This is a series in which I get to learn about America from you.
Karla, 51, is a pastor’s wife, award-winning author of O Canada! Her Story!, and a columnist for the Fort Wayne Examiner in Northeast Indiana. She has five children, including two adopted twins who have autism. She was kind enough to tell me about her life, and I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did! Can you tell me about how you came to adopt twins?
We got interested in adoption after having two foster babies. It’s too hard to take a baby home from the hospital, raise it for a year, and have to give it back. I still miss my foster babies and hope they’ll look me up when they are grown.
So I decided I wasn’t cut out for foster parenting but would do better with adoption. (I think now I could take care of older foster kids, but not babies.) Our social worker knew we were interested in adopting, and when one of the twins was ready to be released from the hospital, they needed an emergency placement. We were chosen and had ten minutes to decide.
Wow. What was going through your head? As someone who has trouble with decisions, this would be really hard for me.
I was nervous, scared, excited. I was also in shock! I called my husband and we decided that this was an open door and an answer to our prayers, so we walked through it even though we knew the boys were at risk for special needs because of their mother’s lifestyle and her own cognitive disabilities.
But I was excited to be a new mom. We already had three children, a girl and two boys, so I knew the challenge that twins would present. But I love children and longed for babies again.
What’s surprised you about this path?
What’s surprised me the most are people’s reactions to our decision to adopt special needs babies. When people found out they were disabled, they’d ask, “Can’t you give them back?”
They aren’t puppies. They’re people.
I was also shocked by people’s reactions to the boys’ behaviors, such as their crying in the store because they felt overwhelmed. They cried super loud. People were annoyed by that. Also, the boys would throw themselves on the floor and have tantrums—for example, in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices—because it was an unusual setting and they freaked out.
Instead of offering to help me, even the professionals judged me for not being able to calm them. There was no reasoning with the boys because they had limited understanding and couldn’t modulate their emotions. Their nervous systems were damaged from the alcohol their mother drank while she carried them.
My husband is a pastor and one time a church lady called and told us she was surprised that God didn’t strike my children dead for how they acted during communion. (They wiggled a lot and talked and made noises.)
It never fails to surprise me how shallow people can be. I’ve also been shocked about doctors and the things they’ve said.
I knew something was wrong with the boys. I’d raised other children and been a foster parent. I’d had a daycare for special needs kids for several years. But I couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to me.
I knew that the boys were suffering with a neurological disorder because of the way they couldn’t calm down and engage in interaction or play. From the moment they opened their eyes each day they screamed. They were never happy. They banged their heads, arched their backs, and had tantrum after tantrum. They didn’t play with toys the way children do. They weren’t interested in dolls or pretend play. They focused on doing things like flipping light switches on and off or opening and closing doors constantly. Nothing soothed them except to ride in my daughter’s loud car. We had her take them for a ride every night before bedtime and that saved my sanity.
Finally, I found a developmental pediatrician in Arkansas who told me I was just not spending enough one-on-one time with the boys, that they were just jealous of each other and that was the reason for their behavior. Reluctantly, he referred me to a developmental psychiatrist. She diagnosed them with autism and developmental delays. The pediatrician called me back and told me that I should consider giving one of them up because no one could possibly raise two autistic children.
Another time a pediatrician said to me, “you know, when I save the life of a preemie in the hospital, I think of your boys and sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth it.”
I’ve written an article about what one psychologist said to me. You can find it here.
Have you ever met their birth parents?
Yes, I did. At first we were required to take them for visits to their mother and her husband until her rights were terminated, when they boys were 18 months old.
She willingly gave up her rights because she knew she couldn’t care for them properly, and was glad they had a good home. She honestly had no ability to care for them.
What were those visits like?
When we’d take them to visit her, we usually had to wake her up and talk her into coming out to her living room to hold them. She had to be shown each time how to hold them. The apartment was filthy, she was filthy, and I always dressed the boys up in cute outfits for her but when I got home had to change the boys and bathe them from the smell. It was just a very sad situation. There were other things happening to her that I don’t feel I should go into publicly.
What do most people not know about adoption?
They don’t realize how much you bond with your babies just exactly as you do your birth babies. I have both and honestly and truly forget most of the time that they are adopted. I am not unattached to them in any way. It could be because we got them from nearly the time they were born. Isaiah came home one month after his premature birth and Isaac came home two months after his birth. He was the weaker baby but now he’s the biggest and strongest of the two.
Adoption seems like the kind of thing I’d love to do, but also seems like it could be nerve-wracking in real-life, to have to care for another person. What’s your experience been like?
Caring for others has always been something I like to do, at least emotionally. I’m not going to lie—in the beginning the care of the twins was grueling until I got doctors to listen to me and believe me that something was amiss. They were not potty trained until age 8. (Typically, children usually potty train by the age of 4.)
So, changing diapers for them that long was hard and we had to really watch so they wouldn’t take the diapers off and play with them. That was very hard. But emotionally? It’s been so easy to love them. They are delightful people. I wish you could meet them!
Adoption isn’t for everyone. If it were, there would be more adoptions. It’s a huge commitment, but no more than giving birth to your own child. I never had the fears everyone else tried to put on me for adopting them.
People warned us that the boys would take up too much of my time, that I wouldn’t have a successful career as a singer if I adopted them. That I was making a huge life mistake. But all I knew was that anyone could be a singer, but not just anyone could be those boys’ mama. I had people say other cruel things that I don’t want to put on this type of forum. I’m writing a book about them, though, and will probably include more details in that.
I’m a bite-at-a-time type of person: I live life just one step at a time and let the future take are of itself. We have no complete control of the future so it does no good to worry over it all the time.
I don’t know what the future holds as far as where the twins will live when they are in their 30s. (I think they may be with us until their mid-twenties or so.) But worrying about it does no good. I am a devoted Christ-follower, and I put details such as these in His hands and work as if it’s all up to me and pray as if it’s all up to Him.
Also, I know you have a lot of experience with homeschooling, and homeschooled your other three children. Are you doing that with your twins?
I homeschooled/cottage schooled the twins until high school. They now attend the local high school for a half-day and vocational school for a half-day and are doing extremely well. The teachers and staff love my boys and constantly comment on how polite and well-behaved they are.
I started a cottage school that included about 15 kids and I had volunteers help me. It was a one-room school setting. This gave my own children other kids to interact with, and gave those other children a place to go to school. Most of the kids had learning issues such as ADD/ADHD, behavior problems, or emotional disabilities. I had gifted kids as well. It was quite the crew! And those were such fun years. I closed the school after seven years when my middle son graduated due to lack of funding and lack of help. I hope to open another school in the future.
I’ve never understood homeschooling because it seems like a ton of work to become competent in several subjects. What’s your experience been like?
The subjects aren’t difficult at all. I love to read so learning new things is exciting for me. It was a lot of work—I won’t lie. It is a huge commitment of time and money. I couldn’t have a full-time career and homeschool/cottage school.
But I gained such a great education not only for my kids but for myself. There is always more to learn. No one can know everything there is to know. So when I came up against something I didn’t understand, I learned it, too. I have no regrets about homeschooling/cottage schooling because I know in my heart it was the right thing for us. However, it’s certainly not for everyone. Every child and family is different. Homeschooling is more of a lifestyle than anything else. And there are weaknesses in homeschooling just as there are in public schooling or private schooling. There is no such thing as a perfect education.
With the twins, I focused on keeping them meaningfully engaged at all times. And I think the result has been young men who are able to positively interact with people when before they couldn’t. They can read a menu, go to the store and buy things (with help) and even ride their own mopeds! They are delightful young men and I’m privileged to be their Mama.
What was your aversion to the local schools? I’ve heard that homeschooling is common among people who want their children to have certain religious values, but I have never had a conversation with someone who homeschools. Can you tell me a little bit about your choices?
We began to homeschool in the mid 1980s. My husband is a minister and we moved around a lot. My husband has dyslexia. We both had bad public school educations, and felt that our boys needed to wait a year to go to school and it just sort of morphed from there. Our religious convictions also played a big role. It wasn’t a knee jerk reaction to anything as much as what was right for our family.
By the way, it hit me that I’d neglected to ask you about the fact that you write the “preppers” column. Are you a “prepper?” And what does that mean?
I’m not a full-fledged prepper. Preppers are people who store food and supplies in case of an emergency. Some are way out there in the way they store for an apocalypse. Others just make sure they have emergency supplies at the ready. I, for one, can only prep so much with kids with disabilities. There is a huge prepper movement in this country.
Does it have any religious significance? I guess what’s different about a prepper compared to someone like me, who has bottled water in case of an emergency?
No, preppers come from all walks of life. The only reason “prepper” is in my moniker is because I was asked to write a column on it. And as far as I’m concerned, no, there is no assumption by me that there’s an apocalypse. Although some people believe in, for example, 2012 being the end because of the Mayan calendar, etc.
I know that Mormons have been preppers from way, way back. They have huge warehouses and caves for supplies. Always have. But modern preppers are from all walks of live. There’s a show on the National Geographic channel called “Doomsday Preppers.” If you get a chance, you should watch! It’s pretty interesting.