Thoughts on “Special Needs”

Yesterday I spent a rare Friday in my physical office so that I could enjoy lunch with a good friend and colleague.  She asked how Hope and I were doing, and I started my update with a heavy sigh and a weak smile.

As I gave her an abbreviated update, I realized that recently I’ve found myself really having to re-balance my world view and value system in order to parent appropriately. Sure, I think most parents have to do this, but I think that there’s probably something about adoption, and specifically adoption with older kids, that is a little bit different.

My and Hope’s backgrounds could not have been more different. In many ways, the only things we have in common are being black and some of the universality of what that means in terms of experience and culture.  I don’t mean to discount that, because it really is the foundation for a lot of our relationship, but really that’s it.

As we go through all of the diagnostics necessary to determine learning styles, brain processes, etc, etc, I am sensitive to Hope’s desire not to be labeled. I have to balance that with the reality that labels open the doors to more resources and help that she desperately needs.

I remember originally seeing her profile and the classification that she was “special needs.” I was told that, while there were some issues, the designation was more about race than anything else. I remember seeing it again after our finalization when I went to do my taxes and the paperwork for the adoption credit: “special needs.” Again, she fell into that label because of race, a black American adoptee.

In the last six months, I’ve been watching lots of symptoms emerge. I’ve been monitoring behavior, grades, performance, social interactions, all kinds of things. I’ve watched my daughter’s increasing anxiety trigger bad dreams, insomnia, stress word tics, nerve spasms…I’ve engaged all kinds of people: teachers, counselors, therapists, psychiatrists. I resisted pulling the “special needs” card. I struggled with my own quest for high performance and perfectionism and how Hope’s poor grades made me feel.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that my desire for Hope to perform well academically is rooted in my own need to have the “perfect” kid in the “perfect” adoption story. Neither is true or even attainable; though my Hope is wicked smart, more resilient than a rubber ball, and perfect in all the ways that really matter. Dealing with the impact of Hope’s past has been the first time in my life when I couldn’t really fix something. I’m a fixer. I have a problem; I find a solution or I create one. I thrive on making things happen. I have built my adult life on an identity that revolves around getting ish done, done well and taking it to the next level. This is who I am at home and at work. It is an identity that has rewarded me in countless ways and fosters a huge sense of pride in myself and my abilities.

Being mom to Hope is so challenging sometimes that not only can I not fix any of the issues that plague Hope; but most of the time, the last six months especially, I feel like we’ve just been regressing…just not moving forward. For her, it’s all finally starting to come into the focus that we’ve got a serious mess on our hands. For me, it’s like watching a slow crash finally make impact and not having been able to stop it or even minimize the devastating effects.

For both of us, the realization that Hope has (as opposed to is) special needs that are real and now visible has struck distressing blows to our self-esteem, individually and as a family. There isn’t an easy way to fix this and that shakes the identity I’ve created for myself. It provides Hope more evidence that she is broken in the identity that she’s created for herself. For us together, it feels like she’s stuck with a a mom who can’t fix it and I have a daughter who fears she’ll never make me proud of her (even though I am more than proud of her). Our relationship is rocky, right now—the push/pull dynamic coupled with normal teenage surliness is a bit of a powder keg at the moment with Hope being the one prone to fire flashes.

I found my mind wandering over coffee this morning how hard this would be even if I had birthed Hope. Would it be easier because I would have seen some issues as she hit developmental markers? Would I have been able to get her all the resources she needed earlier? Would she see her struggles as strengths by now? Before I knew it I was reminded of my infertility, how that fantasy didn’t consider Hope’s real life story, how that narrative was about my need and desire to fix this to prove that I could. It wasn’t really about Hope at all; it was about my need to shore up who and what I am and feel validated.

This storm we’re in won’t really allow me the luxury of seeing immediate results from my efforts or fill my need to be validated. I’m fighting against 12 years of messy dysfunction; it’ll likely take us twice as long to make sense of it all.

In the meantime, there’s this special needs thing. Hope does have special needs that must be met. She is both special and needy, but also amazing and, when the obnoxious teen part steps back, delightfully charming and funny and lovable. I still don’t know how I feel about labels; I guess I see them as a means to an end—they help me, help her—again, while she benefits, it’s about me tapping into resources to fix this. But I’m increasingly sensitive that for her the label is another crack in her armor, just more evidence that she is bad.  I still don’t know how to balance all that, and I desperately wish I could figure that out.

Gosh I love Hope. I love her so much. This challenge is so stressful on both of us, and although help is on the way, this is, like everything we endure, an ongoing thing. And in time, something else will just layer on top of it.

It sucks on so many levels. It just sucks on so many levels.


About AdoptiveBlackMom

I'm a single Black professional woman living in the DC area. I adopted my now adult daughter in 2014, and this blog chronicles my journey. Feel free to contact me at, on Facebook at Adoptive Black Mom, and on Twitter @adoptiveblkmom. ©, 2013-2022. All rights reserved. (Don't copy my ish without credit!) View all posts by AdoptiveBlackMom

9 responses to “Thoughts on “Special Needs”

  • Beth H

    Labels have limitations, but they are useful. They don’t explain everything, but they can explain a lot. Unfortunately, they can be painful for both the label bearers as well as their overachieving moms who like to fix things.

    My daughter hates the thought of her being in any way broken. She doesn’t use the word “broken,” but she insists she never has any problems (except for how terrible Dad and I are) and externalizes everything. She insists she doesn’t need therapy or special supports at school. And it kills her that more and more, there is strong evidence that she *does* need these things. We are fumbling toward getting a label (which I strongly suspect will end up being bipolar disorder), and it is incredibly hard for her. This is on top of whatever stress she has lately knowing that we’ve initiated finalization.

    Hopefully in time our kids can see that their “special needs” are not signs of brokenness, but challenges that require strategic workarounds.

    • AdoptiveBlackMom

      You know, I’m ok with labels. For me they are kind of concrete and allow me to scaffold solutions. Whatever happens, I tell Hope that it’s really just that our brains work differently–nothing wrong, just different, which can also be creative amazing. For me, it helps that I have an LD, that I struggle with it, but that sometimes I can leverage it to my benefit because it makes me look at the world differently. I’m trying to model that for her.
      It’s tough navigating all of this, isn’t it? I hope that finalization brings some calm to your neck of the woods.

  • TAO

    Hope can also be labelled a Survivor. If I’d had her life up to age 12 – I don’t think I’d have made it – and I’m serious in that, I always had someone to turn too – that makes all the difference. She’s survived against all the odds stacked against her. I do think that recognising and accepting she has labels on both sides of the +/- column – is perhaps the first step needed. She also has you as her mom to help, so my guess is she’ll find her place in life – even if neither of you can see it now, or it’s what you envisioned for her. I’m sorry things are harder now and wish I could provide you with a solution other than hope for the future.

  • thecommonostrich

    My brother is LD, diagnosed at a time when people didn’t understand what that was and resources were… wait… What resources?! Years later, I was diagnosed with ADD but thanks to what my parents learned with my bro, I had an easier path.

    These labels can be very helpful because you’re part of a legally protected class. They become a tool for advocating for yourself. I STILL use it if I’m not getting the kind of support I need at work. At their best, the labels that Hope is avoiding can become her greatest ally.

    I don’t mean to speak lightly. Hope is learning this about herself at an age where the only thing any teenager wants is NOT to be different. It sucks and it is hard, but hopefully something she can learn to accept and embrace.

    (Also, would you mind indulging me… Why is race considered a “special needs” category in adoption? I don’t want to be ignorant, but that seems odd.)

    • AdoptiveBlackMom

      Labels definitely have their place. It’s difficult though when you’re at an age when the last thing you want is to be somehow different. She’s been different all her life for some of the most awful reasons, and she feels this is her shot at normalcy. So, I get it. It’s so hard.

      Race in adoption is considered special needs because KOC’s are less likely to find permanent placements. The categorization is, frankly, an inducement. Sigh…

  • TheChroniclesofaNonBellyMama

    It’s funny because we are dealing with this with Mary as well, and I just noticed a corrolation between your situation and mine. Callie and I are both fixers. Similiar to you, there is an issue, and we solve it as best we can. But its not so easy with foster/adopted children. What makes it even harder is that our girls are both at transitional points in their development. Mary is 8, that per-pubecent age where they start to care what they look like. They baiscally stop being babies and start becoming grown kids. ANd Hope is at that age where you stop being kids and you start becoming an adult. And that’s just regular crap! Then throw in all the trauma and previous dysfunction and now we have a “Super-transitioner” as if the regular transition wasn’t hard enough! And not being able to finx 8+ years of damamge just wears away at you becasue you KNOW that they are amazing kids and if there was only some way that it can be reflected. And not just OUR hard work but THEIR hard work, and somehow at the end of the day we are still left like, “THIS IS NEVER GONNA BE FIXED” and then we are a failure to ourselves and our kids, and it’s one damn terrible vicious cycle. BUt we are kicking parenting ass right now! Don’t forget that. It sounds terrible to say, but I always look at Mary and say, “we are so lucky we have each other becuase we would both be worse off had we not met each other.” She makes me a harder working better parent, and we make her a better well rounded kid, even if it’s not showing righ tnow.

    • AdoptiveBlackMom

      I have never wanted or needed to fix something more in my life; so the feels are really deep here. I am definitely a better person because of Hope–no question about that. But yeah, the inability to make it all better feels like failure. It’s not at all. AbsurdlyHotTherapist often chastises me on my fixer-perfectionist issues because they set the bar so high that I’m doomed, when, like you say, folks like us are kicking arse. High standards are great until they are unrealistic.

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