Making Room for Baby

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newborn-baby-girl Image via Shutterstock

When I found out I was pregnant a few days before my forty-third birthday, I was shocked and thrilled. My daughters were 16 and 11, and I had been longing for another pregnancy since the girls were little.  It took a year and a half to conceive my second child, and although there was no medical explanation, it just didn’t look like it would ever happen again. When the girls were both in elementary school, we decided to open our hearts to a three year old Russian orphan boy whom we adopted. The adjustment to life with that little blond tornado was tough, and it took some time for everyone to settle in.

It was shortly after Viktor’s eighth birthday that the surprisingly wonderful news of my last pregnancy came.  All of us were beside ourselves with excitement and awe…all of us except my son. While some of us had tears of joy, he had tears of sadness and fear. My husband and I assured him of our love and his importance in our family, especially for the baby-to-be who would look up to him. But even after five years with us, my son felt his place in the family was so tenuous that this little intruder would surely threaten it.

After a while, Viktor began to accept the idea of a little brother — someone he could mold into a little version of himself and someone to even the numbers in the family.  That was until he found out I was pregnant with another little girl. The reaction to that news was even stronger than to the pregnancy itself.  He isolated himself outside and sobbed angrily. All I could do was remind him about his best friend at the time, a girl, who liked all the same things he did — army, cars, physical play. I’m not sure he bought my attempt at consolation. While the rest of the family enjoyed every aspect of planning and waiting for our new miracle,  my son seemed in denial.

Then Claire was born. She was so tiny and helpless, and Viktor immediately fell hard. He held her so gently, studied her features, and mimicked how my husband let her sleep on his chest. He showed her off and talked about her to his teacher and classmates. During one of the first days home, while I was changing the crying infant,  Viktor gently said to her, “You know what is really sad?  When I was a baby like you, nobody took care of me like this”. He said it tenderly, as though he was just realizing for himself what he missed. It was like he made a vow at that time to never let her feel the neglect he did.

He began to see me differently, too. He got to see me parent from the beginning of life, there for all of Claire’s basic needs 24/7. During one of my first nights home from the hospital, he wanted to sleep near the baby and me to hear my “sweet voice” and see Claire’s “cute little face”. He was truly drinking in what I wasn’t there for when he was a baby.

Until the baby’s birth, I think Viktor always sort of felt like a latecomer to our family. He knew he missed out on our first family home and many of our combined experiences as well as his own first three years of being a baby in our midst. But as relates to Claire, he was there from the start—from finding out about her to every day of her life since then. She doesn’t know life without him, and she doesn’t know that he is anyone other than her brother.

As Claire entered toddlerhood, the brother-sister relationship developed into something more typical. She annoys him, he teases her, and they get mad at each other. She still looks up to him and wants him to play with her, and of course he still loves her, but they definitely get on each other’s nerves. The gifts of this relationship, however, are still being realized. Viktor had hyperactivity and sensory issues as a little boy that felt so different to me. He never seemed to sleep, and although she is not biologically related to him, Claire also has these issues, in some ways even more significantly. Her brother prepared me to deal with OT services, extreme fatigue, and acceptance of traits I don’t relate to.  And now that a child I gave birth to has some of the same difficulties, Viktor’s characteristics don’t feel so foreign to me; he doesn’t feel foreign to me. I see that I absolutely could have given birth to a child like him, because I did.

It is interesting how things work out sometimes. A little boy came into our family’s life and there were lessons on both sides, and then a little girl came along and somehow made those lessons easier for all of us. It’s one love story among many in the chapters of our life as a family.

Related post: Sibling Bonding: Setting Them Up for Success

Special Needs Adoption: Limb Differences

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limb-differences

When my husband and I first considered China adoption we were told we’d wait roughly six years for a child. It seemed our journey was over before it started, but our adoption agency suggested the special needs program (shorter wait). I had two things to say about that: Hell and no.

I was intimidated by “special needs”. Special needs were something you handled if those were the cards you were dealt. You know, the whole “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” perspective. I knew there were people who raised their hands to parent special needs kids…I didn’t think we were those people. But before we ran screaming from the room, we took the time to learn what we were turning down.

The conditions listed under the umbrella of China special needs adoption program range from pretty much nothing, like a missing thumb to more complex conditions, like Spina Bifida. Families choose what medical needs they were comfortable parenting. We did research, took deep breaths and jumped in the deep end of special needs adoption.

It’s hard to get our heads around the fact that certain cultures classify minor imperfections as special needs. I don’t say that to spark a discussion on how lousy the Chinese are for this line of thinking, because I don’t see it like that. I tell you because it might change your thinking about whether a special needs adoption fits your family.

Early in our “paper pregnancy”, we got a list of different needs and conditions. We had to check boxes to indicate if we’d be open to certain issues. Listed was “limb differences”. Having no clue what that meant I summoned my private physician, Dr. Google. I learned: …congenital (born with) absence or malformation of limbs. May result from injury or disease requiring amputation. The causes of congenital limb differences are frequently unknown…I thought “we could handle that” and checked the box. A few weeks later, I was staring at a picture of a seventeen month-old boy whose special need was “congenital hand abnormality”. I fell hard for this kid in the picture.

And here I am. So, what’s life with a limb difference kid like?

My son is four now. He’s missing his right hand (he has a stub and four finger nubs). “Get down!” and “don’t touch!” fly out of my mouth about sixty-trillion times a day. No different from any other mom of a small terror I mean boy, hmm?

He can climb a ladder, catch a ball, and open anything he’s generally not supposed to have. He can put the smack down on his brother, snatch toys from other kids and dangle them enticingly out of reach till the other kid cries (I’m so proud). He most recently got in trouble for swiping my Kindle, slathering it with body lotion and pretending it was a baby. I have used many adjectives to describe my boy terror (some have four letters). Handicapped was never one of those words.

My son is growing up adapting his environment to his anatomy. Buttons and shoelaces are challenging, but he’s mastered pushups at the tender age of four. I have zero doubts that my little fireball will conquer he sets his sights on.

The hardest thing about parenting a limb difference kid is managing my reactions to people’s stares or comments. Kids are curious. They want to look, ask “why” or want to know if “it’s an owie” (most adults can figure out it’s a congenital thing). Kids take my explanation of: “this is how he’s made” at face value and press on scaling the jungle gym or trying to take back whatever toy my little grabber just swiped from them (sigh, we’re working on that).

Occasionally, we’ll get rude or ignorant. A boy of about seven screamed “OMG did you SEE that kid’s hand” at a volume probably heard in the next county. A woman on the bus acted as if she’d seen Sasquatch and remarked audibly “how gross” to no one in particular. It’s hard to be chill and not give these people the verbal smack down (or trip them and pretend it’s an accident). Even though my instinct is to rush to my kid’s defense when someone says something tacky, I don’t do it. If I police every dumb comment, my little boy won’t learn his way in a world where people are sometimes just assholes.

People are going to notice his anatomy is a little different. He’ll have to learn his own way of handling comments, especially ugly ones. We all want life to be easy for our kids and sometimes it’s hard to see him standing out when he’d rather fit in. My son’s limb difference isn’t always the first thing people notice, but eventually, they notice. Reactions range from no reaction at all to friendly curiosity. Mean has been a rarity. I haven’t seen anyone tease him yet, but I’m sure that day will come, probably when I’m not there to witness it (kids are sneaky like that, ya know).

There is no “cure” for limb differences. Maybe someday there will be technology to grow a hand in a lab but we’re not there yet. I can’t name one thing he can’t do that would be enhanced by a prosthesis so we’re holding off until he’s older to decide on that. A cosmetic semi-functional “slip on hand” that looks and feels real (in kind of a scary way) will be an option when he’s bigger. We are leaving the decisions in his court.

He refers to his little hand as…well, his little hand. Right now, he’s happy to show you if you want to look. “It’s just my little hand” he’ll tell you and then moves on to telling you he likes your pretty dress and asking if you have candy in your purse. He’s kind of a player like that. We sometimes call it his “lucky fin” like Nemo. This is how I sometimes explain his limb difference to children. I’m happy Disney came up with a more relatable limb difference role model because otherwise, we’d be stuck with Captain Hook and everyone thinks he’s sort of a douche.

Related post: The Beauty of Imperfection 

We Are A Very Real Family, Thank You Very Much

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hand-on-skin Image via La Jolie Vie Photography

My family is no stranger to questions, stares, and assuming statements. Since my husband and I became parents five-and-a-half-years ago, we’ve pretty much heard it all.

“Are they all yours?”

“I cannot imagine giving my baby away.”

“Are you the nanny?”

“Isn’t adoption really expensive?”

“What country are they from?”

“Why didn’t you adopt white kids?”

“Aren’t a lot of adopted kids, you know, pretty messed up?”

“Doesn’t open adoption confuse your children?”

“OH! What a wonderful thing you did adopting children who needed good homes.”

“Are they foster kids?”

“Aren’t you afraid their birth parents will try to take them back?”

We’ve had plenty of practice responding to the slew of statements and questions we encounter. There is rarely a day that goes by when we aren’t approached to answer a question about adoption.

Some believe we’ve signed up for being adoption educators. After all, we chose this path to parenthood, and our status as an adoptive family is apparent. We are white, and all three of our kids are black. We have become more outgoing, patient, and strong, with each passing year. The questions that are asked of us are our normal. We know how to respond with education, grace, and honesty, all while protecting our children’s privacy.

But there is one question that never fails to get under my skin, causing my chest to tighten, and my face to flush.

“Are they real siblings?”

Imagine you are in a store with your family, and the person in front of you in the checkout line turns to observe the restless children (with their incessant touching/bouncing/bumping/giggling/shrieking). After a quick glance over the children, and the sweaty mother trying to contain them while simultaneously grabbing all the candy bars her toddler has nabbed, the person asks, “Are they real siblings?”

It’s not what you would expect. Nor is it what you want to hear, with your cart heaped with haphazardly stacked groceries and diapers and feminine products and clearance clothing. With your energetic little ones. With your coupon binder spilling open and your wallet missing, only to discover, oh yes, the baby is playing with it, sprinkling your credit cards and coins around like birthday confetti.

Why do you not expect it? Because you are just a normal parent, trying to insure your kids remain safe and happy and healthy. Because you are at the store trying to pick up food and clothing and personal hygiene products—like normal people do.

And because, above all, your children are standing right there, and they have a right to respect and to
just be kids. They aren’t adoption’s poster children for you to interrogate.

Think for a moment about the people you love. Really love. Your best friend. Your partner or spouse. Your parents. Your sister’s step-son. Your godchildren. Your grandmotherly neighbor who is always looking out for you. Your favorite childhood teacher or coach. These are the people who have invested in your life, who have been with you in good times and in bad, who know your idiosyncrasies and love you like crazy anyway.

Many of these individuals aren’t your biological relatives. But your love for them runs deep and true.

There are countless times I’ve been asked the “real” question. It comes in many forms. I understand the person is substituting the word “real” for “biological,” and as an adult, I know what you mean. But please think about the innocent, beautiful little humans standing beside me. The word “real” is confusing, intrusive, and hurtful.

My kids act like any other children who are in the same family. They pull each other’s hair, give one another hugs, steal toys from the hands of the other, share an evening bath, join hands and play endless games of Ring Around the Rosie. They argue, they reconcile, and then argue again. They play, dance all kinds of silly when their favorite song comes on, and they nurture one another.

My kids are real people. With thoughts and feelings. Newsflash: They can hear you when you pepper us, the parents, with questions about our family’s authenticity.

Our love is real.

Our family is real.

It’s all real.

The next time you see a family at the store, at the park, in a restaurant, at the library, standing next to you on the subway, and the family looks like they may not be biologically related or they may have joined together through the process of adoption, it’s perfectly fine to smile. But please keep the word “real” to yourself.

Or as my mama taught me, just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it aloud.

Related post: A Child of My Own

20 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Adopting

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family-of-three Image via Shutterstock

Like the first-time pregnant woman who remains blissfully and intentionally naive about the pains of childbirth, my husband and I sat in many an adoption class grinning wryly at one another. “It’s not going to be like that for us,” said the grin. Except it was like that for us. It was like that in ways that even the classes, taught by qualified adoption professionals, could not have convinced us.

Now, eleven years into our journey of parenting, two by adoption and one by birth, I have cobbled together a list of things I wish I had known before adopting: 

1. Adoption is a wonderful way to form a family.

2. No matter how simple or rosy your adoption might seem, all adoption is predicated upon loss. Even if you are the lucky one-in-a-million to “catch” baby in the hospital and you celebrate with the birth mother as she joyfully signs parenting rights over to you, your child will be affected by the adoption. Your child’s birth parents and extended family will experience loss. You will feel the sting of not having carried your child. Everyone will miss the medical history if there is none available. You will have to deal with the emotional scars of adoption. Even if it doesn’t look like there are any scars, there are.

3. Make sure you are surrounded by supportive people who will shower you with all the rituals that traditionally come with forming a family with children. The two showers we were thrown made us feel like we were a real family (despite the many messages out there that we were not).

4. Some people will treat you like you are not a real family. Our first social worker — I said SOCIAL WORKER — was pregnant.  She constantly communicated to us that while she was forming a family, we were apparently playing house.  When she did a home visit, 8 months pregnant, she stopped at the nursery and said, “Oh…hmmmm…I guess I wouldn’t recommend setting up room for a child since, you know, you might not get one.” Before firing her, I asked, “Do you have a nursery set up?” “Yes,” she said, pointing to her swollen belly, “But, you know, mine’s a sure thing.” Ouch.

5. Set aside two to three times more money than the agency tells you you will need for the adoption. If you need it, it is there.  If you are lucky enough not to need it — college fund!

6. Make absolutely sure that somebody is there to visit/greet you when you bring your child home. If you adopt internationally, make sure people are waiting to welcome you at that airport.  If you are coming home from the hospital or a foster home, make sure there are people who will come by and (appropriately) ooh and aah with you over your newest family member, whether the child is a few days old or 13.  You need this.  Trust me.  We arrived from Haiti to an empty airport.  The fact that we had just become parents did not feel special to us at all.

7. Most people, when they inquire about your children, really do have good intentions.  Some are just curious.  Some are considering adoption.  Some have already adopted.  Some are grandparents awaiting a grandchild through adoption (we meet a lot of these).  Some are from your child’s country of origin.  Many are innocently curious children.  Be kind.  Give them the benefit of the doubt when they are asking questions — until they have proven that their intentions are not good. 8.  Occasionally, you will meet people whose intentions are not good.  Feel free to tell them it is private, ignore them completely, or in extreme cases, ask them an equally rude question.  Once a lady pointed at my kids and asked, “Where did you get those and how much were they?”  Hoping to educate her on the language a bit, I responded, “They joined our family through adoption.  She pushed, “I can see that, but what’d you do to get them?   I asked, “Are you considering adoption?”  “No,” she responded incredulously, “I just want to know where and how you got ‘em.” Sobering up to the situation, I asked, “Do you have children?”   She nodded yes.  I rapidly retorted, “Were they born vaginally or did you have a c-section?  When you conceived them, what position did you use?  How much was the hospital bill?” She walked away and the checker plus the 2 other people in line at the supermarket all applauded. That was the only time I can recall where I felt the need to be rude in response to an adoption question. 9.  Respect your child’s place of birth and family of origin.  While it is important to be honest if they come from a family or culture with big challenges, always be respectful.

10. If you are adopting because you believe the child you wish to adopt is a heathen or going straight to hell without your help, DON’T. If you are repulsed by the potential child’s cultural heritage and are adopting to save them from it, do not adopt. That is not love. That is not respect. In doing so, you strip the child of dignity.

11. Before even beginning the process, know this: You are in this for the long haul. If your child develops in a way you did not expect, you are still their parent.  Do not assume that you can do anything with your child through adoption that you would not/could not do with a child from birth.  Yes.  Adoption can be difficult.   As I mentioned, there are always scars.  Often times those scars can cause behaviors and emotions that are incredibly challenging.   You need to know that before you sign on the dotted line.  If you would not “return” a child born to you with a severe disability, don’t expect to “return” a child from adoption who is emotionally scarred.  If your child needs a level of support that you cannot provide by yourself, it is your job to find the necessary resources AND continue to support the child as a parent should.

12. At some point, no matter how much you have reenforced positive adoption language, your child, most likely a ‘tween, will scream for their “real mother/father” when angry with you. It will sting.

13. Likewise, if your child is not able to have a relationship with their birth family, they will fantasize about living with them — and the fantasy will often times look better than their real life.

14. Numbers 12 and 13, as well as other painful scenarios — like your child running away to find their birth family — are perfectly normal.

15. Normal, age-appropriate challenges will be both punctuated and informed by your child’s adoption.  Often times, that which punctuates and informs those struggles is 100% unknown to you.  This is hard on everybody.  As difficult as it is for you as the parent, though, imagine how tough it is for your child that you and they don’t necessarily know what they have been through.

16. The lack of medical information, should that be an issue, is a challenge for the parent.  For many children, it is confusing at first (0-7 years), then embarrassing (8-11 years), then devastating (12+ years).

17. Any amount of loss that you are feeling because you did not carry your child in pregnancy, did not know your child from birth, etc. is multiplied by a great deal for the child.  While you sort through your own loss, recognize that theirs is greater.

18. Most of your friends and family will not fully grasp the labyrinth of emotions involved in adoption.

19. Find people who do fully grasp the labyrinth of emotions involved in adoption.

20. Adoption is still a subject that requires some careful treading in many circles.  People will tell you that the issue you are facing is a normal, age-appropriate issue.  That may well be true, but adoption adds another layer and you, as the parent, must be prepared to dig in and work through the issue with your child.  Other people will respond to adoption thoughtlessly (the grandparent who treats children who were adopted differently, the teacher who points out your child any time adoption is a topic, the neighbor who is uncomfortably nosy).  In choosing to adopt, you are also choosing to be both your child’s protector and your child’s advocate.  You will be responsible for educating the uncouth teacher and nosy neighbor.  It is your job to have the difficult conversation with the thoughtless grandparent.

Related post: We Are A Very Real Family, Thank You Very Much