It was two and a half years ago when my husband and I attended an informational meeting about foster care. During the meeting, I scratched a note to him on a handout they had given us.
We are supposed to do this.
He nodded his head. He knew. I knew. I remember the excitement I felt when we left that meeting. I was ready to go save the world, one child at a time.
Entering into this, we were always on the same page about our "plan." We knew we were called to foster, but neither of us was sure that we would ever adopt. That was our stance from the beginning. Our token response was that we were open to adoption but not planning on it. When we were going through the licensing process and people would mistakenly ask us how our adoption stuff was going, we were very quick to correct them that we were planning to foster, not adopt.
But this month we finalized an adoption from foster care, and a child that was born to another woman is now mine, forever.
When we first got the call about her, we knew that she was a child whose parental rights would likely be terminated. In fact, the initial TPR hearing happened within three weeks of her coming to live with us. We also knew that she had a very layered and difficult case and that our family was probably not going to be the best fit for her forever family.
We were confident that it was not supposed to be us for a variety reasons. The books say not to disrupt birth order. The people say not to bring kids from hard places into your home when your children are still so young. The caseworkers even told us that children from certain trauma backgrounds should be a “no way” for our family. Our situation goes against everything that they teach you about what is best for all of the children living in a home.
During our hardest days, the fact that we could never be the forever family was what got me through. I knew we could do it for a season and help her have stability until the right family was found for her. I felt like I could manage all of this for a time and then celebrate when she went to be with the mother who was better equipped than I was to meet her long-term needs.
I thought that if she was supposed to be ours, we would just “know.” I didn’t feel like foster care was supposed to be some kind of test-drive where you tried a child out to see if you liked her enough to say yes to forever. We loved her and have always been for her long-term good, but the maternal bond was not the same with her as it was with my other children. In fact, in moments when she would discuss hard things about her past, my instinct was to protect the innocence of my biological children before it was to give her a safe place to discuss those hard things. I have always wanted and prayed for her to be whole and healed, but that task felt so tremendous that I didn’t believe I could be a part of that without neglecting the children that were mine first.
The bond was not the same, and at times it is has been difficult. A whole lot of maternal figures in her life have failed her. A handful of therapists and caseworkers have come in and out of her life. And as such, most of her anger about that is deflected towards me. A psychiatrist once told me that it was a good thing that she was able to defer that anger to me because I am safe, but it has certainly never felt good.
We went through a difficult season of behavior and a lot of mistrust on her part. When I was bearing a stress load at home that was at an all-time high, the voices of people outside of our home were telling us how lucky we were to have such a cute little girl. I received lots and lots of questions about adoption and whether or not we would “get to keep her.” And I grew frustrated and angry. I was angry at the lack of understanding, frustrated at the stress in my home, sad about what I felt like I was losing with the other kids, and tired of being the sole recipient of the all of the negative expressions of her trauma.
My heart grew hard in the process. I was tired. I didn’t like the “me” that was starting to be exposed. I had the information to correctly handle her fears and emotions, but I never had the patience or energy to do it well.
In fact, it was almost exactly a year ago when we had a conversation with the adoption worker and asked her to speed up the process of seeking a forever family for her. We were adamant that she not be moved to a temporary place, yet 100% sure that we were not equipped to meet her needs for the long haul. We continued to parent her while we waited and prayed for the agency to find that family. We asked people to pray that the perfect family would be found before she started kindergarten.
While we were waiting, we were informed that the first adoption worker was no longer with the agency and that she had actually not yet been placed on adoption recruitment. The new worker told us that she would get started working on it but that it was not possible for her to be in a new home before the start of the school year. Our initial response was one of frustration. Was God not hearing our prayers?
But something happened that day when the caseworker left our house. The thought was so real that it was almost audible. My heart was pricked, and I wondered if maybe our prayer was being answered differently than we expected. Maybe she would be with her forever family before kindergarten, because maybe we were it.
And my heart cried NO.
I am not equipped for this. I can’t do the hard forever. I could never live with the guilt that I didn’t always like her. I didn’t know how to love all of these children well. She deserved something beautiful, and this wasn’t beautiful – it was hard and messy and lacking joy most days.
I asked my husband the morning after our visit with the new worker if he thought our “no” was more about fear than about something God had directed. He had doubts, too. And so we made a decision to stop rationalizing the reasons that we couldn't and instead ask God to show us His plan for her and for us.
I wrestled with it for a long time. I had a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of hard days. The transition into the school year brought three new caseworkers and a new classroom, which led to many dysregulated days for her and a lot of anger directed towards me. I knew God was tugging at my heart but I didn’t think I was capable of fully loving a child who may never be able to fully love me back. I didn’t think I had the capacity to show a mother’s love to someone who might show more anger than appreciation toward me.
Despite all of my fears, God continued to press on my heart. I fought it for a while. My husband and I talked about it a lot. I confided in some trusted people. I talked with therapists and sought their opinion.
But I knew.
It was the same knowing that I had at that initial foster care meeting, only the excitement didn’t come with it. My yes came from a place of obedience long before there was a happy feeling to accompany it.
It was never that we didn’t love her. It just felt like her story was so traumatic and that she deserved more than we could give.
But sometimes God writes stories that are different than our own ideas and grows love in our hearts that is bigger than what we thought we had the capacity for. And sometimes we are called to do those things that we never felt like we could do.
Unfortunately, the days that followed our confident yes and commitment to adopt weren’t full of warm fuzzy feelings and a suddenly obedient and appreciative child. The months after were actually some of the hardest of my life. Because of other changes that were going on in our lives, I started to withdraw. I lost a lot of joy. I talked to a doctor about my feelings. I dropped the ball on some of my responsibilities and did a poor job of loving my closest family and friends well. A tear-filled prayer request to some women I trust led to someone suggesting that I see a counselor. My affect was different and those closest to me started to notice. I was disappointed in who I was becoming. I felt guilty that I didn’t have more excitement.
Yet in the midst of all of the hard, God was still God. He was changing my heart. I asked Him to give me a mother’s love for this child that was to be ours forever, and my heart started to soften – not just in an obedient way, but in a deep feelings of love kind of way. He started to bless the yeses that we said before we knew this was a forever thing. We joined a foster and adopt support group and transitioned our license to therapeutic care. The training we received from these things gave us hope and made us realize that we were not alone. He placed new people in my life that were able to say “I see you and I get it” on the deepest, most heartfelt levels. He gave loads of grace to the people in my innermost circle and helped me to understand that I was not loved for my ability to be inspirational or always have a cheerful disposition or mark everything off of my to do list with perfection.
While I was learning how to love her well, I was learning to allow myself to be loved well. As I grew a mother’s love for this child, I grew in my understanding of the love my Father has for me.
Last month I sat in my living room as her entire case history was read to us. It was one of the most painful things I have ever had to sit through. I grieved a lot in the days after, because this child, my child, has been through so much. But the heartache I felt is evidence of the heart change in me – because my response wasn’t one of doubt or fear, it was one of love. Our relationship is in process and my knowledge of how to love her and the feelings of love I instinctively have towards her are growing daily, by the grace of God.
So why do I share this? Why not just let the smiling pictures be enough and only show the happy side? Why be so vulnerable and not just keep the difficult part to myself?
Because that’s not reality.
Because there are adoptive mamas out there who can relate to the feelings of loneliness, the moments that bring you to your knees, the loss of joy, the lack of warm and tender feelings, and the questions about why a sweet child would cause you to question so much about yourself. Those mamas need to know that they are not alone.
Because the Church, the friends, and the families of people in my shoes can't support their loved ones if they only see it from the perspective of a child that now has a happy ending.
Because disrupted and dissolved adoptions happen all the time and I believe that these are a result of people being ill-equipped and uniformed about the effects of trauma on attachment with an adoptive family. Philanthropic reasons and a “big heart” won’t take you very far down this hard road if you aren’t prepared for what’s ahead.
Because the brokenness of our story, the difficulty of the journey, the parts that are hard to share and don’t paint me in a great light, and the change that has taken place in my heart are actually what make this beautiful. The fractured pieces on both sides are why this is a picture of redemption.
Because the story God is writing here is a lot deeper than what is seen from the outside, and I believe that’s the one worth telling.
A version of this article first appeared on Good and Perfect.