Moving Forward: An Adoptive Mom Reflects On Her Empty Nest

My phone says 2:24 a.m. I woke up hungry two hours ago. Quietly devoured half the cantaloupe I bought at the farmer’s market yesterday. Read a bunch of my old blog posts. Cried the ugly cry. Now I have a hangover. A cantaloupe and vulnerability hangover. Why did I write all of that stuff for the world to see?

I’ve been meaning to come back here for years. Yes, I did show up a couple of times in the past 24 months— four, to be exact.

“What happened?” A well-meaning reader recently asked. “Why did you stop writing? It must have been something significant.”

I couldn’t answer at the time. I didn’t have the courage to say the words. But I’ve been thinking about it lately. Why can’t I write for my own blog? Why do I avoid it like nine-year-old boys avoid toothbrushes? Why is this so hard?

It’s hard because I feel embarrassed. Because I feel raw. Because I wore my heart on the outside of me for years and one day it broke and I didn’t want anyone to see that part. So I hid. That’s the truth of it.

But it’s not like I hid on purpose. I didn’t say to myself, “I’m just going to leave my readers hanging. I’m not going to write anymore.” No. It wasn’t like that. It was more like, “Today I am going to breathe. I am going to try to get out of bed. Try to brush my hair and put on clothes and look like the girl My Honey married a decade ago.” Those things took effort. So much effort some days I couldn’t do much else.

I experienced something similar once before. Months of going through motions I have no recollection of. Years of grieving the death of a dream. Grieving so hard I nearly lost myself in the ocean of silent sorrow. I came around, but the grief haunted relentlessly if I was still or quiet for any length of time. Because of that, what happened more recently felt familiar. But familiarity was no comfort. My breaking point came out of nowhere. I don’t remember exactly when. There was no one event that could be called “the catalyst.” I just noticed blood one day. Dried blood and fresh blood oozing from the heart that used to beat so beautifully on my sleeve. I felt protective of it. I couldn’t take any more risks with an organ so raw. It needed time to heal, restore, renew. I didn’t dare write one word. Not one.

After all I’d shared about myself, My Honey, and our precious “Boys of Summer,” I didn’t want anyone to know how hard it really was to become a family. I didn’t want readers who fell in love with my boys when they were sweet and kind and fun and loved me, to see them in any other light.

Oh, there were hints in blogs along the way. The few I posted between 2017 and 2019 were a glimpse into a world where none of us felt comfortable, a world where My Honey and I often sat in our car in the driveway after our Monday Date Night, dreading to go inside the house. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we turned around and drove to the park. We sat on a hard green bench talking about what went so terribly wrong and fighting one another with our words because we couldn’t agree on how to fix it. We felt held hostage by the strangers in our home who looked like the boys we loved and rescued, but who acted like people who hated our guts and only wanted to escape the life we created just for them.

I know it’s crazy, but I felt ashamed that we weren’t doing a good job as parents. (If we were, our kids would love and respect us and follow the rules we live by, right?) If you parent teens, I know you are laughing right now. Even if you birthed them, they don’t always like you or choose to live the way you feel is best. I KNOW this in my head. But after everything everyone did for us, to help us adopt our boys and have a spacious home in which to “live, laugh, love” as the words above our mantle said, I felt ashamed and afraid to let the world see how badly we were failing at “living, laughing, and loving.” I couldn’t see past the pain of the present to give anyone hope in our future as a family. I didn’t want to disappoint, but I couldn’t control the outcome. I couldn’t control anything. My dream world crumbled and I was left with an empty nest, a broken spirit and a marriage in need of repair. Parenting is not for the faint of heart.

Deep grieving that finally led to breakthrough began last August. I remember the season well. My Honey was called to preach in a new district. Circumstances forced us to move from the house God gave us when we adopted our boys. Each room had been packed and emptied. Everyone gone. I stayed behind to paint.

Agreeable Gray. I will forever remember the color of Sherwin Williams’ most popular neutral. Day after day I trimmed and rolled my way through our hollow home. Each room holding stories and memories, joy and pain and secrets only families know. Each room a museum in my mind. I knew where every piece of furniture should be, every picture, every book and knick-knack and treasure. But it was all gone. There was only my ladder, my brush and roller and the tray of gray paint I dragged along the floor on an old sheet.

I love painting. Love the system, the challenges, the transformation—as fresh, clean color covers all the smudges and stains of daily life. I started in one of the boys’ rooms. Just a smallish cube with a closet. It should not have been hard. But it was. Excruciating to be exact. I was alone with all the memories made within those walls. Thankful to be alone as sorrow surfaced and escaped in noisy wails.

 I painted over each memory. Neutralized them all with Agreeable Gray. How many times had I quietly entered this room late at night to pray mama prayers over the sleeping teen on the bed in the corner? How many times had I carefully cleaned up the aftermath of his rage? I’ll never forget the night this room looked like a war zone with broken glass, bloody footprints and an explosion of belongings that took days to repair and reorganize.

As my paint roller glides over the walls, my brain replays the reels of footage stored somewhere inside. Where did things go wrong, Lord? How did we go from back scratches and prayers, laughter and “I love you’s” to satanic symbols and silence and a closed door that couldn’t prevent hatred from seeping underneath and permeating our entire household?

My brain hurts with the memories of those days and nights that blur together in a cocktail of absolute emotional chaos. I shift gears. Try to refocus. Try to find the “happy memories” file. It feels so thin compared to the others. But they are there. The bike rides, camping trips and our Friday “Family Christian Movie Nights.” The happy chatter of Ukrainian voices playing board games or unwrapping Christmas presents. The sparkling eyes when speaking of a certain girl who is now my precious daughter-in-law and the mother of our two beautiful grandbabies.

It all went too fast, Lord. I couldn’t find my feet as a mom before they were gone. Now I’m “Ouma” to a toddler with a contagious smile and a strawberry-haired girl with blue, blue eyes. Help me to get it right. To love them all well. To live in what is “now” and learn from what was “then.”

I dragged my ladder from room to room. Conversations seeped from the walls. My mind heard them all as I rolled gallon after gallon of Agreeable Gray.

  • In our home school room—the standoff between me and two newly landed foreigners about the importance of enunciating correctly so their English could be understood by the locals. “But I’m Ukrainian. I will always speak like a Ukrainian. You can’t make me speak like an American!”
  • In the kitchen—Boy: “If I drop this glass on the floor and break it, will you ever be able to fix it?”

Me: “Not really.”

Boy: “Exactly. And that is why saying ‘sorry’ doesn’t work. It doesn’t fix anything. Those are just words.”

  • In My Honey’s office—My Honey to two bright-eyed boys: “I’m giving you these i-phones, but you need to know how dangerous they are. They can be used for good, and they can be used for bad. It’s my job to protect you from the bad as much as I can. So, these phones come with rules. With a contract that you will need to sign if you agree to the rules…”
  • In the living room—Me with a pounding heart to a boy and a girl lying on the sofa with a blanket over them: “Please sit up. Put your hands above the blanket. I’m not trying to be awkward, but this is not appropriate.”

Boy in response, “This is why we go to our friends’ houses instead of inviting them here. You make everything awkward with your stupid “rules.” ‘No girls in the bedroom. No blankets. No this. No that.”

  • In the master bedroom—My Honey in an angry whisper from his side of our queen sized bed: “I don’t know how much more stress I can take. Something has to change or I am going to end up in the hospital. (He did. Cardiac ablation.)
  • In our bathroom—Me to God, “Do something! My family is falling apart and I can’t fix it!”

By the time I reached the final bedroom with my last gallon of paint, I’d exhausted my tears. I could only smile to myself as I erased a misspelled song title “Young, Dum and Broke” from the wall behind the spot where my tall boy’s bed used to be. He moved out the year before we did, when I was away on a speaking engagement. Went to spend the night with a friend and never came home. He took nothing with him. I left his room as he left it, always hoping he’d move back again. He never did. It was the last room I packed. The closet jammed full of clothes, shoes of several sizes, RC cars, tools and art supplies in a jumbled floor-to-ceiling mess. I saved a tote with his yearbook, sketchpads, photo albums and a few things I thought he might want someday. Everything else went to the curb.

As Agreeable Gray covered his attempt to chalk a wall portrait of the girl who broke his heart in high school, I prayed for him. Too grown for his own good. Flown too soon. Doing his thing in this hostile world. God, show my boy how much You love him. Pierce that independent façade and heal his heart. Let him know he always has a home and two parents who love him very, very much.

I’m done now. Done with living in those memories. Done beating myself up for whatever I did that seemed so wrong to them at the time. Done hiding from the world because my family wasn’t perfect. And done blogging about it all. I’m sure there will be a book one day. In the meantime, I’m choosing to live in the present. Enjoy my grandbabies. Love on my scattered family as best I can and in whatever ways I’m permitted. And allow Jesus to continue healing me as I refocus on ministry.

You will still be able to find me here. And on my @samedressdifferentday Facebook page. And hopefully soon on YouTube, if I can ever get that vlog thing figured out. Thank you, dear readers, friends and supporters of our family for these past 6 years. Thank you for your financial contributions toward our adoption. Thank you for your prayers. We could NOT have done this without you. And believe it or not, My Honey and I have both said we’d do it all again. Perhaps differently. Perhaps with fewer expectations (for them and us), and much more grace and flexibility. But we would do it. Because it’s what Jesus called us all to do. Love the unlovable. Do good to those who use us. Care for the orphans and widows. Somehow in the doing of that, we become more like Him and less like this self-centered world. And that’s what I want more than anything—to be like Jesus. Don’t you?

17 thoughts on “Moving Forward: An Adoptive Mom Reflects On Her Empty Nest

  1. Thank you for sharing your heart and your journey with us, Juliet. Thank you for your bravery and honesty. I know it’s costly. And thank you for being faithful – for not just exploding in anger or shriveling into bitterness but finding a way to keep living and laughing and loving – even with a limp.

    Lol! Maybe that’s a sign we should make for empty nesters!
    “Live, Laugh, Love, and Limp.”

    I’m sorry it was so hard.

    I love you, Alicia.

    • I really appreciate your kind words, Alicia. And all the prayers you have prayed for me and my family through the years. I love your idea – “Live, Laugh, Love, and LIMP!” Perfect! Our God is faithful. I know we can trust Him to help us walk faithfully in the calling He has placed on our lives. Even if we walk with a limp.

    • Thank you very much. I DO feel the love from so many in my life – you included! What would we have ever done without you and Ken? And I appreciate the comments here that let me know I am definitely not alone on this journey.

  2. Wow! What an incredible story to share I relate to so much in this story. It took me a while to accept God’s healing and Him pushing me forward to move pass all the pain, hurt, shame, accountability and misunderstanding. I claim and still claim Matt 11. 28,29 this promise often to keep going forward.

    • I appreciate your comment and understanding of some of these heavy burdens we carry as moms. God’s promises are truth we can cling to when everything feels shaky around us. I’m proud of you for holding on and persevering. God honors our decisions to accept His healing power in our lives. Thank you, Tam.

  3. Healthy, deep, honest grief work. I agree , it is time to move forward. You will be guided by what was via your healing through the pain. I identify with ao much of your experience. And so do countless other mothers of adopted and birth children. Thank you for the courage to find the words for this last blog. Hugs

    • Thank you, Karen. God did give me the courage to share from the heart. I know I am not the only one. I’m sorry for all who identify and/or understand. It’s a tough road. But also an incredibly rewarding one. Thank you for your part in my healing journey. You are such a blessing!

  4. I have felt almost all those emotions when raising my teens. I have wept and clutched my Bible and cried out to God to give me wisdom. It didn’t turn out the way I had dreamed in my personal fairytale. It still makes me cry. Your words I can feel with my heart. Much love to you! We need to get together! Mwah!
    TW

    • Sweet friend, I am so sorry for what you have suffered. I know most moms probably DO have our own “personal fairytales” that somehow go awry. I’m thankful you continue to choose joy and to be an encourager, even when your heart aches for what seems lost. Love to you, too. Let’s do Tex-Mex as soon as we can!

    • Thank you so much for these encouraging words. You are right. And time does very often change things. I know I am not alone on this journey. None of us are. That’s why it’s important to share our stories. So we know there are others who understand.

  5. What a story!♥️ Just know there are NO perfect families! No parent makes all the right decisions. We’ve all made mistakes that we wish we could have a do-over. But, God has your boys. Just love where they will let you love and yes sometimes let go. It’s hard but God will do everything in His power to save us all! You are amazing so love like God does!♥️

  6. I am so very, very sorry that this happened to you (you deserved SO much better), and it may not have been your intention, but somehow it comforted me to know I am not the only one something like this has happened to (although I wish I was) – – – our beloved daughter, who had been adopted from China at 1 year old, abruptly moved out while I was in the hospital many months ago, right after she turned 18, and hasn’t spoken to us since. She moved in with my brother and his wife and then claimed we were ‘abusive’, which is 100% false, but shockingly she has convinced them of this, so now I’ve lost my brother too (breaks my heart that he could believe that, as he should know better, but my daughter is quite a good actress). I look at all her belongings left behind (she took almost nothing), and I cry and pray that one day she’ll come home. Crazy as it sounds, until her last year home, she was an easy and sweet girl who got along great with us and did very well in school, but then seemingly overnight started showing extremely difficult and poor behavior, which we thought at the time was just teen rebellion while being stuck home so much during the pandemic, but now we truly worry about her mental health. Even though we know we were very good parents (albeit imperfect like anyone), we sometimes still feel embarassment that others outside the family may think we did something terribly wrong even though we didn’t (I’m sure you can relate), and we agonize over how maybe we should have seen this coming and got her into attachment therapy or given her some other kind of help (because what she did was not remotely normal, and we didn’t do anything to precipitate her sudden estrangement and lies about us). We are fortunate, however, in that we have two other daughters who are still in our lives. One is our bio daughter (she has had problems of her own, partly due to ADHD/developmental disorders, but she is now in college nearby studying in a STEM field. doing OK, and comes home some weekends from her dormitory) and the other is also foreign-adopted, but she came home from China at age 7 years old. This older adopted daughter, who is now age 21, is also in college nearby studying to be a special education teacher, excelling in everything, and she is very loving to us (she says she is shocked that her youngest sister is doing this, and she tells us that she thinks we were very good parents) – – What is ironic is that, while growing up, SHE was the one who was a mess of very difficult and heart-wrenching behavior problems, including extreme anger and breaking things, but she fortunately (thanks to God) turned things around during her teen years and we are now very close. Our two adopted daughters turned out completely the opposite of what we would have predicted when they were younger. The reality is that parenting in general, but especially adoptive parenting, is just not for the faint of heart, and no matter how good the parents, our childrens’ biology/genetics/personality, their interactions with the world outside of us including online influences, and (for adopted children) what happened to them before they came to us, are beyond our control. Despite otherwise doing OK, my older two daughters have not adopted our faith in God (but I remain hopeful); incomprehensibly our youngest nnow-estranged daughter seemed to adopt our faith but this did not stop her from doing what she did. Like you, however, despite all the pain it’s given us, my husband and I have no regrets and would do it all again (although of course we would change some things, knowing what we know now, but hindsight is 20/20). I admit I feel anger and sadness at times, and wonder why God let this happen with my youngest, but I try to hold on to the happy memories with her, and I try to make new happy memories with my older daughters. Thank you, Juliet, for your brave and open heart over the years in sharing your story (when it wasn’t too painful), and for all the good works you do that help others. God bless you and yours. – Carol

    • Oh Carol…My heart aches with yours. It’s a double loss to lose relationship with your daughter AND your brother. I pray God keeps your heart soft through the sense of betrayal by both. Thank you for sharing part of your story, too. As I was writing this post, I wanted to just give up on it. But I kept feeling there were others “out there” who would understand, identify and perhaps even experience a tiny bit of healing or hope because of my words. We all struggle in one way or another. I’m so thankful for God’s mercy and His ability to restore even the things that feel so hopeless. Thank you for being on this journey and for taking time to comment. Let’s pray for one another.

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