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Adopting a 3-Year-Old Child
Comments () | Published January 3, 2012
The author says: "Connor evolved from pleading 'Will you please keep me safe?' to saying 'Thank you for keeping me safe.' " Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

We try not to talk too much about his early life, because we weren't there. Instead, guided by his therapist, we say, "Your birth mother did you a favor by finding you a new family," or "All kids should grow up in a family that treats them gently." Mostly we encourage Connor to share what he's feeling--whether anger or love--about his birth family. He has a lifetime to find his own relationship with them if that's what he wants.

Becoming a sudden parent opens your eyes to a new world. I discovered that most parents think their child is either the worst or the best on the planet. We tend to hold up a magnifying lens to our little ones and blow up their behavior beyond what it is in real life.

When I told people Connor had trouble sleeping, other parents said, "Oh, I know what you mean. Last week we went days taking turns staying up with Caitlin when she was sick." When I say Connor has difficulty in groups, they say, "Trevor gets really shy, too." Caitlin was surely sleepless and Trevor quite shy, but our issues with Connor are of a whole other dimension.

For us, sleepless meant snatching 15-minute naps for three months straight; the lack of sleep made us dizzy, and Connor even started hallucinating. For us, having trouble with groups goes far beyond shy. Connor often runs up to groups of children and starts punching. In the kiddie yoga class, all the other children followed instructions to get into the cobra pose; Connor became an airplane, buzzing around the room and jumping over the kids. Even the visiting monk--trained to take chaos in stride--eyed me with sympathy.

Infants adopted into a new family get the benefit, ideally, of nurturing and love right from the start. But Connor was almost four when we saw the judge. So he was self-aware enough to realize he'd been treated roughly since birth. I'll never fully know what his life was like before, but he came to us with deep emotional wounds.

One sign of his tough first years was that he anticipated rejection, especially from me.

If he had the slightest sense that I might be about to go to another room or focus on something besides him, he'd yell, "I don't want you--I only want Chris!" (In the beginning, he used our first names; that evolved to Mommy Christie and Daddy Chris, then he tried seeing what happened when he used just Mommy and Daddy. He still sometimes calls us Chris and Christie when he's talking to strangers, which has led to some funny looks.)

I grew a tough skin and learned I could never give this boy too much affection and attention.

Infants absorb trust when they discover that Mommy is always there to feed them, Daddy is always there for a hug. Although Connor was grateful to be with me and Chris, he barely knew us--there was no reservoir of trust. We had to build it. It was like a corporate bonding retreat--with much higher stakes.

One day I remembered that Mount Vernon Recreation Center had a children's pool with buckets that splash water down onto kids' heads. An hour later, Connor and I were in the water.

We started by walking in holding hands. In stages, we learned how to float, kick, scoop, jump into each other's arms. At night, Chris cheered each tiny success--"He didn't kick me once today!" "He finally jumped into my arms without his life vest!"--as a major victory.

The kiddie pool gradually gets deeper and connects to the lap lanes, so we were slowly able to progress to deeper water. On the first day that we swam without the security of our feet scraping along the concrete floor, I looked in Connor's eyes and saw only trust and love.

That physical trust became so great that it supported the emotional connection we were building outside the pool. Connor still associates swimming with bonding--he has been jumping in solo for a year now but still loves holding our hands when he dives.

I stumbled onto another opportunity when I realized Connor assumed lunch always came inside a Happy Meal. Our first summer together, we planted tomatoes, salad greens, and strawberries. Before Connor, I'd been so focused on fertility and feeling sorry for myself that I couldn't garden. Connor and I became gardeners together. We watered in the mornings, and in the afternoons he'd race back to see if the plants had produced anything to eat.

Another move was applying to St. Paul's Nursery School in Old Town Alexandria. I didn't know that most parents apply when they're pregnant, but somehow the St. Paul's team made a spot for Connor. His teachers slowly and calmly chiseled away his hard edges and gave me my son.

His head teacher reminded him to look her in the eyes when she spoke. She encouraged him to join the group rather than playing loudly by himself. When he punched his fist in the air, she showed him how to squeeze a toy instead. In his first year at St. Paul's, his teachers gave him firm boundaries and taught him to learn the social rules his peers had been absorbing since birth. They noted in his year-end "report card" letter that now when they asked how he was doing in the morning, his response was always the same: "Great!"

That sense of joy was in Connor's eyes when I met him. But back then, the light only peeked out from behind the clouds in quick moments. The clouds have slowly dissipated. Now there's a hint of laughter in his voice no matter what he's saying. He has embraced happiness.

The same is true for me. I now swim nearly every day, either laps or with Connor. Our second-year garden was an explosion of produce and flowers. If for some reason Connor can't make his Friday play date, I'll go by myself to chat with the moms, now my close friends. I've started writing again, not because I'm getting paid to cover fashionistas but because it gives me pleasure. I've largely disappeared from Washington's social circuit because it's more fun to read bedtime stories. The woman who avoided toy stores is now on a first-name basis with the Toys "R" Us staff. In helping Connor find a new life, I've rediscovered the things that make my own worth living.

Interested in Adopting an Older Child?

There are a number of resources for adopting older children within the United States. Here are three good places to get started.

Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, davethomasfoundation.org.

Families for Private Adoption, ffpa.org. Yahoo! group: groups.yahoo.com/group/familiesforprivateadoption.

Wednesday's Child, wednesdayschild.adopt.org.

But this is no fairy tale.

Although Connor hasn't bitten me for months, my body is often covered in bruises. We're working every day to help him understand the consequences of kicking and punching. Slowly he's getting it.

He has developed a self-awareness about his violence. During a beach trip, I was pulling a spiny pricker off his foot when it pierced my skin. I yelped, and he got so worried I'd be hurt again that he kept reminding me not to touch the bottom of his shoe where the prickers were. An hour later, he said suddenly, "My life sucks. Because of the mean things I do sometimes, like hit my mommy."

Like that pricker, his sense of being the cause of my pain had burrowed into his psyche. I hope that with time he stops blaming himself for things he can't change.

That said, Connor dotes on us in a very unusual way, because he remembers what it was like not to be adored. Often, as we tell him his adoption story, he'll interrupt with his own line: "I always wanted a new mommy and daddy, so I found you!"

We treasure the simplest moments. This morning, Connor invited me to "dive into the pool, just Connor and Mommy." We held hands and ran toward the water--the very deepest part. Together.

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  • DC

    I am so happy for Chris, Christie and Connor. I emotionally distraught right now reading about little Daniel Pelka who was starved to death by his mother and her boyfriend in England.
    I am so grateful that Connor's birth mother had the sense to give him away when she realised she was incapable of looking after him. I am so grateful his story will not turn out like Daniel's. I am so grateful Chris and Christie found him.

  • EG

    I found this story while doing research on older child adoptions. I think its great piece highlighting the journey that the author and her husband went through on the road to parenthood, and I particularly liked the authors candor in discussing why they decided to look for an older child to adopt. That being said, as someone who has traveled down the road as a potential birth mom I was a bit saddened to hear some of the rhetoric,adoption myths and judgement surrounding the birth mom, was it really pertinent to this story to mention that Conner's siblings had different fathers? I don't think so. Conners birthmom had to make a VERY DIFFICULT decision regarding her son, and one that she ultimately thought was in his best interest. His original home was not where he was supposed to be, but to constantly infer that his birthmom did not adore or love him is a bit insulting. To entrust your child to another family to raise thereby conceding your own ability to do it yourself is the ultimate act of love. Again I think this article is excellent in relaying the bumps and blessings of adoption, but I think it also highlights the entrenched fears around adoption and an adoptees birthfamily.

  • Bernnie

    This story moved me so deeply. to the point of tears, im only eighteen but always felt in my heart that i would want to adopt. reading about the struggles and the rewards makes me even more certain. thank you for sharing <3

  • Audra

    This made me cry. My husband and I are looking into adopting an older child, and your story moved me deeply. Thank you so much for sharing your heart and your beautiful son. I wish you the best.

  • Claudia

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I felt strongly reminded of the experiences we made/make after adopting a 3-year-old boy a year ago. He is now 4,5 years old and we also see a lot of love and trust when we look into his eyes in the meantime but we also struggled at the beginning. By the way, we also decided for the adoption of an older child consciously because we did not see ourselves with a baby! Greetings from Germany and good luck for the future!

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Posted at 10:56 AM/ET, 01/03/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles