Becoming a Family

There are so many wonderful moments that have taken place in our family since Hanissa arrived home, but I wanted to write a more serious post and hopefully answer some questions that several friends have been asking.
Most of us don’t have to think about what makes a family; we grow up with one and our experience often defines our idea. But remove that experience, remove all reference to family via media and books, and we are left with a word void of meaning. The challenge for us, as adoptive parents, is to take words like “family, Mommy, and Daddy” and transform them into understandable concepts for a child.

We’ve all heard the mantra, “never do for a child what he can do for himself”. Isn’t the goal to get our kids to play and do things independently? For kids that have already learned they can depend on Mom and Dad, yes, that is the goal. But for a child in an orphanage or on the street independence is a necessary life skill usually gained prematurely without the ever important prerequisite of dependence. For the child who doesn’t know Mom and Dad are there to protect and care for them, independence takes on a whole new meaning. Independence becomes a barrier to bonding and trust.

We had the conversation many times, but until we were home we really didn’t understand what it meant to teach H about family. She needed to learn that Moms and Dads meet the needs of their kids. In the orphanage, there was no one set authority figure. Older kids helped the younger ones, volunteers were in and out, and a host of nannies were around to supervise and keep order. Even though these kids may long for a family, the idea of dependence on just one or two people is frightening. Our older girls knew Mom and Dad would need to be the ones feeding H, offering her treats, getting her dressed, etc. This was hard on everyone. They wanted to get their hands on their little sister to love on her and spoil her.

Me? I’m sometimes overwhelmed by a task that, at least in the beginning, often includes rejection.

While we were in Ethiopia, H went out of her way to show me she didn’t need me to care for her. She wanted David, but didn’t want nor need me. If she couldn’t be with David, she would stand on the other side of the room and pretend I wasn’t there. When we arrived home, she tried to ignore me and go straight to her sisters. The older girls did a great job of redirecting H back to Mom. For a few weeks, everyone seemed to have equal status in her mind. We still have more to work on, but now, 2 months later, more and more it is Mom or Dad that she seeks when a need arises.

Physical needs are just one part of the picture. Emotional needs, like comfort, is another. In the beginning, if she hurt herself, she would just laugh it off. Again, not a bad thing for a child to do as long as they know that Mom and Dad care about their pain. H didn’t know this. She was shocked the first time I kissed her boo-boo. She would see her own blood and giggle. Silly faces and forced smiles hide a multitude of hurts, embarrassment, pain, and frustration. Almost all her emotions were revealed in the same “safe, acceptable” way… through laughter.

When she falls down, we pull her aside and ask, “Did that hurt?” She usually answers with a silly grin and a loud, “Yah!” (which means yes). After we find out where she is hurting, we give kisses, and remind her to let us know when she gets hurt. Just recently, she has started coming to me when she is in pain. She’ll sit in my lap, snuggle up close, wait for kisses, and then she’s gone again. If it hurts really bad, she will sit with me longer, but so far…no tears…no matter what the injury. One day they’ll come and I’ll rejoice that she feels safe enough to cry.

Boundaries must also be taught. This, probably, brings the most confusion and frustration to Hanissa. She is trying really hard to understand how everything works in our home, but some days… Sharing, ownership, personal space, asking permission all fall under the area of boundaries.

In the beginning, everything was labeled “mine” by Hanissa. Lately, she’s been learning a new word, “ours.” Now she’ll say, “This (hairband) mine, no! Ours!” Which means that anyone (meaning sisters) can use that hairband without others (meaning Hanissa) getting upset. She wanted every item in our house to belong to one person and she wanted to police everything to make sure no one used something that belonged to another person. It has taken a couple of months to teach her the concept of “ours” and it still isn’t completely firm in her mind.

No doubt about it. Becoming a family takes concentrated effort and I’m often left drained and exhausted by it all. But it is a road that I’m happy to be traveling, potholes and all. And this journey is definitely changing me. My idea of God, as Father, and me, as adopted child, is becoming clearer.

What truly amazes me is the inner workings of a Father choosing to accept one who doesn’t know all the ins and outs of His family structure. A Father choosing to love someone filled with doubt rather than faith and trust, even though He has proved His faithfulness time and time again. A Father choosing to teach one who constantly tries to add new rules and remove boundaries that are in place for her protection. A Father choosing to comfort someone who continually looks to other people or things when she feels hurt or needy. A Father that chooses to call us by name.

~ Regina

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