If We Are Brave

In honor of National Adoption Month, Holt adoptive mom Mandie Hickenbottom-Conner shares about her journey to Korea and back to adopt her son, Desmond. A boy with special needs, Desmond is like many of the children who wait too long to find the loving adoptive families they need and deserve.

I never imagined my road to motherhood would be so riddled with loss…

Babies and children are surrounded with ideals of hope and joy. So, when I was dating my husband and we got engaged, we never talked about dreams deferred, fertility difficulties or death. And yet, before parenthood could be realized in our life together, all of these things would come to pass.

Mandie changes her hair color to raise awareness about different kinds of cancer. “It’s been a strangely effective way to get people’s attention,” she says. “When they ask about my hair, I tell them about warning signs and statistics.”

Our decision to adopt felt more like a long, arduous, emotional preparation than the beautiful “calling” so many of our friends seemed to experience. And although we always felt we wanted to adopt “one day” to “complete our family,” it soon became obvious that if we wanted to have a family, we would have to embrace adoption.

I know it may sound as though I think of adoption as a consolation prize.  Please know, this couldn’t be farther from the truth…

On a cold but unseasonably sunny winter day in February of 1960, a young, Irish immigrant gave birth to a premature baby girl in the rural Iowa bedroom of her older sister and guardian — herself an immigrant-bride during the Second World War.

Mom and baby were very ill. And because mom was caught pregnant with no husband to claim her or her infant daughter, she was also facing deportation. Her only option was relinquishment.  So when the ambulance arrived, the baby was immediately handed over to the medics with the instruction that mom did not want to hold or see the baby and that her infant daughter was to be placed in the care of a representative from the nearby children’s home.

Although she never touched her newborn child’s soft skin, mom took the time to gift her with a name. Following Irish tradition, it included her own mother’s name in the middle position.  A name…  the second and last gift she would ever give her daughter this side of Heaven.  The first being life itself, no matter how harsh the circumstances may have been.

In the far reaches of time and space, close as a breath yet expansive as the universe, God was watching this very mother and child. And He knew He already had a plan in place for the life of this small, sick baby girl — one part of which was to become an adopted daughter in a family of her own.  Another was to become my mother.

Fast forward to October 18, 2011. My now 51-year-old mother was on the phone in her living room while I was on the phone in her basement.  She, with an oncologist.  Myself with our adoption agency, Holt International.  It was our third wedding anniversary, but the atmosphere was far from joyful.  My mom was being told she had cancer for the second time; and my husband, Sean, and I were being told we must change country programs – from Thailand to South Korea.  Thailand’s adoption program was in upheaval due to the recent monsoons, and many foster families and orphanages had been displaced. In the wake of the natural disaster, timelines in Thailand had stretched into the unforeseen future and all new families without a current referral were advised to switch to a more stable program.

I got off the phone and wept. Wept for my mother, and wept for this unsure future facing my husband and me.  Holt was our second agency and South Korea our fourth country program.  Our previous agency had lead us through dead-ends in China and Ethiopia; so, hearing the news about Thailand that day, coupled with my mother’s returned cancer, was a blow my heart was not prepared to handle.

As my husband and I became caregivers to my mother while she began the extensive and physically exhausting road to stem cell transplant, we hoped and prayed daily for news of a child referral to restore our joy. We were called once in the summer of 2012 with a possible referral of a boy with some very specific special needs — the most daunting (in our eyes) being frequent seizure activity. Everything in my being wanted desperately to grab hold of the thought of having this child in our lives and press it tightly to my heart. But after much prayer, we both knew that we were not emotionally ready to give this sweet boy the kind of care he deserved.

In adoption, you must be honest about what you and your spouse feel you can truly handle — emotionally, physically, spiritually and financially.  Sometimes, your hearts will be stretched to include things that once frightened you. Other times, you will hear the Holy Spirit quietly whispering for you to let go. That was the case with this first referral, and I wondered to myself if we would be punished for not being brave enough to handle this sweet child’s needs.

But there is always another plan. God is in the restoration business, after all.  He will not leave you wanting, and He will not repay an honest heart with vengeful reproach. You need only be brave enough to let Him lead you, even when the path becomes dark and overgrown. He will never cease to light your way. In fact, He delights in revealing His mighty ability and unfailing love!  And although I have heard this so often it borders on cliché, the truth is that God really does have a heart for orphans.  And He really will move Heaven and earth for those such as these.

In the early afternoon of October 18, 2012, our fourth anniversary, my cell phone rang once again.  This time it was the director of Holt’s Korea program. She said the most beautiful words I had ever heard… “I think I have a son for you.”

As my husband and I reviewed this boy’s medical file and confidential background report, there was no fear, no feeling of our own inadequacy. Deep in our hearts, we both instantly knew this was our son. Much like my own mother, he had a rough start to life. And he had some medical issues that may or may not have required surgical intervention and/or lifetime care.

Born prematurely at only two pounds, the baby boy whose face stared back at me from my computer screen had already faced a myriad of health issues: multiple resuscitations due to respiratory failure, surgery for an inguinal hernia, asthma that led to several hospital stays, failure to thrive, developmental delays, and a heart valve that may or may not need surgical repair. Our international adoption doctor, a very well-respected woman in her field, also pointed out that he had three of the six “risk factors” identified by renowned child psychologist Dr. Karyn Purvis that can lead to a multitude of developmental delays and emotional and psychological issues in the years to follow, including autism, ADD and ADHD.  It was an overwhelming, yet honest assessment of what the future could look like for this little boy, and it deserved our time in prayer and consideration as to whether we felt we were the right fit to parent him.

For Halloween, Desmond dressed up as the Korean artist “PSY,” who sings his favorite song, “Gangnam Style.”

The wonderful thing about God’s destiny for our lives is that when we walk in His perfect plan for us, we are not limited by our feeble, human abilities.  In our weakness, He is strong. The Great I Am is more than capable of standing in the gap for us, filling in the spaces that we feel have been left blank.  And, as Pastor Steven Furtick of Elevation Church says, “If God left it out of you, you didn’t need it anyway.”  Were we able to handle this child’s needs?  We weren’t exactly sure, to be honest, but we absolutely felt without a doubt that we were to be brave, take our Abba God’s guiding hand, and claim this child as our son.

One of the reasons we were so confident in accepting our son’s referral was that Korea is renowned for offering absolutely amazing medical care to the children in their charge.  Our son was blessed to be in the care of a lovely foster family in Seoul, and through monthly updates, we were able to see and read the progress he made medically and through physical therapy programs. During our wait to bring our son home, Holt’s staff on both sides of the ocean tried very hard to keep us as informed as possible — every step of the way. And when you are half a world away from a piece of your heart, that is invaluable.

On a cold but unseasonably sunny day in March of 2013, my sweet mother passed from this life to the next. She had won her battle with cancer, but her new immune system was too fragile to survive in this world.  My heart had never hurt so badly. My whole body felt as though it were imploding under the weight of the sadness. And I wondered to myself how I would ever succeed at becoming a mother when I had just lost my own. I prayed that God would allow my son to somehow meet my mother, and I spent the next several months trying to learn to live again rather than focusing on adoption timelines and processes.

After accepting a referral for a Korean child, the next step is waiting for said child’s EP (emigration permit).  This permit allows the child to leave the country, so it’s a very important piece of paperwork.  Our entire process had been caught up in a period when a multitude of frustrating changes had lengthened our timeline beyond understanding. Korea passed the “Special Adoption Law” a year and a half into our process, which required a whole new slew of paperwork and forms and significantly slowed the legal process in country.  They had also been limiting the number of EPs given out yearly based on a small percentage of domestic adoptions completed. In short, if Koreans didn’t adopt, then our son wasn’t coming home anytime soon. But, with my mother in Heaven, I felt she was without a doubt interceding on our behalf.

I felt I had my proof when our EP submission came on my father’s birthday in August of 2013.  A few months later, on my sister’s birthday in November, we received our approval. Then, as we traversed our first Christmas holiday without my mother, we received word that our case was submitted for court — the final step of the process to bring a child home from South Korea. We were overjoyed!

However, once again, our process slowed to a halt. And I began to question God daily as to why He had taken my mother and then drawn out our process so painfully. But He knows all things, even the deepest crevices of our hearts. And I think He knew before I did that I would need time to grieve once again at the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death.

A month and a day after this somber anniversary, we received word that we had a court date – May 16, 2014. Not only would we be in country for Mother’s Day, but I would also celebrate my 33rd birthday the day after we stood in Korean court and swore to be our son’s forever family.

For the first time in quite a while, I felt my heart smile. Surely God knew that dates were important to me, but this was only the beginning.  We had barely returned home from our first trip to Korea when we received word on Sean’s mother’s birthday in June that we had approval from the judge and would need to be back in-country by Father’s Day to take custody on Sean’s 40th birthday.  Even if you are a skeptic, this is just too many coincidences to deny God’s hand!

Since returning home on June 20th of this year, I will tell you truthfully that we have encountered trials. Our son was 9 months old when we learned of him, but was 30 months at homecoming. His little heart has had to endure the upheaval of his entire world — everything he knew and understood has changed — but we are committed to helping him overcome these immense life changes just as we overcome our own. We are still learning to love and respect and have compassion for one another.  But, it helped tremendously that our son had stayed in a foster family in Korea before joining our family. He came to us already understanding what family is; and that has been invaluable to his transition, as well as ours.

Yesterday marked four months home for our sweet, lively boy. And today we had another amazing check-up at the doctor’s office. Our son’s heart issues have completely resolved themselves. All valves function within normal range at this point, and no surgery will be required.  While he was taking daily medicine for asthma in Korea, he now only experiences flare-ups after intense physical exertion, which we can be mindful of and treat on an as-needed basis. I am so immensely glad that we chose to be brave and accept this amazing boy’s referral. I am learning that God doesn’t care what things look like; He sees a potential beyond the merely hoped for. He knows it to be true.

I do not possess our Heavenly Father’s divine foresight, but this process has taught me that it is okay, and that we must be brave and trust Him.  We are the feet called to distant lands.  We are the hands called to hard work.  We are the hearts called to love beyond measure.  And it can be scary. But we will never walk alone, if we are brave enough to realize it.

And we are.

Mandie Hickenbottom-Conner | Reeds Spring, Missouri

smiling little boy adopted from Korea wearing camo shirt and hat in front of red car

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Many children in Korea are waiting for a loving, permanent family.

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