‘We received an email out of the blue: ‘It’s time, you can bring your children home now.’ I choked back tears. We waited 22 months.’: Couple adopt two children into ‘forever family,’ now family of 7

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“In March of 2012, our church was looking for host homes during the summer for Ukrainian orphans. That was the beginning of our conversation about adoption. That same week, a friend posted about an adoption informational meeting she was holding.

Unknown to me, my friend, Amy, had just returned from Africa a couple of weeks previously, where she had gone to escort an adopted child home to her new forever family. We met for lunch, and for the next couple of hours, she enthusiastically told me of this African country I had hardly heard of. I tried to contain the leaping in my heart as she spoke. She showed me pictures of this country — this country from which my children come, this country which has now stolen my heart.

After I got more information, I went home and did some individual research. Stephen and I talked with our kids — ages 14, 12, and 9 – and were surprised they didn’t freak! So, we did it: Stephen and I decided to take the plunge into adopting.

On July 5, 2012, we officially submitted our application with our agency. I worked super hard on the first stack of paperwork and came to a waiting point after a couple of weeks. Stephen and I had just said we were done with what we could do for now, and we could sit tight while we waited, then…

On the afternoon of July 31, I was shopping an hour from home when Amy called.

‘Hey, you sitting down? I have a referral for you. A brother and sister. I am emailing you the information and pictures.’

I did not have a smartphone at the time and could not check the email. Stephen and I decided we would wait until we could open it together, which was not until 9:30 p.m. that night. What a moment when we opened that email and looked at our children’s faces for the first time!

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn
Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

We just sat and stared at the screen. For some people, it’s a ‘Hallmark’ moment. For us, it was more like a deer-in-the-headlights moment. After sitting for a few minutes, Stephen spoke up and asked what I was thinking. ‘They’re beautiful! They look so old… They look so sad…They look so old.’ We had friends who had just adopted two 1-year olds, and, as my friend Amy said, ‘Everyone pictures the Gerber baby.’

I traced the cursor over this beautiful little girl and boy. What do you say? We called each of our children in individually, and they all mentioned how sad the children looked. We finally turned the computer off and went to bed, deciding to talk more in the morning.

Ten minutes after turning off the light, I whispered, ‘Are you asleep?’ Stephen turned the light back on. How do you make a decision about bringing two children into your family solely based on four pictures and NOTHING else? We decided we would; these were the children God sent to us, so, what was there to discuss? We emailed the agency first thing the next morning to accept their referral and request any further information available. That is when two children began to grow in our hearts much as a baby grows in the womb. Who knew the ‘pregnancy’ would last 22 months?

We would stare at their pictures several times daily and notice new things. The urgency to complete all the paperwork ramped up. We worked at it hard and got it done in record time with only a few hold-ups (though those seemed huge at the time). We would receive updated pictures about every 4-6 weeks. As the children grew before our eyes, they always had the same sad expressions. We continued to fall in love with two children we’d never met.

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

On December 26, we received an email that our adoption decree was complete, and we needed to start to prepare our last big paperwork, the I-600, and plan to travel in February.

That did NOT happen because of a new required addition to the process. The time had FINALLY come, and on September 27, our family of five went to the county fair to enjoy some time together before Stephen and I flew out the next week. I will never forget the nauseatingly crippling feeling when I got a text from a fellow adoptive parent as we walked among the cotton candy and fried Oreos. It was a link to a bulletin from the State Department concerning a suspension on exit letters for adopted children, a document the children needed to leave their country.

I choked back the tears as Stephen caught my eye, and I just shook my head. We kept it from the kids as we stepped off to the side while watching the pig races. Even now, I have a lump in my throat from recalling the exact horrendous feeling. After gaining more information the next morning, we told the kids and decided we needed to leave sooner than planned; we just really felt we needed to get there. With the tremendous help of family and friends, we were ready to fly out four days early. We had no idea of the situation when we’d arrive, but we were going.

We met Shane and Lily on Wednesday, October 2. They came right to us with only a slight hesitance in their hugs. They were thrilled to look through some pictures we had brought of our family and our house. They especially loved the pictures of their room with their butu (beds). We left after only about 30 minutes with them to attempt to file our paperwork. This would be the first of many trips to the government department. We had no clue, on that first day in Congo, we would spend 8 weeks and have to leave WITHOUT our children!

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

I’m so glad I journaled through the time in the country. Some of it was a blur because of survival mode and exhaustion, but we also experienced so many firsts with the children. Thankfully, the children stayed with us 24/7 in a little apartment. Communication got better daily, and trust, well, trust took time (it still does, even six years later). Even with all we did to prepare, nothing about it was easy.

Countless trips to the government office to try to submit our paperwork proved fruitless. Requirements for ‘approved’ cases changed at least daily. Even though our case met the requirements with each of these changes, we weren’t able to submit our file for weeks, then we had to wait for the interview, but we hung on to hope. And hung on….and hung on. ‘Maybe tomorrow’ turned into eight weeks, but we eventually had to go home without our children.

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

One final check on our case on Thanksgiving afternoon not only told us we would not get the exit letter, but we had to leave the country that night. We had three hours to pack, secure foster care for the children, reserve airfare, and say goodbye. It was the most horrific nightmare. The children handled it well when our lawyer explained. They knew how many times we’d been up to the government office. They’d suffered heartbreak like this before. Shane and Lily never cried, though all the hope which we had seen slowly peek into their eyes over the previous 8 weeks was immediately replaced with the hollowly hopeless expression with which they had come to us. We attempted to enjoy our last moments together while booking flights, packing, and holding back the tears.

The goodbyes were quick — in fact, we just said, ‘Mommy and Daddy will see you soon. Na lingi yo. We love you! Pray we can come soon.’ And off they went. Stephen and I waved goodbye from the second story window as they drove away. We only had moments to collapse in sobs before we made the final preparations, since we would depart only 30 minutes later. We had no idea we would have absolutely no contact with the children for nearly 6 months. Shane and Lily speak often now of how sad they were that day and while they waited for us to return, but they understand now we could not bring them home.

We knew our family would soon be sitting down to the Thanksgiving meal together, but we only had a moment to call before leaving for the airport. Our phone connection was terrible, and it was difficult to convey the message and reasoning that we were leaving immediately. Jacob, Laura, and Rachel have told us they had just set the table with all the food and were preparing to Facetime us when we unexpectedly called with the news, then abruptly hung up, leaving them to pick up the pieces.

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

It is still so difficult for us to consider what our decisions have put our children and extended families through, yet we’ve been blessed to see how we’ve all grown through these challenges. Both sets of parents watched helplessly as their adult children were across the ocean for weeks and helped with their grandchildren back home in various ways. Our oldest kids have been troopers through it all. Both of our sisters have been great as well.

Returning home without Shane and Lily was so difficult. The airport scene was not what we pictured. We’ve never hugged Jacob, Laura, and Rachel so hard. We cried and cried. We hadn’t seen them in 8 weeks! We didn’t care what we looked like. It was good to be together, and it was time to start to heal and find a new normal — whatever that was.

We didn’t know how to do it. We took it one day at a time, and truly, only by God’s grace did we not only survive, but grow.

We thought it’d be 3 months at the most until we’d be allowed to return for our children, but there was absolute silence apart from the usual rumor mill. We received the occasional sad update pictures and were able to FaceTime one time when a friend traveled. The situation was looking quite grim. Many of the families began to band together in advocacy, and we realized there were hundreds of us. We started a petition and brought awareness to the situation.

Out of the blue, on May 27, we received an email from the US embassy that we would be granted an exit letter and it was time we could go bring our children home! We flew out on May 30 and were reunited with Shane and Lily on June 1. There were only 15 ‘grandfathered’ (meeting previous criteria) cases and an additional 6 medical cases of children who were granted exit letters out of the hundreds. It would take many more months for all the children to come home.

We were so afraid our abandoning them would be detrimental to the trust we had worked so hard to gain. After only a few awkward minutes, communication, trust, smiles…everything was as if we had never been apart! God preserved it! More drama about actually getting the exit letter in the last minutes before our flight, but we got it on our 20th wedding anniversary and flew home! The return airport scene was perfect! Family and friends who had walked this journey with us gathered to celebrate, then we FINALLY went home as our family of seven!

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn
Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

No one really talks about the hard adjustment stuff much, but it’s there — kind of like the ginormous Congolese roaches you pretend aren’t really there when you can only kill the one you see, and you know they have LOTS of friends. The hardest adjustment stuff was worked through in our eight weeks in Congo, which made our transition much smoother (not perfectly smooth, but smoother).

Courtesy of MelMari Photography

We spoke to each other in Frengala (a combination of French, the national business language; Lingala, their native tongue; and English) as the children quickly picked up English. Everything was new! I sometimes thought of Ariel in The Little Mermaid and how she combed her hair with a fork in this whole new world! Things like the vacuum cleaner enthralled them at first. One of my favorite things was that ‘goodbye’ in Congolese is ‘bayo’ which happens to sound much like our southern ‘bye, y’all.’ It was so adorable to see the kids when they thought someone was saying goodbye in their native language! As their language developed, they were able to tell us more of their story and about their life in Congo.

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

It’s not all hunky-dory. I hope I’ve not painted it as such, but even through the hard, it is awesome! It’s been six years now, and we’re continually learning how to blend into one family. We get differing reactions which we mostly don’t notice anymore. We’re a family; it’s that simple. One of the most unique interactions we’ve had was when my husband and I were at a mall food court with the kids. A middle-aged black man watched us intently for quite some time before he approached us, shook my husband’s hand and expressed, ‘I want to thank you for being such a humanitarian.’ Stephen replied, ‘Oh, sir, we’re just human. We’re all human.'”

Courtesy of Christina Littlejohn

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Stephen and Christina Littlejohn of Charlotte, NC. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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‘She told her daughter, ‘I’m sorry.’ She gave her a kiss and handed her to me. She left without her baby.’: Woman becomes close to birth mom during adoption, ‘There is no love without loss’

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