I like reading directions before diving into a project. My husband is more of a start now and check the directions when you get stuck kind of person.
I once built a twelve-foot-long farmhouse table and two long benches out of reclaimed wood for our extra-long dining room. We can comfortably fit sixteen around it for large family gatherings and I love it. It’s imperfect, but it’s one of my most favorite projects I’ve completed in my life.
It is incredible what you can learn from the internet now. I downloaded free woodworking plans from a talented wife and mother in Alaska and watched a guy from Minnesota show me how to use a pocket jig on YouTube.
I changed the dimensions to perfectly fit my dining room, sketched it all out, and planned my cut list before starting out. By the end of my six-month project, those plans were wrinkled, worn, and covered in sawdust, but they were my map from start to finish.
A good set of plans is everything in a project, but with people, it’s a bit more complex. People don’t come with user manuals or plans which is hard for me because I like to fix things.
To make sense of complicated relationships, we often make up user manuals for people, and never tell them about it. We have sets of instructions, or expectations for what they will or won’t do or say, and we make our happiness contingent on their compliance with these unspoken, unagreed upon plans.
I want you to think about someone in your life you wish behaved differently than they do. Maybe it’s your foster child, their birthparent, your dad, teenage daughter, boss, or spouse.
I have a very specific manual for how one of my sons treats his adopted sisters. He doesn’t read them stories or babysit them. He doesn’t engage in play or conversation with them, and often seems annoyed by them.
My manual for him says that he should take them on dates and freely play with them. He should be an amazing babysitter, and always want to stop and listen to what they say. Basically, he should be an unusual teenage boy, or I feel terrible about it and make it mean I’ve messed up as a parent.
When I’m thinking about his behavior like I did something wrong to cause it, then I feel powerless and ashamed. From these feelings, I am only noticing pieces of information that support my thinking.
I completely miss the times he is kind and loving in his own way. I miss who he is as a person and all his amazing qualities. I don’t see that he’s not particularly fond of any younger children. It’s just not his jam right now and that’s okay.
I can still make requests of him though. I can request that he speak with kindness, spend time with his family, and take reasonable actions that support his siblings. There is nothing wrong with making requests of the people in our lives. The difference is we don’t hang our emotional life and what they do or don’t do on our requests.
We often do this in relationships. We think, I will give you a list of my needs and you give me a list of your needs and we’ll make our relationship about meeting each other’s needs. But what if we just met our own needs and had fun together?
It is absurd of us to put people inside these elaborate boxes of our detailed instructions in order for us to feel happiness. It may be well intended but it simply doesn’t work. It sets the relationship up for so much conflict and abdicates our responsibility for our emotional lives.
The fewer expectations you have for the people in your life, the happier you will be. This is especially true for your foster and adopted kids.
A Purdue study done in post placement work found a direct correlation between expectation of the child’s behavior to depression in adoptive parents.[i] The higher the expectations of behavior were prior to the placement, the more unhappy the parents were.
Society has expectations that children of a certain age will act a certain way. With kids who have experienced adverse events, they spent all that developmental energy on survival. Their emotional age may be one, three, or more years younger than their chronological age, and that may be true for the rest of their lives.
Children who have been exposed to drugs and alcohol, will often have challenges with emotional regulation and learning. Commonly these kids will need medication and special education support for them to thrive and become the best versions of themselves. For years I fought this reality for my adopted daughters, clinging to hope with enough time and love they would be “normal.”
I remember the first visit we had at the school before my girls started kindergarten. We were taken on a tour by the speech therapist. They knew our daughters had challenges, so they arranged to have someone from the special education team take us around.
Ten minutes in, Faith was laid out flat on the ground screaming in a corner of the hallway. Even a simple tour was completely overwhelming for her. I told the therapist I couldn’t see how she could function in a classroom, that she needed one on one support. She told me we would wait and see, but there was a special classroom at the school across the street for kids who had behavior problems she could go to.
It was a simple statement, but my brain took it as a near death sentence for her. I tried to imagine her as a severely disabled person in a classroom with violent kids throwing chairs. It took everything in me to hold back tears and not be angry with the therapist.
So dark was the place of accepting my daughter’s reality, I could hardly bare it. The gap between reality and my expectations was vast. My fear of reality also kept me from advocating for her in the school system the best I could.
We drug things on for years with the school. The teachers kept insisting she was fine having dozens of meltdowns per day in a regular classroom and I wasn’t in a place to know or believe for any better.
It wasn’t until I started therapy and later met with someone who coached me through our challenges with adoption, that I was able to embrace what was and allow myself to really grieve. Through the grieving I found acceptance and a new strength.
I found my voice to fight for Hope and Faith to have every opportunity needed to see what success looked like for them. Not what I thought it should be. And not what I wish it would have been without the choices their birthmother made.
I got more involved with Faith’s teacher and special education personnel and stayed on top of requesting increasing support and reevaluating its effectiveness. This process led us to moving her across the street to that special classroom for kids with behavior problems.
Not only did the world not end, it got so much brighter. She blossomed with the correct support in place and became nearly a different little person. She caught up in reading and academics for the first time. She was able to remain in a regular classroom emotionally regulated nearly all the time. Her progress when I dropped my user manual for her and embraced the realities of who she was, was remarkable.
Dropping expectations is the doorway to unconditional love for the people in our lives. We get to love them exactly as they are today, which is the most amazing thing! I had often not wanted to accept them the way they were, for fear I would be resigned to never helping them grow or improve.
I found the opposite to be true, however. Once I accepted my worst fears, I was able to face them and be a champion for profound change.
It wasn’t change for the purpose of making me feel better about things. It was change from a genuine place of unconditional love and acceptance of them as they were. We don’t change our circumstances and then feel better. It’s the opposite. We learn to feel better first, and that changes our circumstances.
Romans 15:7 tells us “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” It is on the basis of our own failures and flaws, and unmerited acceptance by Christ, that we can drop our user manuals and accept those around us the way they are. It’s the way Jesus accepts us and that gives us strength.