"Are you a church group?"
"This looks like a fun birthday party!"
"Do you work for a day care?"
"What charitable corporation are you with?"
As we have grown into a multi-racial and large adoptive family (10 total), those are some of the questions or comments our family has received. To strangers, we can be very confusing at first glance.
I get it. :)
Not one of those comments/questions offends us in the least - we are proud to declare we are a family. A little bit of nations gathering, a little bit of heaven on earth. (Well, not heaven all the time, lol.)
Three times since our announcement of our eighth child in early 2016, a new question has emerged: "Are you really just starting an orphanage?"
That question is different. The truth is, that one rubs me the wrong way a little bit.
But . . . why?
Is it because I have been inside multiple orphanages, witnessed the conditions, and interacted with the children who spend day-after-day-after-day there? Certainly being immersed in that reality gives me a clearer perspective.
Or is it possible there is truth to the statement that a large adoptive family is essentially an orphanage? My instinct screamed, "No! Absolutely not!" If that were true, we would essentially be moving a child from one institutional setting to another, and if that's the case - what is the point? I'm an open-minded person, so I set out over the last 12+ months to contemplate the evidence and honestly answer this question.
Some orphanage environments might attempt to replicate a home, but overall, even in "nicer" institutions, the feel of the environment is more comparable to a school. Is it the little touches that are missing, like warm lighting, pictures on the wall, and a comfy communal area? Or is it the lack of bigger physical qualities, such as having access to the kitchen? (Versus never seeing anyone prepare meals because it is always brought to you cafeteria-style.) Either way, I don't feel there is a valid association of a home's physical characteristics with an orphanage's.
I remember a friend telling me how fascinated their newly adopted child was with the carpet in their home. It hit me that none of the orphanages we've stepped inside - 10 at this point - had carpet. Upon consulting with others, the cold, hard concrete floors are a common trait of institutions. But not every home has carpet either, so that doesn't truly give us a strong contrast in home versus orphanage.
I do find a compelling contrast, however, in the bars and locked gates. Bars, you say?! Locked gates, you ask?! Yep. It broke my heart the first time we entered an orphanage and I saw young girls on the other side of bars, arms draping through, heads propped up against the cold steel, and their beautiful but lifeless eyes staring back at me. Whether to protect the kids from predators and abuse, outside or in, this is not a physical characteristic of a home. Nothing about the process of having a worker unlock gates as you pass into different sections of the orphanage says, "you are loved."
You may be able to make a crude comparison of the physical characteristics of orphanages and homes, but ultimately, I think it's very apparent that would not be a solid assertion.
EMOTIONAL & SPIRITUAL LIFE
Y'all, the next two sections are the meat of this subject! The facts here are unequivocal proof that a home, with a loving FAMILY inside, is incommensurable to life in an orphanage.
The restricted environment and regimental orphanage lifestyle can make it impossible to thrive. Many institutionalized children rarely see life outside of their orphanage. One of our daughters never left her compound for the entirety of her time there - almost 10 years!!
Often, there is really no such thing as "free time". With many children and few caregivers, the schedule is strict to maintain order. One of our kids had a schedule with specific times all the children were put on and taken off the potty! At another of our children's orphanages, "free time" was in their schedule, which meant watching t.v. and no variation from that.
But people can still thrive under rigid schedules and confined spaces, right? Sure, as long as someone is pouring love and positive emotions into their life. And guess what? Those are missing elements in the typical orphanage environment.
Think about it! There are no opportunities to use your imagination! No one encourages you to explore your creativity. How can a child learn self-confidence and self-worth if they never accomplish anything (because there is nothing to be accomplished)? No one is telling you "good job!" or giving you constructive criticism to do better.
Nothing is feeding the spirit, the life, inside you. When I mentioned lifeless eyes earlier, I meant exactly that.
If no one is pouring into your life, and no one is teaching you how to cope with stressful times, you are living in survival mode. You're only capable of doing what is necessary to keep yourself alive and functioning. One of the saddest moments we have had in our adoption journeys was when we watched one of our newly adopted children, brought home at an older age, completely block out anyone else's needs. At night, she would cover her head completely with the blanket on her bed. She never flinched when one of her siblings cried out from a nightmare or called for Mommy and Daddy. You could have screamed in terror and she would not take notice.
We realized she had lived in an environment where there were no safe, loving arms to comfort a crying child in the middle of the night. Because she has never seen compassionate care, she coped with the crying she heard by covering her head. Later it was evident she was going beyond just blocking the sound. She left reality and began talking to imaginary friends. She was an empty shell. Emotionless. Detached. A robot of sorts going through the same motions day-after-day-after-day-after-day . . . Survival mode.
And finally, let's touch on spirituality. Not all parents raise their children to know and love God. But to those who do believe in Him and His great love, it is the single most important information they can share with their children. The chances of even hearing about God in an orphanage are slim. And certainly, having someone to nurture the knowledge and growth of a relationship with our Savior is just not going to happen.
Simply put, the emotional and spiritual life of a child living in most orphanages is virtually obsolete. Period.
In a home, one or two consistent caregivers are with their children day and night in the role of parent or parents. Their purpose and joy is to care for the child(ren) and always look out for their best interests.
Every. Single. Day.
In an orphanage, caregivers come and go. Orphanage life is full of rotating caregivers. Certain folks work during the day, different ones work at night. There is no way to know if a favorite caregiver will even be working at a time when a child needs them most. Establishing permanent, life-long relationships does not typically happen.
And what is the real quality of relationships with caregivers who do not have a child's best interests at heart? Will a paid, orphanage caregiver:
- come-in on their day off when a child has a cold, laying with them all day just so the child feels comforted?
- if there is an accident or severe illness, stay with a child during every minute of a hospital stay so they are never alone?
- bring a special treat like stickers or ice cream to celebrate a good grade at school?
- lie awake at night with tears wondering if they made the right decision for their child, or if they could have done better for them?
- write each child a letter every birthday, sharing their favorite memories/successes/and hard times of the past year?
- teach them important skills like cooking, budgeting, washing clothes, and good hygiene?
- comfort them when they face the unfairness of life?
- help them learn calming skills when they are upset, or explain to them how to work out disagreements with friends?
- love the child even when they do things you disagree with?
- pray on a daily basis that the child grows to be a kind, respectful, caring adult who contributes to the world in which we live?
These are all things we have done as parents. Do you think an orphanage caregiver does the same?
When a child has no one looking out for them, guiding them toward success and steering them from disaster, he/she learns that the most dependable person in their life is . . .
. . . themself.
It is highly unlikely there is a single person truly and fully advocating for you in an orphanage. Highly unlikely there is a person who will be there for you at any time, and who always chooses the best for you over themselves.
Here is what it boils down to: an orphanage has caregivers, at their best, similar to a camp counselor, den mother, or group of authority figures put into place temporarily. A home is made up of parent(s) who care for your very souls and well-being, along with the blessing of siblings, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and so on. Family cheers for you when you try, delights with you in your successes, cries beside you through sadness or defeat, and accepts you when you make mistakes.
So, are we really just starting an orphanage by having a large, adoptive family?
In the end, I simply cannot reconcile where the comparison of a home and an orphanage could truly come from. I've been inside them, and maybe those who expressed this opinion have not spent time within the walls of an orphanage. Hopefully this post has changed your opinion.
Possibly it's a societal thing. Some folks these days have a hard time understanding large families. Many children appears to mean loss of individual attention. That's so untrue. There are many layers of that conversation that I hope to tackle in another post someday.
Maybe you have made the "are you starting an orphanage?" comment without truly thinking it through. If so, it's all good! We all make mistakes, and I definitely need a reminder to weigh my words before speaking them.
One final point in knowing decisively that our home is not an orphanage is that it is not filled with orphans. It is filled with our sons and daughters. Yes, once they were orphaned, but that is part of their past. It is no longer who they are, and does not define them.
*I feel it is important to note that there are orphanages that exist that do seek to pour love into the children under their care, but they are few and far between. I fully believe that even a good orphanage is no replacement for a family.
**Photos in this post have been blurred to prevent any identifying information and protect the children who might live in these orphanages. These are actual photos my husband or I have taken. We have seen much worse conditions in places where cameras were/are not allowed.