Defining Family

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November is National Adoption Month, and I thought it might be the perfect time to share an update on our adoption journey. While year one was mostly spent navigating new territory, which made the year both beautiful and overwhelming all at the same time, year two has been spent settling into our new “normal.” For us to get there, we have had to find time for healing and redefining our family. Let me explain…

Ian has the most beautiful mind. He is inquisitive and a big thinker. Every car ride is filled with questions, observations, and more questions. Often one idea bounces to another and yet another. Ian also has endless energy much like a bouncing rubber ball filled with joy, sunshine, and sprinkled with stardust. However, when you put all of this inside of a box like a structured school day or a martial arts lesson, it looks a lot like ADHD. It’s not

Ian is excited for his first day of 3rd grade. Photo Credit: Proud Mom

It is, however, a brain that has experienced trauma from years of living in an institutional setting where all of your basic needs are not always met and from suffering significant losses. Fortunately, the brain can heal and grow. The fancy term for this is neuroplasticity and understanding this growth mindset has been a key component to Ian’s academic success, social-emotional development, and us becoming a family.

How does parenting from a trauma-informed perspective look different? For me, it has been three important approaches:

Ian inspecting shells on the rocky seashore of Maine. Photo Credit: Proud Mom
  1. Creating space. I try to create space for Ian to have some quiet time each day. I try to create space for him to talk about what is on his mind. I try to create space for hurt or angry feelings, and I try to create space for hugs and physical closeness. 
  2. Addressing sensory needs.I try to limit over-stimulating situations, especially if he is tired. I also let Ian know his schedule ahead of time, notifying him of any changes in it, and giving him a heads up on transitions. Additionally, I plan extra time for transitions and always have healthy snacks. I make it a priority that he is hydrated and well-fed. (We all function better when we are not hangry.) I make sure he exercises daily and gets to bed early. In fact, he loves the predictability of his bedtime routine where he gets his clothes out for the next day, takes a shower, and then cuddles while being read a bedtime story.
  3. Advocating for Ian.This is the hardest task for me because it means I have to get into some uncomfortable conversations with people who care about Ian but may not fully understand the complexity of his needs or situation. At home, it may mean changing a family tradition or vacation plans. At school, it might be asking for more services or holding providers accountable. With friends, it might be reminding them that I am Ian’s “real mom” and that his biological mom (a term they need to add to their vocabulary) loved him dearly. 

As the healing has taken place for Ian, we have also been able to focus on redefining who we are as a family. It has meant “Family Meetings” where we problem-solve on issues like chores, teasing each other, or how to get ready for school on time. Some of the redefining even comes in the form of scheduling events together like family movie nights or game nights. And a lot of it has been spending time outside together. Mother Nature has a lot of healing power.

Taking a break during a coastal hike. Photo Credit: Seth Stratton

For example, in July, we headed to the coast of Maine for a few days of camping. We stayed in tents, built campfires to roast marshmallows, and went on lots of hikes exploring the rocky inlets of Casco Bay. During one of our hikes, we spotted two dozen horseshoe crabs huddled along the shoreline. With closer examination, we realized that they were mating while some lonely crabs were jockeying for a mate. We stood there watching in amazement, wondering about the event, and asking each other questions about what we saw. Later in the evening, we sat on rocks observing seagulls hovering high above craggy ledges with clams in their mouths. They would then drop the clams to crack them on the ledges below and then finally swoop down to grasp the exposed meat in their beaks. We cheered when they were successful and empathized with the gulls who, after much effort, lost their meat to a larger more dominant gull.

Nolan, Caitlin, and Ian crabbing from the dock in Maine. Photo Credit: Proud Mom
Nolan, Caitlin, and Ian roasting marshmallows in Maine. Photo Credit: Proud Mom

As you can see, this second year has been filled with lots of small moments where we have slowed down to connect, heal, and build something new. We will all admit that what we are building is not perfect and the process is often messy. But… it is us weaving our lives together. It is how we define our family.

To submit your story and photos email: kbernstein@whfc.org

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