South Africa Adoption Story: Jennifer and Ryan

(Part I)

A mother reflects on her family’s transition at home after adopting her daughter from South Africa.

“I keep meaning to write a post about how well we’re all doing. I wake up each day with resolve to sneak away and write about Kurhula’s progress – the letters she’s learning, the pounds she’s gaining, the friends she’s making, and all the other ways she is thriving after seven months home. But lately, by the time her breakfast eggs have left the pan, she’s usually already initiated at least one epic power struggle. Despite all the progress she’s made (or, perhaps maybe because of all the progress) we’ve entered a trying phase of Kurhula testing her boundaries. Every boundary. Over and over. This has resulted in some loooong days, folks…with lots of foot stomping, arm crossing, and eye glaring pouts. It turns out our little girl has quite a stubborn streak! And she knows how to push my buttons faster than any child I’ve ever taught. By the end of each day, I usually opt for chocolate and puppy snuggles on the couch rather than writing a blog post about how well we’re all doing.

I’ve been questioning myself a lot lately, wondering if I’m getting this whole “motherhood thing” right. As I sit in the hallway outside her open door and watch her cry on her bed for the third time in one day, I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing right by her. But then, inevitably, her sobs always turn to a whimper, and soon after, I usually hear her whisper, “Mama, I’m sorry. I feel bad…” That’s when I open my arms and welcome her into my lap, and we both take a minute to just breathe each other in again. This is how we’ve ended most days this month. And although it’s hard and exhausting, I know it’s what she needs right now. She’s testing us to make sure we mean what we say, to figure out if we really are going to keep her safe, and if we truly are here forever no matter what. Just last night she nodded her head emphatically and said, “Mama, you still love me even when I make the big, BIG Consequence Choices.” Yes, baby, even then. 

These last seven months have presented us all with a very steep learning curve. And although some days are harder than others, I am so proud of our little family and the ways in which we’re growing together. Speaking of growing, it seems our little baby really has turned into a young girl! She’s gained 4 pounds and grown 3 inches since coming home.

JANUARY 2015 & AUGUST 2015
ALTHOUGH SHE’S STILL ROCKING THE SAME PINK SNEAKERS, WE’VE GONE UP TWO SHOES SIZES!

She still begs to be carried around in the Ergo (or “the pouch” as she calls it), but Kurhula now has a collection of scooters and bikes that she likes to zip around on during family walks. She loves her pets and smothers them in kisses and hugs throughout the day. And when we visited her doctor today for a blood draw (which has always resulted in tears and screams in the past), Kurhula calmly put on her headphones, turned up the volume on her favorite Shakira song, and gritted her teeth while the nurse inserted the needle into her arm. 

I must laugh when I think back to our initial impressions of Kurhula, when all we had to go by were her referral photos and a few video clips. We thought she was delicate. We really did. We had no idea what a firecracker she’d really turn out to be. Anyone who meets Kurhula quickly learns that there is nothing fragile about our girl. In fact, she defines the word “fierce.” And although that means I’m probably in for at least twenty more years of epic power struggles, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

To learn more about adoption from South Africa and the children in need of families, visit: www.spence-chapin.org/south-africa

Adopting a Broader Perspective: Reflections of a Young Adult Adoptee

I found my way back to Spence-Chapin when I was 18-years-old after my birth mother contacted me for the first time. I was a freshman in college and at that time, Spence-Chapin was doing (and continues to do) a lot of outreach to the young adult adoptee community. I have always had an extremely open relationship with my adoptive parents and after much family discussion and processing, we decided it would be a rewarding and interesting experience to participate in a young adult adoptee panel. At this panel, we shared our stories and answered questions for a group of prospective and adoptive parents. It felt empowering to be able to answer questions for parents and it made me aware of how comfortable I was with my own adoption story. It also made me consider the role and decisions of my adoptive parents with a new, broadened perspective.

After speaking on the panel, I met a few of the social workers at Spence-Chapin and decided to switch my college major from International Relations to Sociology. I decided that after graduation I was going to pursue my Master of Social Work. After completing my first year at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, I am now interning at Spence-Chapin for the summer as part of the Outreach Team. My guidance counselors and supervisors, both at my undergraduate alma mater Bucknell and the University of Maryland, have all asked me if I am “sure” about pursuing a career in adoption social work due to my personal connection. I know that I am able to answer “yes” to this question without hesitation or uncertainty because of my relationship with my adoptive parents.

Jenny Rosen blog post 2My adoptive parents have always supported my decisions and been open to my questions about my story. When I was contacted by my birth mother, it was understandably hard for them but they allowed me to take the reins on where I wanted that correspondence and relationship to go. All the while, they reminded me that they were there for me and that they loved me without wanting to be intrusive.

Interning in the Outreach Department and just being a small part of such an amazing organization has allowed me the opportunity to gain a better understanding about parenting and the process adoptive parents undergo. The experience thus far has made me reflect on my relationship with my adoptive parents and solidified this as the direction in which I want to take my social work career. I know that I would not be the person I am today or ready for this chosen career path without the love, acceptance, and support I received from my adoptive parents. (It actually feels weird to label them as my “adoptive” parents because they are really just my parents… no classifier necessary).

If there is any advice I could possibly give to prospective adoptive parents, it would be that open discussion about adoption and constant offerings of support are key components to raising an adopted child. Throughout my life I have had various questions about adoption that my parents may have been caught-off guard by but were always willing to answer. The one question I’ve never had to ask either myself or them is if I was loved. I have always known that answer.

Jenny Rosen is currently an intern in the Adoption Outreach Department at Spence-Chapin. 

“I Feel Like I’m Waiting to Love My Son”

I love the show “Parenthood”.  I love the characters, the family dynamics, the twists and turns of inter-weaving inter-generational lives playing out themes of marriage, raising kids, inter-racial families, and more recently, the adoption of a school-aged child.

Julia and Joel, after experiencing a heart wrenching loss when their domestic infant adoption falls through, decide to approach their local social services agency and open their home to any child that may need one.  Seemingly a day later, with no preparation, a social worker rings their doorbell in the dead of night and brings them Victor, a cute, quite, and mysterious 8 year old boy.

Two episodes into the season, we see Joel and Julia, with no visible assistance from any social worker, trying to integrate their new son into their lives.  Or, rather, walking on eggshells around him while trying to act like everything is normal.  Julia alludes to some reading that she’s doing (good) and that they have to establish trust and help him feel like part of the family (also good), but we also see Victor spending entire days lying on the couch, shooting whipped cream into his mouth straight from the can, and watching violent reality TV shows (not so good), all while ignoring the family activities going on around him.  Finally, after a series of upsetting events, Joel and Julia argue about how best to manage Victor, to which Julia, defeated, finally states “I feel like I’m waiting to love my son”.adotive parents, tv show, partenhood

FINALLY, a genuine moment in this story – for many adoptive parents, and certainly for those adopting school-aged children, this is such a common feeling.  However, the guilt and fear of judgment prevents many families from sharing these feelings with their social workers and support systems.  While it is understandable that this is a scary thing to approach (“If I don’t love him now, will I EVER love him?” is a common thought that families struggle with), it is essentially important, when bonding and attaching with a new child, to keep a few key things in mind:

  •  Love takes time.  Everyone needs time to get to know each other and build genuine emotional bonds that will last a lifetime.  If you don’t feel “in love” it does not mean that you or the child are doing something wrong.  In fact, this can be looked at as a good thing – if a child has had multiple placements and many disappointments, she has built healthy defenses by learning to distance herself until she feels secure.  Use that time to show her that you are trustworthy – providing consistent, kind, and thoughtful parenting with healthy limits, expecting nothing in return, is the clearest way to tell a child that you will be there forever, no matter what.
  • Affection takes time.  Those first days, weeks, or even months, it may not yet feel right to have a hug or a snuggle on the couch.  Instead, a quick pat on the head might do, or kicking around a soccer ball in the yard can be a shared physical activity without the intensity of physical contact.   Find that balance between smothering and distancing – maybe insist on holding hands to cross the street (appropriate for any child under 5), braid their hair, or play Twister. Be creative and don’t forget to have some fun – it’s hard for a child to want to snuggle with you if you look angry or tired!
  • Talk about it to the right people.  Find your right outlet – other adoptive parents, your social worker, a supportive therapist, your spouse, partner, or best friend.  Use good judgment; if an acquaintance has given you the message that she thinks the adoption of your child was a bad idea, that’s probably not the person to share your feelings with.

At the end of episode 2, Julia and Victor have a little breakthrough – he is emotionally vulnerable, she promises help, follows through on it, and is rewarded with a conversation and an awkward hug.  Not monumental when it comes to raising an 8 year old boy, but I was sitting on my couch, excited for these characters and all the adoptive families I have worked with, for that one moment, where even in its tiny doses, they can start to feel the love they’ve been waiting for.

Stella Gilgur-Cook, LCSW, Assistant Director of Outreach, Spence-Chapin Services to Families & Children