Celebrating Adoption Day

terri and donnaBy Donna Barnes and Theresa McCoy, LBSW

Adoption is a life-changing experience. Some even feel that it surpasses giving birth. In either case, most parents want to shout from the rooftops to let the world know of their happiness, especially if they have traveled the infertility road to get to that point.

Besides shouting from your rooftop, there are some other ways to celebrate. But, before you get wrapped up in ribbons and adoption balloons, it's important to consider the following: 1. Are you adopting an international infant, toddler, or pre-school age child? 2. Is the child coming into your home from a foster care experience? 3. Is the child older (12-16)?

Often there is concern about when to celebrate? Is arrival day the appropriate time . . . or should you wait until the judge declares that your adoption is legal and final? In most cases "Finalization Day" is a number of months or up to a year after the arrival. If you wait that long, will the celebration be anti-climatic? If you celebrate sooner, will you risk doing it "before the fact?"

Many families celebrate both. Most, however, pick "Gotcha Day," when emotions are at peak. For others, (as in the case of adopting teens) finalization seems to be the right time to celebrate since it declares once and for all, the permanency of the child. If you choose the latter, be sure to take off the whole day (not a couple of hours from work) to celebrate.

Here are some more tips and ideas to make the day special:

1. Waiting for news from China seemed to take forever, but now the big day is at hand. Of course, you are excited! What to do first?? If you want to have an "Arrival Day Party," arrival day is usually not the best time. Your child is dealing with time change and may be fatigued. The flight might have caused upset. The child might be ill. And, even very young children can feel culture shock, especially if they do not understand the language. Sounds are strange, smells and tastes are strange, faces are strange. Being handled by a crowd of strangers before the child knows to whom he/she belongs, can confuse the early bonding experience. This applies to domestic adoption as well. . .

Two-week old Meagan was abruptly removed from her mother and placed with a minister's family. In the caring church environment, she was held and handled by so many people that she didn't know whom to trust. Each new person had a different "feel" and smell. Each frightened her and made her feel insecure. By the time she was adopted at six months, her body and demeanor had become tense. She didn't cuddle; she sat upright like a stiff rubber doll when rocked. Her ability to bond had become short circuited. As a toddler, she screamed and hid when someone new entered the house because she feared it would mean a change for her. As a grown woman, her discomfort with "touch" still affects her relationships today.

Even if you have logged time with this child in his/her native country, you will still need to take it slow when arriving home. So, while you are "attaching," send the adoption announcements (that you filled out prior to baby's arrival) to share your great news. Invite Grandma and Grandpa to come into the picture briefly when you first get home (or at the airport). Once your child is comfortable in the new setting, (two weeks or more), broaden the picture with other relatives or friends, one or two at a time. But, delay a party or large gathering until the child has acclimated.

Even very young children can feel culture shock.

When you are sure that your child identifies you as the person who meets his/her needs, then have a party. Invite those who will share in your child's life. Order the adoption balloons and adoption day buttons. Put a sign on the front door. Decorate a cake. Make sure your camcorder is working. Purchase a commemorative candle, etc. etc. Take photos, take photos, take photos (and date them) for the child's adoption life book. A very special gift is a personal letter to the child from each parent about how mom and dad felt on the day of the child's arrival. Date letter(s), put in an envelope, then seal and give to child on his/her 18th birthday. Or, simply include in the child's life book. It will be fun to read them to your child on the anniversary of "Gotcha Day" each year. If you are really creative, you may want to make a "Time Capsule" that includes photos, notes, ribbons, mementos, "signs of the times," newspaper clippings, welcoming comments on tape from relatives, etc. Lock away until the child is grown (makes a great birthday gift).

2. You are adopting a child from the foster care system. This changes the picture, because it's likely the child has experienced abuse, neglect and/or multiple moves. Pre-placement visits will give you a more accurate picture of the child's needs and your ability to meet them. Being sensitive to the child's attachment to the foster parents will be very important. Realize that this child's joy at gaining a permanent family is tempered by the loss of everyone and everything he/she knows best.

When planning the child's moving day, keep in mind ways to help him/her say "goodbye." The child could draw a picture or thank-you card for the foster parents or you could help choose a gift for the child to give them. Pick up the child at the foster parents' home so the child sees both families together. Take pictures for the child's adoption life book or scrapbook. It will be important that the foster parents give the child verbal permission to move on and to love a new family. Help the child collect addresses and phone numbers of family members and friends. If they can stay in touch, they will feel less abandoned. A "Candle Ceremony" can be very helpful . . .

When Kara, age 4, was ready to move into her new home, her social worker arranged for a party at the foster parents' home. She held a "candle ceremony" where everyone stood in a circle. Kara handed a candle (representing herself) to her foster parents. When the candle was lit, they held Kara's hand and said, "We're so happy that you now have a forever family and we trust them to take good care of you." The foster parents then handed the candle to the adoptive parents. In turn, the adoptive parents thanked the foster parents for helping Kara when she couldn't live with her birth mother. They knelt down beside Kara, smiled and said, "We're so excited that you will be part of our family and we promise to love you and take care of you." Hugs (and a few tears) concluded the ceremony. After cookies and gifts, the two families made plans to get together within a few weeks.
(This example is condensed. An expanded version can be found in "My Adoption Workbook" available from this site. Ask your social worker for a copy or contact the author at lovekids@adoptionstuff.com)

3. A teen-ager coming into your family has a whole different perspective. Some are happy to find a permanent home; others wonder why (at their age) they needed one. The older child will arrive with a set of luggage filled with his/her past problems. He/she may have a jaded view of life and how kids can get hurt in the process of growing up. Your teenager may not feel loveable or worthy of your love and will need as much reaffirming as he/she can get. Hugs, however, may or may not be appropriate. For those who have been abused, hugging is not always a good thing. Always ask first, "Is it OK if I hug you?"

Meeting the whole new family early on likely will not overwhelm your teenager. (If this is a domestic adoption, you've probably had a few pre-adoption visits.) A relaxed welcoming party (picnic or backyard BBQ) would be a good low-key start. In this case, casual welcoming gestures from the new, extended family can be very helpful. It may be too soon, however, to use terms such as "Mom, Dad, grandma, uncle, etc. Let your child decide when he/she is ready to "adopt" the new family.

"Finalization Day" is very important to a teenager because it means "NO MORE MOVING!" Since teens like to blend in, adoption balloons might be too obvious on your way to the courthouse. . . better to have them inside your home when celebrating.

Because this young adult has had no control over his/her life up to this point, find ways for him/her to be involved in the *court process. Pre-arrange that the teen (1) be able raise his hand and be "sworn in" and (2) proclaim her desire to be adopted. A photo with the judge is appropriate. Some families like to have the judge witness as they sign an "Adoption Day Pledge" affirming their new family. Following court, a small, engraved gift of commemoration is nice. Letting your new teen choose a favorite restaurant for a family gathering would be a comfortable and fitting conclusion to this special day. And, most likely, by this time, hugs will also be a good thing!! Handwritten notes of welcome from each family member will make nice additions to your teenager's journal or adoption life book. Phong's finalization day went like this . . .

Phong was adopted into a large family at age 17. On finalization day, Mom and Dad and each sibling had three roses (means, "I love you.") delivered by a florist, independent of each other. The teenager was busy all day answering the door to receive the flowers, being affirmed again and again each time the doorbell rang. At the end of the day, he posed for a photo with his "bouquet of love." It was beautiful ,visual evidence of both the size of his new family and the love they had for him. Actions spoke louder than words for one who didn't always understand the English language.

Regardless of how your child entered your family, the most important gift to him/her is not a party, but rather your commitment to providing a lifetime of acceptance and love. Give thanks and "celebrate in your heart" the privilege you have been given to share part of this child's life.

*Note: In some states families do not have to appear in court.

Donna Barnes is an adoptive parent of four special-needs children (international and domestic; agency and private). Theresa McCoy is a social worker who has placed many "system kids" in adoptive homes. Barnes and McCoy are co-authors of "The One & Only Me" life book and "The Real Me" teen life book.