‘How do I choose?’ Arms rose towards me, eyes searching my face to see who I’d hug first.’: Mom details emotional adoption journey, ‘This is better than the perfect family I imagined’

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“I’ve been open to adoption for as long as I can remember, but a trip to work at orphanages in South Africa was what really sealed the deal for me. Arms rose towards me in silence, expectant eyes searching my face to see which one I would hug first. They didn’t know me, they didn’t ask me for anything, they didn’t tell me their lives were horrible or that they were lonely, they simply wanted my attention. ‘But how do I choose who’s first?’ I thought.

This was my first experience with orphans, and I was 9,000 miles from home in South Africa. A naïve 21 year old-fresh out of college, I was amazed at how resilient these children were, how they needed so little other than my time, and how happy they were with a whole lot of nothing. I left a changed person and with it on my heart that someday, somehow, I would adopt an orphan. I would make sure some little kid had a loving home. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to not belong to a family, to not be able to rely on someone.

Courtesy of Ashley Howland

Fast forward 13 years — I’m sitting in my shower, 8.5 months pregnant with my first biological child, hot water pounding my back to see if I can get these muscle spasms to chill out, cellphone in hand, writing the story of my children’s adoption. The difference between the two experiences is stark, and it’s been almost 6 years since the time I first laid eyes on them. It feels surreal, as if my adopted kiddos have always been with me, but then there are those little reminders like missing baby photos, and old memories that pop up that I was not a part of. 

Some parts of the process I remember like it was yesterday, others are vague like I am looking at them through water. The whole adoption journey took us about a year and a half, which is relatively quick in the adoption world. We went through mountains of paperwork, social worker visits, classes, and self-education. I checked my e-mail and voicemails obsessively to see if we’d been matched. Sometimes, months would go by, and we wouldn’t hear anything at all. I knew our kids were out there, waiting on a mommy and daddy to love them. And I was waiting on them, and it was absolutely all I could do. 

The waiting ended while I was at the hospital for the birth of a friend’s child. I got the call that we were matched with a 6-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy, and I felt like I was giving birth myself! We were especially surprised that we’d been matched with a little girl as we’d been told mostly boys were coming out of Hungary. I remember the first picture I ever saw, and they were so cute, and so young. I immediately needed to know more about them: what were their personalities like? Did they want to be adopted? Did they speak any English? Did they like animals (we had two dogs who were definitely apart of our family)? I can tell you the waiting between that call in August and when we finally got to see them in person in October felt like years. 

Courtesy of Ashley Howland

We arrived in Budapest at night, hopped in a town car with two men we didn’t know whilst carrying somewhere around 8 thousand in cash and were whisked through the Hungarian countryside in the early hours of the morning. I kind of felt like an international drug dealer or a spy sent in to do some secret operation. It was a couple of days before we got to meet the kids, and the time in the meanwhile grated my nerves. This meeting was going to change the course of our lives. 

We pulled up in front of a ramshackle little house in a small Hungarian village. The first thing I remember seeing were the chickens in the driveway — funny the things that stick out to you. Our translator went before us, announced us to the foster family, and then out came the two little babes who would become ours. My daughter came straight to me, said hello, and called me Anyu (mommy in Hungarian). She hugged me, gave me this precious smile, and I remember melting at her genuine interest and the curiosity in her big brown eyes. My son, he was not the least bit interested in me, but he was very curious about this man who would now be his daddy.

Courtesy of Ashley Howland
Courtesy of Ashley Howland

One of the first things they wanted to do was show us all their toys, as well as the gifts we had sent them in the mail. Each day we spent a bit more time with them, until eventually they came to stay with us at our hotel. After that went well enough, we all moved into an apartment for the next 30 days of adjustment, which has now turned into 6 years of adjustment.  

For a while, there weren’t even conversations with my kids because they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hungarian. I had to teach them English during our 45 day ‘get to know each other’ period. We used a lot of Google translate. We were focused on getting basic needs met and learning how each of the kids interacted. We also communicated using pictures and small gifts.

Courtesy of Ashley Howland
Courtesy of Ashley Howland

Adoption is a complex mix of emotions — an intense joy that is born out of the utter devastation of a primordial connection, that between a biological mother and her children. I’ve always thought how confusing it must be to know that you are hopeful for a new family but always missing pieces from the original. 

Being an adoptive mother has been the biggest challenge of my life. I thought love would come naturally as I’m told it does the instant you see your biological child; it has not been that way for me. It has been a slow building up (and sometimes I mean very slow). Sometimes coming in spurts, when I feel like my heart may burst with love, and sometimes it feels like emptiness. It feels like that on days when they miss their biological mom and I (selfishly) wonder if all the love I’m pouring out has been in vain, even though rationally I know it’s not true. There have been many obstacles, ones that no matter how many books you read and how much you ‘prepare’ will blow you out of the water. As my husband tells me, ‘Read all the books you want — problem is the kids don’t read them!’

I have grown more patient, a quality I was seriously lacking and am STILL working on. I have grown more loving, and have let go of some of the control-freakiness. The kids have made huge strides in their personal development — anger management, self-confidence, and trust. My son has actually grown to love me now. This was honestly a huge fear I had, as he would act like I didn’t exist for our first 6 months together.

Courtesy of Ashley Howland
Courtesy of Ashley Howland
Courtesy of Ashley Howland

The idea of the perfect little family I had in my head will never be, but what I have now is better than I imagined. We have unique challenges and difficulties most people will not understand, and wouldn’t know how to even if they tried. The therapy, the behavioral issues, the feeling of loss are something we will deal with possibly forever. Kids at school sometimes tell them they don’t have real parents, and there are days my kids believe it. There will always be a hole in their hearts, but all I can do is fill it with love. 

Courtesy of Ashley Howland

See, biological kids trust their mom when she says not to do something. They know she will feed them and wants the best for them. My kids still wonder sometimes. They have lived the experience that adults lie, and leave, and don’t always have your best interest in mind. I fight that trust battle every day, but have noticed I am winning victories here and there. The journey is exhausting but rewarding. It is draining but exhilarating. It is sadness and it is joy. And to continue to love despite all of this, to me is the greatest example of true love.”

Courtesy of Ashley Howland

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ashley Howland. You can follow her journey on Instagram or her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories like this:

‘The lawyer called, she wanted him back and the papers were already signed. I knew we’d be saying goodbye.’: Couple credits birth mom for saving almost failed adoption, ‘The bond between us made this happen’

‘I’ve had 9 children, by myself. One passed away. I’m expecting, but I have no idea when my ‘due date’ is.’: Single mom fosters multiple children and has open adoption, ‘It’s all on me, baby!’

‘Would you want to adopt him?’ She was taken from the only woman she knew and placed with a stranger.’: Couple describes adoption, foster journey, ‘Our lives have never been the same’

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