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The art of making a family

Johnson family
“These are ordinary kids that have been through some extraordinary stuff.”

At the Johnson family house in Fort Wayne, Indiana, art supplies abound.

Cammie Johnson is an elementary school art teacher. Her husband Bill is a Lutheran pastor. Together, they adopted three girls: Kylie, 14, Maddy, 18, and Molly, 20. From costume-making to painting, sculpting, and pottery, art helps glue this family together.

Making a family is also an art, drawing on skill, intuition, improvisation, and dedicated effort.

Cammie Johnson first became interested in adoption because her best friend in middle and high school had been adopted. Becoming a teacher only added to her desire to support kids in need of homes and love.

Cammie was fortunate to fall in love with a man who shared her dream. In April 2011, she and Bill adopted Kylie, who was 14. They asked her if she would welcome another sibling. As it turned out, she was happy with the idea.

“Kylie is a social butterfly,” Cammie said.

In December 2011, the family adopted two sisters, Maddy, now 18, and Molly, 20.

Making the family connection

One of the couple’s early challenges was finding ways to connect individually with Maddy and Molly, two tightly bonded siblings.

“They had relied on each other for so long, it was sometimes hard to get them to open up when they were together. They had a 12-year head start on the rest of us,” Cammie said.

Cammie and Bill initiated separate outings with each girl, for a chance to bond over coffee, art, video games, and other interests. They also created rituals that helped the whole family connect. One is having family dinner together—and Sunday lunch as often as possible—with cell phones and other electronics stashed away.

“It was hard for them at first. No one was sure what to talk about. But opening up just happened organically with time,” Bill said.

The family also connects together over art-making and watching TV shows.

Cammie and Bill say that most of their family challenges are just like those of any other family. At the same time, the two have learned that sometimes the struggles of an adoptive child may be about stresses from the past that don’t immediately seem related to the problem at hand.

“We’ve learned to resist the urge to assume we know what’s going on when one of the girls is struggling with an issue,” Bill said.  “We try to take that moment and breathe and say ‘okay, what is this really about?’ ”

Taking time as a couple

One way Cammie and Bill work through any challenges is to make sure that they take time out as a couple, in order to strengthen their own relationship. At first, they traded babysitting with another family. Now that the girls are older, they go out every Sunday evening, leaving the girls to eat together at home.

“It really helps to keep your relationship with your spouse in the forefront, because you can get lost on your own,” Cammie said.

“The goal is family”

The couple works to dispel myths they see as inherent in being a family with an adoptive children. One big one, they say, is the idea that adoptive parents are rescuers, bent on replacing birth parents.

“As a culture, we have the whole rescue myth surrounding adoptions—that we’re swooping in to save kids. We’re laying that aside. These are ordinary kids that have been through some extraordinary stuff, and now we’re picking up the pieces to figure out how to make this work together,” Bill said.

“The goal is to love them, and give them a safe, loving home. The goal is family,” Cammie said.

It is an art that they and the girls are working on together.

Read more about how adopting siblings benefits children and the whole family.