When my first siblings became part of my family through adoption, I envisioned sunshine, butterflies, and happiness all around. I could not wait until my brothers were home in my everyday life. I naively thought they were getting a precious gift of a family that they would be overjoyed to receive, and I knew I was getting the cutest little brothers in all the land. To be fair, I was a teenager when they came home, and it was almost two decades ago when no one was talking about trauma, attachment, or grief and loss in adoption. We had no clue what we did not know.
From almost the moment they became part of us, our collective reality erased the visions of sunshine and butterflies. We had to learn on our feet what trauma was, what it meant for our family, and how it would be a part of our lives for the rest of our lives. After it had already happened and too late to say goodbye to any of it, we had to grapple with the truth that we were all different; that adoption changed each of us and our whole family. I wish I could go back to that girl and that family and let them in on the secrets of being an adoptive family. To let her know that adoption is so complexly loss and gain, joy and sorrow, brokenness and healing that one cannot be separated from the other.
Maybe if we had been more prepared, more informed, or more aware, things could have been different. Maybe the change would have been less jarring. The trauma not as traumatic. The loss not as hollow. The despair not as sorrowful. The isolation not as lonely.
And maybe the laughter could have been even more infectious. The joy all-consuming. The healing even sweeter. The connection warmer. The beauty brighter. I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know. I walked for years in the silence of the secrets. No one knew what happened in our home because it was too vulnerable, too personal. What if someone believed my brothers were bad kids? What if someone thought my parents couldn’t care for them? What if the platitudes and well-meaning advice would make us feel even more alone? It was not worth it.
But this meant we had all those secrets in our family. No one knew. Not any of our family and friends. And while the professionals were given the information, they often did not believe it or had unhelpful ways to relieve it.
So we turned inward, holding all the stress and fear in our little bubble at home. You see, it was not just me, isolated and alone as a sibling of adoption, feeling all the effects of trauma, grief, and loss on me, my brothers, my parents, and my whole family. I could spend this entire post talking about the invisibility felt as a sibling of adoption – the member of the family no one sees, and everyone fails to understand is just as affected. But right now, what feels most important to acknowledge is the invisibility we all felt and the impact of that on all of us.
What adoptive families face is complex. It is messy and can even be downright chaotic. Professionals want to help but often have not received the training to really understand the complexity of the experience. It is not their fault; they rarely receive an education that includes anything adoption-related in their undergraduate or graduate work. Family and friends want to be supportive but often are clueless as to how to really relieve any stress. Which leaves adoptive families often turning to other adoptive families, and that, unfortunately often just leads to commiseration and no edification.
So here we tend to reside, stuck. Stuck in the isolation, fear, despair, hopelessness, or helplessness. I know it well; I walked through it in my family and guided countless other families through it afterward.
It is why I created Project 1025, an organization focused on pre- and post-placement support for foster and adoptive families, with a special homage to my brothers. My first brothers through adoption came home on October 25th. We had no clue what we did not know then. We lived in survival longer than we should have. Back then, I knew there was nothing I cared more about than children with histories like my siblings. When my next siblings came home through adoption, I realized I wanted to dedicate my career to helping families like my own. So, I did.
I became a post-adoption therapist and then went back to school for a doctorate degree so I could do research on adoptive siblings and create interventions to help families post-placement. I started speaking, writing, and training on all things related to adoption. I became a professor who taught students how to sit in the complexities that adoptive families can face. But my most meaningful work is coaching and counseling members of adoptive families as they navigate their realities and move toward change.
What I am absolutely certain of is that I do not want other families to sink into the same isolation my family faced when we all came home together on October 25th, many years ago. I want them to know there are so many people who get it, who see it, and who can truly help. You do not have to be alone in this.
A special thanks to Dr. Jana Hunsley for her guest blog post contribution!
Please note the Coalition for Children, Youth & Families does not recommend any individual mental health providers. The publication of this blog post should not be construed as an endorsement or recommendation of services.