Friday, October 4th, 2013

T4A: Had I but Known


Update: I just discovered that has a bunch of Together for Adoption free audio downloads, including my talk, What I Wish I Had Known]


Tonight Jason Kovacs spoke of a change in emphasis that has happened in the years since the beginning of Together for Adoption–of realizing that in the beginning there wasn’t enough weight given to the challenges and downright suffering that can come with adoption.

That thought parallels my own observation that over the last few years, there has been more open recognition by speakers and adoptive parents of that kind of pain and uncertainty.

That’s where my thoughts were this time last year when I spoke at the 2012 T4A Conference. In case you didn’t already hear these thoughts, here’s the audio of the full talk and a slightly shortened print version.

Had I But Known

Imagine you’re reading a novel . . . Well, first imagine you had time to read a novel . . . You come to the end of a chapter where all seems to be going well, but the author writes ominously, “Had she but known . . .”

Today, we’ll put ourselves in the shoes of that character, not knowing what will come next. Because that’s the way life is. God blesses us by not telling us today what tomorrow will bring.

My experience is mine and yours is yours. But I bet there’s a lot of overlap amongst us all. Listening to other parents talk about their families has been one of the most important ways God has taught me what I need to know for my family, at least as much as I’ve learned so far.

So I sent out a call for help to my blog readers.

Less than a month from now is the 40th anniversary of my becoming a mother. Had I but known that 40 years into mothering there would still be so many things I wish I knew. . . so many things I thought I knew, but I didn’t. . . so many things I hadn’t even thought about knowing, things waiting to bless me or to blindside me.

I resonated with the one who wrote, “I wish I had known that by the time I’d figure out how to do this gig with some degree of wisdom, my children would be nearly grown. I wish someone had told me that I was going to make mistake after mistake after mistake, but that God’s grace would always be sufficient.”

In all our skipping from one topic to another today, there’s just one main theme, as a blog friend wrote, “I wasn’t totally ignorant about prayer, but I’m learning so much more of it, what it means to give my children to the Lord.”

That’s the main topic today. We aren’t in control. God is the only one who has perfect control. We call it his sovereignty. He is the only perfect parent—to both us and our children.

I heard Pastor Chris Lent say, “The most common command in Scripture is ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Fear happens when I don’t know everything and can’t control everything. Do not fear—those are not just comforting words, but a command.”

We love our children and want the best for them. But sometimes we misjudge what’s best for them or just flat-out don’t know what’s best. And even when we do know, we may not have the ability to make it happen. And unless our child dies before us, someday we will be another parent who leaves him—not because we want to, but because we’re mortal.

But God. God loves his children. He always wants what’s best for them. He always knows what’s best for them. He has the power to do what’s best and he does what’s best. And he will never leave or forsake his children—never.

Do not be afraid. Do not fear.

Some of you are here because you’re in the process of adopting or are considering adoption. I don’t want to be that woman, if we were in the labor-and-delivery world, who discovers someone is pregnant and that triggers her gag reflex and she spews out every horrific birth story she’s ever heard. Meanwhile those poor soon-to-be-parents are splattered with the slimy stink of uncertainty and fear.

What I want to be, in the labor-and-delivery metaphor, is the woman who teaches the birthing class—the matter-of-fact one who knows the basic facts and helps new parents not be caught off guard by inevitable pain and possible—even probable—complications.

It’s important to be as prepared as we can be, but in reality, none of us knows all that parenting will bring into our lives, both of grief and gladness. As one blog friend wrote, “I often think it is grace that we don’t know what parenting will bring or look like before it comes, and that we can take each new turn one at a time.”

There’s another particular person here I want to say something to. You have one or more children, no matter whether they entered your family by birth or by adoption. You’re running into situations with your children you didn’t expect and you don’t know how to handle. And you don’t know where to turn for advice or support.

You look around and see 2 kinds of families. There are the ones that seem to have it pretty much together. So how could they understand? If you spoke with them, maybe they’d think less of you because of how inadequate you are. And then there are the others who are obviously dealing with severe issues—lots more serious than yours. You think you’d just look like a crybaby to them.

Well, let me open the door a crack on both those kinds of families. I know a lot of families that when you see them at church or school, you’d think all is good—no problems. But remember, God is the only one who has it all together. Any family that has children has challenges. I’m trusting you to approach those parents respectfully, not expecting them to dump out all their dirty laundry in front of you. There are probably legitimate reasons for the boundaries they’ve set—out of respect for their child, or perhaps knowing that others won’t understand and might a wrong impression or give up on their child. But many people have lots of humble wisdom and experience to share with you in a way that won’t be disrespectful to their children.

I also know a number of families whose challenges are out there for anyone to see. They love their children as deeply as other parents, but the children live with the kind of damage and disability that people write about in books.

Maybe we ourselves don’t experience anything like the almost-constant drama and danger and discouragement of those families. And yet conversations with some of those mothers have been some of the best education I’ve received for our parenting. They’ve helped me see that a child’s needs and differences shouldn’t be minimized or ignored just because they don’t match the intensity described in a book or experienced by another family.

But there’s only one friend who can be for us everything we need. That’s what I was trying to say in my children’s book, Do You Want a Friend?. I love the one blog friend’s suggestion that to avoid exploding, we vent vertically. If you’re old enough, you can picture a hissing pressure cooker. If steam were shooting from the vent, it would keep the lid from blowing and pasting the scalding dinner all over the ceiling and walls. Vent vertically.

Or for more familiar language: Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge; take it to the Lord in prayer. Or as in 1 Peter 5:7, you can be “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

Dorothy Bode is one of those women who has taught me so much. Dorothy has 11 children, 8 of them adopted and a houseful of so-called “hidden” disabilities, meaning the disabilities aren’t obvious physical challenges. At her blog, you can read her from-the-gut response to my question: What do you wish you had known? I recommend Dorothy’s blog to you. It is powerful, gritty, and real.

What are some of the things I didn’t know?

First of all, I did know that adoption would change my life, though I still don’t know all the ways.

What didn’t I know? Here are some of the things I learned by experience and from other people’s stories.

I didn’t know that the decision to adopt would be my key experience understanding what it means for us as husband and wife to come to a decision together when, in essence, there must be a tiebreaker. Johnny was by no means opposed to adoption, either in principle or for us in particular. He just took longer than I did to be persuaded that it was a good decision for us. And during the days that we talked and prayed and consulted with close friends and our other children, I truly had no idea whether he would say yes or no. I knew his decision would be for good reasons, and only after he’d prayed a lot. Of course I knew if he said yes, I’d be elated. And I knew if he said no, I’d be bitterly disappointed, but not bitter. I would know that God had another good plan for us. The letter he wrote me when he told me yes reflects his heart-searching and his love for me and for Talitha.

I didn’t know that grief was part of every adoption. I began to realize that even before Talitha came, when I didn’t know how to pray. We’d seen a picture of the soft, sleeping face surrounded by dark curls—the little girl that might become part of our family. All the circumstances that led up to that picture in our hands seemed to be saying that she would be ours. But I knew too many stories of disappointment.

Should I pray that God would cause her birth mother to sign the papers? But I didn’t want to ask God to tear at a mother’s heart like that. And that would mean I was praying that the little girl I wanted to love would lose her mother. I wasn’t God—I couldn’t know what was best for the birth mother and for the little girl I was already calling Talitha. But if she didn’t choose to relinquish her baby, I already knew what it would do to my heart. On top of that, I had no idea for a long time to come of the grief hidden in a child who’s lost his or her first mother—the grief that seeps out in ways that neither the child nor the adoptive parents understand or maybe even recognize.

So I began to pray that God would do good for the birth mother and for Talitha, and if it meant adoption, that he would place her in the family he had for her, even if it wasn’t ours. I guess that was my confused way of acknowledging his control—his sovereignty. “You go ahead and do what you’re going to do, God. I want you to do what you’re going to do.”

I had no idea that I’d be watching Johnny so closely after Talitha came to us to be sure this was our decision and not just a favor to me. When she cried, when she needed a diaper change, when there were a lot of those normal inconveniences of having a baby in the family, what would I see on his face, in his posture? Was she our baby, or did he give any hint that she was my project and he didn’t want to be bothered. Never. It’s like one of my blog friends said, “I never realized how much I would love watching my husband be an awesome Daddy—a husband who loves me, mistakes and all.”

I sort of knew, but I wish I’d realized earlier that love is not enough. You know, like so many people will tell you when they’re congratulating you on your adoption: “If you can just love them enough, you can bring them through whatever difficulties they have.” But love ISN’T enough to erase possible brain damage, to erase the pre-adoption history.

Karen Richburg wrote, “If we just love enough . . . but you can never fill the bucket with love when the bucket is riddled with holes.”

Love might be enough if we could love perfectly and if we knew everything there is to know about what is good for our child, and if we had power to do everything that the child needs—in other words, if we were God. But we’re not.

Yes. Love is enough, if it’s God’s love.

Having adopted transracially, I had no idea how much at first I’d notice people looking at us. And I was amazed that most of the positive feedback we got from strangers was from African Americans.

I was surprised at how self-conscious I felt scolding Talitha in public or firmly grasping a disobedient hand or whatever I’d have done without a thought to our children who look like us.

I didn’t know how much it would matter to me that she knew I was her mother. There was a moment when she was maybe about 9 months old. I was holding her and she threw her arms in a hug around my neck. My instinctive thought was, “She knows!” I never gave that a thought with the children born to me. I was their mother—of course I was their mother.

I didn’t know that receiving a very young infant does not mean you avoid attachment issues, even when you follow above and beyond your agency’s requirements that only family members hold and feed the baby for a designated amount of time.

I thought a good adoptive parent would treat all her children alike, within the range that takes into account the differences of our children. In other words, a good adoptive parent would never throw up her hands and say, that must be because he’s adopted. Skip the throwing up the hands bit, but still there are times when we will know that there are differences owing to adoption. Once again, it was Dorothy who helped me see this. Our child has genetics that aren’t ours, a reality aside from us. Adoption and birth are not just 2 different ways to have children. We step into a history that had nothing to do with us. To ignore that is to do an injustice to our children. “Blended family” is an understanding that might help a family function better. It acknowledges that there were other people influencing our child before he or she became part of our family.

I didn’t really take into account that looks wouldn’t be the only way Talitha is different than me. I used to dream of an adopted daughter who, of course, wouldn’t look like me, but people would see other attributes that would make them say, “Isn’t she like her mother?” (Somehow, I was forgetting how many things about me I wouldn’t want to see in her.) Anyway, I don’t remember much about my doll playing when I was little. But I do know I couldn’t have told you the names of 7 babies, with the names of the adopted ones taking priority over the ones born into the family. And for Talitha, the names and details were consistent day after day.

I never expected that at this late stage of mothering, I’d still so often be second guessing myself, and that even real friends sometimes just don’t get it and contribute to my confusion. Is our daughter getting her way too much?—Or is it that we’re working with her and who she is so she can cope with decision-making and change? Is it letting her have her own way or is it part of dying to self for the sake of our child?

I didn’t know that a medical record that says there’s no history of substance abuse may or may not be correct. As Dorothy said one time, If you were a birth mother being questioned by an official-looking social worker or hospital admissions officer, would you want to admit you’d been using regularly?

Back when we adopted I knew hardly any families who had adopted older children, so I knew of only a couple situations of what I’d know now is severe RAD. But the more Christ’s compassion reaches into harder places through you, his people, the more stories there will be.

I was surprised that adoption made some of my children confused about where babies come from. After we’d waited several times with parents greeting their babies arriving from faraway places, one of our sons thought babies come from the airport.

Or Talitha. She was 6 and I was surprised she hadn’t asked any birth mother questions. On Jan 22, Roe v Wade day, we stood on the steps of the MN state capitol along with thousands of others. Talitha looked across the distance to a poster with a line drawing of a partial birth abortion, but it just looked like birth to her. “Look there’s a baby being born, like baby Elizabeth,” she said naming a little newborn friend. “And like you,” I said. She corrected me, “I wasn’t born, I was adopted.” So there on the massive capitol stairway, surrounded by people who would have applauded Talitha’s birth mother’s choice of life for Talitha, I explained that she had indeed been born before she was adopted, and that there was another mother before me.

I didn’t know that even adoption experts whom I know personally and admire immensely don’t always get it right. I wish I’d paid more attention to some of the books that one such friend pooh-poohed—books, for instance, about a child’s deep grief that is literally inexpressible.  “Don’t probe topics like that with your child”, I heard. “You’ll just introduce problems.”

I thought if there weren’t drastic symptoms, there was not need to consider RAD or fetal alcohol effects.

When I became a parent, I never expected to be sitting, sobbing, on the bumper of a car in an ice-covered parking lot at a pastor’s wives retreat—so no one could see me–because all the things that were wrong with a child were my fault, because all the same things were wrong with me and had been inherited from me—and I didn’t know how to change me or that child who had been born to me.

And I never expected that other times I’d be weeping because a child is so different from me and I have no idea what to do.

I never expected that I’d want my husband to stop complimenting me by saying I was unflappable. I used to think of myself as a person who could handle almost any situation. But you know how that was possible? Because I was a non-emotional person. I stuffed my emotions like you stuff a rag doll. Force enough stuffing inside and that doll can stand up stiff and straight.

During a couple of years of counseling, I learned to express more emotions than just flat or angry. And along the way, I realized I want to flap sometimes. I want to fall apart sometimes, not stuff it all down and “be strong.” I want to flop over onto my father’s lap so he can take care of me.

The body needs every part, including our broken selves and our broken children. The weaker parts have a lot to teach—including that the strong are not as strong as they thought. When I reveled in being unflappable, that might have looked like strength, but really it had more to do with control.

when god weepsI’ve done a fair amount of volunteering with Joni and Friends.a place of healing It hadn’t occurred to me that there’d be so much overlap between the worlds of adoptive families and families with disabilities.

And I never expected to be diagnosed myself with ADD after I was 60. That was a great big AH HA. But so late. Why so late? If I had known earlier, it could have made such a difference in relationships with my husband and my older children. I can’t go back and redo the young years of our boys. I grieve for those years of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

But the diagnosis came also just at the right time. As we try to understand the different sort of brain function of more than one of our children, I find myself saying, I know what that’s like. Or when Johnny and I have one of those conversations where each of us is making perfectly good sense, except not to each other, I get a glimpse of what might be happening inside a child’s head in a similar conversation.

I had no idea it would be so hard to sort out what’s brain function and what’s sin, both in myself and in my children. Even if Johnny and I didn’t agree on how a child should be disciplined or reward, at least we were working from a similar foundation and outlook.  Who know how hard it could be to understand and agree when neurological damage is involved, not just the human will.

One time one of my sons told me that when they were little it was like I wished they were somewhere else. That’s what it looks like when I’m focused on something—it’s like everything else either disappears. And I did that to my children without realizing it. Or was it an ongoing sin of self-centeredness? AARGH!

I keep reminding myself that God never wastes anything, even ADD, even if we have to wait till Heaven to understand it. And that’s just as true for our children with their various challenges, difficulties, damage.

A battle-worn blog friend writes, “I wish someone had even hinted that once we followed God down this path of parenting via adoption we were going to enter into a new kind of spiritual warfare the likes of which we had never known and possibly will never know again. We were so completely blindsided by the battle, we were not even expecting a single arrow, let alone a relentless onslaught lasting many years.”

Families who are weary and worn down by the battle are Satan’s playground.

Jesus is never blindsided and he warns us what to expect. “In the world you will have  tribulation. But  take heart;  I have overcome the world.”  That’s John 16:33, and John records another truth in 1 John 4:4—a promise of who God is for us: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”

We are sinners, raised by sinners, raising sinners who will look back and recognize our sin while they are raising sinners.

If we think about that a while, we can fall into fatalistic depression or we can throw ourselves and our children into the lap of our Abba Father. He’s the only one in the universe who can say “Don’t be afraid” with no qualifications. He is the only father that does not sin. He does not fail us or our children. He is the father we all need all the time.

One of my blog friends wrote about heart-wrenching pain with her children who are young adults now, then she wrote, “All that said, I love my children so much and for all the hell, I would not give up the blessing of my children. I never thought I would be a mother. It is the hardest thing but the best thing I have ever done. . . . They still have their challenges but I am so blessed. He carried me through. He will carry them through too because, just as I always tell them, He did not bring you across the ocean to me without a good reason. He has a plan.”

God is in control. He is sovereign.  And he is the Father of all those who are trusting Jesus.

Last, I didn’t know that because of our adoption, the picture of God’s adoption would leap alive off the page.

We wanted to adopt. We did what we could to make adoption happen. We have worked to fold our child into our family, a challenge that remains throughout our lives.

Isn’t that what God does?—except perfectly and with no glitches.

And I look at adoption from the perspective of a child. Adoption is a much more powerful picture for me now as I recognize myself as one of God’s adopted children who has a hard time sometimes feeling like she belongs, as a child with attachment issues.

Birth can happen “by accident” from the parents’ perspective. Adoption can’t. Adoption happens by the intention and action of parents. Even when we might feel like it’s forced upon us by circumstances, usually there’s a choice at some level.

Whether the metaphor is new birth or adoption, we don’t know ahead of time very much about who the child is or what we’re getting into with him or her. God does know every detail about every one of his children and he knows precisely what he’s getting into.

God is in control. He’s sovereign. And he’s the father of all who are trusting Jesus.


A couple years ago, I told our own adoption story. It begins here

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7 Responses to “T4A: Had I but Known”

  1. Noel, I’m in tears reading this blog post. Thank you for putting it up on your site. Your raw honesty and pointing up to the Lord is beautiful. The Lord never fails to use writing like this to continue preparing me for when we welcome more children to our family. It’s also wonderful help for the “now.” I’m missing the T4A conference, but have been praying for you all.

  2. I cried and read this out loud to my husband. Thank you for your honesty and the love you can feel though your words. I am writing on my mirror the idea that Love is enough if it is the Lord’s love. Praying for all the families who are walking this road of adoption.
    Thank you Noel. Exhaling a bit now…

  3. I wish I had been able to attend T4A – I would have sought you out to give you a hug and tell you how much you and your husband’s ministry has meant to our young little family. This post speaks right into my heart. We adopted two little infants and I am so thankful that our agencies required so many education hours. I also think I am a bit blessed to have only come into parenting through adoption – so there is no former perspective of parenting biological children and then having to change my mindset. I can also relate to watching your husband (adoption was my idea at first) and I am ever so grateful for the confirmations that we went into it together – a joint decision.

    And just as a funny side note – my husband was diagnosed with ADD this spring at 32 years old. It’s made a world of difference for me just knowing that it isn’t that he doesn’t care or isn’t listening… it’s that his brain works differently.

  4. “Or when Johnny and I have one of those conversations where each of us is making perfectly good sense, except not to each other, I get a glimpse of what might be happening inside a child’s head in a similar conversation”
    Somehow it’s encouraging to know that you also experience this, naively I thought we were the only couple :o)

  5. I sincerely appreciate your “realness” in this post. I’m am not yet a mom (physically) just in my heart as my little ones are across the ocean. I praying God prepare me to be a mother as the time for me to meet my children draws nearer. It’s a blessing to learn from many other women like yourself who have learned and are learning how to be the mom God wants them to be. Thanks for truly sharing.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. It is beautiful.

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