I always knew I would adopt children with special needs. Having volunteered in far off places with children left for dead, it was something I felt very passionate about. That, coupled with working within the system, made me very aware that less than 2% of people of child-baring age choose to adopt and the majority of those are only open to babies or very young children who are “healthy”, so I set out really desiring to adopt children that would be left behind because of special needs, genetic background, ethnicity, age, sibling status, or most likely, a combination of a few. Some things I thought about in advance, others I didn’t. Which is perhaps more normal than I realized.
While my social worker marvelled at my list of accepted medical needs, she did warn me that there would be times that I would grieve for my children’s struggles and the acceptance of their backgrounds, genetics, special needs and the like, would seem challenging. It has happened a few times and I thought, because I seem to have a growing readership of people considering adoption and of parents of children with special needs, that I would share them. Not because I’m proud of those moments, but because I think it is OK to embrace grief and it is necessary to challenge yourself to wonder why something is hard, so that you can be pruned and become more accepting.
The moments it hit me
:: My daughter is a budding artist, but 8.5 years of poor fine motor skills and neglect, with no activities which would help, nor any occupational therapy, means her fingers just can’t do what she wants them to do. We are working on it, but it is such a struggle for her – writing, drawing, tying shoes. A friend’s 5 year old, who hates art, was able to draw lines my daughter can only dream of and my heart hurt for her.
:: Someone mentioned to me their 5 year old is reading at the same level as my daughter, despite 4 grades between them (and is obviously reading leaps ahead of my son). Of course, my son arrived at 7 not knowing a single letter or number, having been declared as having the IQ of someone with down syndrome (personally, I think people who happen to have down syndrome are incredibly smart, the educational psychologist’s report was not so flattering). And my daughter, despite having been in an adoptive family and foster families, was not read to, nor was her homework done. So at 8, she was around age 5.5 educationally. They’ve had 1 year of parenting and my son has gone from the academic level of an 18 month old to a 6 year old and my daughter from 5.5 to about age 7.5.
:: My real-estate agent mentioned that her son made a competitive soccer team. I was happy for her son, but my heart ached for my son who was on a soccer team where no one spoke to him because not only were all the boys a year older than him and knew each other, but because my son is developmentally about 2 years younger than his chronological age and it showed. Also, my son gets tired, his special needs means he has to sit down a couple of times per hour to recover (he is currently being monitored/tested for whether it is heart related – my feeling is no). My heart ached for my son who loves the sport but is isolated.
:: My daughter’s music teacher asked her to spell words that the other 7, 8 and 9 year olds can all spell. He also asked her the first letter of words like elephant. Only my poor girl is so scared of making a mistake, she can’t answer. And my heart ached for her.
:: I saw an 8 year old this weekend, sophisticated, chatting away on her cell-phone (gasp) and for a fleeting moment I worried about my two very innocent souls, whose favourite activity is playing cards or going for a walk. My precious wee ones who know nothing of computer games or tv or cell phones and would rather snuggle up with a cat on their lap and read a book.
:: A colleague chats about their children, the same age as mine and I worry about the world which awaits mine. A world where they will be different.
And this whole looking in and wondering why I struggled in those moments, was good. You see I was raised in a way in which one had no choice but to succeed, to be the best, the top, to over-perform. I have never wanted that life for my children. I am as polar opposite to my upbringing as I could be. I’m a tree-hugging, vegetarian raising, faith filled, social justice seeking, gentle-loving, never-follow-the herd living, green mama, who more than anything wants to live a life of appreciation, gratitude, advocacy and acceptance. So why was it hard? Why in those brief moments did I hurt? At first, I wondered if it was jealousy. I can hardly imagine what life is like for people who aren’t dealing with weekly therapy and hospital appointments, medication dispensed daily and trauma. But the more I thought, prayed and pruned, I realized that wasn’t it. What it is, is fear and sadness. Fear about how life will treat them, the unkindness and comments they receive and just how much harder they have to work to reach a developmental milestone.
And yet, and yet, in a strange way it brought us together. The first time someone laughed at my daughter for the fact she was technically supposed to be in Grade 3 last year, but was doing the Grade 1 curriculum, was the first time she allowed me to comfort her. This was huge in the adoption-attachment world. The medical appointments we go to, my children cling to me and know I’m always there. No more volunteer drivers dropping them off at appointments, waiting with people they don’t know, people being intimately involved in their care who have no right to be. It’s me. Always me. There are hugs and love and mama’s soft words. The fact that they need support to catch up and we are tv free and computer free, means we are pretty much always together during our waking non-work, non-school hours. We knit, bake, read, play games, walk, hike, dance. And slowly, with loads of support they are catching up. I completed Grade 2 with my daughter over the summer so she went from being 2 years behind academically to 1 year in the space of a year. My son has gained 4 years of academics and development in 13 months. Not by being the top of his class, but by being loved, supported and adored by someone who believes in him.
I don’t doubt there will be additional moments of grief and I think that’s OK. I’m realizing part of the challenge may also be we don’t know any other family’s which are formed through adoption, or are dealing with special needs, or who live like we do. In fact I only know two people who have children, one a dear friend who is at the beginning of her life as a mum (and has the honor of being my children’s godmother) and the other a previous colleague who lives more than 1.5 hours away and has two young children. So I also need to find a way to meet some families. But becoming a mother to an 8 and 7 year old doesn’t lend itself to mother and toddler groups, and living in an area where everyone works full time and most people have evening help, means I don’t meet other parents at school.
I can’t change everything. I can’t snap my fingers and fix it, nor do I have Dorothy’s shoes. But what I’m learning is more than grief is this place of total acceptance which lives in my heart. I’m slowly but surely leaving what I know behind, and my thoughts and reactions are mirroring what I believe.
They are my greatest teachers. One day, I hope they know it!