Adopting a child requires a blind leap of faith. Everyone says that nobody would ever have the courage to have children if they knew how hard it would be. Well, adoption is even scarier. Psychologists have determined that somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of personality is hereditary. This is one of the few things that people don’t think to worry about when they adopt. Although in a traditional family, your child may not be a lot like you or your spouse, chances are good that the child’s personality resembles one of your first-degree relatives: in other words, it’s a personality that you know and have dealt with before. One of the two infants my husband and I adopted was, from the start, like no one either of us has ever known before. Even dealing with her basic personality has taken an incredible amount of energy and challenged us to grow in ways and learn new skills that we never thought we’d need.
Add to that the fact that she turned out to have fetal drug syndrome and maybe fetal alcohol syndrome on top of her driving, dominant personality, and you can imagine how our lives have changed. Actually both of our children were diagnosed as having fetal drug syndrome by the time they were 9. Depending upon the stage of the fetus when they are exposed to toxins, different parts of their brains can be affected. Brain damage is brain damage whether caused by toxins, injury, or heredity. Our older child has been diagnosed with Bipolar II; the younger with Bipolar I. They each have a different sub-type of ADHD. They each have different types of anxiety disorders. They react differently to the same medications, and each needs an individually tailored medication list and schedule. They pretty much have opposite personalities. Neither has an ounce of patience.
This required us to develop a lot more patience: we were the adults, after all. Just finding good child psychiatrists—an increasingly underserved specialty—filling out the endless paperwork and going through the intake interviews required a lot of patience. One of the hardest things about having a child with an invisible disability is that you have to prove, over and over again—with each new doctor, neighbor, teacher, school—that you are not a bad parent. Not abusive, not neglectful, not overly indulgent, not stupid, not mean, not mentally ill yourself. That will always be everyone’s first assumption: “it’s the parents.” You are guilty until you can demonstrate that you’re innocent.
The hardships of this path, however, will not, I hope, discourage healthy and intelligent parents from adopting children. Watching these children overcome each new challenge in life is doubly rewarding. Seeing how hard they work to blend in with their peers is inspiring. Behaviorally and socially they have always been a few years behind, but, now in their late teens, they are quickly reaching an age where a few years won’t matter. And with the rising incidences of anonymous neurological assaults from the environment, more and more children are being born with some kind of emotional or mental challenge. There was a time when I thought that, if I hadn’t adopted, if I had been able to have biological children, they would have been “normal.” Now I can look at the way other children in my extended family or among my friends turned out and realize that my biological children probably wouldn’t have fared any better than my adopted children. I don’t know what is causing the upswing in pediatric mental illnesses such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, and autism; but I know that, as a society, we had better figure it out. And I remember the reason I wanted to adopt in the first place.
Even before I knew I couldn’t have children, I always thought that people should adopt at least one child who needed a home before creating any new ones. We need to take care of the people who are here on earth now before overpopulating any further, before building new empires, before going to Mars.
Since adopting our children, we have moved a few times. My husband would be offered a new job elsewhere, but what clinched our decision of whether to move or not was always: Is the mental-health insurance coverage better? Are the schools better? Is the medical infrastructure better? When we did move, it was always a chore to find new doctors, new support. NAMI—the National Alliance on Mental Illness—was a lifesaver for me. They give free evening classes that I can’t recommend highly enough for the relatives of those struggling with mental illness and for parents of brain-disordered children. I learned far more from them than I ever did from a doctor—everything from people’s experience with different doctors and medications to more effective communication strategies and how to see the world through the eyes of the person with the disorder. They also offer a support group and emergency telephone support. And all aspects are run by people who “have been through it.” Because no one else can really understand what it’s like. Not your relatives and, most of the time, not even the doctors.
We’ve made plenty of mistakes, but there is one thing that has always reassured us that we did the right thing in adopting. Even with all our mistakes and the early years of misdiagnoses and bad schooling choices, we sometimes get the gift of seeing what the alternative for our kids could have been if we hadn’t adopted them. We occasionally meet children with the same diagnoses who have, perhaps, grown up in the foster care system, in poverty, without health insurance, without understanding, or living with birthparents who didn’t want them or couldn’t take proper care of them but didn’t place them for adoption. They are light-years worse off than our wonderful, but frustrating, pair. The future of such kids indeed looks very bleak—and often short—and it is unbearable to think that there, but for fortune, would be our beloved teens. Ours may not make it through college or get a high-paying job—but they will not end up in jail or any other institution, they will not end up dead in an alley. Although eccentric each in their own way, they are both good people who will not be a danger to—or a burden on—society.
It’s not quite true that all you need is love, but the Quakers have a better saying: “Let us see what love can do.” It may not be able to do everything, but love can do a lot. It can make a difference.