Looking Back At 3 Years With Our Adopted Daughters

Three years ago this month, we brought home two little girls to raise, love, and one day adopt as our own. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to share our journey to adoption with some women who are writing a book about adoption from a Christian perspective. Here are the thoughts I shared with them as I reflected on our 3rd anniversary as a family.

What Led Us To Adopt

Our interest in adoption came from a desire to have a big family. My husband, Gary, and I hoped our family would include adopted children since we’d both fallen in love with the children we worked with on overseas mission trips. But the decision to adopt was another story. The decision took 6 years to make. It required 2 years of infertility, 1 ½ years of finding an agency and completing a home study, 1 ½ years as foster parents to the girls who became our daughters, and 1 year of laboring over whether we were making the right choice as we waited for the adoption to finalize.

Nobody had ever adopted in our families before, so like them we started out trying to conceive a child. Since everyone in our families got pregnant the month they stopped birth control, we assumed babies would arrive in no time and bought a new home to prepare for a family. We had no idea that I had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), an insulin-related problem that effectively rendered me infertile. After two years and first-tier fertility treatments, we felt the Lord wasn’t in us trying to conceive just then. That confused us and broke our hearts as we grieved part of our vision for a family. Ultimately we wanted parenthood, not necessarily pregnancy. Because of this, in January 2003, we spent two hours in listening prayer with good friends, asking for the Lord’s guidance – whether to lay aside pursuit of a family, continue with the fertility treatments, or pursue another avenue to parenthood.

We sat in silence listening to the Lord for a long while, scribbling words, scriptures and images on paper as they came to mind. As we shared what each of us wrote, we saw a clear answer: Yes, God wanted us to have children, and He wanted us to let go of our own vision and take hold of His. The first step all of us sensed was to “open the door to adoption.” And so we began our journey to family, the journey, it turned out, that our future children had already begun. We had no idea that on the same week we moved in to our big-enough-for-kids home, our oldest daughter was born. Nor did we yet know that the same weekend the Lord called us to adopt, our second daughter was born. Two months later, when we felt led to adopt siblings through the county program, we had no idea that our girls entered the foster care system that same month. What we did find out was my PCOS was treatable. A few months before Neveah and Angelina’s foster placement with us, my doctor told me I might be able to conceive children, but that the chances were slim. I was relieved to hear that the chances were slim since we expected the call from the county any day for a placement. I didn’t think 2 foster/adopt kids and a pregnancy all at once was a good idea…

God apparently had a different opinion because by 9 months into the girls’ placement, I was pregnant. It was overwhelming, and not only because we had been parents for less than a year and would have 3 children to show for it! Our oldest daughter, Neveah, was becoming increasingly difficult to raise. Her intense mood shifts, aggressiveness and lack of attachment caused us to be exhausted by day, and lose sleep each night as we dealt with rage and night terrors. She would later be diagnosed with combined Bipolar, Reactive Attachment Disorder and ADHD, which only gave names to the chaos and heartbreak living in our home. When we found out I was pregnant, the adoption was not yet final, and Neveah’s counselor recommended that we end the placement. I wept bitterly over the decision facing us: would we adopt Neveah after all, knowing the magnitude of her issues? Would we adopt at all, knowing Angelina, her sister, would be devastated to separate from her permanently? Gary and I consulted trusted people, talked to our pastor and, more than anything, poured ourselves out before the Lord in prayer to discern what He wanted us to do. There was no easy answer, and no decisive leading either way. We simply felt called to trust the Lord and continue, one step at a time, in the direction we had already chosen.

As strange as this might seem, my pregnancy during that season of turmoil was probably the thing that pushed us most strongly toward adoption. Maybe it was just the joy of an answered longing, or the abundance of mommy (a.k.a. nurturing, hug-everyone) hormones flowing through me. Experiencing a pregnancy and an infant in the house, contrary to what we feared, brought enormous healing and bonding with our adopted daughters. As the pregnancy progressed, Neveah and Angelina grew to love the little one inside me and see that I was a caring, protective mom. Their attachment to us seemed to grow with my belly! When Rebecca was born, the older girls watched intently as I changed diapers and fed her, learning with every need I met that they had a safe home and parents who could provide love and stability. It was like they were living vicariously as infants with me through the process. The adoption didn’t finalize until the baby was 6 months old. It was only a few weeks before the court date that I can say I truly decided our adoption was the right choice. It was the longest walk in the dark of pure faith I can recall in my life, and the one I treasure above all others.

When did you adopt? July 2006, after almost 2 years raising the girls as foster children
Was your adoption open or closed? Open, but the children only have contact with their extended birth family. Gary and I communicate periodically with the birth mom, but due to her criminal history and erratic behavior, the children have no contact with her at this time.

How We Adopted

We felt led to adopt locally because we heard stories in the media of children in our own community who needed families. We worked with the county Health and Human Services agency, which has a program called concurrent planning, in which children in the system can be placed in adoptive homes as foster children during their reunification process with birth parents. It is for young children in cases where, even at the intake, likelihood seems low of the birth parent being able to reunify. We chose this option because it would allow us to take in children who were younger (1-3 years old) and who had not been in the system as long, which we hoped would make attachment with us an easier process. (Of course, we had no idea that children as young as ours were – 1 ½ and 2 ½ years old – could have moved through 6 placements in the year leading to placement with us! It was definitely an eye-opener to what children in the system have to endure to find their permanent families.)

Some Things We Didn’t Expect…

I read enough to know that my daughters would fantasize about their birth parents as part of their grieving process and to make sense of their world. But every time one of my daughters says, “My REAL mom wouldn’t make me go to bed so early!” or “My real mom must live in a big beautiful home and be a princess,” it still hurts. I don’t think that hurt will ever go away, but it has diminished as time passes and my intimacy with the girls grows. It’s revealed something about God’s heart, persistence and great love for me as his child – I reject him when I’m upset, and imagine he feels just as sad when I do it as I do when my daughters do it to me. It makes my view of our Heavenly Father more real and tender.

On a completely different note, I was totally unprepared to deal with the health issues the kids faced after placement. I had a feeling we would see developmental and emotional delays, especially in the youngest, who was 1 ½ years old and failure to thrive at placement. I had no idea how violent their reaction would be to the new foods we fed them, or that they would be lactose intolerant. They were sick 3 weeks of every month for a year. They were allergic to our cats. The 2 year old had sleep apnea and chronic ear infections that ultimately led to surgery. And then there was lice. I definitely didn’t think to check for that in the first weeks after placement! One night, a few weeks after placement with us, a bug fell out of my youngest’s hair on to my leg as I read her a bedtime story. Both girls were swarming with full-grown lice, which apparently had broken out in the foster home prior to us. For 2 months I spent hours each night fighting toddlers I barely knew to pull nits and lice out of their hair, then fell asleep in my husband’s lap as he pulled them out of mine.

A wonderfully unexpected feeling occurred when I gave birth to our youngest daughter after the adoption of our older two. I was afraid through the pregnancy that I would feel considerably closer to a child I bore, but once she arrived, I was thrilled to find no difference in my love for them. I labored for all three girls – the emotional, physical and prayer labor was different for each one, but they are all mine. I was so relieved!

One Thing We Wish We Had Known Before Adoption

I wish I would have read Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children by Daniel Hughes before I adopted children from foster care. The book is a heartbreaking story of a little girl who because of neglect, abuse, and multiple placements developed Reactive Attachment Disorder. She behaved like a sociopath, something I was seeing in my daughters as they did strange things like clinging to the check-out clerk at Costco and calling her mommy, kissing and manipulating adults they’d never met before, lying about everything, stealing from friends’ houses, and not responding to standard behavior modification. I spent my first 2 years as a parent feeling like a colossal failure when well-meaning critics at parks and stores offered me basic disciplinary strategies to cure my children’s odd behaviors. When I read this book, I found hope as the little girl ultimately moved into a home with a therapeutic foster mom, whose creativity and training in attachment parenting broke down the child’s walls and helped her learn to relate to the world normally again. By the time I read the book, I was already becoming that creative, therapeutic foster mom, but before that, I spent 2 years feeling depressed and helpless. Reading that book before living it would have helped me to see myself more as a therapeutic foster parent than “mom” to the kids in the first year. I believe it would have allowed me to become their mom sooner and would have saved me from a lot of heartbreak and frustration. Because of my experience with this, I have been asked by our therapist to help teach classes on attachment parenting for the county and I can’t wait to help parents who are struggling with this issue to find hope and support.

And, of course, I wish I’d known to check for lice on a child coming from multiple foster placements…

Resources We Found Helpful Along the Way

We attended every class we could from the agency’s Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Care Education program. We also attended support groups for parents of children with severe attachment problems, and participated in weekly 1 ½ hour specialized adoption/attachment therapy with a psychologist working through the county system. The county provided respite care and we petitioned them to pay for twice the normal number of hours, which we needed for our own mental health. The respite provider we use has non-profit agency specifically formed to support families of children with attachment disorder, so our daughters get 24-hour therapeutic care when they stay with her. Additionally, we elected to keep Medi-Cal for both daughters, which has been an enormous help with the cost of medications and therapy our oldest needs to manage her condition. We also applied for a stipend from the federal Adoption Assistance Program, which is open to families adopting children with special needs. That stipend pays for counseling and additional respite time for my husband and me to relax and reconnect.

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