Thursday 30th of March 2017

Making it Home

To set the record absolutely straight as an arrow, my daughter PanPan Amelia, who is graciously napping at the moment, is truly, truly great: jubilant, watchful, defiant, funny and sweet. Like any parent, I feel blessed to have such a wonderful child, and I cannot imagine life without her. For my daughter and me, however, the beginnings were not very easy; while things did find their own way of working out, there were plenty of confusing and scary moments. In retrospect, I can see that the difficulties I encountered on my trip were maybe worse than some I have heard about, while not nearly as bad as some others -- but to me, of course, at the time, they were fairly overwhelming. It's not that I want to dwell on all the doubts and fears and difficulties for their own sake, but I think it is helpful to acknowledge them; for us, anyway, the aspect of Struggle was certainly an important part of the amazing process of becoming a family.

To start off, I know some people who were unswerving in their decision to adopt a child. I, however, was scared and ambivalent, and partly because of that, and partly because of the unpredictable nature of the adoption process, there were false starts and long waits. By the time I got my referral from China -- a five-month old baby girl -- I had lived in limbo far too long, and asked myself far too many questions. Her photograph showed a child with a thatch of dark hair, wise and kind eyes, and the beginnings of a smile. She seemed oddly, reassuringly familiar, and simply beautiful. It was definitely now or never, and so I made up my mind once and for all, almost as if on the spur of the moment, and off I went.

My first difficulty was an intense last-minute panic attack, which I probably should have foreseen, but which particularly disturbed me since I had determined to leave my fears behind. In any case, alone on an overcrowded jumbo jet, hurtling through space to halfway around the globe, bound to meet a total stranger who would absolutely dominate the rest of my life, I thought I could see with ghastly clarity what a bizarre notion, what an irresponsible whim this adoption was, after all. I couldn't do it, I shouldn't have done it. I should have just moved my furniture around if I'd wanted to shake up my life. Etcetera, etcetera. I'd like to say I got over it completely before we landed, but in fact whiffs of that attack hung around for quite a long time.

By the time we arrived in the city where our children were -- there were four of us "singles" sent as a group -- we were all completely exhausted from the two days of travel, and I, for one, so recently panicked, couldn't believe that any of this was actually happening. But the Chinese authorities wanted us to meet the babies before we started any paperwork, so we were immediately escorted to a rather disconcertingly plush hotel where the welfare center director met us. We changed, for whatever reason, into whatever we thought to be our best clothes, the director bundled us all into tiny taxicabs, and we drove helter-skelter to the very outskirts of the city, through extreme and ever-increasing poverty, on roads that seemed less and less like roads at all and at speeds that would have truly alarmed me, if I hadn't been so preoccupied. The welfare center lay at the foot of some looming hills -- when we arrived, it was too dark to see where we were, but it felt like the middle of nowhere.

And so there, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, with few preliminaries, we met our children. On some level, the whole event seemed unreal. The staff ushered us into a rather stark room which was the nursery, woke up the babies one by one, and simply handed them out. They gave me an unbelievably small, distressingly thin and very pale baby: This one is yours, they said. And that was that, there we were, mother and daughter. I didn't know what to feel, or what to do next. I had hoped for a moment of recognition, a feeling of confirmation, but there was none. I was just shocked at how strange and unfamiliar my daughter was to me. She was nothing like her sweet old photograph: her head was shaven, her eyes were unhappy, she was distant and unsmiling, strained and worn-out, and much too thin. I asked why she was so tiny and pale; they said she had been sick, could not eat well, but otherwise was healthy. I was still worried -- she certainly was not thriving. Maybe I realized only then what an enormous responsibility I was taking on, and what a huge decision I'd made, for her life, as well as for my own. I had no experience as a parent, this looked to be hard, and I honestly didn't know if I could do it. Our first meeting left me both terrified and enormously sad; when I said goodbye to her that night she had begun to cry, and so had I, and that is how our life together began.

About a week later, when we returned for a second visit, things were worse. It was daytime, I was calmer, we could see where we were, the welfare center was awake and full of life, and I had high hopes for a happier encounter. But my baby was frantic. The welfare center staff hovered about us while she screamed and screamed, trying to tell me above the din how much better she was, how she had just developed a bad habit of crying, how maybe she was even a little spoiled, how there was nothing to worry about. Then, after a while and without warning, they brought out another baby. Take this one instead, she's fatter, healthier, doesn't cry so much, they seemed to suggest. We want you to be happy, not to worry so much, they said. They were concerned for us and meant well, but the thought of choosing between two children absolutely horrified me. I didn't want a different baby, I just wanted mine to be okay. I couldn't even look at the second child, and after an awful and confusing moment they took her away again. Finally, finally, my daughter stopped crying. By the end of the visit she lay passed out across my lap, drenched in tears, her desperate energy spent.

As it turned out, she was indeed still sick: she had been chronically ill with gastroenteritis and was having another bad attack. She was taken to the hospital later that same day after we had left, and stayed there for much of the remaining time I was in China. It was very frustrating that no one volunteered any information about her condition -- it was several days before I even found out she was in the hospital -- and it was hard to ask all the questions I had. The hospital staff spoke very little English, and the adoption agency had no one in place in case of medical problems or other emergencies. The hospital itself was poor and overcrowded. However, her doctor and nurse took wonderful care of her, and in many ways it was helpful to know there might be a treatable cause to her great distress.

Still, it was an anxious time. I had never taken care of a sick baby before, and I didn't know what to expect. My worst nightmare was that something irrevocable had happened to her very spirit, and she would be frantic forever. She would never calm down, she would never smile, I would never sleep again, things would never be alright. Meanwhile, to my great shame and dismay, all my terrible old doubts resurfaced. First and foremost, I was afraid I wouldn't love her, or love her enough. I knew nothing about bonding -- I thought it was an event that I hadn't yet experienced, rather than a process just begun. I was afraid I would ruin both our lives. I missed my old life. I missed my dog, who never screamed at me like this baby did. I missed being alone. There were many times when I wondered if I was doing the "right" thing. I stuck with it, took the necessary steps to become her parent, but much of the time I was just going through the motions.

One thing that kept me going through those motions was, frankly, the lack of any respectable alternative. But there were more positive supports as well: the other people adopting children were incredibly helpful, and so were calls home to family and friends. There was, too, a kind of uncontrollable gaiety in our group (most likely the hysteria of extreme exhaustion) when daily challenges -- figuring out what was inside those little rolls at breakfast, for instance, without seeming too suspicious, or trying to deal with the scraps of tiny, tattered paper money, or simply trying to get across the street in one piece -- sometimes seemed so ridiculously hard. And then finally, there was this: whatever the balance to fear is, it was there, and to me it looked like Hope. Which, coincidentally or not, is what my daughter's Chinese name means. My hope centered around her old photograph: a normal, healthy, happy little girl.

So I did what I was supposed to do: as soon as she was released from the hospital, I held her in my arms all the time, fed her all the soy formula I'd brought along, and gave her all the love I wasn't sure of yet. It was very hot outside, so we would march endlessly, day in and day out, up and down the halls of whatever tourism hotel we were in, me humming along helplessly to the awful canned classical musak with whatever was left of my mind. A first-time parent, I was more tired than I'd ever thought possible. But it all really helped both of us get through those first hard times. In retrospect -- thank god for retrospects -- I see the trip as a final test of faith, appropriate and necessary for my situation, a path for us to find each other and begin to share our lives.

And, fortunately, she started to get better quite quickly, her desperation revealing itself as sheer determination. Maybe I had simply over-reacted to the difficulties of her being sick in my fear and anxiety and inexperience. But I also think I needed the struggle. I learned a lot about trust from her in those early days, as she recovered and turned to greet the strange new world around her, as she reached out with her long thin fingers, waved her skinny little feet, began to smile her brand new gummy smile. There would certainly be ups and downs in the months ahead, but I was lucky to feel certain early on that things would eventually be fine.

As I write this, it is just about a year since we have been back. The adjustments have been enormous, of course, but we are doing really well. Sometimes still, I find myself surprised at how totally familiar she has become to me. People tell me how much she has changed, and I do know she has, but to me she seems just like herself, how she has always been. And sometimes still, I can't believe that this is all really true. Anyway, here she is now, presently up from her nap, my dear and very beloved daughter, looking positively pudgy, sitting on the floor, mashing a banana I gave her with an old, very dusty toothbrush she found somewhere. From time to time, when the fancy strikes, she blows kisses. How? She raises her eyebrows ever so slightly, smacks her lips together ever so softly, and looks over at me with an air of complete authority, undisputed triumph, and great satisfaction. And I know that she knows too: we've made it home.

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