Last week my friend at ourperfectspace, who adopted a boy and girl (5 and 6) from Ethiopia about four months ahead of us, suggested that we both write on the topic of what it was like to go from being a childless couple to an instant family of not-infants overnight. I guess she was looking to do a little light reading and writing (ha)! So, afflicted with a little writer’s block myself and looking for inspiration, I accept the challenge!
When my husband and I began the adoption process we expected a single infant girl, and hoped and asked for twin infants (a boy and a girl, was my dream). The process took a LOT longer than we expected, and having already waited years for children, our desire grew as we continued to wait. As it neared time for us to be ‘at the top of the list,’ I don’t think either of us was willing to accept less than two children. We looked at the situation thusly: We both knew we wanted more than one child, our clocks were ticking, we’d prepared our hearts for years, and it was time to get on with this family thing already!
Sometime in the early fall of 2010, I had a funny conversation with our agency. The woman called to ask us if we might be interested in two young unrelated children. One of them (a little boy around a year old) had potentially severe medical issues that, she admitted, had not been diagnosed or yet understood (definitely not what we had agreed to take on). The other was a little girl, about four years old. It was an odd combination involving the referring orphanage wanting to place the girl somewhere near our geographic area so she could keep in touch with her best friend (another four year old girl) who had been placed with a family about six hours from us. For a variety of reasons we declined additional information. Too many red flags, unknowns, strings attached. We weren’t feeling it. Or rather, we were feeling quite clearly that these were not to be our kids. But then she asked me how many children we ultimately wanted in our family.
I don’t think I’d ever seriously thought about that. We’d been trying to have kids for so many years that it never occurred to me to think about limiting the number…it just always felt like a big unknown. So in response I said, “Well we definitely want more than one, and I can’t imagine we’d be comfortable with more than eight” (that was me thinking of an outlandishly large family size for the top end). She responded, “So it’s somewhere between two and eight.”
Whoa. That sounded weird. Really weird, almost laughable, to think of myself as a mother to ‘lots’ of kids. It was just so far from my reality.
Also, I think when you struggle with infertility for a long time you tend to get stuck at the infant stage in terms of envisioning your family. You romanticize bringing home that tiny pink (or perhaps brown?) bundle of joy, decorate the nursery, keep things quiet and soft and clean for the helpless little angel who is depending on you for survival. Your friends’ kids start talking back and wearing Halloween costumes and going to school and playing soccer on the weekends while you wait for your life as a mother to start. It’s an odd thing. You think about starting with one. One tiny bundle that isn’t a picky eater and doesn’t yet have a favorite color.
Our agency occasionally had larger sibling groups who were hard to place because who thinks of adopting three or four kids at once? (you are out there, I know!) She said, If there were a sibling group of three available with ages like 1, 3 and 5, would you want to know about them? Well, yes, when you put it that way, I’d REALLY like to know about them. This wasn’t the case at the time, but she was trying to make sure she understood where we were at.
This conversation about the size of my family put a little crack in the foundation of that strange mental infant lala-land. I began to envision my family more with children rather than just babies. And since we had agreed to adopt a child up to the age of three, and I’d read The Weaver’s Craft (Mary Hopkins-Best) on toddler adoption, it’s not like I’d never thought about it, it’s just that I hadn’t quite considered it reality.
The funniest part about this family-size conversation was later that day when I related it to my husband and before I got to that part he said, “It’s between two and eight.” As though we’d agreed on that long ago. Only we hadn’t…we’d never said out loud to each other, “I think we should have between two and eight children.”
So what happened over the six weeks or so that followed was I tried it on for size. I’d share this with trusted girlfriends, all mothers themselves, and then I’d say, “But that would be crazy, right? to adopt three at once?” And then I’d answer my own question, “Yes, that would definitely be crazy, that’s not happening.” But I think deep down I was allowing myself to ponder the possibility. No one told me it was totally crazy. Everyone agreed it would be very very difficult and that it would completely change our lives. I must say that I have wonderful, wonderful friends. Friends who set themselves aside and listened and offered their thoughts without invading our privacy or pushing one way or the other. Except for a few who brought their own baggage to the conversations, my friends were incredibly supportive and not unrealistic, but loving. We are so fortunate in that.
So the story of how we were offered one baby girl and ended up pursuing more and bringing home our three children is in detail in an earlier post. THIS post is about WHAT IT’S BEEN LIKE to go from zero to sixty, from peaceful childless couple to crazy zoo house with three young children. So here’s a bit of that picture
SCARY: I don’t think I’m really one to let fear drive me, and I have to say that once my dear husband and I decided together to take the plunge, the experience was much more colored by the excitement, anticipation, and adventure rather than by paralyzing questions about how we were ever going to pull it off. That said, I do have nagging fears about how best to parent these children, and whether or not we will succeed at it. Like trying to solve a very complicated puzzle…the job is subtle at times, requires an incredible amount of attention and consideration, patience and perseverance. One must shove the fears aside (or deal with the ones that are holding one up), roll up one’s sleeves and get to work. Parenting is on the ground, dirty, in-your-face, demanding work. But it’s also SO WORTH IT!
HEARTBREAKING (for myself): You know, the thing that has made me cry the most since we brought the kids home in May is my dog, Noah. We were jet-lagged, unable to communicate with each other, and generally bewildered. Out of sensitivity to both dog and children, Noah stayed at our dear friend K’s house for a few more days while we all acclimated, and then I suggested we go on a nice off-leash walk together to let them all meet each other (Ethiopian kids are often terrified of dogs). I left the kids outside with K and went inside to re-unite with Noah. Well, we’d been gone for two weeks, and he was so freaked out and overjoyed to see me that he started making these desperate moaning-crying noises and jumping around trying to climb on my head he was so happy to see me. And I just LOST IT. I started sobbing and couldn’t stop. Good thing we were by ourselves! My dog in that moment represented my life and family for the past eleven years, something that would never ever be the same. I cried in mourning for what I’d given up. I cried out fear of the future and loss of the past. It was a deep, crazy kind of sobbing. And then I pulled myself together and took him out to meet the kids. K was helpful and understanding, and she didn’t mind that I kept on crying on and off throughout the whole walk, 45 minutes or so. I was a wreck! Noah still has been the one thing that has made me cry in my worst moments…he’s my reminder of what was, a nice couple with a nice dog doing all sorts of interesting things. He came to live with us in our first year of marriage and moved with us from San Francisco, to Washington DC, to our small town in Northern Idaho. He’s been on road trips with us, came to the office most of his life, and welcomed us home from countless trips to far flung places. And, perhaps most significantly, he’s been the only ‘child’ in our childless journey up until now. Changing that overnight had to result in some tears…Noah’s just the caveat that brings them out of me. He has done an amazing job of accepting his new siblings, the same way he’s accepted moves and all sorts of new things. I think his ability to go with it has helped me too.
HEARTBREAKING (for my kids): I had to put this in twice because the first is all about me, mourning the loss of who I was and what my family was before. This second version of heartbreak is about my children. My heart breaks for each of them as my internal mother (turns out she was there all the time and waiting to start defending her cubs), processes what they’ve been through and mourns on their behalf. My heart breaks for Ellie, that she was given up by a large family who had means and who I believe could have cared for her…why didn’t they fight for her? And for Alex and Melkam, who were old enough to be conscious of their birth mother dropping them off at a childrens’ home and not returning. No explanation from what we can tell. You know my seven-year-old son is ‘star of the week’ this week in first grade and gets to show photos of himself and his family on the wall of his class. He considered showing a photo of his birth mom and I gently walked through with him that he will get questions he may not be interested in answering yet, such as ‘why don’t you live with her anymore?’ You know what his casual answer was? “She was just done with me.” Yep, that breaks my heart. We are just at the point where the boys understand enough English to be able to talk about their past, and why and how they are here with us. It’s slow and careful work, with the goal of helping them understand that they are like a precious treasure created with purpose and here for a reason. Or how about when my five-year-old asks me over and over again what or who I’m laughing at even if I just smile at him. He doesn’t yet trust that I’m for him, not against him. He is filled with a belief that people are out to trick and deceive him at every turn even as he desperately tries to trust. That’s a learned belief, and my heart breaks for him because he learned it at the age of three and four.
LOUD: Oh my heavens, the silence has been shattered. These kids are SO LOUD! I figure we work on it on both sides; I adjust my expectations of the noise level (up), and they adjust their volume (down). But oh the joy when I get somewhere quiet!
BLISSFUL: In August our church takes a hiatus from children’s programs and all the kids come to the regular church service with their parents. Melkam was sitting next to me in church, coloring occasionally, doing a good job of keeping quiet, showing me his work, etc. At the end of the service the woman behind us tapped me on the shoulder and said to me with tears in her eyes: “That little boy LOVES you! Just the way he was looking at you!” Honestly I hadn’t really noticed, but it was beautiful to hear. Especially since when he first came home he didn’t want me to touch him or look at him, and now climbs in my lap the moment I sit down. And how about when my baby girl lights up, shouts “Mommy!!!” and runs to greet me when I get home? Bliss, I tell you. Oh, and teaching them new things, like riding a bike or skiing, they are just so excited to learn and so inherently grateful to be taught. It’s so very fun and fulfilling. There are many times when I’m overwhelmed with love for and from my kids and it’s like nothing else in the world!
PAINFUL: Something I didn’t really think about beforehand, but the physical challenge of three kids who are not tiny babies is significant. Our bigger kids had a lot of screaming rage fits in the first 3 months home. That meant that there were times I was carrying a raging six year old boy up the stairs. Not to mention, my baby girl arrived weighing 22 pounds…no opportunity to build baby-carrying muscles from the ground up. I’m currently in physical therapy for a chronic shoulder issue and for a constant issue deep in my hip joints, and I’ve got back problems. I hurt pretty much all the time. I’m sure there’s a combination of weird physical reactions to stress, and just normal muscle/joint pain from new movements (like putting a toddler in and out of a car seat), but honestly it’s something I never really thought about or prepared for.
GROUNDING, STRETCHING, REFINING: When, in the past twelve years, have I stopped everything in order to play a round of Candyland? When has a cuddle and a book been far more important than client calls, mounds of laundry, and a dirty house in need of attention? Having three kids changes EVERYTHING in one’s existence, and in our case it happened with a crash…there was nothing gradual about it. So there’s a big aspect of submitting to this. Yes, my husband and I made this decision and pursued it purposefully, but we both believe with all our hearts that it’s part of a plan bigger than either of us, and we yield to that. Sometimes there are a hundred times a day where I must choose to submit to the process, to the needs of my little ones, to the transformation, rather than stick to my own agenda. For me, this is very grounding, very life-altering, and, I think very good. A few years ago I trained for and ran the Leavenworth Half Marathon. I felt like I was going to die in the last half mile and I wanted to lay down in the dirt in the worst way! I remember thinking how rare it is that we get to find the edges of ourselves. It only happens when we get out of our comfort zone, sometimes WAY out. Parenting three children who arrived all at once is like that. I’m finding all sorts of new edges that I hadn’t visited before.
One thing that has surprised me: Even in the lowest moments, such as in the second month home when I had three children screaming at once (two boys in full rages and a baby who just got woken up by her brother’s wailing), and was home by myself save Noah who is grateful to be losing his hearing in his old age, even feeling in that moment like I had no idea what to do next and like I was completely failing, I still haven’t felt like this decision was a mistake. I may have been pleading with God, “What do I do?”, but not “What have I done?” It surprises me that this is the case, and it’s been very reassuring.
Also, I’m so proud of my kids. I think they are beautiful, amazing, brave, smart, funny, creative little people. I feel like we got so lucky to have them in our family and I look forward to watching them grow and learn and change like it’s the greatest gift in the world. Recently we were talking about weddings with the boys, and we pointed out that we were going to be at all their important events in their lives like when they graduate and when they get married. They asked why, and we had to explain because we love them, and we are excited to share in all the important things they do in their lives, and because that’s what family is all about. It was pretty cool to think about.
I’m sure I could go on and on, but this has been a scroller! Thanks for asking the question, Dakota, and I can’t wait to read how YOU answer it!