Thursday, May 19, 2016

Adoption is Awkward

Awkwardness in Adoption is the exact reason I started writing. No matter how diligently we prepared to bring our children home, one barrier could not be removed:  Our sons didn’t know us as parents and we didn’t know them as sons.

And we were only going to be family because they had lost their first family.

Adoption is born out of loss. Our children are beautiful. We are becoming a beautiful family and we love each other.

The contrasts in the above statements are complex and uncomfortable.

It’s no wonder adoption is awkward.

Our Children are Misunderstood

I do not wish to speak for my children, but I know they are misunderstood because- for a long time- I misunderstood them. [Tweet This]

At times, I still do.

It took me years to begin to understand my children were mostly communicating through their behavior. Even though their behavior was often alarming to me and even dangerous to them and to those around them, it was the only way I could begin to understand how they were feeling and what they were thinking.

Their behavior was a gift and as I finally began to respond appropriately and empathetically, my children became less stressed and began to learn skills they needed to thrive in their new environment.

Unfortunately, we failed consistently for the better part of a year. As behaviors alarmed us, we became slaves to fear. Eventually, anger informed most of our interactions with our children. We didn’t understand. Their schools didn’t understand. Sunday School didn’t understand.

And the adult responses to my children’s behavior told them clearly that they weren’t good enough for any of us.

Even as I consider how much better life is these days, I wonder how often my children are misunderstood today. Their experiences have been complicated. I long to be a good listener and I long for my children to be understood.

When they’re understood, they are accepted and loved.

Because my children are inherently lovely.

Adoptive Parents are Misunderstood

During our first week as family, I spent about forty hours gathering the correct legal documents I needed to enroll my children in school. (Somehow nothing current or useful had been included in our five-inch binder of imperative information from the state.) About fifteen hours were spent trying to access healthcare because our children were placed with us from another state and there was a sixty day waiting period for insurance. And we all had Ringworm (some on their scalps). (While dealing with this fiasco, I learned that in some states being in foster care promised the worst medical care in the developed world. It took me fifteen seconds to Google search how to treat Ringworm on the Scalp- something my children’s “doctor” clearly hadn’t picked up in medical school or in her years of practice. Or by using Google herself. I could go on...)  About seventy-five hours were spent holding one of our children who was petrified and could not regulate his body to keep himself out of danger. (In fact, his scared body seemed to be drawn to life-threatening behaviors.) At least two hours were spent attempting to call my child down from a play structure on a playground when he refused to come home with me. (That only happened once during our first week because we stopped leaving the house out of fear for our lives.)

In my spare time, I was attempting to fix things that were constantly being shattered and smashed while hoping we wouldn’t be evicted from our apartment due to the noise, chaos, and broken stuff.

When you do the math, you realize I was often holding a scared child, while on hold with the school district, and drafting an email to my children’s former caregivers. After our children went to sleep, Matt and I would unearth the power tools and fix stuff until we finally fell asleep. Matt would then wake at 3:45 am, daily, to rock our most scared child when he would wake up trembling.

All the while, my phone was ringing nonstop with people - genuinely excited about our children- who wanted to get together for play dates.

And the pastor’s wife wondering when I would return to lead the Children’s Ministry.

It all went straight to voicemail.

Some of you may be wondering, if we were so prepared, why hadn’t we prepared our community? The truth is- we tried to. Still, some people believed their prior misconceptions. To them, we were “getting two children who were already potty trained.” It’s as if we had adopted to “skip all the hard stuff.”

While it’s good to realize some people will refuse to acknowledge depth and hardship, if I were to do it again I would prepare a concise letter with documentation and cited sources to describe our expectations of becoming a family. I might even ask for feedback as it would have been helpful to have at least known whom would have the ability to process the information and respond in a way that made our relationship a safe one to continue in.

Please do remember this, friends:  Your loved ones are making up for months and years of lost time with their new child. Their children need their new parents as a newborn, a toddler, and an elementary school child- often all at the same time. Your friends are struggling to meet these complex needs. They cry tears over their child’s losses and they wonder if they’ve done the right thing by bringing their child home. They don’t even know if they can meet a small percentage of this precious human being’s intense needs. Your friend may not have the ability to answer her phone. She may not have the ability to shower once weekly. She likely can’t invite you into her house as her child still does not understand whom his new family is made up of.

She will be grateful for every meal, bag of groceries, or jug of milk you drop off on her porch. Your handwritten notes of encouragement are priceless to her. Your ability to listen to her unique challenges without judgment is a rare find.

We Need Consistent Community

I want to be clear, I’m not angry about the awkwardness of adoption. However, I do want to expose it. The more our families are known, the less isolated we feel. The less isolated we feel, the better we love our children. The more our families are understood, the more our children are accepted and the more others begin to empathize with their unique struggles and love them where they’re at.

Our children are treasures.

And due to the misunderstandings and awkwardness around adoption, they are often judged unfairly.

Posts on Attachment in Adoption

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Gift of Meeting Hope

I’ve mentioned before how awkward it has been for me to develop empathy for two of my children. In fact, even the gesture of giving simple gifts to my children who are adopted can be painful for all involved.

I met my two sons when they had already endured more trauma than any human being should ever have to endure. We shared no natural history. My heartbeat, scent, and voice were foreign to them- and theirs to me. When we were placed together as family, my children had no reason to trust me. Their previous experiences taught them they could not both survive and trust me.

I’ve had to learn to interpret each behavior, each word, and body language so I can attempt to communicate with my very own children (who, have no reason to feel like they're my children). They're stuck in a new culture and have no reason to believe it’s going to be safe. Fun, is not only unexpected, but also undefined for them. Trust is alien.

After experiencing unexpected negative results from giving gifts to my two children from hard places ,I began to wonder...

Was it because they lacked confidence? Did they feel unworthy? Was it because they were disinterested in the gifts? Were they uncomfortable because the gifts hadn’t been earned? Was it because the actual event being celebrated triggered intense feelings of loss?

Or was it because, to them, I was still a stranger and the last person on earth they wanted to share such special moments with or get a gift from?

I don’t know for certain the answer to the above questions. It’s possible my children won’t ever process their particular discomfort verbally.

Still, I need to learn how to show my children I love them.

And I am learning.

What my children enjoy more than a boxed gift from me is the experience of being known by me. As I surprise the boys with a carefully chosen library book devoted to their interests, they're able to genuinely smile. As I build holiday traditions around their obsessions (e.g. bacon), they cannot contain their joy and they come to trust us as the tradition repeats annually. As we enjoy simple pleasures, such as going to our favorite beach or playground together, we build a foundation of shared history.

Bacon, thoughtful Library Books, Shared Experiences, and Dependable Traditions far outweigh any cheerfully wrapped package I could ever gift my children with.

Because, my children from hard places- like all of us- first want to be known and treasured.[Tweet This]

And beyond anything, as their mom, I want to know and treasure them.

So when I realized how truly touched by and obsessed with Dolphin Tale my children were, and when I realized we had a spring break coming up, I started thinking about an unbelievable gift opportunity. For the very first time in our five years as family I was convinced I could give my children a gift they could accept (other than bacon). They would feel known. They would feel loved by me (and by their dad too).

I was giddy at the prospect.

So I contacted Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) and began making travel plans. We were not going to do this thing halfway.

As anticipation is the enemy of anxiety (in our family, at least), I didn’t explain our trip to the aquarium to our children until we had traveled 1,496 miles via minivan to Florida, spent two-and-a-half days playing on beaches, and had arrived in the parking lot at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

In the parking lot, I told our three big boys that I had spoken to some of the CMA staff  mentioning how incredible each of our children are and that the staff wanted to meet them.

They beamed, speechlessly.

I did not mention they could be meeting one of the CMA’s three dolphins because, in my correspondence with the aquarium, they mentioned their programs were dependent on animal behavior. This made perfect sense to me. I have four children. If you told me I had to make certain at least one of them was presentable to greet the public in a friendly sort of way, twice daily, I’m not certain how many days (if any. ever.) we could pull it off.

So, in the spirit of solidarity, keeping expectations realistic, and avoiding the fury of unmet expectations, we thought it best to stay silent.

When my children were ushered to the platform to meet Hope (from Dolphin Tale 2), they were stunned beyond expression. When David Yates, CMA’s CEO, met them in Dr. Clay’s office (from the movie), they were unable to answer basic questions. They reverently and gingerly touched Winter’s prosthetic tail as if it were a rare, fragile artifact on the verge of disintegrating.

Since their time at CMA, they have not stopped hugging the stuffed dolphins we purchased for them in the gift shop and chattering about about their trip. All three of our older boys dream of working at Clearwater Marine Aquarium! Our youngest (3) introduces himself as a dolphin trainer. Our previously petrified-of-all-things-aquatic child wants to return to CMA with his goggles so he can “swim with Winter” (an experience nobody has promised him).

On the Monday morning following our trip, it was clear to me, for the first time in five years, one of my sons would have preferred to stay home with our family- his family- than to complete his ultra-safe-predictable routine by going to school.

Trust has been impacted. The gift has been received. Meeting Hope brought our family together because, us bringing our children to Clearwater Marine Aquarium to meet Hope, gave our children the gift of connection- a connection with Hope, a connection with staff members who love Hope and Winter, connections as siblings, and a deepened connection with us (their parents).

As a result, our family relationships are becoming more natural.

I may never know the feeling of watching the joy on two of my children’s faces as remove a giant red bow from their first new two-wheeler.

But, the week following our trip to CMA one of my sons and I shared more smiles and eye contact than we had in the several years preceding.

That’s miraculous.

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