So it’s been 15 months since we adopted our boys. I’ve sat down maybe half a dozen times this summer to start this blog post, but I always end up feeling cotton-brained. Perhaps that’s a reflection in and of itself.
But here I am today, finally, with a few thoughts from someone who’s very much still in the thick of it all:
We’ve come a long way.
I just cannot believe how different things were in our home, even a year ago today. We were smack in the middle of The Crazy, and I wish so badly that I could comfort that momma and tell her, “It’s going to get so much better, I promise. You will survive this. Your husband will survive it. Your kids will survive it. There will be moments of peace in your house again.”
It’s actually a comfort to think there’s a good chance that the me of next year may look back on today and say the same thing. Because even though we’ve come a long way, it’s still really hard sometimes.
I remember tucking one of the boys in bed after a particularly difficult day and praying, “God, please change this child’s hard heart.” And suddenly the thought struck me, almost like an audible voice: “Julie, what about your heart? Yes he’s a sinner and he’s wounded on top of that, but his acting out is producing all manner of rage and impatience and self-righteousness in you.”
I felt immediately convicted and repentant. It’s true.
And so now instead I pray, to paraphrase a Ray Cortese sermon I heard once, “Father, please change the hardest heart in my family: mine.”
Thanks be to God, I’d say that we’re growing in the right direction, all of us.
Shared memories are priceless.
The very best part of reaching our one-year mark as a family of six was knowing that Gabe and Noah had experienced a full year of holidays and traditions and travel with us. It became exhausting to try and prepare them for every new experience, mostly because I know they recognized they were the odd ones out, who didn’t know about the particular person or place or experience, and that caused them anxiety.
By now it’s impossible to overemphasize the power in simple comments we hear, like, “Noah, last year I got to put the star on the Christmas tree, but next year it’s your turn,” or “I don’t want to go back on the big green water slide at the church retreat,” or “Daddy, will you buy lots of fireworks for 4th of July this time?”
I can tell Gabe still holds some of that anxiety, because every plan or errand of the day is peppered with, “Have I been there before?” or “Have I seen that before?” But as he sees, again and again during our week, that yes, he has been there and seen that before, I pray it gives him a sense of settledness and place in our family.
Love grows. So does trust.
It takes time to grow love and trust. If there was one thing I could tell parents who are adopting older children, it would be, “It’s okay if you don’t immediately feel love for this child. Don’t panic. It will grow with time.”
Our social worker told us that adoption is like an arranged marriage; you make the lifetime commitment first; then you let the affections follow. I guess I’d tack on that, like any marriage, arranged or not, you can’t sit idly by and just wait for the warm fuzzies; you have to fight for them. You have to move in the direction of love — move toward this other person — even on the days you don’t feel a bit of it (perhaps especially on the days you don’t feel it).
So I guess it requires this mixture of waiting and work that I’m still scratching my head to get right.
I remember sitting on the sofa next to Gabe on the first day that he and Noah were in our house, watching cartoons and asking, “Can I hold you?” I carefully reached for him, and when he didn’t resist, I pulled him onto my lap. He didn’t even turn to meet my eyes, just gingerly perched right on the edge of my knees, eyes glued to the TV screen. It felt surreal to have to make a conscious decision to sit and hold my child on my lap for the first time. But we were strangers to each other.
In our first weeks with the boys, they allowed us to hold them, yet their bodies were rigid. We peer at photographs from those days and see them in our arms yet twisting away from our bodies. Not only that; they would let anyone hold them. I was gripped with fear and jealousy when Noah ran away from me at the playground, arms held up, to the first mommy he found who had a snack.
In the beginning I felt like they showed affection to everyone but David and me. And of course it makes sense: we were the scary ones, the ones who wanted to get close. The ones who set boundaries and made them eat healthy food and carried out consequences when they disobeyed.
And yet, sure enough, love and trust were being built up, like the colored wooden blocks of a child’s tower, in millions of small moments. In some mysterious way those moments even include discipline and the setting of boundaries. Many times I’ve wanted to speed up the process, for all of us. But that’s not the way humans work, especially humans who’ve had trust broken.
One day last week I asked Gabe if he wanted to lay down on my bed and take a nap with me. He’s done it before, and was happy for extra attention from Mommy; and so we stretched out on my bed in the slanting afternoon sunlight and I spread the green woven blanket over us. He lay there, very still next to me, for a couple minutes. I peeked over at him and smiled, and his whole face softened as he reached out for me. In the same moment that I pulled him close, he wrapped his limbs up in mine, even our fingers interlaced, and fell fast asleep.
It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. And it was beautiful because I had to wait for it, because of the tears and hurts and his often prickly exterior towards me. It was beautiful because I didn’t ask for it.
Grief is cyclical, not linear.
I should’ve known this one. Isn’t it true for adults? We’re caught by surprise when we think we’ve worked through something and moved on to a place of healing, only to have a song, a smell, a photo jolt us back to that hard place and cover us in waves of grief.
That’s how it is with our boys. We work through issues and think we’ve found a new normal, and then one moment something jerks them back to the pain and loss. It’s that much harder because they don’t have words to fully express what hurts. A lot of times it just looks like anger and acting out.
I long to be the kind of mother who lets my kids move through grief in their own time and their own way. I don’t want to pressure them, but I do want to talk about it. Honestly, sometimes it’s easier not to talk about it, especially when a child wants to pretend it didn’t happen. But I know that down the road of silence lies secrecy and shame. Emotions grow bigger if you stuff them, until one day they’re so terrifying you shut down to keep from facing them. And if you shut yourself down to the hard stuff, you shut yourself down to the good stuff too.
We are a family who talks about the hard stuff. Sometimes we just sit and cry and don’t talk at all.
I need so, so much wisdom for this process. Wisdom that I don’t have but I’m begging God for.
Of course we’ll be alert to the possibility of therapy in the future, but for now, we’re so thankful to see good fruit from grieving. We’re thankful that those moments are now the minority and the boys are growing happy and silly and affectionate.
The kids are alright.
Probably the question I am asked most often right now is how Judah and Amelie are doing, one-year post adoption. Of course it was a huge shock to their system, adding two rambunctious little brothers to our relatively quiet home. There have been tears and anger and struggle.
That’s a big reason that we chose to hunker down and focus on the boys’ behavior and obedience right away; we wanted to pave the way for good sibling relationships. The only way I know to do that is for mutual respect in a household. We don’t allow name-calling or put-downs. Our house is a safe place. I didn’t want the boys to have the reputation as the wild little brats who constantly terrorize their siblings. I knew that with love and consistency they could rise to the challenge.
And they have! Of course they’re still little boys, and Judah and Amie have had to change too — to become more flexible and open-handed with their things and (hardest of all) with their parents. It’s been infinitely valuable for them to have their world stretched by their two little brothers.
Today I say with gratitude that they have good relationships with both their brothers, and are still growing even closer. Gabe and Noah are learning to be kind and considerate. Judah and Amie are learning to use gracious words with their brothers and not expect the worst from them, but to give them a chance to show they’re growing and changing.
I’d say their struggles at this point are just normal sibling frustrations, as differing ages and a couple of wildly different personalities clash. Even with those normal battles, one of my greatest joys in life right now is seeing all four my kids grow in friendship with each other.
I love my life.
David was eating lunch with a friend and they talked about kids. His friend said, “I’m a two-kid person and my wife is a six-kid person, so I guess we compromised by having four kids.” He asked David about him and me and David said, “I actually think Julie and I are both two-kid people who suddenly found ourselves with four kids.”
That made me laugh because it’s so true.
We’re both of us introverts and can be fussy and particular and easily-annoyed. We are control freaks who like a clean house and quiet mornings to sip coffee and read. Two kids was awesome. Four kids is kind of nuts.
Four kids is not clean and quite. Four kids pushes and pulls and chafes against all our quirks. Four kids does not make for quiet mornings to sit and sip coffee. Four kids raises our blood-pressure.
In short, four kids is probably the best thing God could’ve done for us.
And you know what? We love our life.
Okay, not in every moment. But in big, broad strokes, we love our life and we want our life. Two two-kid people followed God and were pushed beyond what they thought they could bear and came out the other end with this life that’s loud and colorful and messy and so very rich with people.
I hope and pray that all of these children make us a little less fussy and particular and easily-annoyed.
We’re growing to be four-kid people. And we’re happy about it.