Even your average three-year-old can suss out that my daughters didn't come into our family the "old-fashioned way." My beautiful girls are from China, and my husband and I aren't. But inquisitive three-year-olds just ask why we don't "match"—it's usually the adults who make the weird comments and questions about my family—like "How much did they cost?" or "It's terrible how they throw away kids there." Or my least favorite comment—"I couldn't love someone else's child like my own." Those kinds of people seem even more confused when they discover that I willingly—and eagerly—adopted a little girl who had a known medical issue, a special need.
My youngest daughter has microtia, where her right ear didn't grow the way it should. She has hearing loss on that side, because she has no ear canal and a tiny, misshapen "little ear." It's a relatively common birth defect, and Paul Stanley of KISS is the most famous person who has it. (And coincidentally, he's part of the reason we knew we could handle this particular issue. As my husband said, if Paul Stanley can rock out with a small ear, there's no limit to what our daughter can do.)
But even close friends and family expressed misgivings when we told them we were thinking of adopting a child with special needs—saying that we already had a "perfect" daughter, and wasn't that enough? But we knew our family wasn't complete, and there were a number of reasons why we chose the special needs route.
- We wanted our kids to be close in age. If you follow China adoption at all, you'll know that the wait for a child without known medical issues has grown exponentially. When we put in our paperwork for our oldest in 2004, we waited nine months before we finally held her in our arms. The dossier for our youngest went to China in April 2007. If we hadn't found her on the special needs list in 2008, we would still be waiting today—and still a long while from being matched with a child.
- The stories of what happens to special needs kids are heartbreaking. As anyone with a child with special needs knows, even here in the U.S. you often have to fight hard to get your child the help they need to reach their full potential. For a child like my daughter, without anyone to fight for her and in a country that stigmatizes even small differences like an extra finger, it would have been catastrophic. It would have meant virtually no education, and an extremely limited future. I definitely did not adopt to "save" a child, but based on what I've read (check out Kay Bratt's excellent Silent Tears for a vivid depiction of life in a Chinese orphanage), I know my daughter would never have had the opportunity to become an artist or a gymnast or a scientist (all her current potential careers).
- We could choose. This is a mixed blessing, though. On the one hand, we could research each of the special needs extensively and talk with our agency about what we felt comfortable handling—a luxury I'm sure that many parents wish they had. But the reality was that we were given a choice of two children—and saying yes to our daughter meant saying no to a little boy who had more severe issues. It took a year before I had the courage to ask my social worker what happened to that little boy. Our agency wasn't able to make a match, so he went back into the pool of children with special needs. She said that he was likely reassigned to another agency, and that she thought he may have been matched elsewhere. But to this day, I wonder and worry that my choice doomed him to a life without a family.
- Everything in life is a gamble. That's not to say that we weren't worried. We knew of children with microtia who had complete hearing loss. More common are kidney and facial malformations that often come hand in hand with microtia. The first several minutes with our daughter were terrifying, after my husband squeaked a toy behind her and she didn't seem to register the noise at all. It was only an hour later, when she turned her head toward the sound of a baby crying in the hallway, that we sighed with relief.
But if we'd had biological children there would have been no guarantee that they'd be "perfect." Within our gene pool, there's autism, brain aneurysms, heart defects and other problems that have required therapies and medical interventions. And as older parents, with a mother who has medical issues of her own, we would have been rolling the dice on the health of our baby anyway.
Like every other mom, once that baby was placed in my arms, I knew I'd do anything for her. And I'd choose my beautiful, spunky, wild daughter over and over and over again.
Read more about special needs from our April issue of Parents.
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