Aliza’s biological daughter and adopted son playing together in the fields (Photo courtesy Aliza Sherman)
When you renovate a home, you tear down walls, gut rooms, rip out old pipes and wires. You empty out to rebuild and refill it.
When you renovate a family, you push, stretch, pull and shift, too. You push past fears of it “not being the right time” or of you “not having enough money.” You stretch your thinking about the structure of your family and where everyone will fit in with a new addition. You stretch the shape of your heart to fit a new child into it, one that didn’t come from inside of you but is placed with you. You shift the space within your mind, your heart and your home to make room.
“I want a baby brother,” my 9-year-old daughter told me for the umpteenth time.
My “bio” daughter, or “biological daughter,” as she would soon be known, was eager for a sibling and no amount of “Mommy can’t have any more babies” satisfied her want.
And then one day, something shifted.
“I want a baby brother,” she said.
And I thought for a moment and then said, “Well, maybe we can call an adoption agency and see what we’d have to do to get one.”
I called a local adoption agency, and they didn’t call back.
“I wonder if it’s a test,” I told my husband who was on board with the concept of adopting a child, something we had discussed for several years, particularly during the two years when I miscarried four times before our daughter was born. “I wonder if it’s a test to see if we have the resolve to persevere to adopt a child.”
“Six and under,” I told the adoption agency once we did get through to them.
Six and under was the age range for a boy I’d allow in our home. My thinking was that we have a 9-year-old girl, and an older boy might be a risk. My husband’s mind didn’t go there, but as a mother and as a woman, I immediately thought of my daughter’s vulnerability and safety.
“We have two boys who are ready to be adopted, seven and four. Brothers. Would you be interested in siblings?” the woman at the adoption agency asked when my daughter and I stopped by her office, just to see what adopting entailed.
I said I had to check with my husband. He said yes, he’d be open to siblings.
We started the paperwork for adopting out of the state foster care system. We chose adopting out of foster care because we knew there were so many local children in need of a loving home.
“We have two boys who are ready to be adopted, seven and four. Brothers. Would you be interested in siblings?”
We chose to adopt rather than foster – something referred to as “foster-adopt” – because we knew we didn’t have the emotional fortitude to take a child into our homes and hearts then have them taken away and placed back with parents who were often abusers of drugs, children and each other. The parents of foster-adopt children in the state foster care system have already “relinquished” their parental rights so there is less risk of the child being taken back.
“Over 72 percent of the adoptions in this state don’t stick,” the woman at the adoption agency told us. Don’t stick? Like bad wallpaper falling off walls? “Don’t stick,” as in adoptive parents return the child because it wasn’t working. Like a parental satisfaction guaranteed offer with no money back. We were mortified.
Adopting a child out of foster care involves a series of steps, including in-person interviews at home, walk-throughs of the home and preparation of the home to safety specs provided by the state. You are fingerprinted, there are background checks and then they check references from other family members, friends and colleagues.
Because we were looking to adopt a boy six or under, we were required to fence in our backyard pool or create a safety barrier of some kind, so we did. Otherwise, our house and our family passed the foster-adopt tests with flying colors and relatively few renovations needed.
While we went through the process, we kept asking about the two brothers we were told about on our first meeting with the adoption agency. Eventually, we learned that they were not available for us to adopt. The elusive siblings were like carrots being dangled in front of a family hungry to expand. They were offered too soon, before we were licensed or eligible to adopt them, so we couldn’t have them.
We started the licensing process in November and were licensed by January. Our license to adopt came with an 18-month expiration date: We were to find a child to adopt by that time, or we’d have to go through a renewal process. The “finding a child to adopt” process isn’t straightforward or easy when you’re looking for a younger child. You sit and wait for a call, or you call the adoption agency or email them regularly to see if any kids fitting your “want“ list are becoming available.
The more specific your want list, the fewer opportunities arise for a child that fits the bill. If you’re okay with a teenager or a child with severe special needs, you are more likely to have your pick. But the younger children and the children with fewer “behaviors” – bad or violent behaviors – are the ones in demand and hard to find.
Once we received our license, we were suddenly informed we were required to take a 12-week course on foster care. Even though we were adopting, we needed to understand the foster care system. More importantly, we needed to understand the dynamics of a child in the foster care system.
The course was eye opening, with stories of the horrific abuse some children endure and the upheaval of their lives when they are removed from dangerous living conditions and placed into a strange system with little more than a garbage sack of belongings that inevitably get lost or stolen along the way. No wonder why these kids have “behaviors.”
“Over 72 percent of the adoptions in this state don’t stick,” the woman at the adoption agency told us. Like a parental satisfaction guaranteed offer with no money back.
We learned that, while a child is in foster care, foster parents are only allowed to hug them sideways – literally a sideways hug, hip to hip, one arm around their shoulders. Why? Because many children in foster care have been sexually abused and are overly sexualized and might try to cop a feel or get inappropriately stimulated by a simple hug. We were getting an education in damaged children, and it was the stuff of nightmares.
During this time, we learned about a 6-year-old boy who was available to be adopted. He had witnessed abuse and was physically scarred by inadvertently coming between his parents and a scalding pot of water. We said we wanted him. Over time, we were one family in 20 in line for the boy. Eventually we were one in four. He went to another family.
About the same time, I received a call from the child advocate at the adoption agency who said she wanted us to meet a boy, but he didn’t exactly fit our age parameters.
“How old?” I asked.
“Eleven,” she replied.
I said no. She said she really, really thought he was a fit for our family. She asked me to hear her out. I said no again but finally relented.
This boy was unique, she said. He didn’t have any “behaviors,” and he wasn’t on medication. We had learned that almost every child in foster care is put on medication if they act out. He was neglected, but as far as they knew, he had not been abused. He was well liked by everyone who was working with him, from the group home managers to the caseworker at Child Protective Services to his Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). He was a good kid.
We agreed to meet him at a bowling alley.
“Remember when we met here the first time?” my son asks when we returned to the bowling alley where we saw him that day in July.
“Yes, it was kind of strange,” I admit.
“Awkward! It was so awkward,” he says, and we laugh.
The first night he moved in with us, he started sleepwalking, then crying uncontrollably, then punching and kicking and then he threw up. The same thing happened the second night. On the third night, he slept.
We waited month by month for something “major” to happen. We were warned in the foster care class that as soon as a child feels comfortable in your home and isn’t worried that you’ll give him back, they may act out. Years of pent up fear and anger just screams out of them because they finally feel safe. That didn’t happen, although he did tell us that, at one point, he was actually worried we’d give him back, but he wasn’t worried anymore.
Sometimes, we feel like pinching ourselves because it can feel so surreal that we have a son. We really did adopt a boy out of foster care. He really is a part of our family. Other times, we don’t even think twice about it and go about our lives with our renovated family feeling exactly like home.
It has been over a year since our son moved in. The biggest adjustment has been with our daughter, who struggled with the idea of having a big brother instead of a baby brother and of no longer being an “only.” We’ve pushed, stretched, pulled and shifted together, and we found the right configuration.
“I want a baby sister,” my daughter said the other day.
“I want a baby brother!” my son exclaimed.
I thought for a moment, and then said, “Well, maybe…”