I always knew I wanted to adopt a child. I owe that to my dad–not my biological father, but my dad, the man who raised me, loved me and protected me. He met my mom when I was 18 months old and fell in love with both of us. Taking on the role of stepfather in his early 20s was a big decision, but he did so without reservation.
I never knew my biological father, who left my mother and me when I was a baby. That carved a big hole in my heart, one that would have been even bigger without the man who chose to love me as his own. My parents had three children after me, and I never felt his connection to my brothers and sister was different or more important than ours. My dad has been instrumental in showing me that love is what makes a family.
It was his example that I followed when I finally adopted a child myself earlier this year. My spouse and I have been together for 27 years, but it wasn’t until this past January that we found ourselves in a courthouse telling a judge that we wanted to become parents for a fourth time. We now have two daughters, two sons, and a house that sometimes doesn’t feel nearly big enough. And what’s perhaps most unique about our situation is that our newest child is just six months away from adulthood.
Ashley is 17, and has been in and out of foster care since the day she was born. We met her in 2015, when she was the new kid at yet another home and yet another school, where she didn’t know anyone. This time was different, though—my daughter Alexis was at that school, and Alexis knows what it’s like to be alone, afraid and unsure. In grade six, Alexis came out as transgender and was mercilessly bullied, to the point that I homeschooled her for a year. By grade eight, she had just started to make friends as her true self. It’s not surprising that she connected with Ashley, a girl with a very different life, but much of the same feeling of otherness. They bonded instantly.
Ashley had never been to a friend’s house before: Why bother getting close to anyone when you move around so much? But she liked Alexis. She felt safe with her. So, she took a chance and came over after school one day, greeting the rest of the family shyly, but quickly settling in. In some ways, she never left. When she moved into a group home across the city, she got permission to spend weekends at our house, enjoying pieces of family life. In 2016, she moved across the country to try living with a relative, but always stayed in touch. And so when she moved back to Ottawa a few months later, prepared to live in foster care until she aged out, it was apparent to all of us that something needed to be done.
According to a 2019 report by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, most young people in care are between 16 and 18 years old. Age plays a key role whether a child eventually ends up with an adoptive family, or in another permanent solution: the older the child when entering the foster care system, the longer the wait. There are too many youth not finding the stability they need to thrive, who grow out of the care system without adults they trust to help or guide them.
Adoption is more than making a child a part of your life: it also means weaving their existing relationships, culture, beliefs and experiences into your family’s tapestry. This is especially true of older children and teenagers, which is likely one of the reasons they don’t get adopted at the same rate as younger children. Many older children come with history, and usually not a happy one. Trauma and attachment issues are common experiences for foster children, and older children have been through more years of instability. And while older kids don’t require late-night feedings or diaper changes, it can be hard for adoptive families to accept missing out on early milestones, like birthdays, first words, first day of school and first friendships.
These are the issues my wife and I pondered when we first considered asking Ashley to join our family. Sure, we were willing to help her unpack her suitcase, but did we have the skills to help her unpack what she carried in her heart? We decided that while we couldn’t save the world, we had the chance to truly help one person.
Even though we had a pre-existing relationship with Ashley, my wife and I still had to complete two intensive home studies and a several-day training course on fostering and adoption. I put out more cookies for visiting social workers than I can count, as they judged whether we’d be suitable kinship parents (the term for foster parents who know the child they’re taking in). When we finally got the go-ahead, our lives became a whirlwind of activity: Ashley moved into our eldest child’s room four days after he moved into his first apartment. The last two years have been an exercise in relationship-building, sibling negotiations and merged family traditions.
Adopting an older child is often seen as an altruistic act, but the giving goes both ways. On the first Mother’s Day that Ashley spent with us, she made her new moms a rainbow cake. She got a job before Christmas so she could spoil her brothers and sister, piling presents under the tree. On weekend mornings, she often gets up early to make everyone brunch. She doesn’t have to do any of that to be loved by us, of course. She does it because she’s been waiting a lifetime to do so. We might have missed Ashley’s first steps, but there are still plenty of firsts to enjoy.
I never expected the child we’d end up adopting would be nearing adulthood, but adults need family too, and the role of parent doesn’t end when our children are old enough to vote. “You’re a part of us forever,” I’ve said to our new daughter, whenever I think she needed to hear it. “You’re home now, and this will always be home.” Everyone deserves a soft place to land. I’ve learned much about myself in these last two years, and had to examine some of my long-held parenting practices and communication tactics. It’s been eye-opening and healthy. Adoption requires research, building a support system of friends and professionals, and remembering that as prepared as you think you are, you’ll still be thrown a few curveballs. There will be good days and not-so-good ones—that’s parenting in a nutshell, no matter what the circumstances.
And so, a few weeks ago, we walked out of the courthouse wiping tears and headed down the road for celebratory milkshakes as a newly minted family of six. My wife and I had evolved from foster parents into adoptive parents. Ashley’s adoption is technically a “legal custody,” which means she was able to keep her last name but also enjoy the benefits (and sometimes drawbacks) of forever being a part of our busy, loud, caring family. It also means we’re honouring her relationship with her biological family, which she continues to cultivate.
People often ask me if I would recommend fostering or adopting an older child. I do. Not only because I’ve done it, but because I was raised by someone who chose me as his daughter. It’s a tradition I’m proud of—building a family on a foundation made out of more than simply blood.