I have a confession. I was a little ambivalent about attending my first Christian adoption conference.
I read a lot of blogs. (Too many blogs). Some of them are very critical of adoption. I am an advocate for adoption, but I read with interest because I also think the system needs massive reform, and because I think it’s good to get the perspective of others. Usually I have a pretty high tolerance for listening to viewpoints that differ from my own.
One of the things that has been heavily criticized in the adoption blog world is the Christian movement of “orphan care”. The group of missionaries in Haiti that tried to take a group of children to the Dominican only fueled the sentiment that pro-adoption Christians are wreckless, short-sighted, and self-serving. I like to think I remain objective when reading stuff like this, but I admit I entered this conference with some skepticism.
Would it be a conference full of clueless do-gooders? Would there be any acknowledgement of the difficulties of adoption? Would there be a focus beyond traditional adoption, or on family preservation? Would we be subjected to watching countless slideshows of shiny happy adoptive families set to (gasp) Contemporary Christian music? Would we sit around slapping ourselves on the back for being good Christians for having “saved” our children?
Would someone read the starfish story?
We arrived in Austin around noon on Thursday, and drove directly to the conference where the post-adoption segment was well underway. It was lead by Karen Purvis, a child psychologist who has been doing research on adoption for nearly thirty years. Karen’s research focuses on the impact of trauma, abuse, and neglect in the early years of a child’s life. Her passion is for bringing healing to children from “hard places” . . . foster care, orphanage settings, and neglectful environments. I think I was in my chair for about five minutes before I was in tears. If someone came to the conference with ideas of adoption being lollipops and rainbows, Karen was gonna set them straight, for sure.
So much of what she was saying resonated with what our family is going through. We are making up for lost time with Kembe. All of those things we do with our children as infants to bond with them: the cuddling, the soothing, the babywearing, the nursing, the lullabies . . . THEY MATTER. When a child doesn’t receive those things, it affects not only their behavior, but their actual brain wiring.
Karen was inspiring and pragmatic, but hearing her research was also hard. It was a reminder that despite Kembe seeming like a confident, bossy, athletically savant preschooler, that he is emotionally so much younger, and deserving of so much more nurture than I have been giving him. It revealed to me that we have been underestimating Kembe’s needs, and even underestimating the impact of Jafta’s first few months of neglect as a baby. I felt encouraged, but I also felt a huge sense of heaviness . . . for the healing that needs to take place in my family, but also for the millions of children who will grow up in neglectful environments and never make the human connections with a parent that is so needed for a child to succeed. I felt huge amounts of grief for the losses my own children have faced, and Mark and I left with a firm resolve to be more connected with them.
My friend Christine says it so well:
It was 48 hours of constant reminders of adoption in our home, in our family and particularly all that has been the last two and a half years of our lives.
I didn't expect it. It kicked my tail. Ours is a story of pain and loss and confusion and healing and hope. I felt every single bit of it. I didn't want to leave, but I had a constant need to be by myself and wail. I think that was important for me. I'm too strong sometimes. So strong that I delay the expression of my own emotions.
That conference was a purging. If you met me for the first time, no, my eyes are not normally swollen shut. However, in the end, I returned home to hope and healing and future. We are doing it together. My kids are rock stars. I'm just now really starting to understand what I have been asking of them, to move forward. I'm not happy that it took me this long to honor the depth of it, and can't believe I ever dared to be impatient with them.
They have have climbed mountains ... in the snow ... without feet.
In addition to the parent training from Karen, there were also some amazing keynotes, including one by Dave Gibbons in which he outlined the realities of foster youth and children waiting for homes in our own cities. Dave is the pastor of a third culture church down the road from us, so many of his stats reflected our own city. It was sobering. He posted the statistics on his blog – go read them. If this doesn’t disturb you, you may not have a pulse.
Many of the keynotes addressed the sheer volume of children who have been abandoned, and the great need for people to step up and care for them in a variety of ways. It was a lot of emotional data to take in. I was frequently moved to tears by the heaviness of it all, and in the knowledge of how difficult life is for so many people.
We also met so many people that are championing causes beyond adoption. There were people dedicated to addressing clean water, poverty, hunger, pregnant teens who may choose to parent, and girls who have been trafficked into the sex trade (READ THIS!). People there seemed very cognizant that adoption was only one arm of caring for orphans, and that families in third world countries need our help to stay together. While it was good to see that Christians are spearheading so many social justice causes, it was also, again . . . overwhelming. With each new ministry I learned about, I felt both inspired and burdened at the same time. We live with so much excess. So many do not. There is so suffering in this world, and this weekend was both a reminder of the goodness of humanity, but also of the fact that there are many children who are victims of ugliness and cruelty, both directly and indirectly. (i.e., being ignored by those who hold the privilege).
It was a welcome relief to get to hang out with other adoptive families to process through this stuff. We were thrilled to be able to hang out with people we’ve come to love in this journey – some who we rarely see, and some who we’ve just met. Our sister-in-law Jodie was there, and it was great to have her in that circle. It felt so good to be able openly about some our our struggles, about our hopes and fears for our kids, and about things that can’t be blogged.
But even in these conversations, there was a heaviness that permeated. We laughed with each other, but there were also tears, as my friends shared what it’s like to have your child recount their abandonment in a hot public space and ask why you weren’t there that day . . . what it’s like to have a child with physical scars and not know the origin . . . what it’s like to deal with the ignorance surrounding HIV, or the myth of the “crack baby” . . . what it’s like to have a doctor guesstimate your child’s birthday because no one really knows . . .what it’s like to wonder about what level of abuses your child has endured . . . what it’s like to try to answer questions about your child’s first family that you just don’t know, or that they are too young to comprehend.
Some concerns I could relate to. Some I could only listen. My heart broke for the children of my friends, and for my own children, all over again.
There were several points in the conference where I was so disturbed by the brokenness and pain in our world that I just wanted to lay down in a corner in the fetal position. It was at one such moment, after a particularly heavy keynote, that Aaron Ivey began to lead us in an old hymn: It Is Well. This is a hymn that has always brought me comfort – even as a young child.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
I sang that song with tears streaming down my face, knowing that only God could offer the transcending comfort for these heavy issues; for me, and for the people who live them. A Spirit of peace was in that room, and as I looked around and saw so many others so heavily moved by the love of God and their desire to extend that love to others, I felt proud to be among them.