The journeys that people go on before deciding to adopt are as diverse as the people who can adopt. The formal process (Stage 1, Stage 2, Matching) are explained in lots of places so I won’t go into those but I wanted to share some of the thoughts and learnings we had as we went through it.
Adoption is about more than becoming a family
As a gay couple, we thought carefully about our journey to become a family. This involved lots of reading and talking, including some difficult discussions about what adoption would mean for us and for the children we might end up adopting. This led us to the realisation early on that adoption is not only about being a family but also about supporting a young person to understand and come to terms with their background and identity.
Something that struck me early on was the importance of having experienced failure or challenge in life. It is not about being ‘perfect’ that makes you suitable to adopt – it is about being you and what that helps you bring to parenting children who need more from you than most. As someone who came out in their 20s and has a disability, I might not have had the same experiences as my children, but I can be a parent that can see their experiences and use my own challenges to support them and be an advocate for them. That makes adoption a privilege for me.
Getting to know other adopters and their journeys
My partner and I are both people who like to be prepared, so we did plenty of reading, listened to podcasts and attended information events. That gave us a lot of information. Some of that was daunting and made us doubt whether we could be adoptive parents. But this was all “dry” information – they weren’t real-life experiences. Our agency’s preparation course was one helpful way to meet people who had adopted and came to talk about their experiences. More helpful was the We Are Family network, which helped fill some of the gaps in our prep course. It allowed us to meet other adopters and real leaders in the field of adoption. This helped us find out the type of the support we might later on access after placement. It gave me the confidence that we could do this but also to speak to social workers and professionals about what we and our children need.
The challenge of volunteering
It is important to have direct experiences of working with young people and particularly vulnerable young people – not just to prove you can look after kids but also to discover how you respond to children in all their weird and wonderful ways. If you don’t have that in your personal or professional life, you’ll be expected to do volunteering. That can actually be really tricky to find. By attending the We Are Family prospective adopters group, I was able to ask others the type of volunteering they had done and find opportunities that a simple Google search might not have turned up.
Building a relationship with your social worker
Stage 2 involves a lot of very personal conversations with your allocated social worker. That means it is important that you have taken time to address and understand your past and are able to talk someone through that openly. We had some really difficult conversations with our social worker – not because they were trying to catch us out but because they were trying to understand our thinking by challenging it. They wanted us to have a realistic understanding of our abilities but also limitations and how that might impact on the placement of a child. It was frustrating and emotionally difficult but ultimately it helped us to grow a relationship with our social worked that would last us during the matching process. As your social worker will be having conversation on your behalf with other professionals during matching and placement, it is vital they know you and get you.
Matching is an emotional rollercoaster
The matching process was without doubt the hardest part. As we were with a voluntary agency, rather than a local authority or regional adoption agency, we had been added to Link Maker very quickly and saw lots of profiles. Having to read about children’s adverse experiences is hard and there are some where I’ll continue throughout my life to wonder how they are doing.
It is also really challenging as you’re making life-changing decisions based on limited information in usually lengthy reports that are difficult to read and can have big gaps. Sometimes you have to make very difficult decisions not to go ahead with children you feel a connection with because you don’t believe you’re able to support their needs. The children’s needs are the priority, after all. Other times there are too many unknowns for you to make an informed decision. Saying no to children that deserve and need a supportive family was so hard.
Talking to other adopters helped us understand and broaden our thinking during the matching process. These conversations led us to sending an enquiry about the children we would be matched with. Whenever I think I about it, I am reminded how other adopters are also your family, your support and a vital network to share and test your thinking and strengthen you in those moments of doubt.
One of the things we did during our matching process was a “bump into” meeting. We went to a soft play location with our social worker where the foster cares then arrived with our potential future children. It is quite surreal to do: you know who they are but they have no idea who you are and the significance of that moment. For me, it was the final realisation that that journey we had gone on were not only real but very much about to change our lives forever.
Holding lots of different, conflicting emotions
Matching panel and meeting our children for this first time was very exciting for us. But we have to bear in mind that from our children’s perspective, it was also a moment of profound sadness. They don’t know yet that they are about to experience all sorts of loss, as might the foster carers. Those conflicting emotions are something you have to keep reminding yourself of throughout their lives. They carry with them the emotional trauma of a permanent break with their birth family and other people they had built attachments to, alongside the joy they will experience being part of the new family you’ve built together. As adoptive parents, we have to be there for our children to accept it all, validate those positive and negative emotions and through that build their emotional resilience.
Everyone always talks about the emotional resilience you need as an adoptive parent (see above) but the process itself also requires a different type of resilience: patience. There is a lot of paperwork and there are many meetings with various professionals, who all mean really well, and things will go wrong. Checks will be delayed for unknown reasons, documents will be lost, someone will forget to tell you about an important date or a missing reference that needs chasing, you suddenly need to get your house ready for children at much shorter notice than you had expected, etc. It takes its toll but as we tell our children: take a deep breath, let the frustrations go and think of all the positive reasons why you’re doing this. Adoption is about more than forms, appointments or even building a family: it’s a privilege to be there for a child and help them flourish after a difficult start in life. And the rewards of that are enormous.