One Holt adoptive mom discusses how she and her husband learned to parent their two children differently, based on their unique needs.
I thought we were prepared to adopt a second child. I felt (mostly) ready and able to welcome another child into our small family. I laugh when I remember our shock and naiveté, and I feel sadness and near-shame, when I recall that first year home with our daughter. I don’t know how we all got through it — adults and children alike.
Our first adoption had gone well. After more than two years of paperwork and waiting, we got the call, we got the photos and we got on the plane to Thailand to meet and bring home our first child, a son 13 months old. Not everything went smoothly of course. While in Thailand, my son and I bonded during his repeated bouts of vomiting on me — a symptom of his stress, separating from his loving foster family.
Once we arrived home in the U.S., it took several months for my husband and I to recover from our abrupt introduction to parenthood, and for our toddler son to adapt to the bizarre smells, sights, sounds and tastes of his adoptive country. We didn’t realize it then, but our son made the transition “easy” for us. His self-confidence, generally happy nature and easy-going personality helped us attach to each other with relative joy and quickness.
Our son also experienced heart-wrenching crying jags of grief and loss as he mourned losing his beloved foster family. Then and now, nearly nine years later, all I can do is hold him while he cries, and reassure him that he is loved and not alone. I imagine it feels like the death of a parent — he will never “get over it,” but he will learn to live with the loss. I also will try to help him learn that his deep grief is the shadow of his deep ability to love and be loved. Because his Thai foster family so greatly loved and supported him during his first year, his attachment to them was, and remains, very strong.
Fast forward three years, and we’re flying to Thailand — this time with our son — to bring home a little sister. I felt nervous, excited and confident we could bond with our second child as easily as we did with our first. Our 16-month-old daughter quickly proved me wrong. My blessed, beautiful daughter is strong-willed, extroverted, sometimes anxious and certain she can manage things better than the rest of us. She’s going to make an awesome leader as she matures, but gosh, what a handful to parent!
While in Thailand, my toddler daughter screamed long and hard, and cried seemingly endlessly. She screamed if I held her, if my husband held her, if we met her needs, if we didn’t meet her needs, when she went to sleep, when she woke up. She hit my husband and our son and was determined to push them away. My daughter was angry and traumatized, and she valiantly communicated her feelings as best she could. I wish that before we traveled to Thailand to adopt her, we had learned more about toddler grief and adoption trauma, especially as it relates to a second adoption. Perhaps we could have coped better if we’d known more about bereavement in young children, or talked with other families who adopted a second child, or even had more contact with adult adoptees about their experiences as young children. We might have felt more prepared and less blindsided, but it was and would have been tough, regardless.
My daughter also had a loving foster family with whom she bonded — predominantly with the family’s daughter, a young woman in her early-20’s who had never parented before. The daughter devoted all her time and attention to this feisty little girl — and my daughter was VERY unhappy that her new family would not continue with this arrangement. Our 4-year-old son was very unhappy that this interloper was dominating his mom’s attention and energy. He revealed just how angry he was about the whole situation when, one afternoon as we waited on a Bangkok SkyTrain open-air platform, he exclaimed, “Let’s throw her off the SkyTrain!”
My daughter’s first year home in the U.S. was hard. She screamed through much of the night, and often we were unable to comfort her. I remember standing outside the front door of our house, listening to her scream as my husband tried to quiet her. I cried because I didn’t know what else to do, and I felt ashamed because I didn’t want to go back into the house. I knew it was my job to help my daughter with her anger and grief — after all, I was the adult! But, in that moment, I couldn’t help her with her emotions when I couldn’t get a grasp on my own. I know each of us did the very best we could that first year, but I regret I was not able to make the transition easier for her. There were good moments, but I don’t remember them being as frequent as during my son’s first year.
Our Holt social worker was a lifesaver during this time, making more than a few home visits and reassuring us during our phone calls that things would improve. She brought levity to our situation and made gentle suggestions to improve our family dynamics. She helped us recover our parental self-care routines and find more respite opportunities. Her increased availability and compassionate counsel were a bridge of hope and humor during that difficult period.
Things improve after the first year, but it required more and different efforts than with our first adoption. My husband did a lot of web research and found resources as well as Internet groups about adoption, transracial adoption and Thai adoption. We found helpful books, most notably “Toddler Adoption: the Weaver’s Craft” by Mary Hopkins-Best, along with “Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew” by Sherrie Eldridge, and “Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother” by Jana Wolff. We reached out to other adoptive parents and to parents with children of very different temperaments. We talked with my sisters, one who was adopted internationally at age 2 and the other whose daughter was adopted domestically at birth. I became active with PACT, an adoption alliance providing education, support and community for adopted children of color, along with their birth and adoptive families. During the second year, my husband took an extended leave of absence from work to stay at home with our daughter. This was difficult for us financially, but essential for our family.
Fast forward again, and now my son and daughter are ages 10 and 7. They share a bedroom and are fast friends. They also annoy and embarrass each other, as only siblings can. We’ve all adjusted. My daughter has learned to ask politely, to share as well as take, and to moderate her emotions. My son has learned to tolerate his bossy sister, to ask for Mom/son time when he needs a break, and to speak up with his requests. My husband and I have learned to parent our children differently to match their unique needs. My introverted, easy-going son needs us to check in with him and help him moderate his occasional anger bouts. He needs our help protecting his quiet space so he can recharge and enjoy his “alone” time. My daughter thrives on attention, is fiercely competitive and exhausts us with her boundless energy. She needs our guidance accepting others’ (and her own) limits, as well as our recognition that she requires more engagement. We frequently use and recommend the book “Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by Establishing CLEAR, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries” by Robert McKenzie.
My children are happy, well-adjusted and well-attached young people. Their identities as family members, adopted children, siblings and Thai-Americans are blossoming. My husband once commented, “My children are the bravest people I know,” and I have to agree. Our children may not have had the happiest or easiest of beginnings, but they are living happily now because of their courage, their resiliency, their healthy early attachments to loving foster families, and their successful attachment to their sometimes-bumbling, always-loving adoptive parents.
Holt Adoptive Mother* | San Francisco Bay Area, California
*Names withheld for privacy.
Editor’s Note: Holt International offers counseling services to all adoptees and their families. Email Abbie Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.