What’s it really like…to be an adoptive parent, by Rosemary Lucas, Cardiff mum and author of The Family Fairies
I’m Rosemary Lucas, the proud mum of two wonderful adopted children who were placed with us separately four years apart and whom are not birth siblings. Both were under 12 months old when they came home.
I’m also the author of The Family Fairies, a picture book published in January 2019 which introduces key stages of the adoption process to children through rhymes and vibrant illustrations.
To coincide with National Adoption Week, which runs from 14-20 October, I want to talk about what life is like as an adoptive parent, the highs and the lows, what I would like to have known before I started the adoption process, and also what I’d like other non-adoptive families to know.
You can follow Rosemary Lucas on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or visit the Rosemary Lucas website here.
Family life is different for all of us: read more from the What’s it really like…. series here.
How did you come to the decision to adopt?
Like many adoptive parents, our road to parenthood was difficult. We endured years of fertility treatments and heartache at every turn. This wasn’t just devastating for me, but equally for my husband. He was the one that stayed strong, doing all he could to hold me together.
Coming to terms with knowing you can’t carry a child is a lot for any woman to accept. I felt my body had let us both down. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t be a mum – but I couldn’t make him a dad. This burden stayed with me for a very long time.
Deciding when to move on was one of the hardest parts of the whole process. It needed me to dig deep and face emotions I’d suppressed. I knew enough was enough when I just couldn’t take any more – emotionally and physically. My body was telling me no more drugs or injections, no more painful procedures and side effects, no more heartache with every loss.
I wanted a family, not a pregnancy.
We had always considered adoption, but for a long time I found myself saying, “let’s try one more cycle”. I clearly wasn’t ready. When we had explored all possibilities, it was time to stop. IVF does work for many hopeful people. Just not for us.
Interestingly, Adoption UKs Adoption Barometer – the first ever comprehensive study of modern-day adoption in the UK – indicates that only 58% of the prospective adopters that took part were motivated to adopt because they were unable to have birth children. 24% said choosing adoption was their first choice to start a family. This is such a positive step.
What did the adoption process involve?
Once I had put in the initial call, we were quickly allocated a social worker and our adoption training began (this order has changed since we first applied).
The training was thorough and informative. But intense and hard hitting. It focused on why children need a home through adoption. As hopeful parents-to-be, these scenarios were tough to hear. It prepares you that your future child will probably have experienced trauma of some kind. According to Adoption UK, three quarters of children who are adopted come from a background of abuse or neglect and are taken in to care from unsafe situations. It is rare that a child is ‘relinquished’ – willingly put forward for adoption.
Having said this, the training secured in our minds that we were ready to adopt and for the first time in a very long time, I had a renewed sense of optimism. I was finally going to be a mum. Slowly, I allowed myself to start visualising the future.
We’d heard the assessments could be intrusive. But we actually found them very therapeutic and it confirmed that we had fully accepted the past. It made us realise how strong we had become as a couple. Social workers hold the responsibility of making certain that you are capable of looking after a child, so asking us some probing and thought-provoking questions… well, that was ok with me.
How long did the process take?
From the time I picked up the phone to the time our little one came home, was 12 months. It differs case by case and depends on current ratios of adopters to adoptees. For us, it wasn’t long at all.
All prospective adopters attend an approval panel where a group of carefully selected people, with experience and expertise in adoption, decide if you should be recommended to adopt. This was a little daunting and I was surprised at how many were on the panel – around 12. It was however very relaxed. Importantly we were unanimously approved!
We got on with preparing transition books and aids which included pictures of ourselves and immediate families. There are some great resources out there including toys, teddies and books that can record your voice messages to help with recognition and familiarisation. This was all very exciting and the realisation we would soon be parents was a wonderful feeling.
How did it feel when you discovered they’d matched you with a child?
We were given basic information in case we decided not to progress, or if the child’s family-finding social worker decided we weren’t suitable. Some are faced with the situation of being considered alongside other prospective adopters, who may be chosen over them. This didn’t happen to us, but this must be very hard to deal with.
What we didn’t initially see was a photo. Something I hadn’t realised. The experts try to avoid people being blindsided by cuteness before knowing more about the life history. In theory, it needs to be a head over heart decision. For me, I think you need that initial reaction. That ‘wow’ moment. I think it’s powerful. It’s what makes you know if they are the one… or not.
When it was time for the photo reveal, I was so nervous and hid behind my hands unable to look. What if I felt absolutely nothing? No connection, no emotion. But oh boy, I did get that heart-stopping, overwhelming feeling of joy. I looked at my husband and said “they look like you, they have your eyes”. This was the point our lives magnificently changed forever.
Full details are given in the Child’s Adoption Report. This can contain some upsetting details, or in reverse, there may be big gaps in the child’s history. The ‘unknowns’. Our Medical Advisor often said, “we can’t be sure of the possible long-term effects of that, but we have to make you aware”.
I don’t want this to sound flippant, but the unknowns never really concerned me. With birth children, you never know what medical conditions they may get or if they’ll suffer from mental health issues. I took the view that it’s just part of being a parent and I was confident we would deal with whatever we were faced with. Together.
Thankfully, we were happy and so were the matching panel – we were again unanimously approved! We were over the moon. At last, all the stars had aligned. About 10 weeks later, the day finally came to meet our little one.
How did it feel when you finally met your little one?
I was in a whirl of mixed emotions! I was so worried that it wouldn’t be what I’d dreamt of. I could not have been more wrong. We were greeted with the biggest smile that melted our hearts. Our connection was instant – it really was love at first sight.
Introductions began to start the transition from foster home to forever home. This stage was planned to fine detail with the wellbeing of the child at the forefront. For us it lasted a week and we steadily built up more contact every day as we grew and learnt together. Our foster carers were fantastic and we are forever grateful for their role in bringing our family together. They provided love, security and safety, until we were able to take over.
All went smoothly but we were exhausted – physically and emotionally. There were early starts to be there before they woke up and late nights to settle them off to sleep. On occasion, I felt totally overwhelmed by the new responsibilities we were taking on – but doesn’t every new mum?
Coming Home Day is such a significant and emotional milestone for everybody. We were desperate to have our little one home but knew the foster family needed time to say their goodbyes. This can be upsetting for everyone and personally I found it really hard. They had looked after them so well and given so much. Deep down I knew it was another loss that our little one would have to come to terms with and this was tough.
I wasn’t wrong. After a week of living in a blissful bubble, we were knocked sideways when the penny dropped that something was different. Eye contact stopped; they physically turned their head away from us when we entered the room. There were no smiles or giggles – our beautiful bundle of joy was trying to process their loss. I cried every night during this time, second guessed everything and doubted my abilities to be a good mum. But, slowly and steadily, we fixed it. Processing loss is a positive step. It shows they have the ability to attach, even if it’s desperately upsetting to see.
How does being an adoptive parent differ to being a birth parent?
Is it any different to having birth children? Well, yes and no.
The “no” parts – sleepless nights, endless worry, knee high in dirty nappies, responsibility, utter joy at the smallest of things, pride and eternal love that you never thought possible, to name a few.
The “yes” parts – one day you’ll have to tell them about a life they once had and lost, unknowns about their medical history, possible lasting effects of trauma, wondering if all challenging behaviours are down to them being adopted, awkward questions, insensitive references to “their real parents”, avoiding certain situations, and more.
Although we are open with our children that we are a family through adoption, I’ve never been all “jazz hands” that my children are adopted! I want to be known as a “mum” and not “that lady who adopted her children” and I don’t want to hear whispers of “did you know they are adopted?”. This doesn’t mean I’m not proud to have adopted, I am very proud. I’m just protective of their story – I want them to retain some control of what and when they share it.
Over the years, I have navigated around awkward questions. Generally, I just changed the subject to be more current. If asked about the birth I’d say… “actually, I’m wondering how you are coping with teething/weaning/sleep regression – any advice?”. Typically when babies are about six months old, people tend not to recite their births and have moved on to the next parenting challenge. It was never a real issue for me. Others may feel far more comfortable being up front. We are all different and there is no right way to do it. It’s a very personal thing.
Social media is a huge issue for adoptive parents. I want to scream from the rooftops how amazing my kids are and show their beautiful faces for all to see – but I don’t. The risks are too high. I need to be in control of their identity as much as I possibly can. It’s a compromise I’m willing to take.
One day my children will ask more about their birth families – if they don’t then we haven’t done our job as adoptive parents very well! I want them to come to us, for us to be the ones that answer their questions and deal with their curiosities. I may be naïve but I hope this is how it will be. Sadly, the perils of social media means that this may not be the case. All it takes is a click of a button. Unsupported contact can have significant destabilising impacts and I hold this as my biggest fear.
How do you talk to your children about their adoption journey?
The earlier you introduce the concept of adoption, the better. Younger children more readily accept all sorts of things as “normal”.
Adopted children have a life story book prepared by their social workers and these capture their life before they were adopted and share what is known about birth families. Foster carers give photo memory books, which include significant milestones and ‘firsts’ that adoptive parents will have missed. It is so important to share and build on these together. Regardless of the difficult reasons that may have placed them on an adoption journey, this is part of them.
We always wanted to be honest and open about how we became a family. There is a lot of good resource material out there, but I never quite found something that helped to explain the adoption process itself, or that acknowledged the role social workers and foster carers play in bringing families together – so I decided to write my own! My debut storybook, The Family Fairies, introduces key stages of the adoption process in a positive and child-focused way with the use of rhymes and vibrant illustrations. The phrase ‘The Family Fairies’ describes social workers and foster carers and the storybook follows how they make dreams come true.
The Family Fairies is available to buy on Amazon. For full details, or to order a copy, visit the link here.
For more information and support on adoption visit Adoption UK Cymru and National Adoption Service Wales.
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