From start to finish, our adoption of two babies from Ethiopia took 1 ½ years. During that 1 ½ year period, my husband and I carefully studied and planned. We read up on malnutrition, life in Ethiopia, transracial adoption and challenges facing institutionalized children. We prepared our two older children who were seven and five at the time. We prepared our hearts, our home, our extended families and friends. When we took off on a 24 hour journey from San Francisco to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia we turned to each other and said, “Ok. I think we are ready”.
My advice to you is this: Whatever you think is going to happen is not going to happen. Whatever you think adoption is going to be, it is not. You can only prepare to a certain extent and then you have to be nimble and ready and humble to face what is in front of you. Be prepared for the unexpected and decide to embrace it.
I was not prepared for the abject poverty of such a beautiful country. Pictures did not do it justice. I was astonished at both the physical and spiritual beauty of everyone we met in Addis. What a stunning people.
I was not prepared when orphanage workers brought me my ten month old daughter and she did NOT look like the happy little baby in our pictures. She was very sick and her big eyes showed trauma. She was so scared and small.
(Day 1 in the orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Sadie)
I was not prepared when another orphanage worker handed us our eight month old son and we quickly realized he had no muscle tone. At all.
(Sebastian in Ethiopia)
I was not prepared to have to force feed our daughter because she was starving but did not know how to eat. Here we were, ready with food and medicine and formula…but she would not take it. She didn’t know how and had never been taught.
I was not prepared to have my daughter arch her back away from being held or scream when we touched her head. Or wake up from naps completely traumatized with big scared eyes.
I thought that if we adopted babies, so many of the terrible things I had read about would not happen. I thought they would be able to thrive and would have no memory of their time in the orphanage or of being abandoned. I thought that because they were so young it would be easy to undo all of the hurt. I thought I was prepared.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Babies who have been abandoned feel trauma. They feel abandonment and starvation and boredom. Their eyes do not trust and they are not initially comfortable being held and loved and cuddled. Malnutrition is horrible and even when their bellies are full and their skin is healthy it has still disrupted early growth patterns.
Every day at home brought something new that I was not prepared for. It brought horrible diarrhea as their bodies got rid of the orphanage parasites. It brought healing from bronchitis and scabies and staph infections. It brought an intense fear of being around people and noise and color. It brought a lot of sleeping as their bodies recovered from their former life. It brought struggles with learning to eat and learning what it felt like to be full. While family and friends marveled at these two beautiful babies in their adorable clothes and congratulated us on a job well done, we knew differently. We were in triage and we needed to prepare for the new task at hand.
I had the pretty nursery and access to doctors, good food, formula and medications. But in order to really prepare, to be fully present for these children in acute need of help, I had to get rid of my preconceived notions about infant adoption. I had to accept that my children were hurt by their abandonment. They were hurt by traveling between various intake centers throughout Ethiopia in the arms of strangers and by living in a crowded orphanage with no consistent caregiver relationships. They were hurt by neglect and sickness and fear and many other things I could not see. Once I understood the magnitude of what they had been through I could appreciate their struggle with a new perspective and celebrate their milestones with gusto.
It took longer for my children to learn to walk. It took longer for our son to really talk. It took longer for them to learn to feed themselves and dress themselves and potty train and trust and really connect and make it through a full day without a crisis. Everything took longer. But they did it. They DID it. They are happy, healthy, thriving and curious. They have vibrant personalities and killer smiles. They each have challenges that will take time and maturity and perhaps a little extra help to overcome. They are not challenges that I would have expected or could have prepared for. But today I am confident that we will get them through their next chapters.
(Sadie and Sebastian at age 4 with big brother and sister Simon and Sophie, parents Sam and Sara)
Whatever you think your adoption scenario is it is going to be, it is not. Get rid of your preconceptions right now. You will not know what you are up against until you are in it. That is the glory of parenthood, not just adoption; it is a tremendous leap of faith. Prepare the very best you can and then leap in. Before you know it, you will be prepared in just the way that your children need you to be.