I’ve always considered myself to have a pretty large capacity. I tend to lean towards challenges and I often wear multiple hats. Sure, I know my limits, but I’ve always had high expectations for what I think I can handle.
So when I found myself in a deep, dark pit a couple years after the adoption of our little girl, I didn’t let anyone know for a long time. Depression and anxiety? Not me. Not High Capacity Girl.
Sure, our adoption story had a traumatic start, and sure, it was more challenging than I thought to bring a high-needs baby into our already-large family, and sure I felt kind of isolated, but come on. This is me! I’ll rise to the occasion like I always do.
Snap out of it, Jennifer. Get yourself together. You shouldn’t feel this way. It shouldn’t be this hard.
But it was.
Eventually, my body spoke the words my mouth was too ashamed to say, in the form of daily crying sessions and unending knots in my stomach, and it became obvious to those closest to me that I needed help. Thankfully I got to the other side, but how did I fall in the ditch in the first place? What could have made a difference? How do you prepare emotionally for adoption — something that is so unpredictable and unknown?
I don’t know if I could have avoided the darkness completely, but here are some things I think could have helped had I embraced and practiced them ahead of time. I hope they’ll help you, too.
1. Prepare to be the weak one, and fight to be okay with that.
There’s something in our nature that does not like to be needy. We want to be known as independent, capable, and secure. But adoption is just plain hard, and you can’t read enough books or ask enough questions beforehand to eliminate the hard that comes with bringing a child you did not birth into your family, especially a child who comes from a place of trauma. It doesn’t matter if you’re a marathon runner or PTA President or Multi-tasking Martha. Adoption will stretch you in ways you’ve never experienced, and you need to fight to be okay with being the needy one in the group. Fight to believe that it’s actually a good thing to be needy. Fight to have the courage to ask for help. From my book, 30 Days of Hope for Adoptive Parents:
“When you confess your weakness, you’ll bless others in the process as well. Don’t cry out to the Lord alone; bring the body into your mess. Perhaps your own vulnerability in hardship—your willingness to admit weakness and cry out to your Savior without caring who sees you—will grab the attention of those around you and leave them awestruck at the Messiah’s immediate, tender care.”
2. Pay attention NOW to how you respond when life deviates from your expectations.
A plus B rarely equals C in life, and definitely not in adoption. At some point, reality will not match your picture, whether it’s how long the adoption process takes, how your child responds to you, how you feel about your child, how your family adapts, etc. Pay attention now to how you respond when life is different than what you expect. Do you get angry? Do you numb yourself with entertainment or food? Do you blame others? Do you tighten up and try to control? How you respond now to disappointment is how you’ll respond when things get tough with your child. Repent of holding too tightly to your expectations, and practice trusting, moment-by-moment, in the goodness and sovereignty of a Heavenly Father who holds all things together so you don’t have to.
3. Practice walking in truth NOW.
Speaking truth to yourself will be a lifeline when adoption takes your emotions on a crazy ride, so get in the habit of doing it now. Your day doesn’t go according to plan? “God, thank you that even interruptions are a part of your perfect plan for me.” You feel misunderstood? “God, thank you that the only opinion of me that matters is Yours.” You feel like your efforts and sacrifice are going unnoticed or unappreciated? “God, help me to do everything for You and Your glory, not my own.” Let the Word of God be your plumb line, especially when your emotions are confusing and unpredictable.
4. Avoid telling yourself how you should and should not feel.
My friend Julie once told me that feelings are neither right nor wrong; they just are. If we think we should feel a certain way (immediate, unconditional love for our children) and that we should not feel a certain way (sadness, grief, anxiety, isolation, even regret), then we will shame and shut down any feelings that don’t match what we’ve deemed as “acceptable,” and we’ll miss out on what they’re trying to tell us. Own your feelings and let them direct you to what’s below the surface.
5. Prepare to ride the waves of grief — your child’s and your own.
Grief may have five stages, but those stages do not necessarily happen in order, and they don’t follow a certain timeline. Not only will you walk through your child’s grief, but you’ll also come face-to-face with your own, as life as you’ve known it is forever changed. Prepare to give your child and yourself permission to experience grief as it comes, for as long as it sticks around, and don’t believe the lie, “I should be over this by now.”
Adoption is hard. There’s no way around it, and there’s no shame in admitting it. It is a broken beauty that can send our hearts soaring into worship and can tempt us to spiral into a pit of overwhelming despair.
You can’t prevent the waves of emotions from coming (nor should you). The darkness may still fall. But you can anchor yourself in the truth of God’s Word. You can choose honesty over hiding; community over isolation. You can practice putting your hope not in your circumstances, but in the One who is the author of your (and your child’s) story and the giver of all good things. The calm in the storm. The One who never changes, even though your emotions do.
And you can courageously invite others into your mess because after all, you were never meant to do this alone.
Jennifer Phillips is a mother of four, including a precious daughter from China. She is the author of Bringing Lucy Home, 30 Days of Hope for Adoptive Parents, and is co-author with Julie Sparkman of Unhitching From the Crazy Train: Finding Rest in a World You Can’t Control, due to release in February. She and her family currently reside in Brisbane, Australia, where her husband works with University Impact, a franchise of Campus Outreach, and they serve at Christ Community Church. You can follow Jennifer at her blog here.