I’m here sharing some of the things we’ve learned by growing our family through adoption. You can read Part One here.
Here we go …
Being in close relationship with a hurt person is emotionally draining.
Oh my, do I wish I prepared myself for this.
Never mind, there was actually no way to prepare myself for this adoption reality. Some things are better left a mystery until the grace of God helps you bear them, one day at a time.
I anticipated a high level of physical exhaustion when we adopted two young children, but the emotional toll was far more difficult.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase: Hurt people hurt people. I imagine you’ve experienced it in your life to some extent.
Well our guys were 4 and 2 — so very young — but they were wounded. And they hurt people. As our social worker heard some of our stories, she said, “I am amazed at the sophisticated level of manipulation that can come from children this young.”
It was a survival tactic, a way to get attention. There were other parts of their story at play too, that led to this extreme need for self-protection through manipulation.
The other was an obsessive need for control.
When hurt people are hurting it feels like the very best thing they can do is dissolve into tears and run to you and say, “I’m hurt and I’m sad,” and let you draw them close. Isn’t it funny how rarely that happens?
Young children exhibit their hurt in the most un-lovely of ways. They do everything to push away the people who want to help them heal. They are prickly. They are sullen. They fight tooth-and-nail against what you know is good for them. And it is relentless.
Here’s another mystery: it’s understood in the adoption world that the kids most often exhibit this behavior to their adoptive family, the people who want to be closest to them. Often they will appear perfectly sweet and normal to the average person, even extended family. That’s because you aren’t a danger. You aren’t the one trying to peel back the layers, reaching into that terribly wounded and guarded core.
If you know someone who has adopted older children I beg you, please believe their stories. Chances are they are not exaggerating. They are not being dramatic. They aren’t being negative. These things are really happening to them and will keep happening for some time until their precious children begin slowly to trust and to heal. Please just listen to your loved one — no judgments given. Do not tell them they’re exaggerating and they just need to loosen up. Ask what they need from you in this season. And by all means, keep praying for them.
This has taught me more than anything else what the love of Christ is for us broken, wounded sinners. We do the exact same thing with Him (or at least I do). We numb ourselves and distract ourselves and lash out against others and make excuses — anything but become vulnerable before Him and draw close and let him bind up our wounds.
So hurt people hurt people. And then those hurt people hurt people.
I saw it at play in myself, I’m ashamed to say. I was under such strain and exhaustion from the battles that I lashed out at the people I love. I distracted myself rather than sit still before God and let Him minister to me. I lost my temper and many times grew resentful of my boys.
As for the manipulation and comments, a wise friend told me, “Never, ever let them know that it bothers you.” The more you smile and fight back with kindness, the more quickly they learn that that kind of behavior gets them nowhere. They don’t have the power to crush you.
And I’m here to tell you, she was right.
It was very important for me to show solidarity with the boys’ birth mom, since I was compared to her night and day. I speak kindly of her and she always speaks kindly of me in front of them. We became friends and they couldn’t pit us against one another. It was important to show solidarity with David, because they tried to drive us apart. It was bewildering, really, this need to pit the people in their world against each other.
They had different ways of acting out against David and me; I experienced a lot of the manipulation; David experienced a lot of indifference.
But friends, there’s so much hope! Our boys have learned that passive aggressive behavior and manipulation do not work in the Gentino house. We tell them, “Use honest words. Say what you mean.” And they’ve come a very long way in learning to communicate their feelings in much healthier ways.
I guess I would tell a fellow adoptive parent to find ways to fortify yourself against this emotional battle.
You will feel utterly drained. You will have little emotional margin. Take care of yourself. Try to exercise and get fresh air when you can, even if it’s just a 10-minute walk. Try to pick one simple non-taxing hobby that makes you happy and carve out 20 minutes a day for it (read fiction, yoga, work in your garden, knit).
Find a safe friend you can vent to who will pray specifically against this spiritual battle in your home. Please try to find a fellow adoptive parent who will uniquely understand how you feel.
I would also ask you to do something I learned to do: keep a hand-written, running list of good things you see in your adopted child. Of things you like about them. Of victories. Of ways you get a glimpse of their little heart softening, wanting to let you in. Even if that glimpse only lasted 30 seconds. It helps.
I’m thankful for friends and family, and an amazing social worker who promised me at the very beginning, “You can text or call anytime and tell me anything. Nothing will shock me or make me judge you.” This was a gift.
Find ways to laugh with your spouse, your friends, your kids.
Silliness heals. Playing goofy games and tickling heals. We sang dozens and dozens of songs together; no matter how dreadful the day, we ended nearly every night singing Twinkle, Twinkle or Row, Row, Row Your Boat and smiles.
Adoption will bring out the ugliest parts of yourself. This is a good thing.
I never knew how much of a sinner I was until we adopted the boys. David would say the same thing. Stress and trials bring out the worst in us. The sort of constant 24-hour-a-day stress of adopting older children with a difficult past is kind of crushing.
I never knew I had an anger problem until our adoption.
Well, I do. I have a big anger problem.
I was stressed and complaining all the time. Family members and friends who I want to look good in front of saw me snap at my kids and speak harshly to them.
It was humiliating.
This level of self-discovery was terribly distressing to me in the beginning — and some days still is. I felt like a complete failure, every single day. I wanted desperately to be a better mom. I berated and rebuked myself and generally made myself more miserable than my adopted kids ever made me.
You know what?
That was pride. Plain and simple.
I raged against God, How could You let me act like this? Why don’t You change me, make me better? Why won’t You answer my prayers?
It seems that the motivation for those questions was wanting to look good in my eyes. Wanting to feel good about myself. Wanting people to feel good about me. Wanting, deep down, to be independent from God. I wanted a gift from Him more than I wanted Him.
Now, by God’s grace, I am learning to think about this outpouring of sin a little differently.
It’s a gift. He is rooting around, digging up weeds that have laid hold to the good, green growth in my heart and are choking it. He’s making me face the truth about myself, so that I can be more free in Him.
The second truth is this: it is a long process. I will not master my temper in a month or a year. I will not grow more patient tomorrow. I will not become wholly content by Christmas. Maybe, perhaps, I’ll grow in mastering these things over a lifetime. I’ve spent too much time and energy raging against this slow process. I want God to change me now, make me a good mom now.
Lately I am embracing His will for my life in a deeper way.
For reasons unknown to me, it is not His will to change me in an instant. Will I sit still and wait? Will I submit to His process? Will I become needier and more dependent on Him because of my impatience and my temper?
Will I believe that my greatest need is not to be an awesome mom, but, as Sinclair Ferguson says, to know the Lord better?
Will I believe that He delights in me as His precious child, that He enjoys me? Will I spend time with Him, getting to know Him, rather than just asking Him for things and then running along my merry way?
It helps me have more patience with my children to understand that I am on a journey just like they are. We all of us have a lot of growing up to do.
God knits families together in so many different ways. It is always hard, but a wondrous thing to experience.
Like Rosaria Butterfield says, adoption involves pain. There are other ways to grow a family that can be beautiful and painful; for example, blended families with step-parents and step-siblings. Or single-parent families who have a close community of friends to lean on.
It’s a truly lovely thing to see God’s faithfulness in these “out-of-the-box” families. He can knit hearts together, over time, that do not share the same genes or all the same memories. He’s in the business of making things new.
And so we’ve emerged from the battle with two boys who are still learning what it means to truly connect to a family, but who have made tremendous strides.
Our boys are not defined by their past or by the term “adoption.” They are so much more than a label, just like we all are.
Their story has great dignity to the God who’s writing it, and He uses it all for their good and His glory. I firmly believe that.
We’re in a blessedly sweet season of not thinking “adoption issues” most days. We aren’t getting many tough life questions. The boys know their story in simple terms and they are at peace with it, for now. I know that as they grow and transition developmentally, more questions will come.
That’s okay. We’ll be here and we’ll be ready.
For now there are many gifts.
Gabe runs up and gives me spontaneous hugs and kisses — something I never, ever thought I’d experience with him.
We have these pure, lovely moments, laying on my bed together, chatting. They aren’t asking me for things. They aren’t complaining. We just see each other and we talk about nonsense and we giggle.
There’s an immense love among the four siblings, who really all adjusted to this process of being a family quicker than David and I. Judah sits and reads a book to Noah on the gold chair. They gather at the table for games of Uno. When Gabe or Noah gets hurt and cries, Amie says, “Come to Amie’s Hospital! I’ll help!” They follow David around, incessantly asking to help with projects.
As I finish up this post our four kids are on the trampoline with neighbor friends, battling and shouting and laughing.
Gabe and Noah needed a family, but we also needed them. So much. Our life is richer and happier and far more colorful because of our boys. God uses them daily to stretch us and teach us about His love and provision. And just to make us smile.
Of course there are still question marks in my mind, things I fear in the quiet moments. But I’ve seen His faithfulness in bringing the six of us together, in making Gabe and Noah part of His covenant family, and I rest in the knowledge that He will do abundantly more than all we ask or think. He already has.
My capacity for love and my capacity for pain and my capacity for joy has grown.
I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.