Like most LGBTQ families, my partner and I didn’t become parents in the most conventional way.
In fact, for most of my life, I never considered having kids! But when my partner and I got a call asking if we’d be willing to take immediate guardianship of our niece and nephew, we agreed to do everything in our power to create a loving home for these two children.
After years of visits from social workers, inquiries from investigators trips to the courthouse, and mountains of paperwork and fees, we had the privilege of becoming a forever family through legal adoption.
If you are considering adoption, here are 7 things you should know from my personal experience:
Adoption is a story of joy…
None of us will ever forget the day that our adoption was finalized. To know that we could truthfully tell these amazing children that we would always–ALWAYS–be their parents. It was a day of pure relief.
But in addition to those big milestones – Adoption Day, kindergarten graduation, first performance as a Russian dancer in The Nutcracker – it’s really the little things that bring the most joy. The simple moments are what get to me the most. When they reach for your hand because they’re scared (and you get to tell them it’s okay to be scared). When they learn a new fact and share it with you (did you know that elephants use mud to cool themselves down). When they ask a hard question that you don’t *totally* know the answer to (how DOES an apple seed know how to grow into a tree?!).
Those opportunities to see your children grow into whole, complete humans with their own thoughts, ideas, and passions. That’s joy.
And finally, one of my absolute favorite things about being a parent is having the opportunity to share LGBTQ culture with them. Helping them build an enduring appreciation of drag. Feeling the freedom of getting to pick your own family, your own community, even your own name. All of the powerful, beautiful parts of our community– we get to pass those on to our children.
…and also one of loss
There is no way to get around the fact that your adopted children get to be in your lives because they do not get to be in the lives of their biological parents. While many adopted children will grow up to have no desire to know their biological parents, some feel a profound sense of loss or abandonment that they could not be raised by their biological parents, no matter how wonderful and caring their adoptive parents are.
It’s vitally important for adoptive parents to accept this pain in their children, to sit with it, to be empathetic, and to not take it as a personal rebuke to your parenting. Make sure that your kids have professional support throughout their childhood, and give lots of opportunities for them to share their feelings with you in a safe way.
Make sure that you have support as well, so you can process through the many feelings you may have– feelings of grief that you aren’t their biological parent or that you couldn’t have biological children. Feelings of anger towards their first family and what harmful experiences your children may have experienced while under their care. Feelings of love toward their first family for allowing you to raise their biological children.
Many complicated swirls of emotion may come up as you go on this journey, and you’ll need a place to put them all.
Parenting is not for the faint of heart
Your kid might not like you. You might not like your kid (all the time). Your kid might have severe emotional trauma. Your kid might do this annoying thing where he lies on the couch for two hours flipping a pillow over his head while the rest of you are doing dishes and vacuuming the floor and cleaning the tub.
When you become a parent, no matter how it happens, you’re not just signing up for the giggles and the tickles and the cooing sighs of a sleeping newborn. You’re also signing up for screaming babies and poopsplosions. And, after that, defiant teenagers who scream “I hate you!” and slam their door so hard the handle breaks and they have a panic attack because they can’t open their door anymore and they feel trapped. You’re signing up for their first heartbreak. For helping them deal with bullies… or BEING the bully. You’re signing up for a world of stupid, unsolicited advice and your own parents saying, “We never did that when you were a kid and you turned out fine!!!”
Despite what Instagram may tell you, parenting is not all fun and games. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to lose your temper. You’re going to yell at the lady in the supermarket who asks, “Are they REAL siblings?”
There are millions of ways to be a perfectly adequate parent. Don’t compare yourself to other parents. Be honest with your kids. Know that it’s hard for *everyone*, even the perfect families on social media.
There is no rush to start your family
When we became parents overnight in our mid-twenties, we had no idea what challenges were ahead of us. We were almost completely unprepared and had to make it all up as we went.
So any time a young LGBTQ person stands up at one of my talks and tells me that I’ve inspired them to start a family, and asks if I have advice for them, I always say the same thing: “WAIT!” Usually, the audience laughs, so I have to tell them that I am not joking.
People will tell you that you’re never really ready for parenthood. And while that’s true, there are times in life when you will be more ready! Parenting is already hard enough. Work to get your systems in place before making the leap: do your best to get your finances in order, make sure your housing is stable, and if you have a partner or partners, make sure they’re the people who truly want by your side for the next 18 years.
And above all, take the time to work on yourself and your own insecurities. If you didn’t have an ideal childhood, seek support and healing to process through it effectively so you don’t end up overcorrecting or taking your hurt out on your children. Whatever you wish your parents had worked on before they had you– you have a chance to work on those things for yourself.
Creativity, flexibility, and humility are essential
When our children first came to live with us, the eldest was nonverbal. There’s a whole section in my book in which I talk about the elaborate method I had to create so I could communicate with him – he wasn’t able to speak or share his opinions using words at all. We all had to be really creative to find solutions for their unique challenges. Many parents, especially adoptive parents, have to do the same. Build parenting solutions that work for the kids you HAVE, not the kids you wish you had.
It really does take a village
From kid supplies to legal help, our community was always there for us in ways we would never have expected. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, to invite people into your lives, to build an extended family around your actual family. Remember that most straight people have biological family around them! Grandparents help with babysitting so they can do date night, aunts and uncles help with school pick-ups so they can work late, and cousins are around for playdates and family dinners. LGBTQ people might not have that built-in support network, so we have to build it for ourselves.
Your “village” can come from outside your community as well. In fact, you can find allies anywhere – bosses may be willing to give you time off for court dates (even if that’s not covered in your PTO plan), lawyers may give you a discount on their legal fees, daycares may cut you some slack on registration costs. People want to help you form your family. Let them.
Also – sometimes you and your partner won’t see eye-to-eye. Joining a Facebook community of other parents raising their partner’s nieces and nephews (yes – there are groups this niche!) helped me keep my sanity while adjusting to the new situation. You can access vital resources and emotional support throughout your adoption journey by finding support groups for trans parents, for LGBTQ parents, for parents raising kids in open adoptions, or for whatever your specific situation is.
Love makes a family
I’ll never forget the day that we brought the kids to court for their official adoption day. Our close friends filled the courtroom and the judge, a bit taken aback by the crowd, asked, “Well who do we have here?” Our daughter Hailey, who was five at the time and didn’t understand court decorum, exclaimed, “It’s our Love Family!”
Even at that early age, she already knew that biology doesn’t dictate familial relationships. She will always be surrounded by a constellation of people who love her, support her, and will go to the ends of the earth to make sure she has what she needs to thrive in this world.
Whether your family is you and your collection of houseplants, or three parents and a gaggle of foster children – what makes a family is love.
Trystan Reese, author of How We Do Family: From Adoption to Trans Pregnancy, What We Learned about Love and LGBTQ Parenthood, launched into the public eye as “the pregnant man” in 2017 when the story of his family’s unique journey gained international media attention. He was invited to give closing performances for The Moth Mainstage in Portland, Albuquerque, and Brooklyn; a video of the Brooklyn event has garnered over 2.5 million views. As interest in his family’s story grew, Trystan partnered with many major media outlets, including CNN, NBC, People, and Buzzfeed.
Trystan is an established thought leader, educator, and speaker, focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. He is a professionally trained anti-racism facilitator and has been organizing with the trans community for nearly two decades. The founder of his own consulting firm, Collaborate Consulting, Trystan provides customized training solutions for individuals, organizations, and communities that are interested in social justice. He is married to his partner Biff and they live in Portland, Oregon with their three kids: Lucas, Hailey, and Leo. They are very happy.