On Your Own
An Interview with Lee Varon
By Allison Martin
Lee Varon, Ph.D., MSW, has worked in the adoption field for over two decades. She is a single adoptive parent of two children - José (age 18) and Julia (age 6). She is the Director of the Adoption Network, a counseling and consulting agency. For many years she has conducted workshops for single people considering adoption. In October, 2000 she published Adopting on Your Own: The Complete Guide to Adopting as a Single Parent.
What inspired you to write Adopting On Your Own?
My inspiration for writing the book came from the hundreds of single people I've worked with. For many years I led workshops for single people who were exploring adoption. Not all the people I worked with became parents but all of them worked hard to make the decision regarding parenting. At the end of many of these workshops, people would often say, "You should write a book about this process". So finally, I did! Basically, the book follows a workshop format and, hopefully, guides people in making the decision that's right for them.
What did you learn from writing this book?
In the process of writing the book I learned that writing is almost as hard a job as parenting! But not quite. The book was a finite project, parenting never ends. I think the other thing it clarified for me is the many aspects that go into making a thoughtful, informed decision around adoption. There are aspects that are logistical and practical like deciding which type of adoption is right for you, but the more difficult aspects are the emotional ones. For example, looking at the type of person you are, your goals, how parenting will affect your life and then deciding whether to go forward. In the book, I offer many exercises to help people focus on these issues.
What special challenges do single adoptive parents face? How can these be addressed?
To a large degree, single adoptive parents face the same challenges as couples. Just as couples have the usual challenges of parenting, and then the added layer of adoption issues, so do single people. However, there are some unique challenges that singles face. First, in going through the decision-making process, singles don't always find they have the support of family, friends and the larger community in the same way that many couples have. Even when there is support there is often another dimension, a subtext below the surface, which questions the decision. It can be summed up in phrases you often hear such as "Do you really think you can handle this?" "Are you being fair to the child you will adopt?" Sometimes people are not so polite. They may be quite blunt about telling you you're nuts to consider adopting on your own.
Couples don't often hear such unsolicited comments. While it's true there may be some genuine concern about a single person embarking on such an enormous undertaking, there are also a host of other emotions that come into play. For example, you may stir up a friend's unresolved issues about parenting, or they may feel threatened that your energy and attention will become focused on a child and exclude them.
Because single people often need to strategize around how they will deal with others reactions, I devoted an entire chapter of my book to this subject. I strongly urge people to find a safe, supportive environment in which to discuss their decision to adopt. We need support but we also need realistic feedback. We need to challenge ourselves and be challenged to consider all the dimensions surrounding this decision. Sometimes, an adoption support group is the best place to find this.
Once you make the decision to adopt and bring a child home, people are often more accepting. Then, however, other challenges ensue. Broadly speaking, you can divide these challenges into 3 main sections: Financial, logistical and emotional. The bottom line is that most single people are raising their families on one person's income, with one person's emotional energy. Logistically, you will have one set of hands to do all the work. It involves a lot of juggling. In addition, you as parent must provide both structure/discipline and nurturing. This can be a daunting task. My son often told me that I wasn't firm enough because I wanted so much to be seen as nurturing. Sometimes, being the good parent means being the "tough guy" and this doesn't come naturally for many of us.
In my book, I've tried to help people look realistically at their situation in terms of finances, logistics and their emotional make-up. What may be a sacrifice for one person in any of these areas is not for another. One person doesn't mind cutting back on those vacations, on the freedom they have to go meet a friend for coffee at a moment's notice. They may welcome the inevitable noise and, at times, confusion and even chaos of a home with children. Whereas this may be much harder for someone else. It's important to assess for yourself how comfortable you are making the inevitable tradeoffs in all of these areas - financially, logistically, emotionally.
People often ask me if you can have a social life and even date after you adopt. What I've found and what I've seen among many other single adoptive parents, is that in the first few years you may be so focused on your child that you don't have the extra emotional energy for much of a social life. However, I do believe that if this is important to you there are ways to incorporate it into your life. One thing that helps is to consciously set up a solid support network. Often this will involve connecting with other parents and trading off childcare. Other single adoptive parents can often be a strong spoke in wheel of your support network.
If you do date, it is essential that you communicate with your child. They need to be reassured that your love for them will not change or diminish if you are involved with someone. Help them to understand that you love them and you also want to have time to be with your own friends. Whether you are dating or just going out with friends, I believe it is important that children see us making time for ourselves and the things that are important to us. If you want to paint, take a yoga class, join a book club, or just go to the movies with a friend, try to make sure to make this a priority. As one single adoptive mother put it, "You need to make sure you put your own interests on your To Do list." Taking this time for you is a way of modeling healthy self-care for your children.
What is critical for people who are adopting either cross racially or multicultural adoptions to consider?
I think when I adopted back in the early 80's, I was naive and I didn't give this the consideration I should have. I ended up playing catch up later on. My son is Latino. At the time, El Salvador was one of the few countries that allowed single parents to adopt. I felt thrilled to be able to adopt an 8-month old baby. Later on I began to realize the multicultural dimension of our family was something I really needed to pay more attention to. Fortunately, I lived in a diverse community with many resources. I think it is important that our children feel they have other people of the same race/ethnic background with whom they can interact and identify with. I encourage people to consider moving if they are adopting a child of color and they live in a neighborhood and in a school district which is all white. I also think it is important that if we adopt a child from another race that we be actively seek to broaden our own world and the people we socialize with and have contact with. Fostering our child's self esteem is one of our most important roles as parents. A child needs to feel comfortable and accepting of all the pieces of themselves. This includes their racial/ethnic/cultural background. Just as we, as adoptive parents, need to be aware of the extra layer of issues our children deal with regarding adoption, similarly we need to help our children deal with the issues that arise in being in a multicultural family. Myra Alperson who is a single adoptive mother has written a great book (Dim Sum, Bagels, and Grits: A Sourcebook for Multicultural families) which covers many of the issues multicultural families face.
In your book you mention that 25% of special needs children are adopted by single parents. What advice do you have for parents considering special needs adoption?
In some ways I agree with people who say that all adoptions are "special needs". This is true simply because I think all adopted children are going to be dealing with the core issues of adoption throughout their life span and this creates some issues that will need to be addressed.. I often refer to the work of Joyce Maguire Pavao (The Family of Adoption) who speaks of "normative crisis" in the developmental process of adopted children. Pavao provides useful frameworks for understanding adoption issues. Many of these issues concern loss and identity.
Usually, children who are termed "special needs" are dealing with these same issues but in addition they are usually dealing with some extra things. They may be dealing with a mental or physical disability. They may be dealing with issues stemming from emotional abuse or neglect. In my book, I give an overview of these issues and the different types of special needs. Sometimes, a person feels comfortable dealing with a physical disability but may have trouble with other disabilities and visa versa. It is important to think carefully about the type of child you can best parent and to be honest with yourself in making this decision.
Don't feel pressured into adopting a child if something doesn't feel right. While I believe ambivalence is normal and even healthy in the process leading toward adoption, there needs to be a sense that the adoption is right for you. I remember reading that the single best predictor of whether an adoption was successful was the parent's feeling of rightness about the adoption. It is important with any adoption, whether special needs or not, to feel the sense that somehow this is meant to be your child.
The main thing I would strongly advise people considering special needs adoption is to get as much information as they can. Spend time with parents who have special needs children, and use the Internet to learn more about special needs adoption. Try to realistically assess what you can handle. Make sure you are aware of the financial dimension and make sure you put in place a good support network.. Support will be crucial both for you and your child.
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