Today I am going to let you in on a little secret that new adoptive parents find it difficult, and frankly, sometimes even scary to talk about. Nope – this isn’t your pretty package with a bow on top adoption topic. It’s one of the hard and uncomfortable and true realities of adoption. Ready?
Coming home is hard.
I know, I know. The paperwork is done, the judge said yes, the documents have been signed, the travel is over, the social worker has left and FINALLY, the little (or big) one(s) for whom your friends fought SO LONG are home in their arms. What do you mean hard? Coming home is BEAUTIFUL! I mean you were at the airport (or at least saw the Facebook photos of the kids coming out of customs). There was a crowd of cheering people waiting. It was EXCITING! The children were smiling and everyone was hugging and kissing…and there were balloons for heaven’s sake! It’s a HAPPY ENDING! What could be so HARD?
This is happily ever after, right? RIGHT?!?
Um. No. I mean yes…but we’re not quite there yet. Because then they all went home.
And maybe it was dreamy and magical for a few days (or for some lucky families, none of whom are mine, a few weeks) and everyone walked around on clouds of cotton candy and angels sang and all of the cherubs were cherubic and Mom and Dad got to catch up on sleep. Maybe community members and churches dropped off meals and gift cards and cleaned the house and did the laundry. And maybe the new children LIKED the food that was prepared and really didn’t mind bathing. But then it got hard. LIKE REALLY STINKING HARD: because parents and children, both biological and adopted are people. And people are flawed and frail, messy and broken. And together, these messy, broken people have to figure out how to become a family.
My family’s “honeymoon” lasted just about 72 hours (and ahhhh…those were lovely hours).
We had just come from my children’s first public outing in the U.S. – a stop at the “market” and by market a small grocery store more reminiscent of an Eastern European deli than a big box American grocery store. It was Sunday and my kids had arrived home just two days prior. My husband, a pastor who had missed 8 weeks of work to travel to adopt our children was running youth group at the church that night, so it was just the boys and me: alone for the first time.
As I drove home that chilly October evening, I realized that I had neglected to purchase bottled water. Not a big deal if you have drinkable tap water, but ours was less than desirable and we were totally out. My options were to stop at Target, boys in tow, or wait until my husband got home at 10:00 that night. I decided to stop. I knew it probably wasn’t my BEST decision, but I figured we’d be in and out in 10 minutes flat. I also thought that, as we were stopping anyway, perhaps I could pick up a pair of pajamas for my older son. Somehow in the flurry of purchasing clothing for them prior to their arrival, I had missed pj’s. I had heard the warnings against too much sensory or choice overload for children from their background and how maybe taking them to a store right away wasn’t the best idea, but it was freaking pajamas – and WATER – and we were THERE. I mean seriously – WHAT could go wrong?
Grab a cart and hustle down the aisle. Two cases of water. Check. Roll across the middle of the store to the boys section; underwear and pajamas. Here’s an end cap of big boy sizes.
“Which ones do you want? Football? No? Gray ones? No? These gray ones with a design? Ok. Wait – here’s a display of gloves. I bet you guys need gloves. Why don’t you each grab a pair? No not those – they have a questionable theme. Pick another pair. No – seriously – I’m not buying those. How about these? Good. Okay. Let’s go.”
We headed to check out and as we were pulling into the lane, it hit me. The pajamas that he had chosen had the exact design of the gloves I had vetoed. Nothing totally inappropriate- but borderline. Questionable. I wasn’t really ok with it. So I did what any mom would do in my situation.
“Oh – hey bud, I didn’t realize that those pictures were on the pajamas. I’m not really a fan of those, and I think it would be better if you picked something else. Why don’t we go back and choose another pair?”
He just stared at me. I thought perhaps he didn’t understand so I employed my mad miming skills in the Target aisle.
“We need to choose some different pajamas – these have pictures on them that I am not okay with.”
More blank stare,“ I buy zeese.”
It was time for the big guns. I whipped out my phone (thank you, Jesus, for Google Translate!) and pulled up the app that had become my closest companion while oversees. I typed it in and watched my son’s face as we listened to the Ukrainian voice translate the information, and then it hit me. His eyes were full of fire. This boy understood exactly what was going on. He was just not going to make it easy. Crap.
I 180’d the cart began to head back to the boys section.
“Let’s go, bud, we’re going to get you another pair.”
My son didn’t move an inch. “I. buy. zeese.” His tone was emphatic.
“No buddy, I’m NOT going to buy these. They are not appropriate and we’re going to get you another pair. Let’s go.”
No response. No movement. And if it’s possible for a glare to be both fiery and icy at the same time, that was the look I was getting. I knew in that instant that this was our first showdown. And it was happening in Target. Awesome.
As I stood in the front aisle, weighing my options, I questioned my decision to make an issue of this. I desperately wanted to give in and avoid conflict. Was it really THAT big of a deal? I mean connected parenting means saying YES as often as possible. Plus, I really wanted him to like me and I really wanted to make him happy. But in that split second, I also realized that parenting means facing the hard stuff – even in the the checkout line at Target. And I had already said “no.” I had no idea how this would play out, but I knew my boy had already dug in his heels and was ready to stand me down. I had to think fast.
I decided that if, indeed, he did choose to make a scene, we were in a “safe” enough place to handle it and that even though it might be ugly, I could deal with it. I didn’t know this boy – not really. I had spent time with him in Ukraine and knew what people told me, but I had been his mother for less than three days. I didn’t know how this was going to go but I had to trust my gut. I wasn’t going to plead for him to comply. I said it once again, very calmly.
“I am going back to get you some different pajamas. You need to come with me.”
I turned on my heel and started walking, praying like crazy that he would follow. I didn’t look back until I got to my destination.
When I arrived at the pajamas, he was on my heel (thankfully), visibly shaken and very angry. He began yanking things out of the cart –not only the pajamas but also the gloves he had chosen and a couple of other things I tossed in for him. If I wasn’t going to give him what he wanted, he wasn’t going to accept anything.
I was still calm but starting to feel panicky. My new child was disappointed and upset. I had no idea what to do with this. THIS WASN’T PART OF MY PLAN.
“Okay, you can choose any of these other pajamas. Which ones do you like?”
Silence. Icy/Fiery stare.
“Which pajamas would you prefer, buddy?”
He grabbed the pair he had just put back and defiantly threw them in the cart. I returned them to the shelf.
“Honey, I will not purchase these. What other pair do you want?”
“NUSSING!” he hissed at me.
Nothing. It was going to be his way or no way. So nothing it was.
I turned the cart around and returned to the front of the store, purchased our water and his brother’s gloves, and we made our way to the car.
The five minute ride home was an eternity. As a new mom who had no experience using her “mommy muscles,” I made a fruitless yet concerted effort to reason with him (rookie mistake). I explained why I found the pajamas offensive and apologized for saying “yes” and then taking that yes away. My son sat in stoic silence, boring holes in me with his eyes.
By the time we reached the driveway, I was drowning with guilt for having taken them to Target AT ALL, terrified that I had ruined any bonding we had done and seriously doubting my own reasoning skills at having chosen THIS battle to fight. I should have just let him get the stupid pajamas.
And then we went inside.
My son proceeded directly to his room where he removed every single item that he had not brought with him from Ukraine. If we had given it to him, it went in a pile on the floor. Clothing, toys, ipod, books, everything. I started getting nervous. I started talking MORE (because we all know how helpful THAT is with adolescent boys who don’t speak your language), telling him I knew he didn’t understand, explaining how much we loved him, practically begging him to talk to me. He wouldn’t speak and wouldn’t look at the translator. He had shut me out. My own powers of reasoning were now definitely compromised. Internally, I was in FULL ON PANIC. I had no idea what to do.
So I called my husband. At work. In the middle of youth group.
“Are you okay? Do you want me to come home?”
“Yes…no…. I don’t know!!!” I cried. “Okay, no, not really. I mean they’re MY children. The judge said I’m their mom. I am supposed to be able to handle them without back up, but I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO!!!”
“Babe, I really think it’s going to be okay. I…um…I think you need to calm down. I can come home if you want me to. Maybe you need to call and talk to another mom.”
“OKAY?!? You think it’s going to be OKAY!?!? He’s freaking PACKING!”
“Kristen, where is he going to go? He doesn’t know anybody, he doesn’t speak English, and he’s not stupid. He won’t leave. Just ride it out. And I really think you need to call Traci.”
“Are you KIDDING me? Call Traci? WHY??? WHY would I call Traci? I can’t call Traci. I can’t tell anybody what I have done! She is a rock star mom. She would never do something this dumb. This is MY fault. I was the idiot who took them to Target. I said “NO” to the damn pajamas. I have alienated and disappointed this already very hurt boy. I’ve probably done irreparable damage. He’ll probably never trust me again. I have ruined whatever chance I ever had for a relationship with him. He will probably now develop RAD and end up on the streets as a homeless person and it will be MY FAULT. NO. I can not call TRACI! If I call Traci, she will know that I am not fit to be a parent. I should have known. I should have anticipated and seen it coming. I can NOT freaking call Traci! Now – what should I do?”
“Uh…how about first you breathe. Then you should call Traci.”
“SERIOUSLY– THAT’S all you’ve got? I’m not calling her. I will figure this out. I’m going back in there to try to reason with him again.
“Okay. Well, good luck with that.”
I walked back to my son’s bedroom again to find him still packing to return to Ukraine. It didn’t matter that I knew that he couldn’t actually leave – my heart broke with his.
In that moment I knew that any shame or embarrassment I felt by contributing to the situation was trumped by the fact that I needed to know what to do. I picked up the phone and called Traci, the friend I had met during our adoption process, an adoptive mom of ten. She picked up on the first ring. She didn’t even say hello.
“What’s up? What’s going on? What do you need?”
“Traci” I blurted as I burst into tears, “ I broke my kid.”
“Kristen,” she said calmly, “You didn’t break him. He was already broken. What happened?”
I began to recount to her the events of the last hour and I will love her forever for not laughing at me (though we have had some laughs about it since)
“Girl, if that’s the worst thing that happens during the adjustment period, you win “Mother of the Year! He’s fine. It’s going to be fine. Let him be for a while.”
“But he’s PACKING”
“It will be ok. Where’s he going to go?”
“Well, I don’t know, but he thinks I don’t love him.”
“Oh, honey, he has NO IDEA what love is.”
“But I disappointed him”
“And I could have avoided this!”
“Maybe. Maybe not. If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. Kristen, you won’t do everything perfectly. You can’t.”
“I need to. I have so much to make up for. So much lost time; so many hurts”
“No. Stop. You can’t make up for anything. It is your job to love and teach him and to be his mom. IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO HEAL HIM. Only Jesus can do that. You have to trust Him to do it or you’ll drive yourself crazy. Let it go. Breathe. There is grace.”
And there is grace. There is so much grace.
I wish I could tell you that that was the worst parenting mistake I have made, but that would be a HUGE lie. I also wish I could tell you that was the largest meltdown any of my children have ever had but I can’t even write that with a straight face. I can tell you that my son did not leave, unpacked, was fine by the next morning and is currently talking on the phone (in English) in the room next to me.
I can also tell you that the experience of being an adoptive mom has taught me more than anything else, the need for and the power of community. This is a tough road we walk, parenting kids from hard places. Those of us who chose this crazy life need each other. Isolation is our enemy.
Let me say that a different way. If you are struggling as an adoptive parent and are too embarrassed or overwhelmed to reach out to others, STOP IT. You cannot do this seemingly impossible task in a vacuum. ISOLATION IS YOUR ENEMY. Please reach out : whether it’s online, in a Facebook group, in an adoption support group in your community, or if you email me (which is fine!). You do not have to and weren’t meant to do this alone.
Finally, as for thinking I’m in charge of my kids’ healing, I’ve come a long way. There are still days I find myself believing the lie that if I just knew the right combination of words or knew how to love them exactly the right way, their hearts would be healed and everything would be wonderful. Some days I still grieve the fact that the fairy tale doesn’t look like I had hoped it would, but that’s not how adoption works. That’s not how the world works. There is no magic spell or recipe for wholeness- but there is Jesus. His healing is all encompassing and the grace He extends, I can never screw up. So, on the days I am a less than stellar mom and even on the days I totally blow it, there is grace. I take great comfort in knowing that I don’t have the power to ruin what God has planned for my children. They are in the palm of his Hand. He’s got this.
I remain confident of this:I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.