Sally Maslansky | June 1, 2010

A New York Times article published in April entitled “In Some Adoptions, Love Doesn’t Conquer All” by Sarah Kershaw, has really got me asking: Just what does it take to be an adoptive parent? As an adoptive parent and therapist working with adoptive families, I can tell you that it does indeed take a great deal more than love.

But I think the most relevant question to be asking here is: In what part of any of our lives is love actually all that it takes?

The article reports on an adoptive mom with three boys from the Ukraine, ages 8-16. It states that the mother

“was often tested by the strains of raising these three new sons. The youngest of them Ian (born Igor) had rummaged in garbage dumps in Ukraine for toys, with hubcaps and discarded car parts his only possessions … home in Nebraska he soon became a wild, uncontrollable kleptomaniac.”

I understand the need to love a child. I understand the drive to want to have a child and to be a parent. And I do not believe anyone could love a child any more than I love mine. But for a child who has been rummaging for their very survival, love is but just one of many necessary ingredients it will take to parent that child.

One such skill needed by a parent facing such challenges would be a deep understanding that any child forced to rummage through garbage is in fact living in a wild world completely out of their control. This child it seems is not even able to control the name by which he is known and called. A deep understanding of the difference between rummaging to survive and kleptomania would also be a helpful ingredient.

I believe that what it takes to parent a child from such a background is the ability to put all preconceived notions of what it means to be a parent aside, and to develop an ability to begin to understand and honor the staggering reality of what this child’s life has been up to the point of their adoption. To go into adoption knowing and honoring that this child has a profound history of its own.

How do we develop the skills necessary to understand our child’s story in order to help them make sense of it for themselves? Well, the place to start is with making sense of our own story first. In fact, one thing that attachment theory informs us about is that the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is the degree to which that child’s parent or caregiver has made sense of his or her own story.

Before becoming a parent, reflecting on our own childhoods is an essential first step. What are our own unresolved issues? If you took something of your parent’s when you were a child, did they accuse you of stealing? How did that make you feel? Did anyone ever help you as a child understand your actions and feelings? These are the essential first steps I believe to becoming a parent under any circumstances, and such an important step before adopting a child with so many challenges to face. So as a parent, how we have come to make sense of our life story is the first step to helping our children make sense of theirs.

There is a small but important and hope-filled study by Mary Dozier, published in Child Development (Sept./Oct. 2001, Vol.72, number 5, pages 1467-1477) that I believe adoptive and potential adoptive parents could benefit from reading. The study’s results suggest:

“When placed in the first year and a half of life, foster children can organize their attachment behaviors around the availability of their new caregivers. When placed later than birth, most children in our sample had been exposed to neglect, and some to abuse, as well as up to five changes in care givers. Nonetheless, when placed with autonomous caregivers, these children often formed secure attachments. (p. 1474.)”

In attachment language, an autonomous caregiver is someone who has come to make sense of his or her life. What I believe this tells us then is that even for children coming from difficult beginnings, the more sense a parent or caregiver makes of their own life story, the better the possibility for that child to develop a secure attachment.

This is crucial information that I hope will be helpful to the adoption community. So when asked, what does it take to be an adoptive parent, I would suggest it does indeed take a great deal of love, with a lot of self-understanding and knowing, an ability to be sensitive to your child’s individual needs, as well as all the information on childhood development and attachment you can get your hands on. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, but efforts to perfect the art of parenting is the pursuit of any parent’s lifetime.