I was not short on adoption advice upon setting foot into that tiny local wine shop. My husband, our 2 year old, and I were visiting friends who lived out of state and we, the mommies, had left the husbands to daddy duty as we set off to take a warm fall walk with the promise of wine. There is a particular sense of calm when in the presence of friends who know and care for you deeply; the lazy movement of dried leaves on the sidewalk, the curling of Merlot on my tongue, and the amicable banter we struck up with the man heading the tasting settled me comfortably into the afternoon. This, then, became the setting for the parenting advice I have reverently clung to in the years since- the most honest, useful and, frankly, the most applicable of the barrage of suggestions I’d received as a foster parent. But first, a bit of background.
A couple of years prior to the serendipitous wine tasting, my husband and I had entered into the process of adopting domestically. Getting pregnant was taking longer than we had bargained on, but we’d wanted to adopt regardless and decided to start the route to adoption in the meantime. We reached the step at which the prospective adoptive family is to create a book to introduce themselves to birth mothers and we underwent an unexpected change and decided to adopt via foster care instead. Some friends had encouraged us to look into it, there was a great need which we could help to fill, and suddenly we were instead being licensed for that which I’d once said I could never do.
A months after we were legally licensed, we were placed with a 2 year old boy, and so began the well-intentioned advice. Everyone knew someone who had adopted, who had fostered, or who, for reasons I still cannot understand, had adoption horror stories begging to be shared. I began learning as much as I could from blogs and online groups of adult adoptees. I joined internet communities of other adoptive parents. I crammed and crammed and crammed so I could raise this little boy the very BEST of my ability for however long he was with us. (I am, it should be stated, a perfectionist. Perfectionism, for what it is worth, is not a particularly useful quality in parenting.)
Pictures credit: Nicole Marie Foster Photography
As the advice poured in, I gradually began to gradually crumble. The weight of the information I had consumed combined with the reality of raising a child I did not birth began to overwhelm me. There is no amount of book consumption or online web group chats that will satisfactorily prepare you for what adoption honestly embodies. There were no chapters on how to handle the moment I realized that the sense of connection I feel when I see myself reflected in the physical characteristics of my biological family cannot be felt by my son when looking at us. Unlike our niece and nephew, there will be no comments from my parents about how our son’s smile looks exactly like grandpa’s when he was young. I was not prepared for the profound sadness I felt at having missed out on a large portion of my child’s life.
Add to these emotions those that come with an open adoption, which we are voluntarily in, and the road is even less paved. We believed in the positives of an open adoption and have seen the benefits of this in him as he grows. However, I was even less prepared for the emotional turmoil these relationships would have on me; open adoptions following foster care are uncommon and I wasn’t sure what to expect. We’ve since grown into an extended family who genuinely love one another, but it is not without heartache on all sides. There was, for example, the time his birth mother commented on how her hands and our son’s are mirror images of one another. There were no online forums addressing how to articulate to your 3 year old why he had to be taken away from his first family. And how do you explain why his biological siblings call their mother Mommy and they call me Sara, but he calls me Mommy?
And so, we find ourselves once again in that wine shop. As we spoke, the man shared that he and his partner had adopted two children through foster care as toddlers. They, too, were in an open adoption. They, too, had children of a different race than themselves. I felt an indescribable release of emotion. WE WERE NOT ALONE! I began unraveling our story: my fears, my inadequacies, my confusion. How, how, HOW did he know what to DO?!
What he did first was to hug me. He was further along the path than me and so, while he could directly relate to my journey, he had already passed the rocky bit I was currently navigating. He grinned and told me: “You just do the best you can with what you know.” The best you can? What I felt like I knew was NOTHING! But, having now passed that treacherous bit of trail myself, I can grin too because what he’d said was true and good and calming.
Parenting is so very hard and there are self-proclaimed experts everywhere you look. I’ve gained immeasurable knowledge from reading, listening, and questioning and I’m gradually learning the art of siphoning out the useful while setting down the guilt inducing. Underneath it all however, rests that simple phrase: “Do the best you can with what you know.” It freed me up to offer myself the grace I’m so quick to withdraw when it is myself I’m critiquing. As it turns out, your best can actually be enough for the moment and, for all that you’re still learning, there is enough grace, fresh starts, and rest to go around. (And, sometimes, a glass of well timed wine.)