I feel like there are many people in the lives of adoptive families who want to try to downplay the differences our adopted children have from those who have grown up in a more stable, loving, safe, home environment. The downplaying? It’s not malicious; in fact I wholeheartedly believe that many of these friends want to encourage us by praising our children! And while I am thankful for the kindness that is behind many of the comments…
The bottom line is this: any child who has experienced a traumatic start to life is not the same as a typical child who grows up in a loving family knowing that their needs will be met.
The bottom line is that this is directed toward any one person at all. It’s the culmination of a little more than a year of watching not only our own story unfold, but also the stories of many other children in many other families. My own story is the one I’m most familiar with, but there are so many others who live in shades of the same story as we do.
The bottom line is that we need grace. I know it seems like we are beating a dead horse if we bring up the struggles, or if we make comments about behavioral regression we see, but the horse is far from dead. In our lives, in the lives of so many adoptive families, there are still days when the trauma gallops full speed ahead, and we just try to hold on to the reins, often knowing that the best (only?) thing we can do is throw them up in the air and let a gracious Father take over.
Here’s the thing: she is not the same.
Our daughter? She is not like other five-year-olds.
She might be of average height, weight, and build.
She might be adorably cute, especially when that dimple pops out!
She might know how to throw her hands on her hip and give me a sassy attitude.
But she is not the same.
She might want to be held and talk like a baby sometimes.
She might want me to lay in bed with her for a few minutes at night.
She might meltdown when I give her water in her cup instead of juice. She might even want to try to hide her favorite pieces of candy from her siblings. All of these things might trick you into thinking she is like other five-year-olds. But she is not.
Your five-year-old might be of average height, weight, and build. I imagine you never worried about whether or not she was being well-fed while spending time in an orphanage.
Your five-year-old might be adorably cute, but I imagine she never felt the need to be a favorite just to get a little bit of extra human interaction. I imagine that she isn’t constantly assessing who might be her competition; who might get more attention than her and fighting to maintain control over any and all new or stressful situations.
Your five-year-old might throw her hands on her hip and give you sassy attitude. I imagine it’s because she’s just giving attitude. I imagine it’s not because she feels the need to prove something to people she’s only known for 8 months.
Your five-year-old is not the same as mine.
Your five-year-old might want to be held and talk like a baby sometimes, but I imagine it’s not because she spent her babyhood and early preschool years in a crib without the attention small children need. I imagine that your five-year-old had the chance to be a baby when she was a baby.
Your five-year-old might want you to lay in bed at night with her for a little while. I imagine that you don’t have conversations where she tells you about how sad she was that you weren’t there in her orphanage with her.
Your five-year-old might meltdown when you give her water instead of juice. I imagine it’s not because she has such a desperate need for stability after transitioning from one country to the next that even small changes in the schedule can cause serious regression. I imagine that your five-year-old had the chance to drink water when she was thirsty rather than having to wait for scheduled bottle breaks.
Your five-year-old might want to hide her favorite pieces of candy, but I bet it’s not because they grew up without anything for most of their lives and they are terrified that these precious things will just disappear.
Your five-year-old is not the same.
Now, I know that our five-year-old is, well, five. And there are things that five-year-olds do that all five-year-olds do because they are FIVE. The motivation and thoughts that go into the actions though? They are vastly different. We are constantly assessing whether her behavior is typical of age five, or if it has some deeper something lurking in the background.
I promise when I tell you, “it’s not the same”, I mean it. It’s not just my imagination. Yes, she is doing amazingly well. Yes, she loves preschool and being social. Yes, personality is a factor. But deeper than that is the straight-up fact that parts of her brain haven’t had the chance to develop like your five-year-olds have.
Here’s my struggle… I feel like the longer she is home with family the less understanding people are of the fact that she is not the same. The protective layers that she has built up over time are breaking down, and now is when she needs more understanding than ever before. Now, when her mimicking skills have taught her how to behave like everyone around her is when people need to refuse to stare at the surface and declare “she is the same.” I have had four five-year-olds, and I promise you, it’s not the same.
The longer she is home, the less likely people are to understand that her past requires more than just hugs and kisses to recover from. Love heals wounds, but it takes time, not just months, sometimes years.
Years, friends. Years.
I know I sometimes lack the words to express the realness of how this affects me. I completely understand that the training we have gone through to be prepared for her is not the typical training new parents go through. I understand that most parents don’t need to understand how the brain develops, and how brain development changes when there is an overabundance of cortisol washing through your system as a baby. I get that. I never knew any of that stuff, either.
But I also get that I am her advocate. I am her defender. I am her mama bear. Being her mother is a privilege and an honor. A friend once described it as having an app running in the background all the time; my mind is constantly flashing the low-battery signal. It’s a different kind of tired that comes with loving this girl. It’s worth every ounce of energy it takes, but it is not the same.
There are days when I wish it were, trust me, there are. But I also know that while sameness is desirable on many levels, the differences are teaching me so much more…
Although you are perhaps not in our shoes, I would ask that you please respect her and don’t assume that she is like your five-year-old. In this case, respect is not to treat her just like every other five-year-old… respect is knowing and acknowledging where she came from and understanding that her actions and reactions require different actions and reactions from us. Respect means not playing off behavior I know has a deeper root in sadness than any child should have to experience by claiming that she is “just like every other kid”.
She’s not the same, and I love her for it. She’s making it possible for the Father to make me not-the-same. If you give her the chance, if you love her in a different sort of way, you will find yourself becoming not-the-same, too.