One day in July, we received the judge’s order that granted us two more children. We were now a family of six, and weeks before we’d been total strangers. I hadn’t discovered all their birthmarks. They didn’t know my middle name. We had no inside jokes or shared stories. And we were now family.
“This is what a Daddy does,” Nate whispered to one of ours, weeks after we’d adopted her, as he took her arms into his and wrapped them around his neck so that he could hug her goodnight. She devolved into giggles. She might have seen a daddy hold his daughter or kiss her forehead, but certainly she’d never been a recipient of this brand of familiar love from a father. Love was uncomfortable for the child who’d scavenged her way through surviving her early years.
Before we’d adopted our third and fourth children, I expected love to grow easily. As with age, I anticipated that love would advance each day and that time was the determinative factor in growing family bonds. I envisioned us, five and ten and fifteen years after adopting our four children, beating all the statistics and disproving the anecdotal horror stories of adoption. We would become the melded family with vibrantly alive and whole children—but if I was honest, I secretly wished it wouldn’t require any real sweat to get there. We’d just be different than all the tough stories I’d heard. Just because.
Shortly after we returned from adopting our second two, we took a trip to the beach. All of us had been swimming in the ocean and I was learning to count more heads than I did on our last trip the year before. One, two, three, and I realized quickly that one of mine was missing.
I scanned the shoreline, feeling panic rise in the back of my throat. Back and forth, my eyes darted from the houses, the dunes, the ocean at our feet. I finally spotted her a few hundred yards down the beach, walking away from us. I ran to catch up with her, no idea where she was going.
When I reached her with my arms (because even calling her name didn’t get a response), I saw that she was clutching her shoulder, stumbling over depressions in the sand. She didn’t want to tell me what hurt, but she couldn’t hide it. I finally pulled it out of her: she’d been stung by a jellyfish.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. What child runs away from—not to—her mama when life hurts? Unlike my other children, she didn’t clasp hands around my neck and cry into my chest with the expectation that Mommy or Daddy always finds a way to fix everything. She went cold. Distant. Minutes before, she’d been splashing saltwater all over her siblings. In pain, she felt like she was a stranger all over again.
Pain can do that. It shuts us down, if we let it. We imagine the best of life comes from avoiding the deepest pain and we subtly congratulate those who have come through the decades unscathed. My formerly orphaned daughter was not all that different from the rest of us raised within intact families and behind picket fences. She just didn’t hide it as well.
For the first stretch of adjusting to our family of six, I realized I’d been reacting to parts of my life much like my daughter on that day on the beach. I’d been running away from the source of pain and a bit aimlessly. I had an end vision in mind of a family captured on a Christmas card, and I saw pain as an impediment. This is a challenge for a woman who’s just invited four former orphans into her fold.
Their pain scared me. It felt too much and too nebulous. It was looming. There were a few weeks when one of my children would fold into a heap of sobs and screams on the kitchen floor at dusk, every day, as she adjusted to life as a daughter. I was tempted to look away. What if her pain wasn’t just hers, but became ours? What if it engulfed us? It felt like such a distraction from the dream I’d had of the whole-hearted family we were to become.
But in the gentle way that God often moves in allowing us to see, I started to realize this pain wasn’t actually an obstacle to my dream. And I wasn’t merely that young and naïvely zealous child who wanted to change the world – a self-image I often chided myself over as reality surfaced in the months following our adoption.
Pain was actually part of the road toward where we were going. And it could even show the way.
Just last week, I sat in our octagonal kitchen eating area where my children often go to sing because they’ve learned the acoustics sound sweeter when they’re encased and under high ceilings. At the end of our table, one of mine stood silhouetted against the morning sun, looking out the window. She was unaware of me, belting the lyrics of a song I knew she meant – in the way that we often sing things well on our way to getting there:
“I’m no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God.”
We are ever so slowly becoming whole. All of us, together, and each one of us, individually. But it wasn’t by circumventing pain that we mysteriously combusted into a melded family. It has been by walking through the children’s night terrors, and canceling plans so we could hold one close for a little bit longer, and losing sleep in order to pray the desperate prayers you pray in the wee hours of night, and voicing and re-stating and repeating your love another way (“I love you. I delight in you. Nothing you can do will ever make me leave you”) towards stone-faced expressions, and the hugging of bristling bodies that we are being made whole. Ever so slowly we tread over the shards of their history.
Walking through the pain under our roof – pain that I fought so fiercely to avoid – has been forming us into more than what I’d dreamed we could ever become, back when I was twenty-three with a dime in my pocket and a fire in my belly to change the world.
Sara Hagerty is a wife, a mother of five—four of whom she and her husband adopted from Uganda and Ethiopia—and a writer. This post includes a brief excerpt from her book Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet (Zondervan, 2014).