Series disclaimer: This post is part of a series on called Adoption is Hard that I’m running this summer. I believe adoption is so, so worth it and is a wonderful way to build your family. But I run in circles where adoption is often described in glowing terms and I think sometimes it helps to also pull back the veil and reveal the reality of what it can be like to parent kids from hard places–we were as prepared as possible when we brought home an almost-three-year-old daughter from China and it was still really complex (we don’t us our kids’ real names online, by the way). My hope is to give people around us in real life as well as pre-adoptive and other adoptive families a space to communicate in better ways about what is hard–and what is good–about adoption.
I’m beginning with the really tricky part. All adoption is born out of loss. On most days, the grief doesn’t come up, but it has colored every aspect of our lives since adopting our daughter. I wrote a blog post called “Entering the Grief” months before we went to get our daughter in China; we knew on an intellectual level what we were getting into when we adopted. We didn’t shy away from it. And we are lucky–our daughter was well-loved and well-provided for in many ways before she came home at almost three. Her grief at leaving her home was profound, which was a good sign of attachment.
It’s hard to explain that sentence: we were lucky our daughter grieved so hard.
In China and the first few months after we brought Fei home, she slept in two hour stretches or less. She couldn’t relax her body. I have such compassion for her, looking back; she registered the shock of adoption in visceral ways. She sweated profusely when she was stressed, even in the winter, and often sweated through her clothes, soaking both of us in the process. During the day she played warily with her big sisters, who were over the moon to be with her, but at night the grief manifested as rage. I can still remember the feel of her rigid body throwing fits as I desperately tried to keep her from waking up the big girls in a tiny (TINY) hotel room in China. There was no use trying to let my husband sleep; both of us were always up.
Looking back, I have compassion on her, but I also have compassion on my husband and me. Those weeks in China were some of the most difficult I’ve endured. We had other griefs working on us; right before Fei’s adoption trip, some things happened in our lives that hurt us profoundly. We tried to remain positive with each other on no sleep with jet lag for two weeks in China then many weeks home after that. By the time we left China, I was so sick with strep throat I could barely move. We had to fly separately for visa reasons; it was amazing how a 20+ hour trip with a 6- and 4-year-old while I had a fever and strep throat felt like a spa vacation when contemplating my husband’s solo trip with a grieving, raging, non-sleeping toddler (the less that is said about his trip the better).
Needless to say, staying positive didn’t win. I’m still not sure how my husband and I made it through those weeks. They are a blur. I can say that we learned to fight well rather than fighting dirty, which, looking back, was a very big deal. If marriage is about knocking off each other’s rough edges as iron sharpens iron, we did more work in two months than we might have done in twenty years. We are closer, more committed, more flexible, more understanding, more able to listen to and love each other deeply because we walked through the fire of that time.
Fei had her grief, which she couldn’t begin to articulate and wouldn’t for months, but which ruled her every emotion. And we had our griefs. We grieved the dream of adoption, the precious multicolored family we’d always pictured, as we faced the reality of the daily struggle just to keep our new little one alive and dressed and regulated at least five minutes of the day. We grieved the loss of our easygoing family. We grieved how much time we had to spend away from our big girls. We worried all the time that we were hurting us, hurting our biological children, hurting Fei.
For those first few weeks, if I were totally honest, it was more like adopting a wild chimpanzee than a toddler. The release of limitations, the fear, the grief, the rage–the emotions poured out of our daughter’s tiny body in a relentless stream. I grieved the cute toddler in my head, conjured by the smiling match picture which I’d shown everyone, while contemplating the mind-boggling messes made by the raging toddler in my kitchen.
Those early days are marked by our grief. People often asked us, “Aren’t you so excited she’s home?” And we were. But that first Christmas, four days after we got home, I kept thinking of all that she had lost more than I thought of all that she had gained. I knew in my head that a family was significantly better in the long term than growing up in an orphanage, but I couldn’t help but sympathize with this grief-stricken little being. We could intellectualize and look at the big picture and come at it from several sides. She had no words but thousands of complex emotions. Every muscle, every nerve, was screaming at her that this was dangerous, awful, wrong. The two rooms she’d lived in for almost three years were, without any ceremony, suddenly stripped away. The crib where she’d stood and contemplated the world, where her friends were in easy reach, where her identity was formed, was on the other side of the world. The food she’d had every day three times a day in big heaping spoonfuls was gone, replaced by so many different types of food that her body couldn’t begin to digest it (we limited her food, but still). Her little friends and the aunties who cared for her, the ayis, were gone, unceremoniously, just ripped out of her life from one day to the next.
The markers of what made Fei herself had all been taken away by this crazy white family singing songs and playing games and trying to teach her how to open presents and sometimes sit still in a chair.
No wonder she responded like a wild chimpanzee. It was the only logical choice to make. And it was only the beginning of our journey of dealing with this grief together.