Making family through Adoption

We’ve been taking a hiatus from writing to spend time with T & G, the children who we adopted this fall.  Each of us is in our 50th year, becoming mothers again was not something that we envisioned when we began our 40’s.  But love happens; the more time we spent with our friends’ foster children, the more we felt compelled to step forward with what they needed:  a permanent family base.  This meant also adopting the foster parents into our closest circle that we call “family”, and figuring out how, and whether, the other people who have loved our children before us will change our lives.  Now, as we prepare to spend the first Christmas together in our house, the wonder of what we have done is sinking in.

The poet Robert Frost, telling of the hired man who comes back to the farm where he worked to die, comments that “home is the place where, if you have no where else to go, they have to take you in.”  One thing that makes a family is this commitment to be the refuge of last resort; to offer shelter and care when it is needed and we have it to give.  We don’t do this for just anybody.  Perhaps we should, but most of us don’t.  Friendship holds open the option to cut ties and run when the commitment gets to be too burdensome, or the person changes in ways that we didn’t anticipate, or we ourselves change.  Friendship depends upon equity between give and take.  Family measures that equity in larger terms; what we receive from one generation we hope to give to another, and so it goes.  Choosing to become family to someone is a big deal.

One wonderful side-benefit of adopting our children is that, as we introduce them to our circles and meet their friends’ parents, we hear other peoples’ stories of family creation. The myth that all, or even most people belong to neat groupings of biologically related mom, dad and children is guarded by rules of privacy; Canadians tend to be a rather reserved people.  But when we reveal that we are a new adoptive family, other people tell us their own stories: a beloved child, or nephew, or sibling who was adopted, or a child given up at birth to be raised by relatives or strangers, or grandparents pressed back into the parent role.  The complicated mix of emotions—sadness, hope, joy, worry—that accompanies this kind of loving act belies any simple statements of “this is what it is like to raise a child.”  These complex families are places where miracles and tragedies live in close association; where the bitter and the sweet mix.  It is like we have entered this secret club of people who have been affected by adoption and fostering, and are wise in the skills of gathering in and letting go, accepting what is and advocating for what can be, listening and telling new family stories.

True, it is a little unusual to be adopting children who are not babies.  But we are not strangers to the concept of “chosen family”.  Both of us have found ourselves in adulthood separated from our original families by oceans or mountain ranges, national borders and distances both geographic and emotional.  Most people nowadays choose their spouses from folks that they did not grow up with, but we’ve also built networks of  people to stand in as siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins—a local clan to function in place of those we left behind.

Most strong networks of chosen family contain more than one kind of member—some who are there because they have a lot of skill and confidence in relationship-formation, and others who are there because they have little confidence but a great need for family. When an abundance of skill meets an abundance of need, what will be the result?  That depends…on what?  Some would say, “on whether it was meant to be”; but that puts a lot into the hands of fate.  We prefer to look to factors that we can maybe improve upon—willingness to learn, ability to change, courageous honesty, generosity of spirit, skills for managing conflict, and an equality of commitment to the bond.

Having two amazing and smart children wiggle their way into our hearts was easy.  Perhaps it is simply a clan instinct that told us to do what love required and make our home bigger to fit two more.  But love is an action word; a verb, and it can be done in ways that are wise, strengthening and generous as well as in ways that are foolish and possessive.  Living up to the former will take more than instinct; we’ve made a leap of faith that we can find what is needed as we go along to make this whole thing work.

Human nature is on our side; love comes fairly naturally to our species.  Chances are, with time and a little luck, we’ll become solid sources of comfort and safety to these children; a “secure base” that they can use for calm in the face of stress and challenges.  Chances are they will bring forth in us new strengths and skills.  Chances are, over a life-time, they will continue to love us and make our years richer.  And we are not alone: we’ve joined the secret society of adoptive and chosen families, and they will have much to teach us as we go.