Heather Avis: When Adoption is Scary, Uncomfortable and Wonderful

L to R: Heather Avis holds daughter Macyn, while Josh Avis holds daughter Truly and son August
L to R: Heather Avis holds daughter Macyn, while Josh Avis holds daughter Truly and son August
Karen Marie Co.

When Heather Avis started her journey into parenthood, she never thought it would look like this. In her book, The Lucky Few, Heather recounts that getting pregnant was not as easy as she and her husband, Josh, thought it would be. As the couple navigated the ups and downs of infertility, God led them to adoption. And as they continued to follow God's calling, they found themselves further and further from the comfortable paths they thought their lives would take.

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In the summer of 2008, I found myself in a small motel room in Romania sitting at a computer and reading an email that would change everything.

Before making the trip to do a summer camp for youth, my husband, Josh, and I had selected a private adoption agency and were placed on a list of families waiting to adopt. We created a profile with pictures of us smiling and traveling, vacationing, and spending time with friends and extended family. Our presentation was being viewed by mothers creating an adoption plan for the children in their wombs.

As we prepared to leave for Romania, a large piece of my heart was hoping our trip would be interrupted by a phone call from our social worker letting us know we’d been chosen. I had prayed that rather than hop onto an airplane, we’d hop into our car and drive to meet the baby we had been longing for all these years.

By the time we left, I accepted the fact that I would have empty arms and a longing heart and a love for an unknown baby for at least a few more weeks.

Days later, in our less-than-luxurious Romanian motel room, I noticed Josh’s laptop sitting there and decided to check email. As I scanned my inbox, I saw the name of our social worker, and my heart skipped a beat. For a brief moment, I thought, This could be the email.

Before opening her message, I looked around the room, maybe to be sure I was alone or perhaps in hopes of finding out I wasn’t. Something in the gut of my gut knew there was more to it. I clicked on the little icon of an envelope, and my life changed forever.

Dear Heather,

Just wanted you to know that your profile has been shown once. Things have been slow. We have recently had a few babies with Down syndrome placed with us, so finding homes for them is a little more difficult.

Hang in there.

Lindsey

My heart began to pound so loudly that the sound seemed to come from outside. On the surface, this short reply seemed meaningless, but it wasn’t. I knew it. I just knew it.

I read the email again. My heart held on tightly to the words a few babies with Down syndrome. I found myself foolishly begin to argue with my heart. I never wanted a child with Down syndrome, I reminded it. That was not the plan. We were paying the big bucks for this adoption in hopes of getting a healthy child.

But as my heart beat in my chest I could not shake the words I had just read:

… a few babies with Down syndrome …

… babies with Down syndrome …

… Down syndrome …

I knew God was at work, and I was so disappointed.

I slammed the laptop closed and said out loud, “Dear Lord, what are You doing? Please don’t change my heart. This is not in my plans.”

I walked downstairs to the lobby. I faked cool, calm and collected.

Josh saw through me. He grabbed my hand, and he asked quietly, “You OK?”

“I got an email from Lindsey,” I said.

His blue eyes lit up. “Does she have a baby for us?”

“Not exactly.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Well, she said there are babies needing homes, but they have Down syndrome.” The words sounded so foreign coming from my lips that I may as well have been speaking Romanian.

He met this piece of information with silence. Honestly, I wanted Josh to tell me there was no way we were going to adopt a baby with Down syndrome. I wanted him to take the lead here, and I wanted him to lead us far away from this.

“Wow! OK. Well, what do you think?” Not the response I was hoping for. I tried again.

“I think it’s crazy. What do you think?”

“I think we need to pray about it.” He looked me square in the eyes and said, “And I think crazy is how we roll.”

Oh, dear Lord, what are You up to now?

I thought about the babies back home, the babies with Down syndrome who had so suddenly disrupted my life. Then I told my heart to stop being so foolish. Why make plans for the future with a child we never intended to adopt?

Josh and I spent the next week talking about just one thing: adopting a baby with Down syndrome.

“OK,” Josh would start as he reached for a pen from the backpack. “Pros and cons.”

“Pros and cons? You seriously think we will make this decision with a pros and cons list?” I raised my eyebrows, full of sass. “We are talking about a child, not a new car.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” he sassed right back. “I know what’s at stake here. Pros and cons is a perfectly good way to help us make this decision.”

“OK. Pro: they’re babies.”

“Con: they have Down syndrome.”

As we added to the list, the cons side grew and grew, far outnumbering the pros.

Now that we’re on the other side of our decision, I look back on this time and cringe. I almost weep tears of sorrow and terror at the thought that we might have said no to our Macy girl. I get angry, understanding that we had let our culture taint us into thinking that Down syndrome should go on the cons list when it should have been one of our pros. Friends, Down syndrome is only ever a pro.

Down syndrome (also called Trisomy 21) occurs when a person is born with a third copy of the 21st chromosome. That’s it. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? This extra chromosome is responsible for some of the characteristics that are common among people with Down syndrome, including low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes and a flat nasal bridge. In addition, people with Trisomy 21 have an increased risk for certain medical conditions, including thyroid conditions, congenital heart defects, respiratory and hearing problems and Alzheimer’s disease. These characteristics appear to varying degrees, sometimes not at all.

It’s extremely important to note that every person with Down syndrome is a unique individual. Most babies and young children require early intervention in the form of occupational therapy (to strengthen fine-motor and eating skills), physical therapy (to strengthen gross-motor skills) and speech therapy.

Most of humanity reads such a list and concludes that Down syndrome is a bad thing, as I was tempted to do when considering whether to adopt our first child. It’s not “normal”; it’s not familiar; it’s uncomfortable. This conclusion is most often made by those who have limited or no connection to an actual living, breathing person with Down syndrome. This is a problem. In my experience, those who take the time to develop such relationships quickly realize that Down syndrome is nothing to be afraid of. Many individuals who have Down syndrome are attending and graduating from college, living independently and pursuing full-time careers. People with Trisomy 21 and those of us who love them are speaking up more and more about their beauty, abilities and personhood.

Today I’m aware of all the times I have said no to opportunities God has placed before me because I think I’m not rich enough, equipped enough, talented enough, strong enough or crazy enough to say yes. All the times I have mistaken good things for bad. All the times I have allowed the opinions of an ignorant majority to guide my thinking instead of looking to Jesus and His heart in the matter. I wonder how many times we, His children, choose a comfortable no over a terrifying yes – the kind of yes that will lead us to the only place we should ever long to be: in the arms of Jesus.

So there Josh and I were, trying to come up with one good reason to say no to adopting a little baby with Down syndrome.

“I know the cons list is long,” I said, “but is there one really good reason on that list? I mean really good?”

“Honestly, there isn’t. Every con seems to be based on fear or ignorance.”

“Right! And they’re only cons if Jesus isn’t in our picture. When I think from a worldly standpoint about adopting a child with Down syndrome, no is a perfectly reasonable answer. But when Jesus enters, that just doesn’t seem like an option. Still, a yes answer seems crazy!”

“And really,” Josh said, “when all is said and done, a baby is just a baby who needs a mom and dad. We can be that.”

That’s what it really came down to for us: In our hearts, we knew a baby with Down syndrome is a baby fearfully and wonderfully made. A baby in need of a family. A baby who wants to eat and sleep and snuggle. And while the world was telling us all the reasons we shouldn’t adopt such a baby, God was working in our hearts, whispering softly and gently, reminding us that He is greater than any one of those items on the cons list. He was showing us we needed to trust Him and also trust the instinct He had placed in our hearts. He was showing us not only a baby in need of a family, but the fact that we were a family in need of a baby.

“Argh!” I shouted. “This is crazy! People are going to think we’re nuts if we step toward this.”

“So let ’em think it. It’s not far from the truth.” Josh put his arm around me and pulled me close.

I looked at Josh and said, “So, what now?” I knew the answer before asking the question. Our new life was already in motion.

“We make a call. We take a step.” Josh’s response sounded practical and stale.

Honestly, both of us wished it could be something else. We wished the email had never been sent, the conversations never taken place. We found ourselves holding an uncomfortable responsibility. The only thing we knew for sure, for sure, for sure, was that God is good. But in this particular situation, I began to wonder if that would be enough.

We were excited. And terrified.

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Broadcast guests Heather and Josh Avis join Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly and John Fuller to discuss raising children with Down syndrome: Watch Now

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Heather Avis and her husband, Josh, are parents of Macyn, Truly and August. They live in Southern California.

Heather is the author of The Lucky Few.

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