I had the most interesting conversation this afternoon with Angela, who at almost 15 years old is wise beyond her years and always has been. Home three years now, she has spent a lot of time in contemplation about her life, her adoption, her birth mom, and so much more. I have the deepest respect for this daughter of mine, for the courage and honesty she has always shown, and for the healing work she has not shied away from.
I shared with Angela that I had been in conversation in recent weeks with a mom who had just adopted a 15 year old girl from Bulgaria. She and her husband are in a very demanding, challenging situation, and wisely are reaching out in different directions for support and encouragement. I received an email from her a couple of days ago, and in these early days home things are not the fairy tale many want to make it out to be. She is a wise, thoughtful mom and will do well, but is weathering some rough storms right now.
Angela and I started recalling our first weeks and months together, where our key moments were and what they meant. We talked about communication with no shared language, discipline, and so much more. An hour and a half later, we were still talking. She kept telling me what she thought I should tell this new mom and other parents adopting older kids, so I thought I'd share some of my wonderful daughter's hard earned wisdom about adopting older children, and those early days of doing the New Family Dance. I am, of course, paraphrasing in my quotes, to the best of my recollection, in Angela's voice.:
1) "It's not a fairy tale, mom. It's hard and uncomfortable, and everyone thinks it is going to be comfortable fast, but it won't be. You need to tell parents that it takes a lot longer than they think for everyone to feel like they are not strangers. They put too much pressure on themselves, maybe because they think everyone is watching them and they feel like they have to pretend they are all loving right away. That is silly, they can't be and no one should think they should be."
2) "We were told so many bad things about coming to America, so many wrong things. We were told that when we got off the airplane they would take us to a hospital and cut our hearts out. They told us that all Americans were rude, and that all Americans were rich. I can see now that the women who worked there might have been jealous because their life was so hard, or maybe they were uneducated or listened too much to the government that said America was bad, but back then I was younger and I didn't know what the real truth was. Parents who come to adopt don't know how many people are telling us crazy things about our new life. It makes it harder because they are not honest about what it might be like."
3) "Let your kids get mad at you, you don't have to be their best friend, you have to be their mom and dad. I won't forget on the airplane coming home when I was so rude to you, and you let me have it right there. I knew you were not someone to be that way with. I was MAD, but mom, if you hadn't done it then, I would have gotten worse and worse because I would have known you were scared to discipline me. Too many parents are too worried with their new kids that their kids will be mad at them and not love them, but what they are really doing is making it all harder by not being tough and loving parents right from the beginning. I was a bully at the orphanage, I made fun of the adults who were weaker, and I wasn't honest. Mostly, I was that way because I could get away with it and no one cared if I was honest or kind."
4) "I don't know how our family would be like if you had gone back to work and we had gone to school right away. I didn't want to be close to you and Dad yet, and I would have probably found some bad kids to get close to and we never would have gotten close. I am really, really glad you stayed home and forced us to spend time together. It made it all go faster, I got used to you faster, and soon it didn't feel so weird."
5) "Tell parents this...tell them don't force their older kids to hug them and get too close to them. You and Dad did it just right, you played a lot with us. You gave us a lot of time and didn't expect us to be all huggy at first. You didn't push yourselves to us when we didn't really know you, you let us come give you hugs. But you know what I liked? You tried a little. Remember when at first I was really mean and cold to you, and pushed you away? You didn't force me to love you, and you didn't pretend it was all good. But you didn't act like you hated me either. And you would sneak in and put your arm around my shoulder sometimes or touch me on my hand or arm. At first, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but it felt really weird. I didn't think I liked it, because no one ever touched me before. But then, one day, I realized I liked it, and then you started hugging me, and I liked that too, but only after I felt like you weren't going to push me to pretend to love you."
6) "Mom, you didn't know how bad I didn't want to disappoint you, and how I was afraid you might send me back. I wanted to be perfect, but then the stress made it worse because I didn't know how to be perfect because everything was new, and inside I was mad sometimes for no reason. But even when I was mad, it was like I still wanted you to be proud of me. I was so mixed up! And I had spent a long time not caring too much if someone was proud of me, and I got away with a lot of things, so I had to break bad habits like lying. But for some reason, once I got home, it was like I couldn't even lie anymore."
7) "Oh, you need to tell them that they shouldn't give their kids too much stuff because we don't know what to do with it and we don't even know what we really like or want. I think sometimes new parents want to give their kids everything to show they love them, but we didn't have anything before and most Americans have way more than we are used to. I was actually kind of glad our rooms were not with too much stuff. It was a little more than our orphanage, but not too much and it made it feel better. When I was home for awhile and was in another girl's room who we met at homeschool, it was way too much and I remember thinking I was glad I didn't come home to that!"
8) "Learning English made my brain hurt. I would do OK in the morning, but everything was so new like food and stuff. My brain just was mixed up all the time and I remember wishing I could turn it off sometimes! There wasn't much we could do, because I had to learn, but I still remember feeling so confused and just tired of trying to understand everything that was new all around me. Just learning how to live in a house was a lot to learn! There was so much new things like a washer and dryer, and where food went and stuff."
9) "I think parents want everyone to meet their new kid, and for their kid to see new places right away, but you and Dad took us places a little at a time. Walmart was SO big! It was crazy! And I am glad our church was small because there was so many new people to meet, and I was embarrassed when they talked to me and I couldn't understand, but it also felt good to know they talked to me, too. It's hard to explain. But I think you guys made us stay home a lot at first, and that helped a lot. We got to go out some, but not too much that would make my brain hurt some more. We were used to being in one building all the time, and only going out in a car maybe two or three times a year away from the orphanage, maybe to a doctor or something. Now I see how everyone lives a normal life and that wasn't normal at all, but to us it was and THIS was not normal. I think we needed to be slow getting used to going places more."
10) "Sometimes I was very lonely, even though Olesya was here and the boys were all here. I missed my friends because they were like my family, and I felt guilty that I had so many nice things and good family, and they didn't and most of them never would. Sometimes, when I thought about it, I felt really awful. It helped me a lot when you asked if I missed them, and I knew you understood when you said it was OK. Then when you said let's go buy them some little things and send them, and you can write letters to them, I really felt sad and happy at the same time, because I didn't want to hurt your feelings that I was feeling sad, but I couldn't help it...but I was so glad that you didn't get mad at me and understood. And that time you gave me a hug and I cried, and it felt good, and knew you were a good mom and I didn't have to feel guilty for being sad sometimes. That helped SO much."
11) "When I saw you cry...remember that night when I was so mean to you? When you cried, it was like I melted a little, and I was ashamed of myself for being mean. I think I was only thinking of myself and I didn't think much about how I was hurting your feelings because you always acted so strong. I was very surprised when you cried, and then Dad made me go in and apologize to you, and you told me how much you loved me and had waited so long for me, but even then you said it was OK for me to be mad that it took so long, and that you were mad about that too because we didn't have that time together. I didn't even know I was mad about that until you said you were! Then I realized that waiting so long wasn't your fault at all, and I was being mean for no reason when you were really such a good mom. I knew I was going to blow it, and I had a chance for a really good family if I could just stop being so mad inside. Then you hugged me, and remember I sat on your lap and we both cried? That was when I knew you were really my mom, because you could get sad and mad with me, and I could be the same with you...and we could still be OK with each other. But I was really ashamed for a long time about how I had treated you in Kazakhstan and when we first got home. But you are such a good mom, and you made me feel like you totally forgive me. I think I started getting God a little more then, too."
12) "Your kids don't know how to be kids, and they don't know how to be adults, and they don't really know how to be anything! You knew that we needed to be little kids, and sometimes I still do even though I know I am more grown up now. Kenny is still a little boy like Joshua, even though he is 14 and plays super heroes. I am so glad I don't have to grow up too fast, and that you let me be grown up when I want to be grown up, and be little when I want to be little. I don't want to be too little anymore, but I don't have to have a boyfriend or start dating or pretend I want those things yet. Someday I will, but right now I just want to have fun, study school, and be a kid. Kenny would never be normal at school, and at home he can be who he is and not get beat up or do stupid things to fit in. He is changing, but he isn't ready for all that stuff. I don't think any kid who comes home from an orphanage is ready for that stuff, even if they act like they are. We came from a really good orphanage, and I am still not like a normal 15 year old American teenager, and I don't really want to be either. But I couldn't be, and neither can Olesya, and Kenny can't for sure. We can sometimes when we are around them, but not all day, it would be too hard, and they are all into things we are not into yet. I remember playing with Playdough, and shaving cream and stuff that I see Shea do or younger kids play with, but we were older and still wanted to do it. I remember playing in the sand at Ridgway with the little kids and having so much fun! I never got to do that before, and I think American parents who adopt older kids think we did all the same things that kids here do, but we didn't because there was no money, and no one to do it with."
13) "You didn't ever give up, even when I was stubborn. Remember when you took me to the library when we first got home, and I stood there and said I don't like books and didn't even want to look at them? Mostly I really didn't like books because I couldn't read well in Kazakhstan, and there were no cool books to read so it was boring. But you didn't give up, and you kept taking us and let me check out nothing, and one day I was interested in Amelia Earhart, and you helped me get a picture book, and all of a sudden I liked books! Now I LOVE to read, and you didn't give up on me so I could learn to like them, but you didn't force me either. Parents give up too soon, and when we get here everything is so new we don't want to try things because sometimes it is just too many new things to try, but later when we feel better and life is easier, it is easier to try things."
14) "Some kids are bad though, Mom, and they won't ever change. I remember one kid who was adopted and I felt bad for the parents, because they seemed nice, but this kid was not a nice kid and I think she was never going to be nice. Maybe she changed, because I did, but I wasn't bad in the same way as she was bad...she was kind of evil I think. But most kids are not like that at all, and they would be very different if they had a family."
15) "I don't know what you and Dad did, but you made everything not so serious and we laughed a lot, but you were still serious and we knew it. I am not saying it right, but when you made fun of us and teased us, we knew you weren't being mean, you were trying to say it was all OK if we made mistakes, and we could laugh and have fun with it so we didn't worry. You tried to speak Russian, remember, and you even made fun of yourself! But you were serious about us getting a good education and working hard in school, even if it was putting cards on Matthew's body parts and laughing as we did it! You worked very hard, and you still do, and so do we because you showed us it was important. I didn't care about school before, but something you did made me want to care."
16) "You told us how to hug, remember? After things were good, and we didn't feel so upset and we were all loving, we didn't really know how to hug or be close. We wanted to, but it's silly to say we didn't know how, but we didn't. You joked with us about hugging and being far apart from each other, and then you made us hug big bear hugs and made bear sounds, and it was so funny! But we never hugged anyone we loved before, not really that I can remember, and hugging someone you sort of like is different from hugging someone you love."
18) "Remember after we had been home about a month, and Olesya and I kept looking at all your old photo albums? I think that was really important, and we just couldn't stop looking at them. Now that I am older, I know it was because I was trying to learn who you and Dad were, and to learn what your life with Matthew, Joshua and Kenny was like too. It was like a story I didn't know but was a part of, and I needed to know more. Olesya looked at your wedding pictures over and over again, and I liked the ones of you and Dad when you were even younger. I think parents should always take out their picture books and show them to their kids, and let their kids see them a lot because they need to know where their mom and dad come from and what their life was like. It makes you feel more like part of the family. And I never told you, but it meant a lot to me to see our pictures on the fridge and the board in the hallway, and I could tell they were old and had been there a long time. It made me feel like you were being honest when you said you had really loved us for a long time, and it made me feel like we were part of the family even when we weren't home."
These are the things from her conversation today that stand out. Every child is different, of course, and kids who come home older than 10 or 11 might react differently, just as those who come home younger but still older than toddlers might as well. I am betting, though, there is a lot of commonality here in Angela's experiences that runs through many older child adoptions. I don't know if this will help enlighten anyone or not, but I hope it might help someone out there who is wondering what in the world is going through their new child's mind, and how they might approach it.
Angela, someday you will read this and you nor I will remember all the details of this conversation, for it is just one of thousands we have already had. But when you read this, sweetheart, I want you to know just how much I admire you, how much I trust your instincts, and how very glad I am that we found one another. You asked me in the car today when we were alone, how I knew you and Olesya were my daughters, and we spoke of God guiding us, of us not steering the boat so to speak, and how it was hard to explain, but I just knew and trusted God on this one. You were so interested, and you said with such sure confidence, "Yup! That's just how it works, and it is so cool to see it. God makes it all fit perfectly, just like our family fits perfectly...even if everyone thinks we don't match, WE know we match!"
I love you, my wise, wise one. Always have, always will.