With Valentine’s Day freshly behind us — a time for married couples to renew their love for one another and Hallmark and Godiva to make their shareholders smile — I’d like to reprise a tribute of a different kind.
I wrote this a couple of years ago, but the feelings are the same. It is the dearest wish of my heart that more couples would consider adoption. With more than 500,000 children currently in the U.S. needing temporary or permanent homes, there are ample opportunities for generous souls to reach out.
Foster-Adoption is not without its challenges. You hear all kinds of horror stories about kids who have been abused and/or neglected who have difficulty bonding with their new families. Sadly, you don’t hear so much about the “happy endings” (and I count my family’s among them): Children who outgrow the worst of their behavioral issues, and grow up to be loving, affectionate kids. NORMAL kids. Happy kids.
Of course, it does no good to go in “blind.” Information is power, and letting couples know up front that some struggle with the transition … and then go on to form happy families … Well, that is information worth knowing. Forewarned is forearmed.
Having said that, I do believe that there are many good reasons for considering adoption. And here are my top forty reasons why Craig and I would adopt Christopher and Sarah all over again if we could. (And hopefully do it a little smarter the second time around.)
1. Kids are natural virtue builders. They are the perfect antidote to self-absorption and an inordinate sense of self, and bring out (sometimes by force) untapped stores of patience and gentleness. Not to mention humility.
2. They add laughter and affection. Whether it’s the sight of Sarah clad in glittering loungewear and sunglasses, or the feeling of one of them snuggling close to me at Mass, children have natural gifts that brighten all of life.
3. They are built-in marriage enhancers. While some aspects of married love are more difficult to enjoy with a five-year-old permanently camped out on the bedroom floor, others are that much more enjoyable. The “Ewwwwwwwww. Gross!” that a tentative peck elicites frequently inspires my DH to come back for seconds, with greater feeling. Then we remind them that we have a license to do this anytime we want, and then it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
4. They are a built-in “Get out of ___ free” card. This works especially well when you have kids with emotional or behavior challenges. “Well, yes, I can be on your committee … so long as my children can be there, too.” You’d be surprise how often my services are suddenly no longer needed….
5. They are built-in conversation starters. Like many writers, I tend to be something of an introvert. I can (and often do) force myself to make small-talk, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it since joining the “Mommy League.” And if I get trapped, I suddenly can hear my child calling me. …
6. They tend to make hard-to-love people … more loveable. I don’t mind saying that my kids (when they’re on their best behavior) are pretty cute. I can say this, since I didn’t have anything to do with the particular arrangement of their genetic code. But one look into those chocolate-brown peepers of my daughter’s, and even the stuffiest soul has offered a grudging, “My, aren’t you sweet!” Sometimes yes, sometimes no … but first impressions are important!
7. They provide built-in excuses for buying children’s books and movies. I have a friend who has five floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of children’s books. I’m nowhere near that dedicated (my five floor-to-ceilings are a mix of children’s books and theology tomes). But having two early readers gives me license to browse and read to my heart’s content. Research, you know.
8. They provide built-in excuses to trot out childhood traditions. Yesterday was “Apple Dumpling Sunday,” the morning after our first fall trip to the orchard. In a few weeks we’ll build gingerbread houses, then the Advent mother’s tea. The whole Christmas cookie marathon. And of course Christopher’s favorite, “Green Eggs and Ham” on St.Patrick’s Day.
9. They give me a chance to see my parents in a different light. My mother was born to be a grandmother. My Dad says so, too. All of her great qualities — her creativity and humor — rise to the surface when the grandkids are around, while other less desireable traits evaporate. It’s easy to smile when you know the urchins can be returned to their parents at any time.
10. Party dresses. Lucky for me, I got a built-in princess who loves swirls and ribbons and bows. Second only to running around naked.
11. Dress-up boxes. I can search the racks of the Salvation Army for the most garish and sparkly offerings, knowing that by taking them for my daughter’s treasure box I am sparing some other individual a serious fashion faux-pas.
12. Birthday cakes. This could fit under “family traditions,” but they deserve a separate category. Barbie up to her armpits in angel food and ganache. Dora the Explorer figurines up to their ankles in a buttercream forest. Castles with marshmallows and inverted ice cream cones. What fun.
13. Daddy magic. There is something about the sight of my husband down on all fours, charging like a wild rhino as the kids swing from the shower curtain like Tarzan and leap upon his (poor) back that brings out the Jane in me.
14. Mommy magic. For a few more years, at least, I am the smartest and most desirable of all living creatures to two (three if you count my husband) living souls. It can be a tiny drag when I want five minutes of peace and quiet to take a shower, but most days I get a real charge out of having them return with their father and fling themselves in my lap with wild abandon. “MOMMY!” Yes, that’s me.
15. Mother’s Day. For 20 years or so (1983-2003), I always cringed a bit when May rolled around. I knew that, barring a miracle, I’d never have a child the conventional way. Now I look forward to the burned toast and handmade cards with a special kind of eagerness.
16. Father’s Day. I don’t mind telling you that my husband was born to be a father. He is kind and patient and gentle and good. He is also intelligent and interested in world around him. I get a huge kick out of helping the kids express in their own precious, grubby fashion how neat they think he is, too.
17. Superbowl Sunday. I hate sports, particularly televised sports. When we got married, I made Craig a deal: If he kept it to no more than two games a year, I would make sure he celebrated those two events in style. He keeps his end of the bargain most years … and now that he has someone to watch the games with, I don’t have to feign interest even those times. Sarah and I can go do something fun, and leave theboys with their stuffed mushrooms.
18. Built-in tea party partner. Sarah has picked up my taste for high tea, and loves nothing more thanto put on a fancy party dress and go to my favorite tea shop with me, to sip apple juice from fine china and nibble on petit fours. Sometimes my MIL comes along, and having Sarah there always keeps things light and fun.
19. Christmas. There is nothing like Christmas with small children. The excitement. The gifts. The treats. The preparation… yards and yards of popcorn strands and paper chains. Best of all, the music. Christopher is a little more understated in how he carries a tune, but Sarah belts out the “Christmas” section of the hymnal with unrelenting abandon. And so, I might add, do I.
20. Vacations. There are some kinds of trips that are much better shared. Dino Land. Bug Village. Thomas the Train Day at the Henry Ford Museum. But the very word “vacation” has a particular meaning for our kids. It means a hotel — any hotel, really, as long as there is a pool and pizza delivery service.
21. Water. I learned to swim when I was fairly young, but for the past twenty-five years or so have studiously avoided being caught in a bathing suit in public. With Sarah in tow, it just doesn’t matter. No one is looking at my cellulite as long as Sarah is running around the deck with her bathing suit cap pulled down, making her look like a Shar-Pei, screaming, “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME!!!!” (splash.)
22. S’mores. Need I say more? Ditto cotton candy.
23. Christmas pageants. Sure, watching little kids pull their angel costumes over their heads and torture the upper ranges of “Silent Night” is endless fun. But it gets even better when the third angel from the left is YOUR little flasher.
24. A Second Childhood. Growing up, we didn’t do certain things. Celebrate Halloween (including trick-or-treating). Watch Tom-and-Jerry reruns (we didn’t own a television set). Go to Disneyland. Swing dance. I get to do all these things now … with my kids.
25. Spiritual milestones. I was thirty when I entered the Church, and so I never got to experience First Holy Communion the way my daughter will in a few years. I already have her white dress and veil stashed away in my closet. Christopher, too, loves to hear about the day he gets to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. And I never get tired of telling him.
26. Faith through a child’s eyes. Thanks to my children, I get to experience the wonder of faith all over again. The retelling of Jonah and the whale, and David and Goliath. (“Hey, Mom! Was the giant REALLY nine feet tall?” They wait breathlessly to hear the angel in the bellfry ringing the bells that call out, “Come to church, come to church! Everybody come to church!” And listen again as the Eucharist is elevated and the chimes ring again, knowing that we are never closer to heaven than at that moment.
27. Silly songs. My mother gave me a million of them. The Austrian that Went Yodeling. Waltzing Matilda. I’m Wild About Cars (that go “wah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, ooga, ooga”). The entire Gilbert and Sullivan reperatoire. I enjoy them a lot more now that I have a captive audience.
28. Family stories. My parents — and his — are REALLY their grandparents, so we do what we can to pass along the family history, including family recipes.
29. Simplicity. Life with kids is about juggling priorities. Do I really want two shelves full of bisque china figurines, knowing they can be instantly converted into expensive landfill with a well-aimed swipe of a pirate sword? Do I need 46 pairs of unmatched socks and 450 back issues of Guideposts, knowing that they can and will be spread from one end of the house to the other in a matter of nanoseconds? Do I need 7 kinds of eye purple eye shadow, knowing all the many, varied (and frequently uncleanable) uses a five-year-old can find with a pot of eye shadow and a jar of Vaseline?
30. Nature Channel, Travel Channel, and History Channel. I’d forgotten how interesting learning can be. With kids, self-education is a matter of self-preservation. I don’t want to wait until my son is in fifth grade to start sharpening the ol’ hatrack.
31. Life Membership in the Mommy Club. Shortly after getting the kids, I joined the Mom’s group at church and made a whole new set of friends. Kids have a way of pulling down barriers between people.
32. A new view of the world. Those who adopt internationally get an intimate connection with a part of the world they might otherwise not have discovered. Those who foster-adopt have a bird’s eye view of state and local government, and what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those tax dollars at work. It’s humbling … it’s also motivating. I’ve written more letters about the sorry state of the social services system and how it treats the children in its care than about almost any other subject. I’ve seen a children’s home. I’ve met the social workers. As a foster parent, I was the only advocate my children had (I had already come to think of as “mine”) when they needed services. Suddenly the label “pro-life” took on a whole new meaning. I wanted to know whether a candidate continued to represent the needs and interests of children even after they were safely born.
33. Empathy for the marginalized. Shortly after we got him, we registered Christopher in a special Montessori preschool program — a very expensive one — that we had been told was good for foster children. He lasted a month before other parents (most of them devout Catholics) got together and pressured the teacher to have Christopher withdrawn from her class. He used words like “dead” and “kill,” and generally was a “bad influence.”
That was a low point for me, as a parent — especially since the teacher clearly believed Christopher’s behavior problems were entirely my fault. She went on and on about his poor table manners. (It was true, he didn’t use a knife and fork very well. On the other hand, he no longer stuffed cottage cheese in his pockets, either. Little victories.) That experience reminded me how important it is to teach children tolerance and consideration even at a very young age. (Christopher taught his classmates “kill,” but they taught him “stupid.”)
34. A better understanding of the Fatherhood of God. God has adopted each of us, calls each of us His children. The full extent of this hit me after we adopted our kids. An adoptive parent loves regardless of whether we are loved back. An adoptive parent looks for ways to reach out and communicate that love. An adoptive parent must be patient, and allow the child to approach on his terms in order to build a sense of safety. God is like that, too.
35. A better understanding of Mary as Mother. She had one perfect child, and was herself “immaculate.” This was way out of my league … most days I had to aspire to “adequate.” But by becoming an adoptive parent, I cultivated the habit of turning to Mary throughout the day, just as my children turned to me. And just like a good adoptive mom, Mary waited for me to ask for help … and stepped right in with what I needed most.
36. A better understanding of the cross. This most public and painful of excruciating deaths was what it took for the Son of God to complete the salvific work done on our behalf. To a certain extent, parenting shares a certain amount of painful and public humiliations … but adoptive parents get to share in it in a unique way. Just when we want to shout to the world, “IT’S NOT MY FAULT THAT THIS KID _____,” we realize that this would do no good anyway. So we take a deep breath, get a better hold of ourselves, and keep going. Others have gone before us, and will come after us, who can empathize. But even Our Lord felt the weight of rejection… “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (The difference is, of course, that we are never truly alone.)
37. Limitless writing material. When in the early throes of parenthood, my brain cells wouldn’t arrange themselves into coherent sentences, so I did a lot of late-night journaling. The stories from those first months are precious to me now, and the whole parenting experience has given my writing a texture and nuance that wasn’t there before.
38. A bigger heart. I have more patience now, and am less quick to jump on other people’s shortcomings. I know that there is often more than meets the eye in any family situation. And I try to be as generous and understanding as others have been with me.
39. An appreciation for the “encouraging word.” Sarah and Christopher are in opposite ends of the behavior spectrum. Sarah responds to praise infinitely better than even the most constructive criticism. Her eyes light up when you celebrate her accomplishments with her … and her foul moods pass like a thundercloud if she catches the sunshine of my smile.
40. Their birth family. I’ve heard that the essential bond between a child and his first (or birth) parents is never truly broken. The loss of that bond is something that affects a child for life, no matter how wonderful the people who adopt him (or her.) Someday I’m going to have to help my children come to terms with this loss … and will be able to tell them about a mother who never wanted to let them go, but got caught in a lifetime of bad choices. Knowing her story has encouraged me to look at my own choices a little more carefully. I never want to inflict that kind of pain on another human being.
BONUS: Adoption has changed me … mostly for the better. People look into adoption for all kinds of reasons. Some are infertile, some simply have a heart for a certain country or a certain kind of child. Some have relatives they simply don’t want to see go “into the system.” Some decide it is the definitive pro-life choice (which it is). But whatever motivates a person to love in the abstract, that motivation changes when a particular child enters your life. That’s when the transformation truly begins. Yes, you are about to change a child’s life … for the better, one can only hope. But be prepared: that child is going to change you, too. Count on it.