When 1, 2, 3, 4 Adoptions Aren't Enough

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Two of our readers have adopted five children each—and counting. Here’s Kristina:

Since I was a teenager, I wanted to be a foster parent some day. I have fostered around 15 children and adopted 5. I currently have my 5, plus 2 foster children.

I have never given birth, never wanted to, and never plan to. I built a wonderful family, through the sad loss of other families. It’s difficult to celebrate sometimes, knowing the loss each child and their family endured to bring them to me.  

My children are all from local families, within my own city. They came from families with mental, emotional, and substance problems, and the illnesses that made their first parents unable to care for them are part of a bigger social problem that is taking over our country. We are disconnected. As a society, we are too disconnected. Drug and alcohol addiction is a symptom of this every increasing disconnect.

As I was granted my most recent adoption and sat with my son’s birth father, seeing how ill he was, all I felt was concern, caring, worry. I worried that this man would not get better. I worried that we would be attending his funeral long before their grandparents. This man was not a bad person. He was just sick. I hugged him. I thanked his mother. I told them I hoped he got better soon. I meant every word. Their willingness to not fight our adoption allowed me to spend the rest of their lives being the boy’s mother.

My son walked in the day after the papers were signed and said, “I’m YOUR son, mom.”

We celebrate daily in our own little ways, but I must never forget the loss that brought my children to me. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me humble. It gives me grace.

Here’s the other saint, Leslie:

We have adopted five kids (only two biologically related to each other) from foster care, at ages ranging from 8 to 14. They are now 25 to almost 47, and the older four are all functioning adult members of society, maintaining relationships, holding jobs, and raising their own kids—outcomes they assure me have a lot to do with having been adopted by us. All of them have some degree of fetal alcohol issues, as well as histories of abuse, neglect, and, in one case, a previous failed adoption.

We have had at least some contact with all of their bio families and some sibs from the previous adoption. You can’t say to kids the ages of ours when they were adopted that nothing that came before counts. And making or maintaining those contacts kept us from being the monsters who were keeping them from their “real” family. It also gave them the choice of when and how much they wanted to have contact. I think they all understand why their birth parents weren’t able to take care of them, and they more or less agree with our view that their parents loved them as much as they could love anybody without loving themselves more than they did.

We’ve learned a lot from our kids. We’ve dealt with systems we barely knew existed, observed an amazing range of dysfunctional families among our kids’ friends, held our breaths (a lot) when they were teens and doing the usual foolish teen things. But none of them was a teen parent, and only one did prison time—and he’s turned his life around and is doing well now.

We learned that it takes at least as long as they weren’t part of our family for them to be really sure that they are. A couple of them are still so angry at their birthparents for choosing drugs over them that they don’t claim any current connection. But a couple have also told us that—although they love us, are glad we adopted them, and are pretty sure their lives now would be a disaster if we hadn’t—it would have been better if there had been a way to make their birthparents functional before they had to go through abuse, multiple foster homes, etc., to get to us.

Our youngest son, who has really severe PTSD and lacks executive functioning because of his fetal alcohol syndrome, insists he’d be fine if everyone would just leave him alone. He is currently living on the street. We had to ask him to leave because his behavior went too far over the line. We see him, we love him, but we just can’t live with him. He can’t be in our house because too many things disappear.

If he were our first child, we’d be frantic, but since he’s the fifth, we just hope he’ll grow up. He collects Social Security Disability but spends it as fast as it comes in and has a payee who’s useless; she just writes him a check. He could have a room or a shared apartment, but he’s unwilling to take any advice. His current line is “I’m an adult, so it’s my decision. It may be a bad decision, but it’s mine.” And we can’t argue with that.

Meanwhile, he has a 3-year-old son who’s been adopted by his other grandparents and is doing very well. We get occasional visits, which reassures us—though our son doesn’t.

We have a grandson who’s 28 (son of our oldest daughter’s husband, but “ours” since age 4), a granddaughter who’s 25 raising a 3-year-old great-granddaughter; a granddaughter who’s 13; a granddaughter who’s 7; and 3 granddaughters almost 6, 3, and 21 months. They all seem to be doing well and I’m constantly impressed at what involved parents our kids have turned out to be. Raising this crew was probably the most difficult and most rewarding thing we’ve ever done, and we don’t regret it for a minute.

Would we adopt again? Well, we’re thinking about getting relicensed for foster care so that we can support a few of the unaccompanied kids coming from Latin America ...