My twin Ethiopian sons turned ten yesterday.
I know people always say “Where has the time gone?”, but really–WHERE HAS THE TIME GONE?
They were 16 months old when they first joined our family. It feels like forever ago. And in some ways, it was–we were living on the central coast of California, we only had one biological child, we were still going to the same evangelical church where my husband and I had first met in college. In hindsight, life was simple and quiet.
Now we’re in Denver, with six kids in two different schools and two littles at home. We celebrate Catholic First Communions now, and send kids on play dates, and buy goggles in bulk for swimming lessons. Our dinner table is full and noisy. Really, really noisy. Did I mention it’s noisy?
So yes. It seems we adopted my sons a lifetime ago.
I used to write about adoption. A lot. My blog began, as a matter of fact, as a way to chronicle my sons’ adoption process, back when Ethiopian adoption was far less common and far more feasible. I also used to attend adoption-themed conferences and seminars and events. I was the lady with the adopted kids. But I don’t do any of that as much anymore, and it would seem that adoption is scarcely on my radar these days–funny, because four of my children are, indeed, adopted.
I think I am, simply, too busy about the business of my own life.
And my adopted children are all getting older.
Back when my sons were small, I felt more free to discuss their adoption story in this space. How we got the call from our agency one sunny afternoon in early December, where we found them in the now-closed orphanage called Layla House–one boy perched on the bottom of a tall wooden shelf, the other reaching out to me from a metal crib. I never went into too much detail because it is ultimately their story, not mine, to tell. But now I feel even less inclined to share because, well, they’re ten years old now. They are beginning to ask more questions. They are Black, in a Very White family and White/Hispanic community. They are beginning to internalize what all of this means.
And I am busy trying to help them, to the best of my limited ability.
One evening last week they expressed some things that they’d been dealing with at school. Just some questions and comments about race and adoption, coming from kids who don’t know any better. I was making dinner and they were with me in the kitchen, as they like to be, talking about their day. It wound up being our biggest conversation about race yet, and I was reminded that the long work of identity formation and acceptance has really only just begun. It is something I cannot do for my Black sons. They must do it for themselves. And the reality of the challenges (and joys, too) of transracial adoption struck me anew, as I considered the gravity of what it means to be a racial minority, particularly when you are Black, in this country. It is, simply, difficult.
My boys are really quite amazing. They are kind, funny, sweet, helpful, and in spite of being twins, just about as different as different could be. The consummate odd couple. They sit with different kids at lunch, play with different siblings at home, and fight like old men when they’re together. But when the day is done and darkness falls and they are tucked safely into their bunks, blessings given and door closed, they talk. Go over the day’s events. Declare what they’re putting on their Christmas lists. Debate the merits of the various Ninja Turtles and which is the best. Occasionally pray a rosary. One of them made a birthday card for the other yesterday where he simply wrote “I love you”, and drew some pictures of zombies and ghosts.
They have a bond that is unbreakable, and which has existed for far longer than they have been my sons.
So I take comfort and find hope in the fact that no matter what, they will always have each other. They share a birth mother, an ethnicity, a nationality, a history. I cannot walk in their shoes, but at least they trudge forward together.
See family is a funny thing. It can transcend genetics and biology with but a stroke of a pen, and yet can never preclude a first family or erase a past or invalidate a series of experiences. It does not nullify challenges. One of my sons, after our discussion about race in which I’d done my best to encourage and empower, hugged me and said he’s so glad he’s my son, and in our family. I told him I was, too, as I squeezed him back–but my heart was pricked with worry. A sort of clarity settled in, then, that while my husband and I will continue to accompany our sons on this journey towards manhood, we simply do not know where it will lead. Will our sons grow to embrace their mixed-culture reality, feel comfortable in their skin, and love who they are? Will they struggle to find their place in the world? Will they always have an inner longing and void left unfilled due to so much early loss?
The truth is of course that we don’t know. We just.don’t.know. We’ve never known.
But the things we DO know? The things I think about when I see old photos of them in their orphanage, and the things I tell them when I sense they need to hear them?
They are loved. They are made in the image and likeness of God. They are resilient. They are survivors. They are smart. They are funny. They lived nearly a year and a half without a mother or a father, in an institutional environment woefully ill-suited for children to grow, and one of them was terribly sick and unable to walk and failing to thrive. And here they are today, rocking their weekly spelling tests and kissing their baby sister and serving at the altar at church. God has big plans for them.
So as we celebrated their birthdays last night over grilled cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes (per the boys’ request), we held our annual tradition of going around the table and saying something we love about the birthday child.
Some truly thoughtful things were mentioned–of course there was also the little blue-eyed blondie who doesn’t talk much yet and so had hers said for her, and the sweet five year old with Down syndrome whose simple “I love you Yosef” and “I love you Biniam” really sounded more like “Ahhhuhhuuuuuooouh” and “Ahhhuhhuuuuuooobuh”. But the sentiment was there, and that’s what counts around here!
Then my dad, the boys’ ever-loving grandpa, mentioned that he really can’t wait to see what one of my sons in particular does with his life. Oh how true it is. The joy-filled expectancy of things unfolding over time, seeing what a child will grow to be.
Were I asked to tell people about transracial or international adoption now, to explain the ins and outs and whys and what-to-dos, my answer would admittedly be a little different from what it was nine or even five years ago. Sure, some of the talking points would be the same–children were meant to grow up in families, orphans are terribly vulnerable, and when neither family reunification nor in-country placement are possible, adoption can be a healthy, beautiful solution for a child without a family. I believed that from the day we signed the overnighted papers, becoming parents to twin boys born in the land of Haile Selassie and the birthplace of coffee, and I believe it still today.
But what I have learned and what I have seen in my home these last several years, through the ups and downs and tears and laughs and birthdays and triumphs and questions and hugs, is that love is a gift, and that love is a choice, and that love grows in some of the most surprising and amazing of ways. It is, frankly, mysterious. These dear children come to us as whole people with real life experiences, and with more pain and trauma in their little hearts than we can imagine. They come to us and we weave them into our families, and start down the long road of love. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it wounds. Sometimes we wonder what the end of the road will look like. Sometimes the road is more or less smooth, as it really has been in our case–but even then, we or our children eventually encounter other people on the road that wound and hurt.
We can give our children the tools and the confidence, but we cannot do their walking for them.
You may be saying “Yes, yes, but isn’t this true for all parents? Not just adoptive parents?”
And I would say, absolutely. You’re right. A million times right.
There is so much more to it when you’re raising a child not born to you, when you are an interracial family, when your itty-bitty sons are growing into young men. When they have a birth mother and biological siblings living on the other side of the world, when they are Black, and when they are learning what it means to be seen as Black. The stakes in transracial adoption are high. You know that going in. It’s one of those things that just is.
And so I marvel at what an honor it is to be on this journey with my sons, to play a part in their formation as young men and do my best to fill their hearts with love, truth, and hope. Mostly we’re just like any other modern Catholic family–loading and emptying the dishwasher every day, reading the Bible together during breakfast, and laughing a lot and yelling a little. Contrary to what people at the grocery store think, there’s not a lot on any given day that really sets us apart from anybody else. But the truth is too that we live, always and forever, with the reality that my sons have a story all their own, that belongs only to them.
And time necessitates, no demands, that they keep turning the pages and writing the chapters. They’ve come so darn far, but they have so much farther to go. An entire lifetime, really. I’m glad they go together.
When you think about it, it’s really only because of adoption and God’s hand in bringing beauty from ashes that my husband and I are with them, here. We’re here for that.
Gosh, I’m glad we’re here for that.
So, Happy Tenth Birthday to my dear Yosef and Biniam. And to anyone considering adoption, sitting on the fence, wondering if it’s worth it or if you should do it or how to figure any of that out: I’ll simply tell you that I know some pretty amazing people, living in my home, that I call sons and daughters. They inspire and challenge me. They’ve changed our family. They used to live life apart from us and they had some really hard things happen to them, and now they live here.
And, I’m glad they’re here.