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If You Want a Joyful Family, Become Each Other's Servants
By Brianna Heldt
One of my daughters just celebrated her birthday, and turned nine years old.
Well, on paper at least.
Technically we don’t know for sure how old she is—probably older than nine—which of course seems unfathomable to most people, but for whatever reason, I don’t think about that too much anymore. She joined our family four-and-a-half years ago, after living two years in an orphanage in a developing country. She is smart, funny, and has definitely found her voice in our large and teeming-with-voices family.
She, like our other adopted daughter, also has Down syndrome.
Raising a child (or in our case, children) with special needs has been, on most days, not so different from raising a child who is neurotypical. We eat meals together, take naps, play outside, and set boundaries. There are school performances and field trip slips to sign, occasional tears over being denied a second cup of juice after Mass, and excitement when a new dress is bought. In the adoption world, these kids are considered more difficult to place because of their developmental delays and medical needs, but in reality? Any adoption is bound to be filled with ups and downs and in-betweens.
Occasionally I reflect upon the sheer weight of raising four children who were not born to me—and it is heavy. Oh, so heavy! My adopted children had all been left vulnerable, particularly the two born with Trisomy 21, and part of our discernment process in adopting them was asking the question “Would our family be a safe place for these girls to grow and live?” Could we provide for not only their developmental and medical needs, but for their emotional, spiritual, and social needs too? Was our family a good fit for them?
And, we had to consider not only how this adoption might affect our other five children, but also how our other children might impact these two precious girls.
It was not an easy decision, but then it also wasn’t as agonizing as you might expect, either. A little scary, yes, because jumping into something new—like the world of parenting children with special needs—is always hard, but my husband and I were convinced that this was part of the Lord’s call for us, yet another manifestation of being open to life. We were not quite Catholic yet, though we were certainly on the path to conversion, and had stopped contracepting years ago. We wanted our lives to reflect a love for Jesus and for our marriage to be fruitful. We longed to raise compassionate, faith-filled, and confident children. When it came to family planning, you could say that we cared little for numbers and everything for beauty, hope, life, and a flourishing family. We were so far from perfect, but maybe that was okay.
So in the end, we gave our humble, clumsy, filled-with-trepidation yes, and pursued the adoption of our daughters. They’ve come such a long way from the day we received custody of them—all I really remember from that afternoon was that they screamed like crazy in the bathtub, and then when we went out to lunch, one of the girls ate and sipped water like a princess while the other made a huge mess of everything in sight. (I suppose I should add here that some things really don’t change!)
And as for our other children, they have turned out to be incredibly loving siblings to their sisters with special needs—but I know they receive such blessings from them, too. My six-year-old recently taught her older sister (the one who just turned nine) the game of Uno, for example, and they can now be found on the family room floor, playing together, most nights. My other daughter with Down syndrome is adored, followed, and bossed around constantly by my three-year-old, who considers her to be her best friend, and who is obviously angling to be president of her fan club. This is not to say there aren’t occasional squabbles, or complaints of “So-and-so colored on my drawing again!”, and “So-and-so keeps pinching me while I’m trying to eat my dinner!”, but I figure that’s just the inevitable messiness of life, the stuff that leads to growth in virtue and love for people.
Ironically, it’s that very messiness from which I am naturally inclined to run and hide. I like things to be predictable, ordered, and easy. But raising any children, much less children coming from difficult backgrounds or who experience developmental delays, is most certainly not.
It was Saint Pope John Paul II who once said that:
To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others.
And, I think that is what we are trying to figure out here, sometimes willingly but oftentimes (I confess) kicking and screaming. I said it before and I’ll say it again: we are not even remotely close to being perfect, but we’re committed to waking up each day and starting anew. We’ll keep celebrating birthdays, learning to embrace differences, playing card games, and hopefully choosing love. Even on the hard days—the ones that seem confusing and exhausting, where I want to tell God He may just have made a mistake when He called me to this crazy vocation—I know deep down that the family and relationships we build here in our home matter. Immensely. I know that the little details of who hit whom while I was out of the room on the phone, the messy bedrooms that never seem to stay picked up, and the tears over who gets to wear which earrings will be but distant memories one day, and even today they don’t eclipse the beauty of the laughter and bedtime whispers and, perhaps above all, togetherness.
I know that when I adopted my daughters with Down syndrome, I hoped desperately that they might experience the joys of family life, stability and protection, and Jesus’ love.
And when I consider all of the misspelled, homemade cards and enthusiastic well-wishes my daughter received from her siblings on her ninth-ish birthday—and the radiant smile on her face as the crowd of us gathered around the dining room table and sang to her—I suspect that God is, somehow, in the midst of our mess, doing just that.
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