Thoughts On Our Beginnings
By Anna P
Our son has been home three and a half months. Every day I marvel at him. His distinguished and distinctive Ethiopian features, his contagious smile, his interest in everything. He is a wonder. Just yesterday I was upset about something and he came around the corner to find me with tears in my eyes. He immediately walked over and wrapped his sweet little arms around my neck and offered a hug so genuine my heart swelled.
He also likes to crawl up onto my lap, throw his head back and wait for tickles and kisses on his neck. I oblige. He giggles and I savor the moment and his brave vulnerability. Three months. And he knows he is home and happily gives and receives affection here.
I want to share this miracle with waiting families, especially those waiting for toddlers because our story isn't one of instant love. We originally settled ourselves on the waiting list for an infant and began reading about international adoption, interracial families, etc. I usually refer to that dark period as the "worst case scenario reading and grieving months." After having dinner with a new adoptive mom and her toddler daughter, we decided to jump lists. We added to the "worst case book list" titles dealing with toddler adoption specifically and grieved the loss of our anticipated child's babyhood. After seven months, a toddler appeared on the waiting children's list and we, along with a handful of other families on the toddler list, were notified. After reading lots of "the call" stories on various list serves and blogs, this unusual circumstance didn't carry any of the anticipated romance. Did we want to see the picture? Did we want to forward information to our pediatrician? Uh, I guess so. My husband and I agreed to look at the file and sat together as a grainy photo of a clearly distressed toddler with a shaved head appeared. He seemed really unhappy. And he looked like he might be much older than expected. It was our decision to make. No one would judge us for not moving forward. It wasn't "the call." And it wasn't love at first sight. But after a week, we decided to move forward. I mostly felt sad for the child in the photo and busied myself with preparations to distract myself from the missing warm fuzzy feelings I had hoped for.
We arrived in Addis late on a Saturday and since we were leaving early the next morning for our birth family visit, it was strongly suggested that we go see our sleeping son. We knew better than to wake a sleeping toddler, so we just pulled back the covers and took a little peek. He was beautiful. He looked smaller than his photo suggested. I touched his little hand but quickly changed course when it looked like the nannies were going to wake him. No tears of joy. No moment of connection.
The birth family meeting was indescribable. Intense. Right. Moving. I left feeling bound to our son, if not in love at least in duty. We had looked into the eyes that loved him and pledged to do our best. At least that was an emotion I could understand and process. We were eager to visit our son when we got back to the city and hurried over to meet him. He took one look at us and cried. And turned his face away. Leaning on my "worst case scenario reading" I buoyed myself with the reality that I had expected that. We were strangers to him and he shouldn't be happy to see us. And he was clearly attached to the nanny — more good news for long-term bonding. But we still had to take him to the Embassy that afternoon, so against his will he was thrust into my arms and eventually buried his head in the blankie I had brought and ate the Cheerios I had packed while I quietly whispered in his ear Amharic assurances of our love. My heart just broke. He was sad. He was scared. He didn't know me. Only time would change that.
We went to visit him every day and every day he cried and turned away. I did notice that he would watch us from across the room as other children enjoyed the bubbles and stickers that emerged from our pockets. When it would be time to go, I would walk over to him, gently touch his arm and tell him good-bye. He would pull away and cry. Thursday morning he seemed so distressed by our visit that the last of my resolve and the cerebral preparation to which I was clinging washed away and I couldn't bring myself to go back in the afternoon. Instead I stayed in our room and cried. Until dinner. And pondered the reality that the coffee ceremony, at which point he would be in our full custody, was the next day.
I had been reminding myself all week that parenting is not about the parent. It is about the child. About daily giving to him or her, without guarantee of reciprocation, a pure and selfless love. I knew our son would not want to sit with us at the coffee ceremony, a fact that would be awkward for me. What would the nannies think of us? The other adoptive parents? I sat down across the room from my son, folding my hands in my empty lap, a feeling rising in my chest that hadn't been there since junior high school. Nobody's watching I told my mommy ego. Then the woman next to me suggested that she was offended on my behalf and that I should go get my baby off that nanny's lap. The truth was there before me. Everyone was watching. And I would have to choose between my ego and the comfort of my child. I smiled and made some comment about how it really wasn't a big deal.
The ceremony was beautiful and heart wrenching and there were a few times the sheer emotion of it knocked the air from my lungs. But eventually it ended and my son had to say good-bye to the nanny who had walked him up and down the alley for hours upon arrival. She had bandaged his soul and restored his trust and he would have to trade her for me, the whispering stranger with Cheerios. He cried the most mournful cry I have ever heard and my husband and I took him to our room where the three of us sobbed together in a heap on the bed.
Then we went out to play soccer and begin building the ties of family. Patiently. Without expectation.
We have beautiful photos of the people who loved our son in Addis. I had been uneasy about showing them to him, since he really hasn't been home long. We wanted to use the photos, though, as part of a baby dedication ceremony for our son at church and so I decided he and I would need to look a t them beforehand in case it was upsetting. With trepidation, we sat in front of the computer, and began looking through photos. I started with one of him and a favorite guard, and then moved on to photos of his favorite nanny. He stared. Seemed interested. But then he chose from the strip of upcoming photos one of him and me at the zoo. He smiled widely, yelled "Mama" and threw his arms around my neck. I hugged him back, whispered my love and choked down tears of joy.
Similarly, the other day I needed to get out his paperwork to begin the process of re-adoption. There is a photo of our son on the outside of the documents packet. I was taken aback by his tear-stained face. I had forgotten already. Our lively, smiling wonder of a son was once the grainy photo that broke my heart. And I, the mama, whose skin he snuggles against when we rock and sing, was once a stranger.