Resilience in the single-mother transracial family

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Families in which there is an adopted child of another race are confronted by all “normal” adoptive family crises, while they also need to handle crises that arise from transracial adoption. The greatest challenge with which the adoptive parent is confronted is to help the transracial adopted child to form his/her own identity (Quintana 2007; Vonk 2001). The aim of this study was to identify and describe the family processes and characteristics related to resilience in single-mother families in which there is an adopted child from a race other than that of the mother.

Family resilience can be defined as the ability of a family to overcome challenges and crises by using internal and external family resources, so that individuals and the family unit can adapt to changing circumstances (Condly 2006). The family resilience model of McCubbin and McCubbin (2001) and Walsh’s family resilience framework (2016) jointly served as the theoretical foundation for this study. Both theories emphasise family adaptation as the outcome of the resilience-building process and both theories emphasise the family’s ability to survive crises as a unit and then to function harmoniously as a stable unit. An exploratory qualitative research design was planned on the basis of this theoretical framework. Since the number of transracial adoptive families in South Africa is limited, we made use of non-probability convenience sampling (Morrow 2005:253). All six participants were white women in a variety of professional careers and between the ages of 40 and 56 years. One of the participants had adopted two children of a different race form her own, while the other five participants had each adopted one child from another race. The adopted children were all younger than four months when they were adopted and the period of adoption at the time of data collection varied from three to 10 years. Only one of the participants had been married previously, but none of the participants had biological children. Two of the adopted children were coloured and five were Africans; two were boys and five were girls.

Data was collected by means of semi-structured interviews, and conventional content analysis (Creswell and Poth 2016) was performed to analyse the data by using the Atlas.ti computer program (ATLAS.ti.v7 2013). Ethical clearance for this study was granted by Stellenbosch University’s Research Ethics Committee (Humanities). We established the trustworthiness of this study by adhering to guiding criteria of credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability (Morrow 2005). 

Six themes with subthemes arose from the thematic analysis. What follows is a short description of each theme, as well as of the related subthemes.

Equipping the adopted child (theme 1). This theme emphasises the importance of preparing the adopted child and equipping him/her with life skills. This theme comprises the following eight subthemes: 1) Exposure of the adopted child to a diversity of races. 2) Exposure to father figures. 3) Expressing emotions. 4) Awareness and understanding of skin colour. 5) Understanding of apartheid. 6) Learning an African language (if the adopted child is an African). 7) Dealing with racism. 8) Exposure to role models.

Establishing family patterns (theme 2). With reference to Walsh’s (2016) and McCubbin en McCubbin’s (2001) resilience theories, we are of the opinion that all families will benefit from family patterns and that this theme therefore is not applicable only to transracial families. All six participants were of the opinion that specific family patterns helped them to a great extent to overcome crises that occurred in their daily life and they felt that the stability created by family patterns gave them a feeling of solidarity and comfort in crises. The following seven subthemes contributed to shaping this theme: 1) Open communication between parent and child. 2) Routine. 3) Helping in the household. 4) Spirituality. 5) Family rituals. 6) Personal time. 7) Humour. 

Making adoption a reality (theme 3). All the participants believed that it was important for them as parents that the adopted child had to be aware from a young age of his/her adoptive identity. The mothers consciously tried to have honest and open conversations with their adopted children about the children’s adoptive status. This theme consists of three subthemes: 1) Honest and respectful communication about the biological mother. 2) Honesty. 3) Openness about adoption.

Social contact and contact with the extended family (theme 4). The participants were of the opinion that contact with a broad spectrum of people was very important for the family. Outsiders can offer perspectives and advice to the mother of the transracial family, as well as providing insight into the adopted child with regard to where he/she fits into society, and in this manner can contribute to his/her identity development. Members of the extended family play an important supportive role, can make financial contributions, and serve as role models for the transracial family. Six subthemes shaped this theme. 1) Contact by the child with other transracially adopted children. 2) Contact by the mother with other transracial adoptive parents. 3) Contact by the adoptive mother with other biological parents. 4) Social activities. 5) Contact with friends. 6) Support of extended family. 

Utilising external resources (theme 5). The participants emphasised the use of external resources during times of crisis. The following five external resources were identified as subthemes of this theme: 1) Financial assistance. 2) Contact with teachers. 3) Support groups for the family. 4) Professional help. 5) Social networks.

Effective preparation for adoption (theme 6). Effective, comprehensive preparation before adoption helps the mother to adapt more easily to parenthood on completion of the adoption process. This theme consists of the following four subthemes: 1) Preparation of the family for adoption. 2) Personality of the mother. 3) Preparation of the single mother. 4) Gathering information on adoption. The participants in this study were all mothers who were already older than 40. According to them, their higher age and associated life skills and experience helped them to overcome the challenges of the single-mother transracial family.

Existing literature confirms the importance of most of the findings of this study. However, contact with the teachers of the adopted children and using social networks for support in times of crisis are resilience resources that have not been reported in previous literature. By confirming resilience characteristics in single-mother transracial families, specifically within the South African context, and identifying two new resilience characteristics, this research contributes to knowledge about the resilience characteristics in the single-mother family where a child of another race has been adopted. On the basis of the findings of this study we recommend that trained and well-equipped professional people should provide informed guidance to transracial adoptive parents before, during and after adoption. In this way, the effect of crises to which the family might be exposed can be reduced and the family can use some of the resources indicated in order to make adjustments and adapt to the demands made on them.

Keywords: adopted child; exploratory research design; family characteristics; family patterns; resilience; single mother; transracial family


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