“Who are you?”  I remember thinking this unthinkable thought as I looked into the face of my young son only a few years into our life together as an adoptive family.  He did not share my DNA but he was every bit ‘mine.’ Yet while we were both made in the image of the same God, I was becoming aware that we were two very different reflections.

In that moment I began to be confronted by much of what I had brought into the journey of adoptive parenting – most significantly my expectations about my child and how this journey would unfold. In reality I hardly knew my son, still that did not stop me from creating expectations about the things he would like and how he would act and think.  On top of that, I expected that the adoption path God had led us down would be relatively easy and straightforward once we were home.  I convinced myself that adoption was little more than a historical fact of how we came to be, rather than an ongoing reality of the journey that lay ahead.

All parents bring expectations with them into parenting – some realistic and others not.  For adoptive families, however, lingering unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration and even a real disconnection between parents and children.  When a child’s history of pain and loss begins to taint the beautiful picture of what a parent expected their adoption journey to look like, parents are tempted to protect their image rather than embrace their child’s feelings and struggles.  When a child’s behaviors (rooted in fear and an instinct to survive) begin to collide with the “way we do things as a family” and are only made worse by a parent’s attempts at discipline, parents can find themselves exhausted and quickly nearing the point of despair.

I know these experiences well.  When faced with the challenging realities of adoption, my initial instinct was to respond by pointing an accusing finger at my child as if to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”  I have since discovered that “what’s wrong” is not with him, but with me and my expectations.  As I laid down my assumptions and took a closer look at my expectations, I discovered that my truest calling was to meet my child right where he was and compassionately lead him forward.  As I let go of my idealized notions of the future, I was able to find far more beauty and joy in the present moment.

Rightly understood the adoption journey invites parents to move beyond what we want and embrace what our children need. To travel it well, we must shift our focus from satisfying our own expectations to discovering all that God has in store. Far from lowering our expectations for our children and where we are headed as a family, we should expect more – much more.

I see this truth in the words of the Apostle Paul when he wrote: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9 – NLT).  The challenge is to hold our expectations loosely, always willing to surrender them to the One who has called us to this amazing adventure.  And as we let go, we find that God’s desires for our family are so much greater and better than what we ever expected.

This is not a promise that the road ahead will be easy.  The adoption journey seldom is.  But it is worth it.  In both the good times and bad, amidst both the joy and the pain, God is writing a story of hope, redemption, and love with our lives.

As for my son, I am still learning who he is.  But along the way I have come to understand that he doesn’t have to become more like me or even what I thought he would be in order for us to become the “we” that God intended. Instead, I simply need to continue to let go of my expectations and embrace the wonder of discovering all that God has created him – and us together – to be.

A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2012 issue of Focus on the Family’s Thriving Family magazine.  Click here to read.