Dear Dr. Debbie,
My husband and I have taken in two-year-old twins! We’re super excited about this shift in family roles. We’ve known them since they were born, but the parents, who are family members, have proven to be unsuited. My middle school age daughter, until now, an only child, is thrilled to have more time with the babies.
Obviously I’ve been a mother before, but not of twins nor of children who have bounced around so much in their short lives. What should we be mindful of in the coming weeks and years?
Once Again But Different
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Congratulations on a new path in parenting! As the “mother figure,” you will be key to helping the children with the transition as you, your husband, your daughter, and other supportive family members and friends make this monumental shift. If you haven’t yet, think about the children’s names for yourself and your husband. “Aunty Ann” and “Uncle Bob” could become “Mommy Ann” and “Daddy Bob” and morph into “Mommy” and “Daddy” over time. Around age four children are sensitive to having a family structure that is different from the majority of their peers. At that time they may be most comfortable having a “Mommy” and a “Daddy” like everyone else.
Hold tightly to the routines, objects, places, and most of all, people that have been positive forces in the children’s lives. Something as seemingly trivial as the color of a cup or the label on a peanut butter jar reminds them that your home is where they have felt safe before. Hopefully they were able to bring some clothes and toys with them, so these too will be familiar and reassuring. If they enjoyed an attachment with a teacher or professional childcare provider, this relationship should be maintained even if the hours you need care are different than they had before. To the extent possible, try to maintain any friendships they have developed, by, of course, establishing a friendship with the playmates’ parents. Stability should be the goal for medical care as well, with the same provision, namely that the people and the place provided well for the children. You want to strive for keeping as much of their former lives intact as you can - the good parts, that is.
You may recall that life with a toddler can be exhausting. Two toddlers, more so. Your daughter and other family members, and perhaps some close friends, are part of the network that has sustained these little lives thus far. Likely this network is already actively involved in making this a smooth transition for everyone.
As the news spreads of your new arrivals, take up offers from friends and neighbors to be woven into your parenting support network. Accept offers for cooking, grocery shopping, and hedge trimming while you expend your energies more directly in meeting the children’s needs. As your twins get to know your social circle, they may happily accept these new faces as back up childcare when you have your own appointments or just need a refreshing nap.
As a new mother of twins there are tips to learn and to teach with other Mothers of Multiples. Use this special club to grow invaluable skills and relationships. I recall a knowing bumper sticker, “I used to have time. Now I have twins.”
Connecting to the Past
Although every adoption story is unique, there are common psychological issues that adoptive families encounter. Lesli Johnson, a therapist who was adopted as an infant, suggests several themes that should be addressed.
- Come to terms with why you are adopting. Explore your feelings about the situation that created this opportunity for you at this time. Certainly there are circumstances no one wanted to happen, however your decision to adopt also includes the motivations and resources that you have to carry you forward. The next two decades will be shaped in part by expectations that you set now. And the experiences you provide will profoundly influence the future lives of two adults and others, too.
- Put this adoption story into simple language and repeat it often. Make it positive. Stress that it was the adults’ thoughtful decision. “X and Y needed lots of help when you were little. Daddy Bob and I (and Sis, and whoever else) were happy to help whenever we could, and now we get to be with you always.” If the birth parents may pop in and out over the years, fill in their absences with simple explanations. “Getting the help he needs.” “Trying really hard to take care of herself.” If their treatment of the children was harsh or neglectful, use language to express that this was the wrong thing. “It wasn’t right to hurt you. I’m sorry you were hurt.” Children often hold out hope that a bad parent will get better, but don’t make promises that can’t be kept. End the story with something like, “We love you so much and are so glad to make a family with you.”
- Counter abandonment fears with constant reassurances, both physically and emotionally. Expect to be a near constant presence for a while. Hold them, carry them, sleep with them. Talk with them about their play. That they still have each other is great, but relieve them of the burden of being responsible for each other’s emotional security. That’s your job now.
Johnson says adoptees often experience “fear, grief, despair and anger. Remember, the behaviors are coping mechanisms and not personality traits.” Rules and discipline need to be consistent and constructive. Take a class or read up on guiding the behavior of preschoolers. Temper tantrums, limit testing, being “too good,” hiding mistakes, and other “misbehaviors” express their doubt that you will love them even when they are “bad.” But you will.
- Talk about adoption. If the word is not part of the family’s every day vocabulary, it may be awkward at the least, or painful at the worst when the subject comes up. Find picture books that have adopted characters: Moses, Paddington Bear, Choco. Ask a children’s librarian for more. You can frame and frequently refer to the adoption certificates. You can have Adoption Day anniversary celebrations. Your children will come to appreciate that the formal process of belonging to you is something you are very happy about. If they are comfortable talking it, they will find out that 60% of Americans have a connection to adoption.
Professional and Peer Support for the Long Term
Anticipate that your children will be dealing with questions about their early life and identity as they grow up. Consider using the ongoing services of a mental health provider for your family. Support groups, books, and websites are also at your disposal. Attachment and Trauma Network was formed by three adoptive moms to equip others with the information and support they needed for their challenging children. Their website includes the risks early trauma can pose to healthy attachment, how to use “serve and return” interactions to build trust, and the long-term effect of early trauma on brain development.
You’ve risen to the challenge of an enormous responsibility that will likely be, among other things, deeply rewarding.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children's Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her "Understanding Children" columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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