Monday, December 15, 2008

Adopting Older...The Harder Parts of the Journey

This post has been simmering in my heart for a few days, so I thought I’d take a little time to write about the hard parts of the journey related to adopting an older child. I think it's hard for someone, who's never walked in these shoes, to really get how hard it can be... We go to church, to school, to work, to a friends and we look pretty well put together, so I think sometimes it looks easier than it really is. But it’s a hard thing to balance…

Easy is NEVER a word I would use to describe this journey, but full of blessings, absolutely. So even though the journey is hard, it is an incredibly joyful journey also. I think sometimes it’s just hard to balance the idea of joy in the face of difficulties, so it comes off looking ‘easy.’

Now, my desire is NOT in any way to discourage anyone considering adoption, or those of you about to travel, but it is my desire to create a realistic expectation, and maybe even to give an honest inside perspective to anyone who has never adopted… So, please don’t be discouraged… The joy is unimaginable, the rewards greater than I could have ever imagined, but the journey is hard…it’s just so worth it!

And by the way, if any of you have adopted and want to add something to what I say, just leave it in the comments and I’ll do a follow-up post and consolidate them all into one post.

First, it is so hard not to take things personally. You dream about your child for so long and like any mom, you just want to take them in your arms and start to love them. Realistically, you know in your head that your child hasn’t been longing for you, so while you’re mentally prepared for it to take time, your heart isn’t always so quick to catch on. Rejection hurts…parent shopping hurts…you have to fight hard with yourself to keep your own emotions, and even your pride, out of it.

That brings me to the second thing… Adoption is even more about dying to self than biological children. There’s no room for selfishness with these precious children, these children have been victims of an incredibly selfish and heartless world, so they need someone who will lay down their lives for them. This has been one of the hardest parts for me, but when I see the light in her eyes and the smile on her face when I set aside something I’m doing to color with her, you really get it…they desperately need you to choose them over anything else.

In the beginning, moms, you will need to do everything for them, putting yourself at their beck and call. I had to tell our older children, who could have been a great help to me, “Don’t do anything for her, send her to me for EVERYTHING, even a drink of water.” You will feel like you’re being manipulated, controlled, you’ll get frustrated, BUT remember you’re not being any of those things I mentioned, you’re just being asked to love a child and meet their every need, like has never been done before. And hang in there (remember my point before this one, death to self)…this does wonders for the attachment process.

And let me just say this, having biological children does not prepare you to adopt an older child. Throw out everything you think you know and just be a clean slate. Things that you did with your biological children can be harmful to your adopted child (hmmm, maybe we shouldn’t have done those things with them either, a little more grace never hurt anyone). But your biological children came out of the womb knowing they were loved and wanted, your adopted older child has been abandoned by the very person she trusted, maybe she’s been neglected, gone hungry, been cold and felt unwanted and unloved (and that’s just the beginning)…you have to be so careful not to reinforce those feelings or experiences in anyway. It is such a fragile process and sometimes the fragility of it can be stressful and emotionally draining.

That brings me to the next thing…this process is emotionally draining. Expect it…prepare for it…and then don’t be surprised when it’s even more than what you thought. There have been many days when I was at the end of myself, convinced that I had not one ounce of anything left to give. But I’ve learned something in all of this, that’s where Jesus wants us all the time…at the end of ourselves, completely dependent on Him.

Go into this expecting for it to take a minimum of 6 months, and for many much longer, for your child, and yourself, to really begin to settle in. As we drove to church, for the first time in a long time, I felt like the sun was coming out… There are still so many behaviors that I’m watching, being so careful not to put her in situations that she’s not ready for, but many things are really turning around too. Last night, when she got out of the tub, I was waiting with her towel to dry her off and for the first time ever she snuggled in to me and let me cuddle her in the towel for a few minutes. It’s been almost 5 months and that’s the first time she’s really let me cuddle her. That’s a really long, hard time for a mom’s cuddle instinct to be denied!

And remember this, grief is not convenient…it doesn’t have a schedule. Your child will grieve at the most inopportune times, at least according to our schedules… Put down what you’re doing and comfort them. Don’t assume misbehavior…look behind the misbehavior to the heart! I can’t tell you how many times a thrown book, a stubborn ‘no’, a defiant attitude has led to tears and those tears have paved the way for stronger attachment!

Here’s one that might be shocking, not everyone is willing to admit this one… God gives you a special love for your children while you wait, His heart for the fatherless; but, then there’s the process of growing love also. Let’s get real about this for a minute, when you adopt older, you are bringing a child into your home, a little person, that already has a personality, a set of behaviors, years of a culture behind them that has shaped their attitudes, a lot of emotional burdens that affect their behaviors, and the language barrier compounds it all. To expect yourself to be head over heels in love with them from the start is just not realistic. You have to give yourself time to get to know them…you have to allow time for the healing process to begin so that their real personality, unburdened by so many emotional pains, really begins to emerge…you have to give yourself time to fall in love and like with them. For a while, you will feel like you are living with a stranger…it’s because you are!

You WILL find yourself in situations where you don’t have the first clue what to do next. Pray…try to understand where their coming from and then love them with grace and patience and kindness.

Give yourself lots of grace… You will mess up, there will be things that you don’t think of and you’re caught completely unprepared for, there will be times when you just don’t have the words to comfort them and more than once, or twice or 10 times, or even a hundred times, your heart will break for all that they’ve been through. Cry with them…step into their pain, their anger, their rejection and tell them over and over how you love them forever.

Well, this post is getting too long… I think those are the big things for now… Like I said, if you want to add anything from your experiences, please feel free to do so in the comments and I’ll do a follow up post with your thoughts. I’ll ask Scott for his thoughts also and include them in the follow-up.


Jen said...

Hi Sharla,

Thank you for such an open and honest look into the days we are walking. While we do seem to have turned a corner, every now and again the grief comes back and it catches me off guard. Chloe Grace's new thing is when she's told no about something or doesn't get her way she'll say "you no like me" or "you no love me". My repsonse is always the same "I love you always." She just needs that reassurance. There have been some incredibly hard days, Chloe Grace and I have both cried our selves to sleep. Even still, this is one of the most amazing journeys of my life! She's made me more patient, more loving, more understanding...

Hugs to you and Abby!

Laurie said...

Great post Sharla. I know I didn't adopt 'older' but feel the same way over so many things, especially what you were saying about love being a process. I think that's a hard thing to admit, and I've often felt guilty over it, but it's just reality. Thanks so much for being honest and real. It helps those of us who are in the same boat.

Amy said...

My daughter is 2, not "older" but not a baby either. I think you nailed the part about raising biological children being completely different. (And maybe my 2 bio kids did/do deserve more grace:) It's not that I want to pamper or spoil her (as some people might assume...), but that she needs to understand that unconditional love. She needs to learn to trust me more, and to know that I am never leaving her.

kitzkazventure said...

I just found your blog several weeks ago and you are such a beautiful wordsmith! I could just take your post and put it in my blog as such a great expression of what it is like to adopt older children. Nick was 3 when we brought him home and it has been quite the journey. I call it "our arranged marriage" from heaven! :) Love does take time between strangers but as I said also in my post tonight, the joy is so worth it! Thanks for your honesty and real picture of a great journey!

Patientlywaiting said...


You really need to write a book about adoption/attachment with a Christian perspective. We read a lot of books before getting Claire and though they had a lot of good information none of them had the insight that you are sharing. Now, that we have been down the road of adoption your words ring so true. We still have a delicate road to walk because we still have the communication barrier with Claire. Sometimes it is hard to really express ourselves in sign language and to know if she understands. We have friends at church that tell us that we make adoption look easy. They don't see all of the behind the scenes stuff they just see our love and joy. I wouldn't say adoption is easy but I would do it again in a heartbeat because the blessings far surpass the "hardness" of it.


ManyBlessings said...

I recently stumbled across your blog and have been blown away by how much your heart is like mine. I have loved reading your honesty in your words and find myself constantly nodding my head in agreement.

I keep my Bible in my bathroom. When things become too overwhelming and I need just a break for a minute, I know I can go in there and find peace and guidance in the heart of my Father.

Bless you on this journey and as you continue to write.


jan ranger said...

sharla - jan again (phoebe). i've printed off this post to take with me to vietnam. thank you for helping me prepare my heart. please keep them coming. a month after our referral, we received her official photo -- i felt SO connected to her in this picture, not anyone since...just this one and i told my very good friend -- i can't explain it but i know this little girl is going to teach me what love really is. it scared me then and it scares me now. i was secretly hoping that our drama we are in to get her home was maybe the 'test', but i'm thinking NOT!!! thanks for opening the door to express feelings -- good, bad, ugly. but God knows and i trust him completely. He will work it all for good, i have no doubt.

thanks again. xoxoxo, jan :)

The Kaysers said...

Hi Sharla,

I found this post from the McConnell's blog and just loved reading it. Thank you for your insights. It is wonderful to hear from parents who have "been there" and can share with a Christ-like perspective. We will be off to Ukraine soon to adopt one or two "older" children (ages 4 & 7), so we cherish great insight like this. God bless!

Jen Kayser

April Isaacs said...

WOW!! I think it's so great your talking about this stuff. I hope people read it. From the outside, adoption looks so beautiful... and it is. But, too often, all we see is the pictures... where everyone smiles. So, it's up to me and you to show people the truth. That's why... on my blog, I have to show poop and vomit, nakedness, dirty laundry and... dang it!! Why can't I be serious. I never knew I had such a problem! I started this comment with such promise and then... it went down the toilet.

So, sorry about pathwords. I know you are thinking about words when you fall asleep. I make words all night. And, please don't pass my score. That just makes me play more. My family is suffering over here because of that dumb game! I didn't know I was competitive either. But, I am silent competitive. You'd never know. I'd just play with bloodshot eyes for as long as it'd take to beat your score.

Seriously, that, like all your posts was great! People need to hear that stuff!

Denise said...

Thank you for starting a dialogue about this. While I think that the older a child is, the longer the procees takes, I still see things in Maggie that make me step back and remember where she has come from. Because things have gone so smoothly, the rough patches are very significant and I have to try very hard to parent her differently than my boi kids...even when others tell me I am "spoiling her."

I would love to adopt an older child someday and I appreciate your words of wisdom in this area.

*And I see another commenter agrees that you need to write a you think God is trying to tell you something?

Denise said...

Me again, can you e mail me how to do the blog roll thing on your sidebar that shows when everyone has posted?

Donna said...

I wish I read this BEFORE we brought our 2nd child home. Adopting an older child was so much more challenging than I thought it would be. It took more than a year for me to stop worrying about whether or not we really did the right thing. Now I look back at those first few months and feel bad that I didn't help everyone weather them more gracefully.

Merry Christmas to you and your beautiful family!

Our Blog: Double Happiness!

Ruthi said...

mama to 4 daughters from China,adopted at 22 months,44 months, 8 years and 11 6,6 1/2,10 and 11 waiting for our daughter #5 age 12 maybe I also need to write more serious words about our experiance of adoption and what our girls do,say and go thru-statements like,I wet the bed so no food, I had three names before you adopted me, they changed my birthday so I was old enough to go to school, (Addie) was so weak that she could not stand on her legs when found, her finding note said "due to poverty we cannot raise this child", (Kate) would put her elbow in her dish of food if reaching for anything, if we go with you to bring home our new sister will you bring us home too? you are doing a good job Sharla. Ruthi

Chris said...

I just found your blog today. Loved your and your husband's post. We need more attachment writing with a Christian perspective. Keep it up.
Could you contact me? I would like to share your post with some people.