Surprised by Joy
Mary Beth Chapman opens her front door flanked by two little Asian girls—one perched on her hip, the other dancing excitedly around her in a shirt that proclaims "American Girl." The "dancer" is Shaohannah Hope (or, as the family calls her, Shaoey, pronounced "show-ee"). The younger of the two is Stevey Joy. These are the girls Mary Beth and her husband, veteran Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman, traveled a long way to bring into their family, and who, as Shaoey explains, were born "from Mommy's heart" (unlike her three older siblings who were born "from Mommy's tummy"). They're also the girls who brought into Mary Beth's life the much-needed qualities that comprise their middle names.
The typical bustle in the Chapman home, which is inhabited by two parents, five kids (including biological children Emily, Caleb, and Will Franklin), three cats, two dogs, and two fish, is a little subdued this morning. Mary Beth and Steven were at the emergency room until 1:30 A.M. with Shaoey, whom they feared had broken her nose when she fell off the bench of her pint-sized piano, not an unusual occurrence for this active toddler. Thankfully, Shaoey was only bruised, a fact that doesn't slow her down this morning.
As Mary Beth gives a brief tour of their home, a peach Victorian nestled in the rolling countryside outside Nashville, she's constantly interrupted by Shaoey's additional commentary. While in the room she'll eventually share with Stevey Joy, which is decorated with Chinese dresses and dolls, Shaoey drags her little sister to the mini piano, the one that matches the grown-up version downstairs in the living room, and grabs her "ta-tar" (translation: guitar), which is "just like Daddy's," and entertains us with an impromptu concert. "She's got this much energy all day long," Mary Beth explains. "And she never naps."
It's tough to picture such a live wire languishing in a Chinese orphanage. But that's where she was until the Chapmans traveled overseas in March of 2000 to claim their long-distance family member. Mary Beth never dreamed she'd adopt a child, let alone one from so far away. In fact, she was the lone dissenter for most of the two-and-a-half-year campaign daughter Emily staged to get her parents to adopt a baby from overseas.
Once Mary Beth got on board with the adoption, she did so with zeal. At her suggestion, she and Steven launched Shaohannah's Hope, a foundation to help provide funds for families wanting to adopt internationally. She serves as president, and together she and Steven promote adoption awareness and legislation. Mary Beth's zeal was put to the test, however, when the SARS epidemic struck in the spring of 2003. They were preparing to go to China to pick up their second adopted daughter, Stevey Joy, whose story was chronicled on the television series Adoption on the Hallmark Channel.
She and Steven settled in on their love seat to share about their decision to adopt a second time, as well as the tough seasons they've weathered in their marriage. One of their biggest issues has been Mary Beth's struggle with depression.
"People might look at the fact that my husband wrote me an entire album of love songs," she says, referring to Steven's latest recording, All About Love (Sparrow), for which she served as executive producer, "and think we have the perfect marriage, the perfect life. Though I love Steven dearly, we're open about the fact that it's been holy headlock at times." Together they shared some of these stories and lessons at Family Life's Rekindling the Romance conferences this fall.
"People also might look at our crazy schedule with three growing kids, Steven gone on tour often, and my depression thrown in the mix, and wonder why in the world we'd add two little Chinese girls to the equation," Mary Beth adds. "It doesn't make any sense that these girls would bring me joy, hope, and healing instead of pushing me over the edge. But that's God's unexpected, higher way at work."
In honor of National Adoption Month (November), TCW talked to Mary Beth about the newest additions to her family, as well as her life-long struggle with depression and the surprising way God's brought joy back into her life.
*This interview was conducted in 2003, before the couple's adoption and tragic loss of their youngest daughter, Maria Sue. The couple has since written a book about their loss, Choosing to See.
Why were you initially hesitant about adopting?
I was supportive of the concept of adoption—for years Steven and I'd prayed for and financially supported friends who'd adopted. But I feared I wouldn't have enough love for a child who wasn't biologically mine.
What changed your mind?
In 1997, when Emily was 11, we went to Haiti with Compassion International. After spending time with the children there and seeing how many of them needed loving families, Emily got the idea in her head that we had room at our table for at least one more.
She talked constantly about the idea of international adoption. Emily even used her Christmas money that year to purchase a book about how to adopt internationally. We'd often find three-page notes on our pillow at night explaining all the reasons we should adopt. The next year, her birthday wish list had three things on it: a Bible concordance, a four-wheeler, and an adopted baby sister. She was relentless!
Emily's been intense from the womb, so her passion didn't surprise us. But when her campaign continued for two years, we wondered if God was trying to tell us something. And then there was a series of "coincidences" I couldn't deny.
When I told Emily she could bring some information home from an adoption agency fundraiser she and Steven attended one night, she returned with armloads of pamphlets as well as the news that they were encouraging Chinese adoptions due to a new openness in some of the country's policies. I perked up because any time I even let my mind go there, I always pictured us with an Asian baby.
But I still had reservations. I only was interested in an infant since we'd walked through some difficult times with friends who'd adopted older children. From what Emily had read, we knew that the youngest age at which Chinese babies were adopted was about 15 months old. Also, you could have only two children and still be allowed to adopt from China—and we had three.
But when Steven called the agency's headquarters to check on these details, he discovered that just a month earlier the law had changed, that you now could have up to four children and still be allowed to adopt from China. He also learned that babies recently had begun being released for adoption in China at younger ages, even as young as six to eight months old. At that point I felt God opening doors and working on my heart.
What prompted the final decision?
Steven and I took a day to talk and pray about it. We listed the pros and cons. At one point, Steven flippantly said, "This is a hilarious thing we're considering. If we do end up adopting, we need to find out what the word in Chinese is for laughter. That needs to be part of her name because we're like Sarah and Abraham, laughing at the idea because we feel too old."
Well, that afternoon I had a doctor's appointment. Sitting in the waiting room with me, Steven flipped through an eight-month-old issue of Reader's Digest and suddenly burst out, "Oh, my goodness!" He handed me the article he'd been reading about a Chinese boy who needed heart surgery and whose parents found his surgeons on the Internet. Right there in black and white it said, "The little boy's name is Shaohan (shao in Chinese means 'laughter')." This was less than two hours after Steven had mentioned naming the child that!
At that point, there were just too many coincidences for us to avoid God's nudging. Suddenly the question changed from "Are we going to adopt?" to "When are we going to adopt?"
What did you think when they first handed you Shaohannah?
They gave Shaohannah to me in the hallway of the hotel we were staying at in China. I was so moved. As a believer, I suddenly understood so clearly what it means to be adopted into God's kingdom. From the first moment, I loved this child desperately and would've died for her even though she'd done absolutely nothing to earn my love. Even though I'd been a Christian since I was nine, it didn't hit me until that day, That's how much God loves us.
How did Shaohannah handle the transition into your family?
She was a happy baby during the day. But she'd scream for an hour every night as we tried to get her to sleep. We finally realized it was what they call night terrors, her reaction to the loneliness or negative conditions in the orphanage. Those terrors continued for the first six months we had her. It took a long time for her to allow us to comfort her, to realize she was in a safe, loving place.
Did this added stress trigger your depression?
It doesn't make any sense, but in the midst of all the craziness and sleep deprivation, I experienced—and still do—an underlying peace like never before. I can only attribute that to God. I think part of it is that until now, I haven't had such a sense of purpose and a knowledge that this is exactly where God wants me. That purpose—of daily meeting these precious little girls' needs and of helping to make it easier for others to adopt needy little ones overseas—gets me outside of myself and my personal struggles.
How long had you been suffering from depression?
Looking back, I probably was depressed from a young age. Steven's optimism is endless, but I've got a melancholy personality. I love the mellow side of life, stormy days, quiet introspection. Then when the depression shows up, I get really tired, reclusive, sad, short-tempered.
When were you diagnosed as depressed?
Early in 1991. Will was a newborn, Caleb was one, and Emily was finishing preschool. Steven was getting ready to embark on The Great Adventure Tour, and we were also in the process of building a home. In the middle of all that, I had to have emergency gall bladder surgery and Steven's parents divorced.
Obviously we were under a lot of stress. And I basically had a breakdown. I was extremely fearful and hopeless and couldn't seem to pull myself out of it. I was physically and emotionally depleted, and there were times I literally hid under the bed, I was so overwhelmed. Steven almost pulled the plug on the tour.
Thankfully, his manager at the time knew a great Christian counselor who helped me realize I was battling clinical depression and had been for some time. Through working with him, we realized medication was the best course for me.
How did you feel about this diagnosis?
Somewhat relieved to know what it was. And, to be honest, a bit guilty. I kept telling myself I had no reason to be depressed. I have a wonderful husband and great kids. It took me a while to understand fully that this is a medical condition I couldn't pull myself out of or pray myself out of. I needed help. And with medication and counseling, I got it.
Did your depression affect your marriage?
Sure. Before the diagnosis, it was tough. I would get so explosive and often would take it out on Steven. There were some dark nights when I was battling these intense emotions and Steven was on the road. He'd call home late at night after a show and I'd try to put on a brave front when what I really wanted to tell him was that I was barely holding myself together. Once I was diagnosed, it actually drew us closer, because we knew the problem wasn't either of us, but this outside thing we could tackle together.
Do you still struggle with depression?
I have good days and bad days. I think I'll always deal with it, unless God chooses to heal me. For me, it's a seasonal struggle. I'm great on sunny days. But when it becomes wintertime and the daylight hours get shorter, I feel sad.
Thankfully, now that I know some of my triggers, we can compensate for them. Steven knows he can't be out on tour right before Christmas because that's when things get tough for me. And I meet with a counselor at least a couple times a year to check in.
What's amazed me is that in the long run, God's used this struggle to bring me closer to him.
In those lonely, down times, I realize Christ is all I have. I can't fix myself, my husband can't fix me, nor can my kids or friends. So it's increased my dependence on God.
That doesn't mean there aren't still tough times. But in those moments I turn to psalms I highlighted in my Bible. All through Scripture God uses fallen, broken people to do his work. I can relate to those folks. But God also knew us before we were born, and he knows how the story ends. I can rest in that.
When did you realize you wanted to adopt again?
Practically from the moment they placed Shaohannah in my arms. Steven, however, felt the exact opposite. He loves Shaoey deeply, but saw how much energy she required from our whole family with her nightly screaming and rambunctious personality.
So how did you resolve the issue between you?
God spoke to Steven during a church service in which some friends of ours dedicated several kids they adopted. Once he felt this was God's will for our family, Steven was completely on board. So we started filling out paperwork and making plans to take the whole family to China again. Our friends Geoff and Jan Moore, who already had adopted one child from China, decided to adopt again with us.
At what point did the SARS epidemic interfere with your plans?
We still were finalizing travel plans in March when we started hearing about SARS on the evening news. As the scare spread, we decided not to let the kids come with us. A friend in Tokyo, who was helping with the adoption details, kept assuring me via e-mail that the adoption was moving forward as planned.
Then on April 23, I received an e-mail from her with a subject line that read: Cancel Travel Plans. The first line of the message said, "Your worst fears have come true. They're closing adoptions until further notice."
How did you respond?
I kept thinking, There's got to be a way. Why can't I just go? That's my stubborn streak for you. I also had a feeling that if we didn't make it happen then, it was going to be many months before we'd be able to get the baby we'd been assigned and had already named Stevey Joy. And with the SARS epidemic spreading, I wanted my baby out of there.
I called our assistant to see if there were any flights to China available for the next day. She found one, but while we were on the phone, it got cancelled. So I said, "What about today?" It was 10:00 A.M. and she found a 3:45 P.M. flight. I asked her to purchase two tickets—one for me, and one for Jan.
Steven tried to talk me out of it, and I knew there was no guarantee it would work, but I had to at least try.
So you left for China that afternoon?!
Yes! Jan and I just threw a bunch of stuff in our luggage and went. It was crazy. But amazingly, within 20 minutes of walking into our hotel in China, they brought us our babies.
The only problem was that not all our papers were in order yet since we hadn't planned on going so soon. And there was a five-day Chinese holiday approaching, during which all government offices would be closed.
While we were on our way to China, Steven worked quickly to get the necessary paperwork in order with the hope that he would be able to Fed-Ex the documents to me before the holiday began. However, when he discovered that due to SARS, Fed-Ex couldn't guarantee us delivery for at least a week, it became apparent that the only way we could get those papers to China before the holiday was for Steven to bring them himself.
Thankfully, he didn't have any concerts planned at that time, which was unusual, and he was able to find a flight to China within the next day.
Were you nervous about contracting SARS?
Since a relatively small percentage of China's huge population had been confirmed as having SARS, I wasn't too concerned. But we wore masks, as did 90 percent of the people we saw there. And the authorities took our temperature whenever we entered a public area. We washed our hands a lot and wiped our stuff down with bleach wipes.
How did Stevey Joy handle the transition into your family?
Though she's more shy and didn't make much eye contact at first, she let us comfort and hold her right away. But we were concerned about her health. From the moment they handed her to me, I was worried that she was too little and pale, and she had trouble swallowing and keeping food down. We quickly discovered she had reflux and started her on antibiotics, which helped immediately. Her health made us even more grateful we were able to get to her before the government agencies completely shut down all adoptions.
How have your three other children responded to Shaoey and Stevey Joy?
They're great; they feed the girls, dress them, play with them. It's not always easy, though. There are times when they'd rather be off with their buddies and instead need to be home watching their sisters. But that's good for them.
God's blessed us beyond what we deserve. Our kids have what they need when they need it, and it's easy for them—and us—to think the whole world is this way. But we are the exception. The majority of the world is living in hunger. There are people in other parts of the world and in the inner city a few miles from our home who are in constant need. We want our kids to be aware of that, and having these little girls in our family is a great way for us all to be conscious of the fact that it's not all about us.
Every morning when I get up and see Shaoey and Stevey Joy's smiling faces, I'm reminded of the lengths to which God went to bring them into a loving Christian family. It reminds me of the lengths to which he went to bring us all into his family. And it's the best reason in the world to get up and face the day with joy.
For more information on Shaohannah's Hope Foundation, go to shaohannahshope.com.
Steven's Change of Heart
A couple years ago, when Mary Beth brought up the idea of adopting again, I was worried about our family's sanity. As much as we love Shaoey, I didn't want to overload Mary Beth, especially with her ongoing struggle with depression. I told God, "I'm open to adopting again, but I need a burning bush if it's your plan for us."
We went to church one Sunday more than a year ago, and some of our best friends, a couple who has four biological children and four adopted children, was dedicating their three youngest kids that morning. We'd walked with this family through some tough times with their adoptions. One of their children had been abused and came to their family with many difficult issues.
As I sat there that Sunday looking at this multicolored family, knowing their full gamut of joy and suffering, I felt God speak to me so clearly: This picture you're looking at is a picture of the gospel. This is my plan—to bring these children into Christian families where they can meet their eternal family. I know you have concerns and fears, but if you'll trust me with those things, I'm inviting you into this adventure again.
I knew this was the burning bush I'd prayed about, so I started writing all my thoughts in the front of my Bible. After church I handed Mary Beth what I'd written. When she read the last line aloud— "So today I commit to respond to the revelation God's shown me and give my full support to begin processing another adoption" —a huge cheer went up from the entire family.
A week later, as I was reading 1 Thessalonians 2, I was struck by verse 19—"For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy." It was as if God was reminding me that when I stand before Christ, the only thing I'll have to show for this life are the spiritual children I've been a part of bringing into his kingdom.
I soon realized the significance of that verse for our family. One night Emily was flipping through a baby book, reading aloud the meaning of different names. We'd already picked the name Stevey Joy, but when Emily read that Steve means "crowned one," it caught my attention. It's as if God showed me, Here's your hope (Shaohannah Hope), your joy, your crown (Stevey Joy, crown of joy). All along this process, and in the first adoption, too, God's shown us his faithfulness in little and big ways we never would have seen if we hadn't taken this step of faith.
Copyright 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.
Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women
Surprised by Joy
Read These Next
- Big Surprises Come in God-Size PackagesAnticipating the gift of Jesus
- Dare to Be HappyMany of us wrongly believe that we have to choose between happiness or Jesus.
Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter