In the fall of 2007, award-winning actress and the star of the hit TV series Weeds Mary-Louise Parker adopted her daughter, Aberash, who’s now 3, from Ethiopia. “Ash” joined big brother William, now 5, who is Parker’s son with actor Billy Crudup. If you are thinking about adopting a child, Parker’s experience in growing her family is illuminating -- there’s a lot to learn from the top five things she did right in navigating your own odyssey through the often daunting process.
1. Do your homework. Parker admits she “didn’t know a lot about adoption” when she first set out to adopt a sibling for her son William. So she consulted international adoption expert Jane Aronson, known as the “orphan doctor,” who helped her decide to adopt from Ethiopia. Some excellent sources for your own research:
- Adoptive Families magazine (www.adoptivefamilies.com, 646-366-0830). You could literally spend weeks poring through all the spot-on information on this exhaustive Web site.
- The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute (www.adoptioninstitute.org, 212-925-4089.) The Institute sponsors conferences and Web-based seminars for adoptive parents, publishes research about adoption issues, and promotes ethics in adoption.
- Aronson’s organization, International Pediatric Health Services (www.orphandoctor.com, 212-207-6666). She offers consultations on medical issues when adopting from overseas, and her Web site features a collection of articles on health and developmental issues of internationally adopted children.
- Informational seminars put on by adoption agencies in your area.
2. Honor your child’s roots. Parker kept her daughter’s given name, Aberash, which means “giving off light” in Amharic. “That’s the only thing I have to give her that her parents left her. That’s profound and I wouldn’t rob her of it,” she tells WebMD.
All adopted children come to their new families with a history and a story. Help them learn it. “Everybody wants and needs to know where they came from,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Some meaningful ways to help adopted children get in touch with their history include:
- Make an “adoption lifebook,” with pictures of your child’s birth parents (if you have them), stories of how they joined your family, and mementos of the place they were born.
- If you adopt internationally or transracially, make your child’s cultural and ethnic heritage part of your own. Adoptive Families, online and in the print magazine, has a wealth of information on everything from styling hair to starting international adoption playgroups, choosing culture camps, and blending holiday traditions.
- If you are in contact with your child’s birth parents, ask for photos of them when they were young or lists of their favorite childhood books, songs, games, to share with your child.
3. Involve your other children. Parker took son William, then not quite 4, with her to Ethiopia when she adopted Aberash. “It was such a rich experience” embarking on the adventure to find Ash together, Parker says. If it doesn’t feel right to you, you don’t necessarily have to take a sibling along on an international adoption trip -- deciding whether to do so depends a lot on the age, maturity, and comfort with travel. But “including your family in building your family” is important, says Pertman. Ways to involve your older children include:
- Read books about adoption together.
- Let them pick out a special gift for their new sibling.
- Show them pictures of the country you’re adopting from and help them find it on a map or globe, if adopting internationally.
- Ask your children to help you choose photos to include and family stories to tell if you’re preparing a “dear expectant mother” letter for a domestic adoption.
4. Dare to believe you can do it. Parker was a single mom over 40 when she adopted Aberash -- many women in a similar position might fear that they had little hope of adopting in that situation. But single moms, single dads, gay couples, people with disabilities, older couples, cancer survivors, and others have adopted successfully. It’s all a matter of finding the right situation for your family. International adoption, domestic adoption, transracial adoption, adoption from foster care, special-needs adoption -- there are many possibilities. Check Adoptive Families’ Web site for resources.
5. Don’t overthink things. There’s a lot that is difficult about adoption, but ultimately, you’re just a family with children, dealing with bedtimes, homework, toy squabbles, car trips, and holidays like any other family, experts say. “There are lots of complex kinds of families. What is it like when there are stepsiblings, or half-siblings? What is it like when you live with a grandmother who takes care of the family? That doesn’t mean you don’t think it through, but I don’t think we should be making it a bigger deal than it is, either,” says Pertman. “It’s just another way of making a family, and that’s the way you should present it to your kids and to the world around you.”
For Parker, the decision was – ultimately -- very simple. “I was drawn to somewhere that’s in crisis,” says Parker, explaining why she looked to Ethiopia in her quest for adoption. “But it’s not about choosing this child over that child. If you adopt from anywhere, if you give a child something they need -- it’s a beautiful thing.”
Adapted from the cover story of WebMD the Magazine’s June 2009 issue. Read the complete story here.