Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Welcome to the Island, Part II

At the end of my last post, I left two adoptive moms alone on an island. But I couldn't stand the misery. So I gave them their travel calls and sent them home to Alaska and to Iceland with their children.

I'm happy to report, a year later, both are doing well. Even the mom from Alaska. Because she didn't have skin cancer. She only thought she did. She had sunburn, much more severe than her friend from Iceland. Both moms came to the island at the same time and from similar circumstances. But there was one significant difference.

In Iceland, as part of the pre-adoption preparation series, parents were required to attend a class called "What to Expect When You're Waiting." Adoption professionals and a panel of seasoned parents talked about the liklihood and effects of anitcipated exposure to much more sun than anyone was accustomed to. They talked about how to cope with tropical weather and demonstrated the hands full of sunscreen it takes to minimize the effects of constant sun exposure. They also discussed the warning signs of over-exposure and what to do when parents feel like they are stuck on an island and can't get off.

The mom from Alaska was prepared ahead of time for many other important things: honoring racial and cultural diversity; possible open relationships with birth family; the range of ways children attach to parents and parents attach to kids. But blindsided by situational anxiety during her wait to travel, the best she could do was reach for a coping tool that pre-dated adoption: sunscreen. But having spent her entire life in a climate where "wearing sunscreen" meant a dab on her index finger wiped on her nose and cheeks, in the tropics she faithfully applied sunscreen many dabs-on-one-finger at a time over her whole body. Her belief that she was wearing sufficient sunscreen was incompatible with the most logical explanation for her patchy red skin: sunburn. So her mind passed over that possibility. She became convinced she had skin cancer because that explanation matched what she observed with her eyes and what she was experiencing emotionally: that something was very wrong.

Remember: nothing was really wrong except that she was unprepared for the stresses of a very different environment. But no one had cautioned her that her everyday coping skills might not be suited for the places her adoption journey might take her. She had not been given the opportunity, while she was still in her right mind, to develop a contingency plan. She could not calm her anxious thoughts by reminding herself that under the circumstances, it was normal to feel helpless, out of control and vulnerable. Having no idea that her feelings, in this case, were misleading, she concluded she was dying.

The irony is that studies show that people who adopt Internationally are older, better educated and more highly employed than average. That means those who may be most likely to find themselves transported to the island may be the very same people who are less equipped to cope with it. Let me take each of those points apart:
  • Older. It has been longer since someone else (like a parent) had more control over us than we have over ourselves. We're used to being independent. Adoption makes us dependent. But worse than being dependent upon someone we know, like a parent, adoption makes us dependent on relative strangers (those in the adoption system) and complete strangers (in a foreign culture overseas).
  • Better Educated. Having a graduate degree is completely ordinary in International adoption circles. (My apologies here to domestic adopters. This might be true for you, too. I'm limiting my statement to the research I have read, not suggesting domestic adopters are second class!) We naturally assume that if we read a dozen books, attend ten lectures and scour the Internet for information so thoroughly that we can predict the links Google will recommend, we will have mastered the subject.
  • More highly employed. This is closely related to better educated. We are accustomed to running the show. People report to us. Others depend on us. Systems operate because we designed them and because we see that everything required happens. When the system stops working well, we change something and it improves again. We are very good at what we do. (All of these things are true even for those of us who do not work outside the home. The proof is in our home studies!) Adoption places us at the mercy of someone else's system. We don't have enough information to appreciate why the system is set up as it is. Our ability to obtain such information is limited and our ability to effect change in the system is even more limited.
Thus far I have identified two things that may make some waiting adoptive parents vulnerable to higher levels of Situational Anxiety during the adoption wait:
  • Lack of awareness of and education about SAA.
  • Older/better educated/highly employed
But there are other factors that, in my experience, predispose some waiters to higher levels of SAA:
  • Coincidental life events like: relocation, death or prolonged illness of a family member, temporary separation from a spouse (like due to a job assignment, frequent business travel, or deployment) ; job stress (for self or spouse)
  • Having had a previous traumatic adoption experience (either experienced a high level of SAA or experienced other trauma like losing a referred child after acceptance)
  • Program changes (and the number of such changes) which significantly readjust expectations during the wait.
  • Longer wait times.
That last point prompted this series on SAA and I will devote the next post to it.

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