The Voice's Todd Tilghman Recalls His Struggle to Bond with Daughters After Their Adoptions
Todd and Brooke Tilghman talk to PEOPLE about the revelations in their new memoir, Every Little Win
"Even now, I have this immense fear that [my kids], especially the two older girls, are going to resent me one day. When they first came home I was afraid, because neither one of them wanted me," Todd, now a father of eight, remembers of first adopting daughter Judah and then, eight months later, her sister Olive from South Korea.
"When we were on the airplane I wanted to help Brooke, but I couldn't because the girls hated flying back home," Todd, 43, continues. "They didn't want to come to me."
The then-pastor's fears dissolved when the girls later connected with him, each in her own way.
"With Judah, I was playing with the boys on the floor, and she had been home maybe a month. Not very long. Long enough for me to feel crappy. I was down on the floor and she just climbed up on [my back]. The rest is history," Todd, who won The Voice last year, says in a joint interview with PEOPLE. "With Olive, I basically made everyone get out of the house except me and Olive. We sort of had a come-to-Jesus day that day. We were just together."
Todd and Brooke fell in love with their daughters, as did their three older biological sons, but the adoption process wasn't an easy one. (The couple shares sons Eagan, Asher, Shepard, Hosea, Louie and daughters Judah, Olive and Wilhelmina.)
In the Tilghmans' joint memoir, Every Little Win: How Celebrating Small Victories Can Lead to Big Joy, which published on Tuesday, they share their experience as adoptive parents as well as other struggles they've faced in their more than 20-year marriage — including their fears that their newborn son Hosea would die because he was unable to eat for six weeks after his birth.
As the subtitle suggests, Todd and Brooke's main purpose is to be "real" and to inspire their readers. Brooke explains that writing the book with Todd was "therapeutic."
"I think we all get an opportunity to live a great story and I wanted to share our story," she says. "We've had some real highs and some real lows and I just wanted it to be authentic."
It doesn't get more real than raising eight children together.
When the Tilghmans decided to adopt Judah, they were already parents to sons Eagan, Asher and Shepard. Finances were always tight, with the family subsisting on the small salary Todd made as a pastor in Meridian, Miss. In order to bring Judah home, the Tilghmans had to fundraise, which ranged from a GoFundMe page to selling goodies at a bake sale in front of the local Walmart, according to Every Little Win.
The Tilghmans were thrilled when they were finally able to bring Judah home, after a painful and long adoption process. But Brooke says they also faced moments of doubt.
"I remember watching her sleep on the bed, we'd just got home that day, and I thought, 'Oh God, what have I done? I've been done it now,' " she explains. "And I kind of felt at the moment I was babysitting."
Todd explains, "You are looking for a sense that you don't immediately get."
The Tilghmans knew they had to adopt Olive after they received a call from the agency in South Korea and learned that Judah had a sibling. While Judah is the more "dramatic" one and vocalized her emotions, Olive was "very sad" when she arrived.
Both girls took time to adjust to their new family and surroundings, their parents explain. The Tilghmans did their best to help the girls acclimatize to their new life.
"I tell people all the time, adoption is a beautiful thing. It really is. But a lot of people forget: adoption is always born out of loss," Brooke says. "That child has lost so much."
Brooke makes a point to be open with Judah and Olive about their adoption stories. Her advice for adoptive parents?
"Don't make it a secret. Don't make it a shameful thing. Make it a positive thing," she says. "Make it an open conversation, so when they do have their struggles, because they will, they're willing to come to you and talk about it."
The Tilghmans have also talked to their kids openly about race.
"Ultimately, I can't control that they are going to feel different at times," Brooke says of raising Asian girls, who have noticed that they look different than their siblings. "We just have to help them process that and say that's what makes them beautiful and listen to them and validate it."
Both Brooke and Todd want their children to advocate for themselves and be proud of who they are.
"I hope we're teaching our girls — I feel like we're marginally successful with the older boys so far — to own who you are," Todd explains. "Own who you are and [know] that's all right. And finally, I hope my girls know that I love the Lord, but I will beat somebody down if they mess around with my girls."
The Tilghmans love their adoptive daughters as much as their biological children. "Todd and I say, 'If we think hard enough, it's almost like we can remember going back and [the girls] being born in the hospital," Brooke says.
Not long after Judah and Olive joined the family, Brooke gave birth to son Hosea. The new parents were soon filled with terror. For six weeks, they were unable to get their newborn son to eat. And no one, including the doctors, believed them at first, they say.
"Every three hours I was faced with a baby that could not eat, would not eat. I felt like I was starving him to death," says Brooke, who also recounts suffering from postpartum depression at the time in Every Little Win. "At first, nobody was listening, but then he was losing weight."
At one point, the Tilghmans were taking Hosea to the doctor multiple times a week. Brooke wouldn't stop advocating for her son, but specialists struggled to diagnose him.
"I don't get mad at God, but I was angry at God because I felt like I had done everything right. We were doing everything. I prayed," she says. "And if you can't feed your baby, if you can't give them that nourishment, nothing you are doing is working, what kind of failure of a person are you?"
Hosea had a feeding tube put in. He was monitored daily before they finally discovered what was wrong. A specialist performed a swallow test and was shocked at the results.
"That's when we found out he was silently aspirating anything that he took in," says Brooke, who writes in the book that Hosea "was literally gagging himself every time he swallowed."
The doctor told the Tilghmans it was a "miracle" that Hosea wasn't sick with aspiration pneumonia.
"In that moment, God reminded me, 'I was there. I was taking care of your baby,' " Brooke says. "I did not see it then, but from that point on things got better."
By thickening Hosea's food and using special techniques, his parents were able to get him to eat and gain weight. Years later, Hosea is healthy and eats more than their other kids, the Tilghmans joke.
Other challenges — and joys — came the family's way after Todd won season 18 of The Voice. He's decided to step away from his 9-year-long career as a lead pastor to pursue music professionally. In November, Todd and his family moved from Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. This is the first time Brooke has been away from her hometown. She says the move is "exciting," but it's also a "huge adjustment."
Despite the big life changes, Todd and Brooke continue to make their family, faith and relationship top priority.
"Our relationship is like what it's been from the very beginning, which is growing and changing," Todd says. "Sometimes we snuggle up on the couch and sometimes I'm like, 'I don't even want to be in the same room [with you].' And that's really the truth."
Brooke adds, "Like you say, the biggest thing is we're going to keep showing up for each other."
Every Little Win is on sale now.