I started this blog more than 2 years ago with a narrow vision and fingers full of sarcasm. I wanted to document our lives and share my musings on everything from raising strong babies to the Bachelor to books I believe can change the wiring in your brain. But as the posts have gone up and with them, the readership, I naturally started daydreaming about this being more. It’s a modest platform in a sea of similar platforms, but this one is different, because this one is mine. And I can do with it what I want. And what I want is to tell other people’s stories on here, too. Last week, I said I pursued a career in journalism because I love finding and telling stories. My life is beautiful, but it is small in comparison to the life I can discover by listening to other amazing women. Other women struggle. Other women conquer. Other women blaze trails and let their hearts bleed for the less fortunate. Telling their stories makes me stronger, better, more alive. So, naturally I believe that reading them can do the same for you.
The first Superwoman to step up and volunteer her story is, without a doubt, one of my ride-or-dies as Shonda Rhimes would say. This girl and I have been through some things. We’ve seen some things. She stood next to me on my wedding day and caught my tears on her shoulder on more than one occasion. For the past several years, I have watched her walk a path of heartbreak and self discovery. She has bravely navigated a series of joyful highs and unthinkable lows on her journey to motherhood. Even as a dear friend I never knew exactly how she felt until I read the words you’re about to read. They stopped my heart. I saw a clip from Super Soul Sunday last night where Gabrielle Bernstein told Oprah that the messages we need to receive find us when we’re open to them. I hope this one finds the people who need it most.
Hi Superwoman seekers! Let me start by saying that I am humbled I was asked to write this. I was grateful to be given the platform to speak on these topics that have so significantly altered my life … but also felt a lot of pressure to make even a small impact for the vulnerable children in the world. I immediately prayed for the right words – and a lot of words came. All that to say, this post is long. Sorry, I’m not sorry. The path to my happy little life took a while. And so did writing this. Please do contact me via the comments below or email (email@example.com) if you have any questions. I’m more than happy to help Courtney’s readers out. (Isn’t she the best?!)
The infertility and loss part.
Every family has a story. Some people get married and bam! Three years later they have two healthy children – one boy and one girl, of course – a goldendoodle and a minivan. While this familiar foursome likely drove about 5 miles to the hospital down the road to bring home their little bundles of joy, some people go further. Like 21,186 miles further. And that’s after 5+ years of marriage. As you can guess, my scenario was the latter. I did get the goldendoodle though. And right away.
After many months of not seeing double lines on the ol’ pee stick, my husband and I learned that I apparently am not so fertile.
Infertility is such a turd. Close your eyes for a second and imagine it’s March, and you’re stressed at work, and all you want to do is sit on a beach and have someone bring you shrimp cocktail and margaritas. But you don’t have any vacation days. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, everyone on your Facebook feed seems to be on spring break with frozen concoctions in hand, and you start to get jealous, which is out of character for you, and then you get angry and, before you know it, you can’t think about anything but sand in your toes and limey-salted-tequila-goodness in your belly because everywhere you look, everyone is partaking. And then say someone, with no ill-intention, posted a photo of them on a white sand patch of paradise with the caption, “Would be better if it were just a few degrees warmer,” and you want to jump into the picture, Mary Poppins style, and steal their vacation because they aren’t appreciating it to the degree you would? Yeah. Infertility is kind of like that. Only way worse.
I’ve blocked out a lot of the infertility process because it was long and physically and emotionally painful. The burden became too much to bear. We did nearly three years of it. We did multiple IUIs. I often had an arsenal of medications that I had to poke myself with (mostly in the gut and butt). For me, infertility meant scheduling my every move around when the eggs would be hatching. It is a terrible and paralyzing way to live.
Finally we decided nothing was working and it was time to pull out the big guns: In Vitro Fertilization. I remember praying, “Lord, if this pregnancy will go poorly at all with IVF, please do not let me get pregnant. My heart can’t handle a loss like that.” (<-- That is what they call foreshadowing.)
A few weeks after the transfer I was in so much pain that I almost went to the ER, but instead paged our fertility doctor. He thought I was overstimulated. We did some Googling and realized that likely meant I was pregnant. He told us to come in first thing in the morning for a blood test. They called and a voice on the other line said, “Ashlie, I have good news … You’re pregnant!” I fell to the floor crying. I never thought I would hear those words.
It hurt to breathe and I could hardly move, but I didn’t give a rip. I was pregnant!
I am a woman of faith. Before these moments, I did the routine church on Sundays and Bible study with some girls on Mondays. God was there. But I didn’t need Him all the time. And then we started having complications. You know, the “This is rare, it doesn’t usually happen” kind. I spent my 30th birthday in the hospital, slanted at a 45-degree angle with a catheter and a magnesium drip. I would say I’m predisposed to be a positive person, but at that moment, I wasn’t. I was angry and uncomfortable. I was released and put on strict bedrest. I was allowed to get up to pee and that was about it. I could shower but I had to get a shower stool. I had just turned 30 and got a shower stool for my birthday. Awesome.
I’m not sure how to get through this next part.
I can talk about all the details for days and I often relive them in my mind, but, for the sake of not getting too deep with strangers, I will just say this … After nearly 2 months of bedrest, my body couldn’t hang onto the pregnancy anymore. I gave birth to our son, Jacob, on June 22, 2013. I was 23 weeks and 1 day pregnant. I couldn’t believe I was in the hospital, holding my son whom I knew we wouldn’t be bringing home. We held him for two hours before he was swept off to heaven. He was beautiful and he is loved. He is thought of every. single. day.
I know. Life is hard, eh? Those few days in the hospital were like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. Even though I didn’t feel like I needed Him (God) a whole lot previously, and it was a very one-sided relationship, God was there. He showed up on my darkest day. I was held by Him as I was holding my child that would not be placed in his new crib in his freshly painted room. He gave us strength and wisdom to make some really tough choices we faced in the scariest moments of our lives.
But the question remained, how could this have happened? I thought we had an agreement. I told God to prevent this exact scenario. I prayed constantly. I was scared every second of every day, but I still prayed. We had faith. My heart was not just broken, it was shattered. Shattered to what I thought might be beyond repair. But God is able.
After I gave birth, I knew I had a couple of choices: I could get mad and turn from church for awhile. (To be honest, I feel like that would have been completely justified.) Or, I could give myself the grace to grieve and let God do what he does best: Take something broken and make something ridiculously radical out of it. I didn’t know what that would be, but I didn’t want to live a moment without God. People always incorrectly say that He doesn’t give you more than you can handle. False. I couldn’t have handled this. I needed Him by my side to dredge through this pain. I also didn’t want to be a fraud; This Christian woman who spent her whole life going to church (with the exception of a hiatus in my college days) who at the first sign of a tribulation, went running from the only source of redemptive healing.
We took some time. My husband and I took a vacation. We grieved and we processed. Our emotions were so frantic and varied, but we were anchored by a shared belief that God had something more in store for us. I had some pretty rough days mixed in there. I felt like I had a scarlet red stamp that said “Broken” on my forehead. I felt like people looked at me different because I was different.
Slowly, I learned to accept the new me, with my new story, and trust in God’s plan for something(s) more. I was meant to be a Mama.
The big decision.
We began fertility treatments again, but they went haywire and failed, and when we discussed circling the wagons once more, I knew I couldn’t do it. I was so done. My husband was done, too. So I called my fertility doctor, whom we’d seen multiple times a month for nearly 3 years, and I said, “Hi. I’m going to be canceling my appointments. We’re adopting.”
And that was that. We picked an agency (MLJ Adoptions out of Indianapolis) and we picked our country (Bulgaria) and we started pounding the paperwork.
The adoption process.
This process is no joke. I have been fingerprinted in Ink no less than 5 times. I’ve been fingerprinted electronically 3 or 4 times. I’ve had background checks by every county and state I’ve lived in since I was 18 and also 2 or 3 fingerprints and background checks by the FBI. I’m clean.
When it came time for our home study, I told myself I wouldn’t stress. But I am a liar. I cleaned my house top to bottom. We filled those walls with fire extinguishers and smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. We gave information on our income, tax info, investments, debts, life insurances, wills and all that fun stuff. We were questioned in our home for 4+ hours. We were questioned on our parenting style (which was hard since we didn’t technically have a parenting style). We were asked about every bad/good thing we’d ever done. We were asked about how we wanted to raise our future kids, how we argue, how we would discipline the children. Just so much stuff. We supplied tax records, insurance records, medical records, dog records.
Then, once our home study was approved, we started working on our dossier, which is a document that consists of the approved home study and a bunch of other information that you send to the country in which you’re trying to adopt. We had to have approvals by the USCIS to even begin the process overseas. Then we sent our dossier over and a couple months later it was registered, which meant we were on the list about 2 months after they received it.
There was one big decision we had to make right before sending in a paperwork update. We needed to decide if we wanted to elect to adopt 1 or 2 children, or 2 children exclusively. I prayed for a sign. I didn’t make this next part up, I swear. One night after dinner, we took a detour so my husband could look at a truck. On our way we got behind a minivan and Tom said, “Look at that!” The minivan had a vanity plate that read: “ADOPT2”. So, we decided to do just that.
Then we waited.
This wait is a wait only someone who has experienced it can understand. Basically, you’re a mom. Only you have no idea who your kids are yet. You love them dearly, but don’t know who they are. You think about them. You wonder if they were fed enough that day. If they were hugged enough that day. If they smiled enough that day. If they are sick, is someone bringing them soup and giving extra snuggles? You ache for them because they aren’t home yet, but you have no idea who they are. It’s a bizarre feeling. You want so bad to start nesting, but you have no idea what gender or age they are. So you just sit and wait.
And then one day, your agency calls and you know they don’t call unless it’s THE call. And you finally know who your kids are. You see their faces; Their 18-month-old and 4-and-a-half-year-old sweet little perfect faces. You read the little info you have on them multiple times over because that’s all you have. At the end of the week you get an email telling you that these are the dates you’re flying out to meet them and to book your tickets. This all happens so quickly you have zero time to process before you’re packing your bags and preparing gifts for caretakers, social workers and translators … and, of course, your children!
The scenic route.
Every country is different, but in Bulgaria you travel twice. The first trip is to meet your kid(s) and the second is to bring them home. In case you haven’t thought through this, it means you go there and meet your kids for a week (great) and then you leave them there (not-so great). My stomach just dropped again reliving it in my mind. The only thing that made this bearable, was the fact that our kids were both well cared for. There are some orphanages where it’s not that way. Children can be extremely malnourished and neglected. I don’t want to go into too much detail about our kids and their stories (because they are their personal stories to tell), but our son was in an orphanage. No orphanage is a good enough substitute for a loving family; however, if he had to be in an orphanage, his was pretty great. Our daughter was with a foster grandma who was absolutely amazing through this whole process.
We returned from our first trip on July 4, 2015. We would not return back to the States with our kids until October 30 that same year. In that time we had Adoption Showers to help us prepare (you need a lot of stuff for 2 genders and 2 age groups!) and we did a lot of shopping and painting and prepping. The wait between trips was the hardest thing. It was excruciating, actually. But, we tried to stay busy. We did get to Skype with our daughter every Saturday. Our very last Skype call was from the IND airport, when we said, “We’re on our way!”
These little characters.
Our son is simply one-of-a-kind. He turned 2 just 2 weeks after being home. We were so thankful he only had to spend one birthday without us. The kid is crazy funny. He’s wild. He’s always getting hurt, always into something. Loves snacks about as much as he loves Mickey Mouse and music. He’s got these big brown eyes and eyelashes that make his mama jealous, and an adorable smile with a dimple. I’ve never seen a 2 year old with so much swagger. He was well-known at his Child’s Day Out Preschool within a couple of weeks. He walks into any situation like he owns the place. He’s a total ham and is full of confidence.
He’s not the kid we met on our first trip to Bulgaria.
The kid we met in Bulgaria on our first trip was completely different. That little boy was fearful of life and people. He only giggled a few times the entire week we were there. Sometimes he’d smirk or smile. He didn’t really dance or play much without being prompted.
When we first brought him home, he didn’t know how to hug or kiss. He didn’t know that we were his people for life. He didn’t know what a Mom or Dad was. The change was pretty immediate. This boy broke out of this orphanage like Andy Dufresne, and he never looked back.
Seeing the change a family brought to our son’s life has been one of my greatest joys. It has made the 3+ years of infertility, the 2 years of the adoption process and the mounds of paperwork worth it all. He plunges at us with open arms for hugs and plants big wet kisses (because he knows what a kiss is now). He has grown probably 6” in less than a year. They say that love from a family and some extra grub, cause children to shoot up once they are adopted. He’s so happy and healthy and growing so much in every way possible.
Our daughter, well, she’s the bravest person I know. She was fluent in Bulgarian. Left her foster grandma and every single thing familiar to her. Her beautiful country and town that was beautifully carved into the side of a mountain. Her bed. Her toys and her best friends. One day she woke up and got on a plane with two nearly-strangers and she came to America. Everything in her world was completely different.
She is such a little rockstar. The courage it takes to do all of that was nestled somewhere in the tiniest little 5-year-old. She started preschool without knowing a language. She couldn’t talk about her feelings to anyone because we couldn’t speak Bulgarian and she couldn’t speak English. I can’t imagine how frustrating that has been for her to be completely unable to process or have helpful words of wisdom from your Mommy in one of the biggest life events she will ever have. She also started kindergarten this year. I didn’t want to let her get on that bus, but she was so excited. So I had to.
I’ve never witnessed a more empathetic 5 year old. She genuinely hurts when others hurt. She prays for people I mention that she has never even met. She’s such a good big sister. Our little guy is quite demanding, and she shares everything with a smile. I have actually had to stop her from sharing and caving into little dude’s “I wants!” because he can’t go around thinking he gets everything if he whines. If you bump your head, she’s diving for the Doc McStuffins ice pack and before you can even tell her you’re okay that cold boo boo bag is plastered on your face.
There are things that I do not take for granted as a mom. One day I thought our son said “Mama, I want a samich (sandwich),” and I responded with, “We’ll be eating soon,” or something, and he said “No. Mama. I said I wuv you soooo much!” I cried. It was the first time he said he loved me unprompted, without me saying it first. And he even added in a soooo much to it. I will never think of a sandwich in the same way again.
Our daughter told me just the other day that she was sad while she was in Bulgaria because she wanted Mommy and Daddy. She said she kept looking for an airplane but she didn’t see one. We met her and then had to leave to not return for about four months. And in that time she searched for us and wanted us to bring her home. The weight of those words rolling off of my little girl’s tongue broke me. I hope she knows or grows to understand that I would have picked her up from day one if I could have.
We all have adjusted well, considering the loads of adjusting that needed to take place. My husband and I have not had children in our home before. All of a sudden we were parents to a 5 and a 2 year old. Go ahead and try to figure out how to raise them. Oh, and PS, you can’t discipline them very well because you can’t speak to each other. Okay. Cool. This should work well.
I’d had a lot of time to think about the kind of mom I was going to be. I was going to be amazing at it. I was going to have tons of patience and do a Pinterest craft a day. Turns out, I wasn’t very good at the mom thing at first. I’m not the best now, but I’ve come a long way. There have been many times where I wasn’t the best version of my mama self. It’s hard. We were learning how to be a Mom and Dad. They were learning how to be in a family. It takes time, lots of patience and loads of grace.
What I want people to know about adoption
1) I want people to know that adoption was never a plan B for us.
Our kids were always meant to be ours. Always. I have prayed for them for so long before I even knew them. Life just took us on a wild ride to get the kiddos that were always supposed to be in our home, home. We’ll call it the scenic route. We were always supposed to adopt them from Bulgaria. As tough as it is to admit, our son Jacob’s life was not intended to be lived in our home. I don’t know why that is, and it is still painful at times, but that is how it was always supposed to work out. Those two little giggling Bulgarian-Americans were without a doubt, born to be in our family. They had a rough start being without a family and we had a tough go at trying to start a family ourselves.
2) Being an adoptive family isn’t always easy, but it’s also the most fulfilling thing you will ever do.
A hard thing for me to realize is how much we have missed out on by not having them with us from birth. When I think of them living the orphanage life, it wrecks my soul. All the days they spent without us make me yearn for those days back. I try to push those thoughts out of my head. While I said his orphanage was decent, he still lived in a room lined with toddler beds. He didn’t have anything to call “his” since everything was communal. While our daughter lived with a wonderful foster grandma, she still wondered where her mom was and why other kids had a mom and dad, but not her. She asked her foster grandma just before we met her if her “new mommy was going to love her?” YES. A thousand times yes. I loved you without knowing who you were yet, my sweet girl! Hurts me so bad that her little mind had even thought of asking that question. One of my biggest prayers was that God would tell their little hearts that we were coming for them. That their mom and dad were on their way. I still didn’t know who they were yet when I prayed that, but I prayed it from the start.
Wise friends of ours told us at the beginning of our process that people will look at you with a microscope because adoption isn’t all that common. Boy were they right! We are not all the same color and people quite often stare. A lot. People are so curious they can’t contain themselves and often assume that they can ask us any question they want, often in a not-so -tactful way. Please remember, that they are “real” brother and sister, we are their “real” parents and we are a “real” family. I get being curious, but perhaps when you see a potential adoptive family, don’t ask things when the kids are present.
The language barrier is extremely difficult. There were lots of tantrums and frustration (parental tantrums and kid tantrums both) from not being able to understand each other. The word for “give me” in Bulgarian is pronounced like “die” Think about how many times while walking in a store your two-year-old wants something. They’re yelling, “Mama, die!” and I’m just rolling my cart like no big deal.
One of my biggest struggles is this: Sometimes I look at my children in awe after they do something so silly/sweet and my heart flutters because I just love them so. I become flooded with gratefulness that I get to be called “Mommy” by these two beautiful children of ours. But then I remember, in order for them to be my children, they had to go through a loss. They were once orphaned and had nobody to call their family. I struggle with that. I wish with every ounce of me they never had to have those traumatic events happen in their little lives — but if they didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be their mom. It’s a bittersweet realization really. They had to lose everything so we could gain everything. That’s a tough one to swallow.
Our lives are so full of joy from our children. I love when they bicker like siblings. I love when they giggle so hard that they put their hands over their faces. I love when we snuggle. I love when they use the wrong English word, like “Look mama, snack!” when they really mean, “snow” (hey, English is hard). I love when they conquer and learn. I absolutely love being here for some of their firsts. And I love that they get that we are theirs. They know what a family is now and we are blessed enough to be a part of theirs forever.
People often say (and it’s very awkward) that we are such great people for adopting and our kids are so lucky. Truth be told, I’m pretty darn average. There is nothing special or extraordinary about me. It doesn’t take a saint (or a superwoman) to adopt a child. It takes a person/couple who have a void in their family photo and some love to give. And some funds. Because well, gymnastic sessions, animal crackers and college aren’t going to pay for themselves (especially since Bernie is out of the race).
Hear this: My children are not the lucky ones. We are. They were born into circumstances beyond their control. They did not initially have a voice or a special person. They left everything and gave up everything they ever knew to be a part of our family. Are they happy? 100% yes. But we are the lucky ones. Our children are healing wounds from our infertility battle and losing our Jacob that we weren’t even aware we still had. God took our broken hearts and our tears and wove them back together with these incredible children from across the ocean and now we are a family. Forever. And just like that, there are two less orphans in the world.
What can you do?
Did you know there is a bit of an orphan crisis out there?
· Every 18 seconds a child becomes an orphan.
· If all orphans were a nation, they’d be the 10th most populous nation in the world.
· If only 7% of the 2 billion Christians each cared for one orphan, the orphan crisis would be ended.
When I started this process I was so naive; Ignorant to the fact that even in Europe, there are orphans who die from malnutrition. Have you seen an 8 year old weigh less than 20 pounds? It’s heartbreaking. There are children who do not get out of their cribs all day long. Their referral photo, the one that is sent to a prospective parent, was taken through the crib railings because they didn’t bother to even get the child out of the crib for a photo.
The Bible calls us all to care for the orphans and widows, the vulnerable. That does not mean that everyone should adopt, but everyone should help in some capacity.
You can first pray for vulnerable children across the world who have no voice. Literally. Did you know that sometimes, the baby room in an institution is quiet because the babies have lost their cries? Nobody came when they cried so, eventually, they just stopped. Be their voice.
You can go to Orphan Sunday at one of your local churches to figure out how you can help on a local/global level. Showhope.org also has great information on how to get involved.
If you’ve ever debated adoption but were too afraid to go for it, I say shut up and do it. Do not let finances or fear stop you from such great joy. There are grants, fundraising and tax deductions out there, and it isn’t all due at once. You get to chisel away at the fees until you get the referral. Then you can go ahead and get that checkbook out because from referral to home that money really flies (literally. Flights are pricey!).
I spent a lot of years trying to simply be content. I have always appreciated and loved this blessed life I have been given. My husband is one of the greats and we have always been so happy, but have also felt like someone(s) was missing from our family. I am overjoyed to proclaim my heart officially content and full. The extra bedrooms that sat empty for so long are now full, too. I don’t feel like anyone is missing from our family photo. Arriving at this place of just being for a moment is momentous. It’s emotionally freeing. If you’re searching for your own route to a content and happy place, I pray you find it. Consider looking where you wouldn’t expect it. Like say, across an ocean. Don’t let fear stop you.