Rosalind Powell, with her husband, Harry, adopted 14-year-old Gabriel when he was two*.
1. Know your limits. Embarking on the adoption process is exciting, scary, intense and emotional. Most of the children up for adoption have been taken away from their birth parents and come through the care system, having possibly experienced abuse or neglect. You will hear stories that make you cry, and some children will capture your heart. Be honest with yourself – work out what you feel you can offer as parents in terms of a child’s age, sibling groups or any difficulties they may have, and how you will fit as a family.
2. What’s love got to do with it? There are two fundamental questions at the heart of adoption – can you love somebody else’s child and can they love you? With hindsight, I know both are possible. But there is no way of knowing this when you adopt. All you can do is hope: it’s a leap of faith that co-exists with fear. I felt totally committed to Gabriel when he arrived, and protective of him, but did I love him? I didn’t know him. I knew I had to wait for love to come, and it did.
3. Keep things familiar. When Gabriel arrived, I was desperate to dress him how I wanted him to look. But even a new brand of washing powder can be overwhelming for a young child moving into a strange environment and having to get used to unfamiliar smells, textures, colours and sounds. However strong the urge to change them, keep toys, clothes and bed linen the same until they settle.
4. You don’t stick out like a sore thumb. All new parents feel conspicuous – and adoptive parents do with knobs on. You have been brought together as strangers and yet you are now a family. Your child is likely to be a walking, talking, bombastic toddler. They may be older. You haven’t had the luxury of getting to know them from birth, nurture them through the first smile, steps or tooth. Instead, you’ve been catapulted straight into the battlefield of swing parks and play groups – even the school playground.
If they have a tantrum in public, at best, you feel that everyone is pointing at you and, at worst, that your child is going to be carted off by social services. For many months, I felt a fraud, in charge of a stolen child. I would make excuses to strangers, blurting out to shopkeepers, bus drivers and fellow mums, “He’s adopted!” It didn’t help that for the first six weeks he called us both Harry. It’s a terrifically steep learning curve but as you all get to know each other better, things will fall into place.
5. Who is the mummy/daddy? I felt I didn’t just have to learn how to become a mother, I also had to earn the right to be one – a common feeling among adoptive parents. But you have been better prepared than most to become parents, having been through a rigorous assessment process in which you have had to confront your motives for wanting a family, and assess how good you’ll be at it. As for the thorny issue of whether you’re the “real” mum or dad – you have fed, washed and clothed your child, dried their tears, read to them and loved them. You can’t get more real than that.
6. Nosey parkers. Be prepared for awkward questions from strangers, insensitive acquaintances and inquisitive children. My husband and I are white, our son is mixed-heritage, which has led to intrusive remarks, including, “What blood’s he got in him?” Work out how much information you want to give about your family and be ready with the answers. It is helpful to remind yourself that your child’s personal history is their story to tell, not yours.
7. Talk. Be open with your child about their adoption from the start. Talk to them about it, respond to questions and add bits of information as and when appropriate. Take your lead from them. The Life Story book – the collation of photos and facts compiled by your child’s social worker about their life before coming to you – can be a useful tool for you to explain and them to understand events so far. If you are not happy with what has been provided, make your own. We did.
8. Be a team. As with any parents, a bit of competitive parenting does creep in. Both of you are trying to bond with this little person, and win their love. I was surprised to discover my inner earth mother a few months after Gabriel’s arrival, determined to be nurturer in chief. I wanted Harry to play the “hunter gatherer” and kick a ball around. He wanted to be able to give his son a bath occasionally. We eventually compromised and found our rhythm, but it took time.
9. Enjoy it – time passes so quickly. The first few years are a whirlwind of new experiences and heightened emotions, so overwhelming at times that you forget to enjoy it. My son is now 14 so no longer needs me to push him in a buggy to send him to sleep; read him bedtime stories; listen to endless requests for Ben 10s, or tell him to brush his teeth (actually, he still does). I love having a teenager who is taller than me, but I wish I could have just one day again with him at two, and know what I know now – that it will all be fine.
*Not their real names.
Rosalind Powell’s How I Met My Son: A Journey Through Adoption is published by Blink, £8.99.