Elisabeth O’Toole is the author of In On It: What Adoptive Parents Would Like You to Know About Adoption; A Guide for Relatives and Friends (FIG Press), from which this excerpt is adapted. To learn more about the book, click here. To purchase it, click here.
When my husband and I announced to our parents our decision to adopt our first child, their reactions ranged from, “Great, when can I babysit?” to “Why would you want to do something like that?” The less-than-enthusiastic responses surprised me at the time, but I understand them better now. After all, my husband and I had had years to embrace this path to parenthood, while these soon-to-be grandparents were reacting – honestly – to something that was new and unfamiliar and, for one or two of them, a bit uncomfortable.
Whether you’re immediately thrilled by the news of an impending adoption, or feeling some cautiousness – or even reluctance – about your adult child’s decision, you’re likely to have some questions.
Here are five important things every new adoptive grandparent needs to know:
1. Adoption has changed.
Consider how adoption used to be practiced. There was an emphasis on separation, even secrecy. You may have once known a pregnant girl who “went away” and came back months later, childless and expected to resume her life where she’d left off. Some children were never even told they were adopted. Parents who adopted transracially were counseled to try to minimize or ignore the child’s differences as much as possible.
These practices were once considered best for everyone.
Today, the values of information and communication, for all participants, are paramount. Adoption is almost never a secret. Birth cultures, birth families, and birth countries often have an ongoing role in our families. Parents who adopt transracially are encouraged to acknowledge differences and to try to support a child’s ethnic identity. These are significant changes, and they may be unfamiliar to people whose concept of adoption is based on past practices or media portrayals. It makes sense to have questions and concerns.
Try to educate yourself about contemporary adoption. Read books and articles, visit websites, or attend information meetings. Gathering up-to-date, accurate information not only makes you better prepared; it’s also a way to demonstrate your interest and support for your loved ones – even if you still have reservations.
2. You may need time to get comfortable with adoption.
Adoption may be new to you – just as it was at one point to the new parents. You may need time and space to prepare for an unexpected path to grandparenthood. It’s not at all uncommon for grandparents or other family members to have imagined and anticipated a very different child or experience. We adoptive parents typically need time to get comfortable and ready for adoption ourselves. The lengthy process – paperwork, training, decision-making, and waiting – helps to prepare us. As grandparents, you may need to (gently) remind your loved ones to extend to you the same time, education, and preparation that they, as adoptive parents, had.
Many of your questions or concerns no doubt stem from feelings of love and an urge to protect the adoptive parents. But even the most enthusiastic and supportive grandparent can benefit from more information. Explain this to your loved ones. Then have some discussions with them about their adoption plans, asking and listening in equal measure.
3. You will be asked questions, too.
One morning, as my mom was taking a walk with my daughter, her neighbor approached her and asked, “How’d she get so brown?” When my mom told me about the incident later, she said that when my husband and I adopted, she’d figured we’d get plenty of questions and comments about the children and about adoption. But she hadn’t expected to be answering questions herself. It hadn’t occurred to me, either, that other people close to my family might find themselves speaking on behalf of adoption and our children. They deserve to feel prepared to do so.
You, too, may find yourself fielding unexpected questions or comments at preschool pick-up or while walking through the grocery store with your new grandchild. Over time, your adopted grandchild may approach you with questions or a desire to talk about his or her adoption. You need information and guidelines to do so.
Discuss with your grandchild’s parents the kinds of questions people ask about adoption (How much did she cost? What is she? Is she adopted?) and how they’d like you to respond. Understand the family’s boundaries regarding privacy – especially the child’s. Remember that the most important listener is always the child. Frame any comments for the child’s benefit above all.
4. You can have a role.
Relatives of adoptive parents often ask how they can help or show their support. It’s a good question. Since so much of the adoption process can only be completed by the adopting parents, much happens independent of other family members who might otherwise be very involved in such a life-altering experience. Even that most traditional of ways we welcome a child – the baby shower – gets complicated when age, size, gender, language, and arrival date may still be a mystery. But even though some aspects of this path to parenthood look different, adoption still can be very much a shared experience.
Practical ways to help include: donating air miles for adoption-related travel; offering breaks and babysitting to the new parents; making donations to child welfare or adoption organizations; or simply discussing current events from a child’s birth country. More personal ways to help include seeking out other perspectives on adoption, especially those of birthparents and adult adoptees, and acting as an ambassador for adoption through your own words and attitude. Remain positive and engaged. Listen without judgment to your child, who is in the midst of a challenging personal experience. These demonstrations of love and support will be welcomed – and remembered.
5. You have a lot to look forward to.
I sometimes think of adoption as being in on a really good secret. Whenever I see a family like mine, I’m always tempted to approach the parents and whisper something like, “Can you believe this? Isn’t it great?” And I can tell from the pleased and proud faces of doting adoptive grandparents that this insight usually extends to them, as well. To participate in an adoption is a privilege. There are particular experiences and insights to which you will now be privy. Like any worthwhile experience, adoption will challenge you and even change you.
In the words of one adoptive grandfather: “Every child gladdens your heart. What happens after a child comes into the family is just as important as how they arrived into it.” This is where you, both a parent and grandparent, come in. Congratulations. You are in on it now, too.
Learn more about being there for your children from Considerable.com: