Looking for Common Ground

I don't do a lot of adoption advice, because if adopting these 5 kids has taught me anything at all, it's that each child (and each adoption) is completely different. What worked for one of our kids may not work for one of their siblings. And our adoption story may strike a chord with you, or you may be wondering why it was so terrible when yours was so great. Either way...I just don't do a lot of advice.

However, I did want to share something that we do that has turned into a tradition of sorts, and could be something for you to consider - especially if you're newly returned to the U.S. and facing a language barrier, or if you've adopted (or are fostering) an older child.

One of the first things I ever did one-on-one with our oldest daughter (age 12 at the time of adoption) was to take her to a paint-your-own-pottery place. In the beginning, the kids were all at different schools, and school holidays and vacations rarely aligned with each other. This would leave me with days to kill with our oldest who was refusing to speak to me (and definitely did NOT like me). I knew she liked to draw and paint, however, so one day I told her that we were going out to lunch and then to a pottery shop. Despite her scowl and "I don't care" shrug of the shoulders, I could tell she was excited to be doing something, even if it meant being with me.

I introduced her to 5 Guys (burgers & fries), which she reluctantly ate (and now loves) and then we drove over to our local pottery shop and I told her she could pick anything to paint. It took her a while to decide - but it took me even longer to choose, and I suddenly heard her thickly accented English saying, "Come on, Carrie! You take so long!" It was almost the most she'd said to me (other than angry outbursts in Spanish), and she was actually smiling because she was giving me a hard time. For the next hour, we sat in relative silence while we painted, but it was the most pleasant interaction we'd had since we'd met.

Of course, when the other four heard about what we'd done, they all wanted to go and do the same, but I held off for a few months, wanting it to be something special for her. Something that she and I had done together, giving us a first good memory. These days, we grab my mother and head over to the pottery store every spring and fall break from school. One can only paint so many mugs before it becomes excessive, so this last time I decided to start an ornament collection. An ugly sweater memory of how quietly painting gave us common ground, even if it was only for an hour. 

If you've recently adopted and are struggling to find common ground, why not try something out of the ordinary? Paint pottery, visit an ice cream shop where you can select your own toppings, trek out to a corn maze or pick your own pumpkins. Mere hours after we arrived at home with the kids, we were all out at a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm, making our first memory as a family. We went again last year. And this year, our oldest heard about an Operation Christmas Child event that the youth from our church were going to help with, but before she signed up, she wanted to make sure it wouldn't interfere with our tradition of Black Friday Christmas Tree cutting. Traditions matter, so look for something you wouldn't normally do and start building those memories.


She Doesn't Call Me "Mom"

When we first saw the case file for our five kids, we knew right away that these were the children God had chosen to place in our lives. But that didn't stop us from having some significant concerns about certain aspects of the potential adoption.

Our biggest issue, apart from there being a boy (and the practicality of where he would sleep in our home), was the age of the oldest child. Her personal history, as spelled out in the file, was a difficult one. There were times when I felt myself boiling with anger over what she had experienced in her first eleven years of life, and times when I feared what she would bring with her into our home. Despite the on-paper assurances that she was excited about being adopted (which did not turn out to be true), I had an innate sense that if we said yes to this, it would be hard. Was it ever!

And then there was the reality that, by the time the adoption was finalized (she was 12 at that point), we would only have six years with her in our home before she turned 18. Six years to make an impact, six years to share God's love with her, six years to try to cope with everything that had influenced her for the first twelve years of her life. By the time she graduated (Lord willing!) from high school, we would only have been in her life for one-third of it. That's not long, and the responsibility of it weighed on me. And still does.

When we arrived in country to meet the kids, we were met with cold stares. In the initial financial plan that was given to us from the adoption agency, there was an optional line item to have a professional photographer and videographer there to record the event. We opted out of that - thinking that it would make an already awkward meeting even more surreal. This was not a reality television show...this was actual, broken, reality.

Over the next few days and weeks, we learned the truth that the oldest girl in this family group had no desire to be adopted. In the country of their birth, because of her age, she had the power to turn us down as parents and end the adoption for herself and her siblings. She very quickly made it clear that she had no desire to leave her birth country, and she could definitely do without us. As I told her later (which shows just how far we've come!), the feeling was mutual. Although I initially felt compassion for her, that quickly dwindled with every lie, snub, shouting match, and ignorant argument that she presented us with. But even though we couldn't see a future together, God still did, and His plan - as always - prevailed, despite the attempts of man to stop it.

Our first year together was rough. She hated being with us - and me specifically - and made that clear through her behavior and words. She didn't understand our faith, but that didn't stop her from diving right into the youth group at our church, and they embraced her with open arms. When she attempted to manipulate more screen time out of me in exchange for reading the Bible for one hour, every day, I chuckled inwardly and then acquiesced to her plan (much to her amazement). I told her to start in John. Less than a week later, she asked me what to read next. I told her Romans. Before she was half done with Romans, she accepted Christ as her Savior. Then the real change began.

We're just two years into this, but it's hard to remember that sometimes when I'm cooking with her in the kitchen, hanging out in her room to hear about her day, or sharing a sarcastic glance when one of her younger siblings says something that strikes us both as funny. In so many ways, she and I could not be more different - but God has become our Common Ground. We still don't hug (her choice), and certainly have our moments of disagreement (usually centered around the amount of computer time she gets), but God has brought us so far. A year ago she used to tell me she couldn't wait to go back to her birth country...to get away from me. Now she shares how she thinks God might be calling her back there as a missionary, and she knows that I'm not here to hold on to her, but to encourage her to follow wherever God leads.

While the younger four now call me "mommy" and seem to accept that title as my role in their lives, the oldest continues to call me by my first name, which is not a battle I choose to fight. In many ways, it makes sense to me. In the past, I have described our relationship as one that is closer to a foster child/parent, just a lot more permanent and legal. On her birth certificate I am now listed as her mother, and on her school papers I sign the "Parent" line, but in her heart I have not replaced the woman who gave birth to her and impacted her (positively or negatively) for the first eleven years of her life. And I accept that. I never felt called to be a mom, and maybe that's why her refusal to refer to me as such doesn't bother me, but I did feel God's calling to be an influence in the lives of each of these kids, and I can do that no matter what I'm called. My job isn't to force my way into her life and try to take the place of her birth mother, my job is to continually point her back to our mutual Heavenly Father and leave the work of conviction and change up to Him. So she doesn't call me Mom...at least she calls me her sister in Christ. And I willingly choose the latter.   


Two Year Thoughts

Let's get real here. Sometimes I feel a little bit jealous - or it may be closer to angry - when I see people with these picture-perfect adoption stories, where everything is smooth sailing (at least to the outside world), and the child in question wants to be adopted. You know what I'm talking about, right? The videos that give everyone warm fuzzies, the first-meeting pictures that make it seem like a match made in Heaven, the happy endings and tear-jerking reunions. Let me state this clearly, for the record: that is not every adoption story. 

Sometimes I feel that the other side isn't accurately portrayed because it doesn't get the accolades that the feel good stories do...but the other side is there. The hard, the ugly, the anger, the pain... it doesn't bring in Facebook likes or millions of video hits, but it's the reality for more people than you might think, it's just that no one talks about it. It's not popular to say that you didn't fall madly in love with your kid the first time you laid eyes on them. It's not kosher to admit that you wondered whether an irreversible mistake had been made. It's not fun to hear that parents hide in closets, bathrooms, and pantries, crying over the muck that they are walking through while the outside world talks about how amazing they are for adopting. It's not easy to say you feel like an adoption fraud. But it's honest. And people, it's time to get honest. 

I've shared some of our story here, and on the Facebook page, and if you've read any of the story, you know that our adoption of five siblings back in 2016 was not happiness, sunshine, and roses. But that's how GOD was able to receive ALL the glory. Prior to making the trek to their home country to meet them and finalize the adoption, we found ourselves constantly telling people that we were neither superheros nor crazy (well, maybe a little bit crazy), and expressing as clearly as we knew how that this was all God's story and His plan and we were just coming along for the ride. It was all true, in theory, but when the rubber met the road and we were face to face with the kids, the reality set in, and rather than feeling anything like superheros, we felt like sinking ships, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what God told us to take on. In fact, if we weren't 110% sure that it WAS God's plan (and not ours), we absolutely would have bailed. 

I remember feeling physically sick as we walked up the path to the building where the kids were waiting to meet us. When we walked into the room, we had a wall of people (social workers, lawyers, and care givers) standing behind us, waiting to witness that movie-worthy moment. Only it wasn't. The kids set on a bench, squished together, while Peter and I awkwardly walked forward to introduce ourselves. What do you say in that moment? 
"Hey, thanks for joining the party. We're planning to adopt you and take you away from everything you've ever known to live in a new country, learn a new language, and live with people who are still essentially strangers. Why aren't you happy?" 
Within hours of our meeting, it was made clear to us that the oldest girl - at that time, age 12 - had no intention of being adopted by us, and had every intention (and the support of certain adults in her life) of saying, "No" when we went before the judge. And she had the right to do so. She had the power to single-handedly end the adoption for she and her siblings, and she intended to use it. You don't see that in the million-hits videos, do you?

Three days of day-trips with the kids turned into two weeks of daily visits and hours spent in the car. Our visit to the judge was postponed and replaced with visits to a child psychologist for our two oldest girls (and on one surreal occasion, through a translator, us). Our initial plan of 5-6 weeks in country was extended to 8 weeks, minimum. We had to pay to extend our stay at the rental condo, pay to extend our rental car, pay for more trips with the bus and it's (God-sent) driver, and pay for more "fun" outings with the kids (required by those in authority to prove that we knew how to entertain children). And all the time I grew angrier and angrier.

If this child didn't want to be adopted, then far be it from me to force her into something she didn't want to do. If her life in the children's home was so perfect, then heaven forbid I remove her from her unlimited access to Netflix, tablets, and video games. My life was just fine without kids in it, I never wanted to do this to begin with, and maybe, just maybe, this was God finally giving me my out! Oh yes, my friends, I went there. And then I hit bottom - yelling at God, angry tears, completely in, what Anne Shirley would call, "the depths of despair." But here's the most amazing thing: when I hit bottom - GOD WAS THERE.

Did He suddenly give me an overwhelming desire for children, or abundant love for these kids in particular? No, He did not. Did He smooth out the path and make these kids fall in love with us and suddenly become hungry for a traditional family and life in the United States? No, He did not. But what He did do was give me Exodus 14:14.

When those in authority were doing everything they could to stop or delay this process, I suddenly found peace in knowing that I just needed to be still. When our family's convictions about television were questioned and suddenly became the focus of whether the adoption would continue or end (yes, this adoption teetered on the brink because of our stance on TV - tell me Satan wasn't loving that!), I felt compelled to stick to the convictions God had given me just weeks before, and the Lord fought for me. And when our daughter found herself before the judge, fully prepared to answer "No" when asked if she agreed to the adoption, God would not allow the word to come out of her mouth and instead she answered, "Yes." When we learned to be still, God showed up in ways that I can't even begin to share here. 

We're two years into this now, and here are a few things that I've learned about adoption:
  • It gets better. In those first few months when people would ask me how we were doing, my ready response became, "We're surviving." And surviving - for a season - is okay. God kept us going through the darkest days and gave us glimpses of what could (and eventually, did) come, to keep us going. Two years out from meeting day and I can truly say that with God, all things are possible. Don't give up!
  • No two adoptions are alike. Some people may truly have those happy endings from day one - celebrate with them! But others may go to Hell and back before they get there - walk with them!
  • Stop comparing your story to the tear-jerker stories. I mean, hey, I was crying in our story, too, they just weren't tears of joy!
  • Every kid is unique. Sometimes I don't have a clue how to deal with these people who are so different from my INTJ self, BUT I know that God created them with a purpose. So when I don't have a clue what to do with them, I know the One who does, and I ask for His help - constantly.
  • There's a lot of bad advice out there. This is going to tick some of you off, but here it is: there is no adoption book that can tell you how to handle your kids, but God's Word applies to all.
  • God is in the people-changing business. He makes beautiful things out of brokenness, and does not accept a rough past as an excuse for present behaviors (that goes for all of us). 
  • Read the Bible with your kids. Show them what God says, and then let Him take it from there.
  • Love is a choice. I already knew this one, but putting it into practice with a man I already liked wasn't as hard as choosing to love angry, screaming, hateful, unappreciative children who'd already had a mom and didn't want a replacement. Every morning for the first year, I would get up and pray, "Lord, please help me choose to show them YOUR love today." 
  • Don't be afraid to talk about the birth parent(s). Our children's story is one for them to share, but I will say that our kids still have relatively recent photos of their birth mom. She was far from perfect, but kids don't see the mess, they just see their mom. Don't be afraid to talk about the birth parent(s), and, if they are still alive, pray for them with the kids.
  • Humble yourself. You are going to mess up more times than you care to count, so stop trying to control everything and learn how to be still and listen to God. 
Exodus 14:14 continues to be a theme verse for us, as parents, as we are daily faced with the new challenges and conundrums that come with raising these five for Him. Whether it's seeking wisdom on how to deal with lying, or what to do about a boy-crush, or how to handle a negative attitude, there are times with each child that we have said, "Lord, we've done what we know how to do. We've shared the truths from Your Word with them. Now we choose to be still and let you fight for us." And, surprise, surprise - He does. I may never have thousands of followers on my Facebook page, or hundreds of comments on a blog post. I may not write a best-selling book or have that trending video. But I have been given the amazing privilege of leading five kids to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and now the responsibility of mentoring and discipling them to follow Him. No social media number could compare to the joy that comes from following Jesus in His calling.


Why We Don't Celebrate #GotchaDay

Gotcha Day. It's a term that anyone in the adoption world knows well. The day when the child(ren) that now possess your last name (and part of your heart) legally became yours. Some people celebrate with cakes and balloons - as if it were a birthday. Others mention it on Facebook, collecting accolades and congratulations as they pass milestone after milestone. Yearly family photograph sessions, cutsie "gotcha day" announcements, the list goes on and on. But I have found that there's a dark side to "gotcha day" - at least for us - and that's when some of those present don't want to be "gotten".

If you stop and think about it, what's being celebrated is the permanent end of another family in order to complete your own. Does that seem like a happy occasion? Not to me. In some instances it can be a painful reminder of a time when what was considered normal (even if it was, in actual fact, dysfunctional) was ripped away, and a new life, new people, and new home was forced upon a child who had no choice in the matter. In some cases, like ours, a new country, new culture, and new language were also a part of the "gotcha" experience.

Secondary to that, when you hear someone in the movies or on TV say the word, "gotcha!", it isn't usually in a happy family environment. It's either a villain, trying to capture a child or adult who was running away, or it's said when an entrapment is successful or when the bad guy is finally caught by the authorities. In that setting, "gotcha" is a way of proclaiming that the person being "got" had been captured, with no ability to fight or get away, though that's desperately what they are trying to do. So why would that be a term that I would want to use in relation to our five adopted kids?

It's not that we don't mark the days, weeks, months, and years that they have lived with us. We do. The kids will sometimes ask how long they have been in the United States, and we count out on our fingers the number of months since we arrived at our home. They will generalize, "I've been here almost # years, and..." when talking about an experience that they've had. They will reference life "before" and "after" the adoption, and talk about "back then" vs. "now" - but it's all done in a very normal, matter-of-fact way. And maybe that's because we are very matter-of-fact people, or perhaps it's just because it's easier to divide their lives between the past and the present. We all have occasions in our lives that we base our timeline on, right? A birthday, a death, a wedding, a major vacation, a move, a job change...or an adoption.

Whatever the case, one thing that our kids know is that we didn't look at them as a "thing" to be gotten... God put our family together, much like our marriage - for better or for worse. Our "gotcha" day was not one for the picture books, nor is it something that any of us look back on with fond memories. According to the kids, we were not what they were expecting, and as for us? Well, we had no clue how to interact with these five people who were supposed to be joyous (according to our sources) about being adopted, but glared at us like we were the enemy. On "gotcha day" half of the kids flat out refused to take a family photo, even when the social worker begged them to do so, and those who did were barely smiling. The child welfare department "requested" that we host an adoption party at their offices, to celebrate this exciting day, but cake and Coke didn't make our kids happy about their future or want to sit with us.
In short, our family is only where we are today because of God's abundant grace and our gut obedience to follow Him into the storm, trusting that He would not allow us to be drowned by the waves. 
Nothing about that legally binding piece of paper or the mandatory party made a difference for our kids or us, but time has. You may get to the one year anniversary and not feel like there's anything to celebrate, or start to notice old patterns of behavior pop up. Our oldest child expressed some serious rage at me around that time, and we once again had to work through a new phase of adoption shock (I don't know if that's a real term or not, but it's what I'm calling it - and hope to write more about it in the future). But with time comes change and healing, so if you are in the midst of a fog...give it time. The day that made us a legal family was just the start of a long road. It's God who is slowly changing us from a reluctant group of roommates into a family who cares for each other and faces life as a united front.

Please Note! If you celebrate the day you became the legal parent to your child(ren), I completely recognize that every adoption story and family is different, so please don't leave a comment from a gut reaction to defend yourself. I just feel it's important to get a different perspective on the idea, especially with older kids, and encourage introspection to see if you're celebrating "gotcha day" for for the kids...or for yourself.

ALSO...while we don't celebrate the day that put a permanent end to our kid's hopes that things would work out with their biological family, we DO celebrate the month of June. That's not when they first arrived in the U.S., but it is the month that God welcomed each of the five into His family. This eternal adoption is the whole reason we followed His calling to earthly adoption. Watching them grow as Christians has been one of the most fulfilling experiences we've ever had, and definitely worth celebrating! 


God's Battles

I originally wrote this post in November 2017, but left it in drafts because it just felt too new and too raw to publish. As we approach the two year mark, I read it again and realized how far we've come since I wrote this. I decided it was time to hit publish, as a reminder that God is in the people-changing business. He doesn't do it on our time-frame or in the ways that we would necessarily expect, but each of our kids has their own, unique story, written by God, and it's a joy to watch them unfold. If you're in the midst of the hard - and we've certainly had hard (and will again, I'm sure) - take heart! God can overcome when we submit to His plan over ours. Also, if you find yourself sinking, I invite you to reach out through the comments or via a private message on the Facebook page. I'd love to be able to offer some encouragement.

This week, as I prepared to leave the 5 year old in her pre-K classroom, she came running over to plant a gentle kiss on my cheek and whisper in my ear, "I love you, Mommy!" As she waved out the windows while I walked back to the car, I felt a trickle of warmth flood over me as I thought about the difference God - in just one years time - has made.

One year ago, this same little girl would issue a blood curdling scream whenever I would attempt to sit by her or pick her up. On one particularly bad day, I spent almost two hours holding her as she screamed and screamed, calling for her big sister, calling for Peter, wanting to be anywhere but with me. As a brand new mom, I had absolutely no idea what to do, and spent most of the time praying the name of Jesus, begging for His help and guidance and intervention. I sang to her, I prayed over her (which, interestingly enough, made her scream louder whenever I would pray), and held her until she calmed down. The first battle won.

Peter had his own battle a few weeks later when one of her older sisters decided to violently act out, leaving Peter no recourse but to physically hold her on his lap for almost 2 hours while she screamed. During that time, he whispered (in Spanish) prayers (louder screaming), and a promise that he wasn't going anywhere and she wasn't going to win this fight. Security that she needed - and wanted - but fought hard against as she figured out who we were and what it meant to have a dad. These days, the first words out of her mouth when Peter comes home are, "Pick me up, Daddy!"

There is no training on this earth that can prepare you for those moments. Nothing in any book or adoption manual that tells you what the trigger is for your individual child. The so-called "wisdom" of man that promotes some kind of formula for how to help sooth a traumatic past and bind up the wounds is, in my opinion and experience, just selling a load of tripe, because only God knows the heart of that child, and only God can give you, as the parent, wisdom in the moment to know what to say, how to comfort, and what to do that will reach the heart of that particular child to begin the healing process.

Adoption Tip: If you're reading this and you're in the middle of a household meltdown that you don't know how to fix - put the adoption books down and spend some time on your knees. Ask God to help you show unconditional love to the child (or children) in your care, and seek His wisdom as you attempt to live out Christ's command to love and pray for those who spitefully use you. Dig into God's Word, and actively seek out ways to tie in the truth of Scripture to every situation you face. Ask for the Lord's help to know when to speak out and when to be silent and follow the command of Exodus 14:14.