Today’s post finishes out our feature this month on craniofacial needs. So grateful for all the moms who willingly shared about parenting a child with a craniofacial need – you can find all the posts in this series here. If you would like to share your family story, just complete this short form and we will be in touch with you shortly!
I didn’t sign up for this.
There’s something about international adoption that tricked me into believing I had some modicum of control over my life. It’s funny because with our first two babies, both homegrown, I remember being terrified that they would be born with challenges or delays I didn’t have the skills to navigate.
But somehow in our adoption process with our third baby, I felt like I was holding the reins. We carefully poured over the list of special needs, researching each one, compiling a list of the needs we were willing to say “yes” to. We prayed that God would guide us through this process, and when we presented our list to our adoption agency, we did so with a confident sense of control and security.
We were quickly matched with a beautiful 12-month old baby boy with an unrepaired cleft lip and palate in southern Guangdong Provence. Six months later we traveled to meet our son Matthew, and even though that trip was emotional and exhausting, the path seemed straight and steady, just as we’d expected.
I suppose it was a few months after arriving home that my husband and I had the first of many hard conversations:
Matthew isn’t catching up like everyone else’s kiddos are. He’s not talking. He’s struggling with social communication. Something isn’t right.
We survived a round of surgeries: lip repair, dental surgery, palate repair, placement of ear tubes (twice), and nasal stent removal. Looking back now, all those hours we sat in the Seattle Children’s Hospital surgery waiting room seem like a blip on the screen of time. They were exhausting and anxious days, but our boy came through each one like a champ. Healing happened, and little by little his cleft lip and palate were knit back together.
But what has been slower to “repair” are the developmental delays, particularly in the social realm, that Matthew likely sustained due to lack of stimulation and healthy brain growth while in the orphanage.
For our family, the developmental challenges have been hardest. We signed up for cleft lip and palate, but we didn’t sign up for the host of other diagnoses we’ve received: Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Expressive Language Delay, Sensory Processing Disorder, possible Apraxia of Speech, and general delays in the cognitive, adaptive and gross/fine motor areas. It’s a long list of disorders and delays, and some days I don’t feel up to the challenge. It’s certainly not what I asked for and definitely not what I signed up for.
We’re now under the care of a craniofacial team, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician, a geneticist, a behavioral psychologist who specializes in Autism, a family pediatrician who manages Matthew’s medication, an OT who specializes in Sensory Processing Disorder, and two different speech therapists – one who works with Matthew’s oral motor delays and one who works on play and communication skills. I’m sure it sounds like a crazy list of people, but I’m deeply grateful for each member of Matthew’s team.
I’m not writing this to scare anyone considering international adoption – I firmly believe God called us to this journey, and we have seen His faithfulness literally wrap itself around us during some very hard times. But I do wish before we had adopted, someone had told me that adoption doesn’t always go like you expect it to go. Loss, uncertainty, fear and anxiety are part of the path. And sometimes kids come home and end up having some pretty significant developmental delays.
But I will tell you that because of Matthew’s adoption, we’ve felt the presence and love of God in ways we never expected. God has shown up in the least likely places, giving us courage and strength to take each next step. Sometimes my faith has been the only thing getting me from one day to the next.
In addition to being an adoptive mama and a college professor, I’m also a songwriter. In the thick of Matthew’s many unraveling challenges, I wrote a song called “These Days.” One of the verses goes this way:
I have changed a lot these days
Lost some of my innocence and stopped being so afraid
And in the empty spaces
Comes a kind of hope I’ve never known before these days
There are so many things I’ve learned about God, about myself, and about Matthew because of this adoption path. I have learned to let go of my need to be in control and simply take one step at a time, trusting that we’ll have what we need for each next step. I’ve also cultivated, deep in my soul, the most incredible sense of hope I could ever imagine. It’s a hope that trusts in the provision of a loving God – a hope that is buoyed by the love and support of those who walk this path with us.
One of the biggest gifts our family has received from Matthew is the ability to love someone who doesn’t function and interact in a “typical” way. We’ve worked hard to cultivate a place of welcome for Matthew – in our family, in our home, and in our larger community. Almost every day I learn something new about myself because I’m Matthew’s mama. And I also have the incredible privilege of watching him grow and develop – at his own pace, of course.
I’ve also connected with some other families who like us brought home a child with many more developmental challenges than expected. I’ve exchanged messages and phone calls with some incredible adoptive mamas – women who have shared their stories and their challenges with me. Rather than feeling isolated, I’ve felt supported and heard. God has provided for me, even in this.
These days I can’t imagine life without Matthew. He makes us a complete family, and being his mama is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced. Recently someone asked me this question: “Knowing what you now know, if you could do it over again, would you adopt a child with special needs from an international country?”
Yes, I said, without hesitating. Yes, I most certainly would.
Despite his imperfections (or perhaps because of them), Matthew is wonderful and beautiful to me, and I’m grateful to have him in my life. Delays and challenges abound around here, but I’m also head-over-heels in love with my boy. Every kid needs a mama who loves him just as he is—who creates a place of welcome and who holds hope in her heart. In our family, that’s me: the one who holds hope.
Hebrews 6:19 tells us, “hope anchors the soul.” I’m grateful that nothing can take that hope from me.
Annemarie Russell is a mama to three beautiful children, one of whom is adopted from China and came home with an unrepaired cleft lip and palate. She’s also a college English professor and a singer-songwriter. She lives in Washington State and blogs about adoption, life and parenting.