It was hour 11 of travel and we were not even halfway through. Our family of three became a family of five overnight and all that stood between us and home were planes, trains, and automobiles. We adopted our 5-year-old son from the Philippines and we were able to be a happy family. As the airplane descended to our final destination, all I could feel was joy. We were a family and we were going home.

International Adoption is so different from bringing a baby home from the hospital. The milestones are extremely distinct. There are no monthly updates on how healthy the baby is. There is no app to tell you that your child is the size of an avocado. There are waiting periods and hurry-up periods and completing-the-paperwork periods and there are no fixed timelines. I have learned that with adoption, the milestones look different. Some are sad, but most are wonderful. 

When I was a teacher, we had the students do benchmark testing at the start of each school year. Then we would compare that to their tests at the end of the year. We had a benchmark for growth so we could compare the students to one another. Parents do this all the time. We look online for what our child should be doing or learning at each milestone. Every doctor’s visit they measure our child against all the others and we sit on the edge of our seats hoping and praying our child meets those expectations. We want our child to be on track. 

I learned to throw those metrics out the window soon after I became a mom through adoption. Those benchmarks and milestones do not correctly measure progress in children who didn’t have the best start. Not all children get the nutrition and care they need. Some children didn’t get medical care inside or outside of the womb. Too many children who were adopted were not only neglected but they were abused by the same people who should have cared for them. It isn’t fair, but it is reality for too many children. 

Medical Milestones

As parents through adoption, we cannot and should not use typical milestone measurements to judge the success of our kids. My daughter is Indian and comes from a people that are typically small in stature. Some of that is because of poverty and poor nutrition and some of that is genetics. She will always measure small on growth charts. Honestly, I am just happy she is even big enough to be on the charts at all. For a long time, she was too little. Now she is happy and healthy, but I remember the weekly weigh-ins and counting her every calorie and encouraging her to eat just one more bite so she would gain weight. When she was a healthy weight for the first time, that was a huge milestone for us.

Vocabulary, physical ability and growth are all easily measurable. There are countless charts and articles on milestones and what ages your child should meet them. There are more than just growth milestones. Any parent can look up what a child of any given age should be able to do. After months home, all the other moms would remind me that my daughter would catch up. They were well-meaning, but the truth is it would be many years before she would catch up and, in some ways, she still is not at the same level as her peers. 

I had to stop looking at those charts and stressing about the future. My children have overcome more in their short lives than most children in this country will ever experience. They lost their biological families, caregivers, and their homes; they have been so brave to love and trust again. The fact that my children have healthy emotional attachments to my husband and I is a miracle. Despite their difficult beginnings, they are thriving in a family. 

Sleep Milestones

Another milestone that is different for adoptive families revolves around sleep. The first time a child sleeps through the night is a celebration. My children suffered from night terrors and fear in the night. I had a child in my bed or I slept in a child’s room for years. There are still some nights where I am needed in the night. My children came from orphanages. Quiet nights seem foreign compared to a hot room full of crying babies and children. 

Many adopted children suffer from sleep disorders. I am blessed that I get to be there for them in their darkest hours. When they sleep through the night with no terrors or tears or waking up, I celebrate that milestone with such excitement. We earned it through songs, cuddles, tears, prayers, and rocking children back to sleep over and over. Many nights, I sneak into my kid’s room after they are asleep. The cares and drama of the day are gone and I am in awe of their sweet faces, untroubled in sleep. That is progress that is not easily measured. 

Education Milestones

School and milestones are another topic that can be sore for adoptive families. I was a teacher for many years before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom, so I understand the pressure teachers have to post grades and tests. My job was to assign a numerical grade to each child and determine how they all measured up. (I know that a grade isn’t the whole picture of a student.) When and how a child meets a milestone in school varies from child to child. For some children who have experienced trauma, they might not meet the school standards right away or ever. If a child doesn’t feel safe, how can they care about Algebra homework? Even children thriving with the family they were adopted into can struggle in school. If teachers and even parents only measure their children through the eyes of a test score that may not paint the whole picture.

While milestones are useful and even necessary for medical and school purposes they are just a guild. In one of our first adoption classes, the social worker said, “Normal is just a setting on the dryer.” We are not like other families and stories because adoption is different for everyone. It is wonderful and sad. There are highs and lows, but the pain makes the progress so much sweeter. 

One of the Best Milestones

My son had been home five months after his adoption and my husband and I needed a date night. We had two young kids and no time for one another. My sister came over often to get to know her nephew and help him get used to new people. She would be his first babysitter. We were working on attachment and thought leaving for a few hours would be no problem. We had left him with my sister a few times for a short amount of time to start practicing. This would be a few hours. When we would leave, we told our son we loved him and are mom and dad and we explained that mom and dad always come back. We tell our children this every time we leave. This time our son cried when we left. In the past, he showed no emotion to have a babysitter. 

I called my mom and said with happy tears in my eyes, “He cried when we left!!”

She was excited for us because she knows our journey and knows this is a good thing. I do not like my son crying, but the fact that he did showed that he was forming healthy attachments! For families formed through adoption, that is one of the best milestones. Our milestones look different for us in the adoption community, but we accept that for our children. We celebrate small victories that are truly huge wins if you know how far and how hard our children have worked to get there.