In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Julianne Neely
In the adoption world, you hear all these beautiful cliché things about a woman feeling like a mother as soon as her baby is placed in her arms. I didn’t have a pregnancy to prepare me for parenthood. Just a bunch of paperwork, home studies, and interviews, so I was really counting on that whole magical moment where someone would put a baby in my arms, and I would transform into “mother”.
That’s not how it happened. Quite the opposite, actually. I trudged through those early days when I was supposed to “glow” and radiate transcendent love, but all I did was cry a lot and feel like a total failure. For many weeks, I kept expecting to be fired from this new job.
I felt guilty that the baby had to put up with me as I figured out what to do. Why a woman who is terrified of hospitals, blood, and medical procedures would volunteer to take in children with serious health complications is beyond me.
Well, actually, I remember why.
None of my fears seemed to matter in the excitement of preparing for a baby. I was floating on a cloud of idealism and a belief that love would cure all ailments. Somehow in the middle of all the interviews, home studies, and paperwork, I forgot to mention to my agency (or myself) that even hearing a story involving blood left me weak at the knees.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to take in a medically complex kid, but I thought that love would be a bigger and more powerful force than any challenge we faced. I started my journey as a parent in a complete fog of oblivion. I was in for a rude awakening. Worse than a lovesick teenager, I thought I would magically become all the things I needed to be if the right baby came along.
The right baby did come: a feeding tube dependent micro preemie who had spent the first nine months of her life fighting to survive in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was more beautiful and sweet than I ever could have imagined, but I did not magically transform into all the right things for her.
In fact, quite the opposite, while we adjusted to one another, it felt as if I did everything wrong.
To add to the complex emotions of bringing home a new baby, I was terrified of her feeding tube. Terrified! Scared to clean around the tube; afraid I would remove the cord from the button the wrong way; and nervous that if I held her the wrong way, I would cause injury to the hole in her stomach. I treated her feeding tube as if it were a wild animal that could attack at any moment. And attack it did.
My first time home alone with my daughter -- she hadn't even been out of the hospital for twenty-four hours – a feeding tube disaster landed her back in the hospital. I had picked her up too fast, snagged her cord, startled the dog, and somehow in that crazy millisecond, her IV pole fell over. Formula was squirting everywhere, and the baby who never cried was screaming.
I called my husband in a complete panic, demanding he drive us to the hospital. I left a sobbing voicemail asking my father-in-law to pick up the dog, and we raced off to the ER. Seven hours and a clean bill of health later, I still felt agony about not being a competent mother.
My anxiety about caring properly for the baby further escalated when I ended up back in the ER with her a few days later. This was my second time home alone with her, and this time the feeding tube came completely out of her body. I had been lowering her into the bathtub, when her cord snagged on my jacket.
POP! The button came right out of her tummy. It was a scene out of a comedy, stomach contents squirting everywhere, while I paced frantically around the house with a naked baby in my arms trying to remember what to do. The only thing I could remember was that she needed a new tube inserted quickly before the hole started to close.
So I called 911, asked the operator to please HURRY, ran a (still) naked baby out to the paramedics, who began chanting "ma'am you really need to calm down" like it was their company mantra. I argued with the paramedics about which hospital was best to take us to, lost that argument, and cried and cried and cried. And cried some more.
I still remember the ER doctor trying to assure me that I was “not a bad mom” by reminding me that when parents normally bring home a baby, they get a newborn who sleeps most of the day to ease them into parenting, and even then, it is often overwhelming to figure out the normal feeding, sleeping, and diapering needs. We had jumped into parenting an active nine-month-old with a very unique set of complex medical needs without appreciating how steep the learning curve would be.
Thanks to completely unrealistic expectations and an irrational fear of medical equipment, I spent my first few weeks as a mom feeling like a complete failure.
Turns out I wasn’t the only mom in her life feeling like a failure.
* * * *
The first time I met the baby’s biological mother, there really was a magical connection, but this time I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe it was because we both felt like total failures to this baby for whom we wanted to be everything. Maybe it was something else, but more than anything, being with her mom felt like the missing piece to the puzzle, our puzzle.
We talked and we hugged and we just fit.
From that day forward, we were Team Baby V. An oddly assembled team, but the best team I could have asked for. So it’s the four of us: me, my husband, Baby V, and her birth mother, going to see lots of specialists almost every day.
We love to laugh about the remarks and facial expressions of medical professionals who walk into the exam room to find an African American woman, an African American baby, and a white couple waiting for them. “And how are you all related?” Some days we explain, some days we just say Team Baby, and other days we make up tales about being sister wives in a Mormon Community.
It’s complex and it’s messy, but it’s so very worth it. I couldn’t do this journey alone. Baby V is extra special. She has many ongoing medical needs, and she needs this team with three devoted and loving parents to care for her and each other. The puzzle isn’t complete without all these pieces.
I have become fluent in medical terminology and gained more knowledge about the inner workings of the vocal cords, esophagus, stomach, and intestines than I ever thought necessary. Turns out, swallowing and digesting are pretty complex tasks that most of us take for granted!
I’ve come to realize I can’t be everything for this baby girl, and I am beyond lucky because I don’t have to be. It’s a giant relief to know that when I fall short, there is a whole team around me to pick up the pieces.
Without the pressure of having to figure it all out alone, I can focus on the things I do best, while having the extra support and guidance to help me grow in other areas. On Team Baby V, we each have our own unique, individual strengths and weaknesses. The more we grow together, the better we learn to support one another. This allows us to better support this wonderful baby entrusted to our care.
When I made the decision to be a special needs foster parent, I did so with unrealistic expectations about how magical love would save the day and cover a multitude of my inadequacies. It turns out I was right, but not at all in the way I expected.
It took some serious soul searching and adjustment to go from feeling like a failure to feeling like a confident, proud "tubie mom". Thanks to this amazing little girl, a strong community of other “tubie moms”, Team Baby V, a supportive medical team, and the feeding tube that allows her to survive, I feel as if we have finally made it to the other side.
After wearing a variety of hats in the child welfare world, Julianne Neely, MSW, LCSW, has settled into the role of mama and pediatric therapist. Specializing in issues relating to trauma and attachment, Julianne has devoted her life’s work to children who deserve to feel loved and wanted after experiencing powerful rejections. Julianne has become the leading expert in pediatric mental health in Chicago, IL where she owns and manages Individual and Family Connection. At IFC she has the privilege to manage a team of amazing clinicians who are passionate about working with children and seeing them thrive. www.ifccounseling.com
This year's Adoption Portraits series is filled. You may send a submission for next year's series to Carrie Goldman at email@example.com. Follow Portrait of an Adoption on Twitter and Facebook
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Check out Carrie Goldman's award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.