The Truth About Adoption: Two Years Later
by Jen Hatmaker on September 3rd, 2013
Last week, Ben read a chapter book over the course of five days and only asked me for help on two words.
Remy skipped into 2nd grade like it was her job, barely looking over her shoulder at me.
The Texas Longhorns are very invested in the successes of the Hatmaker children.
We just crossed the two-year mark since adopting our kids from Ethiopia, and I can hardly believe that even as I type it. Just twelve months ago, I was telling you The Truth About Adoption at the one-year mark, and things were still very heavy.
The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.
We are filled with joy because our kids are healthy and strong, beautiful and smart. They are overcomers, and so are we. I marvel at the ordinary security they now enjoy with abandon, typical advantages we barely consider like being fed and tucked in at night and cheered for at games and educated and wanted. These belong to them now; they are safe.
We are filled with joy because we are (mostly) past the crazy temper tantrums, the inconsolable grief, the manipulations, the paralyzing fear. The kids are no longer going off the rails constantly. We’re pretty sure we’re going to make it, which felt like a fool’s hope last year.
As with all retellings, this is our story, and it may bear absolutely no resemblance to yours. We adopted older, unrelated children from Ethiopia who were relatively healthy. Adoption has many faces: babies, foster, siblings, toddlers, domestic, no other kids at home, billions of other kids at home, older parents, first-time parents. This is not a template but simply our experience. There is no one-size-fits-all here. But for us, if I had to loosely discuss Year Two, it went something like this:
The shine has worn off, and you are in the hard work of stabilizing. You’ve exited the near constant therapeutic position where practically every word and every moment has something to do with felt safety/needs/affirmation/redirection/acknowledgement of loss/keeping the schedule predictable/therapeutic words/tantrum interruption/attachment. You can go entire hours like some sort of normal parent. All the fuss surrounding your adoption has receded, and now you are deeply in the trenches.
For us, this section of time was almost as difficult as the first six months but for different reasons. When they first get home, you’re simply in survival mode. Your head is down, your entire life is in the weeds, it is chaos, anarchy. Everything that used to take up your time is shoved in the corner doing who knows what. The transition is brutal and pretty much every part of your life is a hot mess. But you knew this was coming and your people are keeping the wheels on because they were ready too, and it’s like wartime.
The first six months of the second year is tricky, because you’ve emerged from the madness and now you realize: THIS IS GOING TO BE VERY, VERY HARD FOREVER. This is a difficult season of learning first-hand what abandonment actually wrecks in a child’s heart. The hemorrhage has been cleaned but now you can see the scars. The grief isn’t as manic, but you realize it is deep, way deeper than you thought. You begin to understand just how much has yet to be overcome and how ill-equipped you are to see it all through. You learn that in many ways, this is the work of a lifetime and abandonment is a permanent part of their story.
It feels terrifying and overwhelming. Because when the kids are screaming and thrashing, that is behavior you feel you will get past eventually. You can weather that storm. But once you see their broken hearts sitting there quietly, still suffering, you hit your knees.
For us, this introduced a season of fear. Will they resent us? Will they blame us one day? Will they twist away from us with unresolved grief? Will they be healthy? Did we do the right thing? We’ve compounded their losses and it feels muddier now than it did on Day One. We are not getting this right, and it matters so much that we get this right.
In our family, this was the period where one of our bio kids began struggling mightily. He stayed on the rails that first year because he had to; no choice. There was no room for anyone else to come unhinged. So when Ben and Remy pulled out of triage, he was safe to fall apart. And he did. This is a special sort of heartbreak, and we had to find a new drawer to pull out to deal with it all.
Here is the truth: Brandon and I struggled with burn out during those months. The work was so exhausting, and we figured out it was never going to not be. Tension between your bios and adopteds crescendo (because they are out of the weeds and into normal family life so now everyone feels free to ARGUE AND MAKE US CRAZY). This was the worst part. I preferred the early days when my bios treated Ben and Remy like darling new pets, and the new kids hadn’t learned to annoy their big sibs.
It is selfish and embarrassingly human, but we were just tired. I felt irritable and resentful. I wanted it to be easier already and it wasn’t, at least not in the ways I thought. Parenting wounded kids is terribly challenging, which you know in your head going into adoption, but starting your second year, you really know it in your life. It’s hard, like maybe forever hard, and you feel that because you are a human, not a robot, and that’s just true. There are some tears in the bathroom during this stage.
1 ½ - 2 Years
Your family makes a sharp turn toward healing. You can literally see it. The pressure cooker feeling is receding. You’ve figured out how to talk about their losses in an organic way. (I used to bring up adoption stuff out of left field with Ben, and he would spiral in tears. I’ve learned to let it come when it comes and quit trying to force healing conversations into his story.) You free up some energy to deal with your bio kids’ issues. So many days you think: “We are just an ordinary family.” You can’t believe you think this. This is the best six-month run yet. ALL HAIL THE FOURTH SIX-MONTH STRETCH.
This is about the time you learn more about adoption ethics. Believe me, I’m no fan of the “I’ve Adopted But Now You Can’t” narrative, but it’s not that adopters want to throw a wrench in the machine for kicks. Just like ordinary parenting, you only know so much when you first get pregnant. You are clueless actually. Two years down the road, your advice to first-timers is different; you’ve seen stuff, you know stuff, you have both joys and warnings to share.
There is an arc to the adoption journey that seems fairly common, and it includes getting very serious about protecting first families and first cultures and reunifying families if it is safe and possible. Part of this is because we have brokenhearted children in our homes that grieve constantly for their first mamas, first language, first culture. We’ve seen the loss up close, and it is severe.
Adoption is beautiful, but it is complicated. Any time we are crossing cultures and biological ties and socioeconomic disparities, we must tread very carefully, for people’s hearts are at stake. Entire families are in play. Cultures are on the line. Again, somewhere in the second year, this becomes more clear, and we turn an eye back toward our children’s birth places and feel the tension, the loss. (I have so many adoption friends who have moved to their kid’s home country or engaged community development work there, because those connections become so dear, so important.)
We need not shy away from these hard conversation, because they can only make adoption stronger, first families better, second families healthier. The more we know, the more we are responsible for, and it is a privilege that God has invited us into the story of orphan care. We are a committed, resilient bunch, I’ll tell you. We love one another and love each others children, and I am grateful to the core that this is my tribe.
I was speaking in Birmingham last weekend, and my friend Anna who adopted from Ethiopia the same time we did came. When she first brought her son Cooper home, the diagnosis was grim: he won’t walk, he won’t thrive, he will always struggle. As we hugged and shared pictures, Anna’s friend leaned in and said, “Cooper got in trouble for running in the halls at school last week…” and my throat closed up and my eyes stung with tears, because God redeems. We are not capable of healing our kids’ bodies and hearts and minds, but Jesus is. We can trust him with our little families, because He is a good God and He is ever for us.
The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.
Adopters and adult adoptees, what else can you add to the Second Year? What did you learn, overcome, face, discover? How has your story been different? Or the same?
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