The “Other Side” of Adoption… and Beyond

November 29, 2017 adopting again, Central Nervous System, cerebral palsy, Family Stories, older child adoption 0 Comments

We are nobody. No one special.

What I mean is, we are not celebrities, we are not “beautiful” people, not snappy dressers, we wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, and certainly not wealthy. We are completely ordinary…. except for one thing. Trailing in our wake are six children, two of the homegrown variety and four who arrived in our hearts and home from China.

Let me tell you the story of how two ordinary people became an extraordinary family.

In 2003, we thought we were doing pretty well. A home and some acreage (hubby’s dream), a boy and girl (perfect nuclear family), decent, steady jobs. There you go, a nice and neat little package deal! We went to church but God wasn’t part of our daily lives, he wasn’t in it.

But He was there…. and had plans for us, for our “perfect” little life. Though we had always talked about adoption as an option, we felt blessed to have two healthy children and thought we were done. Had someone then told me “you will have six children by 2017, four by adoption”, I would have checked them for fever, laughed politely, and gone about our day.

There were specific instances that led to us finding each of our children. In 2003, my husband met a couple who had adopted from Vietnam. After meeting them and their daughter, and researching domestic and international adoption (and picking ourselves up off the floor after finding out the costs), discussing it with our biological kids (then 6 and 9), we moved forward, scared to death.

I still remember that phone call, saying “Would you like to know your daughter’s name?” Tears began to flow as they described a tiny 17 month old waiting for us in China. When we got the package and saw her picture, I knew the meaning of love at first sight. I had been worried if I could love a child who was not biologically “my own”, but that worry vanished at that first picture of our precious Jazmin.

Fast forward to 2008, I began to think perhaps Jazmin needed a sister to grow up with. By then things had changed in the China system and agencies had specific lists, with mostly children with special needs. The non-special needs program had lengthened to several years by then, and we were encouraged to look into the special needs route. This was terrifying as all 3 of our children were healthy and thriving! We had never been challenged in such a way before, as people and as a couple.

I found our next daughter, Judi, buried on a small list with an obscure agency. I requested four files that day, hers included. Her special need was listed as “encephalatrophy”. Now here is the rub. This is a label, a word, nothing more… but that one word had caused our daughter’s file to be passed over time and time again (she was 3). NO ONE had ever requested her file. For that simple reason, I asked for it.

Two of the files I received had needs that seemed too great for us “newbies” to feel comfortable with. One had a family already. That left our Judi’s. As I read through the file, I began to see the child behind the words, the little girl who just needed a chance to be something more than a label. We held that file for three weeks (long before the days of the 72-hour turnaround), praying over it, because there was the chance that she could have undisclosed needs or that her medical history as a newborn could affect her later and we wanted to be secure in our commitment to her and whatever her future might be. So many unknowns.

Then one day, Jazmin, 4 then, came up to us with Judi’s picture and said, “When are we going to go get my sister?” Thirteen months later, Judi came home at almost 4, bright as a whip, sassy and bossy, and blowing like a whirlwind into our lives.

Finally things seemed to settle down. We had four children, Judi and Jazmin had adjusted to their new lives and were very attached to each other; we were content. Or so we thought.

By now, my husband and I had become Christians and I had begun to see how God orchestrated the events of our lives to create our family. To that end, along came 2012. Our son adored his sisters, but had always wished for a brother. With no plans of adopting again, I reached out to an advocate as I wanted to continue in the adoption world in some capacity to see where I could be helpful. An advocate sent me one file and a family came forward right away. That intrigued me, and I learned that there were older boys now coming available for adoption, having slipped through the proverbial cracks through the years.

When the advocate heard where we lived, she sent me another file. His advocacy name was “Lucky”. Through a series of instances that I still feel to this day could only be orchestrated by a higher power, we were encouraged and led to move forward, with only 5 months to spare before “Lucky” aged out. Obstacle after obstacle was removed. Every single day of the next four and a half months would find me embroiled in some step of what is normally a year-long (or more) process, condensed to the narrowest margin to reach our son before he turned 14, when children age out of the adoption system in China.

Adoption is beautiful, wonderful, fulfilling, and rewarding, but… it can also be messy, difficult, traumatic, hard, shake your faith and confidence, and is rooted in tremendous loss. This loss affects all children in some way, but some children in every way.

The longer a child is without a family, without love, the more that loss and early trauma can play a significant part in how they come to view the world and families and love. And at certain ages, for certain children, that cannot be changed or healed by love alone. Emotional neglect and abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse; it can reach the very core of a child and make it difficult, if not impossible, to change their view of people and the world and the ability to trust those around them.

We were ready and prepared to love our son, but no pre-adoption education class can truly prepare you for the deep, emotional damage some children have experienced. We were woefully unprepared for that aspect of older child adoption.

Over the years our son was with us, I turned to support groups for help and advice, talked to countless other moms of teenagers adopted from China, learned a new way of parenting, anything to try and help heal the wounds of his past. We were unsuccessful in this. We provided a safe haven, an education, helped him learn skills to obtain the independence he so dearly craved, and we did provide love. In fact, it shocked me how much I loved this boy from the first moment I met him (and still do). But he had learned not to love, for loving someone, opening oneself to that vulnerability, causes deep pain when it is rejected, thrown away, so he rejected first… having learned that loving was not safe.

He could not accept our love, could not return it, could not trust that the things we did were based in love. And let me tell you, moms, not being loved back… hurts. Oh my, how it hurts. For a mother, it’s a pain like no other. It shocked me to my core, and shook all my faith in myself as a person and a parent. I told myself over and over I should be bigger than this, we knew it could happen, but really, truly never expected it.

He left us after high school graduation and is living independently now, and is as content as I believe he is capable of being. We remain in some contact, though the walls around his heart remain steadfast. As a mother, I wish I could have been the one to find the way through those walls, but I try to be content in the knowledge that he has an education, and a family who loves and cares for him, and that we will always be there should he need and want us.

Now, after our son’s adoption, even though we had experienced the “other side” of adoption, I still felt the pull to adopt again. My husband, however, would not hear of it! I prayed for two years for God to show me His way, if we were, in fact, done… or if there was another child for us.

I prayed also for the fear of another rejection to leave me. Yes, I was afraid… so afraid. But I wanted – needed -to push past it, because somewhere out there… I felt another child needed and truly wanted a family.

Finally, the day came when my husband’s heart changed! This time, I felt so much better prepared than before. My adoption friends on my Facebook groups had been my lifeline during the previous years and I had learned so much from each of them on connected parenting, attachment disorders, the cumulative effect of early trauma, etc. Our son’s time with us had changed us profoundly; we now knew words like “red flags”, “false files”, and “RAD”. Oh my, we were so naïve before then! We were the starry-eyed parents who had experienced two “rainbows and unicorns” adoptions. We had had our eyes opened.

Thus, we approached our search for our next child from a very practical, almost clinical standpoint. By 2016, almost all children available in China were now special needs. We had to consider where we lived, our active lifestyle, our current children’s needs, resources, our school’s ability to accommodate, etc.

We asked ourselves, “Could we do this?” Just two ordinary people….could we do this? We asked our children did they want to do this? How would they feel about a special needs sibling? There are so many things to consider when adopting a special needs child… being able to love and provide a home are the most important things, but practical things, such as health insurance, services, the school system, whether the child can attend school even, the proximity, availability, and cost of medical resources, even the house you live in, must be part of the thought process. And, as we’d learned in the previous years, while there may be no listed physical needs, a child’s emotional and psychological trauma and needs can be just as life-altering and limiting.

I began on the site Rainbow kids… narrowing the search initially by age and gender, pulling pictures of little ones that simply pulled to me in some way, then I would look at their needs. We knew certain needs we felt unequipped to handle, but overall, we didn’t have a specific idea of what our next child’s need(s) would be.

Through the ensuing month (September 2016), we read the files of several girls. The one hardest thing about reading more than one file is having to say “no” to any of them. It kills you. You want to bring them all home, seriously.

And files are not always correct. They do not always include every detail, every need, knowingly or unknowingly, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that adoption in itself is a complete and absolute leap of faith.

There is no way to know exactly who you will meet on Gotcha Day. And Gotcha Day is a day filled with loss for your child; a loss of all that they have known in their lives… even if their lives were filled with abuse, it is what they know. You are strangers… you look different, smell different, talk different. They don’t know how you will treat them, if you will be kind, and nice, and, most of all, if you will stay. And you have no idea how you will react to who you meet that day.

After a couple of weeks, we had narrowed our search to three girls. Oh, how it killed me to have to say no again to those other two girls (one has since come home, the other still waits). But our daughter’s file stood out. We were fortunate in that there were copious amounts of pictures, information and videos of her – and throughout our process, we were given much more….more than all three of our other children combined!

She had a special need of Cerebral Palsy – this would be our first child with a definite, known special need. The research I did on CP alternately scared me to death and reassured me… but again, no amount of research, pictures, video, information, can adequately prepare you for meeting your little person, to know who they are, their thoughts, personality, dreams, fears, and hopes.

I have to give credit to our daughter’s orphanage here…. they did a fantastic job of preparing her for our arrival! They loved her, taught her kindness, compassion, empathy, and most important of all, how to love and show affection. She is an amazing, bright, capable, determined little girl who loves unconditionally and unreservedly. Though she was in a “good” orphanage by China standards, an orphanage is not a family, it’s not a home and I am forever thankful we found her.

Adopting our daughter with Cerebral Palsy has opened my eyes more than ever before. We didn’t know what we’d find on Gotcha Day, if her file would prove to be accurate… or completely false (as had happened before). I wondered how I would handle people staring (and they did), pointing (yes), ignoring her (as if she were invisible).



Jacee’s CP is more mild than most, but she behaved much younger than her years, she does move in a way that definitely signals something is “not quite right”, and was and is very (ahem) effusive. She stands out. She loves attention. She loves people. For an introverted person like me, I was alternately uncomfortable with the attention she garnered, and thrilled at her determined, gregarious demeanor. One thing I did enjoy was watching how people would brush her off or dismiss her, but then if they talked to her, you could see their face change as they saw her.

Once we came home, she set swiftly about charming everyone, not in a manipulative, “fake” way, but by virtue of her fun-loving, outgoing, embrace-every-new-thing-as-a-new-adventure personality. Now I won’t pretend it’s all been perfect… she did tantrum about every day when first home when told no, no matter how gently, and she still tends to shut down when she thinks she’s not done something right… but as we’ve navigated the language barrier and she gains English, and she understands the why of things, those have become a rarity.

She blows me away with the things we’ve discussed already and the things she has experienced and knows at her young age (some of it makes my heart hurt so for her). She wasn’t allowed even to attend school because of her “label” of CP. Going to school was the biggest thing in her mind coming home to America, and she has rocked it! Watching her little mind unfold and expand and just soak up everything around her, I marvel at how she came to be a Cavender, and have so much reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

Looking back now, I am dumbfounded at what God has done with our lives. These two ordinary people who got married in 1990…. were blessed to be the parents of six extraordinary kids. I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention our two biological children… ages 6 and 9 when we began adopting and now 20 and 23. With each new sibling, they opened their hearts and arms unconditionally. They were part of every decision and every process and they have a bigger view of the world they live in.

I am humbled by the trust God placed in us to be parents at all, and then to these six, unique children. The miracle of them all being part of our lives fills me with awe at His glory.

As we enjoy our time with our newest daughter, it appears our family is finally complete. However, should God decide otherwise, I’ve never been one to ignore an opened door!

– guest post by Debbie



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