Adjusting to Three Children, Three and Under
When our oldest son, James, was three years old, my husband and I began the adoptive process once again. We anticipated adopting a baby girl this time. We filled out all the paperwork, sent it to the adoption agency, and began the expected wait. When the referral picture came, we learned that there had been a mix-up and we were being offered a baby boy. When we asked what happened, the agency didn’t know but said we could “reject” the referral for a boy and place another request for a girl. I experienced an unexplainable connection with the baby boy in picture who is now our son Jesse. Plus, I couldn’t stand the thought of “rejecting” any orphaned baby. After talking it over, we decided to keep his referral and request another referral for a baby girl. God provided for us to adopt both of them together.
This time, the adoption process was a little different than before. One parent was required to take an initial trip to Vietnam to see the babies in person and formally “accept” them before the process could continue. To my joy and delight, I had the privilege of meeting Jesse at five months old and Joy when she was just two months old. She was a joy even then, smiling up at me as I held her. It was difficult to leave them behind and return back home. The wait seemed unbearably long, but it was only a few more months before we were given our final travel date.
Grandma flew in to stay with James for the two weeks we were gone. The plan was for her to take him to the library each day to “talk with Mommy and Daddy” and read what we’d written to him that day. We flew into Vietnam and were driven out to the orphanage. When we arrived, only Joy was there. It was wonderful seeing her again, knowing this time I didn’t have to say goodbye. She was still full of smiles. Jesse, we were told, was at the hospital. He was sick and needed treatment so he could be ready to fly home safely. Later that day, we were able to pick him up and take him back to our hotel room.
The next morning, Jesse was so upset that it induced vomiting. He was old enough to be aware of differences in faces, languages, and his surroundings and he reacted intensely to all of it. Between having his life turned upside down and recovering from his illness, he cried most of the time, only calming down for a couple of native people who worked at the hotel. This was very difficult as we had various meetings and appointments to attend and legal paperwork that needed to be done.
Back in the hotel room, we had some fun times together despite the frequent tears. By our second week together, Jesse was beginning to tolerate me, but he still screamed in fear and anger when my husband would attempt interaction with him. Some of his reactions led us to suspect that he had experienced excessive abuse, probably by a male. There was much about his behavior that was confusing to us and we did not begin to understand until years later. An element of concern for us was a tendency toward aggressive behavior with Joy, which was distinctly noticeable from our first days together. We had our hands full monitoring and caring for both children. Dynamics were so different; I began to feel much like a first-time parent again. We managed the best we could, hoping things would settle down a bit after we returned home.
Meanwhile, James was eagerly awaiting our return. The first week he did well, excited for these new little babies to come home. But by the second week, he had hit his three-year-old limit of patience. Grandma warned me that James no longer wanted a brother or sister, just his mommy and daddy back home.
When they met us at the airport, James ran up to me, throwing his arms around me while simultaneously pushing against the baby I held in my arms. “Mommy, take them back. I don’t want them anymore.” I knew instantly that how I handled the moment was critical. I needed James to willingly accept these babies, not feel resentful because he had no choice. I sent up a frantic prayer, not knowing how to respond. Immediately, I felt God’s peace wash over me and a thought popped into my head. I appealed to him, “James, if we send these babies back, they will have no one to take care of them, no one to feed them, no one to change their diaper, and no one to hold them. But if we take them home, you can help me feed and take care of them because they can’t do it for themselves.” James sat back and very seriously considered this for a few moments. Then, with a decisive nod of his head, he announced, “We will take the babies home. They will live with us, and I will help take care of them!” From that day forward, James became the Big Helper. He started that very night, insistent upon helping feed both babies and helping with the diaper changes. He helped prepare Joy’s bottle and feed her. Then, he pulled up a chair alongside the high chair and began feeding Jesse while rediscovering the taste of baby food for himself: a bite for Jesse, then a bite for himself; a bite for Jesse, then a bite for himself . . . I smiled as I watched. What a joy it was to see the connection between them already begin! I thanked God for those words of wisdom at the airport!
In the coming days, I found myself grateful for the little things to smile at. While in Vietnam, we had noticed that Jesse seemed to be much more traumatized than either James or Joy had. He continued to display extreme behavior that was not normal for a baby his age. Unlike most babies, he rejected human touch, avoided eye contact, and resisted attempts at bonding. He exhibited unreasonable anger and continued to cry for hours at a time, quieting when he managed to crawl away into a room by himself. I didn’t know what to do with this. I had no frame of reference. But I knew that every baby needed to be loved and cuddled. So when the other two were down for their naps, I’d hold and rock Jesse and pace the floors as he cried, while singing and talking to him. I prayed as I sang, not knowing how to reach this child who demonstrated such mental pain, anguish, and suffering. His wounds went deeper than I’d ever witnessed before, especially in one so young.
When the tears were spent and his little body physically exhausted, he’d lie limp in my arms, listless and without much interest in anything around him. James would talk with him, sparking a tiny bit of life in his eyes. I’d read books, holding all three of them on my lap. Each of the babies formed an attachment to James, for which I was thankful. However, Jesse’s contact with Joy continued to be filled with competition. It seemed to feed an anger and result in more reactiveness. I had a full-time job keeping my eye on them. Every day felt like a landmine. I felt like I was back at square one. The training I’d learned with James didn’t seem to “take” with Jesse. He fought against everything, attached himself to nothing, and his responses were puzzling and difficult. I didn’t understand what was going on. It wasn’t until years later that Jesse was diagnosed with severe Reactive-Attachment Disorder. I again reached out to the older ladies at church, but repeatedly my attempts at trying a variety of things failed. Nothing conventional worked.
In desperation, I listened again to Mike and Debi’s teachings on children. They had put out new DVDs by then, so I bought them and watched them over and over, absorbing everything I could that might help me navigate the stormy waters I found myself in. One thing stuck with me and gave me hope above all: “if you can’t do all the right things, but you can be the right person, then you can successfully raise your child.” I didn’t know all the right things to do, but I realized that I could be the right person. I could be a mother who was grateful, quick with a smile, and one who demonstrated joy. I could be a person of my word, being careful with what I said, and search for opportunities to build my children up. I could choose to be quick to apologize, repent openly to my children, and admit when I was wrong. As I share in my book, “Homeschool With Ease, the Baby Years & Beyond,” it was this simple yet profound truth that influenced me throughout my children’s youth and growing up years. It is still what influences my interaction with my young-adult children today.
I began to focus on changing me, becoming the mother my children needed me to be. As I did so, I began to notice a change around my home. There was more peace. Sometimes the calm was within the midst of a storm, but it was still there. I didn’t always know how to directly help my son, but I began to learn how to respond to him in ways that brought us to a more peaceful end. And then the miraculous happened.
One day I learned to be thankful for Jesse’s high sensitivity radar and his low tolerance for flexibility, change, or parental mistakes. That day was a turning point for me. Everything did not change overnight. We walked through many hard years together—but we did it together. I never gave up on Jesse. I kept going back to the drawing board and to my knees in prayer. I firmly believed that since God gave me Jesse, he would provide me with what I needed to help him.
It took me some time to realize that James and Joy also had deep needs since Jesse’s needs often overshadowed theirs. Ironically, however, it was through recognizing Jesse’s needs that I became more aware of James’ and Joy’s needs. For this I was grateful. Since James and Joy were not as reactive, I would have missed the extent of their needs if I hadn’t become aware of them through Jesse’s recurring reactiveness. I realized the great privilege and depth of responsibility God had called me to when he placed each of my children into my care. It was my job to represent God’s love and be faithful in training and pursuing them in relationship and fellowship.
God was so faithful to us during those early years! Though it was not an easy path, we had many fun and memorable moments along the way. Sometimes we had so much fun that Jesse forgot to be sad. He had a great laugh and a huge smile, and I loved when he’d roll on the floor in a belly laugh. I worked hard to see him smile. I learned from Debi the importance of tying strings with smiles. Though Jesse often worked just as hard to disconnect those strings, I learned to live in the present and treasure each moment we enjoyed together, not worrying about tomorrow or regretting yesterday. It took time, but eventually Jesse began to respond in relationship and started to make purposeful choices toward connecting with others.
Today, Jesse is a young man known for his politeness and fun-loving, outgoing personality. He is my social bug. His passion is the outdoors and he loves to work hard. He is an accomplished chef, turning out amazing meals in the kitchen, and he is skilled in all areas of housework. Relationships can still be a battleground for him, and he must be conscientious and purposeful about them, but he continues to grow and leave behind the mountains from his past. He has overcome so much already in his short life, and I am one proud mama!
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Wonderful article! Tom and adoptive father of two children living in Japan.