By Joni S. Mantell, L.C.S.W.
For many, the decision to pursue adoption comes after years of struggling with infertility. Letting go of the dream for a biological child and embracing your deepest wish - to become a parent - usually involves some emotional work, your own and also between you and your partner.
The fact is that partners often come to the decision to adopt at different times. While stressful, this makes sense when you consider that you are unique individuals with different feelings about the losses of infertility; fears, fantasies, stereotypes or prior experiences related to adoption.
Deciding to adopt can be hard on a marriage - Unlike problems for which one partner is naturally the caretaker for the other partner who is hurting, maybe over job stress, a health issue, etc. - family building choices impact both partners equally. Yet sometimes what would relieve one of you makes your partner more anxious.
In addition, this major life decision often occurs relatively early in a marriage and before couples have developed strong communication and mutual decision making skills. Given all this stress, it is not unusual for couples to reach a point in this process when they are not certain about how to move forward and sometimes even whether the relationship will survive it.
If you will be adopting as a couple, it is imperative to be on the same page. How do you get there? Start by understanding why your partner is not ready, and then use some time-tested tools to work toward a solution together.
The three most common reasons your partner may not be ready to adopt
(1). Your partner may need more time to grieve - And you may need to give your partner some time and space to work out his or her feelings.
Your styles of grieving probably differ based on your personalities or even gender-typical styles.
- Some people process the finality of grieving the biological child incrementally, during the last treatment cycles. Others have maintained hope throughout treatment and will experience their grief as a deep, more sudden and therefore overwhelming and immobilizing reaction.
- Your partner may need to consider other family building alternatives emotionally before committing to adoption, as he or she works through the different aspects of infertility loss: the conjoint child, genes, pregnancy, social concerns, etc.
- While women tend to talk, emote, repeat and seek validation for their feelings; some men withdraw or fill their time with lots of work, sports or house projects to help them with their grieving. Grief comes in many forms.
If you are concerned about your partner or your reaction to your partner's grief, or symptoms of depression exist for more than six months, seek help. A counselor trained in mental health and family building options can help to assess whether your partner is experiencing normal grief which just takes time to abate or is stuck in a stage of grief and would benefit from counseling. Once the grief is resolved you can usually move forward together in a much more mutual way.
(2). A need for education about adoption - Your spouse may know an unhappy adopted person; hold a negative adoption stereotype or hear about an adoption story that creates fear about moving forward.
Common myths or stereotypes about adoption tend to focus on these areas
- Who are birth parents and will they 'come back for the baby'
- How do adopted children feel about their adoptions
- Do adopted children have more problems
- The costs or stress of the adoption process
- Scams by adoption agencies or birth parents.
- And probably the greatest fear of people considering adoption is whether they will bond with their child and whether their child will bond with them. What will being an adoptive family feel like?
Frequently these fears can be allayed by speaking with some adoptive families, attending adoption conferences or workshops where you can hear the perspective of all adoption triad members - adoptive parents, birth parents, teens or adults who were adopted - learning about the methods, costs and timeframes of adopting; types of children available for adoption, etc. Many books, articles and adoption professionals can also help you to separate the myths from the realities about the adoption process and adoptive family life.
Take the time to get some education, to allay your partner's fears, and to help both of you to make sound and solid decisions for moving forward.
(3) Ambivalence about becoming a parent may surface. Partners may be surprised and devastated to learn that their spouse who was once so eager to have a biological child would consider being childfree by choice. This ambivalence is the hardest of the 3 reasons for reluctance for both partners to deal with. Yet in reflecting upon parenting at this point some people feel extremely ambivalent about devoting more time or effort to becoming a parent. Time passing and time to think may result in:
- Awareness of being older and wondering if they have different goals at this life stage.
- Reassessing the relationship with their partner and wanting to get that back to a happier place more than they want to parent at this point, or at least before they move on to adopting.
- If your partner had a difficult their relationship with one of their parents, he or she may begin to analyze whether they would even enjoy the parent-child relationship. Without the model of a fulfilling parent-child relationship to strive for, ambivalence about whether the work required becoming a parent through adoption is worth it.
A partner's ambivalence can seriously stress a marriage, especially if it follows years of hard work trying to become pregnant. The partner who wants to adopt may feel betrayed, unloved, depressed and/or angry. The ambivalent partner needs respect for the time needed to process their concerns.
Counseling by a counselor specializing in work with couples, infertility and/or adoption can often help couples understand each other perspectives and get on the same page fairly quickly. And there are things you can do to move the process along. Counseling with therapist with expertise in working with couples, and good knowledge of infertility and adoption may initially be difficult, but usually helps couples to get back on the same page fairly quickly.
Be proactive: Five Key Tools to Help Partners Resolve Family Building Differences
- Find out why: Consider the three most common reasons your partner may not be ready to adopt
- Give your partner some time and space: You are each an individual and will not process in identical ways.
- Get education: About adoption and about couples communication and decision-making skills
- Talk and Listen:
- Set aside some specific times to talk and agree to time-limited discussions on this topic.
- When you talk to each other, remember talking is not doing. Talking helps to increase understanding of each other which will eventually lead to a decision.
- In this kind of circumstance when one partner is reluctant and the other is ready and eager to get the process started, it helps for a couple to set a specific date at which they will discuss their decision-making. The partner who is ready needs to know that this will be resolved at some real point in the near future.
- Clearly if this does not happen, you have reached an impasse and counseling is indicated.
- Most important, try to recapture the joy in your relationship. Re-focus on why you chose each other and take some time to re-connect. Even though you are disagreeing and even upsetting each other, you will want to remind yourselves that you began this parenting journey because you love each other and wanted to form a family together. Amidst the stress of the family building crisis people may lose sight of this and relationships need time for healing as well. And the more you re-connect, the more solid the family foundation for the child you hope to adopt.
Joni Mantell, L.C.S.W. is a psychotherapist and Director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center. She is also a member of The American Fertility Association’s Adoption Advisory Council and a writer for Adoptive Families Magazine.