My heart is naturally bent toward encouragement. Focusing on the good stuff. And as an adoptive mama, I can’t even begin to put into words all the ways that the Lord has blessed me through my children. The work He has done in them, and in me… good stuff.
But I have learned that sometimes the best way to encourage is to go beyond the warm fuzzies. To be a truth-teller… a person who loves by sharing the harder things – the things we don’t like to talk about – in order to enlighten and encourage those who are on a similar, difficult path. It’s no fun to go there, but sometimes it’s the only way to bring the real healing we so desperately need.
As a truth-teller, it’s been on my heart to share about a dirty secret, only whispered about in the adoption world. Dirty because of the guilty and shameful feelings it inspires. And secret because, well, who wants to share that kind of stuff? But the purpose of sharing – of bringing this yuck out into the light – is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, God wants to take what is at the root of this dirty secret and redeem it for your joy and His glory.
First a bit of background. The Lord laid adoption on our hearts, truly out of the blue, almost 11 years ago. One day we were an average-joe mom and dad to four biological kids (who had taken necessary steps to ensure there would be no more, thankyouverymuch) with our eyes trained on the future. Middle-of-the-night feedings were nothing more than a distant memory. Diapers were (almost!) in our rear view mirror. But all that changed one day in June 2004 when my husband, with shaking hands and a quivering voice, told me the Lord had called us to adopt a little girl from China. My initial reaction? He was as crazy as he’d feared. Crazier, even. But as soon as the dust settled, it was clear… this was what God wanted.
Adoption was His perfect plan for us.
Fast forward 11 months and we were in China adopting a little girl, 11 months. (Yes, we did the math, too.) And she rocked our world. I had read the books, surfed the net, asked the questions, and taken the classes. I was ready. And that was a really good thing because she and I both desperately needed it – our daughter suffered from neglect, her most significant special need. The half-dollar sized hole in her heart was secondary. We got home and cocooned for months, continued the on-demand bottle feedings, baby-wearing, purposeful eye-to-eye contact, baby massage, sign language. Attachment, at least on my end, was natural. She wasn’t born to me, but she was my girl.
Since then we’ve followed the Lord to bring home seven more precious children from China, all special needs. (Our daughter Esther passed away at 22 months, just a few months before we were able to bring her home.) And out of those eight adoptions, each has been incredibly unique. As in, absolutely and completely different. Each China trip, each child, each transition, each temperament, each personality, each response to their trauma-filled past… different. And it all colored their ability to attach and it all colored my ability to attach. For some it was as easy and effortless as it had been with Isabelle. For some it took an adjustment period but eventually evened out. But for some it just wasn’t natural. At all.
And that’s the dirty secret. Sometimes we mamas don’t feel like the mama. We feel like the baby sitter. Except we don’t get paid and we never get a break.
When this happened to me, it caught me by surprise because almost everything I’d read focused on the baby-to-caretaker attachment – and how to foster that attachment. And I was doing all that. But attachment goes two ways and, not-so-surprisingly, when the two people are both human (read: flawed) imperfect situations can erupt. Add to that the fact that in adoption there is no genetic or cultural connection, and then add the months of waiting that invariably generate an impossibly perfect *dream child* and you’ve got some serious potential for messy, messy, messy.
I confess, before I struggled with attaching to my child, I thought I was just too maternal for that to happen. But suddenly, I felt anything but maternal towards this child. *My* child. And so – ashamed, emotionally unprepared and not-so-ready to admit to myself much less anyone else – I ignored it. Made excuses to myself about myself. But it just got worse.
When we close off parts of our heart they have a tendency to get stinky.
Thankfully, along this journey of adoption, I’ve made some mighty good friends. In fact, the best kind of friends. The kind you feel safe to share even this kind of yuck with. And to my relief, I found that there are other mamas who feel the same way, for at least a season (or three). Once we all shared openly, we all felt a great sense of relief. We weren’t alone.
But we all felt pretty brokenhearted, too. For our children, and for ourselves.
But that’s not where it ends. In fact, this is where the real story begins.
This is where the Lord wants to do a mighty work – as long as you are willing to reveal and surrender those broken, stinky places in your heart. Because guess what? God knew those dark places were there a long time ago. And His plans for redemption, healing and wholeness are for your new child, and for you. Allow Him in. Heck, welcome Him in. We need rescuing from ourselves, don’t we? And we can trust that not only can He do it, but He will do it.
And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:6
Here are a few things I would say to encourage and equip my fellow adopting sojourners…
1. Know that attachment struggles are always a possibility. No matter how long you’ve dreamed of mothering this child, until they are in your arms, it is just a dream. Reality sets in, and sometimes it’s painful. If you are feeling less than loving, know that it does happen, especially in the first few months. So address it, confess it and pray about it. Get an accountability partner (preferably your husband or fellow adoptive mama who understands the complexities of this journey), set and stick to realistic attachment goals, and hold yourself accountable as the adult in the relationship.
And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. – Ecclesiastes 4:12
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Before you travel, read it all. Then read it again. Talk to other parents with differing experiences and, if possible, those who have kiddos with special needs similar to yours. (This FB group is a great place to meet other special needs mamas!) Make contacts, prepare extended family and create a community for yourself and your new child. And, in the future, you can use this network as a support to help those mamas who will come after you. It’s so much easier to endure hardships knowing God can use you to come alongside and bless others when they are enduring similar struggles.
He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. – 2 Corinthians 1:4
3. Do all you can to foster attachment, whether you feel like it or not. I am not crunchy at all. But I am one crazy baby-wearer and co-sleeper. And I encourage you, unless your child’s size simply prohibits it, to wear that baby all you can. Forget the stroller, mama. From the moment you put your arms around your child in China – carry, tote, swaddle, feed, massage, snuggle up to, sleep with, and just love on that child. As much as they’ll tolerate. Regardless of age, treat them like the emotional newborn they are.
And once home, if possible, try to have only one caretaker (one who feeds, bathes, changes, etc.) in order to foster that initial, fragile bond. For us, since I stay home with our kids, it’s an easy transition from China to home, with me being primary caregiver and baba being the “fun” one. Over the last 10 years he has been sometimes tolerated, sometimes adored, sometimes preferred and sometimes flat-out rejected. But we have just followed our children’s lead in how long they needed to emotionally establish the initial mother-child bond. It might take only a month or two (like our Tallula) or it might take more than a year (like our Poppy), but eventually they will show you that they are ready to comfortably let the other parent in. And when they do, it’s amazingly sweet.
4. Do all you can to get under the faucet of God’s grace. When the Lord reveals this dark part of your heart, His goal is to change you, not shame you. Allow Him full access and He will do a transformative work in your heart. But it it’s going to take work on your part. As we surrender territory in our hearts to Him, the more aware of our un-Christ-likeness we become. And grief is sure to surface. But immediately upon recognizing our need for Him as our Savior, He heals. He transforms. So be purposeful – set aside a quiet time, dig into Scripture, listen to podcasts, read sermons online. Even if you can’t go to church because baby is newly home, be purposeful to sit at Jesus’ feet. There is no time better spent than remembering the grace He has lavished upon you.
Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Hebrews 4:16
5. It’s not your fault. I’m pretty confident you didn’t go into this adoption hoping to not feel loving toward the little one you’ve worked so tirelessly to bring home. So if you’re feeling ashamed and overwrought with guilt, know that’s not coming from the Lord. He brings conviction of sin, yes. But condemnation, no. So do all you can to reject those feelings and replace them with Truth. And this is where the support hopefully comes in – reach out to those who have walked the road before you. If you’re already home and struggling, and don’t have anyone for support, feel free to contact us and we will do all we can to put you in touch with a mama who would be willing to be a shoulder. The Lord can and will do an amazing work, but you need to find support to help point your feet in His direction on a regular basis.
6. It’s not your child’s fault. In our flesh, it can be a struggle not to blame the child. “If he/she would only sleep through the night/give me some space/make an effort/stop being so difficult…” – the possibilities are endless for the thoughts that run through a struggling mama’s mind. But all these thoughts lead to the same place – the wrong place. Talk to yourself instead of listening to yourself and resist the desire to blame. Remind yourself that your child has endured neglect, trauma and lost everything they have ever known.
To keep my perspective I try to think of my child – the one that’s making me so angry/irritated/frustrated at the moment – as that tiny, helpless, traumatized child. The one that was left in a back alley. The one that had to stay in a hospital, alone, for a month. The one who went to bed without love, food, or comfort, way too many times to count. In the present we just see a child who is acting defensively – in response to those traumas – and it’s easy to get defensive right back. But when we are reminded of who they were when they endured these traumas, who they still are inside, it’s much easier to feel compassion. And they so desperately need their mama’s compassion. Empowered to Connect has some excellent resources for understanding the impact of trauma experienced by adopted children. And digging into the losses your child has suffered will not only stir compassion in you for your child, but will help to put your own struggles into perspective.
7. Know that God doesn’t change His mind. Adoption is God’s idea. And if He has called you to it, and called you to this child, He hasn’t changed His mind. No matter how difficult it might seem in the valleys, no matter what outsiders might say, no matter how much your own doubts cloud your mind, cling to the truth that God’s plans are perfect and God’s plans are immutable. This has been an incredible comfort to me over the years. In my darkest moments, when everything else seemed to give way under the weight of my struggle, He was, and is, unchanging.
God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? – Numbers 23:19
8. Trust that it will get better, in His timing. If you allow God into the middle of it, it will get better. This trial you are enduring might be the best way for the Lord to get into those dark places. God loves you so much, He doesn’t want to leave you where you are. In fact, He wants to make you like His Son. And don’t think He won’t use an unloveable, snot-blowing, tantruming toddler (0r teenager) to do it. But we have to cling to His promises and trust His Word in the process.
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord. – 2 Corinthians 3:18
I truly hope that you will never struggle with attachment issues. That your relationship with your little one will be as natural and easy-going as you imagined in all those months of waiting. But if it isn’t, I hope that you will be encouraged to know that you are not alone. Many have been and are still struggling. But hearts are being mended. And dark places are being surrendered. So don’t give up.
The Lord, the All in All, will prevail. And in the end, you will be so very grateful for it. Promise.
“I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” – C.H. Spurgeon