Just six of the zillion things adoption has taught me:
1. Generosity is simple.
In 2007, I visited an Ethiopian orphanage, trying not to make eye contact with any of the little ones around me in need of a father. I’ve always found avoidance to be the surest way to never feel bad about saying “no.” My brother-in-law, who was adopting from Ethiopia, was there with me. “Maybe we’ve made it too complicated,” he said. (I knew by “we” he meant “me.”) “What if God’s will for our life is found wherever someone’s need and our ability intersect?”
2. Adoption is not for everyone.
Ten months ago, my phone rang. A social worker explained a little boy’s situation in broad strokes. He was four, from India, and was being relinquished by the family who adopted him here in America – because they loved him enough to give him better than they could provide. “Can we place him in your home?” the social worker asked.
The more passionate we become about a cause, the more tempting it is to venerate those who “get it” as saints, and condemn those who don’t as wayward or heartless. But every cause is not for everyone to give themselves to. Adoption is not for everyone. If it were, my phone would not have rung.
Good people are not always passionate about the same good things.
3. Kids are kids.
Forty-eight hours after I hung up the phone, Sambhaji joined our family. Relocated for the third time in his short life, he stood at the front door sobbing, understandably inconsolable, trembling with fear, grieving all he left behind. I didn’t know what to do, where to begin.
My other three kids pulled out Legos and cars and blocks. He watched them out of the corner of his eye and slowly – very slowly – inched his way closer. I invited him to build with me. Reluctantly, he took the colored squares from my hand and snapped them together. Eventually, my oldest boy brought out some silly string he’d saved for a special occasion…or an emergency. This was both. I pretended to not know how the spray can worked, fiddled with it clumsily with the nozzle aimed the wrong way, and doused myself in the face, feigning shock and disgust. Sambhaji threw his head back and cackled, then took the can from me and gave my face a second coat.
Some things just work – on almost every kid in the world: Tickling, cartoons, cookies, fart jokes, hugs, Christmas, bubbles, hurting yourself. Good places to start.
4. There is a tool for every child.
To an adopted child, time-out can feel like abandonment. Losing a privilege the other kids in the house get to enjoy can make him feel less-than. And his tenuous grasp of the English language makes a substantive discourse on the origins of household rules and the personal and societal benefits of following them impossible.
So, I hold Sambhaji and reassure him that I love him and always will, that I will never leave him, that I’m not angry at him. And then, after much cuddling and encouraging, I tell him not to hit his sister in the face with an ice cream sandwich ever again.
No tool fits every kid. And sometimes, no matter how many tools I’ve got, I have to go out and get new ones.
5. Lowering expectations works better than chocolate.
Sambhaji is a hilarious, creative, smart, compassionate, charismatic kid. But for the last ten months parenting him has often been exhausting.
So exhausting that I’ve snapped at my children, raised my voice, retreated to the blue and white mindlessness of Facebook, eaten a few dozen peanut butter cups, hidden in the bathroom for an hour, and walked around muttering to myself “you are a horrible horrible human being.” ALL of this before noon some days. All because of my inappropriate expectations.
I can no longer expect him to flush the toilet and wash his hands without being reminded, buckle his seat belt without help, play alone, or put on underwear. Though these are reasonable expectations for a five year-old boy, like many adopted children, my son’s emotional and developmental ages are not aligned with his chronological age. In some ways he’s two. In others he’s an infant. And in a few he’s twenty.
Managing my expectations – for all my children and my wife – is the only way I can put down the chocolate.
6. Adoption is second best.
One night not long ago, I kissed Sambhaji on the cheek and said, “I love you.” Before I reached the hallway he asked, “What is love you?”
I built a definition from the few words he knew. “I love you means I like like like like you big, a lot!” I said, standing on my toes with my hands stretched high. He beamed. “Again!” he shouted. And again.
Sambhaji has made me a better man, a better parent. I’m his dad way down to my bones and I can’t imagine life without him. I’m surprised by this. Amazed. I love him. But somewhere out there lives a mother who loves him too – so much that she sacrificed having him in her life so he could have a better life.
Some say there are 146,000,000 orphans in the world today. It’s estimated that 4 out of 5 of these children were not orphaned by the passing of their parents but by poverty. If every parent in the world could provide nutrition, shelter, education, and health care for their children, there would only be 29,000 orphans today.
4 out of 5 orphans could be at home today, speaking their native language, eating their favorite foods, kissed goodnight by Mom, hearing “I love you” from Dad in words they understand. Adoption is great but orphan prevention is best.
Today I can keep families together. I can do something to meet the basic needs of children living in poverty in my own community and around the world.
A note from Tsh: Yeah, so I can’t read this post of Shaun’s without crying. Amazing words—Shaun is wiser than his hair lets him on to be… And he’s actually in Tanzania right now, leading a group of Compassion bloggers. My trip last year was a game-changer in our family’s life. Would you be brave and follow along, letting your heart do what it may?
Which one of these lessons did you need most today?