Ah, this journey called life. It’s a romantic picture, isn’t it? Long peaceful stretches of road, triumphs at the top of difficult mountains, sharing the burdens with our travelling companions, and all the while drawing ever closer to the sweet oasis of our destination.
In our little family’s journey, welcoming our boys home was a wonderful, joyous occasion. We had them home in time for Christmas and in time to meet my brother and sister-in-law who arrived the following week for a visit from Canada. We were able to bring them with us to our mission’s biennial conference in the Ethiopian countryside. The timing was ideal for enrolling Teddy in school after the Christmas break. It was bliss.
It was the calm before the storm.
We knew the storm was coming. We expected it to be bad. But we also expected that if we pushed hard, we could keep travelling through it and eventually the sun would shine again. After all, life is a journey and we would just keep rolling along!
The odds were stacked against us right from the start: adopting an older child, adopting out of birth order, language and cultural barriers, being a bi-racial family, and on and on and on. We did the very best we could in order to prepare for the worst, even while optimistically thinking that our “worst” wouldn’t be as bad as all that, and we would strategically use our preparedness to plough through the difficult phase and then we would be fine. We read books, talked to other adoptive families and counselors, and did on-line research. Our extended family was supportive. We had supportive neighbours on our compound in Ethiopia where we were to live for six more months after we got the boys. We had great school support – both at the school the kids attended in Ethiopia, and the one they would attend when we moved home to Canada. We were as prepared as we possibly could have been.
But it was way harder than we expected.
We had this unspoken expectation that it would be hard for a finite amount of time. That we would endure the worst of it for the first year or two and then things would begin to get better. We still envisioned the “someday” picture of being a stronger, more loving family for having overcome such difficulty. We were not naïve about the ups and downs that would come, but we fully expected to see a gradual progression in a positive direction – not this swirling downward spiral like one gigantic, cosmic toilet flush.
I cannot look back over the collection of heartbreaks that we’ve accumulated in the past four years without feeling like I’ve been walloped in the stomach with a fence post. It makes my head spin and sucks the breath right out of my body. This, what we have right now, is not what God intended families to be.
However, this is what God intended for our family for right now.
That is hard to write. I have wrestled with that a lot. A lot! I have asked myself the same questions many times over. Did we make a mistake? Did we mishear God? Did He make a mistake? Did we mess up His plan? Are we not good enough parents to fulfill His plan?
For a long time, I boldly claimed the promises from God’s word that I thought were due us. I can’t tell you how many times I quoted Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28 and Philippians 1:6 to God Almighty and begged Him to get on with it. My prayers went something like this: “Lord, You began this good work in us, in our family. You chose Teddy for us and You chose us for Teddy. I cannot see right now how You possibly thought this was the best match. But I believe You are in control, and I know Your plan is perfect. I choose to trust that You are still at work on this because today there is nothing good in this that I can see. We are a mess. We have failed so badly. We can’t fix any of it. So please, God, please work something good out of this. And do it now, because we cannot take any more. You’ve said You won’t burden us with more than we can bear, so FYI, we’ve reached the limit. It needs to stop and it’s up to You. Please.” Sometimes I whispered, sometimes I yelled, sometimes I silently rocked back and forth in a corner. Always I cried.
It’s hard to say which phase has been the worst. There were months of violent tantrums that had me clutching Teddy in a full-body hold for an hour or more while he kicked and spat and bit and tried to bash the back of his head into my face. Sometimes Pat would take that job while I tried to keep the other kids calm and sheltered, but I was the one with training in Non-Violent Crisis Intervention. I was marginally more capable of restraining myself as well as Teddy. Marginally. So more often than not, it was me hauling our thrashing boy outside – away from our other kids, away from our furniture and belongings, and into the line of sight of our neighbours where there was at least some measure of accountability.
Gradually, the physical tantrums subsided, but in their place came verbal assaults: screaming and swearing and threatening. After some counseling and interaction with police, I think we are better equipped now to deal with those outbursts more stably and rationally, but it sickens me to admit how easily and how often we were sucked into combat against our son in those months of verbal warfare. We have this inherent notion as parents that we need to have the last word in order to make it clear to our kids that what they’re saying or how they’re acting is unacceptable. We also feel like we need to show them – the child who’s acting out and the children who are witnessing the altercation – that we as parents are the ones in control. And so, when the verbal assault escalates, we engage. There is a compulsion to “win” so our kids will learn. But I’ve had to realize that they don’t learn from that, nor does anybody win. Even now, when things start to get heated, I go through a ferocious internal battle between my fight instinct and my resolution to walk away.
We have spent a year doing educational and psychological testing and counseling in order to address the difficulties that Teddy was having in school. The results of these tests have revealed that he is struggling with learning disabilities that are way beyond his earlier ESL (English as a Second Language) issues and far more complex than our initial assumption of dyslexia or some other comparatively simple challenge. We have learned that he is a couple of years older than the date that we picked for him when he was adopted, which is of course the date that is firmly established on all of his legal documentation. So his body thinks he’s two years further into manhood than what his birth certificate indicates. Conversely, we have also learned that he is psychologically underdeveloped. So his integrity, sense of responsibility, reasoning skills, – you know, anything that has to do with wisdom and maturity – those are all many years behind.
All of these factors have contributed to four years of mass confusion and conflict. We have made so very many mistakes in how we’ve dealt with various situations because we just didn’t fully grasp what exactly we were dealing with. As the details of the picture come into clearer focus, we see more and more where we went wrong, but we are frequently bewildered at what on earth might have been a possible “right” way to do things.
I’ll say it straight out: we really don’t have any idea what we’re doing. With our other children, as difficult and stressful as it is sometimes, there are at least a few things that we can logically work through in order to reach a reasonable resolution. When most children suddenly exhibit an objectionable behavior that is new and different from how they’ve always acted before, we can generally get to the root of the problem – or at least narrow it down considerably – by considering a few possible factors. Is she stressed about school work? Is adolescence messing with her hormones? Is she overtired? Has she just had a bad day? A few simple questions or some mandatory quiet time before a calm conversation are often all that’s necessary to figure out what’s wrong and how to deal with it.
Not so with Teddy. When he is instigating conflict, we don’t know if it’s a boy thing, a cultural thing, an adoption/abandonment/attachment thing, an adolescent thing, a school thing, an integrity thing, an anger-at-all-of-the-above thing, or what! And if he knows what it is, he’s not about to tell us because we are Personal Enemy Number One. There are no calm discussions or simple questions. Probing and prying are not allowed. Any and all inquiries are received as accusations.
And so, we flounder around, trying to parent surface stuff without understanding the underlying issues. Add to that his delightful response to every single thing we do as parents: deeper anger and hatred. You see, logical discipline and consequences have yet to produce the fruit of repentance or submission or any form of respect or humility in Teddy. He does not bear any concern or responsibility for the way he acts and treats other people. His default mode is ignoring or dismissing rules and expectations. And when that isn’t enough, he has no qualms about adding a hearty dose of deceit, manipulation, and blatant lying.
Let me be clear: we are not trying to place blame on him for the dysfunction and trauma that led to him being an orphan. We are very aware that he has had to deal with way too much horror and pain. The effects of his suffering and loss are deep and multi-layered and far-reaching and lifelong. We get that adopted kids have to cope with stuff that kids who are raised in their biological families never have to face and rarely have to think about. We know in our heads that part of their coping mechanism is to push away their adoptive parents and siblings and to fight against love and acceptance and boundaries. We can see that his seven-year-old psyche is in conflict against his fifteen-year-old body amidst his thirteen-year-old peers. We get it.
But there is no how-to manual to guide us through it. And there is no armour to protect our hearts from the fall-out. It sucks. It hurts. It is toxic. It has interrupted our journey.
The storm has blown in and it has been stronger and more violent than we ever imagined it could be. It has whipped us around, obscured our vision and thrown us off the road. And now our vehicle is upside-down in a ditch somewhere and nobody knows where we are. We are mangled and bleeding and we know we should move, but the pain keeps us frozen in place. We are suffering.
I know that we are not blameless in this. We have made huge mistakes in our parenting. We have been angry when we should have been merciful. We have floundered in our consistency. We have tried and failed and given up on too many different strategies. We have shut down emotionally.
I know that Satan is not seeking to trip us up or fool us or bruise us. He is seeking to destroy us. Satan doesn’t just want us to fail. He wants us to annihilate ourselves. He is using past and present pain to fill Teddy’s head with evil lies about responsibility and respect and love.
All of this is so far beyond what we expected when we began our adoption journey. It is so far beyond what I can put into a casual conversation when you ask us how we’re doing. It is so far beyond what I feel capable of handling, nevermind handling well.
But God is bigger and stronger and already victorious. As much as He is grieved by our current suffering, He is still in control. He still has a plan. It’s a perfect, meticulous plan and it is for our good! And maybe – no, most definitely – this suffering that we’re going through is for a purpose that’s much bigger and better and way beyond the little bubble of time and space that is visible to us.