Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Beautiful Forest Amongst the Trees

Meet my beautiful daughter, Jenna Meilin.

Jenna is seven years old. Six years and one month ago, the People's Republic of China blessed my life by entrusting this precious child into our hands and I will be eternally grateful. The thought of my life without her is inconceivable.

Thirteen years ago, I was married to my second husband and had given birth to Julia, my third child, the daughter I long awaited after the births of my two sons. I also had two step-daughters. Five kids. When Julia was six months old, I had a false pregnancy alarm, but to my surprise, I found myself disappointed. I actually wanted another baby. The seeds were planted and would follow me for years. There were problems with this desire. We had five kids already. We were so poor we should have filed bankruptcy. Basically, a baby was the worst idea ever. And I told myself this for years, smothering myself with guilt. I was selfish to even wish such a thing. I prayed to God to please, please take this desire away. Yet it clung to me like a choking vine and grew stronger with every year.

And then, when Julia was four years old, I met a woman who adopted two daughters from China. I went home to tell Darrell. We investigated the possibility and found the expense astronomical. There was no way we could afford it, but Darrell said he would pray about it. Bless his heart, he did. He didn't have much choice; God kept throwing families who had adopted in his path. Finally, after two and a half years, Darrell said he wanted to adopt from China. Eighteen months later we flew to China to adopt seventeen month Lu Chu, renamed Jenna Meilin.

Two and a half years after that, Darrell died. My world crumpled. The boys and Julia were old enough to fend for themselves, but three year old Jenna needed me. She was the reason I got out of bed those first few months. Little Jenna had lost so much in her short life: her foster family, her father. She needed her mother to be there for her.

It took me a couple of years to figure out that I needed her as much as she needed me. With that realization came the knowledge that God had planned this for me, years in advance.

And that, my friends, is a humbling realization.

I am protective of this little girl. She has faced more pain and loss than a seven year old should, yet she is not a victim. She is a survivor. I cannot follow her through out the rest of her life in a vain attempt to protect her from the ugly things that are sure to come her way. I can only arm her with knowledge, support and my love.

We are fortunate that Jenna hasn't faced outright prejudice yet. However, I know it will come someday, at some point. I can only prepare her, so that when it happens she isn't caught off guard. We have discussed that some people dislike others because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. In our house, where we are a equal distribution of ethnicity-- 50% Caucasian to 50% Asian -- the idea sounds preposterous. But events like Martin Luther King Day help shed light on the subject. Prejudice still exists.

But prejudice, not in that sense, isn't Jenna's biggest challenge. The immediate problem is far more subtle, yet almost more dangerous. It is the misconceptions of her circumstances and the thoughtless comments people make in her presence. As a parent, it's easy to dismiss ignorant comments in front of a baby, but as Jenna gets older, my patience shortens.

What is a seven year old supposed to say when an adult looks at her, with pity in their eyes, and says "You're so lucky your mom adopted you." I immediately respond, "No, I am the lucky one. I cannot imagine my life without her." It's an innocent statement but the implications are significant.

"You know, they just throw baby girls away in China." What would possess a person to say such a thing to a child? Yet, I have heard it. Many times. Even if it were true, you do not tell a child they were thrown away like a piece of garbage. No matter how secure the child feels, hearing this will cause some harm to their psyche. My daughter was NOT thrown away. Her birth parents must have loved her very much to bundle her up on a cold February morning and place her in a spot where she was sure to be found. I have no idea what forced them to give up their one day old daughter, but I have no doubt of their love for her. I tell Jenna this often. I will not tolerate strangers undermining her belief in their love.

"You are such a wonderful person to save her life." Even if this were true, which it is not, on so many levels, why would you ever say this in front of the child? I did not save her life. At all. Jenna was placed in a loving foster family the day she entered the orphanage. The orphanage director tried to find a local family to adopt her. On her first birthday, after no local family was found, Jenna was placed in the international adoption system. Seven months later, we adopted her. Jenna was loved and well cared for. If we had not adopted her, a long line of families stood behind us waiting to adopt. Her life was never in any danger.

This is an innocent sounding statement, yet it's repercussions extend LONG past the adoption itself. When a child hears any hint that the adoptive parents saved their life it makes the child feel obligated to the parents. Of all the reasons to adopt a child, saving their life should be last on the list. Trust me, you need more than the belief you saved the child's life to get you through the attachment issues you will face.

The adopted child should never, ever, for any reason, feel GRATEFUL to the adoptive parents for adopting them. Should the child feel grateful for what his or her parents do for them? Of course, but when was the last time you ever heard someone tell a biological child they should feel grateful that their parents gave birth to them? There is a difference. Which brings me to the first part of that statement:

"You must be a wonderful person to..." No, I'm not. Trust me. I am selfish. I fulfilled a selfish desire. I wanted a child. My sole purpose was to have a child to love. I am not wonderful, special, or any other attribute you wish to bestow on me. You can try and I will throw it off every time. The simple fact is-- I wanted a child. There were babies in China. I adopted from China. That does not make me wonderful. That makes me a parent.

The Chinese take great pride in names. They have significance and meaning. Jenna's middle name is Meilin, which means beautiful forest. Hubei, the province she is from, is known for a beautiful primeval forest. Jenna means white, or fair. She knows this and takes pride in it. Jenna loves to tell people she is a fair, beautiful forest. And she is. God help the person who suggests otherwise.


Kelly Wolfe said...

I am soooo glad you are back!!!! I loved hearing Jenna's story and how you feel. :)

Jules said...

What a wonderful tribute to a beautiful child! And yes-I HATE the way folks tell me how wonderful I am for "saving" Josie. They are so dense-Josie SAVED me. And true-if I hadn't adopted her-she would have been adopted by someone else-maybe by a couple and not a single mom. So-maybe that was unfair to her? Maybe-but i'm doing everything in my power for that to not be the case.

So glad to read a post by you Denise-you're writing all the time, i know-but it's been a long time since i've READ your writing!

Denise Grover Swank said...

Jules, don't you EVER sell yourself short for being a single parent. You love that little girl. In the end, love is all that matters.

stephanie said...

I think you summed that up beautifully :)

Anonymous said...

This is a two hankie post... Just beautiful!

Carey-Life in the Carpool Lane said...

So glad you are back and with a beautiful post too. I'm just now facing many of the insensitive and unthoughtful comments you mentioned. How do grown-ups not realize what they are saying?!?!?!?!

Denise Grover Swank said...

Carey, honestly, I don't think people mean any harm, they just aren't thinking. I try to keep that in mind when I answer them. I'm never rude but I have been known to say that now was not an appropriate time to discuss it with my daughter present.

Brandy said...

Welcome back Denise! What a way to come back...as eloquent as ever. I love learning more about Jenna & your family.

With that realization came the knowledge that God had planned this for me, years in advance. That one line gave me chills because I know it to be true for your story. And mine. :)

Heather said...

Denise- I feel like one of the lucky ones who gets to see and know your beautiful family. I loved reading Jenna's story. She has always held a special place in my heart ever since she was in my Sunday School class and I taught her it was ok to pray anywhere LOL. I think it is her willingness to always greet me with her awesome smile and a big hug. I am so glad and proud to call you a friend.

Den said...

Thanks for this post, Denise. I know several families who have adopted children from China for a variety of reasons, and not one of them would ever change the decisions they made. The impact those adoptions have had on the families is literally world-shaping.

I have some relatives who have been attempting to adopt a little girl from Latin America for about two years now. Their perseverance in the face of bureaucratic red tape and arbitrary obstacles is truly a testimony to the love they have for her. I pray that someday soon their efforts will provide them the blessings you enjoy with your daughter.

Chocolate Covered Daydreams said...

Fair and beautiful forest...I love the meaning of her name. She is beautiful! People can be insensitive but it's really is that they are just clueless. If you were to point out all that you've shared, guaranteed, they'd look sheepishly at you and say, "But that's not what I meant!"

You are blessed with a very beautiful little one.

Beth said...

Such a nice tribute to Jenna! 7 already! Wow! I am glad you are back!

Shelley said...

Welcome back!!!!

Angel said...

Love it. Everything you've said is so, so true.

And welcome back ;)

Shannon said...

Oh, Denise. What a lovely post about your lovely daughter.

Teresa said...

Yes! Responding with loving correction shows our children how to respond and more importantly shows them that there is nothing about adoption that is shameful or abnormal. If we react defensively regarding adoption or having a child that doesn't "look like us" is shameful or abnormal then WE end up teaching our children that it is shameful or abnormal.

Sorry if this is coming out strange, it's late and I should be in bed.

Learning Together at Home said...

I'm glad you are back in bloggy land. You were missed!

I agree with you - I wish people would be more sensitive. I am glad that Jenna has a Mom who will immediately stick up for her. She sounds like a strong young lady inside and I'm sure you are helping so much just by modelling it for her.

Jane said...

I have recently stumbled upon your blog, and I have just learned about Jenna's story. When my father passed away tragically, my mom willed herself to move on because of me and my brother. I am glad that God had things planned out beautifully for you. I wish you all the best.

Carey said...

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing!