by Meredith Burton
Love. This is a word that in today’s culture I sometimes find difficult to define. Most of the time I read about or hear people talk about love in the sense of satisfying something within themselves…otherwise known as selfishness. I admit that I am one of those people. I love my space, I love time to do things that I want to do. I love traveling and reading. None of these things take into consideration anyone else and I fear that as a culture we are on a downward spiral to always look out for ourselves first. The media encourages self-satisfaction and even indoctrinates young children into brand loyalty and getting what they want using the “nag factor”. However, I digress.
I am blessed to be gifted with real love (as defined by me)- the deep, unexplained drive to protect, care for, and lavish grace and joy on another person, without expecting anything in return, yet always receiving far more than one thought possible. I have been happily married to my husband for 11 ½ years, but this post is not about romantic or even friendship love (although the same definition applies). The love that still bewilders and transforms me daily and is the focus of this post, is love in relation to my son. After about five years of marriage, my husband and I started talking about the possibility of adoption. I felt a tugging at my heart for children who needed a family and I felt like we could provide an environment and a safe home for a child. I was so naïve and still so selfish even in those thoughts. After many years of paperwork, waiting, changing programs, and even disappointment and heartbreak, we embarked on a journey that forever changed us. On December 25, 2010, my husband and I flew to Moscow, Russia to meet our son for the first time. We met him on December 27th in a Baby Home in Moscow. It was clean and colorful and we heard children laughing. He was well cared for in the baby home, but his eyes were dull and frightened. He cried during our first two visits. We held him and kissed him and in my heart he was already ours. We spent a week with him and then had to return home to await our court date and return to Russia.
His sad eyes were in my heart and mind during the two months we waited and hoped and prayed to go back to get him. His physical needs were being met, at least minimally, but he did not have an experience of real love. Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a Hierarchy of Needs in the 1940s and 50s that visually represents human motivational needs. The most basic needs, forming the wide base of the pyramid, are those of hunger, thirst, shelter, sleep, etc. Our son’s basic needs were met. The second tier, building on the first, is the need for safety: security, order, and freedom from fear. While he had consistent caregivers and roommates in the Baby Home, there was never a sense of family or true security. As a very small child, he had experienced great loss and trauma that could not be explained to him. He was fighting for his life as an infant and a toddler in an environment that couldn’t possibly meet his needs for emotional security. In her book, Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, Peggy Cogan explains that adopted children have some reactive coping behaviors to try to fill the unexplainable void they feel. Our son was no exception…he had to be parent and child for much of his first year and a half of life. Even today we see some maturity in his young life that makes me cry. No child should have to provide their own emotional security. However, Cogan also describes the idea of “parent juice” (time and building connections with your child) which fills up a child with security and stability and helps build connections that physically change the brain and build new pathways of belonging and resiliency. This was our goal during our second trip to Russia and beyond. We visited in the baby home every day for twelve days. We were very fortunate to spend time with our son in his group and alone. Each day we saw a little bit more of who he really was: strong, stubborn, ticklish, funny, and curious. I will never forget the first time we heard him laugh and a few days later, the first time we heard him “speak” (baby talk). He was opening up a piece of his heart to us and showing us that he trusted us a little bit more. Looking back at pictures, the change in his eyes is amazing…from dull and untrusting to slowly accepting us into his life. By the time we left the baby home for the last time, we were on our way to becoming a family. I knew our son felt safe and secure when we walked into the hotel room in Moscow and he literally started singing. Writing about it even today, almost three years later, brings tears to my eyes.
As I stated in my definition of love, the surprising part of loving is the amount of love you receive in return without ever expecting it. We certainly hoped he would love us, but we didn’t know what challenges we would face as we flew home to introduce him to a completely new culture, home, family, language, and life. We relied on the grace of God to guide our steps and make us into a family. Today our son is four years old. Some days I honestly don’t remember that our journey to becoming a family is different from most. He is part of my heart and I can’t imagine any other way for our family to exist. He brings us greater joy than I could ever express and I would do anything for him. This morning, as I wrote, a small Peter Rabbit with bright, expressive eyes, appeared in the doorway and with a huge smile exclaimed, “I love you, Mommy!” It’s all I need. This is Love.
Meredith Burton grew up in Danbury, CT, but now calls Greenville, SC home. She is the director of a university preschool and is a wife and mother. She is also an amateur blogger who writes about teaching, learning, and living on her personal blog www.meredithburton.com. She is passionate about early childhood education and reform and currently serves as the president of the South Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children.