The Day After

The day after we got home, we took the kids outside to enjoy the sunshine and play in the grass. We set them down on the grass……

And they started crying! They had never experienced grass of the type that is typical in Michigan! It was different than what they were used to………

We purposely came a little bit later to church on Sunday so that the kids wouldn’t get too overwhelmed. It was a very overwhelming experience for all of us.

Worshipping with 500 people who all knew Abby and Isaac. Knew of the struggles to get them home and were so excited to see them here. And then one of the first songs that we sang was one that they knew from their time at GLA……..

Immediately it increased their comfort levels and you could see that……

After the Airport

A friend of mine wrote a blog post that has stuck with me about the time period “After the Airport.” After your kid(s) get home, after the initial excitement is gone, after the newness wears off, then what

Then you get to learn how to be a family. A baby who is born into your family learns how to be part of a family while he/she is also learning how to do simple things like sit up, eat, drink, smile, talk and more.

Adopted kids don’t have that luxury (at least most internationally adopted ones). They’ve already learned how to sit up, drink, eat etc…… But in many cases, they have not learned how to be part of a family. Why is that?

Because where they grew up most likely wasn’t a family. Even in the best orphanages, it’s not a typical family situation and involves way more kids and way less adult figures than a family does – plus there is a rotation of caregivers.

So you need to retrain your kids. Teach them that they can rely on you as parents to be the ones to meet their needs. Teach them that when they need something, there are these people called parents who will meet those needs. Teach them that their parents can be trusted. That their parents aren’t going anywhere. That when they do go somewhere (to work, on a business trip etc.) they will come back. The concept of permanence for a child who has been abandoned and then adopted is a hard one that takes a lot of work.

You also need to retrain the rest of your family. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, good friends are so very important as supports in the whole adoption process and the bonding as a family. But they need to be taught that their job is to provide unconditional love and support for the kids. Their job is not to set the rules, their job is not to be the one to determine whether they need this or that, their job is not to get them a piece of cake for dessert. Their job is to support the parents, to send them back to their parents to determine those type of things, “Grandma, can I have another cookie?” “Why don’t you ask your mom if it’s okay if you have another cookie?” “Grandpa, can we go work in your workshop?” “Check with your mom if it’s okay if we go out and work in the back yard.”

And you need to avoid overstimulation. I have described, many times, to others that living in an orphanage is like being at recess at school 24/7. There’s always a lot of people around, a lot of noise, a lot of cries for attention. Combine that with the overstimulation that the first world can be (just walk into a Target store, you’ll see what I mean) and it’s a system set up for brain overload for an adopted child. So, you watch and watch very carefully, especially in the early years, how much the kids experience, how often they are in loud, noisy, overtly chaotic experiences. And what might not be considered chaotic to a lot of people will definitely be chaotic to an adopted child. In the first years, you find the balance and it’s not an easy balance to find.

From Jen Hatmaker:

I’m going to tell you something; a little confession, if you will. Some of you will pull your hair out and smear your faces with ashes and put all my books on eBay and quit believing in God, but I’m willing to take that risk:

I’m really, really glad all my kids are back in school.

There. I said it. The three children that I birthed and nursed and raised from scratch, and the two children we begged and cried and screeched for and fetched from Africa…all five of these kids are in school. And I am happy, so happy, happy, happy, happy, hip-hip-hooray Mary Poppins happy.

For my friends and readers who homeschool, I tip my hat and say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” And believe me, I have a couple of besties who paddle in that stream, and paddle it well. For some kids in some cities in some families in some districts, this is the very right thing. The end. Why people feel the need to make a fuss about how other parents decide to educate their children is beyond me. Let’s live and let live, yall. For the love of Pete.

But I cannot educate my own children, people, unless I am OK with us all becoming homicidal.

Plus, we’re in a nice little Bermuda triangle where our kids feed into fabulous schools with vested teachers that make me want to weep with gratitude. The language resources for my Amharic speakers is over the top, and I have a free pass to attend school each and every day, which I have exercised with zero restraint.

But this is not a post about homeschooling or public schooling. The reason I am happy my kids are in school is not because I lack the organization to educate five kids (which I do), it’s not because I’ve chosen a career with a moderate workload (which I have), and it’s not because I’m a little sloppy on details and my kids would likely graduate with a sixth-grade education (which they would).

It’s because parenting right now is EXHAUSTING and the mental break is keeping me afloat.

On July 22nd we came down the escalator at the Austin airport with Remy. On August 21st we came down the same escalator with Ben. These were two of the happiest days of my life.

I am crying with joy. Remy is ready to sprint like FloJo from the screaming white people.

Insert audio of yelling and cheering. GAH, why was she so clingy?

One month later: Here comes my man and my boy. This pic makes me verclempt.

The 7 Hatmakers on the same continent. You’ve been warned, America.

After an arduous adoption journey, our kids were safe in our arms, tucked into their bunk beds their dad built with his own two hands, surrounded by the dearest, most sincere community we have ever known. God delivered them from poverty and abandonment back into a family, no longer alone in this big world; now wanted and loved and welcomed with great fervor.

The end.

Not.

Remy gave us about 12 hours of honeymooning until her terror burst onto the scene. Sometimes her fear is so palpable, it literally takes my breath away. New places: terror. New faces: total insecurity. Transitions: help us, Jesus. She has asked us every single day since July 22nd if she is going back to Ethiopia. Every. Single. Day. When I discovered cashews to be a winning legume for her impossible palate, I told her:

“Yay! Good job! Cashews are good for you and will help you grow big and strong!”
“Big? Ah-Rrrremy? Big? Cashews?”
“Yes!”
She pushes them away and starts crying.
Once again, I am bewildered and befuddled.
“No! No Ah-Rrremy grow big! Me big, then go back to Ethiopia! No! Dis is no!”

When a child fears that cashews will once again leave her abandoned on this earth because she will grow out of the age we might still want to parent her, you are dealing with heartbreaking fragility.

Her fear comes out as 1.) defiance, 2.) terror, and 3.) catatonic disassociation, in that order. We’ve been spit on, kicked, disobeyed, refused, clung to, begged for, adored, ignored, and rejected. Triggers are unpredictable. Yesterday, we entered an hour-long Armageddon because she wouldn’t put her bike up. This turned into defiance and disrespect, deal breakers as we establish safe boundaries. When at long last her angry, dark face relented, and she finally uttered in the smallest voice: “I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m sorry, Daddy,” the damn broke and she cried for thirty minutes, telling us over and over that we don’t love her and she is going back to Africa.

Meanwhile, Ben sidled up quietly next to me as Brandon held Remy’s flailing legs, and asked in a whisper: “Mom? Forever?”

Is this family forever, even with this hysterical girl? Are you forever, even though she is draining the lifeblood out of you and Dad? Am I forever, once my junk starts coming out that I’m holding in? Are you forever for her? For me? Should I be worried that you’ll only put up with this level of chaos for so long?

God love them.

We are parenting damaged, traumatized children; don’t let the pictures fool you. We’re in the weeds. Every minute is on; there is no off. We’ve arrived late, cancelled altogether, hunkered down in therapy mode, missed appointments, failed to answer hundreds of emails in a timely manner, left voicemails unlistened to, texts unread, we’ve restructured, regrouped, replanned, reorganized, we’ve punted and called audibles, we’ve left the bigs on their own, hoping they are functioning well on auto-pilot after a lifetime of healthy stability, and sometimes, we put “Tangled” on for the eleventh time and cry in the bathroom.

We are exhausted beyond measure.

I know what you’re thinking: You asked for this. Yes we did. And we’d ask for it again, with full disclosure and foreknowledge. We would. We would say yes to adoption, to Ben, to Remy. We would do it all over again. We might do it all over again in the future.

That does not mean we are not exhausted.

I know what else you might be thinking: Are you trying to scare people away from adoption? Because this is pretty good propaganda for turning a blind eye to this mess. No I’m not. While adoption is clearly not the answer for the 170 million orphans on earth, it is one answer, and I’ll go to the grave begging more people to open their homes and minds and hearts to abandoned children who are praying for a Mom and Dad and a God who might still see them.

But Brandon and I decided some time ago to go at this honestly, with truthful words and actual experiences that might encourage the weary heart or battle some of the fluffy, damaging semi-truths about adopting. Because let me tell you something: If you are intrigued by the idea of adoption, with the crescendoing storyine and happy airport pictures and the sigh-inducing family portrait with the different skin colors and the feely-feel good parts of the narrative, please find another way to see God’s kingdom come.

You cannot just be into adoption to adopt; you have to be into parenting.

And it is hard, hard, intentional, laborious work. Children who have been abused, abandoned, neglected, given away, given up, and left alone are shaken so deeply, so intrinsically, they absolutely require parents who are willing to wholly invest in their healing; through the screaming, the fits, the anger, the shame, the entitlement, the bed-wetting, the spitting, the rejection, the bone-chilling fear. Parents who are willing to become the safe place, the Forever these children hope for but are too terrified to believe in just yet.

But “yet” is a powerful word in the context of faith, if we are indeed to believe in the unseen and hope for what has not materialized.

I followed a God into this story who heals and redeems, who restores wasted years and mends broken places. This God specializes in the Destroyed. I’ve seen it. I’ve been a part of it. I have His ancient Word that tells of it. I love a Jesus who made reconciliation his whole mission. My children will not remain broken. They are loved by too good a Savior. I will not remain exhausted and spent. I am loved by too merciful a Father.

So today, I’m writing for you who are somewhere “after the airport.” The big moment is over and you are living in the aftermath when the collective grief or euphoria has passed. You lost a parent, a sibling, a friend, a child. The experience mobilized every single human being who loves you, and they rallied, gathered, carried you. And now it’s three months later on a random Tuesday, and the sting has worn off for everyone else, and you are left in your sorrow.

I’m writing for those of you who had the oh-so-wanted baby after the cheers and showers and Facebook fervor, and now you’re struggling with a depression so dark and deep, you are afraid to say it out loud. To you who moved across the country in obedience – you left your family, church, community, your jobs – and now the headline has passed and you are lonely and unanchored. For my friends who’ve brought their adopted children home and the media frenzy has died down, and you are holding a screaming toddler, a fragile kindergartener, an angry teen, trying to catch your breath and make it through the day without bawling while everyone else has gone back to their regularly scheduled programs…I’m with you today.

More importantly, God is with you today. He remains in the chaos long after it has lost its shine. When the delivered meals have stopped and the attention has waned, Jesus remains. He sticks with us long after it is convenient or interesting. If you feel alone today in your new normal, would you please receive this bit of beauty: this simple Scripture recited billions of times throughout the ages, perhaps without the poetry of David or precision of Paul, but with enough truth to sustain the weariest traveler:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).

He will never leave.

Never forsake.

Never.

For my readers who love someone living “after the airport,” the big moment – be it a blessed high or a devastating low – is never the completion. The grief and struggle, the work and effort, the healing and restoring comes later. Will you call your friend who lost her mom to cancer five months ago? Will you check in on your friends who adopted this spring? Email your neighbor who took a big risk and moved or changed jobs or quit to stay home. For the love of Moses, do you have a friend who stepped out and started a church last year? Bring him a lasagna and do not be alarmed if he sobs into his french bread.

Trust me when I tell you that although we are all having hilarious moments like this:

And precious moments like this:

…we are still in the thick of hard, exhausting work, so if you ask me if these are the happiest days of my life (which a ton of you have), and my eyes kind of glaze over and I say through a tight-lipped smile like a robot, “Yes. Sure. Of course. This is my dream life”…I am lying. I am lying so you won’t feel uncomfortable when I tell you, “Actually, I haven’t had a shower in three days, I lost my temper with my uncontrollable daughter this morning and had to walk outside, I’m constantly cleaning up pee because uncircumcised tee-tee goes sideways onto walls, and sometimes when my two littles are asleep and we’re downstairs with the original three kids who are so stable and healthy and easy, it creates a nostalgia so intense, I think I might perish. But enough about me. How are you?”

But that would be weird. So I say, “Yes. I am so happy.”

If you are living “after the airport,” how I wish I could transplant my community into your life; friends who have loved us so completely and exhaustively, I could weep just thinking about it. Maybe one of the most brilliant ways God “never leaves us” and “never forsakes us” is through the love of each other. Maybe He knew that receiving love from people with skin on is the most excellent way, so He gave us an entire set of Scriptures founded upon community and sacrificial love for one another. I guess He realized that if we obeyed, if we became more like His Son, then no one would ever want for mercy when their chips were down. No one. Good plan.

Oh let us be a community who loves each other well. Because someone is always struggling through the “after the airport” phase, when the chords of human kindness become a lifeline of salvation. Let us watch for the struggling members of our tribe, faking it through sarcasm or self-deprecation or a cheerfully false report. May we refuse to let someone get swallowed up in isolation, drowning in grief or difficulties that seem too heavy to let anyone else carry. Let’s live this big, beautiful Life together, rescuing each other from the brink and exposing the unending compassion of our Jesus who called us to this high level of community; past the romantic beginnings, through the messy and mundane middles, and all the way to the depths.

June 25, 2004

June 25, 2004 – a big day in our family’s life. A huge day in the lives of our two youngest. That’s the day that they left GLA and flew to America to start their new lives as Vanderwells.

A couple of things that “stick out” in my memory of that day……..

Watching the kids looking out the window as we drove down the mountain to the airport. The look of awe on their faces showed that while they had been out of the orphanage, they hadn’t been out much.

Waiting in line at the airport – white parents with black kids. Our first experience in standing out. Not good, not bad, just standing out.

The looks of the fellow passengers – the older Haitian lady on our plane who looked at us and said, very quietly and sincerely, “Thank you.”

The stares that we got when our daughter screamed the whole flight (double ear infections will do that to you).

The moment when the wheels touched down in Miami and our kids became US Citizens…….

Watching planes take off in Miami and watching my son look at every one of them, point and say, “Gwo” with a sense of awe and wonder. (Gwo is big in Creole).

Coming around the corner of the walkway at the airport to a crowd of people all waiting for us to come home. Sharing that moment with friends and family was truly special.

Walking out of the airport, hand in hand with my 3 1/2 year old son while he insisted on pulling the carryon suitcase.

Carrying Abby and Isaac in the house (sound asleep) watching their homecoming on the local news and then bringing them upstairs and putting them to bed.

In their own bed.

In their new house.

With their new family.

The “Call”

It was the Friday before Memorial Day. Around 9:00 in the morning. The kids were at school and my wife had worked the night before, so she was sleeping and I was at work.

The phone rang, “Hi Tom, it’s Molly.” (Brain frantically racing trying to figure out Molly who and why she was calling.)

“You know, Molly Little from Haiti.” Oh, that Molly. I hope this is good news…….

“I tried to reach Cheryl at home but got the voice mail and didn’t want to leave a message…… So I hope it was okay to call you on your cell phone?”

“Guess what! The Visa appt is June 17, it’s time to book plane tickets!”

“What? Say that again? Did you really say what I thought you did?”

The rest of the conversation covered details but it was all pretty much a blur. And then a thought hit me in almost sheer panic – it’s only 9:00! I can’t tell anyone until 3:00 this afternoon when Cheryl gets up. If I go wake her up now, she’ll never get back to sleep. If I told anyone else, she’d be mad at me for telling them before telling her!

So, for 6 hours, I had to sit on the news that in 3 weeks we were going to be able to bring our kids home. It was a long 6 hours… The long wait was over (with my apologies to those currently waiting as our wait was nothing compared to yours) and it was almost time to start being a family of 5 kids in one place……..

Thank you God!

Of Teddy bears and Congressmen

As the internet continued to connect people from all over the country, many of us kept asking the question, “What can we do?” We felt so helpless and felt like we needed to do something!

Gradually the picture seemed to come a bit clearer. There’s a term called “Humanitarian Parole” in immigration rules. Basically it means, “Get the kids out of the country and to their new home and finish the paperwork later.

It’s only been used a few times. The Vietnam baby lift is the most common example of when it happened. Little did we know in 2004 that it would end up getting used in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti.

Those of us with children stuck in Haiti gathered together and came up with the idea of doing a “bear a van” and collect Teddy Bears from all over the country to represent the children who were stuck in Haiti. We would then bring all of them to Washington DC and use that as an effort to urge our government to show compassion on the children and the families and grant them humanitarian parole.

It succeeded and it failed.

It succeeded in that we had a large number of people show up and come to Washington to show our government what an impact this coup was having on families from all over the United States. I’ll never forget talking to the chairperson of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and she said to me, “I’ve been in a lot of Senate briefings and I’m very familiar with this room, but when I walked in and saw teddy bears lined up all around the room, on the tables, on the front podium and every single one of them had a picture on it and matched up with a kid in Haiti waiting for their family, I lost it.”

It failed because even though we had the opportunity to talk to a large number of people in Washington, we were not able to get them to change their minds and institute humanitarian parole. But that ended up being ‘okay’ because within 6 weeks, things were pretty back to normal and we only lost about 6 weeks in the process.

The other way that we succeeded is that it gave all of us, as parents, the ability to talk to our children later, tell them the story and explain to them what we did and how we did everything possible to keep them safe and get them home as soon as possible.