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The disability boxes have tripped them up.
The young couple – who started dating while they both studied at Middle Tennessee State University – decided they wanted to adopt. Like some of their friends, they wanted to adopt Ghana, a country in West Africa.
On the forms, they said they would take a child aged newborn to five years old. They would even take two if they were siblings. Then there were the questions about adopting disabled and different children. Check here if you are considering a child with a missing limb. With a cleft palate. With Down syndrome. With mental health issues. With developmental disorders.
âIt got us thinking,â said Sean McConnell, a Grammy-nominated songwriter who wrote the Little Big Town hit âDaughtersâ.
“We’re in our mid-twenties. It’s like, ‘I don’t know if we can handle this, I don’t know what it looks like,” “he said.
McConnell and his wife, Mary Susan, sat with the paperwork for weeks, unsure how to answer these tough questions.
Ultimately, “we ticked boxes for things we felt familiar with,” she said. “No major handicap.”
Shortly after, however, Mary Susan, scrolling the agency’s kids online late at night, saw a photo of a 10-month-old baby with the prettiest eyes.
The information listed indicated that the little girl suffered from deep cerebral palsy, that many other health issues could arise as the baby gets older.
âI knew immediately that I had a deep connection with this child,â said Mary Susan McConnell.
Suddenly those boxes didn’t matter anymore.
She woke her husband up at 3 a.m. to show him the photo of the 10 month old baby.
It kicked off their 2011 trip to say yes to a girl they knew would probably never walk, never talk, could never hug them, could never eat without a feeding tube.
“I remember immediately feeling a connection,” said Sean McConnell, “but I was extremely scared. Very scared.”
“I can’t imagine how”
The McConnells were literally making one of Mary Susan’s childhood dreams come true.
“I dreamed one night that I was holding a toddler that I knew had been adopted,” she said, “and I felt very attached to this child.”
Since that night, Mary Susan McConnell has always wanted to adopt. When she married her college sweetheart in 2005, the two didn’t talk much about children.
But when they decided to have children several years later, Sean McConnell also embraced adoption.
The McConnells wanted to provide a home for a baby or toddler who might have trouble finding one. They have extended their research to other countries to give themselves a larger pool of children.
On the blog of their chosen adoption coordinator, the description of the beautiful-eyed 10-month-old girl reads:
âWe are looking for a family for this girl who probably has deep cerebral palsy and microcephaly (a brain smaller than expected). You embark on this adventure not knowing how healthy her is. You will have to be okay with this mystery. “
It was an immediate connection for Mary Susan McConnell, but her husband needed time to make up his mind.
âYes, there is a connection with that soul,â he said, âbut I can’t imagine how we can handle that. It’s really intense.â
The couple reached out to pediatricians at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and other friends who were raising children with cerebral palsy.
Doctors finally confirmed that it was likely that the infant would still be nonverbal, would need lifelong care, would need a feeding tube.
âWhen they present you with a list of disabilities, it makes you look inside yourself,â said Sean McConnell.
âIt was a deep dive into what I thought I was able to do and pray as much as I could. ‘My God, I’m so scared, and I love this child. I don’t know if I’m meant to. do that .'”
The songwriter said he also spent time quietly listening to the response.
Finally, he said. “I felt a peace. Not a lack of fear, but a peace that, yes, it’s your child. Go do it.”
It wasn’t until their third trip to Africa that they were able to bring home Abiella, whom they call Abi (AY-bee).
While the papers were being processed, the McConnells flew to Ghana for a week to meet Abi and spend time with the baby.
Abi, swaddled in a white baby blanket, had a big smile when she was hugged by her expectant mother. The McConnells were delighted and relieved that Abi could express happiness.
They spent two to three hours with Abi at the orphanage every day for five days.
âIn those moments it was very peaceful, just a feeling of overwhelming love,â said Sean McConnell.
“There’s so much hassle on the other side, trying to get the papers ready. So having your hands on her and finally holding her was such an amazing time.”
As the couple packed their bags to board a plane to the United States, they sobbed in their hotel room, heartbroken to leave the girl behind.
“We sometimes forget that it is not verbal”
The first time Abi went to her crib in Tennessee, the girl kicked and laughed hysterically. There were also bouts of crying and acid reflux. And the sleep-deprived first-time parents hooked him up with every laugh, moan, cough, and gasp.
âThis weekend has been very emotional,â said Sean McConnell.
A nine-day in-hospital assessment answered many of their questions. The nurses showed the McConnells how to take care of their daughter.
And parents have since developed a strong network of educators, caregivers, therapists, babysitters, doctors and nurses to stay on top of Abi’s needs. This network also allows the McConnells Space to have careers – Mary Susan McConnell has a Mama Bear podcast for parents of disabled children – and occasional date nights and vacations on their own.
Abi goes to school, goes horseback riding, enjoys music (including her father’s songs) and enjoys walking with her parents on their country estate.
Her parents still take the skill of age, so they talk to her like they’re talking to a 10-year-old. But they concede that Abi sometimes has trouble finding ways to communicate.
As technology improves, the McConnells hope Abi will be able to communicate more and more effectively.
Most of the time, however, the parents and the child understand each other very well.
âShe’s extremely expressive. Although she’s technically non-verbal, she’s extremely verbal with a huge personality,â her father said.
âHer sense of humor is hilarious and sometimes beyond her age. She speaks up when she doesn’t like something. She makes sweet sounds while reading or cuddling her. Sometimes you forget that she is not. not verbal. We talk to each other every day. “
The McConnells said the voice that told them to adopt Abi 10 years ago has never left them.
âWe feel like we are the luckiest parents in the world,â said Sean McConnell.
âThere are absolutely intense and scary times being the parent of a disabled person. But so much magic has come with it. Although she has difficult days and seasons, Abi is the most purely joyful soul. that I have ever known. “
Contact Brad Schmitt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.