Dear friends of ours in Tanzania will be bringing home their two-year-old little girl in the coming months. The recent celebration of Father’s Day and the upcoming growth of our friends’ family has led me to reflect on our own adoption journey. If I were to pass anything along to families adopting a toddler, this would be it.
My Top 10 Tips for Toddler Adoption
- Research. There are some great books out there that give practical ideas for helping you and your child connect and grow. My personal favorite is Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child by Patty Cogen. I also liked 20 Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed by Sherrie Eldridge, because it identifies dozens of other resources that will help us at various points in our journey. I paid the $25 for an online subscription to Adoptive Families Magazine, which gave me access to all current and past articles, as well as podcasts on a variety of topics. Whenever I’ve had questions, it’s been pretty easy to search for the topic in the magazine. I also recommend asking lots of questions of your child’s previous caregivers. What is the child’s typical schedule? What do they like to eat? What food do they dislike? What are they afraid of? What helps to calm them when they are upset? Thankfully, we were able to shadow Michael’s caregivers for a full day. It helped us to understand Michael’s previous norms and to make the transition as easy as possible for him. Regular visits with him before we brought him home also started the bonding process and helped ease the transition.
- Be gentle with yourself. I think it is important to realize that no matter how much parents prepare, they won’t be fully prepared. We were definitely figuring things out as we went. Actually, truth be told, we still are. ;-) It took about three months for us to find our new normal. Survival mode is a very real thing, especially when your child isn’t sleeping well. Do whatever you have to do to keep your sanity. Self-care is so important, even as you are caring for another little person. I think those who have to wait a really long time to become parents are even more apt to try to be perfect parents. The dream of perfect parenting went away for me on Day Three when I was holding Michael and sobbing from exhaustion. I’ve realized that kids don’t need perfect parents. They need the love of imperfect parents who show them that it is ok to be imperfect.
- Ask for help. Communities know that parents with a newborn need help. In both Tanzania and the U.S., people will rally around a family with a new baby—cooking meals for them, helping with chores, etc. However, folks often don’t realize that adoptive families also need support. We have to ask. For us, that meant asking a Tanzanian friend to bring dinner for us our first night home with Michael. Looking back, I wish we would have asked our neighbors for more help in those first weeks. I know they would have been willing. We did finally come to our senses and realize that with Omary (our previous house helper) away at school, we needed more help. We bought a washing machine which cut back on hours of handwashing. We also hired Dinnah and taught her to do many different to chores to lighten our load. She has been an absolute Godsend. With the added support, we could spend more time with Michael, more time together as a couple, and more time sleeping.
- Take advice (including this blog) with a grain of salt. Somehow I thought that by living in Tanzania I would escape some of the “mommy wars” and the barrage of advice that comes with parenting. I was wrong. Everyone has an opinion. From Tanzanians, we get “What are you feeding him for breakfast? You should feed him this.” “He should play more with other children.” “You are carrying him too much.” “He should attend this school next year.” “You are putting him to bed too early.” “He needs a jacket. It is very cold (i.e. the temperature dropped below 75 degrees Fahrenheit)”… From the worldwide web, we’ve been told what we should be doing regarding Michael’s sleeping habits, weight, health, activities, etc. It can get very overwhelming. Some advice has been helpful and some hasn’t. I think I’ve come to more peace with it all as I’ve realized this is just part of parenting in today’s world. Take what works for you and leave the rest. The truth is that there are differences between a child entering a family by birth and one entering by adoption. There are differences between a child entering a family as a first child and one entering a family that already has biological or adoptive siblings. There are differences in adopting an infant vs. a toddler. There are differences in raising a child in Tanzania vs. any other country. There are differences in communities and housing arrangements. There are differences in parents’ personalities and parenting preferences. And there are differences in children, regardless of any other factor. What works for one child may not work for another and what is a struggle for one child may be a breeze for another. Parenting is in many ways a giant experiment, so we all have to try different things and see what works for our families.
- Weight lift before adoption. This was one that caught me by surprise. Toddlers are heavy! Parents who start their families biologically typically start with a kid 6-8lbs and work their way up. We started with more than 20lbs of weight. Then add to that the books saying how important carrying your toddler is for bonding, Michael wanting to be held only by me, and Michael wanting to be held all day long in those first months. I had some extremely sore arms!! Carriers definitely help (if the child is willing) so invest in a good one, but physical preparation beforehand also would have helped.
- Prepare yourself emotionally for your child to bond with one parent before the other. I had this dream that Eric and I would be able to share in all aspects of parenting from the beginning, but that wasn’t the case. Michael bonded to me first. As an example, the very first day before we left Mwanza with our son, I needed to use the toilet--a dirty squatty-potty, not suitable for two. When I handed Michael off to Eric, Michael screamed and screamed and only calmed when I returned. In that first six weeks, both Michael and I were terribly sick with a cold that he had picked up before his departure from the baby home. Eric would have taken him so that I could rest, but Michael wanted me, every moment of every day. Michael’s third night home, I only got 4 hours of sleep because Michael would only sleep in my arms. The next day, he took a nap in the car on the way back from visiting our social workers and wouldn’t go down for his regular nap. Thus, Eric played with him on my stomach while I took a power nap on the couch. It was hard on both Eric and me. I felt like Michael wanted more from me than my sick-self had to give, and Eric felt like he had more to give than Michael would allow. This phase passed, but it was a tough one and one we didn’t expect. I reassured Eric that he was a great father and that I appreciated him doing all the behind-the-scenes work--preparing the diapers and pajamas, washing the dishes and diapers, cooking dinner, cleaning up the house, etc. Eric reassured me that I was a great mother, even when I was sick, exhausted, tearful, sore, and just wanted some space. Even though our job distribution didn’t originally go as planned, we were still a team. We are happy to say that now the balance is much more like we had hoped. Michael has bonded with both of us, enjoys time with both of us, and finds comfort from both of us.
- Make time for the transition. Toddlers joining a new family have a difficult road to travel, because they are going through the developmental stages of attachment and independence all at once. Two-year-olds by nature experience extremes, but I think it can be even more dramatic for kids with complex backgrounds. One day they want to be fed by you; the next day they want to do it themselves. One day they are content to lead the way on the walk; the next they want to be carried the whole way. We’ve had many people ask us, “Why is Michael still _________?” (sucking his fingers, wanting to be hand fed, wanting to be carried, wanting to be cuddled overnight, etc.) I try to explain that for a year and a half of his life, he had to share his caregivers’ attention with 20-50 other kids. He didn’t have a mother or father to dote on him. Yes, he still uses some of his coping mechanisms from his time at the baby home, and yes, sometimes he regresses and wants to be babied. He is making up for lost time and has to regularly adapt to many new experiences and people. He had to learn how to ride comfortably in a car seat; he didn’t learn that as a newborn leaving from the hospital. He had to learn how to take a bath/shower in our bathtub. He had to learn what it means to share in a family meal at the table. It’s a process for him, and it is ok to take it slow. It has also been a process for us. So much changed when we became parents—sleep, food, daily schedule, work/ministry, hobbies, vacations, etc. I highly recommend making space in one’s life for the transition. That can mean different things in different families, but I think it helps to hold loosely on to expectations of what life will be like. Make time to grieve for the aspects of life that aren’t what they once were and to rejoice in the beautiful additions to your life. You can help your child to do likewise.
- Intentionally connect with your partner and with God. I am pretty sure this is true with most new parents, but we discovered that Michael quickly became our lives. If we weren’t intentional about connecting with each other, it just wouldn’t happen. Once we started getting past survival mode and got the help we needed, we began to set aside time together after Michael’s bedtime. One night is specifically designated to listen to a sermon podcast together and discuss it. One night is date night when we read together, play a game together, watch a movie together, or just talk. This made a huge difference in our relationship and in our ability to parent well.
- Prepare your heart to be an ambassador for adoption. A friend of mine who has also adopted told me this bit of advice before we brought Michael home. Many people don’t know much about adoption or haven’t interacted with an adoptive family. They will ask questions and sometimes make insensitive, hurtful comments. We have figured out our answers and responses to some of the more common questions and comments, but we know this will be part of our journey for the rest of our lives. Thankfully, we aren’t in it alone it. There are many other adoptive families who can help.
- Soak in the moments whenever you can. This post delves into some of the hard aspects of adopting a toddler, but it is truly worth it. Michael has brought us more joy than we ever thought possible. We have been able to watch Michael’s personality unfold as he has become more confident and secure in our love. Our home has come alive in many new and wonderful ways. The first time that your child calls you Mommy or Daddy— or Mama and Baba—is magical, and with a toddler, you generally don’t have to wait quite as long as with infants. The brains of toddlers are sponges soaking up the world, and we get to witness it on a daily basis. New words. New activities. Every day is an adventure. Every photo reminds us of how far Michael has come and how far we have come as a family. A beloved professor of mine, who has two children by adoption and two by birth, said it well: “The love is the same. No matter how they come to you, the love is the same.”