An adoptive father shares about deciding to pursue older child adoption, his son Eric, and how adopting an older child may be right for you and your family.
Our 6-month old baby seems to be growing at a healthy rate. In the past 6 months, he’s grown about 5 centimeters. He has a healthy appetite and has gained 10 pounds. Last week his voice cracked and he’s showing the typical signs of pre-adolescence. All normal healthy development signs for a baby…right? Perhaps I should mention that our 6-month old baby is actually a 12-year-old boy whom we adopted from China last November. He is our son, Eric, and we can’t imagine life without him.
His favorite activities are surfing, swimming, playing basketball and going camping. He enjoys music, but not as much as playing Mario Kart. He’s extremely bright and has a good head for problem solving and is a real hands-on kinesthetic learner. His strongest subject is math and he’s interested in all kinds of science. He’s not fond of reading and he thinks writing is a tedious chore. He doesn’t care for most vegetables and he thinks broccoli is a terrible punishment. He probably reminds you of a lot of children you know.
I guess it’s time to rewind a bit. If we go back just a couple years ago, I didn’t envision myself adopting an older child. I wasn’t against older child adoption, in fact, I always thought that adopting an older child would be a great thing to do — but I always thought it would be a great thing for other families to do, and not necessarily us. I figured older child adoption was something more properly considered by families who already had older children and had experience parenting past the age of the adopted child. That just makes sense, doesn’t it? Now you may be wondering, ‘what happened?’
If we go back more than 12 years ago, even before we were married, my wife and I always talked favorably about adoption. We figured we would have some biological children first and then get to work on adoption once we were fairly well established. The biological children never came and ‘fairly well established’ has always been an elusive concept for us, especially as our employment and continuing education have prompted us to live and work in several different states and even Japan for awhile. Amidst all these life adventures, our desire to have children never diminished and we often talked about adoption. We attended conferences, read books, talked with adoptive parents and even started the application process while living in Japan and the U.S. Our reasons for never completing the process before always included a lack of funding and the fact that we always knew we would be moving soon in pursuit of more education or a new job. Still, we figured that if we could ever adopt, we would first adopt an infant or toddler. That just makes sense for new parents, doesn’t it? So, what actually did happen?
It happened in December of 2014. My wife was looking at the waiting child list on Holt’s website. She saw the face of our son and she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “He needs to be in our family.” I admit that I didn’t receive the same inspiration right at that moment, but I had been prepared in other ways by then to accept the idea of older child adoption. Earlier that year my wife showed me a blog written by a family who had adopted a number of older children. I was impressed with this family, but what impressed me the most was reading an entry by their son who was adopted from Russia at the age of 14. In his own broken English, he wrote about how grateful he was to have a family and how much that meant to him. His words struck a real chord with me and I began to think much more positively towards older child adoption.
Of course I had my fears. It’s not worthwhile listing them as I know they are the same fears held by many people. Essentially, I wondered whether an older child would even want to be adopted by us. Years of childlessness can erode the confidence and self-esteem of even the mightiest hearts. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, I was worried.
And then we saw Eric — and all my worries and our circumstances and reasons for not adopting before didn’t seem to matter. Of course they still mattered and we had to come to terms with and deal with these concerns, but we’re very grateful to everyone who supported us and especially to God for opening the doors at long last to make our adoption possible and bring Eric home to us.
Now that Eric is home, I feel I need to tell everyone how great older child adoption can be! Of course there are challenges, but there are also amazing experiences. Just for starters — and bear with me if this seems too superficial at first — but adoptive parents need to be prepared to catch joy as it flies and can’t expect things to be a certain way at first. Anyway, for fathers who like to be outside, but they need a good excuse to take time away from work, it’s kind of cool being able to take your “newborn” out to play a game of basketball or throw a Frisbee around. For the kid in you that never quite grew up, it’s also fun to have a good excuse to play Mario Kart. We’ve also had some great conversations. It’s amazing seeing the world through his eyes and the pleasure that he takes in seeing things around him. He increases my own appreciation for the wonder of God’s creations — whether that’s ocean waves, the stars in the sky or trees swaying in the wind.
Do we wish we could have had our son when he was an infant or toddler? Of course we do!!! Although sociable and very talkative, especially when he should be talking less and doing something like eating his broccoli or going to sleep, our son is also very private and doesn’t want to talk about his experiences growing up in China. We respect his privacy and try to show respect for his identity by giving him the option of being called either by his Chinese or American name. He says it doesn’t matter to him, so for now we are calling him by his Chinese name out of respect for his accumulated life experiences and sense of self. He also has opportunities to meet and talk with Chinese students on campus. We will welcome any information about his growing up years when/if he feels comfortable sharing it with us. There are many things that we want to know about him and there are so many life experiences that we wish we could have shared with him while he was growing up. Is this something that might discourage you from older child adoption? Don’t let it discourage you. Your child is no less your child simply because of what you don’t know about their past. When you adopt with the right intent, your child will be your child for now and forever.
Are you worried about missing out on so many of your child’s “firsts” in life? First steps? First tooth? First words? This is understandable, but there will also be so many firsts when you adopt an older child. Our child never went swimming in his life until the hotel swimming pool when we were still in China. With a parent holding his hands, and some floaties around his arms, he bobbed up and down in the water with a puzzled expression on his face. Now, he swims like a fish and he thinks that being on top of a surfboard is being on top of the world. As a polio survivor, our son is in a wheelchair for now. At the time of his adoption, he had very little muscle tone in his right leg and virtually no muscle tone in his left leg — at least none was detected until we once saw him move his big toe a fraction of a millimeter. We encouraged him to keep trying and now he can flex all his toes on his left foot. This was a big “first” that we shared together. The swimming also seems to have given him some strength in his leg that wasn’t evident before. We’re very hopeful that someday we will be able to celebrate his first steps together as he starts to walk unassisted.
There will also be some firsts that you would never expect from an older child. For children who have been institutionalized all of their lives and have never known the security of having parents who are devoted to them, they’ve been forced to grow up prematurely and have never experienced a number of cognitive developmental stages that most people take for granted. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that games like hide-and-seek and other games connected with younger children are actually really fun for our son right now. Imagine conversations that go like this: “Mama!” “Yes?” “Mama!” “Yes!” “Mama!” “Eric!” “Mama!” “I love you.” Imagine a 12-year old reaching out and holding your hand for reassurance in public, or even placing himself on your lap or resting his head on your shoulder. You probably didn’t do that when you were 12, especially not in public if your friends were anywhere around. And yet our son needs the reassurance that comes from knowing that our hands and laps and shoulders are always at his disposal if he needs them, and knowing that if he calls for us we will always answer. A big first for all of us. Your child might not do that, but still be prepared for some unexpected and precious firsts together.
Are you worried that with already so many years of life experience behind them, you and your adopted child might never see eye-to-eye or understand each other on a lot of important issues or share the same beliefs that you cherish? This is a valid concern that you will need to come to terms with even though we know this happens all the time with biological children, and so we’re happily bracing ourselves for a lifetime (and even ‘to infinity and beyond’) of negotiating disagreements and misunderstandings and working towards better mutual understanding in a spirit of love and respect.
If you’ve read this far and haven’t been turned off by what I’ve written, it’s because you understand that adoption is infinitely more about what you can give as opposed to what you hope to receive. Despite your doubts and worries and maybe even a lack of self-confidence, you can give a much better life than an institutionalized child would have without hope of parents or family.
My own feelings towards adopting an older child began to change as a result of reading the words of a 14-year-old boy whose life was changed for the good by adoption. Why not let our son speak for himself?
“If I was still in China, I wouldn’t have glasses, I wouldn’t have a new wheelchair, I wouldn’t have such good food, I wouldn’t have surfing or swimming or basketball, I wouldn’t have my church friends, I wouldn’t have camping…” Eric said these things to me a few weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon. I was working in the kitchen and he was seated at the dining room table and just talking to me with his usual happy chatter. Without any prompting from me, he started listing a very long list of things he was thankful for. I don’t remember all the things he said, but it was a long list of things he was grateful for. We’re grateful that God has allowed us to provide these opportunities for him. Life’s not perfect of course. Eric reminds us frequently that a family dog would make everyone’s life, especially his, a lot better. If asked for his honest opinion, Eric would probably say that he would much rather have a dog right now than a brother or sister, but we hope to be able to provide him with both a brother and sister as a result of older child adoption in the near future.
Consider older child adoption. Be as informed as you can, talk with those who have done it, and pray about it. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it may be for you. More importantly, infinitely more important, it is for the child – your son or daughter – who needs parents and a family who will always be there for them.
Tom Court | Holt Adoptive Dad