I first met Vanessa at the Story Sessions launch party at the start of 2014. She has a wonderful sense of humor, and it’s a joy to get to know her. She’s helping me kick off this series on Pressing In. I know her words will encourage you.
The bumper sticker said: “I’m paper pregnant! Adoption=love makes a family.” I smiled at it, remembering our paper pregnancy and adoption application. For more than two years, we juggled the adoption requirements of our country, the application requirements of our child’s birth country, and the immigration process for both countries. Our adoption was a roller coaster ride of emotions and regulations. Was it worth it? Absolutely, yes, and again yes.
For most families who adopt, the adoption proceeds smoothly, but our adoption “pregnancy” lasted 7 years. I learned that sometimes the adoption process is not completed, because of things the adoptive parents cannot control – adoption miscarriages. I learned that adoptions can include happiness, grief, excitement and frustration. Preparation helps, but adoption is like other ways of becoming a parent: there are no guarantees. But adoptive parents don’t talk about that, because “Adoption=Ambiguity” makes a lousy bumper sticker.
Adoption means accepting the wait and the uncertainty. Adoption taught me that my intellect could not carry me through pain, loneliness and frustration so deep that my chest ached. It taught me to believe in a God who stands with me as I mourn. Before, my relationship with God meant offering good deeds and prayer, as if they were bargaining chips in a cosmic card game. I’d never learned to rest in God, to say, no matter what happens, I believe. Now I know that whatever I’ve received from God, I could not earn and I did not win as a prize for good behavior. And I believe.
On our fifth wedding anniversary, we went to the Embassy of Rwanda for an adoption application. After years of trying to get pregnant and to adopt, we were still childless. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the embassy meant scraping up the last bits of faith and hope. We held hands, said a prayer, and walked up the steps, through the doors. It took two years to complete the adoption application and the wait for approval and child referral. For most of that time, we didn’t receive updates and didn’t know the status of our application.
Sometimes the process of adopting a child felt like Advent: joyful expectation. Sometimes it felt like Advent without any hope of Christmas. Waiting was the hardest part. We didn’t know if the government would approve our application. If they approved, we didn’t know if we’d receive a child referral. If we received a referral, we didn’t know when we would travel to Rwanda. Adoption leans hard on your weakest spots; ours were pride and control. Adoption was a process where we did not, could not, control the end result. It was not a process where we could not jolt ourselves into optimism with affirmations. Adoption was a process whereby the selfish, arrogant parts of ourselves died.
I wish I could say that we “gave it all to the Lord” and knew the adoption would work out; we didn’t. We flew to Rwanda with only a photo of our daughter and her birth date; we knew it could all crumble after we arrived. We knew our story might not end the way we wanted. But we chose to believe in a real and present God, not a Santa Jesus, but a Savior we could trust.
Over and over, we kept choosing to believe that we could trust God, until we knew it, really knew it, the way you know the shape of your face or the way your spouse’s name sounds when you speak. We were changed. Whatever the result, we knew God would be with us.
Our daughter will turn three next month. She reminds me that miracles are real. My husband calls her “S3” (S cubed)– our strong, smart, sweet girl. This adoption journey taught me that God can be trusted in the hardest of days, in the deepest of grief, and I rejoice.
Still, the joy of our adoption comes from loss. Our daughter has other family members: she is a granddaughter, a sister, a cousin who will not grow up in the same country. The nuns who cared for her will see photos, but they won’t know her daily stories, her favorite candy, the songs she sings. She is Rwandan and American, and I am her mother in all the important ways, but it is not exactly the same, and I cannot change that. She’ll be an African daughter raised by a Caucasian mother, and she’ll face complexities of culture, privilege, ethnicity, racism, and identity. I will love her; I will protect her; I will help her; I will cheer for her each time. But it will be her struggle, I will never fully feel what it is like, and I cannot change that, either. All I can do is give thanks, and pray to be worthy of the trust placed in me, that I am mother to a daughter born of another woman.
Through adoption, we learned about grief and joy, strength and weakness, grace and penance. For me, all the lessons of adoption come to this: I cannot control all of it, and it’s not finished yet. We are learning still, about being a family, and discerning where we are called. I thought adoption was a linear process, from Point A (applying to adopt) to Point B (completed adoption). Now I realize that adoption, like all parenting, isn’t a progression from A to B to C. It jumps from A to C, then maybe to B, then A again. Most of all, I realize grief and loss are as much a part of life as joy, and I don’t fear them as much as I did. The lessons I learned as part of this adoption process are wonderful and terrible; I regret none of them.
All my life I will feel grateful that we could adopt, for many reasons, but none more than this: we were placed in the refiner’s fire, and came out whole.
Vanessa Johnson is a technical analyst, writer, and artist, whose work has taken her to West Virginia, Canada, East Africa and all points in between. Her writing credits include religious publishing houses, research presses, and the Government Printing Office. She worships with her family at St. Vincent DePaul Church, where she serves as a task force member, liturgy planner, and coffee cake baker. She is a member of The Catholic Writer’s Guild and The Story Unfolding/Story Sessions artists community. She writes about religion, race, money, and everyday holiness at God’s Beautiful Mess and shares quirky stuff @johnsonvaness