There Once Was a Girl

(Madlin has read this post and given me permission to share these parts of her story. You can read her full story in our book, “Swaying in the Treetops.”)

There once was a girl.

Her skin was ebony; her hair was kinky and fuzzy and matted. Her eyes were scared. Her mouth was sad. Her hope was gone. Her soul was empty.

Still years to go before a family came for her

Still years to go before a family came for her

She was alone. She was unwanted. She was neglected. She was mistreated; misunderstood.

Adopting Madlin 2003

She was born in the poorest country in the world, into a family with much older brothers and a mother who didn’t want one more mouth to feed. So she was abandoned at an orphanage.

Madlin Early #1

This orphanage was a place where people used children to make money. They worked hard to find adoptive families, but if a child wasn’t desirable . . . marketable . . . she was returned to the family who didn’t want her in the first place, in order to make room for those who could fetch a price.

This orphanage was for the petite, darling orphans who were wanted by families willing to adopt.

But this little girl was sad; sullen; disagreeable; withdrawn. She was chunky and ungraceful. Even among orphans, she was an outcast.

Doing Madlin's hair

After a number of failed attempts to find a family who wanted her, it was determined that she wasn’t cute enough or smart enough — not made of the stuff that would attract the attention of someone who would pay to make her their daughter.

So  . . . . she was taken back to the shack she had come from . . . placed back into the care of the family who didn’t want her in the first place.

In the meantime, a daddy in America had spotted her picture and felt that she belonged in his family. He talked to his wife about her, and they talked to their children. They saw beauty when they looked into her face. And together, they prayed and then all decided that they would go and get her.

The orphanage officials returned to the broken-down shack, stood at the fabric hanging across the open doorway, and explained the situation. This woman who had carried this child in her womb and given her life, briskly handed the little girl out to them without a word — seemingly relieved just to be rid of her.

But God was writing her story. God had a plan. This was all part of the path that would bring the little girl to her real family — adding her piece of the puzzle to that beautiful picture He was creating. He had a place for her. A place where healing and beauty and love and salvation were waiting to be written into her story.

And that’s how, after a very long, hard battle, Madlin Arielle finally came home to us in March 2003. Of all the children in our family, she was the most emotionally empty. She reminded me of a paper doll. Completely flat. No fight. No life. No hope. Nothing mattered to her.

Madlin - sleepy - 3-24-03

Fighting for her heart was like battling a mist. There was nothing to grab onto; nothing to wrestle with. Just . . . . nothing. 

Prayer was our greatest weapon. And we prayed!

We tried our best to pour our love into her, but it felt like we were pouring into a piece of netting  — like not even one drop was being retained.

When we finally began to awaken something deep inside of her, it came out as anger. Lies were a part of life with Madlin. Many, many times it felt as if we had taken on a hopeless battle; like we had found a child that could never be reached. She seemed to have absolutely no desire to be loved.

Madlin - 3-23-03

As we struggled through each challenge, one at a time, one of our most common cries was, “God we don’t know what to do! Show us what to do!”

But this story has a happy ending.

Eventually, we began to see glimpses of the child we just knew had to be there, behind that hard shell of anger that confronted us day in and day out.

Madlin Early #11

Madlin with one of her sisters

One of my favorite portraits of Madlin when the healing was in its very early stages

One of my favorite portraits of Madlin when the healing was in its very early stages

It took years and many backward and forward steps. Many fresh starts. Many tears. Thousands of prayers.

We were able to see, early on, that practically all her problems stemmed from a paralyzing fear of being rejected again. Her energy was devoted to making sure we never saw who she really was. So many lies were told to hide things she feared would cause us to give up on her; stop loving her.

Fear of, once again, being turned away dominated her life.

During one of the most painful periods of this process, we discovered some startling things that Madlin had been hiding from us. So many lies. Although we didn’t know it at the time, this was a significant turning point.

After days of pain (for us) and denial (from her), she finally came to us to make a full confession. The betrayal was real and incredibly painful. The anger we felt toward her was justified and understandable.

But God made it clear to our hearts that this was a perfect time to prove to her that she could never do anything that would cause us to stop loving her; that we would never, ever hand her out the door to anyone; that we would give our lives for her, stand by her side no matter what, love her to our dying breaths.

This was a beautiful opportunity to give her a living “skin-on” example of what Christ did for us when He made it possible for us to be accepted through Him by the God of the Universe — THE Supreme Being who calls us His children! and promises that, once we are His, nothing — not even our own sinful, rebellious, tantrum-throwing, afraid-to-be-known selves — can change or undo that.

And then healing came.

The beauty that began oozing from this child’s very being surprised even us. Her eyes became filled with light and hope and love. Her heart became soft; compassionate; longing to serve others. Her face became strikingly beautiful. Her body became graceful. Her confidence; her ability to trust; her capacity for loving others all grew dramatically as her fear and her pain and her anger diminished.

With two of her little siblings

With two of her little siblings

Madlin — like all of us — is still a work in progress. But, oh . . . the promise of the breathtaking finished product is visible every day.

I see it when she comes to share her embarrassing fears with me; when she so lovingly and tirelessly cares for her little sister Kathryn day in and day out. Those two share such a special bond.

Madlin and Kathryn #1

Madlin and Kathryn #2

I see it when she shyly allows us to be a part of the hopes and dreams she now has for her own future — like her new interest in photography; when she tearfully expresses what it means to her to be our daughter.


Some of Madlin’s photography – she loves nature


Madlin’s creative personality comes out in this self-portrait


Her eye for beauty

I see it when she confesses the wrongs she has done and admits that she is afraid of disappointing us; when she continually prays and aches for her siblings who haven’t yet reached these places in their own life journeys.

And she has become my teacher. I have always seen so much of myself in this girl.

She has helped me understand my own fears of failure better; opened my eyes to my own areas of rebellion; revived hope for parts of myself that I long ago lost hope for; prompted me to become increasingly willing to reveal more of myself to the God who already knows me intimately anyway.

Life by her side encourages me to stay the course with our other children who are still battling their way through this healing process as they try to learn to believe that we love them forever, no matter what. She keeps my hope for them alive when it dwindles to barely a flicker through weary disappointments.

A special day at a friend's tea parlor

A special day at a friend’s tea parlor

One of the greatest parenting moments of my life was the day that Madlin came to me and shared a part of her story from her perspective. As she was tearfully remembering the time when her lies and betrayals had been found out and she had finally cracked her hard, protective shell and confessed everything, she said, “This song reminds me of that time. These words are what you and Dad did for me. I remember what it felt like to know that I was still loved by you that day no matter what I had done.”

She was referring specifically to this part of the song:

You slowly lifted your head from your hands
You said, “I just don’t think that you’ll understand
You’ll never look at me that way again
If you knew what I did

And so your tears fell and melted the snow
You told me secrets nobody had known
Oh, but I never loved you more
Even though now I knew what you did

Oh, my dear
I will wait for you
And grace tonight, will pull us through
Yeah, oh, my dear, I will wait for you
And grace tonight, will pull us through

Until the tears have left your eyes
Until the fears can sleep at night
Until the demons that you’re scared of
Disappear inside

Until this guilt begins to crack
And the weight falls from your back
Oh, my dear
I’ll keep you in my arms

She is proof that God will prevail in these children’s lives! She is evidence that He will guide our bumbling, very-human efforts to love them back to wholeness and help them along their way to becoming His masterpieces.

There once was a girl.

She is now becoming a beautifully whole and healed woman of God.

I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for this daughter of mine.

Listen to Madlin’s full song, “Oh My Dear” by Tenth Avenue North.

Madlin's 16th Birthday

Madlin’s 16th Birthday

5 thoughts on “There Once Was a Girl

  1. Kathy—-as I sit here and read this, my eyes are filled with tears. Do you truly know what an inspiration you are to so many by your writing? You have such a gift and what a blessing to be a part of your life and get to read, see and be a part of such incredible testimony of God’s grace and love. Thank you! Thank you for taking time to write this. What a beautiful young woman Madlin has become–both inside and out. Such a blessing to see how God changes all of us!!
    Love you friend!

    • Thank you, Karla. I will share your words with Madlin. The fact that she wanted her story — even the parts that are embarrassing to her — to possibly help someone else, shows just how far she has come.

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  4. Wow! Tears…! Thank you Kathy for writing this. What hope it gives to it’s readers!! The witness of a parent’s unconditional love and our heavenly Father’s perfect plan coming together.
    Please tell Madlin thank you for being brave in sharing this and give her a hug from me. I miss her.

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