Status Update: Still Struggling
If you’re gunning for likes or favorites on social media, there are two foolproof options: pets and kids. Nothing gets attention faster than a video of a cat riding a Roomba or a two-year-old singing “You Are My Sunshine.”
When my husband and I began considering adoption, I imagined finally getting to post updates about our children rather than just being the one doing the liking and favorite-ing. But once we began to share our side of the parenting story, we learned the converse is also true. If it’s not a cutesy post or tongue-in-cheek joke, friends and followers don’t want to hear about your parenting challenges.
We started the process several years ago, with copious amounts of research. The adoption people clearly aren’t in this for likes, and they don’t hide the struggles children and families go through. We learned about reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, ADD/ADHD, sensory-integration issues, the effects of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse as well as those caused by neglect and abandonment.
Our two sons didn’t come to us with many of those scary medical terms and three-letter conditions, but it still hasn’t been easy. At first, we shared those struggles with our extended community. Our youngest child’s penchant for turning the kitchen table into a battleground, our eldest’s manic fits and extra challenges due to his hearing problems, the fact that both of them had tantrums three or four times a day—we revealed all of it, hoping for good council or a little encouragement.
And while we did get some of that, we also walked into a minefield of criticism. “I would never do that to my child,” a friend from college said when she read about our time-out system. A relative told us that our dinnertime discipline was something straight out of Mommie Dearest. Others said helpful things like, “You knew this would be hard going into it, so don’t complain.” And then there was my personal favorite: “All this is happening because you just don’t love them enough.” After a month or so, we made a pact to share only “the shiny stuff” (trips to the park, funny things the kids said, legal updates, and the like) and to hide the scruffy parts of our story.
One night, as I sat on our bed folding laundry—a common chore now that our family has doubled in size—it hit me. Even Christians who champion the cause of adoption don’t really understand how onerous it can be. The first “We’re thinking about adopting” comments receive accolades from friends near and far. The adorable, post-court date photos peg out our feel-good-o-meters. (Imagine a child with his new family, holding a chalkboard to record the number of days spent in foster care.)
But the days between those two monumental moments? Well, they’re even more important. They are the days when the Christian community can make a difference by carrying a bit of the load. Adopting children—whether they’re infants, teenagers, or elementary-aged kiddos like ours—is demanding. Families like mine need something beyond comments and likes. We need help.
In Rocky, Sylvester Stallone utters the famous line about Adrian, “I dunno, she’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.” That’s how I describe adoption. It exposes gaps. Both my husband and I have learned a few painful truths about ourselves since becoming parents. For instance, we are neither as thoughtful nor as kind as we once believed, and grace isn’t our default mode.
There are also holes in the boys’ childhoods, in my understanding of them and how they work, even in their medical histories. There are things I’ll never know—and for a type-A, to-do list making, box-checker like myself, that’s maddening. How can I manage this life without all the facts? The simple answer is, I can’t. I have to wing it. Bite my lip and prayerfully eenie meenie miney moe it through each day. And if I make a bad decision, have a less-than-motherly reaction, or miss the mark entirely, well, tomorrow is another day.
Having children in your home, little people who come to you as relative strangers with only a few garbage bags of belongings in tow, helps you grasp the truth of Ecclesiastes 11:5-6: “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”
If you know people who are adopting, tell them this life-saving truth. Grab them by the shoulders, look them in their exhausted, bloodshot eyes and say, “You don’t have to know everything today.” Or even better, “You may never know if you’re doing the right thing…and that’s okay.” But aren’t those words good for all parents to hear? In the moments when I feel most overwhelmed, I think about something Sherri—a dear friend of mine and mother of triplets—said to many a parent: “Don’t worry, honey. You may be lost, but you’re making good time.”
Adoption also exposes the many emotional and spiritual holes within a person. Your selfishness and impatience, your misconceptions and prejudices are brought to the fore every day. This is the first time I’ve put fingers to keyboard in six months. Several times since the boys have come to live with us, I’ve sat before a blank screen, waiting for words that wouldn’t come, and slapped the laptop shut in frustration. Who did I blame? My muse? My workload? Myself? No way. It was “those kids” who caused it.
I stormed out of the office in a blood-red rage, feeling warm and cozy in my indignation. But the entire experience left me feeling petty and smaller than a Lego figure when it was over. Trust me. You may think you have it all together spiritually speaking, but throw a foster kid or two into the mix and the old holy cloak starts to look a little threadbare. So if you see an adoptive parent snap, which has happened to my husband and me on more than one occasion, this is the only advice I can give: Instead of judging their lack of preparation or wherewithal, be the one to help. Wade deep into that brokenness, get on your knees, and help put the pieces back together.
That is precisely what my best friend Amy did the first night we were brave enough to take the boys out to dinner. Their behavior was atrocious, but rather than sit passively by while we struggled, she pulled our youngest into her lap, asked the eldest if he would like to sit with his mommy (which thankfully, he did), and reached across the table to squeeze my hand reassuringly before continuing the meal. I will never be able to thank her enough for that moment of wordless acceptance and grace.
For months, our life has felt like a Wes Anderson film—a bit out of joint, supersaturated with color, and downright odd. In addition to the dozens of corrections, words of encouragement, and affirmations I say each day, the phrases, “No, don’t write on yourself with a Dorito” and “Stop crawling across the parking lot” have also come out of my mouth. So yes, adoption is weird. It’s also gut wrenching and harrowing, inspiring and affirming. It’s not filled with picture-perfect occasions suitable for framing. Most of the time, what happens during adoption can’t be displayed in a scrapbook, or—as we’ve learned—on social media. It’s mostly moments you’re not proud of, ones you’d rather forget ever happened.
But there are also miracles—like the first time your child returns a hug or where you’re watching Wreck-It Ralph together for the 15th time and can’t help but be astounded by how blessed you are. The easy days come far less often than the challenging ones, but if you are privileged enough to know a family in the thick of adoption, you must be willing to hear about them all.
Jamie A. Hughes is the managing editor of In Touch Magazine in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned her B.A. in English and B.S.Ed. in secondary education from Valdosta State University and her M.A. in English from the University of North Florida. She currently blogs about everything from the beatitudes to baseball at tousledapostle.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @tousledapostle.