Following the first day of the women’s gymnastics competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics, NBC announcer Al Trautwig infamously tweeted.
They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.
Ouch! An ignorant Trautwig was talking about Ron and Nellie Biles, the couple who adopted his biological granddaughter Simone – along with her sister – and raised them for the next 16 years. Legally theirs as thousands of parents have also done.
Surprisingly – yet still common in perception, Trautwig didn’t consider Ron and Nellie to be her real parents. And only after a backlash from the adoption community did he delete his tweet – later apologizing.
Yet, the media loves sensationalizing controversy without mentioning all the facts. Here’s a paragraph from a follow-up article in the Washington Post.
That’s what parents do. And yet watching interview after interview, I see this young woman forced to answer reporters that while Ron and Nellie are biologically her grandparents, they are truly her mother and father. They changed her diapers. They didn’t sleep as they kept watch over her fevers. They signed the report cards and permission slips and quizzed her on her math facts and spelling words. For some reason, reporters insist on reminding Simone that her mother’s name is Shanon. Ever the diplomat, she kindly corrects the error and clarifies that while Shanon is biologically her mother, Nellie is mom.
Of course, we love Simone. We respect her dad and mom. Her bubbly personality, work ethic at the gym, humble statements to the press and once-in-a-lifetime feats endear people in a heartbeat.
But I worry at the same time. As many naïve parents-in-waiting – and people in general – jump on the Simone bandwagon, are they being set up for the big fall? (as I previously described in the The Adoption Letter – The One I Never Received)
Like Simone’s parents, I am a parent who adopted. Even though my six children have no biological ties to me, I love them with the same intensity as the Bileses – who stepped up to the plate for “kin” in need of permanent care.
I, too, changed diapers. But then I painfully worked through potty training – well into the teens for most of my brood. They often urinated in places other than the toilet, as a means of maintaining misplaced control – as many adoptive parents know firsthand.
I, too, didn’t sleep because of sickness. But most of my sleepless nights happened when my three oldest children would disappear – sometimes for days at a time.
I, too, spent countless hours on math and spelling, as well as science fair projects and dozens of written reports. But only half of my children achieved a diploma. And just one did so on time.
You see, none fully healed from their early trauma. Severe neglect, sexual abuse and exposure to alcohol in utero.
In spite of a loving home with reasonable expectations. In spite of connection and growing attachment. In spite of a myriad of opportunities, including years of tumbling at a local academy.
Furthermore, my children tried but could never accept my unconditional love. Not completely. Instead, they routinely sabotaged each chance to further connect with me. The reason makes sense now – years removed.
Anger deeply penetrated their souls – layer among countless layer. Easily triggered during a typical day. At home. At school. At church. In the community.
I loved them nonetheless and still do – when that love couldn’t be returned.
So before adoption agencies are overwhelmed with well-meaning families – consumed with a Simone-like dream, let’s force an intelligent conversation on the reality of adopting.
Although adoption brings much-needed hope that can lead to flag-waving and anthem-playing accomplishments, adoption is also trauma.
Children have lost something incredibly personal – the family that gave them birth. Even if considered unfit by outsiders (like the media painted Simone’s birthmother), it’s their blood. Their genetic code. Their family tree.
Not all children are 100% resilient. They cannot simply forget – nor should they be forced to try.
The gold medal for many adoptive families isn’t a Herculean performance on the balance beam or floor exercise, but something much simpler. Feats that most families take for granted.
A moment of genuine contentment, not the façade of manipulation.
A week of compliance, not days of repeated defiance.
A month in school, not unexpected suspensions that leave parents scrambling for supervision.
A year of relative peace, not regular 911 calls or in-patient hospitalizations – that usually foreshadow more to come.
After two decades of training, I now call the symptoms of early trauma “anxiety on steroids” – which the Olympics would call doping. Which would lead to disqualification and perhaps lifetime bans.
No doubt, the parallel bars are uneven for many kids!
To raise a child – joyfully added to a family through adoption, it truly takes a village. And lots of hard work and prayer.
Everyone in the children’s lives must come to the table respecting one another. No parent (either adoptive or biological) can be blamed when the less-than-desirable behaviors erupt – because they nearly always will.
With that mindset, everyone loses – especially the child who sees an open window to triangulate and strangle family relationships. Especially the child who fears being abandoned by the so-called forever family. A term that I no longer use.
At the same time, no child should be shamed when those same less-than-desirable behaviors persist. Telling a child to stop whining and try harder clearly misses the mark in addressing past trauma.
All children aren’t Simone, even though most would love to walk in her shoes – if only they could truly believe in their worth.
To save the child, let’s better understand early trauma. Let’s immediately offer all new adoptive families peer support, trauma-sensitive training and attachment-focused resources.
And let’s build the necessary empathy in the greater community for an increased number of children to reach the podium of success. All are a work in progress.
I suspect that’s the message Simone Biles would want us to share. Over and over again until the dismount is perfect! DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s progress in writing a book about raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
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