There is a title I worked months to earn, that I waited years to hear articulated. From the time I knew that we would gain a daughter from across the ocean, I prayed about it, pled for it, and then tried to lay down a foundation of security so that I might hear it spoken out loud, by her. What did I want so desperately to be called by my tiny beauty?
I knew I was her mama, but to hear that word loft from her lips as a sweet offering of acceptance and intimacy—it would be the culmination of so many dreams and prayers.
She spoke it for the first time about three months after her Adoption Day, mouth awkwardly maneuvering into position, trying to find her voice. Then at last: “Mmmaaammmaa.”
I was prepared for the joy, the elation, the relief I experienced with that sweet spoken word. At last! She knows I’m Mama. Do you know what I wasn’t ready for? The grief. Even now, when she looks at me with eyes full of trust and love that have been earned over many months, leans in close and whispers, “You’re my mama,” my heart contracts. It contracts with so much love and gratitude for the place to which we’ve come that I’m overwhelmed. Yet simultaneously . . . at the same exact moment . . . it squeezes with grief for the woman who originally bore that name. Right or wrong, my heart can’t help but whisper, “She should be saying this to her,” and I want to weep for this woman. I don’t at all feel guilty for being Lucy’s mother, but I ache because of the brokenness that made it necessary for me to be her mother.
The heartbreaking part of adoption is that in a perfect world, it would not exist. Families would stay together. Mothers would not be forced to leave their little ones behind. And so, we live in a constant state of dichotomy. With every milestone achieved, with each new display of affection or familiarity, we celebrate—and we mourn. We mourn for the one who would not, who could not remain in this priceless role of mother.
As our kids get older, they feel it, too. No matter what age a child is when adopted, there may always be an underlying sense of grief. Even infants adopted at birth can carry around a subconscious burden of loss that, in most cases, will somehow surface throughout life. They know they are special, they know they are chosen, they know they are loved, but they also know that their stories were birthed out of brokenness, and it hurts.
How do we—and our children—live with loss in a way that is redemptive instead of debilitating?
Disney attempted to answer this question in the surprisingly profound hit movie, Inside Out. The main characters of the film are the emotions of a little girl named Riley: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. While trying to navigate a season of loss in Riley’s life, Joy realizes that Sadness is a crucial component of Riley’s emotional health. If Sadness is not recognized and embraced, Joy is superficial and forced.
How true this is! If we simply stuff, hide, or ignore the very real element of loss in our children’s stories, the joy we try to offer them will feel shallow. If we choose not to recognize our own hearts’ opposing contractions of happiness and sorrow as we grow in intimacy with our children, we will never fully appreciate the gifts that have sacrificially been given to us. To be human is to experience both emotions simultaneously and not deny either one access to our hearts.
So, we celebrate milestones. We cheer on bonding and trust, and then we weep for the very same things. We weep for our children. We weep with our children. We say, “I know this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I’m so sorry.”
But there is more.
Disney did well, but they did not paint the full picture. As believers we know that this dichotomy will not always exist. There is a King who will return to make all things right, a Savior who will absorb the sorrow. In this we have amazing hope, and we can offer this hope to our children. Through tears we can proclaim, “Dear ones, this is not how it will always be. The King is coming. The King is coming! One day, the light will dawn and remain. The ache will dissipate. You will no longer feel conflicted. You won’t have to feel happy and sad for the exact same reasons. You will only find it easy to love. The day is coming—just you wait and see.”
And then? Joy. Only joy.
This article is an excerpt from Jennifer Phillips’ new book, 30 Days of Hope for Adoptive Parents, available at Amazon, Lifeway, or anywhere books are sold.
Jennifer is also the author of the widely-praised book, Bringing Lucy Home. She is the mother of four, including one precious daughter from China.
“However motherhood comes to you, it’s a miracle.” Valerie Harper