The Reluctant Spouse
Don't be surprised if your mate resists adoption even as you're embracing it.
It had been a long haul to convince my husband to start a family. When biology failed us, he felt the subject of children was closed. By then past 50, Joe was not interested in raising a child whom he inelegantly described as "someone else's kid." That was before we went to China in January 1995 and held an adorable, alert seven-month-old girl, who cast her spell over Joe in about five minutes flat. By the time we got home two weeks later, Joe was undeniably, smittenly, inalterably, Becky's father.
Now that there's a happy ending, Joe and I can laugh about some of our more heated debates, and share our experiences with other couples who are thinking about or pursuing adoption. But when we were in the midst of the decision-making process, I thought Joe and I were a seriously defective marital unit.
At the time, nobody I knew had a spouse so reluctant about children in general, and adoption in particular. Why couldn't we get it together? It shouldn't be this hard, I told myself, even as I persevered. What is wrong with us? Everybody else manages to have kids without all this sturm und drang.
Or so I thought, until I published an account that spoke candidly of the stresses that the long journey to parenthood had put on our marriage. Suddenly, total strangers opened up to us. And, lo! I discovered that Joe and I were not unique. Perhaps not even unusual. Many, many couples, we learned, had been-or currently are-deeply divided over the issue of adoption.
By that, I don't mean the sort of frustrations that draw appreciative laughs from an adoption audience. (Say, she's got her birth certificate in hand for the home study, while he hasn't sent away for his yet.) Rather, I mean bone marrow-deep differences that, as happened in my case, can put a marriage on the line. I mean differences so fundamental that some marriages bust up as a result.
Sadly, such couples often struggle in isolation, when some empathy and support, particularly from other adoptive couples who have worked through their differences, might ease the strain. "Often, fear of the unknown stands in the way," says Jan Garten, a Manhattan marriage therapist who counsels many couples divided about adoption. "It's good to talk to people who have gone through the process."
The toughest decision, of course, is the first: Will we adopt, or won't we? Marriage counselors, adoption specialists, and social workers agree that when a couple is not in lockstep, it's usually the wife who wants to proceed, and the husband who doesn't. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that reluctant men are often ambivalent about adoption, but resistant women tend to be inflexible.)
Some adoption experts maintain that it's wrong to press ahead with an adoption before a reluctant spouse is fully on board. They argue that before launching a search, a couple needs not only to confront, but sort out and resolve all uncertainties, ambivalences, and concerns about adoption.
For many couples, though, you might as well ask them to foresee and figure out the rest of their lives. Why? Consider the range of concerns that fuel reluctance:
Age. (Am I too old to be a parent? Will I have enough energy? Enough patience? Enough love?)
Money. (How can I save for a college education when I need to save for retirement? Will an adoption eat up all my savings? Will we ever get to take a vacation again?)
Time. (Will a child be too disruptive? Will I have to curb my work hours? Do I want to?)
Family. (Will my parents reject an adopted child? Will my children from a prior marriage resent me for starting a new family? Will I make the same parenting mistakes again?)
The Unknown. (Who will the child be? What genetic surprises might be in store? Will I be able to love an adopted child as much as a biological one?)
Such questions are important, legitimate-and often unanswerable until a couple is actually living the changes a child brings. They reflect the reluctant spouse's focus on what may be lost: financial security, spousal attention, uninterrupted work time, a biological connection. Until the spouse experiences the benefits that come with parenting, there is essentially nothing to mitigate those fears. Even after a spouse agrees reluctantly-to move forward, there may be backsliding. This is understandable when you contrast a pregnancy with the adoption process. Typically, a pregnancy is a fait accompli that gives a reluctant spouse nine months to ease into the idea of parenthood. Greeted with joy and excitement by friends and relatives, a pregnancy tends to inspire questions like: Do you know if it's a boy or girl? Have you picked a name? How much time do you plan to take off from work?
Now, consider the kinds of issues that couples are forced to confront during the adoption process. What age child do you want? What sex? What health condition? What ethnicity? What race? How much contact do you want with birth-parents? How do you plan to raise this child? How will you speak of adoption to him? What role will the child's ethnic heritage play in her life? How will you cope with an emotional or physical disability? What will you do if your relatives don't embrace this child? And that doesn't even begin to touch on the procedural aspects. Lawyer or agency? Public or private? Open or closed? Domestic or overseas?
Such questions not only thrust the issue of "baby" at a reluctant spouse over and over, but demand repeatedly that he opt in-or out. In essence, the process requires that he try to envision the child's entire upbringing at a time when he might prefer not to think about children at all.
The upside is that this insistent probing gives adoptive couples a rigorous preparation for parenting that the biological route rarely affords. The downside is that every new question and issue risks reigniting or ratcheting up a reluctant spouse's resistance. My own husband signed on and off to adoption so often that by the time we boarded the plane for China, neither one of us could have said for certain whether he would stick around after we returned home. He did.
In fact, the man who for years had insisted that he was too old, too busy, too uninterested in kids, is a wonderful, involved father who resents even the occasional business trip that keeps him from tucking Becky in at night. These days when a call comes in from a distressed couple, Joe gets on the phone with the reluctant spouse-sometimes, literally, for hours. He listens. He empathizes and commiserates. He reassures them that their fears and concerns are legitimate. Then, ever so subtly, he encourages them to take the plunge.
Jill Smolowe, an adoptive parent, is a journalist and the author of An Empty Lap (Pocket Books). She lives in New Jersey with her husband, Joe Treen, and with their daughter, Becky.
Ideas for Helping to Ease a Spouse's Reluctance
*Acknowledge your spouse's concerns and fears; try to listen with interest, not judgment.
*Air and discuss the differences between you, rather than trying to cover them up or smooth them over.
*Maintain balance in your discussions between the reasons for your spouse's resistance to adoption and your reasons for wanting to adopt.
*Don't take a spouse's initial reaction as the final word. When a subject is emotionally charged, people often say things they don't really mean.
*Give a spouse time and space to consider issues as they arise; recognize that people approach change at different speeds.
*Don't expect your spouse to react to developments in the adoption process the same way you do.
*Find a support group of other couples considering adoption. Hearing that they, too, have reservations may help both of you.
*Work with an agency or lawyer that has a solid process for exploring adoption issues; don't assume that you know all the angles.
*If your spouse isn't providing the support and encouragement you need to cope with the rocky adoption process, then seek it from a sympathetic friend or relative.
*See a marriage counselor if you have trouble navigating any of these issues. A reluctant spouse may hear questions and advice better from a neutral observer.
©2000 Adoptive Families Magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.