It’s been over 10 years since we stood in a wood-paneled, smoke-filled Civil Affairs office – palms sweating and hearts racing – waiting to experience our first “gotcha day”. And, despite my constant consumption of anything and everything adoption related in the months that precipitated that day, I was clueless.
I was handed a child who, because of her heart defect, had been hugely understimulated. And despite her 11 months, appeared to be half that age. Her hair was stiff and coarse and tightly shorn and her eyes fixed on anything besides our faces. Her body was strangely lean – so unlike every baby I’d ever held – and yet she fiercely devoured every bottle we offered. She flopped over when we tried to sit her up, and she screamed when we tried to hold her close.
It was not what we expected.
But amazingly, as only God can, He began to knit that tiny, terrified being into my heart and in those ten years since, we’ve truly become a family.
Looking back, though, I realize that it really could have turned out so differently.
My hope in sharing my thoughts – on gotcha day and how children respond to this day – is to encourage you to set realistic expectations for your first moments with your newly adopted child. Because really, at first glance, it seems simple enough: take a child who needs a mom and dad and add a mom and a dad who want to adopt a child then put them together and stir. The reality is not so simple. If everyone were walking into this scenario with a clean slate, maybe. But we all know, this is never the case.
Looking at the realities of what an adopted child carries into that Civil Affairs office, as well as what we unknowingly carry, is the only way to reset our expectations for this bittersweet, long-awaited, and often heartbreaking day called gotcha day. And having realistic expectations upon your very first moments together is the best first building block in a solid and healthy foundation.
To be honest, I don’t know the full load even one of my children came to me carrying. So I certainly can’t presume to know what burdens the heart of anyone else’s child. But I do know a few realities that will undoubtedly reside in the heart of a child who has joined a family through adoption.
Realities for an adopted child:
1. They have been abandoned. Each child that steps foot into a Civil Affairs office to be adopted has been orphaned either purposefully or circumstantially – tragically separated from their birth family. Think about the significance of that for a while. Imagine a child you know and love – and then imagine them having to endure the loss of their entire family. The magnitude of this cannot be lost on us, the very ones that are to love and nurture these kids. They have lost everything that should be the most basic right of any child.
2. They endured the circumstances that lead to the abandonment. These could have included (but certainly not limited to) parental death or illness, the child’s special needs, insurmountable familial stress, overwhelming poverty. The child may have experienced only a minimal amount of trauma between birth and abandonment, or a great deal. But because child abandonment is illegal in China, there are rarely birth notes and absolutely never a birth record, medical background or family history. So we are left to only speculate what our child might have experienced. The possibilities are overwhelmingly endless, but that doesn’t mean we can disregard their significance.
3. They incurred trauma between abandonment and adoption. If your child is 12 months or 12 years on gotcha day, they’ve experienced trauma, whether they were cared for in a poor, rural orphanage or a loving foster home. This can be purposeful, like abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), circumstantial (too few carers, too little funding) or just simply because they are orphans. But it’s all trauma, and trauma in any form needs to be considered significant.
4. They have most likely suffered in some way due to their special need. This might mean PTSD due to poor pain management and/or neglect during month-long hospital stays. It might mean trauma from incessant teasing due to a visible special need. Or it might mean malnutrition and oral-motor issues caused by an unrepaired cleft palate. Almost all of the children being adopted from China currently have a special need and if you are adopting a child with a special need, you can expect that they’ve probably struggled in one (or many) ways because of it.
5. They have lost a second family. Orphanages and foster homes are only a temporary solution for orphans in China, but the children being raised there rarely understand this grim reality. Most don’t know what a real mom is, either. But in the mind of the orphan, mom is the one who brings them their bottle, and that orphanage is home, despite the endless rows of cribs and eery silence at night. And losing that – even in it’s inadequacy – is a substantial loss to a child. It’s what’s known, what’s familiar. And if the child has been cared for in a place they’ve received physical and emotional nourishment, they’re going to grieve this loss even more.
6. They have been thrust into the absolute unknown. No matter how well you brushed your teeth and how many layers of deodorant you applied (at least 4 for me on gotcha day, thankyouverymuch) you will smell strange to your child. You will most likely look pretty scary. And you will sound completely crazy. Know that you might be your child’s first experience seeing someone who does not look, sound and smell Chinese. Most children rarely spend time outside, even more rarely do they experience “life” outside an orphanage, and almost never do they spend time with Americans. So leaving this familiar place and traveling to the Civil Affairs Office to meet “mama and baba” will be potentially terrifying as well as heartbreaking.
I know, I know. It sounds so overwhelming and heart-wrenching to focus on all this loss. We don’t like the way it makes us feel to think about these hard things and so oftentimes, we just don’t. We brush over it, without sitting with it, really allowing it to settle into our hearts. But that can be a relationship-breaking mistake. If we say we are called to adopt, called to love one of the least of these, then we have to be willing to do what it takes to love them – all of them. And this includes the parts that aren’t so lovable.
Attachment-wise we must treat these children like brand new babies: carrying, coddling, wooing. But we cannot ignore the baggage they carry, which is more than many of us accumulate during a lifetime. So I’m not encouraging you to lower the bar for what you expect your gotcha day to be, I’m asking you to throw the bar out the window. Allow room for your child, their grief, and our God to be present, and know that no response is out of the realm of possibility. This day is just one of thousands you will have together as a family and whether you find yourself floating on cloud nine or wishing for it to be over, this day is not indicative of what the future holds.
Your child is grieving and has every right to do so.
There are also a few variables that can affect your child and how they respond on gotcha day – things that can significantly impact a child and, despite the above realities, make this day more challenging, or surprisingly easy.
Variables that can impact an adopted child:
1. Foster care or orphanage care. Our family has grown by adoption eight times in the last ten years and with each child we have witnessed the significance of the care our children received in their early months, whether in a rural, poorly funded orphanage or an outstanding foster home. Yes, being in a foster family has played a huge role in helping our kids understand more deeply the meaning of family, love and care. But we have also seen some of our children come home from very poor orphanages with carers that loved the children well, and seen them flourish emotionally, too. We’ve also seen the effect of long-term neglect and malnourishment and its impact. It’s impossible to predict the outcome of these realities on our children, but we do need to give weight to its potential significance.
2. Age at adoption. Typically children adopted at a younger age have an easier transition. But I have seen 13 year olds come home, jubilant to be in a forever family while an 18 month old is completely shut down for months, grieving the loss of a foster mama. So I know this is not a rule but more a broad stroke, based on what I’ve witnessed in my own experience and that of many adoptive families I know.
3. Single caretaker or multiple caretakers. To me, this is so important. One of our daughters was cared for at an orphanage, but in a Half the Sky program. She was 2 1/2 at adoption and had been loved on by one very special woman since infancy. She did not see her nanny again until we visited the orphanage and this is when, for this daughter, the real grieving began – as far as she knew she was being taking from her mama. But this is also where the healing began – because the imprint of having one person to love and call mama had made her heart familiar with the mother-daughter dance. And allowed me to step into this role, so much more easily than if she had no experience with one-on-one love and affection.
4. Preparedness. There is such a spectrum here. Despite all we do to send pictures of our families emblazoned on teddy bears, and letters painstakingly written and translated, sometimes our kids have no idea who we are when we first meet. I am pretty sure at least two of my children had never seen even one of the many photos I’d sent. But, blessedly, some children are well prepared. I traveled with my sister in 2008 to bring home her son who was cared for at New Day Foster Home, and he’d been prepared in every way for his new family. When he met his mama on gotcha day, there wasn’t even a hitch in his step. He saw her, recognized her and never looked back. I am not sure how they did it, but we were immensely grateful for New Day and the foster family who had loved this little boy so well – enough to prepare him to leave their little family and joyfully into his forever family.
5. Personality. This is the biggest variable of all. I know of children at the same orphanages, with similar special needs, close to the same age, cared for in the exact same way for a similar length of time and they’ve responded completely differently to what their life’s experiences. Some children are more sensitive while some are more stoic. Some can handle fearlessly what would make a grown man cry, while some (like one of mine) are terrified of seemingly nothing. So even if it seems like your little one has many things that might make your gotcha day a scary proposition, know he just might surprise you in the best way.
These realities, you cannot control. No matter how hard you try, you cannot keep your child from experiencing trauma before they are in your arms. You cannot wish away the pain or difficulty or suffering. But there is something you can do to make your gotcha day – and beyond – more joyful. It’s not easy, though. In fact, it might be even harder than considering and making room for your child’s past.
It’s considering your own past.
Your child isn’t the only one walking into that Civil Affairs Office with issues, sweet friend. Yep, no matter who you are, I can say without a doubt that you have issues. We all do. I recently came across a study about adverse childhood events and was struck by the reality that, despite my relatively normal and loving childhood, I have several experiences that are considered to be traumatic enough to affect me for life. We live in a broken world and we have to be honest about our own brokenness.
Because sometimes coming face to face with a traumatized child – who is in the midst of a trauma (yes, gotcha day can be considered a traumatic event for many children) – can cause us to respond in that brokenness. In ways we would have never expected. (But that’s a whole ‘nother post.)
My point is this: there is always more than one traumatized person in the room on gotcha day. We, as those promising to love and care for the least of these, should carefully and prayerfully consider our own past, trusting the Lord to reveal the things that might hinder our relationship with our adopted child, and praying for grace and wisdom to process them before stepping into parenting a child who has endured as much trauma as an adopted child.
We must also prayerfully consider all the trauma our child has endured – from their very first days right up until, and including, the day we meet them for the first time – and allow room for it. We cannot welcome one without allowing space for the other.
He is Father to the fatherless, and in the process of asking us to bring home one of His children, He will also do a mighty work in our hearts if we will allow Him. He will shine a light on those broken places and ready our hearts for the moment we finally get to meet our child. He will fill us with His compassion and mercy, and equip us with His love. No, not perfect, but sufficient.
Because, despite our brokenness, His sufficiency is more than enough.