It's the night before my first (legal and official) Mother's Day, and I am overwhelmed with two feelings: love and guilt.
The love part is obvious. I love my kids in that glorious way that language falls short of describing. The word itself means so much, and so little. It's the most powerful emotion we're capable of having, and yet it gets tossed around in everyday conversation so often. Today alone, I've loved a new kind of yogurt I tried for the first time at the breakfast table, I loved the dress that a friend was wearing, and I loved, loved, <em>loved </em>this song I heard on the radio. Seriously. I was full of love.
The way we love each other is so different from those other things, and yet somehow we haven't come up with another word to use for it. Man on the moon? Check. The capability to have live, full color, full picture conversations with each other over tiny computers that fit into our pockets? Check. A word that differentiates between the amazing, heat bursting, misty eyed feeling we have for the people we'd die for and the "Turn it up, this is my sooooonnnngggg!" feeling we get when hearing a surprise Sonic Youth song on college radio? Not so much.
But this love, here? The love that I feel constantly, that spikes every time I look at, talk to, or merely think of my kiddos? This love is like the excitement of every Christmas morning rolled into one. It's like if you took every happy moment in your entire life and balled it up, and stuck it in a special place inside your mind where it just played on repeat. And on the crappiest poop sandwich of a day, when everything seems to be going to hell and nothing is right, it's the realization that you're being ridiculous because, c'mon. Everything can't be wrong. They exist.
So, why the guilt?
The short answer is this: I didn't always love my kids. In fact, there was a time, long, long ago, that I didn't think I could be their Mom. There was a time that I was mere seconds away from telling the caseworker that they needed to find another family because I just. couldn't. do it.
This is really hard for me to talk about, but if there is one thing I know about foster care and adoption, it's that there needs to be a lot of honesty when we talk about the process. Our story has a happy ending, but it was rough going for a few weeks in the beginning. I don't ever want anyone to think that it's nothing but magic and marvel, because the reality is that it's not - for either the kids, or the parents.
Think of it this way: when you meet someone for the first time, there's a lot that needs to happen before you can develop a relationship with them. You need to learn about them, and they need to learn about you. You need to find out who they are, what they like, how they'll react to certain situations. You need to trust them, you need to earn their trust, you need to find out all the things about them that are off limits, and they need to learn your boundaries.
Here is how I met my kids: the Friday before Labor Day 2011, a van pulled up outside our house. Scout bounded out immediately, ran around our driveway a few times, and then plopped himself down on the concrete. We walked over and said hello. He grunted in reply. Sunny bawled her eyes out and clung to the social worker. She refused to make eye contact with either of us.
The caseworkers were there for about twenty minutes. We signed some paperwork, and then they left. Both kids were filthy. They were covered in open sores. Their teeth had noticeable rot. Sunny had head lice. Scout was three and a half but could barely speak. He mostly ran around the house. And then ran some more. We put some food out, and they ate. And ate. And ate. They grunted and pointed for more food. They ate until we thought they might throw up.
Sunny wouldn't let us touch her, which made changing her diaper difficult. We showed them their rooms, we showed them their toys, we put on a movie. And then we tried to settle down for the evening, with these two little strangers that couldn't communicate, wouldn't look us in the eye, and were confused and devastated about why they were in a new place with new people. It still breaks my heart to think about what they must have been going through.
That night, Sunny woke up screaming no less than a dozen times.
The next few days continued like that, and, looking back, I'm not proud of the way I handled it. In front of the kids, I was fine. I blew bubbles in the backyard and we ate popsicles. I took them to the doctor and scheduled speech evaluations, and I was exceedingly gentle and patient. I even made Sunny smile a few times, which felt like reaching the peak at Everest. But, quite a few times, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, locked the door, and cried.
I was overwhelmed. Overnight, Jeremy and I became the parents of two toddlers we had never met before, and I was emotionally and mentally unprepared. And I knew - I just <em>knew</em> - that I couldn't do it.
We couldn't leave the house, save for the backyard, because the kids were in such bad condition. Scout in particular was incredibly wild, like a tiny, blond wildebeest. His lack of communication frustrated me, and frustrated him even more. Sunny wasn't used to attention. Her legs were stiff from being strapped into car seats placed on the floor instead of held. Her top front teeth had rotted out from the bottles propped in her mouth to keep her quiet. She didn't laugh, smile, or seem particularly interested in playing or being fawned on.
And so, a few days in, Jeremy and I were lying in bed, and I was sobbing. I said to my husband "We can't do this. They need so much more than we can give them. We have to call the caseworker and disrupt the placement. I just can't do this." And because he is an incredible human being, and a patient and loving husband, he looked at me and said "I think you can. I think <em>we</em> can." And because I was an emotional, cooped up, overwhelmed, exhausted human being, I looked at him and said "Noooooooo I caaaaaannnnn't!"
And then he said the wisest thing that anyone has ever said, the perfect thing at the perfect moment. "Give it two weeks. At the end of two weeks, if you still think we can't do it, we make the call."
Two weeks. Fourteen days. Three hundred thirty six hours. Seemed feasible. Gandhi went three weeks without food, for crying out loud. I could do two weeks. And I was positive that once the two weeks were over, I would call the social worker and tell them that I was now completely and utterly sure that we just couldn't meet the needs of these kids, and they needed to come get them and bring them to someone that could.
And so it went that way for days. A week, even. But then things started to happen. First of all, on my fourth attempt, I successfully eradicated head lice and stopped the phantom itching of my own (lice free, thank god) head. I got the diaper changing down to a science and stopped gagging at the smell. We developed a routine with bedtime. I learned what foods they liked and what music made them smile. We ventured out of the house together and they started daycare with relatively few bumps. Things were kind of working.
And then, on the eve of the two weeks, we put the kids to bed. It was still warm enough to have the windows open, and Jeremy and I sat together on the couch, enjoying the breeze and a well earned beer. Everything was completely silent. We had spent the day at the zoo,our first big outing together, and as I replayed the events of the day in my mind, I suddenly became filled up with the thought of their little faces.
I missed them. They were asleep, in their rooms, and I missed them.
And that was that. Love. New, fragile, unsure, insecure, but love. It was there, and I knew it. And I knew there would be no phone call to the caseworker in the morning. Even if they were only with us for a few more weeks. or a few more months, even if they went to a relative or their parents completed their plan and they returned to them, it didn't matter. I loved those little people, and I would give them my all for as long as I could.
Maybe guilt isn't the right word to describe this emotion either, but it's the closest I can come. Tonight, all the words I know are failing me. To remember those first two weeks, to remember a time where I contemplated giving them up, gives me a rush of panic. This gigantic love, this bigger than anything in the world feeling, these years of happiness, all of this almost <em>wasn't.</em>
I suppose adoption is much like conception, a series of tiny miracles all aligned to fall into place at exactly the right place, at exactly the same time. And tonight, as I kissed my kiddos and tucked them into bed, I knew that everything that led them to me, and me to them, was exactly as it should have been.