There have been times in these last 4 years that I have wished that we had never adopted Anna. Even now I wonder why writing that last sentence does not bring a greater waive of guilt upon me. But to understand the whys and hows, you will need to journey back to a time when our family did not have Anna and did not know the power that one 9-year-old could hold over a family.
There was, once upon a time, a family of 5. Two parents and 3 wonderful children who had been adopted from different countries. This family was very well adjusted. They had just purchased a new home, and mother was now able to stay at home with her children. Each child was well bonded to his/her parents, and the parents counted themselves as very fortunate in being blessed with the 3 most wonderful children on earth. This was my family. Our children were ages 6, 7 and 10 when we first saw the picture of Anna, a waiting child described as happy, outgoing, witty, friendly and eager to please. Our 10 year old had been wishing for a sister closer in age to herself, and we were not opposed to adopting again. This child, being almost 9-years-old, seemed like a good match for our boisterous, energetic family.
Although we had adopted before, and in fact our 10-year-old was age 7 at adoption, this new adoption brought me much anxiety. Part of it was the idea of upsetting the birth order of the children, and part of it was simply the unknowns involved with adopting a child of this age. Still, her beaming smile and dancing eyes in photos eased my fears and with excitement we moved forward with the adoption.
Many months later, at the end of 2000, my oldest daughter and husband traveled to adopt our new daughter, Anna. They would be with Anna in her birth-country for nearly 3 weeks.
Four days after leaving, my very tired husband called to say they spent the last 2 days visiting Anna at her orphanage. She was a pistol and very anxious to leave the orphanage behind and come “home” (to the hotel) with her new dad and sister. I tried to pry out of my husband what exactly our new daughter was like, but all he would say is that she was outgoing and seemed very happy. My 10-year-old summed it up to me with, “Mom, she doesn’t act 8 years old. She’s like a baby!” I really didn’t know what to make of that…
As the days went by and Anna came to stay with my husband and daughter at the hotel, more and more I began to feel a sense of unease about this adoption. Each time my husband called, it was with a fresh and frustrated report of the days events. Anna was making phone calls from the hotel while he was in the shower, or Anna threw a fit when he wouldn’t buy her a trinket. Anna, it would seem, was a handful. The final straw came one day when Anna left the hotel room and an hour long search ensued, finally finding her “hanging out” in some shops near the hotel. She yelled at and berated her new father with an obvious scorn. Back in the hotel room a translator was called. Anna would not give any reason for her actions except to say her father was mean for not buying her the items she had wanted in the shops. The next weeks Anna was never let out of sight. The adoption was completed and a very tired little group landed at the airport in our home city.
Through all of this, I truly felt it was just a matter of my husband being a “softy”. I am the stronger parent in our relationship and I believed it was just a matter of getting our new daughter home where I could demonstrate a loving environment with good boundaries. Boy was I in for a big surprise!
It is to my great fortune that we had adopted another older child before Anna. Although the first older child adoption hadn’t been without wrinkles, it was a progressive and very satisfying bonding experience. Our oldest daughter had few adjustment issues and was eager to be loved and give love. However, she had demonstrated, however gently, the culture shock, language issues, and sadness that come with any older child adoption. I was well prepared for these, thank God. What I was not prepared for is some of the damaging things that had been done and said to our newest daughter while she was still in her orphanage.
Apparently, the older children in her orphanage are led to believe that when you are adopted by Americans, your life is a golden road filled with all the toys and games you could ever desire. You will never have to go to school, do chores, and of course you will have your way in any and all things. So deeply was this belief ingrained in Anna, that the crushing reality of her new home sent her into an absolute tail-spin of despair. A trip to the grocery store could have her lying in the aisles absolutely screaming and crying because I would not buy 7 cans of beans instead of 6. Meanwhile, I would stack the other 6 cans back on the shelf, attempting to send the message that if this behavior continued to be exhibited, she would get nothing. OH! How many times I would need to repeat this process for the lesson to sink in!
When Anna first came home to us, it became very apparent that she did not have the maturity of a just-turned 9-year-old. In fact, she didn’t even relate to our 7-year-old. In maturity she was closest matched to our 6-year-old child. Her personality, described as outgoing & friendly, could only be described by her new family as bossy, abrasive, destructive and sneaky. Her method of “fitting in” to the family was to divide and conquer. Since she did not like 2 of her siblings, she set up a system of ignoring them, breaking their toys and ordering her 6-year-old sister not to talk to them. Lying was as 2nd nature as breathing. Though it all, I counseled my children as best as possible, and viewed these behaviors as “orphanage survival behaviors”. Dealing with them would take more patience than I ever know I could possess. Our other children found themselves horrified when she once dropped her pants and urinated in the drive way. Her face was never more than a ½ inch above her plate as she loudly ate her food. Her incessant whining about who had what, “Why I not have? Why you not buy for me? Anna needs! Anna needs! Anna needs!”
I knew this was all behaviors that could be dealt with. With time and patience, Anna would learn. However, it quickly became apparent that the greatest obstacle might be insurmountable. Anna appeared to have absolutely no desire to bond to us. Her complete abhorrence for her father was apparent. She couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him (and no, she was not abused in her orphanage, she just had no use for her father). She told her sisters he was big, mean, old, fat etc. I asked her one night, “Anna, what is it you want from this family? We want you to love us.” Her response was simply, “I love it when you buy me things. I like my sister.” And the truth was, as much as she did not like us…….we did not like her. I realize how horrible that sounds, but the simple fact of the matter was this: This was an extremely unlovable kid. Defiant, whiny, loud, stubborn, disobedient, and irritating. It wasn’t that hard for my husband and I to admit to each other the truth: This Adoption was a Mistake.
Once we admitted that, the next step was asking, “What is the solution?” The answer to that question is what this story is really about. Because if you have made it this far, you may just be thinking, “What an awful family! How could they not love a child that was now their daughter??” I know what you are thinking, because I would have thought and asked the same thing before Anna became our child.
By the time we asked this of ourselves, Anna had been home a year. We had decided to teach her English at home (it was mid-school year when she arrived) and give her time to adjust before sending her to school. Although we began with just 15 minutes her day, Anna would cry, actually sob, and repeat over and over, “Watch TV! Want to watch TV! You are mean, mean mother. Very bad! Bad!” TVs had been on all waking hours in her orphanage and Anna had never attended school. Her obsession with watching TV, I felt, contributed to her inability to tell reality from fantasy. It’s hard to explain, but she just could not tell what was real or not. By the end of the summer we were up to about the 1st grade level and Anna had learned English at lightning pace. I could tell there was a bright mind in there that had never been tapped.
Now almost 10 years old, she was still at about a 6 year old level in maturity. With our oldest daughter struggling in school, we made the decision to keep her and Anna home for a year to give them each a chance to “catch up”. I re-doubled my efforts to show Anna affection, be fair, and bond with her. And so, after that first year, my husband and I found ourselves with the all important question: “What do we do with a child we do not love and who does not seem capable of attaching to us?”
Our first decision was NOT to disrupt. We would raise Anna as our child to adulthood and do the very best we could with her, expecting very little in return.
Our second was for my husband to avoid contact with her, as he had completely lost all patience with her antics.
Our third decision was that I would continue to “pretend” to love her.
Our 4th was to continue homeschooling her, limiting her ability to cast us aside like so much garbage for her fantasy of a “good family” that was out there somewhere.
There is not much more to say about the next year (her 2nd year home). She learned that obeying the rules meant privileges, disobeying meant a loss of the things she found fun. She learned, though with loud wailing, to do her chores. She never failed to cry and sob while cleaning her room or putting her plate in the sink. She learned to read and do math, though the tears flowed with any attempt to have her write sentences or engage her in any school work she deemed, “NOT FUN!” The rest of us learned to ignore her fits and accept that she would always be here, regardless of our feelings.
In her 3rd year home, the changes began so slightly, so very, very quietly, that had she not been constant with them, I very well might have squashed them without ever even knowing they were happening.
In order to tolerate her hatred, my husband insisted that when he walked into a room where she was, she must say, “hello dad”. At first she refused and continued to ignore him even when he spoke to her (which she had been doing for 2 years). He would then say, “Hello Anna”. If she did not respond, she went to her room, alone, for ½ an hour, a true torture in her estimation. She finally broke and without exception would start saying, “hello dad” when she heard him even come close to a room where she was. This led him to respond, “hello, Anna, what are you doing?” It was murderous torture for her to give even a 3 word response, but she would do it. This went on for months.
In the meantime, I had grown so accustomed to being tough on Anna, being strict, watching for her to step out of line, waiting for her to talk back, throw a fit, or defy me in some way, that when she finally, quietly made up her mind just to do what was asked and expected of her, I didn’t at first notice it. It just suddenly came to me one day when I saw her helping to do the dinner dishes (her chore 2 times a week) without complaint, that she hadn’t been whining as much….in fact, she had been completing her homework assignments without crying for…hmmmm….weeks? How could I have missed this? And so, I began to watch Anna in a different way. That is when I found out the most difficult truth of all: My heart had hardened towards this child.
It began the next morning. The girls were getting out of bed, giving me hugs, and I just wanted the hug from Anna to end as quickly as possible. In fact, I found myself almost pushing her away! That same afternoon I found the lunch table a mess and assumed it was Anna. I was ready to start her chastisement when her brother admitted it was he who had not cleaned up the table. How quick I was to blame our “difficult child”. That night, like every night, I lay down next to each child and let him or her just speak to me…..I noticed in myself a familiar rushed feeling as I lay next to Anna….I did not like feeling her next to me. OH! What and who had I become? Could I despise this child so much as to abhor her touch? The answer was simply, yes. Yes, I could. And Yes, I did.
Anna, it seemed, was changing. I had been pretending to love her. Telling her I did, making sure she got hugs. Making sure she was warm at night, putting concern in my voice when she was hurt. We had vacationed as a family, and in every way tried to make her feel accepted as one of the family. But yes, I was also very hard on her in other ways. Still, this pretend love was the closest thing to “real” that she had ever had in her life, and it had been going on for almost 3 years now. Anna was responding to this. And I was a fool not to see it.
As the next months came and went, I found myself making sure that I noticed Anna’s efforts, her attempts to control her behaviors, and her shedding of negative and disrupted traits that she no longer ‘needed’ in this new family. I prayed for God to soften my heart towards her, and I shared these happening with my husband. Our conversations about Anna became more positive and we started to relax our vigilant watchfulness towards her. My husband made more of an effort to tolerate Anna’s silences and discomfort with him, and to praise her for just about anything. It didn’t happen over night, these many changes.
It’s been over 4 years now. Anna is now 13 years old. Her maturity level is at about a 10-year-old level now. She’s independent, but willing to listen and try advice. She loves to read books and is only allowed 1 hour of TV per day. She knows why and understands (and yes, accepts) why this is, and the other children must obey the same rule. We are more open with each other now. We talk with each other about improving our relationship, about her dreams and hopes for the future. Anna is part of our family now in a real way.
Do I love her? Yes, in a way I do. I feel a great affection and respect for her, and the love is growing over time. It wasn’t an easy love to come by. But it is rooted now in fertile soil. We have weathered the biggest storm. Anna still won’t go off and do something with her dad alone, like the other children love to do, but she enjoys “Dad night” when my husband gives me a night off and takes the kids out for dinner and to the movie rental store once a week. She makes him cards and eagerly shows him her artwork. She gives him hugs, willingly now and that is something I would never thought would happen.
And so I will end this story as it began. There was, once upon a time, a family of 6. This family was very well adjusted. They all had helped each other to grow and stretch in new and wonderful ways. They learned together about patience, love, faithfulness, dedication, forgiveness and hope. When the storms came and the wind blew, this family learned to bend together, but did not break. And all the grafted branches made the tree that much stronger.
One mother’s letter of support to others thinking about adopting a child with Down syndrome.
Looking for your child's potential in a referral photo
Despite abandonment and fear, waiting child Jenny still faces the world with a smile
Being thankful is important, even when we aren't feeling the love
Hosting was exponentially better when all the children got to experience it together.
A win-win-win-win-win idea