Becoming a Grandparent Through Adoption
5 tips to help you prepare as you wait for the new arrival
Bonnie Boreson was thrilled when her daughter announced that she and her husband were planning to grow their family through adoption. Already a grandparent by her older son, Boreson was no stranger to the joys of waiting for a baby.
New to her was the anxiety she experienced in the first few days after her grandson’s birth in 2012, when her daughter and son-in-law were caring for him in an Oregon hospital. As in most states, Oregon prohibits a birth mother from relinquishing parental rights until she has recovered from the immediate effects of the birth, giving her an important opportunity to be certain about her decision.
“I worried about the heartbreak if she changed her mind,” says Boreson, 66, of Tucson, Ariz. “They were already attached to this little baby.”
While exact adoption figures are difficult to track, the Virginia-based National Council for Adoption (NCFA) cites experts who estimate that nearly one in three Americans has been personally touched by adoption in some way. Still, the process — with its often excruciating waits and myriad of unknowns — can intimidate the uninitiated.
Here are five tips to help you prepare for, and support, your child’s adoption journey toward parenthood:
1. Educate Yourself
Prospective adopting parents receive mandatory education on adoption regardless of whether they go through the state-administered foster care system or a private agency or attorney who facilitates inter-country or domestic infant adoptions. Grandparents are rarely included in these formal education programs, but there are many resources to demystify the process.
Steffany Aye, founder and director of Adoption & Beyond, an agency that facilitates adoptions in Kansas and Missouri, recommends the prospective adoptive couples she works with gift their families a copy of In On It: What Adoptive Parents Would Like You to Know about Adoption.
Most prospective parents are happy to calm fears, debunk myths, and explain the correct language of adoption, a crucial way to fight stereotypes.
Its author Elisabeth O’Toole, an adoptive mother of three, explains the paperwork, the role of social workers, how parents might handle privacy issues and the unknowns of a child’s medical and social history.
Aye also encourages eager grandparents to simply ask questions of their children. Most prospective parents are happy to calm fears, debunk myths and explain the correct language of adoption, a crucial way to fight stereotypes. For example, a birth mother, rather than a “real mother,” makes an adoption plan for a child, rather than “gives the child up.” The NCFA’s adoption terminology chart is a handy resource for learning the lingo.
2. Open Your Heart
Among the most significant changes in U.S. adoption culture over the past few decades is the promotion of open adoptions, in which birth parents maintain some degree of contact with the child and the adoptive parents. Multiple studies compiled by the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway over the last decade indicate that openness helps children develop a healthy sense of identity and process any feelings of loss. Most adoptive parents also prefer openness because the child’s birth parents can offer a biological and historical connection that they cannot, says Ryan Hanlon, vice president of NCFA.
“Open adoption has grown since the 1980s to the point that I don’t know of any organization that promotes closed adoption,” Hanlon says. “Still, grandparents might wonder, ‘Will my child be hurt by this? Do I have to share my grandchild with even more grandparents?’”
In reality, children are capable of loving multiple adults, and the more people available to reciprocate, the better, according to Aye.
Adoption & Beyond explains a healthy adoptive-birth family relationship as similar to that of in-laws in a marriage.
“When you married your spouse, you accepted someone else’s child and extended family,” Aye says. “Some relatives you get along with really well and some you don’t, but these are all people who love your spouse.”
3. Have Patience
Waiting for a new grandchild is difficult, no matter how he or she joins your family.
“It’s so much harder for adoption than a pregnancy,” says Hanlon, whose fourth child was adopted from China in 2018. “The advantage of a pregnancy is we have a pretty known timeline. It could happen earlier, but it’s not like we expect it to be forty weeks and it ends up being eighty weeks. In adoption, we could expect a year and it takes two.”
Boreson has experienced both extremes in the adoption timeline. Her daughter and son-in-law’s first adoption was unusually fast; they brought their son home a month after first meeting with an attorney. After adding another child to their family by birth in 2014, they worked through an agency to adopt their third child from South Korea. That process, from filing the application to meeting their son, took nearly two years.
The waiting period is the perfect time to begin preparing your home, especially if the child is likely to be an infant or have special medical needs. For an inter-country adoption, Hanlon suggests learning about the child’s native culture and picking up a few phrases of his or her first language.
4. Follow the Leader
It’s normal for grandparents to want to jump in and help their children prepare for a new arrival. Just as with a pregnancy, it’s important to let the adopting parents lead the way. Hanlon discourages constantly asking for updates or planning a baby shower without asking permission.
When Don Ray of Ronan, Mont., learned that his son and daughter-in-law were pursuing adoption, the 61-year-old hosted garage sales to raise funds and pitched in the same way he had before each of his sons welcomed their first babies.
"The hardest, hardest thing for me in Korea was that I could not hold him," Boreson says. "I understood, but it killed me."
“With any child, there’s a lot to prepare for,” Ray says. “Frankly, they need moral support and maybe some elbow grease to help them get the house ready.”
As the placement gets closer, talk about the plans for the child’s arrival. Adoption counselors often recommend that parents adopting a non-infant initially be the sole caregivers for the child in order to establish trust. This can be difficult for eager grandparents, as Boreson discovered. She happily traveled to South Korea to care for her two older grandchildren while their parents focused on the third, an 18-month-old boy.
“The hardest, hardest, hardest thing for me in Korea was that I could not hold him,” Boreson says. “I understood, but it killed me.”
5. Respect the Story
Every child who joins a family through adoption has a history that includes deeply personal choices and often difficult circumstances. While it is natural to want to know as much about your new grandchild as possible, most social workers advise parents not to share any more than the essential details of their child’s and birth parents’ stories, even with their closest family members, until the child is old enough to understand and make his or her own choice regarding what to share.
That won’t stop curious friends and neighbors from asking questions. In In On It, O’Toole’s advice is to make sure any answer is one you’d be comfortable with the child hearing, and reflects positively on adoption.
“This is the child’s story and it’s not your story to share,” Aye says. “There are ways you can educate people about adoption without having to share the specifics of your grandchild’s story.”