“What to Expect, Adoption Style”: One Couple’s Adoption Story

Erin and Joel adopted their son, Carsen, in 2015. Today, he’s a spirited four-year old, and Carsen’s parents can’t imagine their lives without him. Here, their memories take them back through the days just before their adoption and their first night in Nanchang, China – “a night that did not feel so expectant with hope,” they recall – to today … which feels like an unexpected gift.

“What to Expect, Adoption Style”

Adopting From China: One Couple’s Story


Tonight is a night like any other. Routine. Normal. I hold Carsen close, freshly bathed and dressed in racecar pajamas. His sisters are tucked into their beds waiting on goodnight kisses, but this ritual belongs only to the two of us. With one arm draped across my shoulder, and the other gripping the curtain of his bedroom window, he takes in the familiar scene: “Goodnight, Daddy’s (Da-you’s) car, goodnight street light, goodnight neighbor’s house, goodnight moon,” he calls in his sweet voice.

My chest tightens as I stare at the moon, full, luminous, and round with expectation. How I have come to treasure such moments with our beloved son. And as I hold him close, moonlight spilling into his darkened room, I am brought back without warning to a night over two years ago and half a world away. A night that did not feel so expectant with hope. Our first night in Nanchang, China, when I, disoriented by jet lag, plagued by fear, and distraught by the new trauma we just imposed on Carsen, crumpled to a heap on the bathroom floor of the hotel and voiced the thought that had been screaming in my head for the past ten hours.

“What if nothing turns out as I expected it?”

With-Parents-at-Table-PaperworkTruth be told, my husband and I traveled to China with our own set of “What to Expect When You Are Expecting” style expectations. However, in the realm of Special Needs, International Adoption, expectations must be unpacked very carefully and handled with extreme caution. In reality, no amount of knowledge acquired through training (which WACAP does exceptionally well!), medical consultations, or blog reading could have prepared us for how we would react once adoption moved from the hypothetical to the real.

Carsen was placed in our arms, and we were flooded with emotions spanning from fear to wonderment and everywhere in between. We felt moments of delight in this tiny person who began showing us glimpses of personality and spirit, while conversely feeling terror over unknown medical diagnoses and prognoses, along with guilt over taking him from the only home he had known. We desperately missed our biological children we’d left behind at home, and we wondered anew how they would react to and connect with this tiny stranger who was now their brother. We were overwhelmed, and in this midst of this raw experience, we questioned if we were even doing the right thing. So we held onto each other, to our son, and we reached for a lifeline. We called WACAP and received kind, informed, and thoughtful encouragement. We conferenced with two wonderful doctors who gave us new insight and action, and we drank in the experiences of other adoptive families we met during our time in China.

In order to move forward, it was time to let go of the expectations that threatened to derail our adoption before it even began.

We expected a son who was deaf and who had CHD.

Toddler-With-Mom-Outside-Brick-BackdropWe compiled pages and pages of handwritten notes, translated and examined progress reports, and logged hours with a local pediatrician who is also an international adoption specialist. Upon meeting Carsen, we were astonished to find that he could, in fact hear. This was impossibly remarkable news. However, we also realized that his craniofacial differences could lead us down a very different diagnostic path than the one we had been anticipating. From the hotel bathroom between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m., the only place and time we could find a stable Internet connection, we exchanged countless emails with international adoption specialists in Washington. This point of contact was a lifeline for us while in country. Through this connection, we laid to rest our previous expectations of Carsen’s special needs and exchanged them for equal parts reality and hope.

We found renewed excitement to embark on a fact-finding mission to discover who our son truly was and is. Once home, I prepared an empty two-inch binder with a tab for each of the six specialists he would see initially. This binder, absent of information, spoke volumes to my fear of the unknown. Now, this same binder is a remarkable symbol of just how much he had progressed and accomplished. In fact, he has graduated from the care of four of his six specialists in just over two years and could be described in no other way than thriving, healthy, and happy. The focus has shifted from piecing together the puzzle of Carsen’s medical and special needs to pure enjoyment in the unique and wonderful person he is.

We expected his grief, and we expected to comfort him through it.

We did not expect that we would feel grief so viscerally with him. As we entered the hotel lobby, our terrified and traumatized son was literally thrust into our hands as his nanny and orphanage director ran out the door, late to their next appointment. There was no opportunity for privacy, no opportunity for conversation, no opportunity for transition. The scene unveiling so publically for all hotel guests to see was more kidnapping than homecoming. Knowing we were the cause of Carsen’s grief made us feel like his enemies, not his parents. While we had been prepared for this possibility in training, we were devastated to a degree we could never have anticipated. Once settled into our hotel room, our exhausted son let my husband rock him to sleep. We sobbed together as we held him, broken by the heartbreak that makes adoption necessary, broken by the depth of loss our sweet son had experienced, and left wondering if and how these broken pieces would all fit together. As much as adoption comes from broken places, two years in, we also know it is the work of mending hearts. Watching our son embrace life in all its challenges and rewards gives us renewed faith in the miraculous resiliency that is the human spirit. He has not had an easy road, but he approaches life with joy and love, and that inspires us to do the same.

We expected to love him at once.

Family-Photo-Parents-Four-Kids-Outside-Brick-BackdropAnd we did, truly, love him at first sight, but what’s more lasting and permanent than the emotion of love is a true bond. Bonding is a process that requires time, careful cultivation, and so much patience. My wonderful mother advised me, “Your girls grew within you for nine months before you met. Give Carsen and yourself that same time.” This proved excellent advice. Two and a half years after a love at first sight reaction to a tiny profile picture, Carsen is entwined so fully into our hearts and our family that it would be impossible to imagine our lives without him. It has taken an immense amount of patience and effort. Now, when he holds my face still so that he can look into my eyes and says, “Mommy I love you,” I am blown away by his choice to love, accept, and trust. It is a choice our whole family has made. As to our fear of how Carsen’s three sisters would react? As with any sibling relationship, there are moments of competition and miscommunication, but they are truly his bodyguards in tutus, fiercely protective and fiercely loving. Together, we comprise a faulty, but incredibly loyal unit.

If I could encounter that earlier, fearful version of myself, who wondered if things would be as she had expected, I might wrap my arms around her and tell her, “Absolutely not, Honey, because this child, this experience, will blow your expectations out of the water. It will be harder than you imagined. And it will be costly and painful in many ways. But the surprising joy in the journey will make it all worth it. He is worth it.” But telling her would spoil the surprise, and the greatest gifts in life are always unexpected.

Truth be told, I am grateful to this earlier version of myself because this same set of expectations that left her so rattled in the early days of Carsen’s adoption is also what gave her the energy and idealism to press forward through the lengthy adoption process and towards her incredible son. And while the specialist appointments, IEP meetings, and developmental assessments can be daunting and time consuming at times, she will find herself inspired by her son’s fighting spirit, his grit, and his ability to bring people together.

Our thanks to Erin, Carsen’s mom, for writing this story, and for inviting us all to share in their family’s journey.

If you have questions about adopting from China, please contact us at wacap@wacap.org. We’d be glad to answer your questions.


WACAP (World Association for Children and Parents) is one of the largest and most experienced international nonprofit adoption and child assistance agencies in the United States. Since 1976, we’ve placed over 10,000 children with loving adoptive parents and provided food, medical care and education to more than 200,000 children around the world.
This entry was posted in Adoption, Adoptive Parents' Perspectives, Advice, Images of Family, Milestones, WACAP and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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