Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Adopting a child with facial deformities

In a flurry of email inbox cleaning yesterday, I accidentally deleted an email from a reader asking about what it is like to adopt a child with a facial deformity. (If you were that reader... I'm sorry, send a new email again and I promise I won't delete it this time.) It was an interesting question and one I thought might be of interest to a broader audience, so I'm going to answer it here. That way maybe I can help a child find a home and cross off guilt over deleted email all at the same time.

It's a fact that humans are drawn to faces, particularly beautiful faces. How many times have I heard, "I saw a picture of his/her beautiful face and new he/she was my child"? That's not to say I think these people are wrong; I am attracted to a beautiful child as much as anyone, particularly if that child is sporting adorable pigtails at the same time. We are wired that way. The emotions we read in a person's face help us to communicate. When we speak to a person, we look at their face. When we think about who a person is, we picture their face in our minds. Our faces are integrally tied to who we are.

We also have some baggage to go along with all of that. There is still a very Victorian idea out there that a beautiful face is a sign of moral integrity and high birth. Have you ever read Little Lord Fauntleroy? It's written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who also wrote The Secret Garden. As much as I loved The Secret Garden, I did not love Little Lord Fauntleroy. It was all just a little bit much what with the orphan's goodness and beauty and surely that meant he could never have been base born as was thought. We may not like it, but our society is still influenced by these ideas.

All this to say, facial deformities present us with a bit of a problem. A child with a non-normal face is not the child we are immediately drawn to... at least not in a positive way. We notice the face because it is different and we wonder what it is like to live like that. We wonder if it could be fixed. We wonder what it would be like to see that face every day. And we see traits within ourselves that we really wish weren't there... the fact that we have to work to find something appealing in a face, the fact we have to work to be attracted to the person, the fact that we would rather look at a person perceived to be beautiful. So on top of not finding the face attractive we are also confronted with the fact that there is something deep inside of us that is not attractive. As a parent, you wonder, do I want to be constantly reminded of my own short-comings?

With all this going on inside our heads, not to mention that actual physical needs of such a child, is it any wonder that children with facial deformities often wait a very long time for a family?

Now this next part is a little difficult to write because I don't want to sound as though we are somehow superior to others for having taken this step. I'm quite sure that's not the case. We spent a good while wrestling with what adopting H. would be like... Would we be able to handle it? Would we be able to ever stop seeing the deformity? Would we be the negative focus of people's attention when we were out and about? Could they fix it? Could we afford for them to fix it? Was there something wrong if our main concern was having the deformity fixed? And on and on and on. We eventually made to decision to add H. to our family because we felt God calling us to do so in a particularly strong way and because of the statement she had made to a care-giver, "I want a Mommy and a Daddy who will love me and sing to me and cook me good food." It was that statement that provided a bridge (that at least I needed) to get to seeing her as a real child instead of something to be pitied.

I think the most difficult part of adopting a child with a facial deformity is making the actual decision and imagining what life will be like. This is mainly because all of those worries that we had in advance turned out to be (mostly) completely irrelevant. (The money piece... well, I take deep breaths and somehow it all works out.) What we imagined would be a very difficult thing, turned out to be rather easy. Both J. and I have commented that it only took a matter of days before we didn't register at all that her face looked any different from the rest of us. Once we started to see the real child inside the body, our brains seemed to make up for the difference by not noticing it at all. That's not to say when we look at her we think her face looks like everyone else's, it's just that the difference has ceased to be remarkable in any way.

For the most part, even when we are out and doing things, we haven't noticed the types of reactions that we had imagined. Oh sure, every so often we'll run into a negative encounter, but for the most part, it has all been neutral (in that we are not the cause of attention) or it is positive. I often wonder if being part of a large family is helpful with this because when we are all out, there are so many of us that people don't seem to know what to focus on first.

If you have ever considered adopting a child with a facial difference, please do. I will venture to say that the biggest difficulties lie in your own imagination; the reality is much easier. In the book, Wonder by R. J. Palacio, the story of a boy with significant facial deformities is told. At one point, his parents admit that they cannot imagine him any other way and in fact, don't want to. They have come to love him for who he is, differences as all. While there were some things in the book that I wasn't crazy about, I thought this was spot on. This is what happens as a parent, you come to love the child regardless. And love, when it comes, is easy.

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