Navigating the Mother-Minefield (Part 2)

(If you haven’t read part 1 of this post, start there.)

Here’s what I think most people picture when I write about my daughter walking into a room in a white-hot rage: that I’m the loving mother who thinks, I’m so glad she’s able to articulate her feelings. Let’s get to the bottom of this big emotion! as I open my arms wide and envelop her in a heartfelt hug.

That did happen, once, last week. It was at 7:05 in the morning. By 7:20, I had run through all of my tricks, all of my patience, and all of my tender feelings for my daughter’s angst. Already physically and emotionally exhausted, I stared down the rest of the long summer day: we only had slightly less than 11 hours to spend together working through ALL (all. so many. soooooo many) of the big feelings. And that was on a Tuesday.

The truth is, I know what’s going on in my kid’s head. And I wrote all of the hard stuff in my last post so that you’d have the background to picture it with me when I describe what really happens.

When she’s mad, she’s really, really mad at me. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But when that rage comes, I’m the solid wall against which she throws that sense of loss.

And oh, she has lost so much.

But don’t, not for one second, get that “precious orphan” look in your eyes. She’s brave as hell, our scrapper of a daughter. And at night, when she’s asleep and I’m sipping wine and reading a novel, I secretly cheer her anger. She lives life “WHOLE BODY!” (her favorite phrase to yell while she shows off her fabulous belly).

I know intellectually what is happening. I can tell friends and my husband what is going on. I know this is not really me, it’s about all of the mothers before me, too.

My husband brings nothing but loving feelings out in this girl. He is her safe place, her battery pack of energy, the firm-but-loving walls of her life. We theorize this reaction is because she had very few men in her life before coming to us. She welcomed him to her father-love room with open arms: Come on in! It’s so spacious in here! I’m so excited to finally have a dad!

But the room in her mind where she houses all of her mother-love is very, very crowded.

There is her birth mother, her source of all things, whose loss at a young age shook the earth and ripped the stars from the sky.

There are the ayis, the monitors who took care of her in the institution she called home for almost three years. We don’t know how many there were or what their names were. The fact that we can’t fill in those pieces is deeply painful—we have videos, but little information. Our daughter was a puzzle piece looking for a match. Not finding it, she shoved herself down anyway, loving the ayis because they were there. She would have done anything for a scrap of their time and love. And truly, they gave her as much as they could, but they were not her mothers and were not trained to be her mothers. They were efficient and kind caretakers, giving whatever they could to the several children they cared for each day. But for almost three years, they fit the enormous space she had, however imperfectly.

She learned in that time that the fastest and surest way to get attention was to be loud. And not only is she smart (smart like brain-surgeon smart, smart like mastering-a-second-language-in-two-years smart), she is clever, my girl. She can assess the room, find the fastest and surest way to get her needs met, and then fling herself WHOLE BODY! into whatever plan she’s devised.

I see it every day. It looks like she’s throwing a toddler fit (and people say things like, “Don’t worry, my kid did that too!”), but really it’s a battle for control and a battle to have her needs met. And she will WIN that battle because she is a savvy little survivor.

My job every day, all the time, is to teach her that she can get what she needs by asking, through our relationship, rather than taking or manipulating or controlling the room. (Again, I’m so glad there’s no mind-bending here because geez, I’d be a pancake by now).

When I walked in to her life in that government room, with curly hair and blue eyes and clothes that smelled like foreign food, taking her away to awful, foreign spaces where nothing and no one made any sense at all, I disrupted her world in every possible way. She definitely did not welcome me with gratefulness and tenderness into her mother-love room, nor did she appreciate my telling her that I’m her mother or acting toward her like a mother should.

Instead, for the first year or more, when I walked past her or gave her food or hugged her or snuggled her close or just breathed at all near her, I set off a chain reaction in her.

The idea of ‘mother’ is a ferociously painful place for my girl. She has no real reason to believe I’m not going to explode her life like all the other memories of mothers jostling for emotional positions in her little room.

In fact, she’s still pretty sure (despite repeated assurances) that I’m the one who left her in the institution in the first place—she thinks I left her there to go to work for three years. She’s five. I’m the only mother she knows and sometimes I leave and there was this other time she was left for a long time, so the two are clearly linked.

You can see how that is perfectly logical to a five-year-old mind.

In order to love me, or let herself be loved by me, my girl has to navigate unspeakable pain.

***

Here’s what that can look like on any given day:

A kid who, with little to no warning, goes from being a polite, regulated, sweet little darling to a tiger cub who pushes back against almost every word I say, who grabs everything around her, or who throws herself in epic fits in response to the most basic requests.

A harried mother who just wants to get out the door or go home without an outrageous, scream-punctuated battle of wills.

Other moms at the grocery story or playground who purse their lips in that silent look that all moms know: I’m so glad that’s not MY kid. With more ___ (fill in the blank depending on the situation: discipline/positive energy/gluten-free food), then that mother would have a child as well behaved as my own precious pumpkin. (Maybe they’re not thinking that at all. Maybe they have spinach in their teeth and they’re simply pursing their lips because they’re trying to dig it out while I wrestle my chimpanzee. It’s hard to tell because usually by this point, my hair is everywhere, my clothes are disheveled, and I just. want. to. get. out. of. there.)

Of course, it’s not like that all the time. Not even most of the time. I’d say most days, 80-90% of our day is really good. We have the normal interactions any mother has with her imaginative, spirited 5-year-old. I call these our Dr. Jekyll moments. Pretty good. We have fun.

(And y’all, she really loves me. She walks into the room and drops the phrase with devastating casualty: “Love you, Mom!”)

It’s the Mr. Hyde moments when my triggered kid turns into a whirling dervish of gigantic emotions that do me in.

I know what many of the triggers are—too much stimulation, loud noises, big transitions, new places—but so often I have no idea what caused it. And she doesn’t either.

She usually feels pretty bad after the fits, too. These fits are not because my kid is poorly behaved; it’s because she’s navigating serious triggers both of us are desperately trying to understand.

“I’m so sorry,” she’ll say.

“It’s OK,” I’ll say back. “I love you. I’m your mama. I can take it.”

“Can’t nobody take meeeeeee!” She usually yells that part over her shoulder as she runs off. It is one of the universal truths we repeat 500 times a day because each repetition drives it deeper into the parched earth of her mind where she houses the knowledge that mothers love children.

Nobody can take you. Over and over and over, we say it. You are here. You are safe. You are loved.

But sometimes, the repetition of those ideas dislodges another landmine of grief. And we start again.

***

Adoption is hard. And here’s what you’re expecting: the redemptive moment at the end where I say, Don’t worry, gang. It’s all OK and it’s SO WORTH IT. But I don’t want to end there. I started there. I never even questioned that idea. Of course adoption is worth it and wonderful and full of glorious moments. I think, at least in the circles I move in, those good times are what most people talk about.

I’m questioning the rainbow-and-unicorns narrative that I think too often people expect adoptive families—and especially adoptive children—to perform. Our happily ever after is our daughter’s worst nightmare: her birth family is gone, never to be recovered. Her precious development years were spent in the wasteland of a government-run institution where there were not enough caretakers for babies coming in.

There are no pumpkin patches, no fairy babies in this story. Just government bureaucracy and deep societal injustice and decidedly unfair access to health care and maybe a smattering of cultural bias against special needs.

Our family didn’t adopt our daughter because we wanted rainbows. Frankly, most adoptive families I know are too busy dealing with the metaphorical—and sometimes literal—shit to produce any rainbows at all.

***

To be totally honest, this summer has been fantastic. This summer has been better than any other time we’ve had. Just in case you think I’ve finally cracked and things are much worse than you knew, I want to be clear: things are better than they’ve ever been.

But adoption is still hard. We can talk later about what that means, about what you can do, about how to support the adoptive families in your life, but somewhere between the “I’m-so-sorry-your-family-is-a-wreck” sympathy looks I get when I write about hard things, and the “Aren’t-you-so-glad-your-fat-Chinese-baby-is-home?” looks I get when I don’t write at all, we live in our daily reality.

We’re making it great. But don’t think for a second that’s because there are any rainbows or unicorns anywhere near the messy work of dislodging landmines of grief. That’s the work we engage in every blessed day.

We wake up each morning and, over our breakfasts of scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and bowls of Life cereal, we get started, facing the hard truths of the world right here in our own home. I can’t imagine living our lives or raising our kids—any of them—any other way.

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4 thoughts on “Navigating the Mother-Minefield (Part 2)

  1. We are twelve years into our adoptive journey with two sons. Thank you for your words. In the end, it comes down to this: the Lord is and always has been the only One who can transform any of us. He is faithful. He will not stop pursuing their hearts. And that is the only firm place to stand in the storm that rages for the hearts of our precious adopted sons.

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  2. Jessica, thank you so much for your honesty and openness. As a grandmother of an adopted sweetheart, I see this and get it in my heart, but my brain lags sometimes. Your honesty helps my brain and heart.

    Blessings and love to you and your family,

    Linda Grant (better known as Kara’s mom).

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  3. Thank you. You are eloquent. 13 years into a special needs adoption, living in a foreign land, we’re still learning our girl. You have done your research to be this well versed this early in the game. It’s not easy. It’s not pie in the sky. But it has longer and longer periods of beauty. I’m so grateful for our God who exchanges ashes for beauty. Added a 2nd special needs adoption, but this time emotionally wounded, which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. A long journey which transforms us all in the process if we will let it. I’m glad to be on the journey…

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