Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Silence of Waiting

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A scuba diver gears up, learns things about the ocean deep that make her curious about the dive. Then—silence. It's the waiting. It's the being on the boat, the looking over the side, the thinking of the depth of the water and what might lurk in its darkness. She questions how long she can hold her breath if her tank should fail and whether or not she will panic and surge to the surface.

I too am poised at the edge, ready to back roll into the water, feeling fear in the waiting. "Are you sure we should do this?" I ask my husband one night on the way home from our class. We've just learned that every effort will be made to return the child to her biological parents, if possible, even after she has been placed into our home. My husband smiles like he knows the water's cold but doesn't care. I don't expect an answer; I have asked this question so many times before.

There are many different silences involved in adopting a child out of foster care. It starts with the silence of some when I first tell them that, after having raised three children to young adulthood, my husband and I feel called to open our home to a child in need. I share this momentous decision, and they say—nothing. They can't even feign support or offer a simple word of encouragement, but in their silence I hear their concern.

There's the silence that follows after I fill out the home study application. For weeks I lean over the thick stack of paper, tasked with translating two decades of motherhood into black and white. I check boxes for traumas we think we can manage and leave unchecked others we fear are too difficult. I wonder if I should be willing to do more.

I answer questions that poke into private areas of my parenting—some things I had never thought about, others I don't want to remember. Questions like: Did you or any of your children struggle with fear or anxiety? Or, were any of you bullied at school? Have any of your children ever been in trouble? I know they're all meant to prove that we're capable of handling children who have experienced trauma, but they loosen my anchor line, weaken my resolve. Suddenly I feel exposed—I'm not sure how much is too much to share. This feeling threatens to silence me.

Once we finish the report, each member of our family is interviewed. I am very close to my children, and I am grateful when they offer loving comments about our parenting. I let them decide what they'll choose to reveal about their own challenges. Those are their stories.

Next, DCYF evaluates our home, looking at rooms and closets while measuring spaces. Not much comes of this, other than the decision that, if we take in more than one child, we will have to adopt children of the same gender since there are not enough bedrooms for them to have their own.

When we are finished with the home study portion, nothing comes back from the state for months. We have opened our lives and our home to the wary eyes of strangers, allowing them to evaluate our parenthood, and they don't seem to understand the effect of their slow response. This waiting has offered me much time to think, to mull over the worst that can happen. What's worse is that I come to expect that the worst will happen. I even question whether they like us enough to place children with us. I am losing momentum. And I'm reminded that adoption out of foster care is something that needs a lot of momentum to keep it going. The truth is, when preparing to dive, waiting doesn't help.

And then the home study is approved. We receive a passing grade. I see it now—the question isn't whether our parenting was perfect enough to make us fit, but whether we faced enough challenges to prepare us for the difficulties through which we'll have to navigate.

We move forward to the next stage of waiting. Now the adoption agency assesses which child might be right for us and us for them. This new silence becomes another space I need to fill. I tackle a stack of books about adoption and about how to raise a child with trauma. I learn that all adopted children are considered to have faced trauma by the simple fact that they have lost connection to their biological parents. I learn that raising a child with trauma is so very different from raising one's biological children because the trauma affects their thinking, their attachment, their learning, and even their physical development. And I learn they need at all costs to feel safe and loved and wanted.

I begin to rush around the silence and the waiting, try to get everything done so that I won't have to do it later, going through closets and drawers to pack away old clothing, and organizing my kitchen, cupboard by cupboard. I want to be free to give our adopted child all the time she will need so badly. Silly, I know, because I cannot possibly ever be done with the stuff of life, nor can I ever be fully ready for this undertaking.

And then, unexpectedly, a pause in the waiting. Other people's children start to drop into our home. First there is a young girl I've known for many years. She turns 18, quits high school, and wants to spend all her time at our house. "I know you're going to be so angry with me," she says, "you always made me promise I'd finish school." I convince her to work toward her GED, teach her life skills like cooking and paying bills, even take her to church with us. She starts to call me "Mom," explaining that she doesn't get along with hers, and even asks if she can live with us. She faces many tough challenges, and we encourage her the best we can, pouring into her everything we believe will make her life better. But she decides to go a different way; she gives up on getting her degree, and makes heartbreaking choices we know will cause her pain.

Next, there is a friend of one of my children, someone my husband and I had never met. His father's rejection has left him broken. He needs a rest stop and some redirection. We take him in, listen to him, pray with him, and help him find a job. It hurts to see him struggle. He absorbs our support and guidance and then, one morning he suddenly decides he's ready. He packs his things and moves on. But my husband and I aren't ready; there is so much more we want to teach him. We are afraid he is not yet healed.

There are others too—each one close to the rim of adulthood, but in many ways, fathoms away. They come to us randomly and just for a while, some for a week, some for many months. Still others know they have a home here whenever they return. And, what's even stranger, we notice a pattern among them. Each allows us to see firsthand the struggles of a young adult who has suffered the trauma of having been rejected by at least one biological parent. We realize we are learning from them. My husband and I dive into this new parenting. And then, just as quickly as they came, these young adults move on, and our season of mentoring ends.

Now, feeling more prepared than ever for this venture, we are beginning to dig into the wait. My husband has mastered it. He is a free diver—determined and fearless. Hand visor over forehead, he'll look out toward the horizon, and he'll be perfectly okay with not being able to see into the water below. He doesn't wonder what lurks; he simply knows he can outswim it.

For me, what has come during this wait is more beautiful than I could ever imagine. An answer—risen from the silence. Our resolve comes not from words of encouragement but from real proof that we can and should do this. The proof's in all the children we've helped raise along the way.

Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published widely. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014) and the founder of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.

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Heather Vrattos is pursuing an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Center of Photography. She is the mother of three boys, and lives in New York City.

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