A NOTE TO THE READER: This is one post in a series of posts that will share the story of how I came to know and grew to love my daughters who were adopted at fourteen years old, mere days before they aged out of the adoption system. It does not reflect my feelings now. I choose to share my story to address a topic that is taboo in the adoption community. I share it to normalize the feelings that so many feel and yet are too ashamed to share. I share it to provide support to those who feel alone because there’s a big white elephant in the room, and no one can talk about it. I share it in support of adoption, in support of every single precious child waiting for a family, every one of which deserves to be loved and is lovable, every single one. Why can’t we talk about it? The feelings are real. The process of attachment can be easy and it can be painful, and the more we support parents who experience the painful side of adoption, the more we help the children. There are far too many disruptions, especially of older children, and if we as a community can come to see the feelings and the process as normal, perhaps we can provide support to those families and in doing so, help the children. Adoption is rooted in pain and loss, and often the process is painful. AND it’s okay. Before you offer your criticism, please read, Eliza Today, A Preface, and God’s Heart and Workers for His Harvest Field .
I suppose it started the day I met her, that long awaited, momentous day when the clouds would part, and I’d first lay eyes on the precious child for whom I’d prayed for over a year.
We’d even written letters to each other. They were love letters from a child who’d never known a mother to the woman she’d dreamed of all of her life; they were love letters, too, from me, a mother who was aching for her daughter.
I had been warned to keep my expectations low, even to not have any at all. And having worked in psychology for the ten years before I met my husband, I knew those were wise words. I felt I had no expectations, other than a desire to love a child who had never known a mother’s love. I had nine biological children. I didn’t need this child to fulfill anything for me. I was fulfilled. My family life was full and wonderful and overflowing with love, and we had something to share.
But then I saw her, sitting on that famous black and white couch of the civil affairs office.
She sat there, her head enshrouded in short, raven black hair, it hung low on her shoulders in a way that struck me as different, remarkably low. She peaked up at us from beneath her deeply bowed head with a shy, sweet smile. She sat beside the director of the orphanage who had brought her. We walked over to her and sat down on the couch next to her, each of us on one side of her, and Victoria next Mark. Evangeline sat beside me and moved back and forth from the couch to the ottomon next to me.
I felt a fear in my stomach. There was something about her that scared me. Was it her mannerisms, the way she hung her head so low, the way it seemed small for her tiny shoulders? Was it the gray, boy’s backpack that sat beside her, the one I thought should have been a girl’s?
How small of me. I thought. She was probably given that. She had nothing of her own, but had she chosen it?.
I wanted to hug her. I reached out for her and her body stiffened, perhaps in fear, or perhaps because she felt uncomfortable with this strange new mother she didn’t know. We spoke kind gentle words to her, words of love. Words she couldn’t understand. We gave her gifts we had brought her, candy, some colored pencils and a notebook. She took them and shook her head, never lifting it from it’s hanging position. We asked her to show us the things in her backpack.
She shyly reached for it, and I noticed her tiny hand, as tiny as an eight year old’s. Her finger nails were bitten low, to the quicks. They looked sore to me, and I thought of how she must have worried about this day as much as she had longed for it. She slowly unzipppered her backpack, the dark gray boyish back pack that bothered me, and she took out a bracelet she had made for me. She held it in her tiny hand. Tenuously, and slowly, fearfully, she reached out to me, to this woman who was now her mother, this strange amazon of a woman with big hands and feet so unlike her own. I took the bracelet from her, and smiled.
“Oh, it’s beautiful. You made that for me? Thank you.” I said in a language she didn’t understand.
She just sat there, head hung low, and smiled. The awkward silence seemed to slowly encompass us, like a haze. I thought of Carl Sandburg’s famous words, “the fog comes in on little cat feet.”
It felt like that, the silence between us. It had insidiously enveloped us. I didn’t want it to feel so awkward. I wanted to put her at ease, to stop my racing heart that beat within me with a vigor that nearly choked me.
The director spoke, “do you have any questions?”
Questions? I thought. Oh yes, I have so many, but where were they? They’d dissapeared like a sprite in the night. Words failed me.
“What time does she eat?” I asked with a stupidity that checked me. This was a teenager. “And her bedtime?” I asked, still in that stunned, doltish mode.
Mark was better. He was smiling and sitting relaxed on the couch. He looked through Eliza’s photo album while I wracked my brain for questions to ask the director.
Then, suddenly, the director said, She’s quiet now, but she’s one of the hyper ones in the orphanage.”
Neurological isssues, I thought, and my anxiety grew. My mind was suddenly filled with pictures I had seen of her on other people’s blogs, photos that families who’d already traveled before us had taken. She was always off somewhere, throwing a ball, sitting with children much younger than herself, jumping, not involved with the other teens who were being adopted and whose body language and stance in the pictures showed a web of relatedness, a connectedness. And then there was the picture that I’d seen only days before we travelled. It was a side view, and she had just had her hair cut short. Her head looked so small, remarkably small. I knew what that meant, but we were about to travel and this was the child God had called us to adopt. I ignored what I saw, and pressed on in faith to go and get this precious child who needed us.
Yet here I was, with this child sitting beside me. The awkwardness was painful, the anxiety rippled through my body as the pieces came together in my mind that this child was different. She was different than we were told she was, and I felt a distance, a separateness, a fear that gripped me.
I can’t do this. I thought.
And yet, there was that ever present consciousness that this was the child God had chosen for me. I was called to be her mother. He would make a way. So I ignored my feelings and went and signed the papers. She came in with us, and sat on my lap.
Where were the motherly feelings? I was numb and stunned and afraid.
“Are you happy with your child?” The man asked.
“Yes.” We answered.
You promise to love her and teach her and give her all that you have given your other children?”
“Yes.” The word tumbled out robotically with this teenager sitting stiffly on my lap, and the warm feelings that I’d expected so vividly evading me.
“Yes.” We said over and over again. I’m saying yes to God, I thought, void of the feelings I’d thought I’d feel.
Soon the signing of the papers was over, and it was time to go. I didn’t know how to be her mother. I felt it was too soon to take her with me. A deep fear enveloped me, yet I knew God had called us to Eliza. I held her hand and walked out of the civil affairs office, wishing with all of my heart the feelings of dread and estrangement would end.
We rode in the van, and she seemed excited. The fear lifted a little as she seemed so eager to go with us and to have a family. We took her back to the hotel, and she unpacked her things, wanted to know where she was sleeping, and then pointed to the clock. It was 12:00 pm. She was hungry, and it was time for lunch. She had always had lunch at noon, and today would be no different.
We began to get ready to go and the anxiety increased for Eliza. We were late, and she was completely out of her comfort zone. I knew we had to hurry. She couldn’t wait much longer.
She hung her head low, her lips pressed together in a deep pout, and a sadness enveloped her that was so fathomless it pained me. She picked at her fingers. I reached for her hands and tenderly held them in my own. I lifted them to my mouth and kissed her tiny fingers. “We’ll go soon.” Again I spoke in words she didn’t understand.
Finally, we were ready and we walked a few blocks to an Italian restaurant. She sat awkwardly on the chair, her head bowed low, refusing to look at the menu. I tried to show her the pictures and used the translator to describe the food. She couldn’t decide on anything, so I chose for her.
Mark is a joker. He was making funny faces. Victoria and Evangeline were laughing and connected using hand motions in conversation. Yet Eliza sat beside me, disengaged, sulking, sad. She lifted her legs and put her feet on the seat of her chair and buried her head between her knees, Clearly, she had no idea how to act in a restaurant. The sadness I understood. The social awkwardness wreaked of autism to me.
Had she never been to a restaurant? Had they never taken her out? Or was she not able to pick up social cues? Her mood hung like a heavy rain cloud over the meal. I looked at Mark, and his eyes met mine. “There’s something wrong,” he said in a quiet voice. The sick feeling burned inside of me like the sting of a jelly fish. This wasn’t what we had expected. This wasn’t what I wanted.
And yet there she was, sitting beside me, and I was her mother, and all I could feel was an overwhelming estrangement from my daughter. I had no idea how to talk to her, how to reach her.
We finished our meal, all of us that is except Eliza, who had eaten nothing. We stood up and pushed in our chairs. Eliza sat there, not moving, her head tucked between her knees. I pulled her chair out and took her hand. She quickly pulled her hand from mine, but she stood up and followed us.
We walked out of the restaurant in a group, but as soon as we were on the side walk, she walked as far away as she could from us. If you’ve ever been to China, you’ll understand how concerning this was for us on the over crowded streets. We insisted that she hold our hand.
She hated that, and continued to pull away.
I didn’t want her. Every ounce of feeling that pervaded my being was that I could not be her mother. But how could I not be her mother? She would turn fourteen in two days. God had moved Heaven and earth to get us there on time to adopt her before she aged out of the adoption program and could no longer be adopted. If I couldn’t be her mother, then she would never have one. We were her only chance at ever having a family. How could I judge this child in the first moments I’d met her? God had so clearly moved every mountain and provided every penny we needed to bring her home. I knew, deep within me, I was called to mother this precious child who felt so foreign to me.
And she was lovely, beautiful, strikingly so, yet somehow she repelled me. It didn’t make sense. I, who had never met a child I couldn’t love, felt nothing for our clearly lovely new daughter.
That was when the guilt began to invade the peace I’d known before we travelled. And who could I tell? I was so ashamed of my feelings. I don’t think I even admitted them to myself.
Finally we made it back to the hotel room. Evangeline asked if she could watch TV, and as much as we were horrified by the program options on the television, we needed a break.
Evangeline ran to turn on the television, and I went in the bedroom with Mark. Tears streamed down my face. “I can’t do it. Her needs are so big. How can I meet them? How will I ever teach her all that she needs to know?”
He took me into his arms and held me. “It’ll be okay. We’ll get though it.” He said with a calm confidence I lacked.
Then the phone rang. It was my mother. I spoke through the sobs. “Mom. I can’t do this.” I said again.
But my mother, half way around the world, who had been concerned about us adopting initially, said matter of factly, “Yes, you can, and you will.”
And dear reader, I do love her.
I’ll write more soon.