“You make yourself strong because it’s expected of you. You become confident because someone beside you is unsure. You turn into the person others need you to be.”
Happy Friday, friends!
I thought it might be interesting (helpful?) to start a post about some of the things I know now, that I didn’t know right before we brought Steevenson home (at age four), 14 months ago. I can think of a handful of people I know personally that are about to bring home a toddler-age or older child via international adoption, and I’m hoping this information might be helpful to them, and to anyone else who is in the same place.
A lot of the things I share here (and as I add to this list) might also be applicable to toddler-age or older child who was born and raised up in the “traditional” way, and some of it might speak best to a person who hasn’t ever been a parent before. Either way, I’m just sharing what I know now, that I didn’t in the days before Steevenson came home.
And if you are in the same boat (near the end of your first international adoption journey)- congratulations!! I’m so excited you’re about to cross to the
finish beginning line! International adoption is definitely a marathon, but obviously every child of God is worth the wait and work it takes to bring them home.
At this point, you’ve likely read and researched everything you can get your hands on about adoption, or a certain country, or a certain special need. You’ve likely been questioned numerous times, by numerous people over the past several months or years. You’ve likely sat through one or more mandatory adoption education sessions and/or conferences featuring information about malnutrition, abandonment, neglect, sexual and other abuses, violent anger, and unpredictable procedural delays. You’ve likely filled out mountains and mountains of paperwork, and driven to appointments in several different counties in your state. You’ve likely been evaluated by psychologists, and examined by doctors. And if you’ve already been allowed to travel for a socialization visit, you may have even been interviewed (extensively) by social workers in both your home country and the one your child currently lives in. A country that likely feels very different from your own.
I can remember all of those things like they just happened yesterday. Probably partly because it wasn’t that long ago, but also because the whole process (from start to finish) was so different from any other process I have ever experienced in my life. Kind of like being pregnant and on a roller coaster for three years and nine months!
And the ride got a lot wilder and moved a lot faster after Steevenson came home, so here’s a list of some of the things my current self would tell myself right before we brought him home:
1. Fear can (and will) look more like anger, rejection and aggression.
Yes, you’ve visited Steevenson three separate times already, and it has given you a chance to get to know him a little, and vice versa. And because his caregivers at the orphanage have continually prepped him about his upcoming adoption, and he has seen several other kids go home with their adoptive parents over the past few years, he has always been enthusiastic when you showed up or whenever you talked about becoming a family and living together in your home.
The homecoming trip will feel very different with him though. It will be as if he really, for the first time, understands that something HUGE and world-changing is about to happen to him. Again. For the second time in his short four years of life.
But here’s the (unexpected) thing. His fear will look different than nervousness, panic or fright. His fear will look more like anger, rejection and aggression. His fear will tell him not to look at you, talk to you, touch you, or let you touch him. His fear will tell him he’ll feel safer behind a scowl. That things would feel less chaotic if he tunes the sound of you and Kevin out. His fear will encourage him to freeze when you need him to move, and to thrash when you’re forced to pick him up. The sides of his face will become shields, protecting him from the attention of your “forever faces”. His silent treatments will be bulletproof and his desire to bond only with the other (precious) family who travels with you will cut more than marrow deep. You and Kevin will never be more terrified of the future than you are while you’re there that homecoming week. Remember this: Steevenson is feeling the same way.
And no matter how much you long for the experience to be a blast for him, fear emerges in response to threats of pain, the presence of predators, or because something is simply unfamiliar. And make no mistake- this experience is A LOT more than unfamiliar to him. He has no *real* idea of what’s happening, where he’s going, or what to expect.
Now. Let’s talk a bit about what that looks like once you all get home.
For the past few years, Steevenson has learned to depend exclusively on his nanny caregivers at the orphanage for survival and protection—both physical and emotional. But once he’s home, without the support of his trusted caregivers to help him regulate the strong emotions he’s going to be feeling, he’s going to experience overwhelming stress, and for many reasons, he won’t have the ability to effectively communicate what he feels or needs. He will develop symptoms that you don’t understand and he will display uncharacteristic behaviors that you won’t know how to appropriately respond to. His confused and highly-agitated presence will impact you greatly, and the relationship between the two of you will be strongly affected at different points throughout the day for quite some time.
Do your best to remember that, in a lot of scenarios, especially in the first couple of months, he is afraid…and that fear always triggers a fight or flight response. Do your best to remember that he is desperately fighting for control of every.little.thing because the people who used to control his every little thing are gone, and as far as he knows, he needs to take care of and protect himself now.
Sure you will have mental and emotional break downs, and parent fails, and you will question every single decision (and regret many of the ones you made in the heat of the moment), but with time and trust, he won’t feel afraid, or default to the fight response, and he will have the ability to tell you what he’s feeling.
2. Plan what you want bedtime to look like now.
At this point, you haven’t thought a whole lot about what bedtime is going to look like that first night Steevenson comes home, but whatever you do, do not turn on the TV in your bedroom simply because things feel weird and too quiet (language barrier), and you just want everybody to get still.
Definitely don’t make the mistake of popping in your “Buddy the Elf” DVD that first night either. He will instantly become obsessed with it, and will require it (with intensity) every single night for the next 25 days. (Don’t worry. On the 26th day, you finally figure out that you can just simply unplug the DVD player and he will believe you when you tell him it’s broken.) 😉
Books and flash cards are where it’s at, and if there’s no TV to compete with them, he will be quite happy doing either before he falls fast asleep. (PS- he will sleep for 10 or 11 hours straight EVERY night!!!)
3. Record him speaking in Haitian Creole and French.
The other adoptive parents who have already brought home their kiddos from Three Angels have told you he’ll switch from Creole and French to English fast, but it’s one thing to hear it from them, and a whole ‘nother thing to hear it coming out of your Sonny boy’s mouth. Believe it or not, just 8 short weeks after you arrive home, Steevenson will no longer remember most Haitian Creole or French words. A few months later, you’ll realize you don’t have many videos of him speaking his first (or second) language, and it will break your heart a little. Make sure you get lots of foootage before it’s too late! (PS- He’ll still say “twalèt” (toilet, pronounced twa-let), “pike” (poke, pronounced pee-kay) and “vomi” (vomit, pronounced vo-mee) at 14 months, and you and Kevin will actually start saying the last one his way, because it sounds so much nicer than puke, vomit or barf.) 😉
4. Big emotions can (and will) make you feel very small.
Sure, you went through a lot of adoption training, watched lots of videos and read lots of books about the kinds of things that *may* happen once Steevenson comes home. You heard about the kinds of things you may think, the kinds of things you may say, and the types of behaviors you may experience. Educators and authors have flooded you with information and advice so that you have an idea of what to (probably) expect. But one thing you aren’t fully prepared for right now, but it’s not possible, is how all of those big thoughts, emotions, and behaviors will actually feel, and cause you to actually react.
During your first six months of motherhood, you will feel too small. Like your head is too weak for the weight of some thoughts, your heart is not cut out for the complexity of some emotions, and that your spirit will surely snap because of the intensity of some behaviors. You will feel like your body wasn’t built for this.
But here’s the thing: No matter how heavy, vast or stressful the mental and emotional load, millions of new parents–both the adoptive and biological variety– have thought, felt and experienced the very same things. And while knowing that won’t help you coast through the stress and anxiety of your (rocky) new relationship with ease, talking with other parents will help you to feel less alone.
Talk to other parents who have adopted older children via international adoption. Don’t end each day feeling broken, beat-up, and barely hoping because it feels easier to not reach out. Lean on and glean advice from other parents who know *exactly* what you and your babe are going through. Their love and support will feel like heaven-sent, in-the-flesh, “new mercies afresh” every time. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
5. Fill Steevenson’s “yes bucket” as often as possible.
During the first several months that Steevenson is home, you will have countless opportunities to bond with him through the power of yeses. In other words, give him some control when it comes to things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme.
If he wants a second popsicle, let him have it. If he wants to wear winter gloves and rubber rain boots to the Waffle House on a sunny day, let him. Because you’ve never been a parent, and you’ve been told over and over that he won’t feel safe if he doesn’t know you’re in control, you will feel like you need to stand your ground on everything right when he gets home. You’ve also been told that he won’t respect any boundaries ever if you bend on them in the beginning, but that really isn’t true. And, trust me, not allowing him these small freedoms isn’t worth the major (sometimes hours long) meltdowns that will ensue if you don’t. Not giving in on not-super-important kinds of things in the early stages of your relationship isn’t going to encourage attachment, it will only delay it. Being flexible with these not-a-big-deal-in-the-grand-scheme kinds of opportunities will give him some sense of control and some decision-making power, which ultimately, will help him feel more comfortable with and bonded to you. Hearing and acknowledging some of his desires, even if they’re not always ideal or timely, demonstrates fairness and understanding- two very important parts of building trust in any relationship.
And although it won’t seem like it at first (because he will desperately fight for control over almost everything because his world feels so out of control) he does need and want to know that you’re in control…no matter how much he acts like he doesn’t. (Or tells you he’s the boss when he’s mad.)
Also, with time, he will learn to relinquish control on things that are actually important because: A) you won’t ever bend on those (no matter how many major melt downs you have to get through first), and B) he will get used to bending in return if you give him some control on the things that don’t *really* matter in the grand scheme, but that matter a lot to him.
Another thing to keep in mind: he may always want a second popsicle, but I doubt he will want to wear rainbow-striped gloves and yellow rubber rain boots to the Waffle House when he’s older. 😉
6. Transitions will be the toughest.
Transitions will still be challenging at 14 months home, but in the beginning, even moving from one room to another will prove to be a *very* big deal sometimes. In Steevenson’s (short) life, transitions have sometimes equaled trauma, so “switching gears” too quickly will often send him to a really uncomfortable place. And because his fear will mostly look like anger, defiance, and aggression in the first six months, transitioning from one thing to the next (or to a new place, or at a different time) will land all three of you in a really uncomfortable place if you don’t stretch them out.
Make it your mission to help him adjust to changes in environment by giving him plenty of time to regulate. Countdowns are mandatory. Do your best to help him understand each day’s routine in advance and prepare him (repeatedly) in advance when new or different activities are going to occur. He will thrive on consistent, predictable patterns each day. He won’t always act like it, but it will help him in the long run, and as he grows up.
7. Get a mini trampoline.
He won’t want to stay inside your house much when he first gets home (too many feelings) but after a while, he’ll only want to play inside. Roll with it and try not to take his initial response to your house personally. (He’s afraid, and your home reminds him that he’s not at his previous home anymore)
Around month #6, when he starts his “inside only phase”, one of the most helpful ways to help him stay active and burn off lots of energy indoors will be to get him a mini trampoline. He will jump on it while he watches movies, or wants to dance & sing, or when he’s trying to get from one sofa to the other without touching the hot lava on the floor…which he will do a lot. 🙂 They’re only $50 and it will be so worth the investment because he will use it so much more than you’d ever imagine.
8. Being around, or even seeing, children will be extremely hard at first.
Your Sonny boy’s relationships with the other 12 kids at the orphanage mean so much more to him than you know. Right now, he’s the oldest (out of 12) and the nannies have nicknamed him “ti paran” (little parent) because he is so joyfully passionate about helping them take care of, love on, and play with his younger “siblings” or any children that come to visit the orphanage from the States.
You would think he’d be ecstatic to meet and play with other children once he gets home, but he will have the opposite reaction. At first he won’t even want to see or hear them. If you’re driving closer to a group of them, he will want to go a different way. Eventually, he will be curious enough to go near them, but he will completely shut down in their presence and he will go somewhere else mentally. You’ll know it by the look in his faraway eyes.
And then at a certain point, things will flip-flop, and you’ll see some of his deepest wounds come to the surface. He will, all of a sudden, want to be around them, and only them, and when it’s time to break away from a play date or group of kids having fun outside (because everyone’s leaving, or it’s bedtime, etc), you will have to physically carry him away (because he will refuse to leave). You will see fear look, sound and feel like rage for several hours afterwards sometimes. And for a while,*you’ll* be the one who wants to go in a different direction whenever you see children up ahead. :-/
At 14 months home, playing with children will still be his favorite activity, but it won’t be as hard for him to leave them and he will want to come home when he’s tired or it’s starting to get dark outside. Picking him up from school will be a challenge almost every day though, because breaking away from his all-day friends will be sort of like ripping a Band-aid off over and over again.
But take heart, he will have come so, so far at 14 months, and the more times you show him that you will always take him to school (and pick him up) and that there will always be neighbor kids to play with after school and on the weekends, the more he will trust in permanence, and be relieved that he can loosen his super-tight grip on his favorite friendships.
(Sonny boy with his class and the teacher’s intern- October 2017)
9. Inviting people (even relatives) into your house will be extremely hard for all of you at first.
Make sure everyone in your life takes the 10-12 week cocooning period your adoption agency recommends very seriously. Don’t feel pressured to have guests, friends or family come inside your home during that first 3 months. Not only will it be extremely stressful for you (because you’re going to feel like you’re living in the Twilight Zone), it will be monumentally overwhelming for Steevenson.
Allowing people into your home too soon will trigger feelings in him that none of you understand, but it will be more than obvious very quickly that he feels threatened by their presence, which will make him uneasy, angry and/or cause him to retreat upstairs.
Being firm about your decision not to allow folks in for at least a few months will help prevent a highly awkward and stressful situation. Be intentional about telling as many people in advance that you can’t have visitors for a while (you’ll let them know when you can) and give cocooning information to any friends or family members that have a hard time understanding why it’s so important. (Because there will be people that *really* struggle to understand!) 😉
At 14 months, you will be celebrating birthdays, having play dates, and inviting folks over as often as you want and Steevenson will be more than excited to show every single visitor (even the electrician) how to play with his toys. 🙂
10. The names “mama” and “daddy” may be tricky…for longer than you’d think.
At almost 14 months home, Sonny boy will still call you “Daddy” (or “Daddy-mama” because he realizes he said it wrong and quickly corrects himself) several times a day. He will call Kevin “Mama” and “Mama-daddy” constantly too.
He will also still call other kids’ parents “mama” and “daddy” sometimes too- I think because they’re taught to call every adult “mama” or “papa” at the orphanage.
Will it feel good that he doesn’t remember your “name” after you’ve spent more than 400 days together? Nope. Will it sting when you hear him call other women “mama” even though you constantly remind him or her of their names? Absolutely.
But remember: It’s all about intention. He’s not *intentionally* getting the names mixed up. He’s accidentally getting the names mixed up. It may take longer than expected, but your job is to lovingly help him remember which name goes with which person. Doing so will help strengthen your bond as his mama and daddy. Reacting like he’s intentionally getting the names mixed up will only weaken it.
11. Be prepared to wear him to bed each night.
You will go home with very little information about how Steevenson sleeps. (You actually won’t even know his night nanny’s name until the last day you’re in Haiti. You’ve been thinking it was a gal named Carinne, but it’s not. It’s Noelle…whom you’ve never met because you’re not allowed to stay at the orphanage past 5pm.) You’ve never laid down in bed with him at night so you don’t know how much he craves physical touch in order to fall asleep. Starting with your very first night together in the hotel in Haiti. When he gets tired enough, he will crawl completely on top of you and fall fast asleep. His entire body will be plastered to yours. No part of him will touch the mattress. Even though he’s mad at you- he will still want to fall asleep this way.
At 14 months home he will be over three inches taller and weigh almost 50 lbs, but he will still find a way to fit his entire frame on top of yours. He runs (Haitian) hot, so he won’t want any covers. He will sweat til you’re soaked. But before that, most nights he will “priyè” (pree-ay), and thank God for “mama, and daddy, and that mama and daddy came to get me when I was a baby, and that mama and daddy took me on the airplane for I could come home, and for I could go to school, and for I could go to Chuck E. Jesus, and thank you God for Granmè Katie and Granpè Jim, and Granmè Jude and Granpè Randy, and for my toys, and for TV and for our house and for edge-re-thing…in Jesus name, amen”.
This time of connection with him will soothe your soul and cultivate a closeness that feels Divine. Cherish it…while he’s small enough to stretch out on you. 🙂
12. Give him grace.
Kids that experience early childhood trauma have a history of hurt we can’t erase. They consciously or subconsciously know what it’s like to permanently slip away from their birthmother’s arms, and often their foster mother’s or nanny/caregiver’s too. Steevenson has experienced that dizzying tumble from familiarity and security twice. When it comes to attachment- give him grace.
A child’s brain gets re-wired when his or her basic needs have not been met or are messed with. And although much of his first year of life is a mystery, you do know that he came to the orphanage severely malnourished. He may remember what it’s like to not know when or who (if anyone) will attend to his needs, and they say the brain actually changes physiologically when children suffer this kind of deprivation. When it comes to food- give him grace.
Sadly, but understandably, kids that have experienced multiple caregiver changes have issues with settling in. When he first gets home, Steevenson will be too young and linguistically unable to express his needs verbally, and it’s going to be your job to help him cope with the loss of his former life. It will be your job to help him build trust in you to meet his needs, and to reassure him that this family is for keeps. He doesn’t know how to “do traditional family”. When it comes to being a son- give him grace.
Okay y’all, this is getting pretty lengthy, but there are so many more things I’d like to add. I may just turn it into a downloadable e-book or PDF or something. (?) We’ll see how it keeps coming together. In the meantime, please feel free to comment below with any thoughts or questions you may have, and thanks so much for swinging by to check out what I shared today!