These questions are for Susanna:
Q: My question really is, how do you raise children that you will be confident will look after Katie and Verity after you are gone? Can you please talk about parenting? I don’t think it is the usual Christian parenting because it is also glaringly obvious that you are doing something different than what the norm is.
A: You’re absolutely right that we aren’t rearing our children the way most families in our culture rear their children, whether they identify themselves as Christians or not. We have been intentional in working from a parenting philosophy that is antithetical to the prevailing parenting philosophies of our day.
This is partly because we are not truly rearing children, we are rearing future adults, and we couldn’t be more unimpressed with the vast majority of the adults our culture is turning out.
But ultimately, it’s because our children don’t truly belong to us, and therefore, we don’t have the freedom to rear them in any way we choose. The God who designed them and placed them in our family also gave us everything we need on which to build our family culture and discipling decisions.
In His word, He has revealed His own nature as a Father, the nature of mankind, His design for the relationships within the family, and the mandate for parents to faithfully disciple their children, among many other critical underlying truths. He has poured a treasury of truth out for us in His word. Not only that, but He gifts all His children with His Spirit and the desire and the power to do what He wants us to do. He has continuously been so merciful to Joe and me and our children in our weakness and failure and sin, and we are so grateful to Him. The good you see coming forth from our family is 100% the goodness of God and 0% the goodness of man. Period.
Q: We’ve considered special needs adoption, but we haven’t moved forward because we feel like we have to think about our other children. [Composite of common objection to special-needs adoption; not a direct quote from one person]
A: We also thought about our other children before committing to adopt Katie. The reason we came to a positive conclusion and you came to a negative one is that our thoughts were based on opposite ideas.
Children are a blessing from God. This means that despite current popular opinion, both adopted and biological children with severe special needs are a blessing from God. This is actually true, and we actually believe it.
We reject the materialist thinking that there are only so many resources to go around, and that we should make sure the available resources go to the people who can give back the most on a materialistic level.
Our God doesn’t speak in those terms.
On the contrary, He has a whole lot to say about how He is squarely on the side of the powerless and needy.
He commands us as His people in no uncertain terms to reflect His character by pouring ourselves out on behalf of the hungry and bringing to our homes the poor who are cast out.
He not only promises over and over to provide all our needs, but He Himself, the God who creates something out of nothing, is the source of provision. And He gave His word to us that if we spend ourselves on behalf of the afflicted…
“The LORD will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
Because God does stand squarely on the side of the powerless and needy, including orphaned children, and not only commands us to care for them but makes it clear that when we care for them we are caring for Jesus Himself, we have no desire to protect ourselves or our children from having to sacrifice for the weak and the helpless. The very opposite is true! Once the eyes of God’s children are open to what is in the very nature of our Father, it makes us yearn to be right in the middle of it.
There is so much more that could be said here! Like the fact that your children are watching your eyes open to this great need, and learning from you how to respond. I don’t know anyone who wants their children to feel comfortable concluding that little ones with special needs are better off ending up in places like this than coming into their family. Children intuitively know what their parents truly love above everything else (no matter what we sing on Sunday mornings)! They know whether we would choose to welcome a little child like this in His name over making sure our accessories are cute enough or our family eats organic homemade sprouted whole-grain bread, or [fill-in-the-blank-with-any-other-superficial-external-lifestyle-preferences].
Because what God says is true and we believe it, we had no fear and no reason to fear that adopting a child with special needs would bring spiritual harm to our other children. On the contrary! We knew that Katie would be an inestimable blessing to her siblings.
Now we can stand with countless other Christian adoptive parents of children with special needs and add our eyewitness testimony to theirs.
We are watching our mighty God keep His word, and so are our children with us.
These questions are for Joseph and Daniel:
Q: Was it hard to be parted from your mom and dad during the time both were in Bulgaria?
A: We aren’t insecure people, so we were able to have lots of fun staying with our friends. We also Skyped with our parents nearly every day while they were gone.
Q: Did you feel like you needed to step up and parent the younger kids when your mom and dad were away? If so, how did you deal with it? Did it make you angry? scared? overwhelmed? frustrated?
A: We were already used to helping supervise the younger children as needed, so it wasn’t a negative experience.
Q: It’s fun having a new adopted sibling (we have one too!) but do all the doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, and crazy schedules get old and annoying?
A: The doctor’s appointments might be getting annoying to Mom, because she’s the one who has to deal with them, and it doesn’t really affect the rest of us very much. We older ones know how to keep the household routine going while she’s gone.
[Mom: Not annoyed yet. :-) ]
Therapy sessions? We’ve only had a few therapy sessions here in our home every month, and we’ve learned how to adjust. We all know the routine for therapy days.
And we had crazy schedules at times before we had Katie and Verity in our family, so we can’t blame that on them.
Daniel: Joseph, “do you fight resentment of your parents spending so much time with your two littlest sisters?”
Joseph, without missing a beat: No.
Daniel: That was a thoughtless and quick answer. Are you sure you don’t want to spend more time re-considering your reply?
Q: Do other boys and girls outside your homeschool group/church make fun of your sisters? What do you say to defend them?
A: Some people just stare at them or look away and stop smiling. Also, Mom overheard some children we know agreeing that they don’t like Verity and Katie. But for the most part, everyone who has met Verity and Katie has been respectful of them.
[Mom: It doesn't bother me like it did when Verity was very tiny. Now I'm just profoundly grateful that our children will be very unlikely to be the ones making fun of children with disabilities.]
Q: Did you give your mom and dad money to help with the adoption?
A: Yes, sir!
Q: We teach our children to be compassionate by doing the usual things of sharing, Angel Trees, sponsoring a child and even volunteering. They are compassionate children and I am very proud of them. But in the end they are quite focused on their education and activities above all and we encourage that. But I see something different in your family, a certain selflessness if you will.
Many parents, even Christians will say that one of their fears of having a special needs child is concern about what will happen to that child after they are gone and if the siblings will be too focused on themselves/their families, squabble among themselves as to who will take care of their sibling with special needs, have issues of money, will not have the same concern as the parents about the sibling with special needs, and in the end, abandon or give minimal care to a vulnerable person dependent on them.
As a family who has special needs adoption almost 100% in our future, I’ve wondered about the impact it will have on our biological children.
A: When you look at our family, you’re not seeing superhuman selflessness, you’re seeing people in the process of learning superhuman selflessness.
We’d say your children are very much like us. The selflessness you see in our family is not something we accomplished. While we were taught that we ought to love outwardly, in our hearts we are normal, selfish people. (However, it should be said that pursuing education or preparing for the future is not necessarily selfish.) We have found that when you’re going into something like this, you don’t work everything out ahead of time and “arrive” spiritually before you start doing anything. As you follow the Lord’s call, He’s the one who works in you and your children.
God challenged Mom and Dad with a need and an opportunity to do something significant and totally unselfish and they responded, and you know the story. We watched Mom and Dad going way out of their comfort zone. Something significant was happening.
What has made a huge difference for us in learning unselfishness was watching Mom and Dad and talking and going through everything together with them, especially for us older ones. We got to piggyback, so to speak.
Even before Verity was born, Mom and Dad shared with us lessons that God taught them and some of their struggles. Lessons like trusting God unconditionally when we don’t see all the way to the end or even around the next bend. Knowing that He always takes care of us and will open and close doors around us so that we can boldly pursue whatever He might be calling us to do next. Being surprised to find out that when you bless others, He pours out blessings on you faster than you can to others! Years and years ago, Mom and Dad used to say God wouldn’t give us something we couldn’t handle. Since then, we’ve experienced the fact that God does give us things we can’t handle, humanly speaking, because He wants to show how powerful, awesome, and faithful He is.
Then Verity was born.
God gave us a sister who has special needs. It wasn’t something we planned to do, but it was obviously the next thing God had for us. There wasn’t a decision about whether or not to accept her; she was automatically part of our family. Verity’s life marked the beginning of the best years of our lives. Sometimes we struggled to adjust and we had some growing up to do.
So it’s a journey, and we’re still on our way. We’re not a model family by any means. It doesn’t take a model family to do what we’re doing.
All those lessons God was teaching us weren’t so real to us until we went through hardships and experiences, and it definitely didn’t happen overnight. God prepared us in many ways just for this, but we never would have seen it coming. We didn’t feel like, “Oh, I bet we’re in adoption school.” It was just plain old life. (Well, yeah…plain old life for a homeschool family of eleven…is awesome!)
Now to your question, the simple answer is: we got to know Verity and Katie. We can see that they’re not just the sum of their weaknesses – they’re real, amazing, valuable human beings! They have feelings. They make friends. They enjoy food, play, and laughter. They learn to do things.
We’ve learned tangibly that we have no right, and not even any reason, to look down on them simply for having impaired capabilities – their personhood is the valuable and important and eternal part, not their abilities; and personhood belongs as much to them as it does to us.
Given our natural prejudices, there’s no way we could understand the value of people with special needs without interacting with them with an open heart. After we fed them, learned what makes them laugh, and helped care for them, it dawned on us that our impressions were mistaken. Before Verity and Katie came to our family, this all seemed theoretically true, but once it became part of our life, it really made sense.
If you adopt with the idea that your children deserve to have a life that’s like everybody else’s, you will try to keep all responsibility for the new sibling off your children until you pass away. But when you do pass away, your children will certainly squabble among themselves as you described. If this is your perspective, something would need to change in your idea of what’s best for your children if you’re going to adopt a child with special needs. If you always screen and protect your children from having any responsibility to take care of the needy, or from any other hard thing, will they learn to be unselfish?
The opposite extreme is to be unjust to your children. Removing liberties and enjoyments without talking it over with your children, exasperating them by putting too much of a load on them without sufficient training or understanding, or trying to appear high and holy, while lecturing to your children about doing-the-hard-thing-because-it’s-right.
Of course those are both the extremes. Before the adoption, you can explain to your children why it’s a good thing and what it will mean for them. You should be transparent about how it will impact their lives, both immediately and in the future.
After your new child is home, lead by example. Show your children what unselfishness means by your interaction with and care of your adopted child. Show them by how you act what patience means. Show them what compassion means. It would be asking for conflict to expect them to come up with all those qualities by themselves, especially if you wait until you die before handing over any responsibilities for your child. Be willing to show them patiently how to take care of their sibling, and allow them to interact and have responsibilities. Always show yourself willing to be the first to take care of contingencies or unpleasant duties.
Yes, there may be events you don’t get to go to, projects postponed, things you can’t buy right now, whatever. But show by your attitude that this precious child is worth it. There’s a good chance they’ll believe you, and from there, they’ll find out for themselves.
Q: I hope this isn’t a delicate question for the older siblings, but it’s something I’ve always wondered about. Babies with Down syndrome are often born to older mothers, and children with Down syndrome sometimes live far into adulthood, sometimes outliving their parents. Does the possibility that your little sisters will outlive your parents alter how you might plan for your future? Do you see yourself as possibly caring for them in your home? How do you see this impacting your marriage and your life?
How do you feel about the possibility that you may be caring for Katie and Verity as adults?
A: While taking care of our sisters with special needs will certainly alter our future from what it would have been without them, we do not see that as a bad thing. Our plans are not the point of our existence. We have learned that what God decides for our lives is what we should – and can, in His strength – be joyful in. Because of this, we can welcome the privilege of being caretakers of our sisters even after we leave the home. As to marriage, the possibilities of the future will certainly be an object to keep in mind. But far from being a problem, it’ll actually tell us a lot when choosing a life partner, we think. We both want to marry the kind of person who will value our sisters.
Katie and Verity are our sisters. We’re growing up with them. We like being around them. It’s not going to be weird if one of them lives with us when we’re grown up, since we will have known them all along. The only problem is that there won’t be enough Katies and Veritys to go all around. :-)
Q: As a fellow mom of a child with Down syndrome but with younger children all around, I’ve wondered how you older children processed the news of Verity’s diagnosis when you were told.
A: I (Daniel) wasn’t much moved, not having any concrete idea what Down Syndrome really meant, and not knowing what to think.
I (Joseph) thought, OK, so we’re going to do this next. I wonder what it will be like? Like when I realize it’s my turn to practice escaping from a second-story window. I slow down and think carefully.
I didn’t understand what was so serious or sad about Down syndrome though. I knew one thing: it would be really good for all of us and I was going to be glad for it. And guess what? I am! Having sisters with special needs hasn’t turned out much different at all from what I envisioned, except that they are a lot more fun and we are more independent than I would have guessed. What I didn’t guess was the amazing impact it had in other areas of life. Good years, these.
Q: Did you have any complaints/concerns about adopting when you have such a large family already?
A: We were really looking forward all the more to having another sister. Our large family is coming in very handy. Many hands really do make light work. You do mature faster and have more of the shared kind of fun in life rather than the egocentric kind. Mom and Dad taught us this long before our family was large at all.
Q: What are some things that your parents have done or that you think are important to help all the kids in a large family feel important and valued?
How do you feel about ‘sharing’ mom and dad with siblings that require quite a bit of extra time and attention?
A: Mom and Dad have done a lot with each one of us individually, as well as with our family as a whole. Both kinds of interaction are very important to us. We have suppers together as a family, Bible time each evening, family night once a week (we have a campfire, go on walks, watch movies or play games), field trips together, vacation trips, and so on. Our family has terrific/restful fun (depending who you are) all day most Sundays with our church family. Dad does the week’s shopping on Saturday with one of the younger kids (a different one each time) with him all day. Every once in a while one or more of us older kids stay up at night for hours with Mom and Dad just talking. Mom has a regular girls’ night with Laura and Jane.
We are not at all deprived of attention from Mom and Dad. Add to that the attention that we get from each other all day – it’s a blast!
Q: How has adopting Katie, and now having two girls with special needs in the family, affected private time and time with parents?
A: There are seven people in the family who can competently field at least part of Katie’s and Verity’s care, so each of us has plenty of private time.
Mom is busy, but she fits in plenty of time for her children throughout her day. The younger kids are usually around one of us older ones, but they get to see and talk and cuddle/play with Mom throughout the day. And where Katie and Verity are in life, they’re not in the way if we need to talk. Plus, there’s always the evening if we need to discuss a particularly lengthy or private issue.
Q: Do the boys find it easy to be very affectionate with Verity and Katie? If so, is it more the “little sister” relationship or the Down syndrome?
A: Yes, it is easy to be affectionate with such cuties. :-)
Having our little sisters is really the way our eyes were opened to the reality of special needs in the first place. It’s impossible to separate Down syndrome from Katie and Verity, because it’s part of what makes them who they are as people, and we like who they are as people.
Q: What sorts of responsibilities do the older kids have in the household and with the younger children?
A: The basic housework and taking care of younger children can be divided up between the older children pretty effectively, and with flexibility. We’re not tied down to our duties 24/7 – we get a lot of free time. I (Joseph) work and the rest of the children and Mom have gone on outings several times a week over the summer. The care of Verity and Katie hinges on Mom, but while she’s not available (like when she and Laura went to a ladies’ night), or during some meals, or at other random times, one of us older children takes care of one of the little girls. Mom does a good job making sure one of us isn’t always singled out in feeding or watching over them, so we don’t get the feeling that they’re keeping us from doing other important things. It also helps when we see that what we do is very important to Verity and Katie, and Mom.
<momcannotseethispart>More housework could theoretically be done</momcannotseethispart>
Q: How do your children feel about having less because the adoption and medical needs cost so much? […] I want to get a feeling for if my boys will resent me and their adopted sibling because they missed out on some activities they really enjoy.
A: We don’t have less than before we adopted Katie.
Our budget has never been extravagant and the activities we really enjoy aren’t necessarily tied to our finances. One way or another, God has provided for everything we need and enough to share, so money hasn’t been a problem for us.
What was potentially a problem was availability for events/projects. But the only thing that we actually ended up not able to do because we have Katie was an out-of-state relative’s wedding. Instead, we had a terrific Titanic event at our church (including English country dancing!), so we didn’t mind. Our parents have chosen to put a higher priority on family activities than individual activities, and as a result, our lifestyle has never been incredibly fragmented. Which we think is a good thing. But both of us oldest boys can drive and fit individual activities into our schedules now. Piano lessons half an hour away, ultimate frisbee with our friends, a movie at the theatre once in a while, and things like that. We take two vehicles to church on Sundays so we older ones can stay longer if our parents need to take the younger ones home before our day with our friends is over.
Also, Dad and Mom have made it a point that whenever they can feasibly say “yes” to good opportunities for us older children, they do, even when it means the household will temporarily be short of hands. Mom calls that “absorbing the consequences,” and she doesn’t resent it. Hence I (Daniel) was able to take a seasonal job during the winter. And Joseph was able to accept fulltime employment. Mom doesn’t get as much extra stuff done as usual, but the household survives. We don’t get skimped on, and we’re grateful to our parents for that.
[Note from the mom: We don't believe it is right or wise to make our parenting decisions out of fear of what our children might possibly think of us if they grow up to be bitter and reject the sovereignty and goodness of God.]
Q: What do you do as children to make obedience something special and not just “because Mom and Dad say so?”
A: Us? We recognize that obedience is a substantial gift with its own rewards. :-) But we’re eighteen and sixteen and that’s maybe not what you meant.
Mom and Dad don’t teach the younger kids that they should only obey after it makes sense or seems special to them, which is very helpful because later on God doesn’t teach that way either. Appealing to the younger kids would make them the final authority in their own minds. They need to do what is required by Mom and Dad and ultimately God. So they are very gently brought to grips with the real world fairly soon. Especially with the circumstances of the adoption and even of Verity’s needs, Mom and Dad also thought it was important for them to be in on what was going on. The whole way through we talked and talked, and told them what we were going through and how God was working everything together. Little kids can understand a lot if you bring it to their level. Big kids too.
Q: Do you ever want to get away from “the little ones?”
A: No. Our siblings are cool. We like that they’re at a variety of stages and we can relate to them there. As often as not, the younger ones are able to do what we older ones are doing. Many times we can be busy together with them working on something else that needs to be done.
Q: Do you have things to do that give you space?
A: Yes. Bike riding, reading, a multitude of personal projects. We feel like we have a lot of personal space, and it’s rare that we want to get away just for that. I mean obviously there’s a need to pray or read the Bible in a quiet place, or a need to process something. But more often we want to do something together.
Q: Would any of you like to visit Bulgaria or other places in the world, maybe on a mission trip?
A: Yes. We would love to travel and see different places and people. It isn’t a driving goal and we don’t see it happening in the near future though.
Q: Just for fun, your mom always seems so calm and quiet, does she ever yell?
A: Lol, sometimes. Basically only if otherwise we wouldn’t be able to hear what she’s saying. She has a very soft voice and we can be a very noisy bunch. Especially when I (Joseph) am practicing piano.
Q: I’m curious to know if any of you older children feel like you as a family should adopt again. Or if perhaps you are interested in adopting yourselves when you have families of your own.
A: I (Daniel) hope we adopt again, once we have the go-ahead from God. I know Mom and Dad have the heart to do it, and now they have experience, too. It now depends on when we’re ready again, and when God opens the door to it. I would certainly like to adopt when I’m an adult, but I don’t know yet whether God will let me.
I (Joseph) do not have an opinion about our family adopting again. I think we could adjust a bit longer first, but that’s how I felt last time and I ended up thinking otherwise. For me it’s not really something I’ve thought a lot about. Now for my own future family, I would love to adopt. I guess I’d have to process what I really think before I say much more, but I’m open to it. I don’t think I would be ready in the near future to do what Mom and Dad are doing. Knowing myself, I’m guessing I probably won’t be the one to initiate it. But who knows? There are quite a few ifs between now and then. I’d say I’m still cooking.
Q: Would you say that you were born with a nurturing heart or is that something you’re having to develop or maybe even struggling with?
A: According to the Scripture, everyone is born with an absolutely self-centered heart. It is easier for some personalities to be nurturing than others, but it’s something God develops in us with the work of His Spirit through experiences like this. It would be a lie to say that we never struggle with being nurturing. If you’re reading a particularly compelling book, or absorbed in a project, it’s much harder to respond in a godly way toward interruptions.
I (Joseph) was very definitely not. I’ve always been a loner, and I’ve always wanted things to suit me just so. I’ve also hoed some long rows. (OK. Mom and Dad’s rows? Easy. God’s? Oh my word…) I’ll say for Daniel (’cause he won’t) that he does have that gift. But in each of us and our siblings, including the younger ones, we do see it developing. I’ve seen God at work, even in my own heart. I’m grateful that God matured me to the point where I was ready to accept Katie and Verity before we knew they were coming, and that I didn’t cause any problems that way.
Q: Now that you have two sisters with special needs, how would you say that has impacted your heart for others both with and without special needs?
A: We feel like we’re just at the very beginning of a long journey into knowing what it means to serve and show compassion. Seriously, right now, special needs seem relatively easy. We can understand it and do something about it. Not all needs we’ve wanted to help with are this straightforward!
Q: Do you feel that God is using Verity and Katie to mold you into who He wants you to become as adults or do you feel that this is more about who God is molding your parents to become?
A: Absolutely both. And while we’re at it, I think He’s ennobled Verity and Katie even further by using them to impact a good many other people along the way to what He wants them to become, too.
If we’re living in Christ the goal is not to learn lessons and become better people. We aren’t the point, God is. It’s about worshiping God by enjoying Him. He will change us in His own time and His own way to bring Himself glory.
Q: Do you feel that some of you are naturally equipped with your sisters with special needs or do you feel that some of you are gaining new strengths by having them in your family?
A: Yes, certainly. As well as having catalyzed spiritual growth in our family, they help us take our mind off our immediate selves and remind us of the big picture in life. Especially for those of us with tendencies to get caught up in busyness of one derivation or the next. And to slow down and relax, for those of us who tend to rush. It’s just a different, I would almost say a more grown-up view of life.
Q: What would you want other people to know about your family that they might not know?
A: We haven’t thought about it much. Somehow we have a whole lot of fun. Maybe this would be a good time to get the point across that there’s nothing more amazing or special about us than other people. We aren’t always loving to each other. There are still struggles for each of us, some more than others. Our lives are real and as such, gritty. We’re more serious than we were before Katie and Verity, and before tough times God sent us in the past. We’re more happy too.
Seriousness doesn’t mean no humor or fun. We think it makes a deeper joy.
Q: Do you have any advice for other children in families who are welcoming a child via adoption?
A: It’s going to be really strange at first, but it’s not scary and you’ll get used to it before long. Having a sibling with special needs is going to be a new way to learn what it means to follow Jesus.
<Joseph: Hey, I like writing. I didn’t know that!>
<Daniel: Thanks for reading our two cents!>