Living a conventional life has never been on my bucket list.
When I was 23, I flew to London and then took a train to Scotland, where I did my student teaching for four months and travelled the Western Highlands on spring break.
My first full-time teaching job was in Monterrey, Mexico. I taught 6th grade Language Arts for three years at an American school for Mexican nationals and U.S. expats, learning Spanish and volunteering at an orphanage in my spare time.
After that, my career continued along a winding, eclectic pathway. I enjoyed working in a variety of jobs in the non-profit and education worlds.
Naturally, the way I started a family was also unconventional.
Shortly after I turned 40, I bought a house and began a new adventure even more risky and rewarding than world travel — the process of adopting a child as a solo mom.
Because of international politics and countless bureaucratic obstacles, it took nearly four years before I was able to bring my daughter home from Guatemala. When she finally walked through the front door on that long-awaited homecoming day, she was already 10 years old.
The international adoption process was emotionally draining, but raising my daughter has been the wildest ride of my life.
Parenting adopted children, especially older kids and teens, is not for the faint of heart. They have been through so much trauma in their young lives that their brain chemistry is completely different from that of a typical child raised and nurtured in a loving family.
I did a lot of reading and specialized parent training before the adoption, and I had experience teaching an adopted teen in my classroom, so I thought I could handle it.
With confidence that my fluency in American Sign Language would be an advantage, I also took on the extra challenge of adopting a profoundly deaf child. She was the only deaf child in her orphanage, and nobody used sign language with her… until she met me.
So, she basically had no fully developed language at all to communicate with. Think Helen Keller when she first met Annie Sullivan. This was our life for the first year together as a family.
It was complete and utter chaos, with full-blown meltdowns and raging, violent tantrums on a daily basis. Without language, behavior was the only tool she had to communicate with and survive in the orphanage.
They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but this is not always true. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you is bone-crushingly painful and weakens you until you feel utterly helpless and hopeless.
For my daughter, what didn’t kill her gave her severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. For me, what didn’t kill me threw my life completely upside down with unrelenting crisis, chaos, and secondary traumatic stress.
The sad, secret truth is that many adoptive families grow weary and give up the fight by relinquishing their violent, raging children through an adoption dissolution or by sending the child permanently to a residential treatment center.
No matter what, I was not willing to become one of those families.
Struggle for Survival
After months of dealing with the rages and violence, I was exhausted. Still, I dug in my heels and refused to give up on my daughter, teaching her better ways to communicate, patiently helping her learn how to trust me, and seeking a myriad of treatments and supports to help her learn appropriate coping and communication skills.
I read hundreds of articles and books, hoping to find the keys to lessen the devastating effects of PTSD and anxiety she suffered because of early childhood neglect, abuse, and abandonment. We spent hours in therapy, doctors’ offices, and with other support service providers who offered expert guidance. She learned American Sign Language, and gradually realized this was a much better way to express herself and get her needs met than screaming, stomping, and smashing plates on the floor.
At home though daily connective, therapeutic parenting techniques, she slowly healed from past traumas and began to emerge as the wonderful young woman I always knew she was deep down under all that angry, out-of-control behavior.
Grit and Growth
Fast forward several years, and I am happy to report that we survived, stayed together, and she now is a thriving, happy teenager.
While she still has a lot emotional challenges and painful memories to process, we have found helpful, healing ways to deal with her anxiety and eliminate the rage and violence.
Most importantly, we have also forged a mother-daughter bond that is unbreakable.
From Adoptive Parent to Entrepreneur
My journey into online business followed a more typical storyline: burned-out creative feels under-appreciated in a conventional world of employment, seeks new challenges and opportunities, and discovers the world of entrepreneurship.
Soon after starting my business, though, I realized that my adoptive parenting journey had been incredibly valuable training ground for the kind of determination and tenacity it takes to launch and sustain a business. Much like adopting my daughter, starting a business was a huge risk and a flying leap of faith into the unknown — definitely not an adventure for the faint of heart.
Overcoming any major challenge can be instrumental in building the character we need for success — in business and in life. In my case, the challenging parenting journey I had survived and come through was better than an MBA.
Here are a few lessons that raising my adopted daughter taught me about starting and running a business:
1. Get your priorities straight.
When you become a new parent or start a business, you have to know WHY you are getting into this new adventure, and what is most important to you. There will be challenges and setbacks on a regular basis. If you don’t have a clear reason for taking on such a major challenge, you will likely give up too soon.
2. Communicate clearly.
My daughter had to learn two new languages when she came to the United States – American Sign Language and English. When deaf people communicate, they must maintain eye contact and pay attention to make sure the message is conveyed clearly. In business, we must learn a whole new language of copywriting, marketing, and sales, and we have to keep our eyes focused on the goal while being crystal clear with the message that we are communicating to our potential clients.
3. Solve problems.
My daughter learned how to overcome rage and meltdowns by finding ways to get her needs met and solve problems effectively. At the heart of every business is a problem that needs to be solved. Whether you are in a service-based business or a selling products, your business is here to make life easier and better for someone else. The best way to build a sustainable business is to figure out what your customer’s problems are, and find a way to solve them.
Self-care is extremely important — in parenting and in running a business. If you are physically exhausted and emotionally depleted, you can’t be effective.Take time for yourself, and take care of your body, spirit, and mind — before you take care of business.
5. Relationships connect at the HEART.
Families and businesses are built on relationships. Nurture them well. A helpful acronym to focus on what’s important in relationships is to remember that we must connect at the HEART: H- Honesty, E-Empathy, A- Acceptance R- Respect, T– Trust.
Do everything you can to focus on developing these five qualities with your children and your business relationships. If you focus on relationships first, you will see positive results and growth in your influence and impact, both as a parent and as the leader of your company.
6. Ask for help.
Parenting a special needs child without a partner is extremely challenging. My daughter’s healing and growth would have been impossible without the support of a team of family, friends, and professionals dedicated to our success.
Too many solo entrepreneurs try to do everything in the business by themselves. Not only is this incredibly isolating, it also makes it impossible to get much done if you refuse to outsource tasks. Having good mentors and coaches is also essential for anyone starting a business or parenting a special needs child.
7. Today is a new day.
Without question, the key to my family’s strength and survival during the tough times was learning how to forgive, let go, and move on.
There were days when I was so angry and resentful of all the struggle, but I knew that if I wanted to make things work and keep my family together, I had to forgive my daughter on a daily basis. Her struggles and challenging behaviors were nothing personal — they were beyond her control until she got the right treatment and learned better ways to cope.
Each new day, I made a conscious decision to let go of whatever happened yesterday with my daughter and start over with a fresh mindset. Eventually, she learned to forgive herself and start over again, too.
We are all human, and no path to success is completely straight and smooth. In our families and in business, we have to take each new day as a fresh start and let go of yesterday’s challenges, mistakes, and failures with humility, grace, and forgiveness.
It’s inevitable that in life we will all have challenges to face and obstacles that make it difficult to achieve our goals. We can use what we’ve learned in those experiences to grow and strengthen our ability to persevere through the tough times.
Both my daughter and my business still have good days and bad days, but I am not giving up on either of them. I’ve learned that if you want something bad enough, and if you hold on like your life depends on it, you absolutely can do what it takes to survive and thrive.
Sandi Lerman is the founder of WingBuilder, LLC, a life and career design company offering coaching and online courses that help heart-based dreamers design careers and businesses that make their hearts sing. Receive a free copy of Sandi’s LEAP Action Guide: Launch Your Excellence, Activate your Passion at WingBuilder.com.