one size doesn’t fit all

Nine years ago, Anthony and I, with six-year-old Hannah-Claire and four-year-old Cade in tow, flew to China to bring our new daughter home.  As many of you know, Haven had previously been adopted but sadly, the adoption didn’t work out and she never left China. For two more years, Haven waited for another family to choose her. We so clearly remember reading her referral paperwork and wrestling with all of the uncertainty of what her future would look like. Haven had a few diagnoses–most of them developmental with profound delays in all areas of her life. At eight, she couldn’t use words and had severe global developmental delays. We had no idea what the future would look like for Haven and had so many unanswered questions as we headed for China that day.  But of one thing we were certain.

Haven was our daughter.

The rest we would leave in His capable, loving hands.

This month, as we celebrate nine years of Haven being a part of our family, I cannot help but reflect on the journey–not only of what God has done in her life, but what He had done in mine, too. When we took that giant leap of faith and stepped into the world of raising children who have special needs all those years ago, nothing could ever have prepared us for what the Lord had in store for our family. Up until that point we had only raised healthy, able-bodied children. We knew nothing about daily life, the ins and outs, and the highs and lows that would come from raising children who could not express themselves in words.

It feels like yesterday. And it feels like forever ago.  Those days and months leading up to us finally being able to bring Haven home had me on a crazy mission to gain information. We wanted to be as prepared as much as possible for our new addition integrating into our family. Given her traumatic past, there is nothing that we would not have done to make things easier for Haven. I wanted to know everything that there was to know about what to expect, what to do, what not to do, and everything in between. I bought books and joined forums. I watched YouTube videos and signed up for online conferences. Where did we even begin in knowing how to communicate with her?  How would we know her needs?  How would we help Haven to succeed?  How would we help her find her voice and have the ability to communicate?

More than anything in the world, we wanted Haven to know that we loved and accepted her just the way she was.  But at the same time, as any parent understands, we wanted to give her every opportunity in heaven and earth to become all whom God had created her to be.

We reached out to those who had gone before us in adoption forums.  We consulted with our doctors and therapists with whom we were put in contact and anyone who had any kind of understanding of what it meant to raise a non-verbal, very delayed child.  And the advice was unanimous across the board.

“Enroll Haven in public school and put her in kindergarten. Give her the opportunity to be with very young children in an environment where there is routine, structure, a lot of repetition, music, and foundational language.  She will start speaking.” They all felt confident.

In my heart, I just wasn’t so sure. But what did I know anyway? We had never parented a non-verbal child before, I reasoned.

In September 2008 we came home with our new daughter. Struggling with the effects of horrible PTSD, she was afraid of anything that moved. Emotionally fragile, Haven lived each day with many, many fears. Thankfully though, she quickly learned that she was safe in her new family and that she was loved and treasured. In those few months, we saw her gain some independence, be willing to try new things, and slowly–just a tiny little bit–realize that her world was a safe place.

Everyone continued to share the same advice.  A very young class in school would help her to become more independent and verbal.

We kept Haven home for the first few months and the following year, together with her sister Hannah-Claire, we enrolled her in kindergarten. We figured that having her little sister with her would be comforting. Oh, boy, were we wrong! From Day One Haven regressed. She couldn’t handle the huge class of children, the environment, and just being away from home.  Every little victory that we had worked so hard to gain since coming home was instantly gone, it felt like.

Within days we realized that we had made a very big mistake. Haven was nowhere near ready for school!  What she needed was the safety of home. That, for Haven, was enough. We quickly realized that no amount of speech therapy or benefits of kindergarten could benefit her more than simply being home–with the family whom she was learning to trust and what had become her only safe place on earth. Home! Haven didn’t last a week in school. We felt like we had failed our new daughter and learned so many valuable lessons that we have carried with us as our family grew.

Never in my life had I been more thankful for amazing grace as I was in that season of failing and learning.

Two years after Haven came home, we adopted Hailee and Harper from Ukraine. Both have Down syndrome. And then about three years later, we adopted Kael (Down syndrome) and Hasya (cerebral palsy and many other diagnoses). It’s been a journey of unending, grace-filled learning, to say the least. Yes, learning to care for their medical needs took time, but learning how to meet each precious child right where they’re at in each and every season they go through and how to help them to learn, grow and thrive has been ongoing–one day at a time, one situation at a time.

After our major blunder with Haven and subsequently adding a few more children who have special needs to our family, we learned a very valuable lesson–one which we have held onto and which has become the filter through which we make every educational (or any decision, really) for each individual child.

As with all children, when it comes to raising children who have special needs, one size really does not fit all.

Simply because school works for one child doesn’t mean it will be the very best thing for another. Because one child flourished in a mainstreamed environment, that doesn’t mean that every other child will experience the same blessing. Our children are so unique and so different, and learning how to meet their individual needs has been the most valuable lesson we have gleaned along this amazing journey of parenting our nine (very different!) children. Simply because Harper thrives in an integrated environment, that absolutely does not mean that it will work for our other children.  In fact, as we learned the hard way, the first few years of integration would have been the worst thing ever for Haven. As she entered the special education system of public school a few years ago, we worked closely with the school district to ensure that it provided a small, safe environment for Haven. It was there in that safe, very controlled place that she began to blossom and gain independence. Today, she is so much farther down the road and for a large portion of her day, she is integrated with her peers.

Slow and steady wins the race with this young lady.

As I look back at where we started and how far we have come, it’s with so many mixed feelings.  We’ve made many mistakes along the way. Reaching out to others for advice certainly has its place, and we very often ask for ideas and thoughts (and then get second and third opinions if it’s a big decision) when faced with new situations and things we’re not familiar with. Because that’s what you do in a herd, to quote a phrase from the film Ice Age. Our community is such an enormous blessing. I am so, so thankful for the wisdom we have received from others over the years. But for us, we have also learned how to use much discernment when it comes to what is best for each one of our children.

God has been so faithful to teach us daily to humbly listen and then pray about what is best for our children.

Learning to trust our intuition and His still, small voice that gently leads us, and to pray without ceasing and believe that God will guide our every step as we parent our children, has been something we still try to get right every day (often failing before getting it right!). Learning to look at each individual child in all of their God-ordained uniqueness and do everything we can to equip them individually has been the thing that has helped us to see tremendous growth in our children–both educationally and medically.

Parenting children who struggle can be tough and stretching, and there are some days that we feel like all we ever do is make decisions on their behalf. One decision after the next. That’s just the way it goes, and we count it an honor to be their voice. Some days we get it right.  Other days we wish we had done something differently.

But in all these things–the hard days and the mistakes and the challenges and the victories which are the sweetest thing ever…

…there is grace.

So very much grace.

And it will be enough for tomorrow’s parenting, too.