We’ve all seen those glossy magazine ads or obnoxious billboards with before and after photos. Usually the before is atrocious – the extreme antiphony of whatever service is being offered, whether it be saggy skin, peeling paint, or a dirty bathroom. The before makes us want to look away, to turn the page quickly. But the after is also an extreme. Shiny porcelain or a youthful appearance beckons us to read on to learn the secret of such a transformation.
As I think back on this last year, I can visualize my family as a before and after. It’s an odd juxtaposition of blatant, physical transformation and hidden, quiet changes that are not identifiable by the eye. The other interesting thing about our before and after is that some might say they are switched – our after looks a lot less glamorous, put together, and tidy than our before.
At least from the outside, our after has a bit of a rumpled, barely hanging on look about it that is misleading to the true transformation that has taken place in our lives this year.
It all started with a tiny Chinese girl one year ago. We met in the Guangzhou Civil Affairs office like so many adoptive families before us. My husband and I had left our young boys on Thanksgiving Day under the care of loving grandparents and boarded a plane to meet our three year old daughter halfway around the world.
Our adoption process had been quick – just 11 months from filing our application with an agency to traveling to China. And everything – the paperwork and fundraising, the prayers and learning about attachment – was all about to face a reality check that neither of us could have prepared for or anticipated.
Our daughter Mila was carried into the office by her orphanage director. Even bundled in four layers of clothing, we could tell she was absolutely tiny. Her file was thin and vague – our daughter’s listed special need was developmental delay though from the reports included in her file, we could see that she had met most of her milestones at a typical pace.
That afternoon we learned a few more things about our daughter.
She was physically very small – only 20 pounds at three years old. And she had only recently learned to walk independently. Her muscle tone was very weak and she walked like a baby who had just taken her first steps – unsteady with arms outstretched. We also were informed that she only ate liquids and needed a bottle for formula. As this tiny bundle was thrust into my arms and the tears began to flow all around, I pushed the bottle feeding news to the back of my mind.
“We can do that. If we’ve made it this far, we can do anything.”
Mila’s tiny lip quivered. Then she shut her eyes and shut us out of her world and began to sob.
This type of first meeting is so common and I was prepared for our first interactions with our daughter to include lots of tears and sadness. We brought snacks and toys and electronics and convinced Mila to join us again, albeit through scared, tentative glances and lots of button pushing on our phones. And then the orphanage director said one last thing to Mila and disappeared around the corner – and out of Mila’s life forever. The sobbing started again and Mila closed us out.
For the rest of our trip, Mila adamantly refused to have anything to do with me. I don’t know if she blamed the orphanage director’s leaving on me or if it was a reaction to a long history of ever changing female caregivers in her life. Whatever the case, Mila grieved by hating me.
At first she acted absolutely terrified if I tried to hold her or even made eye contact with her. A soul-piercing scream would start and her eyes would shut tightly. This progressed to anger – yelling and flailing and physically fighting if I continued to commit the inexcusable crime of pushing her stroller or helping with a diaper change. After a few days, I learned to give her space and she learned that I was not simply going to go away. She focused her grief/hatred of me into the form of spiteful glares in my direction and not-so-passive aggressive attempts to pack my purse and tell me ‘bye bye’ in our hotel room.
I was heart-broken and that confidence I had had all through our adoption process, and even when we first met, was fading. The “we can handle anything” was replaced with “what in the world are we doing?”
There were long, long nights of prayers and tears.
But through that, God was doing a before and after work in my heart.
I confessed my greatest fear – that my daughter who I had loved from afar, prayed for, fought for, and longed for – hated me and would always hate me. And that maybe, deep down inside, I believed that God couldn’t love me either.
Quietly, the comfort my soul desperately needed was whispered to me. A reminder that our adoption and my love for Mila was called by God – an act of obedience to Him. My Father’s love for me had never wavered, and never would. No matter how much or how little my child loved me, God’s love would never change.
My relationship to Mila was a chance for me to experience a tiny sliver of God’s love for us – if I could allow myself to do so. And I could only do so with His strength.
With new mercies in the morning, my perspective on life – on Mila and my relationship, on our entire trip to China – was changed. She still despised me and my husband became the “dad mattress” for the long plane ride home as even in her sleep, Mila shirked away from my touch.
When we arrived home, reunited with our boys and extended family – Mila was completely out of her familiar comfort zone. She watched the boys curiously – they were balls of energy who missed their mama and dad and were eager to initiate their new sister into their sibling tribe. There were a few overwhelmed tears and some jet lagged tantrums but within a few days, Mila had joined the crew and decided that having a mama was the best thing ever. I caught myself keeping my distance at first as Mila climbed into my lap with her younger brother to read a book or initiated a game of peek-a- boo with me all on her own.
One night, we loaded the kids into the car for a quick trip to the Home Depot tree lot to pick a last minute Christmas tree for our house. As we walked through the piles of bundled trees, Mila sought me out and held my hand with her tiny fingers. Tears threatened to spill from my eyes as I caught her peeking up at me to give me a mischievous grin.
Mila’s attachment to and acceptance of me and her family as a whole is a before and after that’s difficult to capture in just one photograph. Doctors and therapists are always shocked to learn that Mila has only been in our family for less than a year based on how close she and I are and how connected she is to her siblings.
This before and after is so clearly beyond any of our human efforts – it’s so obviously God working in the walled off heart of a hurting little girl. And even more hidden, His gentle touch on the insecurities and fears of this mama’s heart as well.
There have been other amazing transformations in our story too. Mila has grown strong and agile. Being allowed out of a crib and given the opportunities to run, jump, wrestle, and bike ride has strengthened her body and she has caught up on all her gross motor skills.
She also has overcome her feeding challenges. We did extensive feeding therapy with an occupational therapist for months. We made many mistakes – namely by assuming Mila would respond in a typical manner to therapy without recognizing the years of trauma she had endured. But we learned from those mistakes and now we base all of our therapies, medical procedures, and even parenting practices on building and strengthening trust as the main goal. And in a trust-rich environment, Mila has thrived.
Feeding challenges are gut-wrenchingly difficult for a family. As I observe Mila expertly skewering a piece of chicken with her fork, pop it in her mouth, chew, swallow, and ask for more – I still get a little choked up at just how amazing she is.
The chaos of the first twelve or so months home has taken a toll on my family. Adding a new child is monumental. Adding attachment challenges, feeding therapy appointments, a major language barrier, and sibling rivalry is a lot for these frail human hearts.
This is hard.
Watching Mila experience waves of grief without knowing the trigger and feeling hopeless in reaching her is hard.
My youngest son struggled with gaining a new sister. He lost his language for a few months and only spoke ‘Chinese baby talk’ – Mila’s language of choice.
Parenting two children who cannot express their needs is hard.
Acting like the grownup and choosing to respond in a connected way for the fifth tantrum of the day is hard.
Having an ever-running internal dialogue as you analyze every move your child makes – is she getting dysregulated? Do I have to grab the kids and get out of here quickly? Is oh so tiring and oh so hard.
The hard has left its physical and emotional mark on all of us.
Thus our ‘after’ picture might include a little brother who forgot to put his shoes on and his parents were too busy rushing out the door to notice.
It might capture a little girl mid-tantrum, because she was bothered by the tag in her dress and couldn’t figure out how to communicate that without words.
The picture might show some extra grey hairs and darker circles under my husband and my eyes – the result of long days and even longer nights parenting three young children and always dancing around that uninvited guest: Trauma.
We are frazzled, messy, and broken.
We are not brave, saintly, or even all that patient most days.
But having Mila in our family is a constant visual reminder of the before and after God has done in our lives.
We have seen and continue to be amazed at how He makes beauty from ashes. And no before or after snapshot can accurately capture the beauty of God’s work in our family.