It’s the middle of December and our sweet dude has been home for close to two years – roughly 21 months. And man, what a 21 months it’s been. Has it been what I expected? Well, no. And then again, yes. And also, who knows, really? I think our expectations got thrown out the window on Day 1. Only to be replaced, thrown out again, replaced, thrown out again. I read something early on that said, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” So we’ve been trying hard to let them go, and yet our humanity renders that nearly impossible. For me, expectations are just so messily entangled with hope, and hope — well, hope is essential in this crazy journey of adoption.
Without a doubt, I can tell you that I’m not the same person I was 21 months ago, or maybe I’m just more aware that I’m not the person I thought I was 21 months ago. Metamorphosis is good, undeniably (especially when it involves learning to be more like Jesus), but it is also painful. And there’s this infamous poem in the special-needs world called “Welcome to Holland” that’s about how when we expect one thing in life but end up with something else, it’s easy to miss the beauty of the thing right in front of us. It’s really, really, really sweet, and if you read it you’ll understand why it’s a staple in so many circles. I can’t imagine how much salve these words have applied to tender mama hearts in the almost thirty years since it was written, and I respect that, truly and deeply. I love that words alone can have such power to heal.
But if I’m honest, really, brutally honest — there have been so many times in the last twenty one months where I’ve just wanted to scream, “I’m not in *@#&% Holland!!” There are no tulips, or windmills, or cute wooden shoes. No lazy bike rides along the river, or stunning Rembrandt’s to distract us. There are no blonde girls with matching braids and interlocking arms harmonizing folk songs in my ear as I work through the trauma of mothering a child who wasn’t touched for the first three years of his life. I’m just. not. there.
Okay, I know, I KNOW, I’m being a teeny overdramatic. For one, our sweet boy was certainly touched many times in his first few years. He was fed and clothed and had his diapers changed and teeth brushed – he was touched out of physical necessity. But he was a chore, even if well-tended. At the baby house they actually told me (surprised one afternoon that he fell asleep while cozily nestled in my toddler carrier) they couldn’t believe he let me wear him, since he hated to be touched by anyone. Now, if you’ve met our little warrior, you know he ONLY likes to be touched. He doesn’t like to make eye contact or use his teeth or touch food or try new things or walk up stairs or take a bath or play with toys or ride in the car or get dressed or take off shoes or … you get the picture. But touched? Yes, please. All the time, any time. He is ravenous for human connection, but has no idea how to receive it other than through physical contact. I don’t want to imagine what that lack of connection did to his little brain, the damage it wreaked on his innocent and fragile developing psyche.
And I know, full well, that we made a choice to get on this airplane, right? I mean, I actually wanted to go to Holland. I knew it might not be as flashy as New York, and I was aware that it would be more work than laying on a beach in Fiji. But I could see the beauty in it and I was willing to do the work. I understood that I signed up for hard, I did. And yet, I’m just not sure you can ever be prepared for all the things that might go along with that. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought it would be different, that I thought he would be different. Sometimes I’ll be following another family’s journey and when I see pictures or videos of their children (with the same diagnosis and from the same country), I’m met head on with this unfulfilled expectation. Oh, I think to myself, I thought he would be more like that….and it’s terribly unfair to the beautiful boy that I love, and so then guilt and shame accompanies those thoughts.
I felt somewhat prepared to handle the difficulties E would face because of his Down syndrome, at least as much as I could be. And truthfully, I think we’ve handled those well. His Down syndrome often feels like a non-issue to me. But I wasn’t ready for what is probably a dual-diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism, and the autism piece of this is very difficult for me honestly. Once when we were in the middle of the adoption process someone ask me if I was nervous about mothering a babe with Down syndrome, and I casually responded that the DS diagnosis just didn’t scare me, that I would be much more worried about my ability to parent a child with say, autism. Ha! And I definintely wasn’t ready for the emotional exhaustion that comes from loving a child with attachment issues. i’m not sure how anyone could be. And I didn’t even come close to grasping the deep and devastating scars of early childhood trauma. And yet here we are, learning daily how to love him well, maybe love ourselves better in the process.
To further complicate things, it’s impossible to tell where one thing stops and another starts, so I’m constantly asking – is this the Down syndrome? Or is it an autism issue? Or maybe it’s just the effect of his early childhood trauma? Then again, could it be an attachment thing? Should I handle this situation differently depending what’s at play? Is this something that may change over time? Does it even matter? And that vortex of swirling thoughts just creates incredible self-doubt — it’s maddening, really, this inability to help him work through these things. To feel like you don’t really know your own child. You start to think, “If I was better at loving him, X behavior would be different …” or, “He’d probably be doing so much better with a mama who knew more about X…” No matter how many times you tell yourself that those are lies from the enemy, that the truth is you are the exact mother he needs and family is family and it’s not about your abilities it’s about never giving up on each other, you still start to feel like you’re failing. Failing this kid, failing yourself. And Joyce Meyer says that it’s impossible to enjoy anything when you’re afraid of failing at it. And wow, is that ever true.
So yeah, I’m not in Holland. It turns out I’m actually on a really long layover somewhere else. And I can’t be certain, but it reminds me more of the slums of India (at least what I remember from the painful scenes in Slumdog Millionaire). Although I could be wrong, because I’ve had a hard time picking my head up to look around as I navigate my family through the dark, desperately holding tight to little hands so we don’t trip over the broken glass or step in all the garbage. And the crazy thing is, I actually knew this layover was a possibility. I’d read it on other people’s flight plans. I didn’t go in blind—I read all the things, ha ha, to make sure I was informed and aware of any possibilities. It’s just that somehow I assumed we wouldn’t stop here. I don’t know why, maybe I thought we were lucky. Or, at least I thought if we did, it would be much shorter. Like maybe we would wade through the hard for one or two months and then rock out life after that. Like rocking out life at all times is an attainable goal anyway, right? And I think that in my arrogance, I also thought that if we did stop here, I’d handle it with grace and beauty. I would rise. I would lean hard into Jesus and demonstrate what it’s like to have peace in all things.
But the reality is I’m still selfish. More so than I ever realized. And when things get hard, my tendency is to just try harder, instead of trusting in the One who gives peace. There have been moments honestly where I don’t recognize myself. Moments of anger and frustration that I’m not proud of. And there is something called secondary trauma, which is the idea that regular exposure to their child’s trauma can actually affect parents, and I think there was definitely a period where I was experiencing common secondary trauma symptoms. It’s hard sometimes to reconcile who you want to be and who you currently are. To accept that life is a process, and our emotions and growth modulate and fluctuate and all of that is okay. So yes, there has been impatience and frustration and exhaustion in my heart, but also, there has been love. A fierce love, a mama’s love. And our boy is lucky to also have a Daddy who loves him to the moon and back.
And that love matters. Love doesn’t fix everything, that’s for sure. It’s not a magic potion, a cure-all. Adoption isn’t a fairy tale. But love matters. It’s matters to him and it matters to me. And here’s the thing – there is light starting to stream into this place. We are seeing cracks in ceiling, and rays are trickling in. For whatever reason, the last couple of months have brought out changes in our boy. Nothing huge, but little things, and we’ve learned to celebrate the little things. To see the awe and beauty in something that might seem ordinary to someone else. The kids have a book called “Last Stop on Market Street” and these words ricocheted off my heart the other day,
CJ looked around as he stepped off the bus.
Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors,
Graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores.
He reached for his Nana’s hand.
“How come it’s always so dirty over here?”
She smiled and pointed to the sky.
“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ,
you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
CJ saw the perfect rainbow arcing over their soup kitchen.
He wondered how his nana always found beautiful
where he never even thought to look.
There is beauty everywhere. In everything. You just have to look for it. You have to be willing to work for it. Sometimes, in our grief, our exhaustion, our survival-mode, it’s more work that we can handle. But when we catch our breath, when we regain a little strength, it’s time to move forward. To look more closely. Ellis is, without a doubt, a totally different boy than the one we met two years ago. He has worked so hard and come so far, and I’m forever proud to be his mama. And I’m changing too, slowly, but thankfully. More aware of the work to be done in my heart, but grateful for how far I’ve come. Content to be where I am, determined to always keep working.
So there it is –- this is where we’re at almost two years after bringing Ellis home. It’s amazing and it’s agonizing. It’s beautiful and it’s painful. We are great and we are struggling all at the same time. The contradiction is just the reality of it. And it’s possible that one day our layover will end and we might be allowed to head on to Holland. But I think there’s some danger in hoping for that – in wishing you were somewhere else, thinking that place is the promised land. That in a new place things will be as you always imagined. You are where you are. And for me it’s not about finally making it out of here, but about embracing the here, working hard to see the beauty in the place we are right now, being willing to shine a light on the dark places, and trying always to find hope. And I offer that up weakly, not as an expert, not sure of an absolute answer. I am but a fellow weary traveler, trying to figure out the best way to walk this road. I know that I want to walk it with joy, regardless of the condition.
I was recently introduced to the Benedictine rule, “Always, we begin again.” And I think that’s the key for me – knowing I will make mistakes and let my kids (and myself and my husband and other people) down, and they will make mistakes and let me down and things will sometimes be great but sometimes be incredibly hard and that is okay and that doesn’t define us – there is always another chance to do better. His mercies are new every morning. I have the choice to keep trying. I can’t promise perfection, but I can promise to never quit. As my friend Leonard Cohen pointed out, love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah. Always, we begin again. Always, always, always.