This journey will be harder than you think.
But you’re braver than you know.
I did the best I could. I read all the books. I attended the classes. Empowered to Connect? Check. Three times check. I ‘aced’ the home study. (Heck, I even prepare home studies.) I completed a dossier in record time with no errors. (It helps to have done it professionally for several years prior to doing my own.) I understood the “impact of institutionalization on childhood development,” not just from the books but from 4 years of hands-on orphan care in China. I did the best I could to prepare for every possible aspect of adopting. (And I’m grateful for it. Because all that preparation mattered and gave me some semblance of a toolkit to draw from on days when my world seemed to be falling apart.)
But at the end of the day?
There’s nothing that could have prepared me for the day-in/day-out unrelenting reality of learning to parent a grieving, angry, terrified toddler ripped from everything and everyone she had ever known; a toddler who had not experienced even one. single. day. of life as the apple of someone’s eye. A toddler whose tiny size and complex developmental delays and emotional havoc set off flashing red lights and alarms in my brain as it defied my instructions to stay in the present moment and instead went traipsing off down scary “what if” trails.
Warning. Warning. This child will change everything. Warning. Warning. Your life will never be the same.
Yes, the journey was harder than I ever could have imagined. The books don’t fully prepare you. The classes don’t really sink in. The social workers can only do so much. Visiting – or even living in – an orphanage doesn’t equate to the reality of parenting. Nothing replaces walking it out.
Dear Carrie, This journey will be harder than you think.
Her trauma and loss and anger hit me with a hurricane-force wind. The fears and uncertainty tore through my heart like an angry wildfire in a matchstick forest. The anxiety and overwhelming rose and clutched at my throat like unrelenting flood waters seeping past sandbags. Some days I felt like I was standing in a natural disaster of my own making with the ashes of my old life slipping through my fingers.
Warning. Warning. The ship is sinking. Warning. Warning. Evacuate now.
One of my quirks that irritates my husband just about more than anything I do – besides never putting my car keys in the same place twice – is that when I’m sick, I tell him, “I’m fine.” I really mean it, too. I hate being sick, so I just refuse to acknowledge it. It irritates him because inevitably he believes me, lets his guard down, and ends up sick, too. (And might I add, like most men, he doesn’t seem to have any trouble acknowledging his ailments.) But when I’m back to feeling fine again, I often look back and think, “Man! I was really sick! I felt terrible and that was really awful and I’m so glad I’m healthy again.”
The point is: I don’t often realize how hard something is until I’m on the other side of it.
I get letters somewhat regularly from other mamas in the middle of those early days home with a newly adopted child… mamas who wake up every morning with those same unnerving alarm bells going off in their brains. Mamas who are trying to juggle picking up the spilled cheerios, finding the 8-year-old’s misplaced homework, turning on the crock pot, and remembering to throw the soccer cleats in the back seat of the minivan, all with this tiny little shell of a human sitting at her feet screaming the unnatural and unrelenting cry of one who was once abandoned and recently uprooted.
And mama, I see you. You wanted this adoption. You worked hard to make it a reality. You prayed and you longed and you ached to hold that baby in your arms. You read all the books and attended all the classes and crossed all the t’s and learned the difference between authenticate and apostille. And let’s be honest, you are one of only a handful of people who actually know the name of your state’s Secretary of State.
And yet… and yet…
This journey is harder than you ever thought, and right now all that longing and waiting and hoping you once felt mostly serves to make you feel incredibly guilty about what you’re feeling right now.
And I don’t know how to tell you how to make it to the other side. I don’t know how I made it to the other side. Walking through those early days of having my newly adopted daughter home was the closest I’ve ever come to truly understanding how hard something is when I’m in the midst of it. But even now I can look back on that season and recognize I didn’t really comprehend how depressed, anxious, and utterly overwhelmed I was in the thick of it.
But mama, I see you. I’m holding space for you. I’m praying for you. You aren’t a monster for feeling nothing towards the child but bitterness and resentment. You aren’t unloving for needing a break. Your little one does need you even if she pushes you away. You might not have been the mama who bore this baby, but you are the mama who God chose to push through the hard labor of restoring family and belonging to this child who lost so much. And that is a holy calling. It is motherhood in its deepest and most redemptive form.
And it is a lot like climbing Everest (through hurricanes and wildfires and floods).
But here’s the other thing I’ve learned: Mama, You are braver than you know.
It may be a fight, but there’s no force in this world quite as formidable and tenacious as a mother making a safe space in the world for her child.
We mamas, we know how to fight for our babies. And in those early days of an adoption, fighting often means taking the time to see a therapist for yourself; talking to a doctor about whether or not you need medicine for situational anxiety or depression. It means letting your guard down and getting real with your tribe; letting them bring casseroles and gallons of milk and bottles of wine. It means letting someone else fold your laundry so you can hold that little boy like a baby if he’s ready for that sort of intimacy.
It means coming to the end of yourself, and then taking a deep breath and one more step towards your child, towards connection and repair and restoration. It means making peace with the dirty dishes and the grimy floor; with take-out pizza and ice cream for breakfast just so you can say yes. It means being silly when everything inside of you wants to be the hammer; prizing smiles and laughter over rigidity and rightness. It means taking an unflinching look at your own history and being deeply honest with yourself; about how your own traumas and losses color the way you interact with your child – and then being courageous enough to do something about it.
You may not think you can do it, but you can. One day, one small step at a time. How do you climb Everest? By putting one foot in front of the other.
Mama, you’re brave. And when the world looks at you and sticks you up on a pedestal and says “I could never do that,” know that what they’re really saying is that they won’t do that. Because we all have the capacity for so much more than we think we do. As Glennon Doyle Melton is prone to say, “We can do hard things.” And climbing Everest (through the hurricanes and wildfires and floods)? Well you can train and prepare and get all the right gear, and that will be helpful. But really it’s the journey that makes you strong. As you put one foot in front of the other, you become the mother who was born to do this.
And when those warning bells go off? Warning. Warning. This child will change everything. Warning. Warning. Your life will never be the same.
You will pull that child close to you, look back over your shoulder at how far you’ve both come (even if you know there’s still a long way to go), take stock of the woman you are today, and have only one thing to say in return.
Yes… Thank God.