Adoption

#AdoptionIsLove & All the Other Things

“Did my birthmom give me up because my head is shaped like an oval?”

My son Harper was only six years old when he asked me that. I was shocked for so many reasons. First of all, because his head is perfect. Second, and more importantly, he was using language we hadn’t ever used. We never once said that she “gave him up.” We always said that she “placed him in our family” or that she was “not able to parent him.” Our careful word choice was not enough to change how he felt and how he felt was rejected, declined, discarded…

given up.

Four years ago on this day, we finalized Jay’s adoption. It took 19 long months of tedious paperwork, home visits from our case worker and jumping through legal hoops before this day became a reality. When I look back at the photos from that day in court, there is so much beauty and joy captured there.

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I remember the peace the kids felt when they knew that Jay’s place in our family was sealed and solidified. That his sonship was sure. There was a palpable sense of reassurance knowing that this little boy was ours forever. As our friends and family gathered with us in that courtroom, our hearts took a collective sigh of relief. We have an open adoption, and a great relationship with Jay’s first mama, so it was not as if there was some crazy custody battle. Quite to the contrary, The Lovely Miss N. - as we affectionately call her in the blog - was walking through this part of our journey with us. She too rejoiced when the adoption was finalized, because she also wanted Jay’s place in our home and family to be permanent and sure.

The fact that nobody was contesting either of our boys’ adoptions technically made things “easier” for us. Yet, as I continue to listen to and learn from the powerful voices of adult adoptees in my life and community, I can’t help but anticipate the dismay that my sons will likely experience as a result of knowing that nobody contested their adoptions. Nobody tried to stop it. Nobody fought us for them. The set of circumstances that created relatively obstacle-free finalizations are the same dismal circumstances that will cause our boys to process feelings of rejection and abandonment for the rest of their lives. Whether they were “lovingly placed” or “given up” almost doesn’t matter if their little souls question their worth and their place in the world.

I happen to know for sure, with 100% certainty that my sons were (are) both fiercely loved by their first moms. Because we have the luxury of an open-adoption with Jay’s birthparents, we have it on pretty good authority to say that they are absolutely wild about him. Due to situations that are not mine to disclose, my boys’ first moms made an impossible decision. Their choices were made out of anything but rejection or indifference. Still, we cannot possibly know how a child will interpret the actions or inactions of the adults in their lives.

And while we are entirely committed to facilitating healthy relationships between our boys and their birthfamilies, we know that there will be times of strain and hurt no matter how hard we try to prevent it. We know that there will come a time when they will confront the harsh awareness that they were “free to be adopted.” And knowing that their heartbreak is inevitable, I find these photos and memories equal parts joyful and disconcerting. The more I learn about the adoptee’s experience, the harder it is to celebrate these moments without also acknowledging the layered grief and loss involved in a day like this coming to fruition.

#AdoptionIsLove is a popular hashtag in the adoption community. And it is so true. From every side there is this imperfect, but unending love for a child. Adoption IS love. But a less popular truth is that adoption is also loss. It isn’t as trendy a hashtag and it isn’t as pleasant a view of adoption - but it is just as real, just as true.

Adoption is love. Adoption is loss. Adoption is wondering if there is something inherently wrong with you. It’s looking in the mirror, wondering who you look like, and thinking maybe your head is just too oval to be loved. Adoption is feeling given up, even when you were lovingly placed. As I tucked my boys in to bed tonight, I asked Harper if I could share this story from when he was a little boy with all of you. I said that I think it’s important to tell the truth about the good things and the sad things about adoption so that people can understand all of it a little better.

He gave me his permission. And then he added this,

“You can tell them that I said that when I was a little boy, but it’s okay to tell the things I worry about now. Like... I don’t think it’s because of my head anymore, but I still think it’s because of something. I just don’t know what it is yet. Maybe knowing that I still wonder will help people to understand the sad parts.”

I am thankful, beyond thankful, that I have the joy and responsibility of raising these two little crazies. I am thankful for the days that the states of New York and New Jersey said that they could be ours forever. I am thankful that I know - even when they don’t - that their first mothers would die for them in an instant. I am thankful and overjoyed, to be sure, I just don’t know if all the other feelings we have about adoption will ever quite fit into a hashtag.


 

Day 11: Being Unshockable

Okay Frank Fans, we have MADE CONTACT! If you have no idea what I'm talking about then you need to go back and watch THIS. Tonight we finally got ahold of Frank on the phone. He and his wife and daughter are coming over for dinner (and the cake presentation ceremony) on October 27!!! I will do everything in my power to force Tom and Frank to let me make a video so you can see their reunion. Frank was genuinely touched that Tom remembered those things so many years later... and he said it didn't hurt to get some brownie points with this wife. #yourewelcomefrank

For Day 11, I treated this cutie and her mama to lunch. (Okay, maybe not her... she treated herself to throwing cheerios and sugar packets.)

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I spent time with her and later, another friend who are navigating the ups and downs of foster care/adoption. We spent hours talking through issues with attachment, openness with first parents, and how to help siblings cope with changes to the family dynamics. I certainly don't have all the answers, nor am I an expert on the topic, but I have spent countless hours researching different approaches to loving a traumatized child. I have tried everything under the sun to help my son heal the wounds of a severed attachment and I am pretty sure I have logged enough hours with my son's attachment therapist to count as an intern.

A few years ago, our friends Brandi and Danny helped us create this video that would explain to people what our family was experiencing. It is strange to watch it now because we have come so far as a family. Most of our days are still hard, but they aren't like they used to be. During those really intense years, I felt like there wasn't a single person who could understand what we were going through. I prayed for just one person who had gone through it before us with any measure of success. I longed for someone to be unshockable. Someone who had answers and tools and parenting tips that actually applied to my life. Someone who would say "here's how to get urine out of the heating vent." or "I have a potion that will magically unbleach all your clothes." 

There was no such person for me. Partly because I was afraid of opening myself up to the inevitable judgement (we were often bombarded with advice that really missed the mark) and partly because people didn't even know that Reactive Attachment Disorder was a thing until recent years. There weren't many parents who walked this road before us (at least not with tools) and that kept me feeling isolated and lost. Today, I got to be the lady who walked the road first. I got to pass along the tips and approaches that worked for us. I got to encourage and reassure and remind them that however they're feeling is normal in our little abnormal world of trauma and detachment. I was unshockable. 

This may not seem like much, but I got to be the experienced mom that I prayed would come into my life years ago. As I was leaving this discussion I realized that God has taken every last thing I have learned through this process and he has made it useful. He has taken our hard days, months, years... and with them has worn a path for other families who are a few steps behind us in this journey. During the worst of it, I begged that God would equip me to be the mom Harper needed. I think I can finally say that - at least for today - I felt like I was.

 

Are Kids "Lucky" to be Adopted?

I have never been so thoroughly pursued by a man in all my life as I have been by my four year old son. I am telling you, this child proposes marriage - not daily - but hourly. And those are on his weaker days! Sometimes the professions of love and desperate proposals come incessantly. When he kisses me goodnight, it is with both of his sweet, almost-always-sticky brown hands pressed on each side of my face (a romantic proclamation of my beauty is usually involved at this point) and then he kisses me in a frenzy of uncontrolled emotion. With these bodacious lips.

It is the most adorable and unnecessary display of passion I've ever been the recipient of. And it happens all. day. long. Quite simply, the boy is in love. But, there is something peculiar about the urgency and intensity of his affections for me. It has taken me some time to put my finger on why exactly that is. He seems almost desperate in his expressions of love, to the point that he seems almost exasperated by it.

"I'm gonna marry you so much!" and "I'm just lovin' you, UGH I'm just lovin' you so MUCH." He picks flowers for me every time we step foot outside - one bunch of dandelions "for now" and the other handful "for our wedding tomorrow, or yesterday." I have never met a four year old boy so preoccupied with getting married. So, I decided to get to the bottom of his romantic shenanigans.

After several long discussions, I think I have come to a place of understanding. He is afraid.

Jay was about 24 hours old when I first met him in the hospital. His first mom, the lovely Miss N., and I had been in contact over the phone during the weeks leading up to his birth. Tom and I developed a fast connection with her, and because we had already had a previous adoption fall through, we knew that the child she was carrying may not end up being part of our family. And while common sense, previous experience, and all of our loved ones told us to be cautious, we loved her. We weren't thinking about "protecting ourselves" or "not getting too attached." Our relationship with her was developing not because we hoped to parent her child, but because she is adorable and not loving her would be impossible. We made a promise to her that we would be there to help and support her in any way she needed, regardless of the decision she ended up making. She invited us to come to the birth and seemed firm in her decision to place Jay with us when he was born. Still, we reminded her that giving birth is an unimaginable game-changer, and we wanted her to have plenty of room to feel free to change her mind if she felt at any point that she wanted to pursue parenting opposed to placing him with us. We tried to be supportive and encouraging throughout the emotion. To be completely honest, as much as we loved Jay from the first moment we laid eyes on him, we were pulling for her to parent. We really believed she could do it. 

For her own personal reasons - reasons that are hers to tell, not mine - she allowed us to be his parents. It was a gift, a great responsibility and an honor, of course. But it was also a tragedy. 

For a baby and his mother to be separated from one another is always an utter tragedy. The grief that Tom and I experienced on their behalf was minuscule in comparison to what they endured. This is true for both of our children who came to us through adoption. And while it looks so different for them both, every single day I see the primal wound that this separation has inflicted upon my babies. And their first mamas.

Since realizing this, Jay's romantic advances, while precious, have become just like every other aspect of adoption. There is a bitter-sweetness underlying every kiss, a complex fear of being apart from me that drives every impassioned sentiment, a child's desperate attempt to guarantee that he will never lose another mama drives every marriage proposal.

Both of my boys are perfect, but they are both hurting in their own way. They both long for the security that comes from a mother's love. People often downplay the pain that adoptees endure, assuming that a child who was adopted in infancy "never knows the difference." These same people will watch nature documentaries and marvel that a sea turtle can travel all over the ocean and make its way back to it's home. (I don't actually know if sea turtles do that, but you get my drift.) If an animal has a primal instinct to find it's way home, how much more does a human child have that same pull?

And I may not know much about sea turtles, but I do know this... my boys, in some sense, will always be longing for home. And people say that they are "lucky to have us." But, when my nine year old son wakes up with his heart pounding in his chest because he dreamed of meeting his beautiful birthmom for the very first time, lucky isn't how I'd describe him.

Whether they can understand all the nuances at this point or not, they will always know that in our home, they have the right to feel sad about their adoption. And they have the right to feel happy about it too, and angry, and confused, and relieved and all the things. Even... unlucky. 

My prayer is that as they grow and mature, and really begin to feel the weight and implications of their adoption stories, that they will forgive us for all the ways that we could not meet their needs, for every shortcoming and every imperfection. My prayer is that our flaws will only make them long for another home, and eternal home, where our perfect Father waits to hold them and love them and meet every need they ever had. 

Spanking in Public & How to Parent Like a Total Boss

I'm pretty sure my kids' principal saw me spank my husband in the school parking lot. I know what you're thinking...
"nbd, we've all been there." Right? That IS what you were thinking wasn't it?

No? Just us with the spanking?

Alright, well... if you'd had our morning you, too, would have some celebratory victory-swatting going on in public. Because this particular spank was about 3 years in the making. 

It all started when our son (now 9 years old) was in first grade. He needed some extra support because we were seeing signs of Reactive Attachment Disorder, yet were not aware of what he was actually struggling with. Without a diagnosis, there is very little support, so we ended up pulling Harper out of school half way through first grade. We had a tutor come to our home for an hour a day just so he wouldn't fall behind, but academics were the least of our worries. We spent that time home doing a lot of - what we lovingly refer to as - baby-ducking. Baby-ducking is a part of the therapeutic approach we were taking, and it's a really fun little descriptor that essentially means that your child is following you around 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ya know, like a baby duck. I know it doesn't sound bad, but I assure you that it's pretty exhausting and much less adorable when baby duck (thinks he) hates your guts. 

By the time we enrolled him back in school for second grade we were working closely with an excellent therapist who specializes in disordered and insecure attachment. We had comprehensive testing done to ensure that Harper not only had a diagnosis, but all the tests and evaluations required to meet New York State's criteria to receive special education services. But here's the thing... we thought that was all we needed. We thought, "we don't have to be "those parents" who go in and demand all kinds of services, because our kid has a legit thing." And this "thing" is no longer an illusive, mysterious set of symptoms that make me look crazy. Finally, we had a well-documented, official DSM certified Severe Emotional Disturbance!! (You know you're in a rough patch when that last sentence is the good news.) Still, we thought we had everything we would need.

We were wrong.

Apparently, we needed to get to a point where I ALSO had a severe emotional disturbance.

Check, annnnnd check. (See post about the time I went B-A-N-A-N-A-S here.)

After the bananas, we knew that we had gotten to the point where we were willing to be "those parents" and we then requested another CSE meeting. So, on Thursday my husband, Tom, and I went in. He was a total boss. To be fair, he was the kind of boss who is so steady and relaxed, you wonder if he might be stoned... but he was a boss nonetheless. (*He was also not stoned, mom, so settle down.) He's just really calm and so nice by nature that he can't even be a boss in an unpleasant way. He (waaaaaay over-)prepared information from some intimidating group called something like The Justice League of Super Hero Lawyers for Moms About to Lose their Ever Lovin' Minds. And before the meeting, he even sent a semi-scary email, in which, he took a firm and serious tone.

It was pretty hot.

Riding Tom's over-prepared coattails, I closed in with an impassioned speech about why Harper truly does need to have an aide assigned to him - at least during unstructured times, like recess, lunch, etc. I didn't cry or start spontaneously swearing, which is how I usually imagine myself unraveling in these high-stress scenarios because I have been teetering precariously at the edge of insanity all school year. 

So here we are, at the end of third grade, and WE HAVE ARDENTLY AND SUCCESSFULLY ATTAINED AN IEP!!

Not only did we get that Individualized Education Plan in place, but we have secured a 1-to-1 aide for our guy during all unstructured times - which is when a child like ours really needs the extra support. I had been told repeatedly that getting an aide for him would be an impossibility. I mean, MULTIPLE times, I was told "It's never going to happen." 

So, forgive me if I walked out of that building with so much relief and empowerment that I spanked my husband while aggressively sports-yelling at the side of his face "We did it son!"

How was I to know that the school psychologist and principal would be right behind us? After our performance, one could only have assumed that all other meeting participants would still be in the conference room, doing slo-mo replays of our boss-like successes in parental advocacy. How was I to know that they would just leave the meeting after it was done? When such dope parenting had just taken place before their very impressed eyes, how could I conceive that they would have the wherewithal to move on to the parking lot?

Ah well, at least they didn't see all the chest-bumping and athletic growling that I forced Tom to participate in when we got home.

Actual photograph of us on Thursday morning...

And all Thursday night...

And well into Friday...

Wave after wave of glorious relief on Saturday...

Then Easter Sunday we took a break from all the fanfare, to celebrate a much greater victory... Jesus overcoming death and evil.

But this morning, I'm not gonna lie. The sense of triumph came back full force. 

Next year, this child of ours will go on to a bigger school, with more transitions, more kids, more freedom, less structure. This is good for a lot of kids, most kids in fact. For my child, however, this transition was like a train heading straight for us. We kept seeing it approach, the speed never changing and all we can do as parents is anticipate the damage that will be done on impact. So, we prayed and prayed and prayed. And Tom prepared and prepared and prepared. And I went just a titch ballistic. And we became "those parents" because the alternative was simply too dangerous for our kid. 

So... spanks all around. Because I know that this taste of relief is temporary. This rare and glorious optimism that maybe next year will be a little better and little easier than the last, is fleeting. We needed that victory spank. We needed a triumph. Because even though we really do believe in a God whose only son was sent to earth to triumph, once and for all, over death and evil... we know that life on this side of heaven, is still wrought with train after train, pain after pain. And though we have fought long and hard for our bizarre little children to feel a little safer, a little better, on the tracks... life always has another train ready to barrel over us. It sounds a little doomsday, I know, but pain and suffering are just a reality in the life of a human and I accept that a new obstacle, a new train, will be set in our son's path. But, we've worked really hard to learn our stuff, to drop the right names, to know his rights, so until we stare down that next train... we get to bask in the sweet relief of a temporary win on earth, and an eternal win beyond these earthly tracks.

And when you are in that place - a place of hope and favor and full, unrestrained joy... a place of amazement at God's faithfulness in this victory and the victory on the cross - you really must spank someone in the parking lot. Because these moments are all we have to sustain and energize us as we over-prepare for the next fight, like a total and complete boss. 

 

Life in the Tension

Sometimes I like to imagine what my kids will remember me teaching them throughout their childhood. What will stick? Will they remember all the "I love you's?" Will the "you're so brave's" and "tell me about your day's" be the words that become fastened to their memory? Or will something else overshadow the sweet and encouraging sentiments? One thing I frequently tell them that they find less favorable (but I am certain they will remember me saying) is "that is not a real problem." Let's run this down so we are all clear on what a real problem is in our house.

Scenario 1: You are four years old and you have no food to eat. At all. Ever.

Correct, that's a real problem. 

Scenario 2: You are four years old and you do not like "beet taste." 

Not even close to a real problem. (Also, beets are delicious.)  

Scenario 3: You must spend a half a day walking to a source of (questionably) drinkable water. 

Yes, this. This is a real problem. 

Scenario 4: Your food touches.  

No. Having your hot, nutritious food touch other bits of hot, nutritious food? That is - comically - not a real problem. 

You can see how they might remember me saying this. Because it is said frequently. And trust me, we are a big 'feelings' house. We talk about our feelings, we validate each others feelings, we use lots of expressive feeling words. There is no shutting down how they might feel about beets. This is a safe space to feel strong dislike for "beet taste." While I strive to always hear and even affirm their feelings, I don't pretend for a second that this is a real problem. 

I was discussing this with my friend Megan the other day. (Some of you might remember her from previous #AdamsActs posts about the heartbreaking loss of one of their sweet little twin girls, Zoey.) Megan and I were discussing our very low threshold for problems-that-aren't-really-problems. I think that low threshold is directly correlated with experiencing great and tragic loss. It changes you. It changes your perspective on what suffering is. It changes your capacity to tolerate complaints about that which is not a real problem. 

When facing challenges of various kinds, the leaders at our church will often use this phrase, "This is a tension to manage, not a problem to solve." Ugh... I love this, and oh how I wish that this concept would go ahead and just embed itself in my memory already! There are some challenges in my life that I have viewed as problems I desperately need to solve. Or avoid. Or feel sorry for myself about. These "problems" are not really problems to solve, they are simple tensions to manage. 

Instead of graciously managing the tensions, I have tried to control the tensions. I have tried solving the tensions. I have attempted to escape or avoid or blame the tensions. Shoot, I'd punch the tensions in the face if I could. Yet, nothing changes... the tension remains.

I recently shifted my definition of a problem to something more like this: a problem is only a problem if there is an actionable step one can take to work toward a solution. If no actionable step can be taken, there can be a lot of tension. That tension needs to be managed in a healthy way.

Parenting a child with a pretty severe behavioral disorder can feel a heck of a lot like a life-consuming problem. Except for one thing... there is no actionable step that I can possibly take to work toward a solution.

I must live in the tension. 

I can pray in the tension. I can cry in the tension. I can seek wise counsel in the tension. I can adjust my attitude about the tension. But I cannot solve it. I must accept it. 

The focus then is not on how to "solve" my son's disorder, but on how I can remain emotionally, physically and spiritually healthy enough to manage the tension that surfaces in light of my son's disorder.   

You may be wondering, "Who cares? What's the difference?" But the difference is everything. It's the difference between overwhelming shame that I cannot heal my child, and accepting him where he's at in his process. It's the difference between feeling exhausted and infuriated by the sheer volume of time spent supervising every little move, and recognizing our family's need for respite in order to prevent that fury and exhaustion. 

The difference is the understanding that I cannot play the Holy Spirit in my child's life. In the tension, I can only manage my own reactions, my own health, my relationships. But in the tension, I can know that I did not cause my child to have Reactive Attachment Disorder any more than I can cause my child's aversion to the glorious taste of a perfectly roasted sugarbeet. 

I did not cause either of these phenomena, and I cannot "cure" them either. I can only manage myself in the tension. 

It's hard to suffer well. And the greatest suffering occurs when there is no actionable step to take, because we cannot solve our way out of our pain. We cannot bring back the child that died. Or the parent who left. We cannot heal the primal wound that is left within the child who is separated from his first mother. 

We must simply learn to live, and accept, and love, in the tension.

So, when my five little ones are all grown and they reflect back upon their childhood, I hope that what they remember most is all the expressions of love, encouragement and adoration. Yet, I don't mind if they also remember me clarifying the difference between a real problem - real suffering - and something that is simply a tension to manage. Not only do I hope they remember hearing me speak these truths into their life, but I hope they remember me living, and loving, in the tensions... and teaching them to someday do the same. 

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Jay, age four, confronting his greatest fear, a beet.