Adopting older children and the transition to the empty nest

By Meredith Gordon Resnick
@MeredithResnick

I wanted to believe adopting older children would somehow make it easier to let them go. I was wrong.

I’m not going to lie: an empty nest was what I looked forward to ever since I became a mother. It’s what gave me the courage to have my girls in the first place—knowing someday they’d leave.

That’s a joke, of course.

But my fear of becoming a mother was not.

They were almost 11 and 14 when we got them and had been living in a detsky dom—Russian for children’s home—in St. Petersburg. This was before Russian adoption by Americans was outlawed. This was when the adoption process, unlike having a baby naturally, took less than three months. This was almost twenty years ago.

Friends and family never understood why we wanted to adopt a tween and a teen in the first place. Even now they shake their heads. Teenagers are tricky enough when you’ve known them intimately since birth. But traveling all the way to Russia to bring fully-formed people into our home? Let’s just say folks were confused. Now that both our children have moved out to begin their own lives, I can’t explain it either.

Before our adoption, pregnant friends rubbed their bellies and said: “The older they are the more problems you’ll have.” “You must feel desperate,” one said. “Do you think they’re even capable of loving you?”

Their audacity was a tremendous relief. In retelling the stories, these other mothers were the insensitive ones. I didn’t think those things they said  but I struggled with something else: my unofficial yet painfully true version of why I wanted an older child, not a baby.

I looked down on other mothers, the way they became so engrossed in their children they couldn’t even talk on the phone. I wouldn’t be trapped, not like them, for 18-plus years. I mean, what if the kid never left? Ultimately, however, I was ashamed. Babies, with their hands the size of rose petals and toes like creamy pebbles were natural. My lack of maternal instinct was not.

When the girls first arrived, unable to speak English, they clung to me, particularly our younger one. At the supermarket, she wouldn’t let go. Even when the cereal was on the top shelf and I needed both hands, one to steady myself, the other to grab the box, she was attached—fingers slipped through mine, but more like a clamp. Under the bright lights I saw her knuckles were white. The ritual was that I peeled her delicate fingers away, we giggled, I’d get the cereal, and a moment later she was hooked into the bend of my elbow. Back then we pushed the basket together, our hands aligned, fingers touching, her smoky gray eyes searching for a mooring.

I remember thinking, would she ever let go? Clearly, my job was to teach her independence, so when the time came I knew she’d be able to.

But when the time came it felt like muscle being pulled from bone.

“At least you didn’t carry them,” someone told me. “You shouldn’t compare your situation with someone who gave birth.” Insensitive, maybe, but now I admit that because they were never in utero, or at least in my utero, I hoped it might be easier—for me.

Instead of having my belly scanned with an ultrasound, the first time I saw my kids was in an adoption newsletter. We had to rely on tests administered by a psychologist thousands of miles away to measure who they were.

No first-time mother really knows what to expect when starting her family, from how many diapers she will change in the first week to how to clean strained peas from silk. But I didn’t expect the back end, the launch of my children, to be more of a challenge than their arrival. They’ve moved out now; they are living beautiful lives. Our older daughter is 32, married with a daughter of her own, our younger one is almost 30. I’m 57. Meeting them seems like yesterday.

My heart wants time to stand still.

Before, when they’d run to the gym, or the store, I’d sit quietly alone, enjoying the freedom, the space. I’d smell their lingering perfume and pray they’d stay away longer, and wish, sometimes, they’d just leave. I’d had it with their music (too loud), their arguments (too long) and their convenient use of Russian when they didn’t want me to understand something (too often). Now that I see them less often, I try to fill the space they’ve left for me to tend, space that will always  in my heart, belong to them.

Before we adopted our daughters I spent a lot of time thinking about their other mother—the one who gave them life. I tried to be philosophical. It was her decision to let go, but still, she gave them roots. I was going to give them wings. That’s what I told people, and it sounded so selfless and mature. But when it was time to let my daughters fly, sometimes, I didn’t want to give them anything of the sort. I’ll admit it. Sometimes I wanted to clip their wings, anything to keep them close to the nest, to me.

My husband and I are empty-nesters, have been so for a while. Sometimes, even still, when he’s at work the house feels like a tunnel I walk with no light at the end. Our girls are busy with their lives. I go to the supermarket alone again, like I did before they came, and only my hands push the basket. The light comes when I see my daughters, and jokingly I remind myself that this launching business is what motivated me to become a mom in the first place. That the time to say goodbye was always going to come—meaning, I wouldn’t be trapped, that I’d have time for myself. But hope shines for other reasons, too. As they are discovering the beauty within themselves as young women, and I, too, am rediscovering that which blossoms in me at middle age. I am learning to refocus on myself, to place myself at the front of the line. To model this for my daughters may be the most meaningful gift I can bestow.

Knowing that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Had someone told me how soon, or how little time I’d have, and how much it was going to hurt to go through this change, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Had someone told me how painful this would be and how I’d never feel ready to let go, I might have wanted to adopt our daughters when they were even younger, so I’d at least have more days with them in the nest. I might have wanted to give birth.

At the very least, I’d have their baby pictures.

Meredith Gordon Resnick writes about health and mental health. Her essays have appeared in JAMA, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times and PsychologyToday.com.

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