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.


  1. Love this post, and it reminds me of the a-ha I had when watching Inside Out: that memories and shared experiences are sometimes the glue that holds us together, especially through tough times. I love how you found such a resonant experience to have!

    1. Thanks, Lori! I'm thrilled you found that takeaway from watching Inside Out. All I understood was that sadness isn't "bad" and I think that theme was meant for the children. Apparently the deeper parent themes were lost on me.

      We are so thankful for this experience. Matt and I even both admitted we've had moments of "This is the most grateful we've been that we chose to live on the East Coast (rather than in CA)."

      This adventure was life-changing in a way I couldn't have ever imagined. You are so right. It's like the glue that's holding us together.

  2. Wow. You are amazing. The amount of patience you are showing is truly inspirational.

    1. Thanks. I promise you this: The patience is a work-in-progress. My beautiful children are amazing at highlighting my every character flaw. And there are many.

  3. What an amazing adventure! I'm not used to thinking about the challenges of adopting children out of trauma (vs as babies) so I'm glad you write about it with such honesty.

    1. I first read your comment early this morning and thought you were saying you were planning to adopt older children! Thanks for reading and responding. It is different, AND my children are making me better. They have a knack for exposing my frailties.

  4. You are an inspiration! An amazing momma. I look up to your courage, patience and love. Thank you so much for sharing this over at #bloggerspotlight link and Pin-it Party. I do appreciate it and hope to see you again! Pinned!


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