Families of choice

By Janet Benavente and Sheila Gains, February 2008
Colorado State University
Extension, Adams and Arapahoe County

In recent years an average of three Colorado children were adopted every day by couples or single adults to whom they had no biological connection. Many of the experiences of these adoptive parents are not any different than those of biological parents. Yet the journey that brought them to parenthood is very different. Because of this different path to parenthood, the challenges faced by these new parents may be somewhat unlike those faced by the parents of the nearly two hundred children born each day in Colorado.

Adopted children may not be infants when they join their new families; they may not be of the same racial and cultural heritage as their new family; and they may have health and/or developmental problems that are not immediately recognized. It is true that adoptive parents may have to deal with different unexpected circumstances than biological parents. In contrast, they may have more time to prepare to be parents than some biological parents.

Several adoption resource guides list the traits of successful adoptive parents:

  • Ability to make and maintain commitments
  • Ability to adjust to the unexpected
  • Recognition of parenting as a skill
  • Ability to grow personally through parenting process
  • Having a sense of humor
  • Being risk takers
  • Caring deeply about children
  • Being ready to parent

Most family life educators would agree that these traits lead to parenting success for all parents, not just adoptive parents.

Adoptive parents often feel that society looks more closely at their parenting preparedness and skill than to the preparedness and skill of biological parents. In many respects this is true, because of the rules and regulations established by the State Department of Human Services, and the adoption agency's responsibility for the well being of the child. In Colorado, depending on the circumstances, adoptive parents must attend 16 to 24 hours of parenting education, 12 hours of which are completed before their child comes home. In addition, adoptive parents must complete a home study, which includes three to five visits to their home before the child arrives and another three to six visits within the 6 to 12 months following before the adoption can be finalized.

This third-party connection during the formation of a new family sets up expectations beyond those the new parents have for themselves and for their child. Both adoptive and biological parents may also have third-party expectations coming from extended family or employers, and if any of these expectations are not met, some disappointment and a sense of failure may occur.

Some of the challenges that new parents, both adoptive and biological, may face include:

  • Feeling that their own needs are not being met.
  • Feeling isolated from friends.
  • Feeling embarrassed to admit that challenges exist.
  • Trying to do everything without help.
  • Trying to please everyone.
  • Feeling that everyone is watching and ready to critique the job they do.

Being aware of these potential challenges and addressing them if they occur will make the job of parenting easier. In the book, Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges of Adoption, Karen Foli and John Thompson write that "by more realistically anticipating what you believe your future experiences will be, you manage your emotions and build more successful relationships." Again, this advice targeting adoptive parents sounds very relevant for all new parents.

Friends and family can help new parents overcome some of these challenges by inviting them out to a movie or sporting event, being willing to listen without giving too much advice, and offering a couple of hours of respite care once in a while. Additional support can come from services and resources for parents available in most communities. Adoptive parents may find additional assistance from the agency that helped them find their child, or other adoptive parents in the community. In Colorado there are many adoptive parent support groups, several of which work to connect families of children from the same ethnic or cultural background.

Carrie Craft, host of the on-line newsletter, Your Guide to Adoption, was adopted, and as an adult has become an adoptive parent. She describes the adoptive parent as a gardener of love, mender of wounds, embracer of all, keeper of memories, weaver of lives, finder of lost things, and finisher of the race begun by another. Parents, both adoptive and biological, develop these skills by having a positive attitude, networking, creating a support system and with a lot of hard work.

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Updated Tuesday, August 05, 2014