A confession: I don’t read a lot of parenting books. When I have a question or need advice about raising my 2 ½ year old son, I usually just ask my twin sister. I can’t get into a book about potty-training.
Although my sister and I traverse adulthood and motherhood mostly in sync, the way twins often do, she gave birth to her four boys; I adopted my son from Morocco when he was four months old. We were adopted ourselves as infants, and Jenny writes an adoption blog about navigating the new relationship with our birth family, but my sister has never adopted a baby just as I have never given birth. There are differences, for us and for our children.
In my wide circle of friends, a diverse group that includes other single mothers, same-sex parents and mothers and fathers on four continents, I don’t have close friends who have gone on a similar journey, adopting a baby from an orphanage in a different country. For this reason, I have tried hard to keep in touch with the other parents I met in Morocco when we adopted our children in 2012. In the past several years, I’ve made a point to travel to see these other families–in Ohio, Arizona and North Carolina. I keep in touch on Facebook with families in Switzerland and Mauritius who adopted from Morocco, and I do this as much for me as I do for my son. These are my peers, my fellow travelers, my expert sources on raising a Moroccan child with a similar start in life.
Mary Ostyn has had a far different journey. She and her husband, high school sweethearts, adopted the six youngest of their 10 children. Four of her children are from Ethiopia and two are from South Korea. Her own stories in her book “Forever Mom: What To Expect When You’re Adopting,” are supplemented with blog posts from other adoptive mothers, providing a richer account of adoption than if she were singularly sharing her experience. She also includes reflections from her children, the voices of the adopted children.
There is much focus in the adoption-sphere about language. Forever families. First mothers. Forever moms—hence the title of Osytn’s book. Because of her blog and her own research, my sister is far more versed than I am on the semantics of adoption, the debates within the debates. I view adoption as an event that happened. My son was adopted. He is not adopted. I was adopted. I am not adopted. Adoption is not something that defines me, though I understand that loss is also a part of adoption and can have lasting effects on a child.
Because of my own experience or maybe in spite of it, I have avoided reading too much about parenting specific to adoption, though I do subscribe to the popular Adoptive Families magazine, and I completed the online courses on adoption and parenting required for my home study and mandated by my placement agency. I found these courses interesting and helpful for understanding potential (not foregone) issues specific to children who were adopted, issues such as attachment difficulties and delays in sensory-motor development.
Many parents seeking to adopt, or who have already adopted find a community online, through list-serves and social media groups like this one on Facebook for parents and adoptees dealing with race in adoption. Groups like these can be a valuable resource. When I first dealt with my son’s sensory processing issues, I checked out several books from the library and spent hours browsing Web sites and forums for parents. My most meaningful connection came off-line, though, when I visited a friend from high school and discovered that her daughter had similar issues.
Adoption is not a secret in our house. It is part of our story, mine and my son’s. But it is only a part. I remember cringing the first time a well-meaning family member introduced him as “the little boy Jackie adopted from Morocco.”
“He’s my son,” I remember whispering through gritted teeth. “Just introduce him as my son.”
My son, who is Arab, looks bi-racial, like he could be mine biologically, depending on the other part of the equation. We do not have the same visible and immediate transracial differences that face many white families who adopt children of different ethnicities. At least not yet.
Because my son was adopted as an infant from a nurturing orphanage, his “start” was not as traumatic as some children who were adopted, including Ostyn’s son, Benjamin. Ben, who was born missing a foot, spent the first half of his life in a hospital and then was in foster care before being adopted at 20 months old. Joshua, their first child adopted from South Korea, came home at 4 months, the same age as my son. Like Ostyn, I didn’t notice any problems bonding with my son. Her words could have been my own. “By the time Joshua had been home three days, my heart knew no distinction between birth and adoption,” she writes. “I was head over heels in love. He was mine.”
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Ostyn’s revelation about how the different starts of her boys impacted their first months at home with their new family. When she pulled him close for a snuggle, little Ben “cried and thrashed as though my hugs were torture,” Ostyn writes. “He wasn’t content in my arms, but he wasn’t happy away from me either.” When she ultimately realized that his behavior was a sign of attachment difficulties, Ostyn said she was both scared and relieved. Many parents who have adopted, particularly toddlers and older children, will be able to relate.
Ostyn spends a chapter discussing how to help babies and toddlers settle into their new homes, a different process than helping older children acclimate. For example, she repeats advice that I have heard before from social workers. Parents should be the main food providers in the baby’s life for at least the first six to 12 months. “Sometimes siblings or grandparents want to offer goodies, but for the sake of bonding it is really best if mom and dad are the primary source of bottles and treats,” she writes. She also notes that playtime is especially important with young children who were adopted to make up for missed time together.
Language is often an issue for children who are adopted from other countries, particularly if they are already speaking when they arrive in the United States. I didn’t worry about that too much with my son. He was young, and I spoke some Arabic, one of the languages he heard in Morocco as an infant.
In both Ethiopia and Korea, Ostyn noticed that babies were kept close to their mothers, shaping her desire to co-sleep. This is true as well in Morocco and in most Eastern cultures. Mei-Ling Hopgood’s book, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between) is one of my favorite reads on this subject.
I have talked to the other parents who adopted from Morocco about how they were sleep-training their little ones, and we varied, from the couple who had their daughter sleep with them to another family whose son slept in a crib from the start. I found Ostyn’s advice on sleeping arrangements to be useful, particularly as I prepare to adopt another baby from Morocco. I am not going to be in as much as a hurry this time for the new baby to sleep in his crib in his own room. I’ve already purchased a bassinet that I will keep in my room because I don’t want the new baby to be in a room by himself. Ostyn argues that independent sleeping is “exactly the opposite” of what a newly arrived child needs to become well attached.” Remember, she writes, “you are trying to make up for lost time together.”
Ostyn does well in voicing her concerns and some of the problems she had with bonding with her children, particularly two older sisters from Ethiopia. “Nothing was easy,” she writes, noting that her house turned into a warzone with the arrival of Lidya and Zeytuna, who were 11 and 9.
Although she never loses hope, Ostyn avoids embracing the version of adoption my neighbor calls “unicorn pooping a rainbow.” My neighbor is the mother to a little boy adopted from Ethiopia when he was 3. (He is now in kindergarten.)
I asked her recently what she thought about adoption books. “There are these warring narratives,” she told me. “But it’s not just intellectual. It’s personal because these are kids and strong belief systems and racism and poverty and white privilege and all of that. So not just words but lives and consequences. And people take it very seriously. There are books, lots of books. And conferences, and T-shirts and hey, today is Orphan Sunday!” She paused. “Today actually is Orphan Sunday.”
Forever Mom will appeal to a specific community. The book is published by the Christian imprint of HarperCollins, and its message is very much grounded in Ostyn’s faith. If you are looking for a secular read, with only stories and advice, Forever Mom is not it. But it is a compelling story, most useful for those navigating the process of adoption without a clue about where to start or what to expect. It is told from the experienced perspective of a woman whose family has changed the lives of six children, and Ostyn’s voice is honest, not rehearsed or sugar-coated.
Which is a relief. Because there ought to be ban on unicorns pooping rainbows.
Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.
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Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia