On Being and Not Being an Adoptive Mom

I’ve been trying to decide if I still consider myself an adoptive mom. I WAS an adoptive mom, but am I still?

In a strange way I was looking forward to helping Samuel navigate adoption issues as he grew up. I wasn’t happy that he had a life of loss, but I knew God could redeem his pain. I wanted to see that beauty unfold in my little boy. Samuel knew that he had a different birth mother than his siblings. One day that would have meant something to him. He would have mourned his past and hopefully learned that his story was not only one of loss, but a story of love and belonging and cherishing and worth.

I thought I would be the one to encourage him as he explored who he was, his gifts and weaknesses, without any blood family to give him clues. I hoped to take him back to China to discover his birth culture. In China he would have had opportunity to realize and grieve what he lost. I’m sure he would have wondered (with sadness or relief or that complicated mix of both) at how different his life could have been. I wanted to support him in a world that is often unkind in the face of issues like racial and culture identity. I wanted to pray for him and love him as he fought to overcome the emptiness I saw in his heart, the attachment challenges he faced. I expected all of these things to be ahead of both of us.

God healed the emptiness in Samuel’s heart in a way I never anticipated, somewhere behind the veil of heaven. Samuel is free of his life of loss. I am not.

While on vacation earlier this summer I noticed a little girl about Samuel’s age. She was energetic and spontaneous, working her way around the pool, engaging everyone she encountered. She climbed on people’s shoulders and flitted in and out of their games. She appeared to have a repaired cleft lip. And, as she was Asian and was with Caucasian parents, I wondered if she was adopted.

There are plenty of times when it’s not a good idea to introduce yourself to another family just because you think they have an adopted child like you. But sometimes it happens and is a good thing. Samuel was young enough that being adopted was still 100% positive to him. He liked meeting other kids that were adopted, or even better, from China. We talked with other adoptive families when we could.

As I watched this girl dance through the water, I realized with sadness that connection was shut to me. Maybe forever. Can you imagine the conversation? Yes, we adopted too! Gansu Province. Well, he’s not here. Well, it’s a sad story… Sorry, I didn’t mean to start crying…

Oh how we love the adoption community. It’s filled with the most amazing people. These are families who choose courageous things over fear, who love when their hearts are breaking, and who fight through so many obstacles for their children. We believe strongly in adoption advocacy and orphan ministry. Adoption has been on our hearts for years. We even talked about it on our third date. Who does that?

We will continue to love our adoption friends. The families we met in China and the ones who supported us as we brought Samuel home will always have a dear place in our hearts. But our connection is gone, and the relationships change. I had to remove myself from my adoption-related social media groups soon after Samuel’s death. I couldn’t engage with the community as they faced normal adoption road bumps, worried about surgeries, and rejoiced in the beauty of what they saw God doing in the hearts of their children. It was an in-your-face reminder of who I have lost.

I will always be Samuel’s mom. Always.

Some things fade into the past. I am no longer a mother of preschoolers, or a kindergarten mom. I think being an adoptive mom falls into the same category. I think I am no longer an adoptive mom.

Such sadness. Death destroys many things. I was hoping to keep that title, that privilege, all my life, not all of his.

A String of Broken Hearts

I have a memory box that I was saving for Samuel.  Inside are things like the split pants he was wearing the day we met him, and his little race car tennis shoes.  I have a Tibetan necklace that was made for him.  It was a gift from Steed, the man who helped us on adoption day.  There is a newspaper and a little flashing dragon pin from the market.  Most importantly I have the name of Samuel’s foster mom written on a piece of scrap paper, and some photos of her wearing a puffy leather jacket, playing with toddler Samuel and his stuffed blue bunny.  She loved him.  I could tell by the way Samuel was cared for when we got him.  He came to us as a boy who had been loved.

I wonder if she knows what happened.  I wonder if she questions it all too.  I wonder if she’s mad that she had to let him go.  If she negotiates it in her head, trying to figure out how she could have kept him, protecting him from a senseless foreign tragedy.

When Samuel was about 2 years old I showed him the pictures of his foster mom.  He grew quiet and sad as he looked at them, and then pushed them away.  Last summer I showed them to him again.  He was mildly curious as to who she was, and excited to see blue bunny in the photos, but his memories had faded.  She was a stranger.  My heart was heavy for his loss.

Samuel knew he had three mommies.  There was his birth mom, his foster mom, and me. I never felt threatened by his other moms, and wanted to honor each one.  His birth mom gave him the priceless gift of life.  She gave him history and genetics, which shaped him even though they were a mysterious unknown to us.  Maybe he got his curiosity from her, or his shyness, his skin or his ears.  Maybe she hated to have her feet touched too.  Maybe she loved watermelon and soup, just like Samuel.  Then his foster mom gave him attention, love, and probably was the one who cared for him through his first surgery at around 12 months old.  She fed him before his cleft lip was repaired, which was a time-consuming task.  She helped him learn to walk and no doubt had to child-proof her house so he would be safe as those little fingers explored endlessly.

We had not started any traditions to remember Samuel’s birth mom or foster mom, but I had ideas.  Maybe we could light a candle on his birthday.  Or we could look at the moon and remember to pray for his relatives on the other side of the world, since the moon shines on us all.  We could sing the old song, “When you see the the sun you’ll know I see the same one too.  When you see the stars they’ll say hello from me to you.”  Samuel was too young to need us to do anything special to remember his past, but I was ready if that changed.  I was ready to talk about them, to assure him that no mother forgets the child she births, even if life is so complex and hard that she has to do the unimaginable and let him go.  I was ready to welcome his questions.  I hoped he would feel the freedom to embrace his life, as much as he chose, without any shame or hiding.

Samuel lived for 5 short years, but he has left three mothers with broken hearts.  Three women have hoped for him, dreamed for him, and loved him, only to be disappointed and say goodbye.  Quite possibly all three of us have questioned our choices, and questioned why he had to leave us.

I’m the most fortunate one.  I had him for the longest.  I’m the one who got to hear him say “mama,” who saw him become more confident and secure.  When he was little I suspected he was smart, and I got to see proof.  I heard all the ideas and questions and silly jokes that came pouring out of his head as speech therapy gave him a voice.  I knew his favorite songs.  I got to introduce him to the ocean.  I saw enough of his personality and talents that I could tell people he had the makings of an engineer or an architect.

I am the mother who had the privilege of watching Samuel’s faith grow.  I taught him about Jesus, promised him God’s love.  I held him in my lap as we did family advent by candlelight at Christmas time.  I heard his simple prayers.  “Dear Jesus, thank you that you died on the cross for my sins.  Amen.”

I’m also the one who was fortunate to be there on his last day.  I know how proud he was to finally be big enough to ride in the booster seat in the back of the van.  I know that the accident happened fast, that he didn’t suffer, and that he was given the best possible care.  I was able to pray desperately for him in his last moments.  Of his three moms, I’m the only one who said goodbye with a funeral.  If this was to be the path he had to walk, I’m blessed in a painful way to be there with him all the way to the end.


Mother’s Day

There are many people on my mind today.

I’m happy for the woman whose 2 year old is now 6 months post-transplant with Samuel’s heart.  I’m happy her child can run and play now without turning blue.  I wish I knew her name.

I imagine it’s a joyful day for Esther, who has one of Samuel’s kidneys.  She was on dialysis for 7 years, and wrote to tell us how thankful she was for a second chance at life with her daughter.

I think about Samuel’s birth mom.  Does she still grieve every day or has she tried to push it away so she can survive?

I think of friends (including Jeremy) who have lost their moms, friends who hurt because they are not moms, and friends who have broken hearts because they (we) love children who have left us.

I celebrate with a friend who will soon be going to China to adopt a little boy that waits for her.

And I’m thankful for my own mother and all of her love.

It’s a complicated day.

Broken Feet

Samuel hated for anyone to touch his feet.

When we first got him, he wouldn’t take off his shoes. He wore them for days, even to bed, before he let us take them off. The rest of us wear socks at most in the house, but Samuel put shoes on first thing in the morning. Run barefoot on the back porch or in the grass? Never. Boots were even better than shoes. He loved weight on his feet.

Cutting his toenails was torture, no exaggeration. We tried different approaches, but it always ended the same way. Samuel screaming and fighting, Jeremy and I both holding him down while I rushed to trim off the overgrown nails. They would get so long. I know they were painful, but he didn’t care. Anything was better than having someone near his feet.  And the ordeal of trimming them was bad enough that I put it off as long as possible.

Right before his second birthday he had surgery to repair his cleft palate, and was in the hospital for 3 days. They put an IV in his foot. He hated it, but he was too little to move it to his arm or hand. I had to keep his feet covered with a blanket at all times because he grew hysterical if he saw it. It was a relief when it finally came out.

Feet are a minor thing when compared to a fatal brain injury. But the doctors were pretty sure that both of Samuel’s feet were broken in the accident. They didn’t do x-rays. I guess when you’re dying of head trauma they don’t care what happened to your feet. I didn’t see any bruising, but both of them swelled in the few days he was in a coma. (If it was a coma, no one used that word…too many things we don’t know.) They kept his body temperature low in the hospital. It was an attempt to help his brain swelling go down. But it also meant that he wasn’t covered with a blanket, and he didn’t have socks on. His cold, swollen feet were there for everyone to see. He would have hated that. I know it’s a little thing, but it is heavy on my heart. Why did he have to break his feet?

A Story About Samuel and Christmas

Four years ago our Christmas was stripped of all the extras.  We were in a large desert city in northern China, far away from Western influences, almost in Mongolia.  There were no Christmas trees, no holiday lights, no church service with kids dressed like wise men and sheep.  We ate at a restaurant on Christmas Eve that had a techno version of “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” playing on a loop.  We still taunt each other with that song.  Otherwise there was nothing. 


Our first five minutes

We arrived on Dec. 23rd, got off a plane and drove to a hotel.  As we walked into the lobby with our suitcases, a little boy was waiting for us.  He cried, but let me hold him.  He was sweet, probably not sure what to do with us, the funny-looking people whose English sounded like gibberish to him.  He quickly made friends with Jana and Michael, and they played games with the telephone in the hotel room.  He was wearing a hat and race car tennis shoes, and he wouldn’t let us take them off.  So of course, he slept in his shoes.  The next day, Christmas Eve, I held him on my lap in the back seat of a taxi, and drove to some government offices. After a multitude of fingerprints and signatures on papers we couldn’t even read, he was ours.  Our son.  Didi, little brother.  We had been praying for that moment so hard.  He was the gift we had been waiting for.  Our perfect Christmas gift in a city that didn’t know about Christmas.


Brown smog on Christmas Day

I thought a lot about Christmas that year, looking out the hotel window onto that sprawling city.  Three million people, living their lives, with no thought about Jesus.  It occurred to me that even though it didn’t “feel” like Christmas, that year might have been closer to the heart of Christmas that my normal experience of holiday joy.  That huge city, all those people, needing God, and they didn’t even know it.  That’s why He came, right?  Not so we could bake cookies and give gifts, not even so we could have family time, light candles and sing about angels.  But because the world is lost and dark and we need Him.

As we got to know that little boy in those first few days, I reflected on the hardships he had already faced.  The first day of his life, wrapped in a blanket on the steps of an orphanage, his mother weeping with a broken heart as she walked away in the darkness.  The months in a crib among many cribs, without a mother or father.  Moving to a foster home.  More disruption as he left the foster family he had grown to love, and met us.  He was too little to understand the changes or why they were happening.  We named him Samuel, which means “God has heard.”  We wanted him to know that in spite of the tragedies he had been through, God was there.  God heard his cries when he was hungry, or scared, or lonely, even when no one else heard.  God loved him, and had never left him.  God was with him.

Four years later it’s Christmas again, but Samuel is gone.  I can’t wrap my mind around it, but it’s crushing me regardless.  And I don’t want to celebrate Christmas.  I’m left standing, broken and empty-handed, while everyone else’s life rushes past me in a blur.  The lights and laughing and gift-buying of the season are hollow and empty.  “Merry Christmas,” everyone says.  It isn’t merry.  I just want my baby back with me.  But as much as I hate it, I wonder if we might be close to the heart of Christmas again this year.  Samuel gets to spend Christmas IN the arms of Jesus.  That should make me happy, but it doesn’t, not really.  I confess my short-sightedness and lack of faith, and I’d rather have Samuel in MY arms.

But isn’t this why Jesus came?  Because our world is broken, and we desperately need a Savior.  He came for cities that have never heard, for orphans crying alone. He came for broken mothers, for mourning families, for uncertain friends.  We sin, we hurt others, we get hurt, we grieve, we are confused.  We try to make our own way, and we try to hold on to the earthly things we treasure, but it’s not enough.  God tells me that what I should treasure most is Him, and that somehow at the end of it all, He will be enough. When pain seems out of place at Christmas, maybe it’s because we’ve distorted the day.  We don’t rejoice at Christmas because everything is happy.  The joy of Christmas is because we find God, right in the middle of us, in the middle of our pain and sin.  He came to be a light in the darkness, and to bring victory over death.  Heaven is possible because Jesus came to us.  Hope and peace are possible because He came to us.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”  Immanuel, God with us.  Christmas is God with us.