Talking about success



I’m at least 2/3 of the way through writing this book about adoptive motherhood, and once again I am hoping for words from other adoptive mommas to more completely tell this story.  As I’ve mentioned before, you can comment anonymously if you wish.

My question for today is two parts:  first, what has been the greatest challenge and/or surprise to you about adoptive motherhood?  And second, what are you doing as a parent that helps you feel most successful and most connected to your child?

For me, with my older girls, I’ve had to get less picky, allow a bit more sass and grumbling than I really feel comfortable with, to let them blow off steam and express feelings.  Plenty of times I’ll still say (Karyn Purvis-style): ” Try that again with respect.”  But I’m getting lots better at staying gentle even as I correct and not injecting my frustration/lectures into the interaction, which also decreases their need to gripe so much in the first place.  It’s been a very good thing, but it’s one that took me literally years to figure out.

What about you?  I’d love to hear about your challenges and successes if you are willing to share…


  1. For me it’s the overwhelming uncertainty, and sometimes confusion, of what’s “normal” and what’s “adoption related,” as far as her behaviors and struggles go. I don’t want to make things out to be more than they are if it’s just normal growing up kid stuff, but I also don’t want to disregard things that need to be addressed or ways that we can help her better adjust and share her feelings.

    I continue to learn, but especially in the past year, I’ve really tried to be more intentional with having face to face play time or talk time or just whatever time with her. She will be 6 next month, and she still struggles to reach out to us when she’s upset or hurt. And so getting down to her level physically, sitting on the floor with her instead of standing over her, talking quietly, and reassuring her of our love seems to have really helped her lose some of her fear.

    Very excited to read your book! : )

    • Missy, Thanks for taking the time to comment!! I hugely appreciate it! And I think it is hard to sort out partly because so often the behaviors we see as adoptive moms are similar to ‘normal’ kid stuff, but vary by degree/ level of intensity. I just have to keep reminding myself to focus on helping them feel safe….

  2. Mine is similar to Missy’s. We are new on the adoption journey. Our son is 2 and has been home for 3 months. I’ve found myself wondering if the times he throws fits is just a 2 year old not getting his way or is part of his grieving process. I’ve tried to slow down life and make sure to spend time connecting with him each day.

  3. Kristen Penny says:

    I think for my son, who we adopted from Ethiopia when he was almost five, the biggest challenge and surprise was that love and time (so far) doesn’t heal all wounds. He was abandoned at Kidane Mehret by an aunt who said she would come back for him (and didn’t), and his mother passed away while he was in the orphanage. His inability to trust and his anger with his biological mother and aunt colors his relationship with me every. single. day. It also deeply affects my relationship with my husband because my adopted son only allows his father to truly parent him. which can make me resentful. Of course I want a deep relationship with my son, and I’ve had to mourn the loss of what I thought that relationship would be for now and accept it for what it is. I have none of these issues with our youngest son, who was adopted from Ethiopia when he was six months old. When I can make my son laugh is when I feel the most connected to him. It seems like when I can crack a joke or point out something silly, he allows me into his world and his trust issues melt away for just a moment.

    • Such good insights, Kristen. I also have had to release some of my dreams of uber-close connection with some of my kids, at least for now. But I have found that the more accepting and appreciative I am of what they CAN give at this point, the more it encourages a bit more, and a bit more connection…

  4. The amount of time, energy and resources that have been put toward changing me. To be a “successful” adoptive mom, I have had to look honestly and deeply at what I bring to the table and work very hard to change the dynamics so that we can all be as healthy as possible. This has happened through reading, changing parenting paradigm, therapy and through brokeness. This has been quite a journey about changing me and forming me into who God desires.

  5. Tracy Phillips says:

    Like a previous poster said, I have been very surprised that “time and love” do NOT heal all wounds. The time and effort spent on a daily basis trying to keep peace in this house is exhausting. Something else I’m surprised by is that cycle that seems to take place…just when you think you have a behavior under control, out pops another one, or just when one child is at a place of calm, another one blows up. 3-4 months of “recuperation” after some emotion has been triggered is something I still can’t understand. I am extremely blessed to have professionals in our lives who stand behind me, urging me to not give up, these children ARE getting better. (Very hard to see when you are dealing with all the junk!) I grieve what these children have lost…their childhoods don’t seem happy or normal to me, too many rules, too much therapy, so much has been missed because they just can’t handle it.

    • Do your kids take turns? Mine do! It can be exhausting sometimes. But yes, it is also sad that stuff is so hard for some kids.

  6. My son was adopted from China at age 7 1/2 back in 2010. We had 3 biological kids at home and adopted out of birth order. He is about a year older than our youngest daughter. Challenges. . . Hmm. . . I think of 3 right off the top of my head. First of all, our adopted son was mean to our youngest daughter for some time, and that was hard. Second, I was so exhausted. Those two challenges have largely past. Three years in, he is much kinder to his younger sister and is bonded to her. As a mom of four, of course I’m still tired, but not that overwhelming exhaustion of the first months. What is still hard is sometimes feeling criticized for our parenting choices. Sometimes my parenting style — in which I’m still trying hard to build a strong connection to him — looks like babying to others. The thing that makes me feel successful is the strong bond I feel with my son. He loves to sit in my lap and snuggle, and we spend lots of time doing that most days. I feel like I’m catching him up on all the snuggling he missed out on as a baby.

  7. Touch questions. I guess I would say my biggest surprise about adoptive motherhood is just how intensely protective I am of the kids. I was protective of my biological kids too, don’t get me wrong. This is a protective nature of a different kind. I know their biological stories so I try to be sure that whatever happened, doesn’t happen here. ie: One of my daughter’s (1st adoption) was abandoned in daycare. I know she did have a hard time with me leaving the house without her, especially over night. We also began homeschooling her so that she didn’t have to be away and worry every single day. That gave her time to learn to trust us without trying to make school work too. We made sure she knew where we were at all times. Others thought I was going overboard in that area, but I know I was protecting her security and trust in me as well. Eleven years later, she’s OK and I can be gone a week or two without her fretting.

    To help us stay connected….I treat them like they were biologically ours. I don’t let them play the victim card with me. They are my kids, they know they are my kids. I don’t introduce them as “my adopted” kids. But I also let them know it is OK to love and miss their biological families as well, and it isn’t being disloyal to be happy here and to love us as a family as well. This alone as seem to bring them some form of contentment. Permission be granted to continue loving their bio families. They don’t have to just forget about them. Now and again they’d like to talk about them, and we do.

  8. Mary, I love how you make this so open-forum. It’s nice to read the comments and recognize the common themes for all adoptive parents.

    To answer your first question, “what has been the greatest challenge and/or surprise to you about adoptive motherhood”: Like another commenter, but going further, how to answer the question of what part of my child’s behavior is due to institutionalization, and what part is honestly their personality. I’d love to take credit for one of my daughter’s positive extroverted, ‘joy of living’. But that was who she was when we go her. At 16 months, she was so funny and outgoing. I’d also love to take credit for my oldest child’s organization and stick-to-it nature. But that was also who she was when she came home at 9 years old. My dreamer is still a dreamer. My talkative one, still doesn’t know when to listen. And my child who came with a rain-cloud over her head? The one who still sees a dark cloud in the past, present, and future? Is that something I gave her?I wish I knew. The challenge hasn’t been answering your question…it has been accepting that the answer doesn’t matter. The child is what matters. So….happy, sad, frightened, issues…whatever. The challenge has been embracing that we are all the best we can be right now. AND that is okay.

    My answer to your 2nd question, “what are you doing as a parent that helps you feel most successful and most connected to your child?” is this: Positively communicating daily. One hug (my kids are older…some teens still at home, some older and gone), one loving text, one something….something that says, “I see you, I love you, you are amazing.” No matter what I get in return, what is going on in our lives. I feel I am investing in them, and the return for that investment sometimes comes back to me, and sometimes I just need to believe it will sink in and go forward for them.

  9. Kate in NY says:

    Great topic, Mary! I would say that in general, I feel most successful and connected when I parent from the heart, rather than the head. By this I mean that when I can ignore the nagging voice in my head that says “kids should behave in such and such a way” or “it is absolutely unacceptable when kids do xyz” – and when I can really summon up feelings of love and caring (“my son is acting a bit rudely and disrespectfully because he is hungry, and he always acts this way when he is hungry because it is a truly horrible feeling for him, and it’s not because he is a bad kid) – – – well, when I can do that, the result is usually quite positive.

    I don’t mean that I just let my son do whatever he wants or treat me however he wants to – – – but I’ve learned that whenever I get swayed by conventional notions of how “good” kids behave, I am not as authentic with my own child – I stop listening to my instincts about what he truly needs from me. Someone might look at my son and think he is not exactly the most polite or well-behaved kid on the block. It’s taken me a loooong time for that not to just drive me NUTS! But it’s true – he isn’t that “perfect” kid. But he is MY kid, and after 8 years together, it’s good to realize that we are a success story for sure.

  10. I believe the greatest surprise to me is to know that there are times my child is going to hurt deeply over the losses in their lives and there is nothing I can do about it.

    I think as mothers we have this inherent need and compulsion to make things better. This is not a boo-boo we can kiss and heal with our words, a hug, and a smile.

    We have 6 sons through adoption. They have been home from 8 years until almost 2 years. They are all doing well. Most days are great and they are fantastic kids. However, these moments creep up..sometimes days at a time, where they grieve. It can be set off by something seemingly benign or I can see it coming a mile away. One son goes through a spell every October. I have no idea what it is about October and neither does he. Yesterday evening our son from China was playing with the little girl across the street and her sisters (Chinese Family) when I saw it in his face…sadness. He quietly slipped back into our home to go play alone.

    In both of the examples I have used I have come to realize there is nothing I can do to fix it. I can sit with my children and mourn with them. I can listen. I can pray for them and over them. I can point them to the healer of their souls. I in myself, can not fix it though, and I have had to release myself from that burden and conviction that I could, or even should. When Lazarus died and Jesus came to Mary and Martha and saw their grief He wept. He felt their pain and understood the hurt that comes from being separated from loved ones. The Bible calls us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn”. I have found my best response is to be with them, and listen to them, and sometimes just say nothing, but pray and hold on.

  11. My greatest surprise was that my child would fight tooth and nail not to be a full-fledged member of this family. “I not need a new mommy and daddy. I got a mommy and daddy.” I have stepchildren and was hoping to experience full- fledged motherhood that it is not possible to feel with them (that already got mommy). But often this feels more like having another stepchild. My husband, who has two bod, admits that this is different — the unconditional because-you’re-mine love is missing from our child. We have it for him bout don’t receive it back. The sadness of that can be overwhelming. As far as successes, right now in this moment I don’t feel all that successful. I’m beginning to resolve myself to the fact that “healing” is an impossible goal and I need to focus more on the here and now.

  12. The greatest challenge/surprise has been realizing our girls have special needs. Our eldest daughter was born into our family and she has spina bifida, so I was used to caring for a child with a physical disability, medical needs, OT, PT, lots of appointments, etc. I have been overwhelmed by having a daughter who has had a severe speech delay, angry rages, who has rejected me in every way she could think of-even physically abusing me. But in front of other people she is sweet. Finally we have received help! This made me feel a tiny bit successful: getting a diagnosis for my 10 year-old. Seeing her smile. Helping her-no, coaching her on raging less until it doesn’t really happen anymore. When she lets me be Mama for a minute, when she accepts my comfort or opens her heart to me…that is success! But it is not my success, it is hers.
    Our youngest has severe dyslexia and anxiety. I am homeschooling her right now as she is so fragile emotionally. When I knew something was up with her, I cried for hours. Not for her diagnosis, but for me-how would I ever be enough to meet all my girls’ special needs? And, of course I am not. At times I am overwhelmed and exhausted, but as I study the brain, read about attatchment and each of my girl’s needs, share with my husband and family, God leads and comforts. He has blessed me with my girls for a time. I just have to do my best.

  13. What is my biggest surprise about mothering an adopted child? As I read through the responses so far, I could relate to any of them, such as rejecting positive statements, being rude, not wanting to be a part of the family. However, after thinking about it, I believe the biggest surprise is that even after two years being home, my eight-year-old son does not want to be alone. He needs someone to walk with him to the bathroom, and he still needs to be near someone while getting dressed, etc. I will do that for as long as he needs me to.

    I think I feel most successful as a parent when my children (I also have a daughter who will soon be eight), want to sit on my lap or snuggle up against me while I am on the couch.

  14. rhonda coplin says:

    I have one child, I adopted her at 6 months old. Life with her has been constant surprises. Since she is my only one, it is all new. I don’t have anything to compare so I take each situation on it’s own. I think that has been part of our success. It isn’t clouded by what I know to be true of my biological children. It is just her. Sometimes it is adoption related and sometimes it just being a child. I handle all issues based on my girl’s personality and temperament.
    My biggest struggle doesn’t revolve around her being adopted. Rather, it centers on the fact that I adopted her as a single woman. Simply put, I did not provide her a dad. This has hurt her heart more than anything else. In most areas I am good at saying I did the best I could. I hired a detective to try and find her parents. Although I never found them, I found part of her story. Although I am a working mom who could not devote the time I wanted with her, I made sure the time we had revolved around her and that I am involved in her school. Financially I cannot provide what others in my neighborhood can, so we live in a condo versus a large house . We gave up cable for tumbling and dance. A wise choice, although she does miss her Disney channel sometimes. It is a balancing act and I am not perfect and that is ok. But the dad issue, it hurts.
    Our biggest successes are when I hear “It’s ok your not brown like me, b/c you love me and we are family and family is important.” “Or it is ok that I have two mom’s and one dad. You have two dads and one mom. It’s similar.” She likes patterns and similarities so to find those with me made her very happy. She points things like that all the time. I cried when she said it was ok I wasn’t brown instead of it is ok I am not white. For me this was huge. She sees herself as smart, beautiful, talented & amazing.

  15. I think that one of the biggest surprised for me about adoptive motherhood is learning that there can be multiple contradictory emotional truths for my daughters at any given time. They can be really happy and content in our family . . . and simultaneously have a sense of loss and sadness at the thought of the biological family they may never know. Even though these two things seem to contradict each other, they often coexist for my daughter who is already home (and may do so for the one we’re travelling to meet soon). It is necessary for me to understand that her grief is not about me, and allow her to have whatever feelings she has — and it doesn’t mean we have failed as her parents. Success looks like her feeling the freedom to talk about whatever she is feeling, and her finding that we are a safe haven for it all.

  16. Casey Houseworth says:

    Like several of the commenters above, I feel success most when we can really LAUGH together and enjoy each other. It really bonds you, doesn’t it? That part was unexpected. Five years into our journey, it’s those little “family moments” that are also bonding us more and more…those memories that we can now share, laugh over, and shake our heads over. With my daughter who came home at five, I also feel success when she feels the freedom to be ornery with me, knowing then that she feels comfortable in her identity as a much-loved child. With my son who came home at nearly two but has exhibited significantly more attachment-related issues, I feel success when I actually feel that spark of love that should be there naturally. Because we’ve gone through so much with him, I am so thankful when the Lord gives me those small feelings to keep me going. 🙂 Thanks for this book, Mary! I’m looking forward to reading it!

  17. I can relate to many of the things said here. We adopted out son from foster care 2.5 years ago and he was seven at the time. Learning to parent him has been so different than our older bio kids because we had to learn to work on connection above all.

    Our son was angry– I learned under the anger he was terrified. He went to a place of shame, then anger with almost anything we tried to correct. He lashed out with violent tantrums over what seemed like the littlest thing. If he got hurt, he was furious and wouldn’t let us comfort him. It felt very personal to me– when I would be going every possible thing I could to make him happy, and I would, for instance, cut his french toast “wrong” and it would end up with him hitting me and throwing the plate. I had to learn to way under-react, to not take it personalty and to remember how stressed his brain was from the fear and grief. But in the middle of all that, we still needed to teach him that violence is not an ok way to handle big feelings. We let a lot of behavior go and and really focused on connection. Time is healing, he is thriving and attached to us now and I am so thankful! His behavior has improved in direct proportion to his feeling safe and loved and less fearful.
    Also a challenge for me was that he preferred Dad over me. The first day in the hotel, he told me I could take the next elevator after he and Dad went ahead. He told me he didn’t like moms much (understandable based on his history) This was really hard over the first months. His rages were mostly directed at me when Dad wasn’t there. With our older kids, I was always the compassionate one and my husband more strict. Somehow with our adopted son our roles reversed- my husband really understood the shame cycle form his own childhood and was able to not take things personally, plus our son was much nicer to him. I had a hard time being compassionate, he was hurting me and I was scared. This was hard between my husband and I because when he would offer suggestions, I felt like he was saying how easy it was for him to parent compared to me. I felt like I was failing at the thing I have given my life to–being a good mom. There was so much to work through…. I began to realize how much my tone and attitude affected our son. I had to accept him, not punish him by withdrawing, and renew by mind to believe the truth. After about nine months my husband would comment on how much more our son was attached and bonded to me than to him. I couldn’t believe that until I realized that he was truly attaching to me even though he fought me so hard, and it was because I was there with him in his feelings all day.
    We have come so far;. Our older kids have been amazing with him. He is a happy, well adjusted boy and we cannot imagine life without him.

  18. Biggest surprise is how differently two kids from the same family would process grief and their adoption. One is flourishing and the other drowning. One feels like she has two families, one feels like she’s been kidnapped.

    To me the other big surprise is accepting that it doesn’t feel the same loving every kid. That attachment looks different for every child. I wish I could say I love my children all the same, but for one child in particular, love looks like realizing that adoption may have hurt just as much as it helped. And in the midst of that “breaking even” situation is being lost in an ocean.

    The surprise is not knowing what to do about it, despite reading every single positive, therapeutic attachment parenting book.

  19. I wanted to mention another surprise is growing really tired of Christian adoption culture. Despite being Christian, I wince at every church that preaches adoption in the name of Jesus and gets people all fired up about their Christian duty to adopt as if that is what James 1:27 is talking about. And while I believe fully in the all-encompassing power of Christ’s Atonement to cover the grief and sadness and losses of children separated from their families, I want to tell every person who is adopting because they were convinced it was a calling, that many of these kids will suffer their whole lives because of their adoption. I am tired of the savior complex of adoptive parents. I never knew I would become such a fierce protector of first families. I never knew I would acknowledge that adoption as an institution (at least in Ethiopia and other African nations) needlessly separates kids from their families for profit, when some of the families could have stayed together with support and encouragement. And that we, as a Christian community, are some of the worst offenders when it comes to unethical actions in adoption. I never knew going into adoption this would become a passion and a deep concern for me.

    I am surprised at how easy and awesome open adoption is with our international adoption, and how sad I am for families who shun it and don’t fight for it, or don’t have it, because I think it is one of the biggest factors in my kids’ stability.

    — And the thing that I think has contributed most to my success as an adoptive parent is saying “sorry” when I am impatient, and reading to my children. Even on our hardest days, my kids want me to read to them at night, and it saves us. It means almost 100% every night we go to bed on a good note, despite what we faced during the day. We are all calmed down and sucked in to our books. The magic of literature has bonded my kids together and to me, It’s my version of breastfeeding: no one else can take this job away from me right now as they won’t let anyone else read our novels to them.

    • I so agree with you on all these counts. We need honesty about the pain and the challenge, and we need more people committed to preserving first families because this is hard, hard, hard on the kids….
      I treasure my precious kids, don’t get me wrong. But I also have a deep understanding of the pain a child (especially an older one) faces when he/she is asked to give up so much.

      And hooray for reading as a connection point!

  20. We adopted our oldest daughter at the age of 3.5 three years ago from Ethiopia, and our youngest just one year ago. What has surprised me most is how much I wish I could change everything for my oldest in particular so she could have stayed in her family. I knew I would feel that way before we adopted, but there’s a huge difference between understanding the concept of loss and seeing its effects on my daughter, here in the flesh. She remembers her life before adoption and the process that brought her to our family quite clearly, and she misses her family in Ethiopia every day. Her struggles were so huge in the beginning, and they still plague her. I have been surprised, too, by how sometimes she really needs us to use a serious voice and show authority, to show her in a serious way that we are her parents. That has been a huge challenge, walking the line between using authority effectively when she needs it and getting too authoritarian, if that makes sense. It is incredibly hard to keep my voice gentle when I am trying to be serious with her in the way she needs me to – it’s so easy to cross that line and let my ego and sense of superiority take over as opposed to the mom that’s helping her daughter.

    My greatest success comes from always, always, ALWAYS reconnecting in a nurturing way after getting serious with her. She always gets a snuggle, a hug, a kiss, and kind words of praise. Sometimes it takes me a little bit longer to get to that point than I would like, but I get there, and we both benefit from that.

    As for the littlest one, I feel like so much is still so unknown. She came to us very sick and malnourished (which was a surprise of the worst sort, as we were told she was healthy aside from medical issues we already knew about), with a major birth defect for which she will undergo her second surgery shortly, and yet she has the sunniest disposition. I feel like our experience with her will be quite different, both due to the difference in personality and the age at which she came to us (4.5 months old). The surprises with her will keep coming, I think.

  21. We adopted our two girls from Ethiopia a little over 4 years ago. At the time they were just 2 and almost 5. Our girls have come a long way with trust and affection but my now 9 year old has some big trust issues. She seems to be most at ease with humor. When I act a little silly and like a kid we are closest! When I have to be a mother and have a schedule with homework or things like chores or practicing piano things get a little complicated. I still haven’t learned how to not let this bother me. Some days I am able to understand it and just let things slide for the moment or skip an activity. Is missing piano practice really going to matter in the long run? Perhaps homework doesn’t need to be done everyday. I think a 7 hour school day is really tough on my daughter and she doesn’t have the energy to tackle homework most days. I am struggling with trying to get my husband on board with me about her education. Our adoption journey has just begun! I see a lot of positives in adopting children but it isn’t for the weak of heart!! Now my youngest is displaying some of the same behaviors her big sister has. Slamming doors and throwing things when life doesn’t go her way. I truly hope that Adoption Agencies can be more helpful and truthful in the challenges that adoptive families will be going through. I am learning something new almost daily and a big one is to trust in God and his plan for my daughters! I think I look too far into the future and scare myself with what ifs.