Extended Family Member Reactions to the Decision to Adopt

Prospective adoptive parents that announce their decision to adopt sometimes get less than enthusiastic reactions from extended family members. Here are some of the reasons why this may happen.

12344In November of 2014, Adoption STAR’s Director of Adoption Kathy Crissey, Associate Director Michael Hill, and Birth Parent Department Supervisor Sue Shaw had an opportunity to facilitate a class entitled, “Adoption Forum: Getting Your Family Involved in Your Adoption Journey.” The class was very well attended, and is one we offer every year; please note that we’ll be offering this class again on Tuesday, November 17th, 2015, starting at 6pm in our Amherst, New York office. This forum proves to be an important one for many prospective adoptive parents and their extended families, as it can serve as an important “icebreaker” for an uncensored dialogue about how people are truly feeling about adoption and the adoption journey in general.

The forum also allows extended family members to ask questions, which is key to ensuring people have accurate adoption information. Kathy, Michael and Sue did their best to dispel common myths and misconceptions about adoption, as well as provide more detailed insight and information regarding the various steps in the adoption process and what each of the steps are typically characterized by. One thing that this forum teaches Adoption STAR staff members year after year is this – extended family members want to be supportive of their loved ones who are looking to adopt. However, sometimes they find themselves feeling uncertain, sad, or tenuous about the whole idea of adoption. This is often best evidenced by the initial reactions that extended family members sometimes have to the news that their love one is adopting – hesitation, shock, fear, or even disapproval.

A recommended resource that addresses this issue, and so many more, is a book entitled Adoption is a Family Affair! What Relatives and Friends Must Know, written by Patricia Irwin Johnston. Here is an excerpt from the book that might be helpful for extended family members (particularly prospective adoptive grandparents) that are struggling with the news that their children are now prospective adoptive parents:

“If your loves ones have not kept you in the loop about the fact that they were thinking about starting or adding to their family through adoption, their announcement may have been quite a shock. In that case, I’m going to give you the break that these folks – who are very likely feeling defensive and frightened and disappointed in your reaction – may be unable to give you. That break is acknowledging that your hesitancy about adoption is normal and forgivable – even though it isn’t OK.

Those of us who live adoption wish it were not so, but at first glance adoption seems ‘second best’ to most people. We have begun to call this bias adoptism. Without being given the opportunity to learn more about adoption, you may be feeling this ‘second best’ fear and wanting ‘more’ for yourself and your children. After all, most of us (including your children) come to adulthood with certain expectations about the definition of family. We may have thought of ‘family’ as consisting of a mother, a father, and a child to whom they have given birth. But the reality is that in the 21st century North America the definition of family has expanded to embrace one parent ‘families,” same sex couple parented ‘families,’ childfree ‘families,’ yours-mine-ours ‘families,’ and more. Some of your peers may be serving as primary parents for their grandchildren.

Okay, so you may be able to acknowledge these broad philosophical realities, but on a personal level, this seems to hurt. You may not even be sure why it hurts. I think I know.

For everyone it touches – birthparents, adopted people, adoptive parents, extended birth and adoptive families – adoption is a blend of gain and loss. Those losses are the root of the paint. Whether your children were infertile, single, or gay/lesbian as they worked through their frustrated desires to become parents, losses eventually led them to consider and then embrace adoption.

A truth about dealing with loss is that sometimes those who are immersed in the pain of lass lose sight of the fact that others can be hurting, too. Just as your children have experienced loss before coming to the decision to gain a child through adoption, you, too are experiencing loss, and they may not have realized this. In fact, you may not have realized this yourself until now. You, too, are experiencing a number of lost expectations:

  • You expected your grandchildren to be born to their parents – your children.
  • You expected them to be genetically related to you and so to be similar to you in looks, in personality, in race.
  • You expected them to arrive after a nine-month pregnancy that the whole family would experience vicariously.
  • You expected them to come as newborns.
  • You expected that they would ‘belong’ to just your family (well, maybe you’d be sharing them with those in-laws, too).
  • You certainly did not expect that your children – and, by extension, you and the rest of your family – would have to be subjected to an ‘approval’ process before receiving a child.
  • And, finally, if your children are part of a non-traditional family (single parents, gay/lesbian couples, older couples, remarried step families) you may already have done the very private work of grieving for the losses related to those ‘differences,’ assumed that there would be no grandchildren from them, and may now be frightened about having to deal with the very real and very vocal disapproval of other family and friends that such folks would deign to become parents at all!”