When two people enter into a marriage, they often have grand plans and dreams for what the next few decades might look like. Perfect house, perfect children, and perfect careers are usually some of the top items on their list. Sonja Wilson and her husband Dan were no exception. It didn’t take long, though, for God to place His hand on their lives and make it very clear that He had unique plans for them, plans that would test them and their relationship.
4word: Tell us a little about yourself and the various “chapters” your life has gone through thus far.
Sonja: My recent involvement in 4word has encouraged me to consider my life retrospectively, as I share with young professional women our mutual passions for work and family, within the context of our Christian faith. Approaching my 60th birthday, the autumn season of my life, it is a great blessing to have a reconciled perspective of the journey, including an understanding of how my journey led to the discovery of God’s purpose for me, and a courage that comes from seeing God from inside the storms we create for ourselves.
I graduated with advanced degrees in accounting and finance in 1984, after having worked to put my husband through his undergraduate and MBA programs. (We were married when I was eighteen and he was twenty-one.) With CPA certificate in hand, I entered what was at that time the “big-eight” public accounting world just when women were breaking into professional financial and legal positions in a big way. We were expected to wear male-like business suits with little rose-shaped ties and carry briefcases. We hushed an entire room of men when we walked in, as these fellows weren’t accustomed to sharing their off-color humor in our presence. I remember very well sitting in executive-level meetings during presentations and feeling the awkward silent pauses and the “excuse me’s” pointed directly at me when an exclamatory four-letter word was used to describe a thought or situation. It was clear my male counterparts felt as uncomfortable as I.
There was a decision to be made by each professional woman at that time as to how one would navigate in this new world. For most of us, it was to be “tough as nails.” We felt we had to appear smarter by working harder, preparing longer, and showing up for every meeting or encounter. We were perpetually in fear of being “discovered” as not being as smart as we appeared. We didn’t know how to talk about football, nor did we play golf. We were considered too direct and impersonal because we didn’t understand the socialization conversations that needed to happen prior to the beginning of a meeting. We DID know conversations about kids and family, as much as they mattered to us, were taboo.
Our decisions about having children were closely scrutinized as if we were laboratory rats running through mazes during an experiment. Co-workers would express their doubts: “Will she be back?” “Will she loose her footing in her climb to that next level?” “Will she be able to carry on with that project that requires travel?” Most hurtful of all – “Will she be a good mother?”
Painfully, as we doubted ourselves, there was a determination to make it work for all of the young women coming up behind us. One of my dear friends delivered her baby three days before her law school’s final exams and yet she made it to the exams so as not to appear to have received any special considerations for her “condition.” Through all of this artificiality and self-doubt, God did his work to transform me into the authentic, servant-leader I am today – a place that gives me boundless energy and happiness, both at home and at the office.
4word: Family is something you’re obviously passionate about. What led you and your husband to pursue adoption? Has that been a difficult journey?
Sonja: It was the word “commitment” that Dan and I chose to summarize our many years of marriage in a letter to the Department of Human Services, State of Oklahoma. That letter was written a decade ago as a part of our application for the adoption of two boys, at that time ages five and six, who were in foster care. We had just celebrated thirty years of marriage, including its many ups and downs, but always held together with a joint commitment to being life-long partners. (Our mission statement, written ten years into our marriage, reflects “idealism” at its best. Even so, when our priorities become twisted, we reflect on these ideals, and with God’s help, bring things back into balance.)
Having been literally children (ages sixteen and nineteen) when we made the decision to marry, Dan and I have, through God’s presence and our strong sense of commitment to each other, found a peace that binds us together and has formed the foundation of a union capable of allowing us to take on risks – risks that other couples, understandably, do not feel so brave to take on. Because of this very special gift, we have come to a place where we believe that we must use our marriage and resources to serve children who have been abused and neglected. This sense of mission took years of formation – both individually and together. Like Jonah in the Old Testament, we’ve both attempted to hide from this calling, doubting that we, surely, are not the chosen!
In 2003, my son Cory and I were on a drive when he began expressing disappointments he had with regard to his childhood. (How many of us have had this conversation with our 16-year-old?) One of these disappointments was that he regretted being raised as an only child. He had wanted brothers and sisters. Without hesitation, I looked at him and said, “I don’t have a clue why I’m saying this to you now. I feel that you have siblings in your future.” Knowing any biological children would have to come from an unexplainable miracle, Cory looked at me as though I had just validated his most dire concerns about my sanity. Two years later, we would understand that this was around the very time during which our two future sons were being removed from their home and placed into state custody.
I didn’t know how to broach the topic of adding to our family with Dan. How would I explain my deep yearning, at age fifty, to rescue some unknown children who needed us? Our friends were talking about retirement plans. Cory, then seventeen, was preparing to make his college selection; all of the choices on his short list were expensive and far from home. I quietly began to investigate the process for adoption. God was also at work opening Dan’s heart to the possibility of our next mission as a couple. When I finally gathered the courage to broach the subject, Dan responded with surprising openness. For him, at that time, it was a matter of practicality. “After all,” he would comment, “our house is certainly big enough to take in another child.”
Reading the dossiers of our future sons Michael and Bill was terrifying for us. Initially, we were certain we were not up to this task. Michael and Bill were the third and fourth children of five then born to “April.” Christian, Michael’s and Bill’s older brother, who was six at the time of their removal, was the young man who literally bore the weight of his younger brothers’ lives, attempting to provide for them as much as possible. The psychological damage to Christian was such that he was institutionalized for several years and wasn’t available for adoption when the other two boys were ready. Michael, then four and a half years old, was the angry one. He was institutionalized for a period after his removal for intensive work with therapists and arrived at our doorstep still very angry after two years with a therapeutic foster mother. Bill, three and a half years old, was hospitalized for extreme malnutrition. He was profoundly developmentally delayed, with no language ability. We couldn’t imagine being capable parents of such needy children.
Several child services professionals, including the boys’ developmental therapist, their social worker, and their therapeutic foster mother, were deeply and personally invested in seeing the wrongs that had been perpetrated on these boys righted. It was no surprise to any of them that Michael and Bill would make their most detectable progress once they were securely planted in our family. In accordance with the State’s requirements, they lived with us for six months prior to their court appearance to declare the adoption final. We invited these friends and professionals to the court hearing to help us celebrate the boys’ adoption. Tears were flowing from all of us when Bill made his appearance at the courthouse, happily acknowledged his previous caretakers, and very clearly spoke to them – truly a miracle witnessed by all.
4word: You are your family’s primary breadwinner and your husband stays at home with your sons. How did the two of you decide on this arrangement? Was it a difficult decision? Has anyone ever commented on the “gender swap” side of this scenario?
Sonja: In our early thirties, ten years into the marriage, we were establishing our careers, focused on that next rung on the ladder, when it suddenly felt right to start our family. Having worked successfully as a safety professional within the energy industry and earning his MBA, Dan was then working as a consultant within the management consulting division of a public accounting firm. I was leading the financial reporting department of a publicly-traded energy company.
Just a month before the birth of our son, Dan was notified that his work team was being sharply curtailed and only senior-level consultants would be retained. His last day of work was during the week our son, Cory, was born.The energy industry was going through one of its downturns and the short-term prospects for re-employment were bleak at the time.
Uncomfortably, Dan assumed the role of being financially supported by his wife, feeling especially conflicted in his new role as a father, yet not completely able to claim his place as “head of the household,” as it was socially defined at that time. He opened a consulting practice in a one-room executive suite and worked hard to acquire his first client. It was an especially lonely time for him, as he enjoyed the camaraderie of being a part of a team. Making things worse for his ego, I was progressing at a good clip in my career and receiving the affirmation he very much needed at that time.
Dan built a successful consulting practice specializing in environmental and safety services, eventually employing other safety and environmental professionals. Ten years into it, I joined his company to provide the financial expertise necessary to raise equity capital needed to take to market a web-based chemical tracking and reporting system Dan had developed. We were able to raise our needed capital and celebrated success for six months until the tech bubble burst, causing our investors to withdraw from the second round of planned investment and forcing the company to shut down.
I went to work as a CFO, again providing the family with much–needed financial stability and providing me with a job that would provide much-needed challenges to regain my confidence in my business acumen. Dan was less defined in what he would do next – attempting to provide contract CEO services to several other start-ups. We both desperately needed affirmation that this wasn’t “all there is” for us. We searched for several years. Although never questioning our commitment to each other, clearly we were both struggling to find our relevance and redefining our roles once more in our ever-evolving marriage partnership.
We call Dan the “investor” – investing his life in the day-to-day physical, spiritual and emotional needs of Michael and Bill. Looking back, God was busy building Dan into the uniquely-blended man he is today, melding Dan’s need for relevance into God’s plan for his role as the primary nurturer of our two adopted sons who needed his male guidance. God prepared him well for his role. Michael and Bill are now 15 and 16. The boys have plenty of normal teenage boy “problems” to share with their dad. He’s willing to listen to all of their grotesque humor and discuss weapons and other boy stuff with them.
I continue to be the primary breadwinner for the family. I find the daily stimulation of a work environment keeps me on my game. Through the years, I’ve hit my stride in blending my overarching need to make a difference in many lives: at work, at home and through my participation with non-profits. At home, I do my best to provide the boys a much-needed role model of a caring, nurturing mother. Admittedly, Dan and I struggle with “who wears the pants” from time to time.
4word: What do you pray the future holds for your precious family, given everything you’ve endured over the years?
Sonja: The most precious gift Dan and I have received from God is the tranquility that came from clearly understanding our calling. Those early years with Michael and Bill were exhausting and even frightening. There were many times that we looked to the heavens and asked “Are you sure, God? Certainly you chose someone else and we jumped in the way!” Yet, we knew. This was indeed our gift.
Michael has taken a shine to the ROTC program at school. He loves math and computers and is a very creative problem solver – staying a sprint ahead of his parents on what he should and should not be doing on social media. Bill attends a Christian school that provides the quality special education that he needs and a supportive environment for his perceptible developmental differences. He was recently awarded a coveted leadership bracelet by his cross country coaches in recognition of the impromptu inspirational talks that he gave to the younger class members on his cross country team before their runs. Cory and his wife delivered our first grandbaby, Everett, in July. Our family’s legacy of “boys” continues!
I’ve written this account to provide a perspective that comes from looking back on four decades of career and family building, all while growing in my faith. There are many varieties of successful couples and families. We are reminded that God is at work in all of us. Dan and I have been very open about our adoption experience because we want to convince others that, with God’s help, they may also be up to the challenge of salvaging the lives of abused and neglected children. This work can only be done one child, and one sibling group, at a time. Just imagine receiving the gift of contentment, knowing your life’s purpose!
Have you ever considered adoption or becoming a foster parent? As Sonja and her husband have demonstrated, it’s never “too late” to give a child (or children) the opportunity to live a life they deserve. If God is touching your heart to open up your home, contact local agencies or churches in your area to see if they can direct you toward growing your family.
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