13 Oct Not Quite Mommy
No one told me I might not feel like a mom.
Ok, so that’s probably not actually true. I’m sure it was somewhere in our pre-adoption training. In fact, I distinctly remember a quote from an adoptive parent in our training book that said it is perfectly normal for the first few weeks (or months) to look across the table at your new child and secretly wonder, “What was I thinking?”
But if it registered in my brain at all, it was quickly dismissed, because it clearly didn’t apply to me. I mean, these other parents in the training book obviously just didn’t love their children like we loved Gideon. They probably had other kids to compare them to, or probably didn’t totally choose this path like we did, or some other factor that made this process entirely different for them.
Over the 6700 miles and 14 months that stretched between us, I had never (and likely will never) longed for something or someone as much as I did for our little boy. When we were told our legal process was delayed because the Korean agency assumed we wouldn’t want to move forward with our adoption, Brian had to stop me from buying a plane ticket and showing up on the doorstep of the Seoul Family Court building to give them a piece of my mind. When we were told Korea had serious concerns about our son’s development, we only fought harder for him. I truly felt like my heart was stuck in two hemispheres, and every fiber of my being ached for Gideon. Hear me when I say that every morning I woke up feeling like I couldn’t do one more day without him, and yet, somehow (still to this day I don’t know how), we made it.
Then when we met Gideon, my love for him only grew. And not just my “I’d give up anything for this kid” sort of love, but the warm, fuzzy feelings of love too. Our first meeting with our son was absolutely perfect, absolutely orchestrated by God to remind us that this tiny little human was ours and that we had all three been chosen to spend forever together. He fit perfectly, comfortably in my arms, relaxed against my shoulder and laughing nearly the whole time, and I never, ever wanted to let him go. Leaving Korea was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. I sobbed uncontrollably as the plane picked up speed on the runway, and I held the photo album foster mom had given us as though my very life depended on it. The ache for Gideon only grew stronger as the miles stretched back between us.
One month later, on April 2, Gideon’s foster mama placed our little boy in my arms and said her last goodbye. We stepped into the elevator, the doors closed, and I had this sudden – and shocking – feeling that Gideon felt awkward in my arms. I tried to reposition him, thinking maybe it was just a physical discomfort. After all, foster mom said he had grown like a weed in the month since we met him, and my arms weren’t yet accustomed to the extra weight.
We climbed into the taxi, and try as I might to convince myself otherwise, everything just felt wrong. His legs kept hitting the back of the driver’s seat. I kept scooting him up higher, but his limbs were sticking out stiffly in all directions under an enormous puffy vest that didn’t help my cause. He refused to bend into a sitting position, so I sort of just held him around the waist so his tense, stick-straight body wouldn’t slide off my lap for the 45-minute taxi ride back to our hotel. The sparkle in his eyes disappeared, replaced by a blank stare that honestly scared me. He didn’t cry (but we did). He just stared out the window, and I tried awkwardly to snuggle with 22 pounds of stiff toddler. I might as well have snuggled a 2×4.
We finally arrived back to the hotel, and I felt myself go into some sort of emotionless daze, a stark contrast to the 14 months of waiting for this little boy and feeling more and deeper emotions than I had ever experienced in my life. I distinctly remember walking behind him into our room, almost in a fog, and watching his little turned-in feet pad silently across the floor. He made a beeline for the stacking cups waiting for him, and as he unstacked them quietly on the floor, he seemed to withdraw into his own little world.
It was 70 degrees and sunny the day we became a family of three, and the taxi had been at least 80 degrees, if not closer to 85. Gideon was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, and his puffy winter vest, along with 2 pairs of pants. At this point, he was dripping with sweat, but I kept hearing the words of our social worker in my head, encouraging us, no matter how many layers our child had on at custody, not to start ripping off clothes, ripping off the last pieces of familiar, ripping away the last smells of a foster home he would never live in again.
So Brian and I gingerly took off his vest. And then the sweatshirt. Except the sweatshirt hole seemed entirely too small for his head, and it got stuck half-way off. Gideon started crying, and I did too. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing. We finally managed to get him down to one layer, one last layer of familiar, and my heart broke for him. Gideon just went back to his stacking cups.
The day suddenly stretched before us, empty, daunting. This was it, right? I mean, this was the moment we had waited for, longed for, dreamed about. This was the moment Brian and I became parents, the moment Gideon became our son. And now, here we were, four hours until bedtime, and I literally had no idea what came next. I had spent hours and weeks and months dreaming about the moments leading up to our son being in our arms, dreaming about the day we would be together forever. But I had never actually been able to imagine the moments after our little boy became part of our family.
I looked at the clock. We had survived parenthood for about an hour. Our parents and siblings were still asleep back in the States. We were alone with a child we didn’t even know. And that reality felt suffocating.
We didn’t have long to wait for an answer, because a few minutes later, the tears started to stream down our son’s face. Panic took over his little body. He laid his head on my chest, holding on to me for dear life, clinging to a mom he didn’t even know, and after a few minutes of heavy sobs, he fell asleep.
I felt the first glimmers of hope start to soften my heart again. We did it. We survived the first grieving episode, our baby wanted me – his Mommy – and now he was asleep, napping peacefully on my chest.
The hope lasted about 20 minutes. All of a sudden, Gideon started sobbing again, this time harder than before. He sat up, looked at me, and realized I wasn’t his Omma (foster mom). I was a mom, maybe, but not his mom. Not the mom he wanted. He suddenly became extremely angry. He started screaming at me. He didn’t want me, but he was terrified of being alone, so he started to push me away and pull me back at the same time. Back and forth. Push and pull. Over and over again. I hate you, don’t leave me.
Brian took him from me, and Gideon collapsed into his arms, screaming until he couldn’t breathe. He buried his head into Brian’s chest and tried to rock – the only way he knew to soothe himself. Nothing distracted him, and nothing took away his pain. He screamed for hours, desperately shouting “Omma” over and over again, desperately holding out hope for an Omma who was never coming back. If I came too close, he pushed me away. He already had an Omma, and I wasn’t her. Brian and I would wait until his breathing slowed and his eyes closed, and then we would let the tears come too. Tears because we couldn’t take away his broken heart. Tears because we had to let his heart break before it could heal.
And as much as I tried to understand his pain, as much as I would love to tell you I responded with deep, overwhelming empathy after those first few waves of grief, his rejection of me hurt my heart in a way I simply couldn’t have imagined. It stoked an anger deep inside me I didn’t know I had, and to protect myself and everyone else, I started to withdraw. I felt walls building around my heart. I had waited for, longed for, wanted our son so deeply, and now he didn’t want me.
The hours stretched into our first day as a family. I couldn’t really tell you what time we went to bed, or what we did, or how we made it through. But at some point, about 24 hours later, Brian and I realized we hadn’t eaten anything since we took custody. Gideon, having just finished another grieving episode, was sound asleep on Brian’s chest. I volunteered to walk the 2 blocks to Subway and bring us back dinner. Or lunch. Or whatever meal we wanted to call it.
I walked as slowly as I could, trying to let the cold, crisp air wake up my soul, wake me up from this emotionless daze hiding a deep hurt and a whole lot of grief. Tears streamed down my face as men in business suits hurried past. It must have been rush hour as everyone returned from a long day at work. But I honestly couldn’t say for sure.
It took me a few minutes to stumble through our order, and then I headed back to our hotel. To this day, Subway still brings back complicated emotions. Standing outside our room, hand barely on the doorknob as I fumbled for the key, I heard Gideon start screaming inside. My hand fell from the door, and I collapsed in a heap outside our hotel room. I considered running, just for a little while. I considered getting as far away as I could from the son who hated me. But I didn’t. I just cried. Sobbed, actually. Between Gid’s screaming and my constant tears, our poor cleaning lady probably thought we were the oddest family to ever stay at Somerset Palace. I couldn’t tell you if I spent 2 minutes or 2 hours in the hallway, but finally, with every ounce of resolve I could muster, I picked myself up, and I walked back into that room.
And I walked back into one of the biggest tidal waves of grief Gideon had had so far. In hindsight, I should have taken his screams as I opened the door as a glimmer of hope. He was upset that I had left without him. But my heart was still broken. And his hurt quickly turned to anger, just like mine. He still didn’t want me. He still couldn’t want me.
Gideon’s screaming lasted for what seemed like 8 years this time. And after his tears finally stopped, when he finally shared a tiny smile, I still couldn’t bring myself to touch him, to hold him. When Gideon was happy, I was his favorite. But when he grieved, he pushed me away so fiercely it was nearly impossible for my heart to rebound so quickly. He had pushed me away so hard, screamed in my face so loudly, I couldn’t bear the thought of letting him do it again. After a few minutes of Gideon trying to get my attention, trying to sit with this person I barely recognized as me, Brian leaned over to me and whispered, “Just hold him. He needs you. This isn’t really him, and his anger isn’t really about you. It’s grief. Same as yours.” And, though it took every ounce of courage left in my tired body, I did it. I pulled him into my lap and tried to take the first steps to letting him into my heart.
But I would be lying if I said holding our son felt normal, comfortable that day.
I had had these visions that our custody week in Korea would be full and adventurous. I had these visions of me placing a smiling Gideon into the carrier we had brought and exploring Gyeongbukgung Palace and Myeongdong Market as a new family of three. But Gideon didn’t want to be held, and he wasn’t about to get into the carrier. In fact, he didn’t want to leave the hotel at all. Anytime the door opened, he panicked. His heart rate would take off, and he’d be drenched in sweat within a few minutes. He would look around for us frantically, get to us as fast as he could, usually tripping over his feet in the process, and cling to us as though we might leave him forever. Looking back, those were all good things. His grief was helping him transform his deep attachment to foster mom into a deep attachment to us. But it was hard to see past my own grief, to see how much hope were in those moments.
I tried to soak up the lovely moments, and truly, there were lots of them, even when they were hard to see. Like the moments he would toddle over to me and “kiss” my face, something he learned from me during our first night together. Like the moments where he would watch intently how Brian twisted the cap on the water bottle or turned the touch-lamp on and then would mimic him. Like the moments where he would laugh hysterically at his empty Play-Doh cups. Like the moments when I would peek around the edge of his stroller while we waited on our food from a street vendor, and he would smile at me, his nose bright red from the cold. Like the moment an old lady stared at us and smiled, catching us in a fleeting moment where Gideon was staring into our eyes and seemed perfectly happy. Every once in a while, in those moments, a tiny sparkle would appear in Gideon’s otherwise blank eyes, and his whole face would light up. Literally, you could see it. His eyes would physically change, and we caught teeny tiny glimmers of who he was underneath the grief and trauma into which he withdrew.
And when I look back on our custody week in Korea, those are the moments I cling to, that I choose to remember. But I also feel like this is something people don’t talk about much in adoption, and deep down, if I was willing to go there, I still didn’t feel like his mom. He was chipping away at the wall I had put up around my heart, but often he still felt entirely like a stranger, like I didn’t even know him (and to be fair, he was basically a stranger to us, as we were to him). I had loved him since the first day I saw him, and I would have given my very life for him, but I still didn’t feel like he was ours.
We spent that first week together walking on eggshells, just trying not to upset our little buddy, but somehow, just like we survived the 14 months of waiting day by day, we made it to the end of our week in Korea. And somehow, thanks to some tiny miracles and Brian walking 6 miles with Gideon through Seoul Incheon airport (he was fine as long as he was moving), we found ourselves with passports and plane tickets in hand, about to board our 14-hour flight to Dallas, Texas. But at the gate, just before we boarded our enormous plane, Gideon absolutely lost it. He started sobbing, screaming, kicking, and hitting. People started staring, secretly hoping they weren’t the unlucky ones who had to sit next to the unprepared white parents and their uncooperative Korean toddler.
I could feel tears welling up in my eyes as I also felt a soft touch on my shoulder. I turned around to find a lady with her arms outstretched to take a flailing Gideon from my arms. She had kind eyes, and she smiled as she explained that she and her husband, who also smiled at us, had adopted their son, also smiling at us, from Korea 10 years ago. The three of them were just visiting this time, but she told us she recalled like it was yesterday how anxious and overwhelmed they felt waiting to fly back to the United States with their new son, a son they didn’t really know yet. Gideon stopped crying in the lady’s arms, and I told her we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. The lady laughed and said it was okay, that it would come and we would soon start feeling like a family too. I tried (and failed) to hold back tears, deeply hoping she was right. She handed Gideon back to me, and she wrote down their seat numbers, just in case we needed someone to hold Gid or change diapers during the flight. She checked on us several times until we landed in Dallas.
Yun and Dae – two friends who were also waiting for their son, and who we met through an adoption Facebook group – insisted we stay with them for our overnight layover in Dallas. They met us at the airport and shared our joy (and relief) that we were finally back home on American soil, with the longest part of our travels behind us! They treated us to an amazing Korean meal, helped us get settled in for sleep…and then graciously pretended they didn’t hear Gideon screaming all. night. long. We are so thankful for them and how they cared for our little family, even though I still can’t understand how we made it through that long night.
But again, by some miracle, we made it home. And Gideon absolutely loved his time meeting friends and family at the airport! We had low expectations about Gideon’s reaction to his welcome home committee, given that he was running on zero sleep and literally everything was new to him. But that time at the airport surrounded by friends and family filled us all so much, and made us realize how empty we had been. We had a restful night’s sleep that night, and then went through 4 days of absolute hell as Gideon adjusted to jet lag, grieved his old life, and pushed every boundary to make sure we were staying with him for real. Imagine screaming, throwing, kicking, hitting, and head banging every moment of every hour for four days straight, and that was about our first week home together. Understandable from a kid who had lost everything, but not the easiest when you’re living through it.
Then, on the fourth morning home, and our ninth day as a family, I went upstairs to get him out of his crib for the day. Unlike the previous mornings, where he woke up screaming his head off, this morning I found him sitting quietly in his crib, just taking in his surroundings. I opened the door to his room, and he turned to look. And when he saw it was me, when our eyes met each other’s, a huge grin broke out over his entire face. The sparkle was back in his eyes, and as I came closer, he lifted his arms up for me to hold him. He continued smiling, then cooed, then kissed me, for no other reason than because it was me. His Mommy. The walls around my heart started to crumble, then shattered. Though I had always loved him, for the first time since custody, I felt this warm, fuzzy feeling in my soul when I looked at him. And that’s when I started to process, to understand, to know that he was my son. And I was his Mom.
And every day since then, those fuzzy “mommy” feelings have grown, gradually and beautifully, until now I can honestly say I feel like he’s always been mine. To the point I now physically ache when he’s not around. To the point where I leave his room at bedtime and have to stop myself from going right back in to give him just one more hug. To the point where I can’t remember our life before Gideon or imagine our life now without him.
And that look he gave me that fourth morning home and our ninth day as a family, just because I was his Mommy? You should see it now. When Gideon sees Brian or me – particularly when he’s been at school or at Grandma and Grandpa’s all day – he lights up like a Christmas tree. His eyes turn into little crescent moons, and he literally shakes with excitement, from his head to his toes. He is, despite our initial fears about his diagnoses, the most affectionate kid you’ll ever meet. His blank eyes are gone, replaced with an unending sparkle and a contagious joy unlike anything I’ve ever known. And I believe with all my heart that God is redeeming Gideon’s story, helping him understand to the very depths of his soul that I am his Mommy, just as He is helping me understand to the very depths of my soul, that I am his Mommy too. Forever and for always.
But I share our story because I know I’m not the only adoptive mama who struggled, who felt lonely and broken, because being a mom didn’t come easy. And I share our story because it’s sometimes easy to forget that something as beautiful as adoption, as what our family has become, starts with a loss for Gideon we can never take away. And I share our story because I want Gideon to understand that sometimes love looks like a feeling, but the realest kind of love always involves choosing. And despite any hard days behind or ahead, there has never been – and there will never be – a moment that he wasn’t fully loved, wanted, and longed for.