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How’s Your Heart? An Adoption Story

Our first reports of Dimples used words such as “active” and “energetic.” We chuckled a little, knowing that those presumably understated words could describe some of our other children. Then my friend went to visit Dimples and wrote to me:

“She is absolutely the most outgoing child there...she sings, she dances, she does tumbles, all to show off and get your attention and praise. “

“She is also quite the daredevil ... she was doing tumbles on the cement and jumping off of steps. She was a big show off. She sings the loudest, runs the fastest, smiles the biggest ... she is happy and sweet and really, an amazingly wonderful little girl.”

We read this and smiled—then we paused as we realized that Dimples was going to bring a huge amount of energy to our family. She was going to shake things up more than we might have anticipated.

Later we traveled to Ethiopia to get Eby and Little Man and to spend time with Dimples. We were still waiting for her visa, so we weren’t able to bring her home at the same time. She was as beautiful and sweet as we had imagined, but wow, she was incredibly demanding. We were seasoned parents, but we hadn’t experienced a child quite like our new daughter.

Two months later Russ went back to Ethiopia to get Dimples and bring her home. The honeymoon was short and sweet, but soon we were in the midst of grief and anger like nothing we had ever seen. We read books, we prayed, we struggled. We had a daughter whose early life had prepared her to be a survivor. Under her incredible strength was deep, deep fear of rejection and suffering. The reason she jumped the highest, ran the fastest, and sang the loudest was that she had to make herself stand out in order to survive.

I have seen video clips from her early days at AHOPE, and what appears as darling and extroverted behavior now seems to me to be a desperate cry for attention and love, and extreme need to get whatever gifts the visitors were bringing. She learned that the candy might run out, so she had to be sure to get some first. She learned that balls might be thrown, so she prepared herself to run the fastest to get one. The good clothes were snatched up each morning, so she had to be sure to be right by the nanny’s side when the clothing cupboard was opened. At the age of five, she was a survivor and the only person she knew to rely on was herself.

Now imagine Dimples lifted out of orphanage life and set down in our family. Imagine her little heart filled with fear and a desperate need for love. But the behaviors she learned as a child on the streets of Ethiopia and later in an orphanage, didn’t translate well to family life. No amount of reading, going to seminars, or talking with other parents could have fully prepared us for this. We prayed, I cried, we talked, we had family meetings with our older children, and we wondered if we would ever be the same.

As I grew to understand Dimples, I recognized in her a deep, deep need for love from me. I called this “Mother Hunger.” I also began to view her behavior as coming from a place of fear, not naughtiness or resistance, which was very helpful. We made progress, lots of progress ... and then we brought Honeybee home.

Dimples was excited to have another sister, especially a sister from AHOPE, and we were thrilled to have Honeybee home. I should have been prepared for the upcoming tumult, but we were all enjoying our new child and I was naive. It started slowly, but soon I could see the desperate, grasping behaviors bubbling up in Dimples. If she could have put it into words, I think she would have said, “What happens now? Where do I fit? Am I still loved? Do they love Honeybee more?” Fear, deep fear, had surfaced again.

You would think that I would have been smarter by now and figured it out more quickly, but life was sweeping me along and I was just trying to get the laundry done, make dinner, and teach the kids. I was thinking more about getting Honeybee settled than I was about Dimples’ hungry heart.

The controlling behavior and tantrums increased until one day I realized more clearly how unsettled Dimples was —she had lost her way again and I needed to help her find it. We rocked, we hugged, she slept by my side more often, and I told her I loved her many times every day. But still, some days I was blindsided by her wailing tears. I will be honest, I was tired, I was frustrated, and I wanted her to stop. She was demanding more than I had to give and I was spent.

Then one day I was holding her and I said, “Dimples, when you are being unkind, and when you are disobeying me, I think you are feeling scared. Your heart is feeling empty and you are trying to fill it up. So now, I am going to fill your heart up for you. When you feel that emptiness in your heart, you come to me and we’ll fill it up.” I put my hand over her heart and I told her that we were going to fill it up. We rocked for a bit with her face pressed tightly into my neck. I told her how much I loved her, how much Jesus loved her, how precious she was to me. She relaxed against me.

After a bit, she hopped up with a smile and ran off to play. Throughout the day I stopped, put my hand over her heart, and asked her, “How’s your heart?” Sometimes she would smile and say, “Filled!” Other times she looked down and said, “Not filled,” and I would scoop her up in my arms, hug her tight, tell her I loved her and before long she would smile, say “Filled” and wriggle down.

That was a few weeks ago and I am happy to say that most days this is a useful tool in my “mommy toolbox.” I am no expert, but by giving her the vocabulary to describe how she feels, followed by something we can actually do to meet her need, she is happier and more settled.

Lisa writes about her amazing journey as the mother of eleven at A Bushel and a Peck where portions of this post were originally published in November, 2008.  Dimples and her family now have the help of a fantastic therapist as they work toward attachment and healing from trauma.

Originally published on GrowninMyHeart

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