As we come up on
the one year mark, there’s been something heavy on my mind. I wrote this blog post two weeks ago, but have waited to post until our one year Gotcha Day, which was yesterday. There’s been a rash of disruptions lately,
both while still in China and shortly after the families are back in
America. I’m not here to pass judgment
on people, or talk about families who disrupt months or years into the process. I’m here to talk about the beginning, and to
give some advice. Real advice. Tough advice.
To families who haven’t walked that walk yet. I want to talk to families who are thinking
about adopting, or those who are about to travel.
This will be a two
part narrative, and this is part one, IN CHINA. Please,
do yourself and your child a favor and read what I am about to say. I want to tell you some things. Some things about our boys and our pick up
trip, and what it means to commit to parent this child you swore you would care
for. PLEASE, PLEASE read all of
this. It’s long, but I am telling you
this for a reason.
This is Jake. He’s 12 years old. He loves the Power Rangers, friends, and
video games. He loves his family,
swimming, and his bedroom. He’s a good
kid. He enjoys hard work and is torn
between being a dentist or working at McDonalds haha. He misses China a lot, but likes living in
America. I love this kid. He was slow to warm up, and so are we. But the bond we have is tight now. He trusts, even though life has given him a
reason not to. He is sweet. He truly loves his friends. He is kind, and helpful, and determined to do
his best. He’s a dream older child
This is Finn. He’s 7.
He loves animals, candy, hamburgers (that was his first English word),
Power Rangers, playing outside and his bike.
He loves us. He bonded fairly
easily once we were home. He wants to be
a doctor or a teacher. He spends a lot
of his life at the hospital. It’s hard
for him, but he makes it through. Finn
has my heart. 100% unequivocally. There’s a lot of things about Finn, things he
has no control over, that make our lives exponentially harder. But they are all worth it. Literally every single tear I’ve shed for him
is worth it, and so many more.
One year ago yesterday, we picked up these boys in China. Mike and I separated and flew on different
planes, me into Guangzhou, Mike into Beijing.
Mike moved on to Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan Province. I stayed in Guangzhou, the capital city of
the Guangdong Province, at the lavish Garden Hotel, one of the two places the
majority of Americans stay. Mike’s hotel
was questionable, and Zhengzhou isn’t the nicest city.
On Monday morning,
I went to meet Finn. Mike went in the
afternoon to pick up Jake. Finn was off
to the side in a small room. It looked a
bit like a play room. I recognized him
from pictures and videos, of course. I
could pick him out of the massive crowd immediately. He was sitting apart from the crowd, all
alone, playing with a toy truck. When
the nannies realized I was there, they went into the room where he was and
coaxed him off the floor. He froze up
immediately. They had to pretty much
drag him out of the room.
approached me, he refused to lift his face.
He wouldn’t even look at me. He
was not a baby, not even a toddler or preschooler, both boys are older. They couldn’t just pick him up and hand him to
me. They tried to get him to look up
from the floor. I bent a little, not too
close to him, and I said hello. Just a
single word. Specifically, ‘hi.’ That was all it took.
wailing. Louder than any baby in that
room. His terror was acute and it was
heartbreaking. I knew he was excited
earlier that day, because I’d had my guide call the orphanage and ask them to
ask him what kinds of snacks he wanted me to buy. He responded that he couldn’t even think of
snacks because he was so excited. But
the excitement was gone and the absolute horror of reality had set in. I don’t know how long he cried. At least fifteen minutes.
For a small
moment, maybe a minute and a half, I was reduced to tears too. Not because he wasn’t happy to see me. I had no reason to expect he would be. But because he was terrified. No child should ever have to be that scared,
especially not to get what every child should have; a family. It was heartbreaking. His panic and fear was palpable. The people he loved were giving him to a
stranger, and he was hysterical. I
pulled myself together because I didn’t want him to be further worked up.
They took us to a
corner. I took the few things I’d
brought from my bag to try and coax a reaction out of him. Let me remind you, this child was at least
six years old. In reality, he had ten
adult teeth already, so he’s very likely as little as eight at this point, and
possibly as old as twelve. Toys weren’t
getting his attention. He couldn’t be
distracted by bright lights or happy music.
I didn’t have anything like that anyway.
Just a camera, a Kindle, and a few small toys.
By this point
nearly everyone had left. We were one of
two remaining families. The other family
was across the room on another matching red modern couch, like something you
could buy at Ikea, stripping their new toddler of all the clothing the
orphanage had clearly carefully dressed her in and redressing her in a puffy
number with lots of frillies. (As an
aside, please consider the message you are sending to the orphanage when you
remove the best clothes they have and have sacrificed to present your child to
you nicely dressed and clean. Consider
changing them back at your hotel, instead.)
Finn still would
not look at me. The orphanage was telling
me about his care and medications.
Extremely frail and ghostly white, with hollowed out cheeks and some
kind of weird, probably contagious, bumpy rash all over his face and arms, Finn
did not look good. He was skeletal, but
with a giant stomach, like a concentration camp victim. His teeth were flat out disgusting, rotted
out nearly completely, and smelling of rotten meat, his mouth was truly
alarming. He was very sick. This was not the fault of the orphanage, who
clearly loved him so much. It was his
disease ravaging his body. He had almost
no time left in his short life. (In
fact, we were home less than two weeks before he was admitted to the hospital
for much too long.)
The woman I
thought was a nanny told me that she was the second in command at the
orphanage. A step below the
director. She’d accompanied Finn because
he was a favored child. They had
believed he would die. Later in the
second week, while we waited for medicals, my guide, a fabulous woman named
Judy, told us she’d been to the orphanage the summer before, to bring another
adoptive family to tour. While she’d
been there, she’d seen our son. This
before we even knew he existed. Before
we were even considering international adoption. This woman, who holds a prominent position at
the orphanage, told Judy that Finn broke her heart. That they all despaired because he would die
and it was too late for any family to come.
He no longer had any hope.
Obviously, that turned out not to be true. But, it did explain why she was so
hysteria and my inability to hear well when there’s lots of chaos and
background noise, I couldn’t understand a lot of what was being said. I did understand she kept thanking me and she
kept crying. I just kept nodding. Finally, after about half an hour, Finn
stopped crying, and stopped rocking, and reached for the camera. He still wouldn’t look at me. He became interested in the camera, but he’d
shirk away if I tried to touch him, and he’d ignore me completely if I tried to
talk to him.
When we finally
left the Civil Affairs building, it was a short drive back to our hotel. Finn would look only at the camera. Eventually, he responded to my guide,
monosyllabic answers. He didn’t always
answer Judy. He refused to even acknowledge
I was there. In the lavish gold leaf and
marble lobby of the Garden, Judy expressed her concerns about what we would
do. She suggested, gently, that maybe
she should stay. We have bio children,
too, and Finn was definitely not my first little guy. I come from a background of trauma myself,
and this wasn’t completely strange to me, though certainly I’d never
experienced this exact moment as a child.
But I know my way around a scared kid.
I told her thank you, but asked her to leave.
Finn and I went
upstairs together. In absolute
silence. He still would not look at
me. We went into the room and I locked
the doors and sat on the couch. He
wandered around the room. Looked at a
few things. Then went to stare out the
window. I didn’t try to talk to
him. He stood in the window for a long
time. I don’t know how long. Maybe twenty minutes. He didn’t speak, and neither did I. I figured that with a child like he clearly
was, it would behoove us both to let him decide when he was ready to have a
turned on the TV. I found a cartoon and
turned the sound down, loud enough to be heard, low enough not to be
disturbing. He walked away from the
window and started to unpack the small bag full of toys I’d brought. Prior to this point, my only boy was our bio
son, now a middle teen, and he’d been interested only on Legos, video games,
and history. All our other children were
girls. I wasn’t sure what he might like
so I only brought some Legos, some cars, and a single stuffed animal. We’d brought the same for Jake, now packed in
Finn took every
car, I believe there were something like thirty, and lined them up on the
window sill. Suddenly, around car
twenty, he started to talk. Of course, I
had no clue what he was saying. He
didn’t sound upset, though. So I just
made encouraging noises and acted interested.
From there, he got over his fear.
The only other times we saw that kind of behavior in him while in China
was once in a grocery cart at the store, and once on the plane from Guangzhou
when we insisted his seatbelt say fastened.
But more on that in the second post.
If I had come in
expecting him to warm up to me in any way, we would have had a big
problem. He didn’t want me and he was
petrified. Imagine, everything you have
and everything you know ripped away from you in an instant. You have no control and no say. You’re handed to a total stranger who keeps
blurting things out in what sounds like a made up language. For him, this was the second time, since he’d
been abandoned older and has strong memories of that event. This was torture to him, not the building of
a family. He had lost everything, while
we had gained a child. We had loved him
and prayed for him and sacrificed all that we had to see him come home before
he died. To him, we were strangers, once
again stealing all the comforts his small life offered him.
Your child does
not love you, nor are they ever obligated to love you. This is a one sided contract. You signed up for this. They did not.
Let me say that again. THEY DON’T
LOVE YOU. They don’t know you. They probably don’t even like you. They’re scared and they’re resentful. You are a villain of their piece at the moment, because they have no long term perspective. You love your child in a certain way. The way parents gestating love their
babies. But they don’t care about you at
all. Orphanage life encourages survival
of the fittest. They are in survival
mode. More on that in a minute. Let me repeat that, too. You
are a villain to them
. You’ve stolen
whatever life they’ve made for themselves in the aesthetic vacuum of orphanage
living. They are terrified of you. Even if they don’t seem to care one way or
the other, they do. They are just as
traumatized. That’s just a different
Please do not go in
with even a single expectation of how meeting your child will go because YOU
WILL BE DISAPPOINTED. This is not about
you. Not about your vision of a moment
locked in time. This is about a
terrified child who is losing everything, even if they act like they are
not. Everything that follows while you
are still in China are the actions of a person on the battlefield. Fight or Flight has kicked in and you are the
enemy on the Western front. Please
remember they are experiencing one more massive
trauma in a short life defined by trauma.
This is the second worse thing that has ever happened to them, next to
Please imagine how
you would behave if a stranger stole into your house and then your family
offered you over and let them take you away, away to another country where you
didn’t speak the language, then they had bizarre expectations that you show
them affection, and they couldn’t give you anything you wanted, anything that
gave you comfort, because they didn’t even know what those things were. You would be awful, and I would be too. That is what your child is experiencing. This is a bad
experience for them. Beyond anything
most of us will ever have to go through, thank the Lord.
experience was better. Jake had been waiting. He was well prepared by his orphanage. He and Mike met in the Civil Affairs
office. They were happy to meet one
another. Other families around them
cried when they met because both of them were smiling ear to ear. There were jokes and hugs. It was the ‘picture perfect’ older child
gotcha day. They even had a decent time
while they waited out the two days (our adoption was expedited for Finn’s poor
condition and prognosis) in province before they would join us in
Guangzhou. They swam a lot. Watched a lot of videos. Jake enjoyed taking pictures and making Vlog
style videos of the trip. They had a
couple of small power struggles, but overall, it was a good experience for both
of them. This is important to remember
for later, when I talk in the next post about life after you get home.
When they joined
us in Guangzhou, we were three days into the adoption process in country, and a
whole new stage of nightmare was about to begin. Once again, let me remind you that your child
is a lot of things during this period of time.
Terrified, angry, freaked out, fighting or hiding, talking back or not
talking at all. The one thing they
aren’t is THEMSELVES. At this point,
your child is a panicked stranger. And I
hope you know yourself well enough to know that you are not
yourself, and you’re not your best, when the pressure is
on. Don’t fool yourself into thinking
you would handle their situation better than they are, because you
wouldn’t. This is a kind of death for
them. Let them fear and grieve
Some kids fear, grieve,
and fret by fighting, some by flighting.
Everybody knows there are three reactions to stress and trauma, fight,
flight, or freeze. For the sake of this
narrative, we’ll just boil it down to fight or flight. FIGHT kids may not actually fight, so much as
they move all the time, they seem hyperactive, twitchy or maybe even violent. Everything is funny or everything is
awful. They might act out negatively, or
they may just act out. They may act like
they’ve been mainlining crack for days.
probably won’t actually run. They leave
that to their spastic fight counterparts.
Their flight will be will be emotional.
They will shut down, turn off, disappear from the trauma. These are the kids who may be almost catatonic,
who may be silent and brooding, who may stare into space for hours and fail to
respond to any stimuli. They are the
babies that refuse to sit up. The ones
who lie in their borrowed cribs like they are unconscious or they have the
muscle tone of an infant. You may try to
sit them up, but they will flop over like rag dolls. These are the kids who refuse to eat and
drink, who stare blankly when you offer a toy.
You may even think these children are profoundly delayed physically or
mentally. YOU HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING
child is not
your child. This is panic in another form. You have to get them home, you have to make
them feel safe, before you will ever know.
As their new parent, it’s not their job to adjust, it’s your
job to make them feel safe. Your job to help them adjust. Your job to make the terror go away. You can’t expect to do that while you are in
China. Everything that happens there is
survival. You can’t judge your child
from the way they act in China, and you have no right to, unless you don’t mind
everyone judging you by the worst, most traumatic moments in your life. Again, let me say something one more time. DO NOT JUDGE YOUR CHILDREN. This is no place for that.
behind because they don’t handle trauma the way you think they should is like
staring at a newborn and deciding to leave it at the hospital because its head
looks way weirder than you expected. Or
it cries way too much. You can’t know
what your child is actually like while you’re still in China. You just can’t. It isn’t possible. Because that child you got from that civil
affairs office is not
child. It’s a terrified changeling in
the place of your real child. Your real
child will return when they feel safe.
Our boys happened
to both be FIGHT. And it began
immediately once they were together.
Finn was already pretty twitchy before Jake arrived, but together, they
were insane. This is not a joke. I’ve alluded to it before, but I’ve never
told the entire story. We, literally,
could not take them anywhere. They ran
from us at every possible opportunity.
Into roads, into traffic, away into random hallways. Once they got into the elevator at the
Garden, after running from us, and they pressed every one of the 30 or 40 floors. It took us forever to find them. These, once again, are not toddlers. This is a 12 and 6 year old. We couldn’t stick them into a stroller to
keep them by our sides.
They would run
away at the Garden and run screaming up and down the wooden spiral
staircase. No matter how much we ran, I
couldn’t catch up. Mike could,
sometimes, but he couldn’t contain them both.
It was mortifying, the way they acted.
They would pick up things at stores and randomly throw them. They touched everything. And I do mean everything. Even other people without permission. They pressed every button they could find,
they would dig into strangers’ pockets or desks. If there was a computer, phone, camera etc.
they would try to take it, and if they couldn’t they would slam the lid of
laptops, or press every button they could reach before they were stopped. Even our guide could get pretty much nowhere
with them even in their mother tongue.
They wouldn’t sit
still in eating situations. They threw
food. They’d refuse to eat. Or they’d eat everything on the table, even
off other people’s plates. They’d run to
other people’s tables and while we were running after them, they’d carry
something off the person’s table, knock something off as they passed, or just grab some of their food and run. They yelled all the time, about
everything. They, both of them, threw
many fits every day. Screaming, kicking, hysterical fits. Even in public. The reasons were varied, because, of course,
those reasons were not the real reasons, the trauma was. Once Finn screamed for nearly an hour in Aeon as we struggled to get groceries, because we wouldn't buy him a bra.
We went on one
trip to tour a burial mound, our only tour on the whole adoption trip. While we were there, Jake, the twelve year
old, laid down on the floor, face down, right in front of the door. He refused to move. He wasn’t crying or throwing a fit. He just refused to move. He was blocking the crowd. He wouldn’t even move for our guide. We had to drag him out of the way.
enjoyed waiting until it was late in the hotel and then turning on every TV in
the room as loud as they could go. The more people they woke up or upset, the better. If a
room we were in didn’t have a screen, they would throw things out of the
window. When we were trying to do our
medicals to leave the country, the doctor was trying to talk to us, and they
were busily throwing his stuff out the third floor window. They would press every button on the in room safe so we couldn't open it for an hour or more. We couldn't watch them both if one of us was working on something adoption related. It wasn't unusual for them to pull tricks like turning on all the water in the sink or tub and stopping it up right as we were leaving the room so when we returned the room was flooded. Mike went to shop without us, hoping it would go better than our trips together. I went to the bathroom, no more than three minutes, and when I returned, Jake had locked Finn outside of the hotel room door. Finn was screaming on the other end and Jake was laughing his head off.
Finn would talk to
anyone, and I do mean anyone. He’d touch
their face, ask intrusive questions, and steal things from them. He laughed constantly for no reason. Loud, hysterical laughter. Strangers would stop and angrily tell them to
listen to their mother and father. Some
people who spoke English as well as their native Chinese suggested that we
needed to beat them. Any adoption
related event was a nightmare as well.
They’d grab papers off the officials’ desks. They’d tear papers we were trying to
sign. They were malicious. To us and to each other. Gleeful breaking other people’s things when
they didn’t get their way.
We had to start
using punishments (especially taking away TV or the swimming pool) just to keep
them even remotely in line. And it was very
remote. I don’t mind
telling you it was a total nightmare. We
were like zombies when that two weeks was up.
We couldn’t wait to get back to our kids who actually listened to a word
we said. We were used up, exhausted,
emotionally and physically drained. I've never been kicked or bitten, run so much, or dodged so many hurled objects in my entire life. We
believed, before we left, that no matter how they acted, they would be better
when they felt safer. We believed
it before we left, truly believed it, so we believed it when we were in country
For yourself, and
for your child, make yourself understand that you don’t walk away from a
terrorized person, no matter how bad they are.
Because you have no way of knowing who they really are underneath that
terror. Not until they can feel safe
again. I will talk about the first few
months in my next post, but it was true.
Once we were on American soil, they were immediately better. Were they perfect? Not even close. It took several months for them to turn into the
kids they are today, but they were much better.
single one of their behaviors in China were suddenly gone. There was no more running, there was no more
throwing food, there was no more laying on the floor in public places. They were kids again.
There’s one reason
to tell you this story, and one reason alone.
Your child is not your child while
you are in country
. I can’t say this
enough. This is a horrible experience
for them. One of the worst in their
lives. If it’s a horrible experience for
you as well, this SHOULD NOT be a surprise.
They fight or they lay down and act like they want to die. And they do that because they are going
through things we can’t even imagine. Adoption
is not like childbirth, so much as it’s like an arranged marriage. So try to imagine you were shoved into an
arranged marriage, in another country, with a person you’ve never met. Maybe you’ll love them someday, but right now
you don’t. And this experience
And maybe you will
be too, but that’s part of the territory when it comes to bringing a
traumatized child into your life. If you
are not ready to bring home your child, NO MATTER WHAT, than maybe you are not ready to adopt
. Think hard before you take that step
forward. You are an adult. You are the person in control of this
situation. Please consider the feelings
of your child. The one who has a barely
developed brain, the one who is still growing, whose brain is still adjusting
to help them deal with trauma and pain.
The one who has limited executive function, because THEY ARE A CHILD.
scared, just like we do. They get
stressed, and they get depressed. We
should not expect children to do better than we would in the same
situation. If you are not convinced this
is your child NO MATTER WHAT, then do yourself, and them, a favor, and think
harder before committing. If you are
convinced that you are in it with all that you are, no matter what, then
continue on and go get your baby!
I can’t say it
enough. The child you are meeting is not
! That child comes
later, when you have succeeded in making them feel safe.
Thank you for
reading, and thinking hard before
you’re faced with something
you didn’t expect, so that when the time comes, you act with love and
compassion, not surprise and panic.
P.S. Check back
tomorrow for the second part of this narrative, my message to adoptive parents
newly home from their country.