The Harm in the Hug

Long before God gave me a heart for the fatherless, He gave me a heart for all little people under the age of 12. (My love for those 12 and up came much more recently.) As a 10-year-old, I became known as a "baby hog." And as a teenager, I babysat several days a week, participated as a leader in every VBS possible, taught Sunday school, and went on every missions trip that involved any activities that included working with kids. So naturally, I went to college to pursue a vocation that centered around children: teaching. Then, I had my own kids. And after staying home with them for 4 years, God called me to take a part-time position in our church as, you guessed it, the Children's Ministry Director.  I have spent the last 20-something years hugging on kids my neighborhood, in my church, at pretty much every job I've ever had (except for the retail job I had at Gap Kids during college...that would have been super weird for me to hug random kids in the store), and in countries like Alberta, Canada, the DR, Guatemala, and now Costa Rica.  

So the first time that I read this post by an adoptive mom friend whom I "met" (on Facebook) through a mutual friend, I didn't know how to feel about it.  One of Maralee's kiddos was adopted from Liberia, and this blog post is actually a guest post from the woman who runs the orphanage where Maralee's son spent the first few months of his life. It's about the harm in holding babies in orphanages on short-term missions trips.  Here's one of her quotes:

"When visiting children, specifically children living in orphanages overseas, we cannot treat them as if we own them, or treat them differently than you would treat my child in my back yard or your friend’s foster child. The practical reasons for this are the same, which involve not making a child afraid, respecting boundaries set by those in charge of the child, etc, but there is a more serious factor that can be very detrimental to a child’s development. The biggest potential harm for these children is the high likelihood of forming attachment disorders. Many adoptive parents have experienced serious attachment issues with their children that resulted largely in part to short-term visitors holding their child during their orphanage stays. These issues can can have long-term consequences on a child which effect how they interact with their peers, how they relate to their adoptive parents, and if they aren’t adopted, how they relate to individuals once they leave the orphanage, either after reunification or as young adults."

The first time I read this post was shortly after our trip to Guatemala, where this happened...

I spent the better part of our 10 days there with this sweet little nugget (who isn't an orphan, but craved a whole lot of love and attention) on my lap.  We both cried the day our team had to say goodbye.  God used her to break my heart for older children. Until very recently, I never fully considered what our time together may have done to/for her. 

I cannot count the number of kids whose names I didn't know whom I have snuggled, carried and hugged.  And I always felt that I was just loving on them in Jesus' name...which was true.  And even in the midst of the "waiting" part of our adoption process, I didn't see a problem with loving and hugging on kids without families...or any kids for that matter.  Until a month ago...

On this side of adoption, we have seen firsthand the effects of such actions, some helpful and some very harmful.  Our kids were blessed to have a wonderful missionary family, who live a few blocks from the albergue, minister to them on a very regular basis.  True, healthy relationships were formed, and through this, our kids learned to how to love and how to be loved.  They learned how to accept healthy physical touch.  They learned about the Good News of Jesus from people who live like He did.  And we are reaping that harvest now.

But there have been others in our children's lives who have come and gone, who have hugged and held without boundaries, who have loved on them in a way that only someone with whom they've developed a healthy relationship should, and it has hurt our kids in the long run. (And I am personally so guilty of this.)  Students who have visited for a few Saturdays.  People who love Jesus and kids, but who are unable to give more than an afternoon to a house full of orphans.  They gave what they could in the moment, and I can't fault them for it.  They were just lovin'.  

We saw the effects of "unrestrained orphan hugging," as I'll call it, during our in-country stay in Costa Rica. We stayed on a beautiful Bible school campus for a month.  There were 13 students living there.  We saw them at meals and hung out with them on campus and in town.  They were seriously awesome people.  There were also several wonderful staff members who lived on the campus.  Very soon after we brought our kids to live with us there, we realized that they would pretty much hug or sit on the lap of almost anyone...especially young people...because the only contact they'd had with young muchachos was when they came and gave them candy and let them play with their smart phones and sit on their laps on random Saturdays.  We also noticed that our oldest would bond with any Tico man who said more than 5 words to him or mentioned the word, "futbol," at any point.  

It got particularly bad when the students at our Bible campus invited students from another Bible campus to come have a bonfire.  It just so happened that 2 of the students from that other school had visited the albergue on random Saturdays...and hugged our kids indiscriminately, which they innocently did right in front of us without ever speaking to us.  (Super awkward.)  When we asked our kids to tell us the names of the people whom they had just hugged very warmly, they had no idea.  Every child needs love...but is teaching them that it's ok to hug nameless foreign strangers "love" if it hurts them in the long run?  I don't know.   One of them even asked Gina right in front of me, "Why are you here?  Is this your family?"  And never spoke to us.  Never even made eye contact with me as I was standing 2 feet from Gina when he asked in broken Spanish.  Not a great way to help us teach them boundaries, bro.  But he honestly didn't know better.  Which is why I'm writing about this.   People who have not walked through this part of adoption don't see the impact that free hugs from strangers and pity gifts can have.  If those same 2 students could've seen the melt downs our kids had just 20 minutes after we took them back to our casita, they would have had just a glimpse of what our kids have to work through as a result of what was innocently done out of love.  

And we've seen it here at home.  Because we worked with youth at church for the past few years, we have random high school and college kids at our house frequently.  Honestly, they're my people.  And they will be my kids' people, too...once they get to know them.  We have to set up some serious boundaries for our friends and even our immediate family members.  It's so very hard because everyone has loved them and prayed for them for more than a year...and they're HOME!  But they have to learn to trust us as their primary caregivers first.  They have to bond with us first.  There was an awesome quote in our training that went something like this: "Trauma that has occurred in the context of relationship can only be healed in the context of relationship." Our kids' trauma centers around their parents.  They need to develop healthy, stable relationships with us before they can start hugging on everyone person they meet.

I still feel torn about the whole issue of baby holding and orphan hugging.  There's a big part of my heart that still wants to go hug all 153 million of them.  And even in our kids' albergue, we hugged the other kids there.  How could we not??  I held a baby there.  I made Michael hold him, too.  We were loving on them.  But now, we're gone and I pray that we didn't leave any damage in our wake.  So I'm not sure that I can take a firm stand on either side on this issue right now.  I just know that watching our kids struggle has made me keenly aware that there is an issue.

Anyway, my point is that for our kids right now, hugs are harmful if they're not from us.
With the Christmas season at-hand, we are planning to be out and about a bit.  And shortly after Christmas, we are planning to try to start bringing the whole herd to church. It's a big deal!  So, church family, friends, and random strangers, here is how you can help us: 

*No hugs.  At least not for awhile.  And definitely no lap-sitting!  At this stage, 99% of physical touch needs to come from us right now.  We'll give the green light for hugs and tickles and snuggles when we feel that everyone is ready.  They desperately need to learn that hugs come after you've known someone for awhile and developed a fairly close relationship with him or her.  High-fives and handshakes are awesome!  Wagner, in particularly, likes to shake hands with adults. 

If one of our kiddos tries to hug you, please don't freeze or scream or push them away awkwardly.  (Not that anyone I know would do that!) Give them a quick squeeze, and then gently take them by the shoulders and move them a step back with a smile.  They've experienced more than their fair share of rejection.  If they plop down on your lap, smile and pat the spot next to you.   If they ask you to carry them, point them to us.  :)

*Defer all basic needs to us.  Food, especially, is a huge deal.  Our kiddos have known true hunger.  Meeting that very basic need for them has to be SOLELY our job for the first year.  It is a seriously powerful bonding tool.  So please don't offer them candy or treats or even gum.  Or water...unless of course there's an emergency.  Then by all means, save them. But otherwise, everything has to come from us.

Boo-boos, zipping coats, comforting tears, tying shoes, fixing hair, discipline...all of it has to be done by us for the first year or so.  We plan to hover awkwardly at all times, so you should be able to find us when you need us.

*No gifts.  This is a tricky one...especially at Christmas.  We decided immediate family can give gifts to the kids this year, and that's probably even overdoing it a bit.  Like food, gifts create a bond.  Please don't give them anything...even stickers... without asking us first.

*Please don't rave about their appearances in front of them.  We know they're wicked cute, and it's hard.  But they're already keenly aware of how different they look compared to the rest of us blondies with blue eyes.  They don't need to be reminded.  They don't want to be treated like animals at the zoo (even though they sometimes act like them).  They want to experience family and community.  (And the Wednesday night Kids' Celebration and youth kids did an awesome job of welcoming them this week!  Thanks for your love and your restraint!)  Also, in their old life, they used their cuteness to manipulate.  We want to leave that business in the past.  

*Please try to talk to them and not about them. I honestly haven't done a very good job of this (especially during what we affectionately named, "The Longest Week.")  But they are understanding more and more English everyday even though they don't speak it.  Feel free to try to talk to them in English or broken Spanish (they're totally used to that by now).  We will help translate anything you want to say.  They may act super shy, but deep down, they love the attention.  They'd much rather be talked to than talked about.

*Let us guide introductions.  Please let us bring them to you.  We can gauge whether or not they are overstimulated or anxious.  Sometimes, they look content and perfectly friendly, but inside they're freaking out.  Or sometimes, they just roll on the floor.  Either way, let us take the lead in bringing them to you and guiding the introductions.

I know that for some people, following these guidelines will feel very unnatural.  I promise, it won't be forever!  Most of our life feels a little awkward and unnatural right now, so you can join our club...when we have time to start one.  ;)  

The Longest Week

We've been home now as a family of 7 for 2 weeks.  In many ways, it has felt like 2 months. Up until yesterday, I wasn't sure if I would even be able to blog about any of our first days home.  They were filled with so much grief and exhaustion.  There were so, so many tears.  But God is good, and He didn't call us to this for nothing.  This is a redemption story, and in this broken world, redemption doesn't come without some serious battles. 

Our fiercest enemy in this stage of the process has been expectation.  Our training was thorough.  We learned what to expect and how to face the worst case scenarios head-on.  And we have expected 95% of what we've faced.  In theory, our expectations about what we would face were completely realistic. The problem has been our own human emotions. The problem is that we never expected to feel the way that we do about living and walking through all of these issues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It's one thing to know in your head what you will make a prepare.  It's another thing to live through see your efforts fail realize that all your organization and color coding is for naught if you never have a hot second to complete a single watch your children fall apart hour after regroup and try again...and again...and again.  And when all of your emotionally energy is completely zapped, to sit down and cry every night after the kids are in bed and wonder how anything in life will ever feel "normal" again. I didn't expect to feel this awful. 

The first week was so very long.  Transitions. New spaces. Adjustments. Cabin fever. New routines. Clogged toilets. Arguing. Tons of complaining. Way too much wrestling on the floor. No boundaries vs. new boundaries. Grief. Bedwetting. Jealousy. Tattle-taling all the livelong blessed day. Testing limits. Snow. Loss. Regression. Acceptance. Too many voices at once...all the time. I swear I can't remember half of it. It just felt like it would never end. There were never enough hours in the day.  Never enough hands to complete the never-ending list of tasks.  At any given second, each child needed 3 different things from 3 different parts of the house...all at once.  Everyone was fighting for attention every moment.  I didn't have a single second to myself.  And to top it off, Michael had to go back to work right away. So I was on my own that first week. 

We homeschool, and since Costa Rica's school year ended in November, I had planned a break for our Ticos until January. However, being the highly motivated students they are, they all 3 begged for "tarea" and "escuelita."  (Actually...they just want to do whatever Asher and Landyn get to do. I wish they were highly motivated students.) And when I realized that unstructured time with 5 siblings in this stage of the adoption process is about as much fun as lighting oneself on fire, I opted to start school right away. So we do school in both languages. Totally exhausting. I have just enough Spanish-speaking abilities to get by and translate stories on the fly. I never thought I'd say this, but I cannot wait for them to learn English!

The structure has helped. A lot. I was never one for intense structure before we adopted. I'd rather be a free spirit and fly by the seat of my pants.  I raised my first kids in that flexible environment. We were spontaneous. For the foreseeable future, those days are gone. I feel like I'm running a military school for small, sassy, attention-seeking people these days. It's not my all...but it's working. It's keeping us from all losing our minds, so we'll stick with it for now.

And that shift in atmosphere is one of the things my first kids have struggled with the most. They don't need that structure. And during that first week, I could tell they felt smothered by all the new rules and boundaries. Their home became a place they didn't recognize, and that brought out a lot of grief and frustration. It was incredibly difficult to walk through that with them, but I do feel like we're on the other side of it. They now see that it's working for their new siblings, and they understand that someday we will be able to relax a little.

I expected my first kids to struggle with all of that. But I did not expect to feel the way that I did about it. I knew they would struggle with sharing, and they have.  I expected them to struggle with the decrease in the attention they get, and they have.  I figured they would grieve the loss of our comfy, spontaneous life, and they have.  What I didn't expect was the resentment and regret that I felt.  Watching them struggle through all of that was much harder to experience in real life.  But as gut-wrenchingly hard and frustrating as it was to walk through that with them, I can see that they are learning how to rejoice in the good that is happening to their new siblings...even though very little about it feels good to them.  They are learning how to look to the interests of others first.  

For their part, our Ticos have actually done amazingly well adjusting to a totally new life with near-strangers in a foreign land where no one speaks their language fluently.  I'm seriously impressed.  And it is only by the grace of God, because, well, if you could have seen these 3 when we first brought them to live with us in CR, you'd understand.  I don't ever want to dishonor them by divulging too much of their stories, but suffice it to say, if you knew exactly what they've lived through, you'd be surprised that they came out on this side in one piece.  We still have lots of healing to work through, but the progress that we've seen in these past 7 weeks leaves me breathless.  They are learning to trust.  Learning what it means to be in a family.  Learning how to develop healthy friendships and relationships.  Learning boundaries. Oh sweet Jesus, the boundaries were totally not there at all. They are not at all the same people we met on November 5. Everyday, they are a few steps closer to wholeness...and it no longer feels like we are doing the "one step forward, two steps back" thing anymore. 

In fact, the second week has gone so well that we tried a few outings...and by  "a few," I mean 4. The cocooning thing--where we are supposed to stay home for months alone...yeah, it almost killed me. I was a total wreck by Friday of the first week. Michael had to go into work late so I could have some time alone to regroup. So we decided to start adding in some regular activities to see how the kids handled it. We visited the grandparents on both sides (some pre-Christmas tours so they understand what a "normal" visit looks like as opposed to a Christmas visit when they go home with a bunch of stuff we don't have space for). And we took them to a kids' game night at church, where Wagner made friends with one of my favorite children's min kids ever. And I took them to the myself after school on Thursday. This week, there has been so much less tension and arguing and attention seeking. Fewer squabbles and scoldings. More organization. I have charts for chores and meals so I don't lose my mind. And we are totally color coded up in here. The teacher part of me is in Heaven. The spontaneous mom part of me kinda hate it, but is getting over it...because it's totally working. 

Our color coded magnetic meal choice board. Now they don't have to all yell at me 17 times, "I want huevos!!!"

Our re-vamped bilingual, color-coded chore system. I'm not gonna lie--my house is cleaner now than it was with only 2 kids. Those blue "boletos" are like gold in this house. 

And our color-coded towels. In the words of my favorite adoption blogger, Jen Hatmaker, "bless it." (I've always wanted to say that...)

We are glad to have survived the first 2 weeks home. We got a lot of sweet, well-wishes during that week, which we appreciated, but couldn't resonate with during those initial days. It felt like a lot of people hoped or assumed that our lives would be complete now that everybody's home together...and that was not the case. Honestly, I could find very little to be happy or hopeful about. I wondered how we would ever figure out how to make a life with these little complicated strangers. But we are steadily climbing out of that dark place...together. And we know that the prayers of our family and friends and church family are moving mountains. We are so grateful for our "village," and even though most of you still haven't met the kids yet, you are impacting their lives in so many ways. We are ao thankful for the meals and clothes and encouraging letters...both to us and to our kids. Thanks for helping us survive the longest week. 

A Letter to My First Kids

Dear Landyn and Asher,

I can't even type your names without tears.  You are precious to me beyond words.  Being your mom for the past 8 (and 5) years has been my favorite job ever...And I will always remember the days when it was just the 4 of us.  I know that the last 6 weeks have been the hardest days of our lives, and there's a part of me that wants to say that I am so very sorry for that.  I'm sorry that everything that defined your home and your family and your life has been turned completely upside down.  It breaks my heart to watch you struggle through every day trying to figure out what life is supposed to look like now.

Through this whole process, you both have been so brave.  When we told you what God had in store for our family, you never questioned it or complained.  You embraced the idea with open arms and prayed sweet prayers for your someday siblings.  And now that "someday" is today, I've watched you try and try again to connect with these little strangers with little success.  I've watched with an aching heart as you've been rejected time and time and time again.  And I've watched you get back up and do it all over.  And I've also watched as you've given in to the grief in your own hearts...grief for the loss of life as you knew it...grief over the loss of your peace and your place and your space.  And I grieve with you...every time.  

I know that the job we are asking you to take on is huge.  We are asking you to share your parents and your rooms and your hearts and your space and your things and your time and your lives with 3 people who are completely unable to understand or appreciate the sacrifices that you have made for them...the sacrifices you are continuing to make each day.  We are asking you to be a brother and a sister to 3 people who don't yet know how to even begin to be true siblings to you.  We are asking you to show tremendous love to 3 people who don't know how to give the same love back in return.  We are asking you to rejoice in the good that is happening to the 3 people who have stolen our time and attention from you.  It's so much to ask of you...but they desperately need you to be the sweet, caring, compassionate, Jesus-loving kids that you were before we brought them home.  They need you to teach them what it looks like to be in our family.  You are more vital to this process than you can comprehend right now.  

During the past week, I have had very hard moments where I've asked myself, "What have we done to your lives?"  You were so happy and carefree and well-adjusted.  Right now, you are anxious and frustrated and uncertain.  It doesn't seem fair or right.  But we are on this journey because God led us here.  He opened doors that we were told would never be open for us.  He, without a doubt, led us to these 3 kids.  Please don't ever forget the story He has written for us already.  And even though right now, in this stage of transition, you might not be able to see or feel what He is doing, know that He is doing something amazing.  Because the God we serve is faithful.  He wouldn't bring us this far to leave us on our own.  He makes beautiful things out of garbage.  He will bring peace to our chaos.  He will replace our sorrow with joy again.  He makes broken things whole.  He's not going to leave us hanging.  He's faithful to finish what He starts.  So there's a part of me that can't feel sorry for this because I know that God is going to use it to make you into the people that He created you to be.  Romans 8:18 "For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us."  You get to be part of an amazing redemption story.  Someday, you will be able to look back on this and see evidence of God's power and His glory everywhere.  Just hang on a little longer.  It won't always be like this.

As you sleep tonight, I am praying peace and grace over you.  Please don't stop fighting for what you know to be right and good and true.  Please don't forget who you are.  Now that we're seven, so much is different, but there is one thing that will never change: You will always be our first kids.  Nothing can change that. You're my LandynO and my AsherBoy.  Never forget it.  And when you feel like there's nothing left of our old comfortable life to hang onto, it's ok to let it go.  And it's ok to be sad.  We will walk beside you every step of the way.  We won't leave you to navigate this uncertain path alone.

We love you so much...


It's rather quiet here at Port today. Over the last few days, all of the students have gone home because their semester is over. The last student left this morning. And we were sad to see them go. 

Over the past month, they became our family here. Our community. They laughed with us. Cried with us. Loved on our kids. Gave us much-needed coffee breaks. Helped us navigate the public transpiration system. Played fùtbol with Wagner when we were too sore and exhausted. Walked with us into buy a cake. Prayed for us. Gave us surprise gifts. Wrote us letters of encouragement. We are so thankful that God had this place and these people set aside for this time. This process would have been much more difficult without them. They brought light to the dark places we had to walk through with our kids. They are now a part of our story, and they will forever be special to us. :)

As I type this, Michael is trying to secure new flights home. Many people all over the world are praying for us right now. We are praying that God will work out the details and the finances. We are very ready to come home!

We have been amazed by how quickly our documents have arrived in our hands. Our lawyer, Yolanda, or Tía Yoli, as the kids call her, is responsible for all of it!  We are so thankful for her and her love and hard work for our family!  She is the best!

So we don't want her hard work on our family's behalf to go to waste!  We want to come home and start real life. But at this point, it's looking like it will be more costly to come home than to stay.  Again, we are in a place where only God can do anything to change our situation. That has become a daily theme..sometimes hourly...even minutely (is that even a thing??)

We need Thee every hour. Whether we stay or go home...  God has provided so many things for us along this journey ...not just finances. He provided this place and these students. He's provided us with brand new friends all over this city. He has blessed us with drivers who love Jesus and genuinely care about our kids. He directed us to Lifeline, our agency, and blessed us with Iris and Yolanda, who have walked with us through every step of this process. And against all odds, we have these kids. He is good, and He is big enough to do this, too. 

Keep praying for us!