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Catholic Adoptive Parenting Columnist Heidi Hess Saxton

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by Laura Christianson (Harvest House Publishers)

There are some experiences and challenges that nearly all adoptive parents face. Dealing with paperwork and home studies and legal maneuvering. Scrambling for the necessary fees and other expenses … and waiting, waiting, and more waiting. Then there are the questions.

“How should we pick an agency?”

“When should we tell family and friends?”

“What kinds of physical, mental, and emotional challenges can we handle?”

Whether you are on your first adoption or your third (or more), there are times when you can use a helping hand and understanding ear. Laura Christianson’s The Adoption Decision is an excellent resource to help you wade through the myriad decisions that need to be carefully, thoughtfully made.

Her second book, The Adoption Network, has a slightly different focus. This book is primarily for those who want to help couples considering adoption (as well as others within the adoption “triad,” including birth or first parents and adult adoptees. These groups are usually run as a parish or other small group outreach. If your church or faith community does not already offer such a group, this book is a useful resource to teach you how to start one yourself.

Although both books are written from an Evangelical Christian perspective (in which large churches break down into smaller groups, based on age or other key demographic, as a means of evangelization), both books offer a strongly faith-based perspective on the unique blessings and challenges of adoptive parenting. Well worth reading.


When Moms Grieve: The Dark Side of Adoption

In I Kings 3:16 we find a story of King Solomon that is often used to demonstrate his wisdom. Two babies were put to bed one night; the next morning, one of them was dead. The mothers – women of questionable repute – each claimed the living infant was hers. Solomon instructed that the baby be cut in two, and half given to each woman. One woman agreed – and the other immediately begged the king to give the live infant to her opponent. Solomon then handed the child to the woman who was willing to surrender her child rather than see him come to harm.

Many people suppose – as King Solomon must have – that the woman who protested was the natural mother of the infant. In adoption circles, birth mothers are told this story to facilitate relinquishment – that if they really love their child, they will follow through on their adoption plan no matter what, rather than see the child come to harm. You can read one such story here:

The thing is, one need not be biologically connected to a child to love him or her, to want to do everything possible to protect him or her. Nor does the physical fact of carrying a child automatically hardwire a woman with motherly sensibilities – if that were true, abortion would not be the scourge on our society that it now is. If it were true, women would not abuse or neglect their children, thereby rendering CPS obsolete.

Reading the Solomon story with the eyes of an adoptive parent, it seems just as plausible that the bereaved mother would have been more likely – not less – to see to the second child’s safety. Not because she had carried the child in her body, but because she had witnessed the natural mother’s indifference and the child’s need from the beginning, and so had begun to carry that child in her heart.

Adoption’s Darker Side

In our eagerness encourage families considering adoption, we must not give in to the temptation to gloss over the “dark side” of adoption. The article above touches upon one of these shadows: The painful stereotyping that casts us alternately as brave angels who take unwanted children – or privileged, narcissistic child stealers who coldly and forcibly strip poor, defenseless women of their rights as mothers. (The latter is more and more prevalent lately, as birth parent support and advocacy groups have come to the forefront.)

In reality, neither stereotype is accurate. We are not “brave angels” but regular people who sometimes struggle to turn the legality of adoption into reality – and are sometimes resentful when the reality does not immediately (or in some cases, ever) include a seamless storybook ending. This is especially true for those who adopt older children – who may never completely resolve their feelings about losing their first parents. And yet, it is precisely this group that is most in need of patience, understanding … and a family who loves them.

Neither do we fit the second, selfish stereotype. This reality provides a necessary counterpoint to those who insist on bad-mouthing adoptive parents. Yes, it is undoubtedly painful to make an adoption plan for a child. Yes, mothers who make these plans are all too often driven to it because of their own lack of resources – resources that in many cases the adoptive parents must have in order to adopt (foster-adoption being a notable exception to this rule). Yes, mothers reunited with children later in life may well find out that the child’s life was less than the idyllic experience they were told that child would receive with the adoptive couple. But this does not make adoptive parents “liars” any more than the birth mother is a “liar” for relinquishing what turns out to be a less-than-perfect child. You can’t always anticipate the curve balls of life – something that is equally true whether you’re adoptive family, biological family, or simply living on your own.

Post-Adoptive Depression Syndrome: The Silent Story

One of the first questions many people ask an adoptive parent (after “Where’d she come from? Where are her real parents?”) is, “Is it possible to love an adopted child as much as a ‘regular’ child?”

Most adoptive parents will immediately respond, “Of course.” Of course we love our children – just as all parents do. Sometimes that love comes easily – when the child is freshly washed and tucked away in bed, counting sugarplums. In those moments, parenting is one of life’s sweetest pleasures.

But sometimes – more often than we’d like to admit – that love is not a feeling, but a holding-on-by-the-fingernails choice. How could it be easy to love a chaos-creating, snot-spewing bundle of snarling rage? How could you not resent the fact that your efforts are unappreciated and resisted at every turn? How could you not feel as though you are being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the claustrophobic vortex of insurmountable neediness by a three-year-old insomniac and his openly defiant five-year-old sister?

Yes, you love them. But you don’t always like them very much.

These feelings of ambivalence are very common, particularly in adoptive mothers. One study indicates that PADS (Post-Adoption Depression Syndrome) afflicts as many as 65% of all adoptive mothers. For more information on this syndrome, go to or

This is the “dark side” most adoptive parents (myself included) find very hard to admit. Who would understand? After all, we CHOSE adoption! The needs of our child must supercede our own … isn’t that the very nature of parenting?

Well, yes, of course we know these things are true. If we didn’t, we couldn’t have gotten this far. We choose the gift … again and again and again we choose, just as every parent does. But unlike every other parent, we must struggle with some unique realities that natural parents need never consider.

While biological mothers bond physically with their children from the first moment they feel life stir within them, our bond forms (let’s just say it) artificially. Hopefully, deliberately, yes … but artificially nonetheless. Consequently, that bond must be continually maintained and sustained.

We don’t get to experience that child move within us before we have to deal with the super-sized toddler tantrums. We don’t experience the same kind of delivery (natural or any other kind), confirming that the child is truly a part of us. We don’t often get the solicitous interventions and supports of friends and family in those first few days and weeks after a child’s birth (though we get to experience the erratic sleep patterns of infancy, often for years). We don’t get to look into the child’s eyes … and see her Daddy looking back at us.

Later on, biological parents don’t have to steel themselves for the stormy seas of adolescence, when he turns on you one day and spits, “I don’t have to do what you say, you’re not my real mother.” They don’t have to worry about being renounced one day, after the child finally locates the parent he has perfected in his imagination. They won’t have to listen as the child rages at you for forcibly pulling him away from the parent who was clearly superior in every conceivable way.

It may not happen. We pray it never does. But each time we find ourselves unable to live up to the “perfect parent” image we promised the agency, part of us dies a little – and worries about the consequences of our failings down the road. Yes, all parents feel inadequate from time to time – but most of them don’t feel an invisible third party in the wings, keeping score.

Four Important Lessons on Adoption

Why am I telling you all this? Am I trying to dissuade you from becoming an adoptive parent? Not at all. There are many, many happy moments in adoptive parenting, and life lessons that you would not be able to learn any other way. God created the human soul to give itself in love, a well that swells and spills over many times, contrasting those dark moments with times of indescribable contentment. Even joy.

But if those dark moments come, it’s better to acknowledge the reality than stuff it inside. There will be times you must put your own needs first, to have the resources you need to tend to your child. You may need to consider arranging for a few hours – or perhaps even more than a few hours – of childcare simply to get the perspective you need to continue on the road you have chosen.

For us, it meant using the subsidy money the State gave us for daycare, so I could keep working and writing. Not because it was immensely profitable (it wasn’t), but because it kept me sane, so I could tend to the children’s needs the rest of the time. I was sometimes criticized for this choice – the harshest critics were people who knew us only casually. And there are times when I have to admit that I still could have been more patient, more giving, more available.

But if I had it to do over again, would I? The answer is, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that somehow we made it through three harrowing years of foster care, until the adoption came through. It took daycare and depression meds, but we made it.

In the process, I learned four important lessons about adoption the hard way:

1. The greatest challenge of adoption is balancing the needs of the whole family.
2. The fact that those on the perimeter don’t understand or approve of your choices, doesn’t necessarily make them bad choices.
3. Mid-course correction is often a better choice than indecision.
4. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Trust God to make up the difference between what the children need, and what you are able to give.

Copyright 2007 Heidi Hess Saxton

Heidi Hess Saxton and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two former foster children. Heidi is editor of "Canticle" magazine (, a publication of Women of Grace ( A convert to the Catholic faith since 1994, Heidi is a graduate student of theology and a voracious blogger for writers (the "Silent Canticle": http:\\ and adoptive parents (http:\\ She also likes to write about small miracles (http:\\ and what she's learned from other people, traversing the miles around the world and across her bookshelves. Her website is

Heidi's latest book, Raising Up Mommy: Virtures for Difficult Mothering Moments, will be available in November through Simon Peter Press (

Would you like to receive Heidi's column by email?  Send a message to Heidi.


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Adoption Resources:
These resources have been recommended by our readers.  To suggest a link or book, email [email protected] with your suggestion.

Helpful Links:

*Several readers have recommended local DHS and Catholic Charities for adoption resources. 

Little Flowers Foundation

Catholic Charities USA

National Council for Adoption

Priests for Life Alternatives to Abortion Resource Page

US Department of Health and Human Services

National Adoption

Information Clearinghouse

Catholic International Adoptive Parents Yahoo Group


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