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After years of infertility, Denise Wood and her husband had come to terms with their fate. They filled the void with a menagerie of puppies, horses, and even goats. But one day they made The Decision, the one that millions of families have debated, discussed, fretted over, and celebrated: They decided to adopt.
“We called our parents first, and then our siblings. Everyone was excited for us. Some even asked, ‘What took you so long?’” Denise said.
For the Fowlerville, Michigan, couple, telling their extended family their good news was the natural next step. For other families, it’s a trickier process. Whom to tell first? When do you let friends and coworkers know that you are expecting a child…in a month, or maybe next year? How do you share painful details, or answer prying or inappropriate questions? What if your family is “against” adoption?
Adoptive Families talked with moms and dads whose experiences announcing their adoption decisions were as varied as the makeup of the families themselves. One lesson emerged again and again: This is your family’s decision; those you tell can get on board or not.
The Supportive Family
Even if you’re sure your family will receive your news enthusiastically, announcing your adoption plans should involve more than updating your Facebook status.
Send it in writing.
Phone calls and e-mails are obvious ways to share your news. But many families turn to the written word in announcing their decision to adopt. [See “Dear Friends and Family,” to read a full sample letter.]
Tracy Brooke and her husband, Rob, sent a letter as soon as they were on a list to be matched with a birth mother. Though they didn’t expect any negative reactions, the letter allowed them to dispel lingering stereotypes and out-of-date information about domestic adoption.
“Older family members might not realize that adoption is a lot different today from what it was in the past, when it was shameful or was something that you hid from everyone,” Tracy says.
Teach positive adoption language.
The Brookes also hoped to avoid repeating basic information about adoption by supplying a list of appropriate adoption terms, such as “birth mother,” “unable to parent,” and so on.
“We included the list in the hope that our children won’t ever have to deal with a relative asking about their ‘real’ parents,” Tracy explains.
Be prepared for some painful questions.
Cynthia Vissers and her husband wrote a letter to family and friends while they were working on their homestudy. The San Diego, California, family tried to preempt what they guessed would be the most common questions: Why they were adopting, why South Korea, how does adoption work? Even so, says Cynthia, “People came up with more. A lot more.” She advises parents to “be prepared for questions that are going to hurt your heart.”
Decide what you’re ready to share about infertility.
If infertility played a part in your decision to adopt, ask yourself whether you are ready to discuss it. Addressing infertility in a letter can set boundaries for what is appropriate to ask about, advises Cindy Modrosic, mom to U.S.-born Liam, now two. She suggests writing, “Feel free to ask me about my infertility treatments, but please don’t ask me about my miscarriage. It is still too painful to discuss.”
In her announcement e-mail, Modrosic wrote: “We are happy to share our fertility issues with everyone now, because we finally have happy news to share.”
Let family in on disappointments along the way.
Karen Sauer, of Indianapolis, is waiting to adopt an older child from U.S. foster care. She has been writing about her experiences on Facebook, which has its benefits and disadvantages.
“Having to tell friends and family that a placement did not work out” was painful, she says. At the same time, letting people in on the process early can help you build a support network to get through the tough times. “Because I have talked about it, I can share my grief over losing that child, instead of trying to shoulder the burden alone,” Sauer adds.
When adopting baby No. 2 from South Korea, the Vissers family decided to wait a little while to share their news. They didn’t tell anyone until they had the referral in hand. No one was more excited about their plans than their older son, Jack. He got to make the announcement at a family gathering, by wearing a T-shirt with the Hangul character for “older brother” printed on the front and the words, “I’m a big brother!” on the back.
“Jack really liked being the one to share the news,” Vissers says. “It was his first official duty as a big brother, and it made him feel special.”
The Skeptical Family
Chances are, you’ll have to deal with some outspoken naysayers. Naomi Wilensky’s in-laws were very skeptical: “They made comments like, ‘How could you love a child who is not your own? Why would you want to do that, when you already have three biological daughters?’”
Even though the in-laws came around, their comments still sting. If you are unsure about the reactions you might get from your announcement, how should you proceed?
Be direct in requesting support.
Amy Gonzales, who’s adopting a newborn domestically, was surprised to receive negative reactions from several people, including her mother.
“She asked questions like, ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you giving up on being pregnant?’” she says. “I got to the point where I simply said, ‘I can understand how it may appear that way, but we have given this a lot of thought, and we are doing what we feel is best for our family. It was not an easy decision to make, and we would really appreciate your supporting us in this.’ That was the most diplomatic answer I could come up with.”
Gonzales’ mother eventually realized that “family is not necessarily about blood—it’s about who loves you, and who cares for you.”
Explain the steps and players involved.
If your adoption ends up taking longer than you expected, you’ll start to flinch at your aunt’s most benign queries.
After Patrick and Paula Boland, of Hillpoint, Wisconsin, decided to adopt from China, they had their paperwork “done in two months and were logged into China within four,” Paula says. “And then everything slowed down.”
The Bolands ended up waiting 40 months for the referral of their daughter, Jadyn—fielding questions for much of that time. They were the first in their extended family to adopt, so a lack of understanding about the process drove most of the questions. “After we explained how it works, the inquiries let up,” says Paula.
Gonzales set out to teach her mother about birth mothers, and help her see that adoption plans are made out of love. “That’s what helped her the most,” she says. “Understanding how much the birth mother loved my daughter.”
Formulate a stock response.
Even after educating their families about the process, the Bolands’ long wait frequently prompted questions like, “Are you still adopting?” Paula recalls. “We would answer, ‘Yes, we are still adopting, but we don’t have any news to share. Our daughter may not have been born yet, or is not yet ready to come home. Until she is, we’ll wait.’”
Get family involved. Gonzales advises trying to make the wait as “normal” as possible. She prepared a gender-neutral nursery, and began buying the essential items on every expectant mom’s list.
“If skeptical family members see that you are preparing for a real child, they start to think, ‘This might work,’” she says. “The more open you are, and the more comfortable you appear to be with the process, the more normal it is.”
Put the unknowns in perspective. Skeptics worry about the unknowns in adoption. But, as Gonzales points out, “there are no guarantees in pregnancy, either.” After listening to countless concerns, she finally said, “Mom, besides the millions of things that can go wrong, what about the things that go right? I need to know I can turn to you and that you’ll help me.”
Her mom thought about it. Then she started shopping for baby clothes.
The Unsupportive Family
If you’re afraid your family won’t be able to overcome their prejudices and concerns about adoption, take this advice from families who have “been there.”
It may help to tell the naysayers sooner rather than later. To avoid a power struggle, set boundaries at the start. You might say, “We are considering adoption for our family. Knowing how you feel about adoption, I am telling you now, so that you will have time to get used to the idea, and to learn as much as you can about what the process involves.”
Make it clear that the decision is up to you. Naomi Wilensky recommends planning a conversation with the skeptics. She gave her in-laws a written list of points about what adoption means and why she and her husband had chosen to adopt. The most important line? “This isn’t about you. It’s about us, OUR family.”
Don’t let negative reactions steer you off your course.
Adam and Christina Whitman* knew it was going to be a tough road ahead. Christina admitted that she was “nervous” about telling her parents, saying she was unsure how they would react. And so the couple waited until their adoption was well underway before doing so, by giving them a handmade book that included a letter explaining their decision, information about their agency, a poem, and photos.
“They claimed we’d ruined their weekend, as well as the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,” Adam recalls. “They said we were ‘living in a fairy tale,’ and that it would never happen.”
The Whitmans’ son has been home for two years now, and they’re happy to report that Christina’s parents can’t imagine life without him.
Put your child and family first.
As the Whitmans found, even the most reluctant relatives tend to come around after they meet your child. But if a family member remains disapproving of your adoption, you may need to give her an ultimatum. “Say that you won’t let your child be treated differently from other children in the family. If she doesn’t change the way she acts, she can’t be part of your lives,” says Ronny Diamond, a social worker with the Post-Adoption Resource Center at Spence-Chapin, in New York City. “Your first responsibility is to protect your child.”
Find your own support network.
Just as adoption is about love, not genes, creating a surrogate family of friends and other adoptive parents will be invaluable, suggests Tisha Holt, a mom of two, with a son on the way, via domestic adoption. Holt’s parents struggled with her decision to adopt.
"I have girlfriends whom I can call day or night to process my fears, concerns, confusion, or joy,” she says.
You might be surprised at what you learn when you open up about your plans, says Dana Richardson, a mom of two, who is waiting to be matched with a birth mother. “Several of my friends responded, ‘We have thought about adoption, too,’” she says. “It was pretty cool.”
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.