Adoptive mom Elizabeth Curry describes her family’s journey to adopt Hayden, an older girl with special needs.
We were done adding children to our family; our plate was very full. Our twins, who were our eighth and ninth children, were just two, and a couple of our other children required some fairly intense parenting as well. Besides being done adding children, we didn’t qualify for most programs due to our over-capacity status. I wasn’t even tempted to look at waiting child lists because there was no point. Did I mention we were done? Which is why I was a bit surprised to find myself scrolling through a long list of children who needed families.
I didn’t mean to be there.
A friend had sent me a link to an article about language acquisition in older, internationally adopted children. It was a very interesting article, so I poked around a bit on the website it was published on to see what else was there. I truly had no idea that it was mainly a child advocacy site. As I scrolled, I kept telling myself this was silly because we were done and there was no way we could adopt again anyway. It might have been silly, but I kept going.
Eventually I came across a picture of a little girl with a significant facial difference. Knowing the world of adoption, I knew that an older child with a scary diagnosis combined with a significant facial difference faced very poor odds of ever finding a permanent family. My first thought when I saw her picture was that this was a child who needed an extra dose of hope.
Then I read what was written about her. In response to a question, she had responded, “I want a mommy and daddy who will love me and sing to me and feed me good food.”
I was undone.
What a brutal world we live in where this can be a child’s dearest wish. If continuing to scroll through the advocacy site was silly, then what came next bordered on the ludicrous. Multiple times a day I would find myself coming back to that page and staring at her picture. What was I doing? We couldn’t adopt her. We had too many children. We didn’t make enough money. We were tapped out with the children we already had. We were done.
Yet the next day, there I would be staring at her picture again. When I wasn’t staring at her picture, I was arguing with myself about why I couldn’t even consider attempting to adopt her. My arguments did nothing to stop my imagination from spinning tales about how she would fit in our family. I needed to take more drastic steps.
One evening, I mentioned her to my husband. Maybe he would be the voice of reason that I seemed to have lost. I don’t remember his exact reaction, but it was along the lines of “just let me know what we are doing.” The slightly obsessed part of my brain was thrilled because it could continue on its happy path of staring at her picture and imagining her in our family. The rational part of my brain had been really hoping for a firm ‘no’ to rein in my imagination. Something had to be done, so I called my mother.
I explained about finding this little girl, about her age, her scary diagnosis, everything, and also how I couldn’t get her out of my head and would go and look at her picture multiple times a day. I expected my mom to remind me of all of my current responsibilities and that this was, indeed, a little bit unrealistic. Instead, after dumping everything in her lap, her first words were, “What do you need to do to bring this little girl home?”
So we took a deep breath and started to figure out if adopting her was even possible. With nine children and a modest income we did not fit most criteria, either with her country, with adoption agencies, or with our state. The hurdles really did feel impossible. The only way I can explain what followed is that it was totally God-orchestrated.
We found a placing agency and a homestudy agency that were willing to work with us. We were accepted by her country after a bit of back and forth as we answered questions and explained our situation. We had a social worker who believed in us and carried us through a lengthy homestudy approval process. We took it battle by battle, and each time I would brace myself for the firm NO that I was sure would be coming. In the meantime, we worked to figure out how to pay for the process. I’m still not sure how, but we paid each bill that arrived. It was a very long year.
I was probably as surprised as anyone when we received our travel approval and found ourselves on an airplane. The whole thing felt unbelievable and a small part of me still felt as though we had lost our minds.
There were so many unknowns… unknowns which truly had no answers until we actually adopted her and saw what life was going to look like.
While we had adopted two toddlers, we had never adopted an older child. What was her diagnosis really? There were a lot of unanswered questions on that count. Was this really going to be a good thing for our family? Could I manage all the extra doctor appointments? Would parenting a child with a facial difference be difficult? So many questions. But both my husband and I felt that this child, even with all the questions and unknowns, was somehow meant to be our daughter. It was both terrifying and felt right all at the same time.
As is usual, the things I most worried about turned out to be inconsequential. Facial differences do not matter. We all noticed that after a very short time, she was just our daughter and that was what she looked like. We truly didn’t ever think about it unless someone drew her differences to our attention and we were reminded she had a difference. Our children made room for her with very little jostling of place. We found doctors who are excellent and adding the extra appointments to our life just became routine. A diagnosis was finally given which turned out to be more manageable than what we initially were told.
It was the things that I didn’t know to worry about in advance that caught me off guard. Attachment was a huge issue, but it was me to her and not the other way around.
It can be difficult to adopt an older child who is a fully formed individual with a long history, their own likes and dislikes, their own way of seeing the world and interacting with it.
I didn’t expect it to be a problem but it was. I sometimes liken it to thinking of one of your child’s friends; the one who you just cannot wait to get picked up to go home. Except this time, the child is not picked up and instead becomes a permanent part of your family. How do you navigate that? How do you learn to love that child and make her your own? For me, it was time and a lot of work on my part.
The problem of keeping her safe because of the indiscriminate affection she evidenced never occurred to me. Indiscriminate affection is a child’s willingness to love anyone and everyone while at the same time being not so enamored of the new parents. Some people call it “parent shopping.” Really, it’s what happens when a child who has never experienced a permanent adult relationship meets a whole bunch of nice adults in a short span of time. Like everything, it took time for her to learn the roles of mom and dad. We kept her world small, we helped her feel safe with us, and eventually her affections grew to include us and not so much the random man walking down the alley.
Navigating disassociation was new and unexpected. I didn’t even really know the term, much less know what to do. Disassociation happens when a person is triggered by a memory or a smell or a taste — or is feeling overly stressed and anxious — and any thinking portion of the brain just shuts down. It is like the person vanishes while they are still right in front of you. It is an extremely effective way of dealing with horrible situations, but really not so great in a healthy family.
As Hayden began to feel safe, as we earned her trust, as she began to relax and feel comfortable, the instances of disassociation became less. Today, nine years later, the hard parts of her past have not been erased. The difference is that now we can talk about what is happening and how she is feeling. Like the other things I’ve mentioned, this too took time and for Hayden to feel emotionally safe with us.
It is difficult to remember a time Hayden was not in our family. I have fully attached to her and feel just as in love with her as with any of my other children.
We have all grown and changed and become permanently a part of each other. We know a whole lot more about Linear Nevus Sebaceous Syndrome, Hayden’s actual diagnosis, than we ever did before. Heck, we didn’t even know the syndrome existed before we adopted Hayden. We are actually surprised when someone mentions her facial difference because we tend to forget about it. I look back at the time of staring at her picture and trying to find a reason to say ‘no’ and I am very, very relieved that we said ‘yes.’
Elizabeth Curry | Adoptive Mom
Many older children and children with special needs are waiting for a permanent, loving family. Learn about them on Holt’s waiting child photolisting!