The day I met my adopted children, it was damp and chilly. That morning's rain had left the Ethiopian sky looking cloudless, but still somehow gray. We parents were dressed in layers and laden with gifts for our children. Cameras were ready and the order of meetings determined.
My husband and I went somewhere in the middle. The families before us all adopted babies. I reminisced about birthing my three boys: screaming baby, tears of joy, and lots of photos snapped to immortalize the moment. As our turn neared, my heart began pounding and my vision turned somewhat tunnel. I had this grin plastered on my face, but really I felt like an actor on a four-sided stage—lights glaring, audience surrounding me. Time seemed frozen. My children—one boy and one girl—walked through the crowd of nannies, holding hands. She wore a Clone Wars undershirt, with four or five little hair clips and a headband in her hair. He was wearing a gold-colored football T-shirt that seemed to reach his knees. Both children looked tense and when I scooped them into my arms, their backs stiffened and their arms wrapped limply around my neck in feigned affection. I kissed each one's cheek, told them I was their mommy and I loved them. They stared at me with vacant eyes, and I wondered if they could see the vacancy in me as well.
For all the months of planning, education, and prayer I put into bringing my adopted children home, I was wholly unprepared for the sudden vast emptiness I felt upon meeting them. I was equally unprepared for the ensuing months of wrenching pain within, as I struggled daily to parent them well, despite feeling no attachment, no connection, and no compassion every time I looked into their eyes.
One might think that of all children, my compassionate-mother strings would have tugged fiercely for them, just knowing the history of their marginal lives before coming home. Both were malnourished, one of them to the point of passing as a two-year-old when really, she was almost five. They wore the scars of hard living somewhat on their bodies, but mostly in their faces and—as evident in their behaviors—throughout their souls. My lack of feelings left me guilt-ridden and ashamed.
I also felt incredibly betrayed. In all the adoption reading I'd done (a lot) how had I missed the part about the process of attaching applying to parents as much as children? Where, in all my blog stalking, were the post-adoption confessions of other mothers struggling to love their little ones? Was I the only adoptive mother in the world to feel so compassionless towards her children?
Worst of all, I felt betrayed by God, who knew me better than myself. How could he, knowing I would struggle so severely with attachment, allow our adoption to go through? Hadn't I prayed regularly for him to stop the process if it wasn't his will? It seemed weekly, some mother would pour on me accolades for adopting, saying what a "special" kind of person I must be. "I just don't know if I could love another child like I do my own," she would admit, while I sat in silence, quietly seething at God and myself—feeling completely the fool, who never learned to "know thyself."
For months, I lived exhausted and completely empty within. When feelings did begin surfacing, they were ugly—anger, regret, mournfulness, and fear. I was positive that I had ruined our family. It was my idea to adopt and now our sweet loving home was turned upside down. Inside my soul, I felt like I was dying.
The truth is, I was dying! Without knowing it (at first) and certainly without asking for it, God was moving me deeper into spiritual transformation and Christ-living. In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard says, "Christian spiritual formation rests on this indispensable foundation of death to self and cannot proceed except insofar as that foundation is being firmly laid and sustained" (bold print mine). This book, along with Scripture, became critical to my healing.
Suddenly, much of Scripture took on new depth:
"Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it" (Matthew 16:24-25).
"My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die" (Galatians 2:20-21).
The words: "turn from," "give up," and "crucified" were palpable. I was comforted by the idea of God purposefully changing me. Slowly, like a caterpillar crossing forest floor, I opened myself to the dying process, allowed myself to be vulnerable to my children's hurts and stopped trying to protect myself against their rejection. Every time I found myself growing angry at their behaviors or fearful of my emotions, I prayed—asking God to help me lay down my expectations, let go of fears, and trust him in his promises: namely that he would work all things for my and my family's good (Romans 8:28), that I would see his goodness in the land of the living (Psalms 27:13-14), and that his love would flow through me—outside of my emotions (1 Corinthians 13).
My children have been home for nearly three years. Most days, they "feel" like my kids. On days they don't, I'm not so scared. I know that transformation is ongoing and I don't feel alone. I'm indebted to the few intimate friends I've been able to share with honestly, receiving their support and even common confessions. I'm thankful for books like Adoption Parenting, which gave me tools for moving through my losses and helped me put many of my emotions and expectations into perspective. I'm thankful for writers like Jennifer Grant, who in her book Love You More, tackles the subject of immediate bonding, opening the airwaves for more families to admit without guilt that sometimes feeling love just takes time.
Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and author, writes that joy is not authentic until achieved through pain. "All of life is a mixture of joy and sorrow," he explains. "We must accept both together." I am learning to accept the pain, because I see—like Christ—the joy awaiting me. And joy looks a lot like two children—no longer languid, but now vibrant and full of life—from Ethiopia.
Shari L. Dragovich resides in North Carolina with her over-active family of seven and a menagerie of pets. She lives by the 3R's—read, write, and run—all in Christ … and an occasional glass of fine red wine.