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Catholic Adoptive Parenting Columnist Heidi Hess Saxton

Additional Catholic Mom Columns


Recommended Resource:  Raising Adopted Children: A Manual for Adoptive Parents by Lois Ruskai Melina (Harper Perennial, 1986). An updated edition is now available of this useful guide for adoptive parents. Some reviews pan the author’s treatment of infertility issues, pointing out that not all adoptions are the result of infertility. However, I found her observations about the expectations and assumptions that motivate adoptive parents to be insightful and, at least in my case, fairly accurate. This book is useful for parents of adolescent adoptees who are searching for (and, in many cases, mourning the loss of) their biological connections. Includes information on communicating challenging aspects of a child’s past in ways that are age-appropriate and supportive – yet truthful.

Are You Suffering From Parent Burnout?

In her book Raising Adopted Children, Lois Melina estimates that while about half the parents in the US suffer from some form of parent burnout, adoptive parents are especially at risk because they place higher expectations on themselves. Ironically, she says this form of burnout is less likely to occur in families that adopt large numbers of children, especially special-needs children. “They tend to have more realistic expectations and are aware of the limits of their children…. With disabled children, the more severe the handicap, the less likely the parent will burn out. Apparently, parents realize that the probability of substantial change is the child’s condition is slim, and they adjust their expectations accordingly” (pg. 90).

            As a foster and/or adoptive parent, we sometimes suffer from a compulsion to project a perfect family image at all costs. Those who did not receive unequivocal support from extended families and friends hesitate to voice any disappointments or disillusionments, for fear of having the confession fall on unsympathetic – or, worse, patronizing – ears. “I told you that it was too much, taking in someone else’s problems like that.” or, “I told you that it was unwise of you, a single woman, to adopt more than one child.”

            Other times, we are ruggedly determined not to admit defeat in the “nurture vs. nature” battle. We don’t want to concede that there may in fact be some behaviors or compulsions that are hotwired into our child’s genetic material that we will never be able to rub out, no matter how conscientious our efforts.

            Finally, we may have an over-developed sense of responsibility that will not allow us to admit that, despite our best intentions and efforts, we do not have it in us to give the child everything he or she needs, every moment he or she needs it. As time goes on, the warm and fuzzy moments of parenting grow farther and farther apart, beckoning like oases in the desert, separated by emotional storms, temper tantrums, and learning disorders. In reality, our children are louder, ornerier, messier, and more disrespectful than we ever imagined possible. And at the end of the day, we have no idea how they got that way – or what we can do to fix the problem.

            As time goes on, though, we realize that it is not our children but we ourselves who need to adjust -- our expectations, that is. We need to rejoice in the little victories, however glacial the pace at which they are achieved. We need to compare our children not against their peers, but against themselves, neither making excuses for unacceptable behavior nor setting the bar so high that the child feels he is worthy of love only to the extent that he attains perfection. Finally, we need to remind ourselves that parenthood is not about turning out carbon copies of ourselves, but about helping our children to attain their full potential as God created them to be, with all their unique abilities, gifts, and challenges. And that, in the process, we move ourselves a few steps up the heavenly trail, not (as some have suggested) because we are inordinately saintly for having taken these children into our homes and lives, but because they have become little pestles in the crucible of family life, grinding out our weaknesses one grainy imperfection at a time.   

Are you in the throes of “Mommy Burnout”? Here are some tips to help you through the rough patches. 

  • Take care of your own needs. This is not selfish, but essential – especially for adoptive and foster parents whose children require a higher level of supervision and interaction than most. You need time to pray and shower and eat and exercise and recharge your batteries. If you find yourself getting disproportionately or routinely angry and resentful, your resource levels may be getting dangerously low. Swap an hour or two with another mother, have your spouse spell you, or just buy the services of a reputable college student. Even if it means eating franks and beans a few nights a week, budget it into your weekly expenses. You need it.
  • Once a week, without fail, go on a date with your spouse (or if you’re single, a girls’ night out). Even if it’s just a pizza in front of the TV after the kids are in bed. Once a quarter, make it an over-nighter. Even if all you do is sleep, you will return home positively rejuvenated.
  • Lighten up. If you have a choice between screaming and laughing, go with laughing. If your three-year-old refuses to wear anything but tights pulled up to her armpits and a tiara, get out the camera and catch a pirouette. Your junior higher wants to dye his hair fuchsia? Offer to help him get the hard-to-reach places in the back. Leave room in life for silliness.
  • Start and sustain traditions. Foster and adoptive kids, even more than other children, need a sense of continuity and structure. Saturday morning pancakes, Sunday afternoon family walks, Tuesday night game nights, Friday rosaries… These are the touch points of family life, the little routines that give kids a sense of belonging that are not contingent on any achievement. (For optimal effect, these traditions should not be withheld for bad behavior.)
  • Prayer journal. On your computer or in a special little diary in your prayer nook, write down the things that are most pressing on your heart. Don’t forget to leave a space for God’s response to your prayer! Seeing how you get through the rough patches, in retrospect, is what strengthens your “faith muscle” for the next time!


Heidi Hess Saxton and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two children from the foster system. Heidi is editor of "Canticle" magazine, a publication of Women of Grace. A convert to the faith since 1994, Heidi is also a graduate student of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, and a frequent contributor to  Visit Heidi's blog at

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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

Helpful Books:




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