Mother’s Day is a fun celebration in my home. We go to church in the morning and then spend the afternoon taking a local hike as a family. If we have any energy left, we end the day with a trip to our local garden center, where I pick one last tomato plant to put in the garden before summer arrives.
It’s a fun day, but for my family it’s also underscored by pain. As an adoptive family, we never forget that the creation of our family is predicated on loss.
Before I met my daughters, I learned about the grief and loss experienced by orphaned children through Sherrie Eldridge’s book, Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. Eldridge writes from the perspective of an adopted child speaking to her adoptive parent. “I suffered a profound loss before I was adopted… I need your help in grieving my loss.”
My husband and I understood from Eldridge’s work and other trainings that if we adopted children, they would come to us carrying grief and loss. However, we didn’t grasp the profundity of their loss until we got to know them.
I met my daughters, Andrea and Linda, when they were preschoolers. Biological sisters, they were nearing the end of a court process that would leave them in need of an adoptive family. They were too young to put rational words to their pain, but Eldridge’s words rang in my ears. Adoption would not be the happy-ever-after proposition that the movies would have us believe it is. Instead, adoption would provide them with a family where they could grieve for their lost parents. They needed a mother who could accept all of who they were, including their pain.
For children, grief isn’t usually processed in words. It reveals itself through behaviors. During the first two years after our family was formed, both of my daughters were described as “out of control” by multiple people. They avoided eye contact and didn’t trust me. One of my daughters went into an extended rage every night at bedtime for a year. My other daughter, at age 4, once spent an hour yelling that she wanted me to die.
All of these behaviors were troublesome, but they stemmed from the tragedy that our daughters had endured. As Eldridge wrote from the adopted child’s perspective, “My unresolved grief may surface in anger toward you.” The difficult experiences of those early years taught me that for a child, losing her parents is the worst possible thing that could ever happen.
My family was blessed to have the support of our adoption agency, which walked the road of grief and loss with us. Our case worker counseled us on strategies for nurturing our children when they raged. When I was discouraged by how long healing seemed to take, the staff at our foster agency strengthened our capacity to care for our children.
Now, nearly eight years after we became a family, our lives are different. Andrea and Linda feel secure in our home. They are well-adjusted children. Grief and loss still creep in, as they always will, but our children know that they can trust me. They know how to cope with their feelings, and they seek me out for support.
My experience as an adoptive mother has shown me the devastation that occurs when children lose their first parents. Because a child is so deeply wounded by losing his or her parents, I believe that adults should make every effort to keep children with their parents, as long as those parents can create a safe environment for the children. Equipping parents to care for their children, rather than removing children from parental care, can spare children from profound grief and loss. And finally, if children must be separated from their biological parents, the best place for them to heal is in a loving family.
I am proud to be part of the Faith to Action Initiative, which is helping churches and organizations to understand the importance of families in helping children to grow and heal. For more resources on family-based care, visit our resource page.
Wendy McMahan, Faith to Action Leadership Council member, is Director of Church Engagement for Food for the Hungry, Wendy works to equip American followers of Christ to advocate for the world’s most vulnerable people. She also hosts Poverty Unlocked, an audio program exploring the Christian response to poverty and injustice. She holds a B.S. in Agricultural Systems & Environment, and a M.S. in International Agricultural Development. Wendy lives with her family in Southern California.