This morning I find myself disassembling my daughter's bedroom. I pull her clothes from the pink chest of antique drawers and pack them away in plastic boxes. I take her drawings down from the walls, whimsical ink sketches of a little blonde girl wearing soccer clothes in different poses, and my heart tugs at the memory of the day she drew them. Then, I climb onto her bed and pluck the plastic stars that turned her room into a celestial universe from the ceiling above her pillow. These past few weeks have been an unraveling of sorts as we've tucked many of our family mementos away, leaving these rooms faceless like the children we have been waiting so long to meet.
When the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) first asked us to remove our children's belongings from their rooms to make way for the foster children we are going to adopt, I was frustrated by the request. After all, this is our home and our family, and we're opening them up to take in strangers. Isn't this enough?
As I rearranged closets to make room, it struck me how the last few steps in this adoption process involve undoing—the disassembling of spaces that hold family memories in order to make space for new members to join us. I worry that taking in two children who will need much time and attention may make our biological children, now young adults—the youngest in college—feel somehow discarded. I'm saddened by these impending changes to our wonderful family dynamic, and for a moment I wonder about the toll this will take. But, I believe that God asks us to surrender all to him, even those things we hold most dear, like family and home and memories. So, I fold the worry with the last of my daughter's clothing into a plastic box and carry that box down to the cedar closet in the basement.
While I finish working around the house, I pray that God will make space in our home and in our family, in our hearts and in our minds for these new children. Tonight, at least, we will finally be able to put some faces to this endeavor. Tonight we will finally meet the children who have been matched to our family for adoption—a brother and sister, young teens. Their current foster parents are dropping them off at our house for dinner. If things work out—if they feel they fit well with us and we with them—they will be placed to live in our home.
The children arrive earlier than promised, and I'm the only one home at the time. I open the door to the foster father, whom I had met before, and two bright faces. I invite them in. They stand close to him, wide-eyed, searching my face to see what life I have to offer them. Their foster father introduces them to me as Evan* and Kate* and then announces that he has to leave for an appointment. Unexpectedly, I find myself alone in the front hall with the children, an awkward silence rising between us.
I've always been comfortable with children. Now, at this moment, it's as if everything I know has been turned on its head. Sure, I've helped children before, but never before did I undertake to be their mother, and this thought makes the pressure monumental. But as I look at these teenagers, small for their ages but cheerful and excited, I remind myself that mothering is what I do, and I breathe more easily. I lead them through the front hall, and we head towards the kitchen.
I ask small questions, and they provide small answers.
"What did you guys do today?"
"We went to camp."
"Hey, are you hungry?"
"Do you like burgers?"
"How about if I show you around and then we'll get something to eat?"
I don't want to feel discomfort around this. I want it to feel natural, but the truth is nothing feels natural about taking a stranger's teenage children into your home and playing the role of their parent. I say a hurried prayer for something, anything that will help me connect with these children more quickly.
And then, as we round the corner into the kitchen, our puppy lights up the room. We have a Pomsky, the most lovable, hairy, beautiful thing of a dog. He just laps and licks and wags his tail. I had left him on a leash in the kitchen just in case the children weren't comfortable with him, but when they see him, they drop to the floor with excitement.
I unleash him and sit on the floor with them. We talk about what he eats and where he came from. About his silly habits and how he hates being brushed but loves ice cream. We laugh at how he likes to carry his two stuffed "lambs" around and pretend that they are his children until bedtime comes and he leaves them tossed on the floor with exhaustion. Evan and Kate giggle and rub his belly, and I watch their faces warm and relax. Then I show them how to make our puppy howl. We sit together in a circle and howl along with him, this puppy and his new pack.
As the evening moves on, whenever conversation wanes, I just turn the attention to puppy, and we talk more about him. Clearly, he will be instrumental in this transition, a bridge between strangers—the first to reach out and accept these children with a full and open heart.
I show the children around our home. They are excited to see where we live; they look in every room and every closet. Kate beams when she sees the beautiful pink room that will be her bedroom if they decide to stay. Yet, when I ask them what they would think of living here, their responses are guarded. "It's all right," Kate says. I have to remind myself this is not a rescue in their eyes.
Then we go outside. They love that we have grass to run on, woods to explore, and a pool to play in. Yet, at the same time, they seem to take it all in stride. I try to imagine what this might be like for them—to walk into an unfamiliar home and decide whether it's a place where you want to live. Giving control over your life to a complete stranger must be daunting. How does a child learn to trust when the people who should have been the most reliable in their lives have proved untrustworthy?
My husband and two of my children arrive home one-by-one shortly after we finish our tour, and later still a couple of friends show up as well. Suddenly we have a full house as we sit around our large kitchen table to eat. I feel strengthened by the support of my family and friends.
Evan and Kate seem to love the company. They join in the conversation and laugh at every story my oldest tells about his wild childhood adventures. Intrigued with these young adults, the children repeat their words as if the mantra to a happy life. It's clear how much they want to be a part of something bigger. They laugh between eating big helpings of everything we offer. They ask for more stories, and then they begin to share their own.
They tell of unsuitable places they have lived and necessities they have gone without. I look around my table, and I see solemn faces struggling to hide the surprise at how hard times can be shared with ease as if the things they are telling us shouldn't make us want to shut our eyes and shake them off. I'm proud of my children and their friends, watching them handle the interaction with compassion.
My own children make Evan and Kate feel wanted and welcome. Already, I can see the effect this journey will likely have on our family. We will not be disassembled; we will grow together through this endeavor, meeting the needs of our new family members.
We talk and laugh into the evening, play some card games, and eat some more. The children are high energy. Sometimes they act as if they think they are adults, debating our opinions and correcting our words, and it pangs me to see this seriousness in children so young, children who perhaps didn't get a full chance to be carefree. At the same time, they are clearly still children—in how they think, what they like, and what they find funny. As I see how they react to our family, I begin to understand that it's okay to share some of our family memories with them. I know now that these memories will show them who we are and how we will treat them.
Ten o'clock comes, and the children don't want to leave. When the doorbell rings, they run to hide behind the couch. We feel uncomfortable for their foster parents because we know they have been good to these children and we don't want to see their feelings hurt. But, underneath, I'm happy that the children already like it here.
Before they leave, Evan asks my husband if we will adopt them. He says he knows we are the right parents for him and for his sister. My husband and I are amazed by his insight. I think back to the little girl I had once imagined we would take in—Annabelle, sweet and quiet, but perhaps closed off and difficult to reach. These children are not closed off at all. They are open and loving and ready to learn. They are just what we asked for, just what we prayed for.
Over the next couple of weeks, we spend only two more days with the children before DCYF decides to allow them to move in. After waiting a year for a match, suddenly two teens are moving into our home, into the rooms upstairs that were once our children's. As we introduce our extended family and friends to them one-by-one, we feel hope when the response of each person is always the same as what we know in our hearts—these children fit into our family so well.
Tonight I lie in bed feeling a sense of completeness. It's as though a small miracle or two just worked their way into our home.
*Not their real names to protect their privacy.