By Brianna Heldt
Just Showing Up
When my husband and I first began discussing the possibility of further growing our family through international adoption, it was 2005. Our biological daughter was 15-months-old then, and our life was somehow manageable and flexible enough to consider jumping into the proverbial deep-end of paperwork, social worker visits, and parenting traumatized children.
Going into the process was exciting and hope-filled, but frightening and anxiety-inducing too. You don’t know what particular challenges lurk silently ahead, nor can you realistically anticipate–as hard as you try, you really, truly can’t–how your family dynamic will change or what the emotional impact will be.
So when we brought our sons to the United States we became parents to three children ages two and under. Adopting twin boys that were only eight months younger than our daughter was, I suppose, kind of a crazy leap of faith. But we did it because we had discerned through prayer and discussion and research that it was right for us, and that God was–for whatever reason–calling us to it. We said yes.
Even in spite of a relatively smooth transition for our sons and daughter, those early months of learning how to do life with three little ones afoot were intense. There was constant movement, the addressing of countless medical and emotional issues, and mess. Lots and lots of mess. Crumbs and laundry and sippy cups and toys and diapers. My husband and I would collapse on the couch at the end of each day, look over at one another and laugh–laugh!–at how positively tired we were, at how crazy life felt and at how strange we surely looked when we were pushing around a double stroller while also wearing a small child strapped to our chest.
But do you want to know what else we’d talk about in our living room at the end of long, toddler-filled days? We’d talk about healing. And progress. We’d talk about the mystery of love, about how God was miraculously knitting all of our hearts together in a way that transcended biology and personal history. We’d talk about joy and fulfillment and about how we’d sealed our fate as “that crazy family with all the kids”, which transformed into a public, gasp-worthy spectacle anytime we ventured outside our front door. We’d talk about our sons’ birth mother, extreme poverty and about how no baby ought to be starving. We’d recount the really hard things that happened that day–a post-institutionalized little boy, with no muscle tone and a failure-to-thrive diagnosis, having a panicked melt-down upon even the slightest glimpse of food, or my heroic attempts at crossing streets and navigating grocery aisles with three itty bitty kids in tow–and we’d remember the really good things that happened every day, like a sister and her brothers holding sticky, chubby hands, giving hugs, and laughing together. Wanting to spend every single moment of the day side-by-side.
We were seeing redemption and mercy and the glory of the human family, happening right before our very eyes.
We would of course go on to have two more biological children in the following years, and then adopt again in 2011, this time two little girls who’d been born with Down syndrome and severe congenital heart defects. Then we had another baby this past spring. So we have eight children, and they’re all relatively close in age, and I won’t tell you that our life isn’t messy or busy or occasionally hard. Because (hello multiple heart surgeries and meal planning and homeschooling) it is. But I will also tell you that it is GOOD. It is happy. It is marked by joy, and ups and downs, like most any life.
And yet I admit that every single time we’ve been given the gift of a child (whether by birth or adoption), I was a little bit afraid. Afraid that we’d implode, afraid that we’d overextended ourselves beyond repair, afraid that we were certifiably insane–which, you know, maybe we are. But crazy-town or not, every.single.time. God gave us a sweet little one, do you know what really happened? Our family was renewed. Each one of us grew in our capacity to love. Our family life was strengthened. Unconditional acceptance abounded. Our family dynamic changed–for the better. Sometimes we argue or yell or need a little bit of space, but then, doesn’t everyone? My children are many, but they are happy. I am happy. And we are living proof that you don’t have to be a perfect mother, father or biped of any sort to live a marriage that is open to children.
I suspect that part of why we experience fear in this area is because we sense, on a very deep level, the gravity or weight of having a child–and that is, in many ways, good. The God-given power of participating in procreation (or the ability to adopt) isn’t something to take lightly or be flippant about. So in that sense it should be approached with awe, reverence and humility. But I also think there is the potential for us to miss out on a whole lot of beauty, love and grace when we become crippled by fear, doubt, and the internalized messages of our modern age. And I’m just as susceptible to that as anyone–I’m generally non-committal and am an imagine-the-worst-case-scenario sort of person. The fact that I was a 20-year-old bride and am now a mother to eight are all examples of God’s delightful sense of humor. But what I learned all those years ago, in the exhausting days of having three children ages two-and-under, was that God can do good things with our “yes”, that a marriage can endure and THRIVE in the midst of raising babies, and that large families can flourish in happiness–even in our modern age. And they are especially needed in our modern age.
So let’s worry less. Be not afraid. Families are specially designed for nurturing children and marriage is particularly ordered towards openness to children, either through the miracle of birth or the miracle of adoption. Shared bedrooms and crowded kitchens and full-to-capacity carloads may no longer represent the typical American family’s landscape, and may indeed necessitate sacrifice and adjustment. But they also have the special ability to harbor a childhood’s worth of hush-spoken secrets, side-splitting laughter, and shared memories that will last a lifetime. They potentially shape and form and soften and grow.
Love multiplies, right before your very eyes.
And then one day you and your husband collapse on the couch–years older and hopefully a little bit wiser–and you realize that, in spite of your many children thundering around like elephants in the next room, long past bedtime, playing a game they invented called “stroller tag”? You really kind of had nothing to fear.
Brianna Heldt is a mother to eight and contributor to Ignitum Today, Catholic Stand, and Catholic Exchange. In addition to her four biological children, she and her husband are also parents to four adopted children from Ethiopia, including two daughters with Down syndrome. When Brianna is not busy blogging or homeschooling, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading good books, thrifting, and advocating for orphaned children with medical needs. She lives with her husband and kids in Denver and blogs at Just Showing Up, where this post originally appeared.