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The day she walked up to us—her hair in braided pigtails tied with strawberries, high leopard print boots and a dump-truck on the front of her shirt—my heart melted. Years of tears awaiting her arrival gushed uncontrollably down my face. A baby birthed from my own womb or a girl of three walking up concrete steps of a Chinese apartment building come with the same joys, fears, and unknowns. Though I didn’t know who she would be until she began to blossom, I promised to fight and struggle for her. Through thick and thin, we promised to carry her baggage to make her load lighter, and the toil we’ve endured together has forever linked our hearts.

Since that day, I, too, have been carrying a lot of baggage. Adoption is a mixed bag of emotions, expectations, burdens from the past, and fears for the future. Trauma, processing disorder, sensory disorder, attachment concerns, disassociation, fight, flight, freeze, and cognitive disabilities are just a few of the articles I carry around. These are among the many labels given to my daughter that I must sort through to find the real her.

 
THE CALL TO ADOPT

I’ve talked with many families over the years who are adoption-curious. They ask why we chose to adopt as they consider it themselves. A trend toward adoption arose in the early eighties for Chinese girls and then again in the early 2000s among churches voicing a call to care for the orphan. Both born out of different reasons, they’ve paved the way toward making adoption ‘trendy.’ Consequently, more and more families have their lives touched in some way by adoption.

I am not an adoption expert. I am simply a mom who heard God speak through Scripture and responded to a personal call and conviction to adopt. This is why when someone comes to me considering adoption, the first thing I ask them is “Are you called and committed?” It often offends the one I’m asking, but I do so because at the end of the day, while adoption looks lovely and sounds glorifying, the hairy truth is that it’s hard, and some days you have to face the very shameful feeling in your gut that says, “What did I do? Can I send him back?”

If you are walking down the path to adoption, treat it like you would marriage or birthing biological children—you are answering a call, you are stepping into a covenant; this is an eternal commitment. This covenant reflects the everlasting, unbreakable love of a God who does not give up, walk away, or make a return on any investment. He’s sold out for us and, in turn, we must be sold out for our children.

THE REALITY OF ADOPTION

Within months of being in the presence of my daughter, I began to feel less of the intense love that poured out of me over her the day we met. It wasn’t because she wasn’t lovely, but because I didn’t feel loved by her. She cringed under my touch, distanced herself from me, and desired only to lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling. She only cared to be with me during meal times, when I became her greatest joy. Needless to say, I began to consider all the books I’d read preparing me for attachment issues and the ways they failed to speak to my need or ability to attach.

The unspoken expectation when we adopt is that our kids will automatically love and adore us for ‘rescuing them.’ The reality is they don’t feel rescued. Why would they? They’ve likely never known love, much less how to receive or give it, and in fact, chances are they don’t consciously recognize their previous situation was all that bad. Their brain, unbeknownst to their bodies, trains them to compartmentalize their past for survival, not relationship. This leaves them unable to know what is healthy, safe, loving, caring, generous, dependable, necessary for life, kind, or even real. We mistakenly look at them as if their early brain experiences were the same as ours. When our expectations don’t align with their behaviors and communication, we begin to feel confused, hurt, sometimes angry, and want answers so we can fix things. We take it personally.

 
A BURDEN TOO HEAVY

I am no different. Yes, I wanted answers to better understand why my daughter struggled to speak her feelings rather than act on them, why she cried every time the math homework came out, why she cringed when she’d done something wrong, or why she zoned out with a blank stare on her face at dinner. I wanted answers because the bags I’d been carrying were becoming a burden neither of us could bear. Our misunderstandings were like a ticking time bomb on the verge of exploding. Neither of us could see past our feelings as our relationship continued to crumble. Deep down in my heart of hearts, I wanted to fight for my daughter to have freedom from her ‘survival mode’ brain, but I struggled to get past my own selfish desire for instant gratification.

As parents, we want the best for our children, but we often want it to come easily for us. Sometimes wanting the best feels more like wishful thinking—especially if the relationship feels out of control. It didn’t take long for me to throw up my hands and cry out to God for help.

 

PAINFULLY HUMILIATED

We traveled for assessment after assessment, looking for answers to illuminate our plight. In the beginning, I believed if we could just label the ‘problem areas’ it would be an easy fix. But the names given to my daughter’s behavioral responses and cognitive struggles did not ease my worry. In fact, they humbled me even more, fueling my cry for help. In my lowest moments, God began shining a blinding light pointed straight at me—the actual problem. Like a filmy froth boiling up in a broth, an ugly truth began to bubble to the surface of our situation. The problems didn’t all lie in the circumstances of my daughter’s past—they were also in my own heart.

Adoption painfully humiliates and refines a parent, and I mean this in a good way. Those of us who choose to bring a wounded child into our lives must be willing to face our own personal wounds. It is painful, soul-wracking work. One must be committed, willing, and courageous. As I ruminated over my daughter’s diagnosis, I learned she is a brave fighter, a gentle spirit, a wounded scared child, courageous, thoughtful, and a survivor. What the tests really revealed was my inability to see my precious daughter with empathetic eyes and my failure to love her with the deepest of compassion.

You may think I am naive, even a failure. The truth is, I’ve read the books telling me how to have mercy for my adopted child and I’ve read the articles on how to attach. There is no lecture, however, that can teach an adopted parent to step away from our ‘fix-it’ mentality until God illuminates the darkness in our own hearts. And that darkness is different for each of us.

 
TENDER MERCY

As I sit in counseling sessions with my daughter, it dredges up hurts in my own childhood that have influenced my parenting in ways I never noticed before. Her healing has also been the beginning of my healing.

Adoption means we must courageously take our child by the hand and be willing to unearth personal hurts, misguided expectations, past influences, and painful memories in order to heal together. We face the sometimes hidden spaces in our hearts that are breeding unrealistic expectations that perpetually hurt our little ones. They don’t need us to act brave and in control or hide our feelings. They need to hear us say: “I am hurt too, I am not perfect either, but by God’s grace and love we can both be healed.” God desires solidarity in our sufferings and uses it to bring healing. Together, hand in hand, we walk through each other’s pain as a team—not us against them. We wade through the muck of life together, depending on God to see us through. I never would have learned this lesson without my daughter.

If adoption has taught me anything, it’s shown me the tenderness of God. He lavishly loves without expecting it in return. He humbly sits with us in suffering without complaining, He loves us despite our wounds, and He welcomes us to the family without needing to prove ourselves worthy. He is the God who listens to our grieving hearts and gently wipes away the tears. He is the Father of adoption, and we, as His children, are chosen by God and precious to Him.

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1 comment
  1. Thank you for your poignant words. They crashed into my soul at various angles as I read, Some brought comfortable familiarity, others poked me sharply. I’m mamma to a nearly 28 year old young man with non verbal autism (he speaks a bit but most don’t realize or understand his words.) My now deceased husband and I adopted him at 5. We were so ignorant of how to parent him and faced every obstacle you described. I failed so miserably as he grew into wounded manhood. He lashed out so frequently through his pain, and I became his main target. God has so graciously brought much healing for us both from those days. I’m grateful. Yet even now over 20 years later we still have our struggles. He’s a believer now and walks with Jesus with a huge limp. He still carries so much pain. I long for the day he finds freedom and with it the ability to live pain free. And I long for the day he and I can be fully free to lavishly love the other without pain nearly always somehow intersecting. Someday. By grace. All will be made new. Blessings on your continued journey.

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