This post has been on my mind for a long time. I think I’ve always been too scared to write it- UNTIL NOW!
Our Adoption Story…
I would love to say that our adoption story was something magical and that everything fell into place perfectly… I know when people look at our pictures that’s often what they think. But, the truth is as wonderful as life is right now… our journey to get to this place was anything but easy. So, as you read on know that what I am giving you is RAW, it’s HONEST. I want people who tread these roads after me to be able to set realistic expectations.
Now sure adoption stories are all different… VERY different for each family that experiences them. There are moments of insurmountable joy coupled with extreme grief, loss and even regret. Some families breeze through them… while others, like us, have extreme struggles that can last a VERY long time.
When someone asks me today about adopting internationally I have a hard time coming up with an appropriate answer. I remember when I was starry eyed like them thinking I could “save” a poor child who had no family to call their own. I remember all my thoughts, hopes and dreams. Looking back I cannot believe how naive I was. “Saving” a child… ugh I cringe! Who was I???
It is true that some (probably most) families have an easier transition with their child. But, I know I am not alone. Others like us have insane hardships and struggles to work through before life looks anything like what they had imagined or even resembles normalcy at all. How do you prepare someone for that? How do you explain the deep pain, shame, frustration… the FEAR that consumes you for years after the adoption?
How do you warn them about the pain their child will feel… how scary adoption is to them. How do you protect their future adopted child, how can you educate them so they can do a better job easing their child into their new family. And, how can you explain all of this while also making sure they understand the depth of love you have for your own adopted child. How you wouldn’t change a thing about them or the story you are weaving together.
It’s definitely not easy. So, most times I lie and say something simple just to get out of the conversation that I really want to have. Only to go home and be upset that I didn’t have the guts to just tell the truth.
But, not anymore. Today, I am going to attempt to explain it all. Why? Because during those times when we were in the deepest darkest moments I had no one to turn to. No story to read that told me- Hey… you can do this! It’s hard but your child will heal! You are all going to be okay… in fact you are going to be stronger and closer after you weather this storm. I want to be that glimmer of hope for someone who is stuck in the darkness.
Let’s start at the beginning…
I remember the first time I laid eyes on my son. It was raining outside and the power had gone out (as it often does in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). There was very little light inside the transition house. I remember looking over and seeing three small boys sitting on a mattress on the floor. I immediately recognized a boy wearing the CARS shirt that I had sent in Shea’s care package. I remember thinking “Is that him?” He looked SO much smaller than I had anticipated. I actually had to ask one of the social workers to confirm that he was indeed my Shea.
I walked over and bent down expecting him to be scared. To my surprise he was very friendly and actually quite hyper. He zoomed around the room trying to get me to reach all the toys. He was extremely curious and checked out everything we had with us: cameras, hats, glasses etc…
The other two boys in the room sat on the mattress not moving at all- they were very quiet and scared. Their adoptive parents kept laughing at Shea and commenting on how well he was doing. But… something felt off. His behavior didn’t match up and so as we left the guesthouse I remember trying to push my frightened feelings away and tried to focus on the fact that this was an overwhelming experience for all of us.
The next 3-4 days were spent visiting Shea at the transition house. We got to witness more of his behaviors as we interacted with him. Again Shea was in charge, loud, hyper and unlike the other kids. The boisterous behavior brought back memories of books I had read about children in institutionalized settings. I knew this behavior could spell trouble. However, there were a few times he allowed us to console him and get close to him so I held on to hope that it would all be okay. Little did I know things were about to get worse.
It was time to take custody. All of us adoptive parents were anxiously waiting at the guesthouse for our children. I don’t know that any of us actually thought about what a horrifying experience this must be for our babies. We were just excited that after years of paperwork and waiting our kids were about to actually become our kids!!
The white van arrived and they unloaded the children who were on their nannies laps. As they put Shea in my arms I could feel his heart racing. He was frightened and felt like he needed to be in charge… in control. He kicked and wiggled out of my arms and made a mad dash towards the gate. One of the guards grabbed him and together we tried consoling him. He continued trying to run away numerous times. He also stole money from our pockets, screamed, hit, kicked and threw huge fits. It was HARD. Things got REAL- and fast!
The maids and guards at the guest house tried helping by speaking to Shea in Amharic. Telling him he would be okay. But, it did nothing. Everyone else started keeping their distance. We heard a lot of “I’m so sorry. It’s going to be hard. You guys are tough… you’ll be okay.” But, you could tell what they really wanted to say was “thank goodness our kid isn’t acting that way.”
One of the children who was being adopted was an older girl- about 8-9 years old. She was the only person that Shea trusted. She was the only person he would listen to. Looking back now that makes perfect sense. He had lived with her in the transition house the past few months. Adults were, in his mind, people who trick you and hurt you. So, she was safe. I wish I could have done more to comfort him in those early days. It’s hard though. He only wanted to push us away and he acted as if it was life or death.
(Proof that Cam was pretty much on his own at age 7 in a foreign country… all our attention was on Shea)
Feeling completely helpless and exhausted we tried contacting our agency. They are a well known and highly regarded large agency in the adoption world so I thought they would have the answers. Instead they didn’t respond. I contacted the in country representative and told him he needed to come and talk to our son. I knew he was scared and his behavior was due to his frustration and fears. The representative came and spoke to Shea and said “he says he is acting like this because you won’t let him use the bathroom.” WHAT!!!!! I turned to the other adoptive parents who assured the representative that was absolutely absurd. But, that is when the manipulation started.
As more and more people (maids, guards, office staff, other adoptive parents) started trying to help out or speak with Shea he started acting decent in front of them. But, then when we would take him to our room and close the door he would scream bloody murder as if we were hurting him. Or if I went to hold his hands to walk down the stairs he would fall to the ground and act like I broke his arm.
The first few times he did these things I panicked I was scared he was hurt or in pain. I felt scared and helpless. I knew his behavior came from a place of hurt but I didn’t know what to do. Neither did anyone else. I felt hopeless.
We made it through the embassy appointments and the last few days in Ethiopia. We dreaded flying with Shea but wanted to be back home so badly. The flight home was A.W.F.U.L. Shea screamed the 5 hours from Ethiopia to Dubai, he wanted to sit underneath the seat. An Ethiopian couple next to us tried calming him down and speaking to him in Amharic but it did no good. We arrived in Dubai and headed to a hotel for our overnight layover.
I got Shea to calm down by having him take a shower. He loved the water. But, after about an hour long shower we were all so tired I tried to take him out. He screamed and shrieked so loud a women actually knocked on our door demanding to see the child because she thought we were hurting him. I brought her in and showed her how he just wanted to shower and she smiled, apologized and left. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I was so scared the next knock would be police and we would be thrown into a prison in Dubai. We did whatever he wanted all night just to keep him quiet.
Exhausted we boarded our 16.5 hour flight home. Unfortunately, there would be no rest to be had. Once again Shea screamed and shrieked this time for 16 hours and 10 min of the flight. Breaking only once for a 20 minute nap. We walked with him, took him to the bathroom so he could play with the sink, we had pediatricians come back to try and help on behalf of the flight attendants- it did nothing. People were coming down from their first class suites and yelling at us. The flight attendants were telling us we had to calm him down. But, there really wasn’t anything we could do. Our doctor had given us some homeopathic nerve tablets- they didn’t help. I had benadryl which I was hoping would make him drowsy but it also didn’t help. We tried everything!!
We were in such dire times we even tried calling and emailing the adoption agency from the plane… but of course NO RESPONSE!
We got to the airport welcomed by friends and family but, all I wanted to do was run and hide. I didn’t know how we were going to survive. It felt as if we made a huge mistake.
Who did we think we were going off and adopting this child. We were so naive at thinking we were capable.
We greeted everyone. I held back huge crocodile tears, hugged my other babies and we loaded up the car. Shea slept the entire drive home and continued to sleep for several hours once we were home. We snuggled the other kids. Took some deep breaths and thought… maybe once he wakes up it will all be okay. We knew he was experiencing extreme trauma in this situation. Again, we just really were not sure how best to help him through it.
When he woke up he was in a better mood, we let him explore his house, toys and the backyard. We played and played and played… Shea started doing a little better. However, his moods would change quickly, he had extreme difficulty in being told no (even if it was bc he was doing something dangerous) and he also struggled with any transitions.
I wanted to help him. I tried reaching out to my friends and family for advice. I turned to fellow adoptive parents I found in yahoo groups and asked questions. I even tried dealing with our agency who eventually contacted us back once we were home. No one would tell me what to do. How to help Shea. I wanted answers!!! We tried doctors and therapists. I read books all through the nights. Watched youtube videos all trying to gain knowledge to help our poor son. I pretty much left the other three kids to my husband. Our family was split apart and worn down. No one was doing well. It was SO HARD!
You know… no one really explains to you how hurt these children are… how deeply wounded their little souls are. How angry they are at the world… at adults in general. How they can’t trust or relax because their body is stuck in a fearful state of survival. Looking back at these pictures just breaks my heart. I didn’t know Shea then like I know him now. I can tell by the pictures what emotions he was feeling in those early years. Honestly, no child should have to feel like that. Agencies need to be more responsible in preparing the children, helping them while in their care to understand the changes they are going to experience. They need to be responsible for helping families during these transitions instead of disappearing when things get hard!
This poor sweet baby was so scared and emotionally scarred he couldn’t be present… he was not capable of accepting the love we were trying to give him. All he knew how to do was FIGHT for his life! So, that is what he did.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression… it wasn’t all terrible. There were moments of happiness in between the tantrums, fits and episodes of extreme anger. Some things would help us control his emotions: routines, holding him in an ergo carrier on my back when he was in a bad mood, one on one time alone with him. Not saying no. But, most times it was one step forward… two steps back. And, every time we went backwards a little sliver of the hope I was clinging to disappeared. We kept hearing things will be better in 6 months, 9 months, 1 year etc…. But, no real big progress was made. We were simply living in a state of survival.
When things got REAL bad…
Then at about 18 months home things went from bad to insanely horrible. Behaviors that were once just big tantrums became raging aggressive fits. If the kids walked by Shea when he was in a bad mood he would try to hurt them. He started becoming increasingly more aggressive with me. He tried destroying the TV, furniture, toys… he would throw large items at the sliding glass doors. He literally ripped up his blankets and the mattress on his bed. It was unbelievable the strength he had and what he was capable of destroying.
It was so frightening to feel like you had no control over this tiny person… no tools to help them get better. I was scared that someone was going to hear the noise coming from our house and call CPS on us. The doctor and therapist only confirmed this could happen so they wrote me a note about Shea to keep with me just in case. This was REAL… this was SCARY.
I remember crying in the shower and just praying. I felt like I had ruined all of our lives. I could not believe what was happening to our family. I felt SO alone. I didn’t feel like anyone really knew how bad things were… only my immediate family. When I tried to talk about it people would blow me off or tell me a story of when their kids were young and had bad tantrums. Ummmm… NO- NOT THE SAME!!!
I sought help from a well known attachment and adoption therapist. We would drive over an hour to have sessions with her. I remember feeling confident that she would be our saving grace. After the 3rd or 4th session though I could see that Shea was manipulating her and I grew more and more frustrated. I remember calling the therapist after a really bad episode with Shea. She wanted to set up an appointment to talk to my husband and I about our “options”. I had no idea what she was talking about. In the meeting she mentioned respite care and residential treatment. She said that we may also need to think about placing Shea with another family. An experienced adoptive family with no children at home. She told us he was a danger to our other children. How she has never recommended this with any other family. I think my jaw dropped and I gasped.
YOU GUYS HE WAS 5 YEARS OLD!
WTF???? That was the professional help? That was the answer? GIVE UP!
I was so scared. I sought more opinions only to hear the same thing. “Sometimes adoptions don’t work out.” I have NEVER felt so helpless and so hopeless in all my life. The professionals were telling us we were fighting a battle we would never win. What were we supposed to do?? I felt isolated, scared and hopeless.
Help was on the way…
Thankfully, I have the most amazing mom in the world. When we were at our breaking point my mom stepped in and decided to keep Shea every other weekend and/ or whenever we needed a break. My mom lives 2 minutes from me so this was an easy solution. I felt like I could breathe a little bit. These breaks gave us time to rest and spend time with our other three kids– who were being completely neglected bc Shea needed 100% of our attention. It also gave Shea a break from us- he needed it too. He was able to get a ton of love and 1 on 1 attention from his grandparents while also getting a break from the hard emotional experience he had just being home.
(Seriously, how lucky are our kids to be friends with so many families that share similar stories)
I also leaned on my amazing friends who happen to also be adoptive parents. I felt like I could be honest and open with them about my feelings. We cried, we laughed… they tried to tell me it would all be okay. However, deep down I didn’t really believe them. Hope was long gone.
Why? Because after reaching out to adoption agencies, social workers, other adoptive parents, professionals- not one of them had a positive ending. Instead I was just told stories about kids getting increasingly more aggressive, attacking other children, attacking animals, they threw out names like like RAD and literally scared the pants off me.
I think we tried to hide all of our pain the best we could. We put on smiles during the day and then my husband and I would cry in our room at night. But, time passed and we grew more and more humble. We would take help whenever it was offered. We tried starting every day with a blank slate so we wouldn’t hold anything against our poor boy- we knew it wasn’t his fault.
As time went on and Shea’s English progressed he would tell stories that broke my heart. He had SO many memories of Ethiopia but things he was saying were not matching up with reports I had received from my agency. I decided to start looking into hiring a searcher to find his birth family so we could figure out the TRUTH. I had this feeling in my gut that Shea needed this information to help him heal.
We found a searcher and weeks passed as we waited for him to make the journey to Shea’s family. Finally, we received an email that contained answers, photos and video. I read the information and was in shock. Shea’s birth mom was ALIVE! We sat down and tried to figure out how to help Shea through this next stage. We sat him down and explained to him that we had a message from Ethiopia. We looked through the pictures of his family. There was a picture of his dad holding pictures of Shea that we had sent. When Shea saw that picture he took a deep breathe and smiled. Then we got to the picture of his mom standing with his father and siblings. He asked a few questions and we answered the best we could. Then he closed the computer and from that moment on the aggression towards me decreased greatly.
Our agency’s response…
I contacted my agency so that they could prevent this from happening to other children. Adoption should only ever be a last resort… breaking up families because of poverty is completely unethical and wrong. I thought they would be glad to know the information. Happy to hear that the information helped Shea. But, instead the case worker informed me if I continued searching his parents could be put in jail for falsifying paperwork or they could be fined. The adoption could change… we could lose Shea.
I was furious. I felt duped. I felt so wronged by the agency I had trusted. The agency I had researched for hours on end… the one that was supposed to be ethical was full of SH-T!!! I couldn’t stay occupied on them for long though because the real issue was helping Shea.
Transitioning into school & medication…
Our next battle was pre-K. We registered Shea for school hoping and praying it would help. Miraculously, we got placed with just the right teacher. There were outbursts in class, always a meltdown after school. But, this time there was another partner– his teacher. His teacher had compassion for Shea bc he suffered from Bipolar disease himself. He would call me at night to go over what occurred during the day… we would plan what we would do about the behavior and each time he would tell me things were going to be okay. He also encouraged me to work with Shea’s pediatrician and introduced the idea of medication to help Shea. Explaining and using himself as an example. He told me how hard it was for him to control his moods without the proper medication. He said he felt Shea had similar struggles. Shea would be great in class and then out of nowhere suddenly become incredibly defiant and disruptive.
Now… a little background on me. I am a person who believes in medical intervention only when necessary. I do not over medicate or believe it it. I love homeopathy and alternative medicine. But, with things being so hard we worked with Shea’s pediatrician and she recommended we try a lose dose of drugs that would help Shea control his outbursts. I know many will argue this point… but this medication saved us. Shea became manageable… he could be in control of his moods. He was on medication for a little over one year. I believe within that year we saw the greatest improvements in his behavior. We actually started to LIVE LIFE AGAIN!
I think the medication allowed Shea to be present. To learn the world he was in was safe. That people were there to help/ not hurt him. He was able to experience the world while controlling his emotions and I believe this allowed him to better understand his situation and heal. He changed!
We went through kindergarten with no outbursts in class. Just some tears when things didn’t go his way. I had great communication with his teacher and we attend a wonderful school that is very structured and small which again I think was part of helping Shea heal.
Home life was still hard but the tantrums became more spaced out and less intense. After each tantrum though I felt myself panic. I would be so scared we were going backwards with our progress and I honestly didn’t feel like I could survive if his behaviors regressed too much.
Weaning off meds…
Then it came time to wean Shea off the medication. At first it scared me. How would we make it??? What if things went back to how they were and we couldn’t turn him around. I felt like I just couldn’t do it again… it was too much!! But, deep down I knew it was the right decision. I did not want to medicate him his whole life. I knew we had to take the plunge. Yet, to all of our surprise the only thing that changed was he became a little more emotional. He would get more upset/ sad in certain situations and need help. The emotions sometimes made him go into a tantrum… but not a rage… he was not aggressive or destructive anymore.
Family and Laughter are some of the BEST medicine…
Like I mentioned my parents really stepped up and helped us raise Shea. But, lucky for us our web of family support is huge and extends way beyond my parents. My own aunts and uncles helped by taking us to church when we thought all hope was lost. They would help us stay positive. Talk to Shea about how great we were- because he needed to hear it from the outside world.
Shea’s aunts and uncles made sure to include Shea in everything and they were great at building Shea’s confidence by pointing out all of his positive attributes right in front of him. My siblings would pick Shea up and take him out to do some kind of special activity. Everyone attended his sport events. Shea’s healing truly has been a team effort.
As time went on Shea steadily started getting better. Tantrums became less and less. And, I will never forget when he showed me his New Year’s Resolutions in 2013. On his own he wrote that one of his resolutions was to be more respectful to his family. It brought tears to my eyes. This kid. He is something special!!!
As good as things were getting I could tell that the parent/ child bond was still not right. That he would go to anyone other than us when he was hurt or in need of something. I longed for that relationship. I wanted him to feel loved and I wasn’t sure he was. We worked with a behavioral therapist who was honestly the BEST professional help we ever received with Shea. She gave us things to work on… ideas to help him. Ways to better communicate with him.
The more we communicated the more isolated I realized he felt. He was the only adopted child, the only black child in the family. I remember when my friend brought her adopted daughter over to our house. Shea excitedly pointed out how his skin matched hers. It hurt my heart so much. We had always said we would adopt again “if” our adopted child felt different. The feeling just ate me up inside. I wanted him to have an adopted sibling so bad. But, I was so scared of adopting again after all the pain and struggles we had been through.
I just couldn’t push those feelings aside though. We decided to look into adopting again, this time a little girl who was a waiting child from Ghana… Shea was so excited. In fact all of the kids were. Mike and I were nervous but we felt like if we could make it through Shea’s process we could make it through anything. Plus, we felt better prepared this time.
Things were going smoothly but then after receiving the little girl’s paperwork I demanded that the agency further investigate. The agency agreed and went back to the village to research the facts they were given by the orphanage. You won’t believe it- they located the little girls grandmother. She did not know the little girl was in custody! Can you believe that? So, the grandmother decided to raise her. We lost that little girl and it broke my heart but as sad as I was… I was SO happy that I helped keep a family together.
Can you believe that both international adoptions we had… both times papers were falsified and due diligence wasn’t completed. I have a hard time believing agencies have the children’s interest in mind. I think they might get started hoping to do good. But, somewhere they are getting lost. Money is speaking and its literally ruining children’s lives and tearing families apart. This is why I stand strong in countries putting stricter rules and timelines in place. Too many programs have been corrupted by greed.
A last attempt…
Time went on… but that longing to add to our family only grew. I talked to my girlfriend who was in the process of a domestic adoption. As I learned more about that process I felt like this could be our last hope.
God has an amazing way of working things out that you never could have anticipated. We did ended up adopting as you may have seen in our photos. Olivia came home in Sept. 2013. Her process was amazing!!! We have an open adoption and her birth parents were so sweet with Shea. They allowed the kids to come to the hospital when Olivia was born. They talked to Shea about how much they loved Olivia. How they wanted her to have the best life… how they had chosen our family to raise her.
Olivia’s adoption was nothing short of a miracle… she completed our family. Shea grew more confident in himself, he understood his own adoption better and he became a happier person. He literally lights up when he is with her. And, God keeps sending these tiny miracles like the fact that she said Shea’s name on his birthday… and it was one of the first words she ever said… and pretty much the word she says the most every single day since! Everything is Shea, Shea, Shea. It’s the cutest thing in the world!
How Travel Fit In…
Okay… I know this is a travel blog. And, I am getting to that. As Shea’s behaviors grew better we vacationed more. We began looking at travel as an incredible component to keeping our family healthy. By exploring the world together we all have become more compassionate people. We have faced fears together… and conquered them. We have become amazing friends. We have learned to trust each other.
Adoption is SO HARD. On the adopted child, the siblings, the parents. Sometimes you have to get on neutral ground where daily schedules and jobs are set aside and focus on just having FUN! The past year and a half since we’ve really stepped out into the world have been AMAZING!!! We have grown so close. I truly believe TRAVEL has helped us forget the past… move forward and truly become a family.
To sum up this incredibly L.O.N.G story… for those of you that are still with me. God has a plan. Kids can heal. And, your family can get through HARD TIMES!
Today I am happy to report that Shea is one of the most amazing kids I know. He is a kind son, a wonderful honor roll student, amazing athlete, compassionate friend and brother. Shea’s smile lights up any room he walks into. You honestly can’t help but smile back.
Recently Shea has been able to be more open about his own adoption. More confident in his story. He has actually asked for the first time to go back to Ethiopia to visit his birth family. I am working on getting a trip put together for him very soon.
I am truly overwhelmed with how wonderful our life is now. I used to long for normalcy and now I get to embrace the most spectacular reality. We defied the odds, we ignored the professionals when we didn’t agree, we listened to our hearts, prayed and leaned on others for support. But, we made it!!!
*If you are in a tough spot with adoption… or know someone who is. If you need to talk to someone who gets it. Please contact me firstname.lastname@example.org
2022 Update –
It’s crazy to think I wrote this post 7 years ago. If you follow us on Instagram then you know the story. Shea is probably the most incredible kid on the planet. Now, almost 16 years old, he brings a smile to our family and everyone around every day. It’s not just his infectious smile, he is simply the kindest, sweetest kid there could possibly be. We could not imagine our lives without him, and those hard days are long gone.
Honestly reading this blog post, I have forgotten how dark those days in the past were. He has been the easiest teenager to raise out of all my kids (and they have all been pretty easy teens to raise), and I think what makes me the happiest is you can see how comfortable he is with us. We are so lucky to be a part of his life, he gives us so much joy as a family.
You can do this!!!
Read more about Shea’s Adoption in this post about returning to Ethiopia to meet his birth family.
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