hall believes her parents also needed to discuss their secret fears and feelings as a family.
Although research shows that parents are more likely to provide their adopted children with psychotherapy, most studies indicate that our families are faring well. The University of Minnesota siblings study, for example, looked at 257 parents and their teenagers and found that kids in blended families were as healthy and close to their siblings as those in biological ones.
In the meantime, those of us with blended families see signs every day that our lives have been enriched by adoption. Recently, Steven Chapman overheard his son, Caleb, announce to a friend that he would adopt a “little girl from China and an African-American boy” when he was older. “I was so proud,” says Steven. “It showed me that we’ve all been changed because of Shaohannah.”
Pamela Kruger is a freelance editor and writer who lives with her family in Milburn, New Jersey.
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