What does it take to love an adoptee?
Do you have endless patience, nerves of steel and the ability to withstand constant attempts to push you away? Congratulations, you may apply to be the spouse* of an adoptee!
Being an adoptee is difficult, as I’ve outlined in my blogs about the adoptee fog and adoption triggers. Spare a thought, however, for the partner of an adoptee. Falling in love with an adoptee is no easy ride, as Anne Heffron hilariously relates in her book You Don’t Look Adopted. Most of us have more baggage than Heathrow Terminal 5 on the August Bank Holiday, yet what we crave most is unrelenting, unflinching, unconditional love. And reader, I think I’ve found it…
So what does it take to love and support an adoptee? When I asked my husband, he said: patience, nerves of steel and the ability to withstand frequent attempts to push you away. Despite all my defensive (and offensive) actions, which often come out of nowhere, he has yet to turn around and said, “Yes you’re right, you ARE unloveable and I’m walking out – just as you always thought I would.”
How to be an awesome partner to an adoptee:
1. Never play games
After we met via friends on a night out, he texted me the next morning asking me out. No ‘four-day rule’, no games. He’s never made me wait for a text or an email and whenever we’re holding hands and I give his a squeeze, he always squeezes back. Not nearly always. Every. Single. Time.
Never underestimate how important trust is to an adoptee. I’ve found from experience that any sniff of lying or cheating and the relationship is dead in the water. Once trust is gone, it can never be rebuilt. Knowing in my bones that he loves me frees up my mind to focus on other things. My hyper vigilance can take a well-deserved break.
2. Help me understand my triggers
My previous long-term relationship ended with my ex shouting, “Good luck finding someone to put up with your shit!” Oops. I don’t think either of us realised how much I was supressing that was leaking out in other ways. Now I think I know almost all of my triggers, so I can either avoid them or put strategies in place to cope with the fallout. This level of self-awareness is partly because my husband sits with me as I painstakingly sift though events, trace causes and find patterns.
3. Accept my non-traditional family
Because of adoption and my subsequent reunions I have three families. I also have an additional strand due to contemporary adoption and kinship care. It’s complicated, and we’ve found that a whiteboard comes in very handy when explaining who everyone is and how they all link up!
When I told him my family was estranged from my sister, but I was powering on, I think he loved the idea of my compassion and loyalty. I know that since then he has despaired with my single-mindedness, bordering co-dependency and superhero complex where I just can’t give up on her. He’s urged me to look after myself and put my mental health and our children’s needs at the forefront, but at the same time, he’s travelled the width of the country for visits, two of which were in prisons, and helped me support her financially. And all of this with absolutely no judgement about her situation and choices.
4. Encourage me to look after myself
Sometimes I just don’t think I’m worth looking after. In fact, most of the time. I fill up my diary, don’t go to bed early enough, and eat like a penniless student. This man doesn’t tell me off; he fills the fridge, runs me a bath, and places me in bed with a hot water bottle and some earplugs.
5. Support me through pregnancy and birth
After a traumatic first birth followed by post-natal depression, I was terrified when I became pregnant second time around. I think I was in the process of emerging from the fog, and suddenly – finally – realising how massive it was to have been given away as a baby and to have to bond with a new mother to ensure my survival.
Because I was so anxious, he agreed we could use our savings to hire an independent midwife to get me through the second pregnancy. It meant I didn’t have to start from scratch building trust and rapport with every new midwife, and could focus on staying calm and bonding with the baby.
6. Help me emerge from the fog
What a journey it’s been coming out of the fog. I’ve been mentally quite absent as I’ve submerged myself in podcasts, books, blogs, conferences and a lot of social media. There have been tears of sorrow, howls of rage and very tentative baby steps into being authentic with those I love. He’s supported me through the delayed bereavement as I finally mourned the loss of my birth parents, extended families, bloodline and identity. He was there for me after one of the hardest conversations I had, where I told my mum that adoption had caused trauma even though I came straight from the hospital into her waiting arms.
7. Indulge me when it comes to family resemblances
If you ask me, both my children have my eyes, ears, mouth and nose. They also walk and talk like me. My daughter even sleeps like me and wakes up like me. I am obsessive about this stuff; I love it so much. I clap my hands like a seal when I discover another expression or gesture we share, and never once has he said, “Oh no, actually I think that’s from my side of the family.” He lets me have every single one, because he knows how much it means to me.
8. Be open-minded about what makes a family (clue: not blood)
My husband is from a traditional family but there is no judgement applied to my higgledy piggledy assortment of relatives. He earnestly learned my preferred labels and corrects others when necessary, so for example that’s first names for birth parents, and definitely no use of the words “real” or “natural”.
Yes, he criticises my family if they’ve been a bit rubbish, but no more and no less than he does his own. When we recently made our wills and had to consider guardians for our children, my siblings were considered as equally as his, despite them not being blood relations.
9. Back me on parenting deal-breakers
Controlled crying and ‘crying it out’ were absolute no-nos for me when we had our babies. I just couldn’t stand the thought of them feeling abandoned for even one second. He supported me on this, despite pressure from family members and many, many (many!) months of broken sleep.
In all honesty, I know I have a problem setting boundaries because I am probably, deep down, afraid of rejection from my kids. I know this isn’t ideal for a parent. I am working on it every single day to be the best parent I can be. Amazing resources I have tried include (adoption-competent) therapy, books such as The Awakened Family by Shefali Tsabary and Brené Brown's wholehearted parenting course.
10. Rub my back until I fall asleep
Some nights (most nights), my mind is racing with all the things I’ve said to potentially offend people, or all the things I’ve forgotten to do to make sure people still love me. It’s a belt-and-braces approach to friendships and relationships.
This can range from sending an email to the school PTA, to forgetting to send a birthday card, to offending a next-door neighbour. I am hyper-hyper vigilant, and sometimes – like a baby – I need help calming down and soothing to sleep. If you find someone who wants to rub your back until you fall asleep for the next 50 years, marry them quick.
*Of course, much of this applies to parents and close friends of adoptees too. And one day, if I'm brave enough I'd like to explore what it means to be the child of an adoptee.