This is an open letter to families who are wondering if adoption of older children is their path or those struggling to parent their older adopted child from a family with 12 children (10 adopted from the U.S. foster system and Africa).
Monday, January 26, 2009
Older Children; Adoption
When Brent and I started foster care back in 2002, we were incredibly young. We were also intimidated and a little fearful. It helped knowing that it was where God was leading us, but even that didn't cast the doubts away. When the social worker asked what age groups we were willing to take...which special needs...ect, Brent and I hesitantly stated we would only be comfortable fostering children five and under. My oldest, D, was only four. I couldn't imagine parenting a child older than him. I looked at the social worker sheepishly and stated, "I don't know how to parent a child older than D. Five is my limit." She smiled and said she understood.
Brent and I filled out mountains of paperwork...hours worth of paperwork. I stared at the masses and wondered if we would ever get through it all. Brent and I would work on it little by little. The questions tended to be repetitive and after a while they all seemed to run together. The more I read, the less fearful I became. At one point a question asked: "Would you be willing to take a pregnant teenager or a teenage mother?" I thought to myself, "sure why not," and checked the box. Then forgot about it.
Two months passed. Brent and I waited anxiously for any word on our foster care license. We were told that we could possibly be called with a child at the same time, and so we tried to prepare ourselves for the unknown. We didn't know anyone personally that fostered kids. I also wasn't one to go looking for advice from others. So we really were embarking on a new adventure.
One day in October we finally got a call from a social worker. "Danielle, I have a two week baby boy for you, " she said hopefully.
"Really?!" I exclaimed. It seemed to good to be true.
"AND" she added without missing a beat, "his fifteen year old mommy." My breath came out in a whoosh. Then I got chills...and peace. Strange that I would have so much peace in such a challenging endeavor. I explained that I needed to talk to my husband, but that I would call her back within the hour.
My husband didn't seem nearly so caught off guard. His response was, "Sure, why not?" It was the beginning of a four year journey with the foster care system. After my daughter, L (the 15 year old) came, God opened our eyes to the real need; good Christian families for older children. We changed our five and under age range to 18 and younger (girls only). In that time span God brought 7 teenage girls through our home. Each one was amazing, special, and oh so challenging. A few of them left, and I grieved. A few of them left with my heartfelt relief.
Years later, I can still remember staring at P's picture on the adoption site thinking, "No one is ever going to take her." She had a pained expression on her face that spoke volumes of what was to come for any well intentioned parent. I pulled up her picture every day and prayed for her. I finally told Brent that I really felt God had meant her for our family. He laughed at me. We were already in the process of adopting B and M. Our finances for adoption were spent. Brent told me that if she was still there when we got our little girls home, and if the finances were there, we would go back for her. Yet I knew we wouldn't. When you ignore those feelings and do nothing...it becomes too easy.
I received a letter from a lady who's organization advocated for adoption of children around the world. She asked if I would speak on adopting older children for a fundraiser, as she knew that's where my heart was. I wrote her back a very passionate email. I literally poured out my heart. In return I got a very excited response. I suppose she couldn't wait to hear from me, as she then called me only moments later. She told me about this young girl in the orphanage that was so desperate for a home. I listened intently, but immediately recognized the girl she was talking about. She was talking about my P. I asked her bluntly if P was this girl. To say she was surprised would be an understatement. I explained that I had been praying for her and expressed what my husband told me. Within minutes she hung up to call the director of the orphanage.
The money had been worked out...the timing (because we started B and M's adoptions in Jan. and it was May) had been worked out so P could come home at the same time. It would seem that God orchestrated every move...we only had to say yes. The things that fly through my mind at the moment of making a decision are scarce. I often wish I had the foresight to worry about things before I make a decision. I suppose that's why God blessed me with Brent. He's the "what if" kind of thinker. My response was immediate and impulsive...YES. Brent was rather more quiet, and said we would have to think about it some more.
Strangely, I don't like to think when I am making a decision. I especially don't like to think when it comes to adoption. I would have missed out on so many blessings had I thought them away. None of our children came as perfect---the odds are in their favor---kind of children. I would much rather follow my heart and follow wherever God leads, than follow a rational thinking process. After a few hours, Brent conceded. We were bringing home a bouncing eleven year old Liberian girl who looked as though she hated the world. P's picture definitely made it harder to explain the news of our latest addition in joyous terms to relatives.
So what happens after you follow your heart and don't think about the consequences? You then spend the next few weeks of waiting thinking about consequences. I did too. Every negative thought that could possibly exist entered into my head. I was thankful there was only a short time before I was to travel and bring my daughters home. I thought about the "Possible Reactive Attachment Disorder; should be youngest or only in the home" label that had been attached under Precious's picture often. I wondered loudly to God, "What am I going to do?"
Why am I writing this today? For the last several years I have listened to idle comments about adoption; the challenges of adoption older children, the hardships, and the heartaches. I have watched the disruption rate soar and have seen families destroyed. I have seen beautiful children crying out for a voice to be heard. They want a family. Regardless of their issues, traumas, and abuse; they still want a family. These children don't always show it. They aren't appreciative and thankful. In fact, often times they rarely manage any resemblance of a smile. Yet they are children...not adults that can think, understand, and reason everything through. They weren't raised to understand logic or consequences. Most weren't raised with morals or an understanding of values. In truth, most were raised in a situation where survival was of the utmost importance.
So what does that mean for us, as adults? That means we still have to step out and take a chance when God opens the door. It means we need to understand where our children are coming from and have reasonable expectations. This also means that we as parents have to put safe guards in place for the rest of our family. It amazes me at the number of families that move an older child into their home with complete trust and naivety. I often ask, "Would you bring a strange man or woman into your home and let them sleep in your little children's bedroom?" No. Then it would only make sense to build trust and understanding with your child that has lived a very different life, who doesn't know the rules, and doesn't understand how your family lives.
Adopting an older child means that you get to learn about him or her, just as you did when you met your spouse. This child has a past, most likely a traumatized one, that doesn't include you. Older children have likes and dislikes that were formed without you. Love. The real Love, the unconditional Love, takes time to build and grow. Did I love all of my children from the first hello? Yes and no. Yes, I loved them in the fact that they were my children. No, in the sense that I didn't have a clue who they were. One of the blessings of adopting an older child is the process of getting to know him or her.
In a nut shell...here are some things I learned about adopting older children:
-They have to earn trust...it is not given.
-Love is a choice. I chose to love them and the feelings fall into place in time.
-Never...never...put a child in a situation where you expect something that either tempts them to do wrong or is above their capabilities. (This would cover putting an older child in a room with a younger one without supervision)
-Expect that they will come with no morals, values, understanding of your culture (even if they are domestically adopted). Also note that you can change their behaviors, but not their hearts. That's where God has to come in.
-Understand that older children have a higher risk of being sexually active/abused. This is especially the case in African countries. Think about it; there are seven kids living with mom in a one room hut with her boyfriend. Children pick up on things at a young age...mostly out of curiosity. So even if your child is active, it doesn't necessarily mean abuse. However, abuse is very high. Many times children don't even view it as abuse. They just don't understand the idea of being a victim. In the US, many of my foster children had no parenting. Almost all had no father. So it stands to reason that in our highly sexualized country, sexual activity would happen at a young age (as young as 8 or 9 for girls).
-Expect that your child may not respond at first to discipline. This one was interesting. In Liberia, they still have corporal punishment. P was literally beaten until she bled with a stick. Z jokes about how her birth mom would beat her with a rotting. It is just how it is done. In their defense, the people of Liberia have some of the most well behaved children I have ever seen. So you can imagine how well the children respond to "time outs" when they get to America. Especially since most of their orphanage life was spent in squalor staring at a dirty wall quietly with nothing to do. All I can say is "Consistency, consistency, consistency." Whatever you do, don't waiver. Eventually they get the point.
-Education. Most of the older children in the foster care system are behind in school and development. They are usually in Special Education. Not all, mind you, but a good deal. I would say about half of my foster children were in special education classes. In African countries...Oh dear. Well that one can be really tough. Most of my day to day struggles with my Liberian girls is education. My girls were never really taught how to use their brain in that fashion, so it's almost like you have to reprogram them to think.
-Attachment and bonding. Expect that your child won't know how to respond to a simple hug. Both foster, domestic, and international alike would look at me strangely when I asked for a hug at bed time. P said that I was the first person ever to hug her. She still remembers when she met me, because I hugged her. "It felt so nice," she stated a few weeks ago. In fact your child probably won't even love you for a few months...years. It's a hard thing to accept some times, but I have long gotten used to hearing "I hate you" and "I wanna go back to Africa" and "I can't wait to leave here." Thankfully we've gotten to a stage now where they tell me later they are sorry. They also are able to express their anger in other ways. Expect that your heart will accumulate a few scars, hence making it a little tougher.
-Expect food hoarding. Most children from worldly situations come in with feelings of neglect and a sense of being out of control. Children learn that they can control food...until you learn that you can, as the parent, control food too. One of my daughters would sit at the dinner table for hours, just because she wanted to. It was exasperating to watch and eventually we had to put an hour time limit on her. She's eating just fine now.
-There may be bed wetting. Yes, even older children wet the bed. This is especially so when they are feeling insecure. NEVER...yell or get upset about your child wetting the bed. It only makes the situation worse. Then you will have to play the game "Let's find where my child hid their soiled laundry." Not fun.
-Don't overwhelm them. I find that we try to overcompensate a bad childhood or lack of one, with all of the materialism and such that our life has to offer. This isn't necessarily a good thing.
-When bringing a child from another country...know that they are going to have to get used to a whole new life. It takes time. Sometimes I look back at P's first days in America and I just have to laugh. We often didn't get that she just couldn't grasp concepts like flushing the toilet and not putting toilet paper in the trash. It seemed like such a big deal...and the reality was so minor. There is a scene in ELF, when he is looking at the escalator. He puts his foot on...then of with lots of drama. P did that at Brussels Airport with the escalator. Every time that part of the movie comes up, I laugh so hard remembering P.
-I am my child's parent, not their friend. They don't need another friend...they have all kinds of those already. They need the love and security that only a parent can give. I would say that this challenged me most when I was 26 and D was 16. I had friends in their early twenties and she was used to "hanging out" with people in their twenties. Some how we had to establish boundaries and make it clear that I was the parent. Yes, we had a relationship...but the friendship didn't grow until after she was married. Even now, she knows that I am the mom in her life. It wasn't formed by how she acted, but rather by my own actions. I am the one she comes to for advice or comfort. I know the importance of having that role in your life, especially with the lack of one in my own.
-Most of all, remember God is in control. He can do anything...even when it appears hopeless. Don't give up. Don't give up on your child. Love can do amazing things.