13 Nov Korea Trip 2: Custody to Visa
MONDAY, APRIL 2 (GIDDY DAY)
We’ve already talked at length about the big emotions that defined our first day and first week as a family, so we’ll spend most of our time this post just talking through the highlights of our first week with Gideon. But suffice it to say, our first week together was hard. So very hard. Adoption training mostly focuses on your child’s grief and attachment, and those things are so important. But grief and attachment are two-way streets, and I still carry a lot of guilt that I didn’t immediately feel like a mom and that I, in my own grief, didn’t feel especially equipped to be wholly present for Gideon’s tidal waves of grief those first few days together. I’m getting there, working through that old guilt, but it still resurfaces from time to time.
Also, as a side note, just know those first feel weeks will feel like forever. Like things will always be this way. Like things will always be this hard. Like your child will never bond, never sleep, never eat, never transition from their bottle, never do all the things you thought they would. But I’m here to remind you, those first weeks aren’t forever. Things will get better, and easier, and you’ll find your groove as a family. Give yourself, your spouse, and your baby the time and space to get to know each other. And practice lots of grace in the meantime. Lots and lots and lots of grace.
As we said goodbye to Gideon’s foster parents and made our way back to our hotel, the sparkle in Gideon’s eyes disappeared, replaced by a blank stare that he only broke as we drove through several long tunnels. I know I come back to Gideon’s eyes a lot, but they have literally, physically changed. His eyes were almost entirely black in Korea, to the point we had to learn where he was looking because you could hardly see his pupils. They say eyes are the windows to the soul, and this seems to be particularly true for Gideon. In the days and weeks after Giddy Day, you could literally see his eyes go “dark” – we called these his “dead eyes” – when he went into a period of grieving, of sadness. Slowly, miraculously, we stopped seeing his blank, black eyes, for a few minutes at first, then hours, then days. He still has dark eyes, but they have lightened from black to a deep brown, and the sparkle has returned in the months since we became a family. Seriously, his eyes have literally changed.
But on that first day, we mostly saw his blank, black eyes. As he started to explore our hotel room, making a beeline for his stacking cups, he seemed to withdraw into his own little world. Then, just a little while later, grief came quickly and heavily. Tidal wave after tidal wave of grief washed over Gideon, and I am almost certain there will never be anything more heart wrenching or more difficult, nothing that causes us to feel so helpless or broken, as watching our son’s heart shatter into a million pieces and not being able to comfort him. Anger, sadness, and desperation all found their place in our son’s soul, and we held him, and we prayed, and we cried with him, knowing we couldn’t take away his broken heart, knowing we had to let his heart break before it could heal. Some families get a “honeymoon period” with their new child. We all just dived headfirst into grief.
I had envisioned exploring Seoul with a happy Gideon, just like so many of the adoptive families who went before us. But Gideon didn’t want to leave our room. He didn’t want to be held. He wanted to stay right where he was, in the one tiny place he could fabricate a sense of safety for himself, and that reality was harder for me than I anticipated. Comparison may be the thief of joy in the rest of life, but expectation is the thief of joy in adoption. And, I guess, when it comes down to it, the two aren’t all that different in the end.
Gideon fell asleep on my chest for just a few minutes before he awoke again and realized I wasn’t his Omma, before he realized he was angry I wasn’t her. After that, he clung to Brian, for hours on end, and that day was, without a doubt, the saddest day of our lives.
Between waves of Gideon’s grief, we FaceTimed with my parents and Brian’s parents, trying to celebrate our new son and their new grandson. He ate a whole bottle, an entire banana, and 10 bites of yogurt, which we thought was pretty good for day one. And Gideon, despite all his grief, was SO snuggly that night! I kissed his nose a lot – I called it “stealing kisses” – to make him laugh. And then he started trying to “kiss” my nose too, which in Gideon’s world meant biting my nose, forehead, whatever he could get. It was an amazing and wonderful glimpse of Gideon’s heart between the grief and his anger for me, and I will forever cherish those moments.
Gideon went to sleep in his own crib that night, just like he was used to in his foster home. He fell asleep within a few seconds and didn’t wake up until 5:30am, except to roll over a few times. I, for my part, freaked out all night long and texted people back home to make sure he was breathing, not too hot, not too cold, and wouldn’t suffocate with the crib bumpers that are not so uncommon in Korea. More than once, I placed my hand silently on his back, just to feel its soft rise up and down, just to make sure he was okay.
TUESDAY, APRIL 3
We awoke to a quiet, but relatively happy little boy. We gave him his bottle, rushed through our showers, and headed downstairs for breakfast. Despite his anxiety with new places, he seemed to quickly find the courage to walk around to every table and try to grab other people’s cups. And we quickly learned that his wobbly legs and weak core didn’t slow him down when he really wanted something!
We took him to the playroom in Somerset Palace for the first time, and we met a “friend” named Charlotte. We would see Charlotte over and over again throughout that week, and her family became a source of normal and familiar for us. Gideon was extremely apprehensive as he checked out the playroom and wanted us close at all times.
Then we returned to our room, where Brian taught Gideon how to use the touch lamp. He was a fan.
We enjoyed a few moments of normal before two big waves of grief hit again. Gideon seemed to grieve most at naptime, and this day was no different. Except this time, he adamantly wanted Brian and absolutely nothing to do with me.
I went down the street to grab Subway – our first food in the 36 hours since custody – and cried the whole way there and the whole way back, willing myself to have the strength to move forward, trying desperately to get out of this fog I found myself in. I texted Kelli and Kenzie, spilling all of my fears and hurts and grief, and the two of them were life-giving to me. They truly helped me find the courage to open our hotel door and walk back into a room full of anger and screaming and tears.
This time, I found myself apprehensive to hold Gideon again, because both of our hearts hurt that I was a trigger for his grief. 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 I did. It took every ounce of energy left in my body, but I did. Gideon looked up at me and smiled. Smiled.
Later that evening, we FaceTimed with Dana and Jamie out in the garden, and Gideon cheesed a big smile at them! We ventured a little further, just a quick lap around Insadong, but I felt my heart reviving a little…until I realized I had forgotten Gideon’s snack. Already we were discovering his aversion to foods other than strawberry Yoplait yogurt, and I was devastated with myself. How does a mother forget food for her own child? I mean, it was my first full day as a parent, but still. I started crying, feeling even less like a mother than I already had, and I walked into the 7/11 to buy his strawberry Yoplait yogurt probably looking as much like the frazzled foreign lady as I felt.
We returned to Somerset, excited to give Gideon his first bath. After all, foster mom said he loved baths, and we looked forward to this big “first”! But he did not like his bath, not that first one at least. He screamed his head off until Brian climbed into the tub with him and held him tight. Then we got a few of the teeniest tiniest smiles you’ve ever seen. After that, Gideon slept through the night again, and this time, Brian and I did too.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 4
Since breakfast the day before had mostly been us chasing Gideon around as he tried to steal cups off other tables, Brian and I decided we would take turns eating while the other went to the playroom with Gideon. Divide and conquer, we thought!
Poor buddy absolutely panicked when Brian and I split up for breakfast. Brian took him down to the playroom, and little man watched the door obsessively, hid behind Brian anytime someone walked past, and broke out in a full sweat the moment someone so much as cracked the door open. To this day, we think this is why he’s terrified of glass doors. By the time I walked in, he was soaked with sweat, and, as fast as he possibly could, he waddled over to me and clung to me for dear life. For the first time, he was accepting me as his mom! I was both elated and heartbroken for him. Every day that first week, we took a few steps forward and many steps back, but Gideon was slowly but surely letting me into his world.
We FaceTimed with Aunt Darla, Uncle Rick, and Nate from the playroom. Then we FaceTimed with Nana and Papaw, and all four of our parents again. Everyone loved “meeting” Gideon! And Gideon quickly learned the FaceTime “ringing” sound and would look up, knit his eyebrows together in curiosity, and wonder whose face would pop up on the screen next!
After spending some much-needed time with family (thanks, Apple!), we met up with Beth, a Wilmore friend, who so graciously agreed to take our first family photos in Seoul! You can see the whole photo shoot HERE. We started out in the hotel room, hoping to steal just a few quick laughs and smiles of Gideon in the place he currently felt most safe. And he did not disappoint! We shared a few tickle fights and a few snuggles before we set out for Gyeongbokgung Palace.
On the way to the Gyeongbokgung, we attempted to get a few posed photos in the garden outside of Somerset Palace. Gideon was not so amused by our plan.
But by some small miracle, Gideon let us roam through Gyeongbokgung for almost two full hours! He absolutely loved the big, colorful skirts on the girls’ traditional hanboks, and more than once, we had to reign in his little hands just in time as we walked past groups of girls and he started grabbing their skirts!
Fortunately, several of the young girls were just as fascinated with Gideon, and Beth’s cousin translated for us as they told us how cute and handsome he was! We agree, girls, we agree.
On the way back from Gyeongbokgung, Gideon tried his first bite of ice cream. He was most adamantly not a fan.
We returned from our photo shoot with Beth, and Gideon immediately went down for a 3-hour nap with no grieving and no screaming. Praise Jesus for the small victories that week! Brian and I decided to sort through the hundreds of photos and videos Gideon’s Omma had graciously stored on jump drives for us, and it was such a gift to be able to share Gideon’s first 27 months in Korea!
Gideon woke up, and we went for a 2-mile walk to Jongno to find mandu from the same sweet lady we had visited at least 6 other times by this point. Gideon loved his stroller and was fine so long as we were constantly moving, so we got lots of steps in that night, particularly at crosswalks and waiting for our food! At one particularly beautiful moment, Gideon let me stop his stroller for just a second. Brian was busy waiting for our mandu, and I knelt down next to Gideon. I played ‘peek-a-boo’ with the edge of his stroller, and he laughed so hard! For just a split second, the sparkle came back in his eye, and his face lit up, highlighting a bright red nose from the cold night air. That moment was pure magic, and I prayed for more just like it.
Once again, we returned to Somerset Palace, and Gideon slept through the night like a champ. Have I mentioned already how thankful we were for full nights of sleep that first week?
Chris NewmanPosted at 01:30h, 17 April
Thank you so much for writing this piece. As a first time adoptive parent in waiting (exit permit pending), being able to read your first hand account of what the first few days are really like is so important. I am certainly guilty of imagining a glorious first few days with no grieving or tears – which is completely unrealistic. Everyone’s experience is different but by taking the time to document your experience in the thoughtful way that you did, I am certain that I am going to be much better prepared when the tears come to support (and be supported by) my wife and remind ourselves that the bonding process takes time. Thanks again, and lovely photos too by the way.
forgideonPosted at 13:02h, 18 April
Thank you so much for your kind words! And congratulations on your growing family! Those first few days were so hard for us, but oh so worth it too. And for what it’s worth, we met lots of families who didn’t have a rough time after custody (at least not right away), so it’s also okay to take your child’s lead! 🙂 Reach out anytime if you need anything!