The Grief is Real (The Early Days)

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.

The Special-Stressful

I keep thinking of Beowulf when I’m trying to come back to write about our trip to China and bringing our baby home for Christmas. In Beowulf, the speaker uses a literary device called a “kenning” to describe a noun with an adjective phrase, so the sun becomes the “sky-candle,” the ocean the “whale-road,” etc.

If I were to summarize this season, the trip and Christmas and all of the emotional and joy and heartache, it would be the special-stressful.



This Christmas, our little Fei finally made it home from China. When I last wrote a blog entry, it was on the second day of our two-week trip. I fully intended to write there every few days. I have at least seven posts started, many of them almost finished, but I just never got around to putting them online. I will, I promise. It matters to me to finish those up. I so admire the moms (and dads, I’m sure) who are able to manage that trip, write meaningful posts, take darling pictures, keep everyone updated, and apparently also shower.

That was not our trip.

I’m ready to call it–this is easily the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And we have lived pretty adventurous, difficult lives.

It is also the best decision we ever made.


Adoption is not for the faint of heart. I blogged a lot (and will continue to blog) about the ethical aspects that are some of the most important parts of the pre-adoption process. Post-adoption, I still want to ask hard questions and face hard truths. So I’ll be honest–bringing home an almost three-year-old with a life and a past and a daily routine and a determined personality is pretty stinking hard.

By the third day, we knew that we were facing some serious grief on the part of this little girl. Selfishly, that’s a good thing–it means she was well-loved and well-attached to her caregivers (she was so adored by those nannies), which means her attachment to us, when it does finally gel, will be secure. There are none of the signs of reactive attachment disorder or even minor attachment issues.

We know, compared to many of our friends both online and in real life, that we have it pretty good. In many ways, this feels like a textbook adoption.

And it’s still really complicated and complex and painfully difficult to navigate.

During the day, Fei is an absolute love. She cuddles, she charms, she smiles, she sings, she putters, she pats, she wants to be held, she makes faces, she mimics, she dances. We are deeply in love with her little personality–she’s a ham. She’s a pixie. She’s a snuggle bug.

At night, it’s all too much for her. The first night, her crying was sad and pitiful. It broke my heart. The second night, the rage hit. Bless her.

Bless us.

It’s beyond my capacity to be a good parent with so little sleep, much less to blog and write well about the experience. We traded off, but we had no idea what positions she wanted to be held in. If we did it wrong, and even when we did it right, she flung (flings, still) her body from one side to the other or back, with her knees bent, so it’s almost impossible to catch her before she crashes to the floor. We’ve gotten stronger and faster and our reflexes are better, but it’s like holding a live monkey and trying to calm her down.

There was no instruction manual for this little one.


During this season, the special-stressful, a famous Dylan Thomas poem keeps running through my mind. Perhaps it’s because Fei’s fits magnified as we got closer to nighttime:

     Do not go gentle into that good night.

     Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

     Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though Thomas is talking about aging, I think it fits adoption as well. What we are experiencing with Fei (though it has gotten better in the last three weeks, this is a long, long road ahead) seems to fit that first stanza. I think adoption SHOULD burn and rave at close of day. It’s all too much. No child should ever face all of the grief our daughter has in her short three years.

It’s just wrong.

In China, she only wanted to be held and walked. For that first week, when she barely knew us, when we smelled and looked funny, when her tummy hurt from new food and her skin was irritated by new clothes, when everything was totally off, the only thing we could do was pat her and walk while she raged.

Miles we walked in two tiny, tiny hotel rooms, trying to keep the big girls asleep, trying to give each other a break. Every hour or two, she was up for an hour or two. Jet lag was a joke–we didn’t sleep for two weeks straight. And we’ve barely slept coming back. I got strep throat. We struggled to be civil to each other, to meet our biological daughters’ needs, to be patient with the whining and the tears of everyone (I might have been the whiniest of all).

And at night I’d whisper encouragement into her ear: “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

There is a grief so stark it can only be marked by throwing your body to the floor and raging at the top of your lungs.


And yet.

This time has also been catch-your-breath sweet. Watching her giggle with her sisters. Seeing her hold her arms up for love again and again. Listening to her English words (“please,” “mama,” “nana,” “no”). Witnessing her confidence and her belly and her cheeks grow in the last three weeks.

She was loved, but she was one of many in that orphanage. Now she’s one of three very, very loved little girls. And we can see the difference it is making in her life. One of the sweetest things (which I will post about later) was watching her nannies’ joy at seeing her with us. They celebrated and smiled–everything we know is that her future in China was bleak. It was beds in a row and the lowest level of education and a name that clearly marked her as an orphan.

I can’t talk about the children we left behind. I might never be able to talk about walking out of that room with one and leaving twenty behind, not to mention the other rooms all along the hallway in the cold, unheated corridor that stretched on and on.

Having this baby home to walk around at Christmas time with fat legs jutting out of her diaper, sunglasses on her face, a Dora cell phone to her ear and a Christmas bag slung over her shoulder like a purse as she waves bye-bye, it makes me want to weep at the rightness of it all.

She has always belonged to us. She belongs here. She is ours. We are getting to know each other, but having walked through the fire of the first three weeks together, we are more bonded and blessed and blended than we might have been had all of this gone smoothly from the start.

With every fiber of my being, I can say, she is mine, just as much as her two blonde sisters who have had my heart for seven and four years.


People text me or message me and say, “Isn’t it so fun to have her home for Christmas?” And it is, truly. But “fun” seems like such a small word to use for the heart-stopping rightness of her being here. And it can’t possibly touch the shift-on-a-dime feel of one sweet moment sliding into a full-body-throwing fit over picking up blocks on the living room rug.

The grief-joy of this time is intense and precious and holy and too hard to put into words.

The First Two Days

I don’t care how prepared you are for adoption (…or parenthood…or most things, actually), you can’t actually be prepared until you walk through the experience. We’ve read all the books, attended an intensive orientation, followed blogs, asked for advice, joined Facebook groups, and still–nothing prepared us for the reality of yesterday when we first met Fei Xin (that’s what they call her–I’m switching to that from Xin Xin.)

It was chaotic in ways that are hard to describe; the first few days are like getting on a roller coaster–not a Six Flags or Disney World roller coaster, but the junkie, shaky, falling-apart-at-the-seams fairground roller coasters that come to the wrong side of the tracks. We strapped in, we’re upside down and topsy-turvy, and we have no idea what’s around the next curve.

The guides and the officials know where the lines are, what comes next, where to be, and we are bumping along in a whirlwind of activity. Much of this is cultural–our sense of the rhythm of how things should be done is very different from the bureaucrats’ sense. I’m eternally grateful for years of travel and experience with bureaucracy, especially the time we lost our passports trying to move to Brazil. I had no idea how those outrageously frustrating experiences in Brazil would prepare us for the bumping along feeling of waiting and going and signing and stamping all of the things that come with bringing home a little girl.


I had a hard time sleeping the night before our appointment Monday morning at 9:30–part jet lag, part nerves. We were up and ready at 5:30 in the morning, for what would turn out to be a long day. Our guide Zita is a gift; I love her intonation in English. When we ask her whether we can do something, she nods vehemently, “I think, can. I think, can.” We had a new girl, Amanda, who started training on her first day as well. She used to be a teacher of 3- to 4-year-olds and she’s been such a sweet presence the first few days, teaching our big girls Chinese phrases and drawing pictures with them. She and Zita have helped tremendously.

We ate an enormous, delicious, all-you-can-eat breakfast (which has been the absolute best part of our day, hands-down), grabbed all of our paperwork and our cameras, and met Zita, Amanda and our slightly grumpy driver (who smokes when we leave the van and sometimes shaves with what look like a big pair of tweezers when we pause in traffic).

First we went to the bank and exchanged money. The girls and I played “I Spy” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” The old man in the line next to us yelled so loudly at the poor teller that the guards finally came. Obviously something had happened to his money and he was really stressed. It was disconcerting and sad.

Then we rounded the corner to another government building for what will remain one of the most overwhelming and bewildering experiences of my life. We squeezed into a tiny, anonymous conference room with two other families, a couple from Hawaii and a mom and older daughter from Tennessee. Each of us had a guide and there were a handful of adoption officials; our cameras were ready but we had no idea if this was the room where we would receive the kids or what was happening. We held our cameras ready–Noelle had a pack of stickers, Joy had little stacking cups, and Jonathan and I had our cameras at the ready (the one thing I forgot to do–charge my camera or bring the charger–OF ALL THE THINGS. We’re borrowing a charger soon, but seriously, what kind of idiot forgets to charge their good camera to ADOPT A BABY? A tired idiot, that’s who.)

They shoved papers in front of us, we signed, dated, signed, dated, passed, nodded, smiled.

And then suddenly there was a little boy crying silently, deeply in the corner and his new mom was there with stickers and we realized that Fei Xin was coming into that tiny hot room where we all crowded around the table. Zita took Jonathan to pay the processing fees. The girls and I tried hard to give the sweet grieving boy and his new mom their space. The other adoptive mom and I made silly small talk. The girls were antsy and bouncing and ready.

And then Jonathan came back. Zita had my cell phone to take video. And we heard the voices around the corner encouraging her to come. “Jiang Fei XIn! Jiang Fei XIn!”

And she was there.

I wish I could load the video or pictures, but WordPress in China isn’t liking me too much right now. The video from when we arrived is hilarious. Zita took it. It’s all blurry. You can hear their voices–”Jiang Fei Xin, uh. Jiang Fei Xin! ….Ma Ma….Ba Ba…Ja Ja…” I have no idea what they’re saying other than introducing Mommy, Daddy and sisters. She came straight to me, held her sweet baby hands up, and just watched us seriously for a long time. She wore a little yellow panda coat that is already one of our most precious possessions.

And in the background of the video, you can hear the quiet cries of the little overwhelmed boy.

I’m glad she came to us so easily. You can see a lot of her personality in the videos; her nannies and Zita, who knows her, all say she really is easygoing and sweet.

And yet, it’s not a good things for a baby to go straight to someone they barely know. My older girls would never have done that at two years old. In the last two days, she’ll hold her hands out and walk straight to anyone. She’s a little love, there’s no question, but she’s a love who will need some serious attaching before she assigns her affection to the right people.

We have our work cut out for us.


The first day was easy. We looked at each other and smiled and played cups and teared up that she was here in the flesh and our daughter.

And then night hit. It’s clear this little girl loved her bed (when we went to the orphanage, which I’ll write about later, she walked straight to her bed and clung to it). When it came time to put her down in a strange bed in a strange hotel with a strange white family, she wasn’t having it. Not one little bit.

The way this little one can go from precious lump of love to rage-filled fit-throwing machine is impressive. The fit she threw for over an hour that first night was repeated the second day several times, most notably in the government office. We didn’t feed her enough at breakfast, we didn’t bring a big enough snack, and in the middle of the office while we promised never to abandon or abuse her, she threw a back-bending, screaming-Mimi fit.

We’ve learned, in two days, to feed her well, to make sure her clothes don’t touch her body and her obviously sensitive skin, and that at bedtime, she’s going to be very sad.

So even though the first day was easy, the second day might have been one of the roughest of our lives as parents. We never regretted this, of course not, but we looked at each other in the midst of the serious rage from a grieving baby, and knew we have a tough row ahead.

She’s darling. She laughs like a dolphin. She walks like an ewok. She loves rice and porridge and she obsessively loves her plastic stacking cups. She charms everyone who sees her and she writes on her Magnadoodle with her left hand.

She’s also in the midst of serious grief and culture shock. She perks up around Chinese people, especially when they talk to her, and she reaches her arms up to the waitresses at the restaurants and the guy watching the indoor swimming pool. She’s still not sure what to do with our big girls; one minute she adores them, the next she fights them for her toys or her bottle. They’ve been angels, but going from being the baby to the middle is really hard on Joy and moving from a little girl to a helpful oldest girl is hard on Noelle.

This has been really, really good. And it’s also been really, really hard. Two days in, we’re glad, tired, in love and digging in.

Why Adoption from China is Different from Adoption from Other Countries (Some Thoughts)

In the piece I wrote about adoption ethics a few weeks ago, I referenced the difference between adoption from China and adoption from other countries. I wanted to take a minute to look at that a bit more in-depth. In part, that’s because of some pushback I’ve gotten in my real life interactions with people about adoption ethics, as well as some online conversations. I thought it couldn’t hurt to spell out our decision to adopt from the China Special Needs line a bit more clearly.

I want to begin with this caveat: adoption changes daily. What I am saying is based on my knowledge and pretty extensive research and is true now, in October 2013, but things could change rapidly with new government policies in China or adoption policies in the U.S. or any number of factors. Adoptions from China have changed even in the last couple of years. This isn’t intended to be a document for all time. It’s just a statement for family and friends about why adoption from China is the choice we made.


OK. Here we go.


Since 1979, pregnancies in China have been monitored under the one-child policy. Though the policy continues to shift in terms of enforcement in different regions and areas, in general this means that each family is allowed only one child. In a culture in which aging parents are expected to be cared for by their children, this has led to agonizing choices for many parents, especially the poor. Wealthier families can often afford to pay a fine in order to have a second child.

I’ve heard that the one-child policy is being repealed in several areas; again, all of this could change fast. From what a friend told me who just traveled to China this summer, the rumor is a policy change is coming (or has already come) so that any person who is an only child–basically, an entire generation–can have two children. This is a huge step.

But for poor families, the choices can still be really difficult. Either they cannot afford to pay a fine for more than one child or they cannot afford health care for children who are born with special needs. Chinese health care is mostly a cash-up-front system. So if a family has a child with a medical need, they have to commit to being able to pay for the necessary surgeries and treatments. If they cannot afford them, the child will most often be turned away from the hospital (I’ve heard heartbreaking stories–Carrie McKean is my source for many of them). There are of course hundreds, even thousands of exceptions, and many organizations work hard in the country to provide health care to enable families to stay together. But in general, a child born with any special need is inherently difficult for a poorer family to take care of.

The best case solution to this could be what is often suggested for other women in impoverished cultures–economic and educational development. (You should check out Scarlet Threads, my favorite economic development project in China.) But that still would not fix the problem of lack of decent health care. A bureaucratic policy shift would need to occur in order to solve it. As it is, women could spend their whole lives making fair trade items and still not make enough money to be a drop in the bucket in terms of the health care cost of raising a special needs child. Of course it would depend on the special need and the specific situation.

But the equation that is arguably the answer to the “orphan problem” in other countries–more jobs and better education for women equal more families being able to stay together–doesn’t really work in China.

The bureaucracy and communist caste-system is just different. Add to that the well-publicized difficulties of a culture that is built on sons being able to provide for the family better than daughters. You can see the dilemmas.

Chinese domestic adoption is increasing rapidly. THIS IS GREAT NEWS. The figure a friend told me from her visit over the summer is that 30,000 adoptions occurred domestically in China last year. I have no idea how much this number is up from years past or what the source is for that number (this was a physical therapist who works with our agency and had some great conversations with adoption officials in several different areas). Ideally, every child that is available for adoption would be adopted in-country, so they could have both the support of a family and their cultural connections. We are years away from that happening, but that seems like the goal to me. (That’s what has been happening in Brazil in the last several years, which is one of the reasons we are not adopting from there even though it’s our home culture away from home.)

To summarize: it’s not that Chinese people don’t like baby girls (which is what someone told me not too long ago). And it’s not that they don’t like kids with special needs. There are some cultural prejudices in Chinese culture that are true in almost every culture against kids with noticeable special needs and it’s certainly possible that many kids are abandoned and available for adoption because of those cultural stigmas. But my sense is that in most cases, it has as much to do with the health care system as it does social stigmas.

And before I start hearing from people that if we weren’t adopting from the China Special Needs line, those kids would be adopted in-country, let me just say–I don’t think that’s true. As I’ve learned from my friend Erin Raffety, who has done anthropological research on foster families of special needs kids in China, it is still difficult for foster families who want to adopt kids with special needs to do that. There are a lot of factors that make that true; I think it’s hard and sad.

Again, this is all based on anecdotal research and conversations more than journalistic-type sources. But if all the adopting families left the system tomorrow, most special needs kids in China would still remain in orphanages. Huge policy and cultural shifts would have to happen in the country to change that situation.

There is some hope that these shifts will occur and I am praying for that day. Until then, the reality remains. This article from May 2013 in the New York Times shows the impact of the brutal one-child policy: 336 million pregnancies aborted since 1971, many of them forced abortions (the stories in this article are graphic–be prepared). Among the many, many reasons for this high abortion rate are the type of forced abortions described so horrifically in the article, as well as gender-based and special-needs-based ones. The article gives a sense of the huge scope of this issue.

Because relinquishment is still not legal in most areas of China, abandonment of special needs kids can be the only viable option for many families. To be clear, there are as many boys in the Special Needs line in China right now waiting to be adopted as there are girls–gender doesn’t seem to be a factor in children who have special needs. In fact, two things have changed in the last ten years in which I’ve been aware of Chinese adoptions: there are no longer a disproportionate number of healthy baby girls who have been abandoned because of their gender who are not able to find a family (adoptions through the Non-Special Needs line in China can take 6+ years, last I heard). And there are no longer “minor” situations like birthmarks that are labeled “special needs” (in my experience, many of the families waiting in the Non-Special Needs line are moving over or considering children that in the Special Needs line). That’s why I keep talking about the China Special Needs line. For our agency and every other agency I looked into, they are two very distinct types of adoption (and there are variations within that: Special Focus kids are often harder to place).

Kristen Howerton said it best in a discussion about adoption ethics at Idea Campa basic rule of thumb for pre-adoptive families who want an ethical adoption is to go where the lines are short. I’m not talking about working with a shady agency that promises short wait times. But the Special Needs line out of China is really, really short. There are hundreds of kids waiting without much hope of being matched with a family. Most families I know, including us, got matched way faster than we expected.

This is especially true if the child is over 2 (like ours) and has particular types of special needs. It’s interesting to me what some people view as major and minor special needs; without going into too much detail about our little one, we felt very comfortable with her diagnoses, but were told by our agency that many kids with similar issues are hard to place. And I certainly don’t want to argue that every family should adopt every kid–I think adoption has become a more specialized situation in the last ten years as older children and special needs kids become the norm. I have a lot to say about that as well and will probably turn to that in another post, but I just wanted to lay out our own reasons first.

We chose China Special Needs because, though not perfect, in general it is one of the more ethical types of international adoption available. It’s not the only ethical type of adoption–not by a long stretch. But it does explain a little bit why a family who lived in Brazil and Chile and speak Portuguese and Spanish found themselves watching Mandarin lesson podcasts and hunting down authentic Chinese food in order to prepare themselves just a little bit for the new adventure to come.


I wrote this quickly, so I reserve the right to make changes to this post as I think of them–this is a difficult, complex topic and it helps to be able to look at it from a variety of angles. There are many big topics I skimmed over, so if you think I missed something or you have questions, I’d love to discuss this–with kindness and respect, please–in the comments.

Waiting for Little Goudeau

We got the email from our adoption agency a few months ago: “There’s a little girl, are you interested?” We were. We are. We are smitten beyond our capacity to bear. We have been matched in the system in China and we are now, horribly, eternally, unswervingly waiting.

I can’t show pictures for now and I don’t want to reveal details for awhile. My heart is gratefully relieved in some respects. I have done extensive research, both before and after this referral, about the China Special Needs program, our agency, the specific orphanage, the region, the director, the medical team, the charity that supports the children, the medical need she has–this is as ethical an adoption as we could ask for. It’s also a perfect fit for us.

While the debate rages online about how to approach adoption in an ethical manner, the fact remains that there are still children who need a home or they will grow up in an orphanage. Our little one is one of those.

Anyone who has been around me for longer than five minutes has probably heard my spiel, but I want to say something briefly about why we picked the program we did: In the past, China’s one-child policy meant that there were hundreds, even thousands, of healthy girls available for adoption. In the last decade, that fact has changed tremendously. The one-child policy has been relaxed (my understanding is that the enforcement of it varies by regions). Many people who are themselves only children are allowed to have two children; since that’s almost a generation of people, the amount of healthy girls being abandoned because of their gender are becoming fewer and fewer. In another very encouraging turn of events, domestic adoption within China is also on the rise. I talked with a pediatric physical therapist who just got back from China (where she evaluated our little pumpkin); she told me 30,000 kids were adopted domestically within China last year. That is fantastic and as it should be.

The demand for adopted children within China rarely includes girls OR boys with medical needs. While there are a few cases of baby trafficking and exploitation in the system (believe me, I’ve read about all of them–I’m a tad bit obsessed), in general, the China Special Needs program helps get those children, who face stigmatization and institutionalization in their home country, into loving international homes. It’s an imperfect system, of course, but good agencies working with good orphanages whose work can be independently verified mean that it’s also one of the most transparent international adoption processes on earth.

This matters to me because, from the beginning, I didn’t want to adopt children that were “poverty orphans.” My experience at Hill Tribers and my research into educational development make me convinced that the secret in many regions is to work on a holistic level to enable mothers and fathers to have better maternity care, economic resources, educational opportunities and community support in order to help kids stay with their families or relatives or villages.

Adopting a child from China because of the political situation and strict (though changing) socioeconomic caste system is very different from adopting a child from another area. And in general adopting special needs kids is very different from adopting healthy young ones. Many of my friends have made different decisions about their adoptions and I love and support all of them in what they chose to do for their families. Adoption is very, very complicated and I don’t want my words to imply that China Special Needs is the only choice–there is much, much more to say, but the reality of the choice we’ve made has hit home for me in the last few months. We are very much at peace in this decision. For a researchy girl like myself, that is a huge relief.

This is what works for us. This is the journey we’re on now. We’re excited and nervous all at once.

And oh my word, I cannot wait to get my baby home. We are all systems go. Now we’re just waiting on bureaucracy to get the green light to travel to China in November or December.

As if that weren’t enough, my dissertation is almost done. I want to defend before we go get little Goudeau and to do that, I’m going to work like a freight train on fire for the next two months. I turned a copy of my dissertation in to my committee chair several weeks ago.


I don’t mind telling you, I was more nervous about that than almost anything I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve been writing on my own for almost two years (which seems to me, at least, pretty unusual) and my fear that I had somehow drifted off course or written terrible arguments had me convinced that they’d politely ask me to leave the program once I turned it in. I might have been a teensy bit crazy at that point.

(Dissertations turn people into purple minions from Despicable Me 2. It’s a little known fact.)

I got extensive feedback from my professor last night. It was really good, actually, very encouraging with some nice happy adjectives thrown in, but of course there are modifications in every chapter and an intro and conclusion to finish. And the bibliography.

Y’all. The bibliography.

Oh, and did I mention that Hill Tribers’ fall line launches soon? And our big flagship show, which my co-founder and I plan every year, is November 16? Artreach is awesome, but it is not a cakewalk.

So, in order to keep my sanity and to be ready when we ALL (that’s right, all four Goudeaus) go get our new little one in Shanghai, I’m going to take my own forty day break from social media.

No blogging. No facebook. No twitter. Not till at least September 22, when I’m planning on turning a copy of my dissertation in to everyone on my committee to get ready for an October defense. (You guys. My heart just stopped writing those words. I am READY to be done.)

After that, I’ll hopefully be back, full of righteous indignation and teary rants about injustice and poverty and all the happy things you always come for. I miss blogging terribly but there are just not enough words in my head right now and I need to protect what’s left.

Because that little girl we’ve seen in the videos our agency sent us, with her fat, fat cheeks and her forehead wrinkling while she concentrates, that girl is keeping me awake at night. That pumpkin is worth waiting for and she’s worth finishing for so that all we have to do when she gets home is schedule surgeries and plan therapy and just sit and gaze and get to know each other for a while.

Waiting for this little Goudeau is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.


This month needs to be its own verb. The lists alone are ridiculous. I keep meaning to update, but haven’t had five minutes to think. I’ve been…


Noelle and I have birthdays four days apart in December. Here are her packages waiting to be opened (it’s spy gear. She loves it. New post soon about the gendered boy/girl aisles at Target.)


She also got her ears pierced, a long-awaited milestone. When I asked her if she wanted me to get my nose pierced so that she wouldn’t be the only one, she said, “No, then I would cry.” Thinking she was being sweet, I said, “Oh, are you worried it would hurt mommy?” She just tilted her head, “No, I would cry because I would be embarrassed. You just don’t have nose ring style.” She begged me the whole time not to get my nose pierced. At least it distracted her from worrying about her own ears!


For my birthday, Jonathan and the girls bought this beautiful antique locket from our favorite store on South Congress, Uncommon Objects. This is me laughing at myself while I take my own picture. I love my locket, though.  And I love layering it with my Hill Triber jewelry. It’s to put a picture of the new baby in when we finally get matched from China before we get her. That’s the time I’m most worried about–I hate waiting.


We have her stocking up with her first little present from us, the Hill Tribers doll I love. When we hung up her stocking, Joy said, “I sure really miss my new sister.”

Me too.image

And then, when I’m not handling birthdays and pre-school programs and Christmas parties and teacher gifts and adoption paperwork, there are my two constant active verbs…

…hilltribering. We have had outrageous Hill Tribers sales (we’re at 250% growth in website sales alone). Sometimes Caren lets me come play at the shipping center with her awesome tape gun.


…and dissertating. I am editing the heck out of chapter 2 to send in a draft before Christmas. I think my post-it note system is genius. Jonathan is pretty sure I’m becoming the guy in A Beautiful Mind.


But I spend a lot of time scribbling in the margins because I have to be finished in the next six months. I want to reclaim December next year. Only fun writing from now on.


So if I’m not updating in the next few days, it’s because I’m Decembering my heart out.

I Have Loved You for a Thousand Years

I’m obsessed with this song. I realize that it’s probably the teeny-bop song of the summer and that it was part of the Twilight soundtrack and that on the youtube page, Christina Perri says that her friend “wrote it for bella + edward.” Which makes it perhaps a little bit ridiculous that as an adult woman I keep playing it over and over on iTunes, but I don’t really care. I was sitting in my car in the hot parking garage on campus the other day, almost late for a meeting, and I couldn’t turn my car off because I heard this song for the first time on the radio.

I heard lyrics that hit me hard, like “I have died every day waiting for you.” The tension of waiting for this next child to come home is already too much and I don’t know her name or her face or anything about her other than that she exists and we’re moving as fast as we can toward each other. We haven’t even been matched yet; she still a concept, not a little quirky person who will fit right into our family. We haven’t had our home study or sent in our child preferences profile. We have miles to go before I start getting overly emotional about teeny-bop songs in parking garages.

My friends who have been through international adoptions are probably rolling their eyes or chuckling to themselves and thinking, “Dang, you have a long road ahead of you.” And I’ll just laugh at myself and say back, “I had no idea.” I really, truly didn’t know, the way you can’t really know anything until you head down that path, what this was going to look like. Just waiting and laying myself open and holding my heart ready for a love that is coming, it’s brutal and it’s beautiful all at once.

So excuse me while I crank this song up again just a few more times and sing at the top of my lungs, ”every breath has come to this…One step closer.”

Godspeed, Little Mei

We talked to our adoption agency this week on Tuesday. Our new case worker is amazing–we talked and talked. She answered every question. She was warm, personable and really attentive. She told me we could easily bring our baby home within a year. A YEAR.

I realize I’ve spent a lot of time in the deep end of the pool this week (I did title my Monday post “Entering the Grief,” which Jonathan made complete fun of). So don’t think we’re grieving this whole time–we’re so, so excited to go get our baby girl. We cannot wait to add her to our family. It’s what makes the paper chase worth it. I think the difference is that, for me, this is such a different process than adding our first two babies to our family. Then I always knew where that peanut was and, though I only knew vague things about each of them (from those preggo emails: “This week, your baby is the size of a pear!”), I could put my hands on my belly and feel them flip over or stretch. This time, the unknowns are so many that it’s hard not to dwell on them.

I’m having a little baby boom among my friends–I have several good friends and my sister-in-law who are having babies between April and August. I keep watching them and thinking, my next baby is probably going to be about this age, maybe older. If we get her in a year, that increases the likelihood that she’s already been born. That comment by the adoption case worker put me in a bit of a tail spin.

Wednesday I was listening to the Dixie Chicks CD my husband left in our car with the girls. (Jonathan loves girl folk singers with a little bit of rock–Alison Krauss, The Civil Wars, The Acorn, and Alexi Murdoch [he's a guy, but it's the style], as well as Dixie Chicks, all regular players on our Pandora stations.) We were playing through it and we got to the song, “God Speed, Little Man” and I lost it.

It’s a song about a mother singing to her son from miles away, memories of their good night books and prayers, and the chorus is a prayer over him while she’s gone. I was singing and couldn’t make it through the first chorus. I hadn’t realized that this process would bring up so many painful memories from my past. This isn’t the first baby on another continent I think about all the time.

When we left Brazil in 2003, we were “padrinhos,” or godparents, to two little boys at the Children’s Home our church worked with in a city near Sao Paulo.  There were three of them in that family and we took their sister with us most of the time. I’ll call them R, S and T. R was a ten-year-old who looked at the world through large brown eyes that were shy and observant. He was quiet and reserved and so hungry for our love. S was his eight-year-old sister, who cuddled up to anyone who would let her. T was their five-year-old brother, all sass and attitude. He couldn’t speak (his mother had given him pinga, like vodka, in a bottle for most of his baby years to keep him quiet while she worked in a brothel–he had some developmental delays). He communicated with grunts and pointing. Believe me, he could make himself understood. I loved him instantly. He loved me too. I can’t explain the connection, but he was mine from the beginning and he let me love on him the way he let few other people.

They had bounced around from brothel to the street to unsafe houses before landing in the Children’s Home. We met T the first time at a party with all the kids and, being new, he didn’t have a sponsor yet (the local church had families ”adopt” a kid like a big brother/big sister program, so that each child had a family who had a relationship with them–it was a really sweet congregation). We were walking away with T to take him out our first day when Jonathan saw R watching us from the window, his head on his arms, big eyes devouring us. Jonathan stopped and walked back in immediately. Five minutes later, we left with R as well. The next time we took their sister even though she was’t officially “ours.” We loved them and spent time with them as much as we could. Once at McDonald’s in the mall food court, an American man walked up and congratulated us on our adoption. We just thanked him graciously since it seemed too complicated to explain. It felt, for that night at least, like it might have been true.

At the church in Brazil, we worked with the youth group, so there were always people over at our house. We often had those three over to spend the night. They cuddled with me in church every Sunday morning. I can still remember the smell of T’s hair as he slept in my arms while the fans whirred in the small auditorium, a mix of fruity Brazilian shampoo and little-boy sweat. I played with his soft black curls and he slept, completely comfortable with his head in my lap.

I had loved other kids before like this, on short-term campaigns and summer internships, but this time was different. These were children whose lives were intertwined with mine. I knew their moods. I had met their birth mother. I both hated and felt sorry for her. I was young and still full of the sense of injustice. Now I just feel pity for her and the children she birthed from three different, probably unknown, fathers into deep poverty. She was a victim herself, even as she victimized those children.

There were backgrounds to these kids I can’t write about, horrible things they had seen and done that made me wary to adopt them even as it made me love them fiercely. I talked and talked to Jonathan about adopting them. He wisely refused to think about it for a minute. We had absolutely no money. Legally, we couldn’t adopt R because we were too close in age to him (there has to be 16 years difference according to Brazilian law) and we didn’t want to adopt the younger two without him. We had no home to go back to and the years ahead were full of hairpin turns as we moved constantly from one place to another. And, the clencher for me, we could never have let younger children into our home with the things these children faced. The risks were too high. I knew it with my head, but my heart has never gotten on board.

The Sunday before we left Brazil (I can barely write this memory), we ate lunch at the Children’s Home. We played with and cuddled the children till I thought I might crush them with my desire to memorize every curve and curl of their sweet faces. When it was time for us to leave in our red station wagon that had carried dozens of Brazilian children (often at the same time), I gave them each one last kiss. R looked at me with his old-soul eyes and I knew he understood. S cried in the arms of an older kid. But T ran after me, hands held out like he was going to get in the car. I had to get out and hand him to one of the workers and he kept squirming to get in the car with us. The last thing we heard as we pulled away, over the crunch of our tires on the gravel driveway, was him crying for me.

I have never, not once, gotten over that moment. Even now, ten years later, it is one of the most painful memories I have. I carry it with me, full of saudades for those babies I love.

We got two emails from the Children’s Home director about the children. One was two years later–she told us, in a statement that I think is absolutely true, that no one had ever loved those children like we did, and therefore we had to adopt them. She is one of the wisest, most gracious women I know. For her to say that broke my heart. Jonathan and I had to talk through it again. We couldn’t bring them home for all of the many good reasons we’d said. I prayed for them every day anyway. We got another email three years after that–a family had adopted only the oldest son (which breaks my heart for the younger two) and now there was no legal reason we couldn’t bring the other ones home. We had just moved to Austin for me to start grad school. Jonathan was looking for a job. We were living with his family for the summer. With no money and no home and college loans coming due, there was nothing we could do. The timing was awful.

Twice, I said no to those children. It was a wise decision for our marriage and our future family. A year later I got pregnant with Noelle and two years after that with Joy. And I still loved and loved those children from afar. We lost track of them for a few years, but have heard recently from R on google chat and facebook. He seems great in his new family. His sister is married with a baby (she’s still a teenager–sigh). T’s living with an aunt. I wonder if T would recognize or even remember me. He’s fifteen or sixteen now. In some ways it was good to know God had answered my many, many prayers to protect and educate these bright, beautiful children. In another way, I still wish we could have been the ones in their lives.

It was right, but it still hurts.

So when I was listening to the Dixie Chicks song in the car and singing along with my well-loved, well-adjusted, sheltered little girls, I wasn’t singing to them. They have been with me every day. They have never had a need unmet. They have been nothing but adored every day of their life.

I sang along in my heart to little T, now an almost-grown man. “Godspeed, Little Man” might seem silly, but I’ve prayed so often that someone would love him as I might have, that the orphanage director be proved wrong, that we’re not the only one who realized how truly special he and his brother and sister were.

And I sang along along to our next little baby, somewhere in the world right now, a little sister to very ready big sisters who will love her with an intensity that will change all of us. I taught our girls the world “Mei Mei” the other day, one of the few Chinese words I know from adoption blogs–it means little sister. We hit the rewind button to sing the song again at the top of our lungs and changed the words:

Godspeed, Little Mei,

Sweet dreams, Little Mei.

Oh, our love will fly

to you each night

On angels’ wings.


Sweet dreams.

Why We Want to Adopt

I hate answering why we want to adopt. It’s a question that comes up formally in our adoption process and casually when Noelle walks up to the other moms at preschool or strangers at the grocery store and says, “We’re getting a new baby from China!” Putting this choice into words is hard for me because the reasons are both so simple and so complex that it’s hard to say. I’m always curious how other adoptive parents answer that question. It’s certainly not because we want to “save” a child, though it probably was when I dreamed about it in high school. We moved past that a long time ago. For us, perhaps the easiest way to explain it, is that it’s part of our story.

We want to adopt because in our work with Burmese refugees, we’re familiar with the shell-shocked look of someone walking into an overwhelmingly new city and culture. I’ve picked refugees up from the airport and seen the stoicism that is a protective outer shell. As time goes on and they become more comfortable, I’ve watched adults loosen up and smile when I thought they were only serious and silent. I’ve watched grief fade as people put down roots in their new homes. We’ll be raising our new baby in a community of children that will look much like her and maybe understand a bit of where she’s coming from.

We want to adopt because we know that even though they put down roots, nothing can replace what is lost. Last week, our precious translator, Dr. Selai, told us stories of his 84 years of life. He described songs in the Chin language (his particular hill tribe) that no one remembers any more. He pointed with his chin at the children in the room who will have no idea of the dangers their parents went through as they became refugees. He mentioned the memories that are lost with each generation that gets further and further away from their roots in Burma. His voice was limned with tears. There is hope in their new life, and great joy, but the loss is ever- present.

We want to adopt because before Jonathan’s father was killed by a drunk driver, his parents were on their way back as missionaries to Brazil to adopt two girls. I’ve known since before we ever dated that bringing home two little girls was one of my husband’s dreams.

We want to adopt because we think that living a life that is interruptible is the hardest and most staggeringly important thing we can do. This is especially true for planners like us. We will have to adjust our lives around this child rather than molding her to fit our dreams. We will interrupt our narrative to tell a new kind of story as a family.

We want to adopt because once we loved three children in Brazil enough to take them home and make them ours. We couldn’t for a variety of reasons: we were 24, with no means to adopt. The oldest was 13, and by Brazilian law there has to be more years between the adoptive parents and the child. We moved like nomads for the next few years and had no place to bring these children home. By the time the dust of our lives settled, they were no longer living in the children’s home: the oldest was adopted into another family, the second living with someone else, the baby living with an aunt somewhere. I lost track of them for a long time and finally reconnected over facebook (of all things). I wondered, before I had children, if I would realize that the love I felt for them was passing, a placeholder before the love of my own children took over. I realized the opposite–I had always loved them more than enough to be their mother. And though the decisions we made were good ones, I still keep a picture of those babies by my desk and I love them fiercely. They carved out a space in my heart that is aching for them and for them alone.

We want to adopt because there is another hole in our family that our biological children can’t and shouldn’t fill. They are exactly what we’ve always wanted and enough, even as their younger siblings who don’t look like them will be. I’ve always wanted an armful of children and I’ve always known some of them wouldn’t be blonde. It’s always been when, not if, we adopt.

We want to adopt because it fits so well the story we’re living. It’s just the next chapter. We can’t wait to meet our newest little character.

Entering the Grief

I was on the phone last night with my best friend while she was feeding her baby first thing in the morning. My friend Ann (who, conveniently, married my cousin, which makes her both friend and family) lives in Thailand. The best time for me to catch her is in the morning when she’s spending a quiet moment with her new six-month-old baby before they walk out into the smog that’s hovering over their gorgeous little town a few hours north of Chiang Mai. Their town is one of the loveliest spots on earth, a community that is built and thrives around a picturesque lake nestled into rolling green hills. This time of year, the farmers burn their crops to prepare their fields for planting. I haven’t been there when it happens, but I’ve seen pictures of the smog filling their valley like a bowl of soup.

We had, as usual, nothing much to talk about–the weather, the smog, our funny children, catching up on some friends–but we managed to talk forever anyway. These are the chats that make me so deeply grateful for the world we live in. Our kids skype each other often. I see pictures in Facebook albums of their family, taken not just by them but by various neighbors and friends, so that I get a fuller, more candid sense of their life in Thailand. But there are times when it is not enough to have these electronic means of staying connected, and one of those times is when I think about her baby growing up without me there to watch.

Her new son is the smiliest pumpkin I’ve ever seen. He has fat cheeks and he looks most like his mom, which is good after two kids that look just like their dad. He looks around at a world that he is sure was made to delight him. He has a wide smile just like his oldest sister’s at that age, as if his mouth is stretching as large as he can to express all the joy in his tiny kicking body. The few weeks we spent with them at Christmas weren’t enough. This baby has just started to eat rice cereal and he loves it. Ann was telling me about it and suddenly, I felt a strong punch of sadness.

It was, of course, related to the fact that I’m missing the early days of this baby boy’s life. It was also more than that, though. As we flitted from topic to topic, we kept bringing up our adoption and I realized suddenly how little of these early months I will know about my third child.

At the age when I was hovering over my biological baby girls, taking pictures of their every sigh and coo, my next baby will be abandoned somewhere, only to enter the long bureaucratic tangle that will lead to her being handed off to some random white strangers in an unknown hotel.

At the age when we had started to identify the parts that looked like us in our oldest daughters, our third one will be laying in a crib among caregivers that she will only know for the briefest time. My oldest daughter has my husband’s eyes, my hair, and an unexplained dimple on her cheek. My second daughter has my mother’s cheekbones, my expressions, and a joyful giggle that is all her own. Our third daughter might never be able to trace the origins of her hair or her ears or her quirkly little features.

At the age when my oldest two were expressing their likes and dislikes (the oldest has always loved fruit, the second has always loved chocolate), there may be no one who registers the funny little habits and desires of my third baby.

I pray there is, with an anxiety I’m just beginning to feel. I pray there is someone who will love her and kiss her and learn tiny things about her (God, may it be so). But even if there is and even if, by some miracle, we have a long enough conversation with a foster mother or orphanage worker to know more about her first several months, the time that is lost is so precious and so valuable, it stops my breath.

As we fill out paperwork and renew passports and notarize documents, my third child is barreling toward the most defining day of her new little life, the day when she loses every connection to who she was and flies into a new life on another continent with another family. As we begin to move forward in our process, I think about her parallel process of losing and leaving.

I wrote about this when we announced to friends and family that we were adopting a child from the waiting child (or special needs) list in China. The sadness I’m feeling has a timeline of its own and it surprises me.

When my friend Ann was pregnant with her first daughter, toward the end of her first trimester she asked a co-worker with kids when she could stop worrying about something happening to the baby. Her co-worker laughed and said, “When you die.” And it’s true–the fear of miscarriage turns into other fears for your children that grow and age as they do. And while most of us mothers and fathers don’t live daily in that fear, it is there, punctuating our time with the precious, fragile children we love.

I’m beginning to sense the same thing is true with the grief of adoption. I wonder with each day that passes if this is the day when my daughter was born, when she first giggled, when she first rolled over or sat up or pulled herself to her feet. I will never know these tiny markers of her earliest life. Nor will her birthmother, the woman I find my thoughts and prayers constantly turning to as she moves toward or just passes the day when she (maybe with the birthfather, maybe alone) walks away from a child that I will love with all my soul.

I’ve wanted to adopt for as long as I can remember. While other girls prayed in high school for their future husbands, I prayed for the future birthmothers of my children. (It’s true–I still have my prayer journals from the time, covered in daisy chains and with big loopy hearts dotting the ‘i’s.’) And I feel as much grief for her as this baby. I may never know why she is having to make this choice, but I’ve spent enough time with the working poor to have a deep humility in the face of devastating poverty or unbendable laws. It may be because of the baby’s cleft palate, her club foot, her gender, her limb differences, or the fact that she’s one child too many–some socioeconomic, emotional or policy reason will cause or force my baby’s birth parents to give her up. And my heart breaks for them too.

Whoever this child turns out to be, however the specifics of this story plays out, I have been praying over this time period for more than half my life. Then, it was always a concept, a vague someday, the details of which would be filled in later. Now we are right in the thick of the action, even though all we’re doing is filling out papers.

Because right now, in China, somewhere, the story of our next child is rushing along a plotline of horrendous grief and loss. The pain of that hits me hard at times. I bet it always will.

Tomorrow: Why We Want to Adopt