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When I was growing up, I loved a movie called “Annie” about a girl in an orphanage with a very mean caretaker. After many adventures, the girl was adopted by a very rich man.
The boy who lived next door to me had been adopted as an infant, and a girl who played on my soccer team, a girl who had cerebral palsy, had been adopted when she was 6. I had a doll that came with an “adoption certificate.” I was always interested in adoption because I liked the idea that a family that wanted a child and a child that needed a family could come together.
After I was married and my husband and I had a daughter, we decided that we wanted to adopt a child. I knew that I wanted to adopt a boy because in America, where I live, 75% of the people who adopt elder children adopt girls. Boys needed families. My husband and I knew that we could love a child who was not born to us just as much as we loved our daughter, and we wanted a child older than a baby so that he and our daughter could play together and be friends as they grew up.
One night while we were washing the dishes after dinner, we heard a radio program about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ethiopia. We heard that over 1 million children had been orphaned by AIDS, and many of those children carried the virus themselves. I had worked for five summers for a camp for children with HIV, and I had also been a social worker at a charity that helped people with HIV. We were not afraid of people with HIV, and we wanted to help the children in Ethiopia. We decided to adopt a son from Ethiopia.
I wrote to the two adoption agencies that were placing children from Ethiopia. One was in a state near us, and the other was all the way across the country. We chose to use the adoption agency near us, but through the agency across the country we sponsored a child with HIV in Ethiopia.
Our son was two years old when he joined our family (our daughter was also two). When we went to Ethiopia to bring him home, he was not in good shape. He was very pale and malnourished, and he had intestinal parasites that made his abdomen very swollen. While we were in Ethiopia, our son would scream and hit and kick and bang his head. The caretakers told us he had tantrums if he was not picked up. We were very worried that his behavior at home would be unmanageable.
When we arrived home, however, our son behaved very calmly and has never again had such tantrums as he did in Ethiopia. I believe that he just needed to know that he was loved and would never be left again.
While we were in Ethiopia to bring home our son, we drove across the city to a different orphanage to visit the girl that we were sponsoring. We spent an afternoon playing soccer with her, looking at her school papers, and eating cookies. At dinner that night my husband told me he wanted to adopt her, too.
Our daughter was 10 years old when we began the process to adopt her, and she was 11 when she joined our family. She was only the third child with HIV to be adopted from Ethiopia. When we began the process to adopt her, we were told by the adoption agency that the court in Ethiopia might not approve the adoption of an HIV+ child who was not part of a sibling group. We went ahead with the process anyway, spending time and money and worry without even knowing whether the adoption would be successful. In the end it was, and our family had grown to five.
Life with our children has not always been easy. Our son, who was a “healthy” child, has turned out to have asthma, hearing loss, speech and language problems, learning delays, and some behavioral difficulties with impulse control and stealing food.
However, he is sweet, kind, affectionate, curious, and funny. He likes to read comic books and tell jokes. He loves playing with our dogs and listening to music. His greatest talent is in playing hockey. He has been the goalie for a youth hockey team for three years, and he was voted the Most Valuable Player in the league. He attends speech therapy and occupational therapy (to help him write) and also sees a doctor every three months for asthma. He has had two surgeries on his ear, and he will need more as he gets older.
His speech problems are getting better after several years of speech therapy. He is very popular with other children, and he behaves very well for his coaches and other adults in his life. At home he has troubles with following directions, but this is improving as he gets older. He and our first daughter, who is the same age as our son, are best friends and love to be together. When we go out they like to hold hands and be close to each other. Our son will grow up to have a job and live independently. He will most likely marry and have a family. These things would have been impossible for him if he stayed in an orphanage in Ethiopia.
Things have been harder for the daughter we adopted at age 11. She has been diagnosed with attachment problems. She has had a hard time learning to trust us. She has often done the opposite of what we have told her to do. She has been very angry about her life because her parents died, she has HIV and Hepatitis B, and she was taken from Ethiopia, where she knew the language and liked the food and had friends at the orphanage.
We have had to teach our daughter what it means to live in a family: that family members take care of one another, that they do not lie, that they treat one another with kindness. Our daughter has had to learn that people in a family give their love to others, not just take love from other people. She has had to learn that she can’t be nice only when she wants something from us and mean the rest of the time.
We have had our daughter for 7 years now, and she has just graduated from high school. She will be going to university and has received a very large scholarship. Although our daughter has some learning delays, she has worked hard in school and done well. She has played soccer for her school’s highest-level team as well as for a professional soccer team’s youth program, and she was also on the running team at her school. She has received awards for community service. Her behavior has improved a lot in the last two years, and she now says that she is glad she was adopted. She plans to become a physical therapist and help people who have physical problems.
Our family is very much like other families. We eat meals together, we do the laundry and clean the house. We go to the movies, or we stay home and watch TV. Sometimes we have a lot of fun together, and sometimes we are angry with one another. We live a very normal life in a very normal house in a very normal city.
People who look at us can see that two of our children are adopted because my husband and I and our first daughter are white and our other two children are black. But I don’t think of us as a family that is different or special. We are just a family who wanted children that was lucky enough to find children who needed a family, and we came together as a family: a loving, happy, fun-loving, imperfect family that is perfect just the way we are.