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.


#AdoptionTip: The Menu Board

While we were preparing for the adoption, we did a lot of thinking about the things that we could do to take a few of the question marks out of the kid's daily life. We came up with two different boards - one was an hour-by-hour schedule, and the other was a menu that showed lunch and dinner plans. Peter designed and printed out both, which we then inserted in picture frames, making them easy to hang, and good for using with dry erase markers (the glass is easy to clean).

While we were still in country with the kids, we used a portable version of the schedule board with them, and even though it was somewhat helpful for that period of time, we soon realized that it wasn't going to be something we would use once we landed on our home turf. It was too restricting for us, and (contrary to most adoption "best practices") we wanted to teach our kids flexibility rather than teaching them to stick to a schedule (something they were already used to doing from their time in the children's home, and flexibility was a foreign concept).

The menu board, on the other hand, was a hit from day one. In those early days, I needed it to help me keep my sanity. After 16 years of flying by the seat of our pants and going with whatever dinner sounded good for two people, my brain was on overload, and the last thing I needed to do was try to figure out what we were feeding our new tribe of seven. Since it felt like I was walking around in a constant fog, I would not only write down the menu for the meal, but everything I needed to remember to put out with it (so if we were having chili, I also included all the sides - chips, Greek yogurt, cheese, fruit), which also meant that Peter didn't need to see inside my brain to be able to help, he could just look at the board. Win-win.

As the kids began to learn English (and later on, as the younger ones have learned how to read), the board gave me another sanity saver - I didn't have to answer the same question ("What's for dinner?") five times. I may still have been saying, "Look at the board!" five times (or more), but it was easier than listing off the menu plan over and over, and it also avoided the inevitable, "But I don't like that!" comments that usually came when I would tell them verbally what the plan was. If it's on the board, it seems to be less of an argument. They know I've been to the grocery, they know that's what I planned for, and there is no point in trying to debate it.

But since we also believed that they needed to have some say in what we ate, we've used the menu board in different ways over the last 21 months that we've been home. Very early on, we assigned a day for each child to pray for the meals (5 kid, 5 weekdays, with Dad and Mom getting the weekends). We went through a period where everyone was whining over our daily meals, so, for a stretch of time, we had the kids choose the menu. If it was your day to pray, you picked what we were eating for dinner. When other kids didn't like it, all I had to do was point a finger at a sibling and say, "Don't take it up with me, they chose the menu." It was liberating for me, and helped teach the kids that their choices mattered and they should take others into consideration when making them.

These days I'm back to making all the meal selections, but at the bottom of the menu board, we have a section titled: Requests. In this space, anyone in the family can write down foods that they would like to eat. They quickly learned that things like ice cream and candy didn't make the cut, but other items, like chili and aji de gallina (a fantastic Peruvian dish that Peter makes), did. The menu board is second nature now. As soon as a meal is over I erase what was in that space, thinking ahead to the same day next week and writing down (in a different color dry erase marker) what we'll be having a week from then. It keeps the board moving forward, and gives stability to the kids (and to me, as I plan for grocery shopping) to be able to stop by the board and see what's for dinner next Tuesday. Whether you are planning to adopt kids who feel better if they know what's on tap for the next meal, or you just need a visual to aid in making a grocery list, I cannot recommend (some variation of) the menu board highly enough. 

As a side note: we've had several of our kid's friends over to eat with us or spend the night, and we've heard back from more than one parent that their child came home talking about our menu board and the fact that we all eat together as a family. Every. Night. Sure, our kids ask for tablets (they aren't getting them), and they want more time on the computer (our oldest has to read a book for an hour - or more - to earn an extra 30 minutes), but what they have slowly been learning is that it's the little things, the simple things, the things they take for granted (knowing what's for dinner, eating together) that their friends go home talking about. It's been healthy - for them, for their friends, and for us. 


Mirror, Mirror: How Our Children Reflect Our Spiritual Condition

One of the aspects of becoming a parent that no book prepared us for was the way our children are a living mirror to us of how we must look to God (except that God is patient and loving, and we are, well...). I was prepared for the kids to come with all manner of bad habits and lack of manners, but when you're living with it - day in and day out - the frustration mounts as you repeat over and over again, "Say thank you, stop whining, don't hit your sibling, how many times to I have to remind you to flush the toilet..."

Very early on in this journey, Peter and I were talking about ideas to put an end to the whining, and during our conversation I found myself saying to him, "Ugh. This is so hard! I don't want to do this anymore!" {Insert pregnant pause} And then we both glanced at each other before I said, "You know, for as much as we hate whining by our kids, you and I sure do a lot of it!" Mirror, mirror. Reflections of ourselves.

This spring, after one particularly good section of time (when everyone had been given new things, everyone was happy, no one was fighting, and Peter and I kept pinching ourselves to see if it was real), three of our children informed us that they wanted to go back to their birth country. One wanted to go back now. One wanted to go back with a sibling. And one wanted to go back - but only after all the fun events that were coming up over the next year took place. The point was, by the time the third child said, "I want to go back... can we go back to..." I was ready to throttle them all.

I wanted to shout at them, "WHY?! You ungrateful little twirps!! There's no one back there who cares about you or loves you like we do! You had no freedom, no opportunities, no actual friends. You didn't have an amazing extended family or Church family like you do here. What in the WORLD do you have to go back to that's better than what you have now?!" Now, bonus point for mom, I held my tongue, nodded my head, informed them - calmly - that when they were 18 they were welcome to go wherever they could afford to travel, and continued to drive them to their various schools and activities (with a marvelous attitude, of course!).

Later in the day I was venting to Peter via text message, and God proceeded to give me an out-of-body experience. I read what I was writing, I thought about what I was saying and how the kids were responding so poorly to grace and generosity and love, and I began to chuckle. You see, I've lost count of how many times over the last few months I have said to God (and to Peter), "I just want my old life back.Mirror, mirror. Egypt was so much better. 

This journey of obedience has given me more understanding of those stubborn Israelites. Almost five years ago, God began to answer my prayers to be led out of the spiritual desert and do something with my life that would make an eternal difference; but during that time, I have whined (see above), complained, and longed for the easy life - the one that I had been praying would end. When God brought us all the way to the end of the official adoption process and real life with 5 kids began, my wails of frustration and fear switched to whiny statements about how much better it was before, and how I wanted to go back to the way it was, and regularly saying, "I want my old life back."

Last month, God stopped me in my tracks. God used three children who were not grateful for what they had been given, and expressed a desire to go back to what - by all human standards - was a sad, dysfunctional life, with no hope for the future. In their wistful pleas to return to their former life (a.k.a. Egypt), I saw myself - rejecting what God has given me, ungrateful for the opportunity to rely completely on Him and grow in my faith. For much of my forward journey, I've been casting one eye backwards, longing for the life I left - despite the fact that I am much more God-reliant now (something I wouldn't trade for anything).

People ask me if there's anything about being a parent that I enjoy, and I can definitely say that yes, there is, but it might not be what you would expect. I'm grateful for my role as a parent because I see myself reflected in my kids, coming face-to-face with my own struggles and sin on a daily basis. I'm thankful as a parent to be feeling the regular pull of the Holy Spirit to change, open and honest in my mistakes so the kids can see changes in me, and  eventually desire to hand their own life over to God. Mirror, mirror: may my mirror cleanly reflect the God who brought me on this journey.


The Adopted Mother's Day

I've been dreading this coming Sunday (Mother's Day in the United States) ever since we first decided to adopt. 

Every year, our pastor always talks about how Mother's Day can be a bitter-sweet day for everyone. Some people (like me) were blessed with incredible, Godly moms who trained us up, loved us unconditionally, and still stand like pillars in our lives. Others dealt with abusive moms, absent moms, sick moms, emotionally unstable moms, unsaved moms - making Mother's Day a day that they do not look forward to because it's hard to honor the women who gave birth to them.

And then there are women for whom Mother's Day is just another reminder of their inability to be a biological mom for various reasons (infertility, never married, multiple miscarriages), and this day pours salt in wounds. For sixteen years, I am pretty sure people looked at me as I sat in church on Mother's Day and felt pity for a situation that did not exist in our home. As I've shared before, I never had any desire to be a mother, so it has never been a negative or difficult day for me because we were kid-free by choice.

When we finally decided to walk in obedience to God's calling, I recall one of the first conversations we had, being about how much we were both going to hate the hoopla around Mother's/Father's day - especially our first of either. You see, it's hard to be excited about celebrating something you never wanted, and being the INTJs that we are, we don't fake it well. Ol' "poker face" here doesn't hide what I'm thinking, and when people express excitement about something that doesn't excite me, they usually get a half-smile and a non-committal, "uh huh...," which leaves them wondering what my problem is. Welcome to my life.

It's already started - the "Oh my goodness! Your FIRST Mother's Day!!" comments - and I have been stammering and stuttering in my responses, trying to be kind, but royally failing. And although I was expecting the knee-jerk reaction of, "Nooooo!!! Don't be excited about this for me! I haven't been looking forward to this all my life." what I wasn't expecting was how I feel defensive of our kids. The need to protect them from all Mother's Day hoopla has taken me by surprise. 

You see, from where I stand, I see five kids who have lived with us for eight months, a relatively short amount of time compared to the rest of their lives thus far. I see certain kids who didn't want to be adopted - by us, or anyone else - but who have come a long way towards having something that resembles a healthy adult/child relationship. I see a daughter who might very well call me "Carrie" for the rest of my life, and for whom the title of "mother" is reserved for the woman who gave birth to her. I see kids who call me "Mom" half the time, and "Carrie" the other half - the title of "mom" being what they call the newest caregiver in their short lives. And there have been many before me. It may feel like a betrayal of their former life, it may feel forced when everyone around them is making plans for their moms, it may hurt that when their lives have been uprooted and changed, it is the woman who did the uprooting who gets the spotlight. This year, Mother's Day may be a little bit uncomfortable for more than just me. 

Earlier this week, we attended a "May Day" school performance for our middle daughter. Towards the end of the evening, the 5th grade class did a song which included holding up framed baby pictures of themselves - inciting ohs and ahs from most of the audience. And while tissues were coming out all around me I sat there, with my husband holding the 4 year old on his lap, the 8 year old between us, the 6 year old to my right, and the 12 year old hundreds of miles away on a school trip, and thought, "Our kids could never do that, because those photos don't exist."

The earliest photos we have of them are grainy, scanned in images from their original adoption file, taken about a year before we met them. I don't know what my kids looked like as babies. We don't have a hallway of 1-year photos. I've only just framed their first school photos from the U.S. so that we have something to look at later. For almost 12 years of her life, there's a void of photographic history for our oldest daughter. When I get to the "family history" section on medical forms, I have to write, "None known." When I'm asked about allergies, the best answer I have is, "We haven't seen any reactions yet."  These are the things I think about at Mother's Day.

People often praise us for the step we took in adopting our five kids, but the fact is: we're not their saviors. Our job isn't to swoop in so that we can now celebrate two new holidays, it was to step in and follow the direction of our Savior, and to point these kids to Him as the most important Father they could ever meet. It's our responsibility and privilege to share our adoption stories as a son and daughter of the Almighty God, and to talk about it when we sit at home, and as we walk (or drive) along the road. My job for the moment is to show them the Love of Jesus, whether they call me "Mom," "Carrie," or (as happened one morning after I laid down the law when we were late for school), "Cruella DeVil".

Every day I am doing my best to mother these kids for Jesus, so if you see me on Sunday, please don't forget our kids. Rather than praising me for being obedient to God, show them that they are loved and wanted, not only by their adoptive parents, but by the Body of Christ. This is my Mother's Day wish.