The joys and struggles of adopting an older child from China
by Dannah Gresh
I am an adoptive mother struggling to reach into the recesses of a broken heart—that of my precious fifteen-year-old daughter, Autumn. She is in her bedroom writing too. She is having a bad day. Having been adopted at the age of thirteen, she misses China today. I encourage her to write her emotions in the pages of a journal. Some of her thoughts are too private. She writes those in Chinese so I cannot read them. I feel as if those Chinese characters represent an ancient code within her that I have to crack to find her healing. I’m fairly certain it is going to take me a lifetime to read her.
In 2004 God opened our family to the idea of adoption. We were on a mission trip in Zambia and fell in love with more than one orphaned child. We prayed: “God, if you want us to adopt, we are willing. Drop a child into our lap and make it clear.” He did, and when He did our hearts had been marinating in the call for two years.
In 2006 my husband’s best friend Troy VanLiere called him. He’d just come from China where he and his wife, Donna had adopted two girls a few years earlier. He sent a photo of Autumn to my husband’s laptop
Troy explained: “All she wants is a mom and dad, but in eleven months she’ll age-out and won’t be adoptable. What should I do?” Before we knew it, we realized that God was dropping a child into our laps…and she was thirteen.
Adopting an older child from another country is a drastically unique experience. The school systems don’t really know how to advise you educationally. Even the very experienced child psychologist who works with us doesn’t have any similar case studies, and so doesn’t always know how to advise me.
Once Autumn shut down emotionally to Lexi, her teenaged sister, and we couldn’t figure out why. After three months, we finally learned that it stemmed from a moment of sibling rivalry in which I intervened. After giving the girls time to figure it out, I quipped: “That’s enough. This isn’t working!” Lexi correctly interpreted it to mean: “If we don’t negotiate a plan here, mom will!” Autumn thought it meant I was taking her back to China, and so chose to not interface with Lexi in an attempt to stay. It’s complicated and if you aren’t willing to roll up your sleeves and stay in the game, don’t consider it. On difficult days, you’ll have to believe without a doubt that this was a calling for you and your family.
How can you know if it is? First, know that you love the stage of development you’re adopting whether that is teen, tween or kindergarten. We have loved parenting teens more than any other stage of development. We work with teens and have experience in addressing at-risk behaviors, healing emotional trauma and hanging out with them. To us, adopting Autumn-with her attachment issues, mother-traumas and learning challenges- seemed like a much better plan than baby bottles and diapers. We realized that we wanted a teenager.
Second, get the advice of several families who have adopted children your age. We dug hard and found a handful of families who had adopted teens, and even after their worst-case scenarios we still wanted to adopt a teenager. In fact, we loved the stories of success they shared and couldn’t wait to live out that story in our lives.
Third, make sure you have a support network around you. The first year is world-changing. You are changing the structure of your family, teaching a child English, learning to cook food they like, helping them make friends, figuring out what their emotional wounds are, and adding the extra costs and time for special needs. Before we made our final decision, we went to our children, our parents, and our staff. We got their feedback. They were willing to support us in this. And, they did.
It took us about two weeks to solidify the decision that adopting an older child was a good one for our family. If you think that was a reckless timeline, consider that we had only eleven months to get her out of China. On her fourteenth birthday-no matter how far along in the process we were-she’d become ineligible. We had to act quickly.
At the time adoptions through China were taking twenty-four months. There were miracles along the way. At one point, USCIS communicated to us that they needed 10-15 weeks for a piece of paper. We only had two or we’d miss our deadline. So, we asked people to pray. Soon, we got a call from USCIS that they wanted us at their state facility within twenty-four hours to finger print us.
Another time, we realized that we needed $25,000 and fast. A family friend gave us $12,000 and we were on our own for the rest. We prayed because we couldn’t see a solution. That week my accountant called and said I’d been reporting my author’s royalties incorrectly for a few years. The IRS owed me $13,060.00.
On days like today when Autumn hurts, I am certain of one thing. God has given me Autumn. I believe that is why he allowed miracles to surround the process of her adoption. More than that, I think I know why God has given her to me: I’m learning about me. I’m learning how selfish I am, and that I need less of me. I’m learning how much I like to be in control, and that I need to yield. I’m learning how much I feel like I need a plan with all the details, and that life is written best when we go day-by-day. I’m learning that God has given me Autumn so that she can be healed, and he has given Autumn to me so that I can be healed.
As I finish writing this, Autumn has finished her journaling. She came into my office a few moments ago and showed it to me. It is in Chinese and is for her heart only. But, she’s brought it for me to gaze upon, as if inviting me to figure it out. Leaving it on my desk, she’s now curled up on the little sofa in my office. She just wants to be close. That’s all I know for today, and I’m pretty sure it’s all I need to know.