Adoption and the Illusion of Control (Part 1)

I’m sitting here beside a child sweaty from throwing a fit who is finally taking a nap. We’re both exhausted. Only now, if I move, she will wake up, so for the next several minutes, this is my spot. (And a mosquito keeps biting me INSIDE MY HOUSE, so thank you, hot Texas fall, for making my day even better.)

Sometimes when I pull back the curtain on our adoption and show people what our daily life is like (as I did in this post and this one from last week), I hear from friends, “I could never do that” and “you’re so brave.” I appreciate it, I really do, but I also want to push back on those comments. I never want to set up a narrative of brave white adoptive mama talking about how difficult it is to adopt a kid from a hard place because, well, that narrative is a problem.

And frankly, sometimes I don’t want to be brave. I’m tired of “brave” being the standard I need to hit when I talk about adoption. I’m tired of the narratives I’m supposed to tell of complicated situations that lead to redemptive, teachable moments.

Nothing teachable happened today.

***

We are in the long, slow slog of years’ worth of change—this change is happening to me as much, if not more, than it is happening to my daughter. The impact of these changes are affecting every aspect of our lives. Opening this one door meant that I had to slam other doors closed and sometimes I’m OK with that and sometimes it’s painful.

Our daughter paid the highest cost in this adoption—yes, of course, she gained a family but she lost a country and dearly loved people in the process. We strongly believe that all children deserve a family, but too often the cost of adoption is ignored in our narratives that skip to the happy endings—the costs for our daughter are high. And sometimes I think people forget that she had no choice in this at all. If she had her way, this family is not what she would have picked.

This adoption is one of many things that didn’t go her way in her life.

We are the ones that made the choice to adopt. Because we chose this path, I often feel bad venting about it or asking for help. And I often hear from other people that sense undergirding their words: you chose this—what did you expect? 

Let’s be clear—when we decided to adopt our daughter, we made a series of educated guesses about what the future would hold for us, both in bringing her home and in the set-up of our lives during that transition. For us, adopting at the time in which we did was not unlike listening to weather reports about a coming hurricane. With the information we had available to us given to us by experts who offered their best predictions, we decided to stay in our home and ride out what looked like a Category 2 hurricane.

Then, against all odds, a Category 5 came along and all but destroyed us.

It wasn’t just the adoption. The adoption was one piece; other factors in our life came together to create the perfect storm for us for the last few years. And no, I will not be putting those things on the internet—some things are best left in private spaces. But trust me when I say—while complicated and fraught for our daughter and also for us—the adoption was not the hardest thing hitting our family.

Adoption is a gamble like almost anything else: I’ve gambled on jobs that I assumed were one way that ended up being very different or on friendships that seemed like a good fit but were not. I gambled on whether I could make it to the store before preschool the other day (turns out, I couldn’t). I’ve gambled and been right, and gambled and lost.

We thought we knew what knew what was going on when we gambled that it was the right time in our lives to bring home a daughter with special needs from China. Turns out, we couldn’t see very far around the bend. I’m so glad we didn’t know—if we had, we might not have made that choice then and I can’t imagine our lives without our daughter. She is worth every hard moment.

But also, I can’t imagine my life without learning in the middle of the Category 5 hurricane of my life what I’m actually capable of.

***

The phrase “I could never do that” bothers me. I’ve stopped saying it. I get it, I really do—in some ways, I think a healthy level of self-knowledge is great. If you know yourself well enough to know that adoption is not your thing, then you should definitely not adopt. So if when you say “I couldn’t do that,” you mean “ever adopt a child,” then it’s probably best that you don’t.

But if by “I couldn’t do that” you mean sit on floor with your thrashing daughter while she all but vomits out the grief and rage of everything that she has lost, then you’re wrong. You could. You could do anything that was required of you.

I admit to a growing impatience with the “I could never do that” narrative or, on the flip side, the “you’re so brave” narrative that we use any time anyone tells us they face hard things. Saying “you’re so brave” distances us from that person, making them able to face things because they have an extra mutant gene we might not have—that extra special bravery bit that only some people have and some people don’t.

Awful things happen to everyone at some point. That’s the one universal truth of the world.

There it is—this isn’t a post about adoption. Not really. It’s a post about what you do when you realize that things in your life aren’t going your way, that maybe they never went your way. My friend Holly once put it in those terms: it’s not how you respond to suffering that matters, it’s how you respond to the fact that things aren’t going to go your way that changes you.

Even the times you thought you were controlling your destiny, that you made a deal with God or you sang with Julie Andrews “I must have done something good,” were really just you whistling in the dark. You can do something good or not. Things might go your way. Or they might not.

Everyone comes to the brink of this realization at some point in their life, whatever their belief system. Maybe they don’t stand at the edge of the cliff like I do many days, but everyone has moments where you look out over an abyss and wonder whether you actually know what you thought you knew, or if the world isn’t really just grander and scarier and more…more than you ever thought.

What you do next is what matters.

***

This summer I spent time with two dear friends who are both facing life with metastatic cancer. I’ve learned from them, am constantly learning with them, that you can do almost anything, even face the truth of your own mortality, because you have to. Not because these friends are exceptionally brave women (though they are) or the most insightful women I know (though they are that, too), but because to be human means you will at some point face the fact that you have no control over this world.

I move in circles where sometimes people see that kind of control in the way they pray or in the words they use, but it always crumbles for me: why are some people cured of cancer and some people not? Why do some people spend their lives worried about whether the time has come to flee impending war, and some spend their lives worried about whether their neighbors are ever going to cut their lawns?

Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the deep end of the pool, but honestly, I’m impatient with almost any pat answers any more.

Life is hard and kids can’t stay with their birth parents and they never stop missing those parents—they never, never stop—and refugees flee certain death only to have the entire world dismiss and ignore them and we still can’t have decent conversations about racial injustice in our country and my lovely life is built on the backs of people I’ve never met (a realization that haunts me every day) and my gorgeous, brilliant, funny-as-hell friends are facing death and someday I’m going to die and leave my husband who is so intertwined in my life that I cannot tell anymore where he begins and where I end—he gives me the walls I need and I give him the windows he needs—and my little girls are learning that the world is chock full of unfairness and rottenness and death and honestly, what the actual hell am I supposed to do about any of this?

The wispy sense that I ever had control, even for five minutes, dissolves like wet tissue paper in my hand. The world around me is always, and has always been, out of my control. I cannot pray enough or prepare enough or be good enough or help enough to change anything.

And there, now that I’ve admitted it, is my only choice: I can choose how to respond to my lack of control.

What I’ve learned about myself as I’ve faced the unexpected chaos of the last few years has surprised me. And those lessons are important because it’s my job to teach all three of my daughters how to respond to life when things don’t go their way. Sitting here beside my daughter whose world was ruled by chaos for years, I realize these lessons are crucial for both of us.

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2 thoughts on “Adoption and the Illusion of Control (Part 1)

  1. Love your words Jessica. Somehow the brief bond from Memphis and then ACU makes me think we could just pick up and keep going. Keep the honesty coming.

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  2. “What you do next is what matters.” I loved so many of your words here, nodded yes and yes to all of it – the illusion of control, the unfairness of it all, the realization that we can only do our small best in this moment. But most of all I needed your words about what matters: which is only what comes next. Not everything at once, not anything in the past. Just the next step, the one closest in. Thank you for this shimmer of grace in a dark week.

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