Sharing the Pain

Recently I spoke on the phone with a prospective adoptive parent who was asking about public agency adoptions. This not a rare occurrence, by any means, but I’ve become more and more concerned lately about one thread that seems to run through most of these conversations.

In the past it was relatively simple for families interested in adoption but not foster care to follow that “track” and have some reasonable assurances that they would be able to find and adopt a child or children that fit their limits and their family. But a lot has changed over the past decade or so and the two “tracks” of foster care and adoption are no longer quite so separate. Instead of discouraging foster parents from adopting, agencies are now working to avoid moving children, and are now directed to consider whether a foster home might be able to convert to a permanent home for a child should the child be unable to return to his or her family of origin.

These changes, as well as the changes in the population of children–who tend to be more troubled now by the time they come into the system than they once were–have lead to a situation where the less disturbed and least difficult children never hit the photolisting services where prospective adoptive families might find them. Most of the children with the best chances for success in adoptive families are now being adopted by foster parents and never being photolisted. This means that prospective adoptive families who are not interested in the most severely disturbed difficult children now featured in the photolistings are being encouraged to become foster parents. This is seen as a plus for other reasons too–for the families it is a way to get to know the kids and their needs before having to make a permanent commitment–a training ground, if you will. No one argues that in most cases, the big winners in this new era are the kids, who now often can stay with the families that were their safe harbor, instead of moving yet again into the permanency of adoption.

Families considering adoption through public agencies often have a very different “profile” than those seeking healthy white infants or international placements. For many the high costs of international or private infant adoption is a big factor; for others a strong social conscience and need to be useful is an equally important motivation. Many of these families come to the decision to adopt not out of infertility, but out of a desire to enlarge their family in a socially responsible manner. But the majority of these prospective adopters are very, very unhappy with the idea of starting out their journey towards adoption as foster parents. The reason? They feel they couldn’t handle the idea of returning a child to birthfamily, should that be the outcome of a particular placement. They want keepers, not foster kids. “I couldn’t stand the pain of losing a child,” they say, over and over.

Well, sure–how can you argue with that? Nobody would want to lose someone they’ve grown attached to, someone who has grown to be a part of their family. Frankly, I’ve never really figured out what to say in response to this. “Oh, it’s not so bad” or “You get used to it” doesn’t fill the bill, nor is it always true, even for a relatively experienced foster parents. Sometimes it is very painful being a foster parent; often you know in your gut that the child will be returning to a situation that has some really awful potential. Most of the time, you don’t even get to know how the story works out; the child leaves, you are no longer a necessary part of his or her life and no one tells you how he or she is doing, even if they know. Sometimes, though, the situation is different, and the child maintains contact or comes back years later to tell you how important you have been in his or her life. But there is definitely real pain involved here, as well as tremendous satisfaction. Foster parenting is one of the most difficult jobs in the entire world, and no one should take it on lightly.

But after this last conversation, I felt somewhat angry, though my thoughts were not yet jelled enough to express. Now, were this person to call back, I might say, “Hey, sure it’s painful but who are you to expect to avoid pain? This child comes to you in great pain, having lost family and hope in probably one of the most disruptive and frightening things that could happen to a child. His family, though perhaps dysfunctional in the extreme, has also lost something precious–a child: their stake in the future, their hopes for the continuing of their family. Is it fair that you should be the only part of this equation that is not supposed to experience pain?” Harsh words, perhaps, but with a kernel of truth.

As human beings we all spend a great deal of energy avoiding painful experiences, whether they be the loss of important relationships or the discomfort of a visit to the dentist. We generally think it’s perverted, kinky or just plain weird to volunteer for something that promises to be painful. But the fact is that what pain we have been obligated to experience (because hard as we try we cannot avoid it all) is exactly what allows us to connect with the rest of the world, to empathize enough with the plight of these children to want to help. An unwillingness to take on a share of the pain of these shattered lives, though it makes sense on one level, also prevents us from experiencing the opposite side of that coin, the satisfaction and pleasure of seeing a child bloom in a nurturing home.

And, ultimately, in the world of parenting, there are no true keepers. All children’s energy, as they develop and grow, is focussed on the task of ultimately leaving home and taking on the roles of adults. We give them up to this independence by degrees, sometimes reluctantly, but our job is absolutely a temporary one, as it should be. Letting go, like most human growth processes, has its painful aspects, and practice is not always useful. But in the end, it’s like the athletes tell us: there is no gain without pain, and to avoid paying the price means foregoing the reward.

Source: by Diane Hillmann, Reprinted with permission, from the Adoptive Families Association of Tompkins County Newsletter.

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