Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Holland vs. Italy: the tale of parenting a special needs child


Emily Perl Kingsley

"I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel.

It's like this......When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.
 After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."
"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."
But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.
But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland."

Mike and I went to the first night of a six week seminar for parents who have children with emotional, behavioral and/or mental illness issues.  It is put on by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).  This story was the first thing that was shared.  It struck me in a way I didn't expect.

While listening to this, I heard it from the perspective of the first adoptive parents of children who have gone through a disruption.  They had an idea of what international adoption would look like, feel like and be like.  As it turned out, the true story is that it isn't all a "dream come true".  It's hard.  Parenting a child from a hard place is very hard.  It's exhausting with little to no pay off on your end as the parent.  I'm lucky that my children all have very minor attachment issues and are able to form a loving relationship with me, but a lot of adoptive parents are not so lucky.

The two disruption situations we have been through were vastly different.  The one commonality is that both families also had biological children in the home.  This is not something that I can relate to, since we chose not to have any bio kids in our family, but I have often wondered if adoptive parents who already have bio kids when they adopt expect the feelings they have for their bio kids to be exactly the same for their adopted child.  Maybe that's their Italy.  I'm not saying that that scenario isn't possible, but it has to be different.

A bio kid comes out of the womb knowing no one but you.  They need you, they learn unconditional love from you.  They are protected by you.  When you adopt a child, especially when it's not a newborn, you receive that child along with all of their trauma.  You have to do the work to bond to that child.  It is not automatic.  It's not easy.  You have to learn to love one another.  Our children spend a lot of intentional time on our laps, we fed them at the dinner table when they were 4 & 5 years old.  We look for any kind of interaction we can in order to mimic the kind of bonding that a newborn and a mother would share.

It takes a very long time, it doesn't always work and it can be heartbreaking.  If you have bio kids as well I can understand how this would put so much stress on your relationships with each of them as well as stress on the family as a whole.  This is why I can empathize with families who choose to disrupt.  Even though I do not understand it in most instances, I always try not to judge them.  That has to be one of the hardest decisions of someone's life.  I have to assume that they would only go forward with the disruption if they believed in their heart that it was in the best interest of the child.  This is where my faith in God comes in.  God has plans for all of our lives, and sometimes those plans are messy, but if we trust Him and listen to Him the end result will be a blessing that we could have ever imagined.

Maybe most people like Italy.  It's pretty there, the food is decadent, it's gorgeous and the weather is great.  I happen to love Holland.  I have always lived a bit off of the beaten path and had to be the one swimming upstream, against the current.  Most people can have Italy.  I'll hang out in Holland, where it may be messy, but it's a beautiful mess.


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