Monday, February 24, 2014


Those of you who know me know that I worked at a daycare (in the States) for two years before coming here for my internship. One of the more difficult parts of my job was dealing with separation anxiety. I worked in the two-year-old room and many of the little ones in my care truly struggled with the long day away from Mommy and Daddy. One little girl made herself sick from crying every day; some screamed the entire naptime, or for an hour after drop-off. By five o'clock practically everyone was whining, "I wannnnnt my Mamaaaaaaaaa....." We didn't always know how to help them. We could distract them, but much of the time was spent saying, "Mama loves you. Mama had to go to work. She'll be back soon. Mama will be back in a little bit. Here, watch out the window for Mama. Mama loves you. She'll be back."

Toddlers are hard-wired to be around Mama. Even if they have to go into childcare, they spend the day longing for Mama and are excited to see her at night. God created kids for a family, and though the preference is for a mom and dad, Mama is generally the one who spends the bulk of the day with the children, and the one they cry for when they get a boo-boo or wake up with a bad dream or are just generally out of sorts.

So what do you do when a child cries, "Mamaaaaaaa!!!!" and it's this long, drawn out, heartwrenching wail, and there's no mama to come answer their cry? They don't want a nanny, a loving caregiver, or an auntie. They want a mama. But Mama's not coming back.

This is "Sunshine."

She breaks my heart.

To the credit of all the wonderful and loving people who run and organize the baby home, they've set a plan in place to help alleviate some of the problem. Two caregivers, Jeanne and Patricia, each have three babies assigned to their care. They are the "mama" for those babies and do much of the main care-giving for them. The hope is that if the babies learn the skill to attach to one caregiver, even though the transition may be hard, they will not develop attachment disorders (Attachment disorders are VERY common in kids with multiple caregivers, such as children shuffled around between foster homes in the States.)

The reality, though, is that our system is still broken, even though we do our very best. Evenings, weekends, sick days - all mean different caregivers. Oftentimes a "mama" has her hands full with another little one, and we step in to help. We do have six babies, after all, and four of them are still quite tiny and need LOTS of attention. We do our absolute best, but we're still a baby home, not a family. The hope is that we will be a place of brief transition for these children before they go to a family. Sometimes, that transition is longer than we would like, due to legalities, complicated family circumstances, lack of adoptive or foster families, etc, etc.

The reality is, these children are still left longing for a mama. We hug them, kiss their boo-boos, tell them "I love you," rock them, sing to them. But we can't be mama. Mama is there all the time. Mama might go for a night out, but she never goes "off shift." There is ONE Mama, not multiple mamas, or lots of aunties around to confuse with Mama (despite their best efforts).

The reality? It hurts.

It hurts me to watch.

It hurts when she screams "MAAAAMAAAAAA!!!!!" for an hour in the middle of the night, after waking up for a bad dream, and I can't comfort her.

She knows what a mama is, just a little. She spent a month with a missionary family over Christmas who loved her dearly, and I think she bonded to them. They couldn't keep her due to current circumstances (they aren't SA citizens, among other things). She got a very good grasp of what a mama looked like, which is a good thing (she really, really NEEDS to know what "Mama" means) but a painful thing (she doesn't know what "temporary" means).

She is really grieving the lack of stability in her life. Right now, that doesn't always make her easy, cute or cuddly to be around (although she can be at times). She'll want picked up, only to want to be put down, only to be mad because you put her down. She cries when her self-picked "mama for the day" goes off shift. She wants this person. No, that person. No, this person. No, now she's just mad. She needs discipline, and to lean "to obey." She needs love. She needs constancy. She needs someone who is willing to be there FOREVER. 

Even though she isn't "easy," I don't care. I love her. I just don't always know what to do with her. My heart grieves for all the kids here, knowing their stories, hearing their cries. Babies cry, but when an orphan cries, it strikes a different cord in my heart. (Ok, sometimes in the middle of the night, it's just noise. Loud noise. ;) I have to remind myself that love and compassion are a choice, not a feeling. Just a disclaimer.)

To explain this, I'll have to back up a little. Many of you know that I traveled with my friend Stephanie to Bulgaria last June on her referral trip to adopt her two little girls, Sarah and Anna. Sarah's orphanage was notorious for its neglect of the special-needs orphans in its care. Sarah, at 7 years old, left the orphanage weighing 23 pounds. No, that's not a typo. Some children older than her left at HALF that weight, mere skeletons. I believe Katie Musser was 10 pounds and 9 years old when she left. Visiting that orphanage was a very emotional experience. We had no many idea how many children were there; most of them were kept out of sight. My heart was weighed down daily with the atmosphere of spiritual oppression that hung over the place. 

One of the hardest things to witness was what happened when a baby cried. Or, what didn't happen. We never *saw* the babies. Only heard them. And, not very often. (Orphans usually know better than to cry, and it is very common to walk into a roomful of dozens of cribs, and be greeted with dead silence. Why cry when no one comes?)

It was mid-week, and our little Sarah was starting to get sick. We sent her back early so she could lie down and hopefully get some relief. Stephanie and I waited outside on the fifth-floor balcony while the other mother finished her visit with her children. Through an open window, we heard a baby crying. The baby cried, and cried. The wails went on for what seemed like forever. No one came. There was no mama in this cold, gray concrete structure that was called "home," but would never be a home.

Finally a nanny came - to shut the window so we couldn't hear the baby's heart-wrenching cries.

The memory of that baby's cry haunts me to this day. I can still close my eyes and hear it. It tears me up inside. Sometimes I wake up at one in the morning and weep for that baby. I hope and pray Mama found them. Will I ever know for sure? No.

So when Sunshine cries for Mama in the middle of the night, it aches in my heart beyond just the sadness that is her story. I'm still hearing that little Bulgarian baby crying.

Sunshine usually looks something like this when she beds down for the night:

A warm bottle of milk, and her "Sleepy Sheep" that I crocheted for her, along with some snuggly pillows and blankies

She's been waking up every night, about eleven p.m. We think she's been having nightmares. For her age (about 18 months) the goal is to have them sleep through the night. So I usually go in, pat her on the head to reassure her that someone is still here, ask her to be quiet because her "sister" (the Princess, with whom she shares a room) is sleeping, crack the curtains a little in case she's scared of the dark, and maybe get her some milk if she's really inconsolable. Then, I leave her alone to fuss a little and go back to sleep on her own.

Last night, I just couldn't. 

She cried. I went in and said, "It's ok, [Sunshine], I'm here, you need to be quiet now and go to sleep."

She kept crying. And crying. 

And I knew that structure and routine are vital, and have their place most of the night. But, well, sometimes grace steps in and shoves them aside. And, grace is a good thing.

So I walked in, and she reached up her arms, a wordless request to "pick me up." I picked up that sweaty little girl in her too-small, hand-me-down, 90's style baby home jammies that someone picked out for her before she had a growth spurt. (Hey, clothes aren't everthing; love is what matters.) It was dark and the Princess snuffled contentedly next to us in her crib as I sat down in the rocker and held Sunshine close to my heart. We rocked, back and forth, back and forth and she curled up on my chest like an oversized newborn and relaxed, no more crying. I held her close and prayed Mama would come soon. She was drowsy when I put her back in her crib, and after crying for milk a little later, she finally dropped off to sleep.

So my heart aches. We do everything in our power for these kids and love them dearly. Still, it's obvious God's plan is for a family. Yes, I do believe in the sovereignty of God. I know He has a plan and I trust Him even when it looks like things are just all wrong. But, sin is in the world. I won't say it "messed up" His plan, because He always knew what was going on - it's not like He was sitting up there and saying "Oh man! I hadn't planned for this!" But sin still isn't a part of His perfect, Garden-of-Eden, "and-it-was-very-good" design for the world. We mess it up daily. With our sin comes brokenness - broken families, death, orphans' pain, all things wrong and aching, suffering and hurt. God illuminates that darkness with His redemption. But in the meantime, before He comes back, here on earth, things just plain HURT sometimes. 

"For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." Romans 8:22

Aye, yes, it does. Here in South Africa, that groaning and travailing seems to be hidden behind a curtain a lot thinner than in the States. Maybe it's just because I'm involved in a mercy ministry. Or maybe it's because at home we tend to sweep things under the rug, so we can look neat and orderly and well put together. Here, I hold orphans daily. We never go out without seeing homeless people on the sides of the street. People I know have had to leave their country and family for work, and watched their children die. Street salesmen, beggars and performers come up to our car at every stoplight, asking for money - and I'm told they're often enslaved by a "pimp" of sorts who takes their earnings and forces them out there to work more. When it rains, it's especially bad - I think they're hoping to play on people's sympathies. We drove through one neighborhood the other night on the way home, and prostitutes were lined up all the way down the street, looking for customers. South Africa is a curious mix of first, second, and third world. The worlds don't often mix, but they live and function in the same city, side by side, like a multiple exposure in photography - so close they are almost together, but eerily each in their own world.

I'm praying for the glory of Christ's redemption in many little lives tonight. Especially my "Sunshine." I want her to live in a forever family, however that may happen. And I want her to be adopted into the truest forever family, as a child of God.

Auntie Abbie

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