Naturally, given the holiday we just celebrated, my thoughts have gravitated to the subject of love. It’s such a basic human need, but one I took for granted in many ways until Ellie became our daughter. Most of you who visit our blog are aware of the state of social deprivation in which we found her. I cannot let my thoughts drift to what her life was like in the 18 months before we met her — it’s too painful. This weekend, my parents were at a retreat in Durres (Albania) and met an individual who tried to volunteer at Ellie’s orphanage about a decade before Ellie came to reside there. This individual reported that the caregivers strongly discouraged her efforts to come and hold babies because “it made their job too much work” — the babies would come to expect to be held. Our visit this past summer reminded me what a bleak place it really was. So quiet. Too quiet.
Before I knew Ellie, I didn’t think about the fact that giving and receiving love is a skill that must be learned and practiced. Much like one masters skills best when training starts early in life (I think of skills like learning languages, playing instruments, training for figure skating, etc.), learning about love begins at day one! To start learning about love later is so much harder when one is bruised, scarred, weakened, and handicapped from a starvation of love and affection.
While Ellie has made great gains in learning how to appropriately give and receive love (for instance, we’ve moved past last year’s struggle to restrain her indiscriminate and inappropriate affection towards strangers), she still carries deep-seated needs that are not immediately obvious to those who don’t spend time with her on a daily basis. It can be exhausting to us when at age 5 and a half she still relies on us to do many things for her that her peers can do for themselves. Things like going to sleep on her own, sleeping through the night in her own bed, dressing and undressing herself, brushing her teeth, combing her hair, using the bathroom independently (though she has begun to make strides here since Christmas, thank you Lord!), and even feeding herself sometimes. While this is tiring, I remind myself that for her, a deep need is being met when we care for her in these most basic ways.
When I think about how she came into our lives, I’m left with no doubt of God’s intricate work to weave our family together in His way and in His timing. He knew she needed to be raised in a family with two work-from-home parents where she could find the stability and security she desperately needed! (As her communication has developed, we have learned how great is her fear of abandonment still, which breaks our hearts). Then, in His perfect timing, he brought Reni into our home. Sweet Reni who came to us in a more emotionally healthy, secure state, so his needs and hers didn’t conflict (yet in spite of his wonderful care at the orphanage — you can still see the difference a family makes, even in him). Ellie is learning how to love her brother — and while that is mostly being expressed in a smothering, hovering kind of way, we can honestly tell people that she does not express any feelings of jealousy towards Reni (she has acted out a few times when meeting new people and he gets a lot more attention just for being the cute baby he is, but her behavior doesn’t seem abnormal). We are really proud of her and thoroughly enjoy witnessing their interactions (most of the time ).
Ellie’s needs are not as obvious as Reni’s and it is sometimes easy to forget. Of course there are certain things we would never expect of Reni because he lacks legs, yet because Ellie’s needs are not obvious, it is a battle not to place unrealistic expectations on her but to remember special ways to nurture and accommodate her while training her to one day lead an independent life. We got a powerful reminder this weekend when she received a special gift from Nonna and PaPa for Valentine’s day.
Both children received special books that have the text read to them when each page is turned, but in the prerecorded voices of Nonna and PaPa. On the very last page, Mom Waggoner concludes Ellie’s book with, “Nonna loves you, Ellie!” Over the last couple of days, we have frequently found Ellie holding the book and opening and closing it to that last page just so she can hear, “Nonna loves you, Ellie!” At which point, her face breaks into a smile. Words of affirmation are her love language! It has served as a reminder that she doesn’t get tired of being hugged and kissed and reminded that she is cherished.
Likewise after waiting 28 months for Ellie to call me “Mommy,” I still don’t tire of hearing her calls or receiving her hugs and kisses. When we’re alone together, she will often tell me, “I love you, Mommy. I don’t love Daddy, I love you.” I know she adores her daddy, but I think she’s just trying to tell me that I mean a lot to her in a special way.
So when Ellie comes to our room at 3AM to crawl in bed, we don’t turn her away (though it often means that Daddy walks down the hall to sleep in her room). And when she makes progress in becoming more independent (like putting on her jeans this Sunday all by herself, minus snapping the snap), we heap praise on her and tell her how proud of her we are.
Loving Ellie has been easy and loving Ellie has been hard. Through it we have learned (and continue to learn) about a love from our heavenly Father who patiently nurtures us, waits for us to receive His love, and longs to hear us express our love to Him. Parenting Ellie has reminded us that loving and trusting God has to be learned too. We bring our own wounds and hurts to the relationship, but if we listen carefully to the Book He has given us, we can hear God say on every page “I love you child!”
Cydil has been married to her husband and teammate, Nathan, for 11 years. They have two adopted children, Elisona (5) and Reni (18 months), both adopted from Albania. Their family lives at and runs a missions student center on a Christian college campus in the Bluegrass of Kentucky. They love their work, sharing their passion for missions and adoption with university students. In her