day 4: the past is not in the past

November 4, 2014 30shareadoptionchallenge 19 Comments

From Kelli: Adoption is beautiful, redemptive, and yet messy and hard all at once. These children have experienced more loss in their short time here on Earth than any of our brains could comprehend. In all of the smiles and happiness in a child, so much loss remains. It is unrealistic to think otherwise.

Families considering adoption should research and understand that the loss for children is tremendous. They are no longer with their biological parents, people who look like them, speak like them, etc. The feelings can be overwhelming.

Sixteen months ago, I traveled with Maureen and Rob Osborne as they adopted Vivian and Paul and I brought home Noah and MeiLi. Tonight, Maureen writes of the loss in a tangible way through the eyes of Vivian.


From Maureen:

Vivian has been home more than a year.  She has come so far and changed so much in these months.  So much that sometimes I think it can be easy to forget where she was, and what her life was like 16 months ago.

I think people see the happy, well-adjusted, beautiful child we have and assume she has left that painful part of her life behind her. I think people assume our hard days are behind us.   Friends say things to me all the time like, “She’s not even the same child she was in China”, and “It’s like she doesn’t even remember her old life”, and “she’s just like any other kid now”.  And in many ways, they are right.  She has changed so much, and she is mostly happy and moving forward with her life and she is, in so many ways, like a typical 3 year old.

But in other ways, the they are wrong.  She is the same child that she was in China.  And she’s not just like any other kid.  And she certainly remembers.

We see the scars of her past show up in our lives in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Probably the biggest way is in her fear of being away from me.  If I go out, to the grocery store, or even on a run, she hugs and kisses me and hangs on my legs and follows me out like it is our last goodbye.  She still cries when we leave her with babysitters.  She did end up loving preschool and stopped crying on school days, but we had the same conversation on the way to school EVERY SINGLE DAY up until the last day of preschool.  I kid you not, every single day.  The entire car ride this is our conversation:

Vivian:  “Mama right back.”
Me:  “Yes, Vivian, mama will be right back.”
10 second pause
Vivian:  “Mama right back.”
Me:  “Yes Vivian, you know mama will come right back and get you.”

This would go on the entire ride.  Over and over every school day.  I could not reassure her enough.

She is totally happy if I am nearby.  On her first day of gymnastics, she looked just like every other kid smiling and jumping and playing.   Well, she was, until the moment I decided to go to the bathroom and she didn’t see me and this is what I came back to.  Complete panic.
Sometimes I will try to get a little walk in on my treadmill.  The treadmill is in a room right off of our playroom so with my other kids I could walk on the treadmill and they would play in the playroom.  Not with Vivian. You will always find Vivian when I am on the treadmill. 


The same thing happens when I work on my computer.  There is one place she likes to be:  right next to me.  Oh, and if we are touching she is that much more content.  Sister does not understand the concept of “personal space” yet.

She also still has food issues.  She hates if you take her food away.  She likes to have her breakfast plate left out until her lunch plate comes out and then likes her lunch plate to stay out until her dinner plate comes out.   Yesterday I cleaned up her breakfast plate because I thought she was done.  When she came back to the table and saw it was gone, she literally fell to the floor hysterical that her bacon was taken away.  This happens all the time.  We have been feeding her as much as we can for 11 months and she still does not seem to trust that there will be enough food for her.

And every once in a while she just has a sad day.  I don’t really know how to explain it or how to put my finger on what it is, but she will have a day where she will just seem far away.  Like a few weeks ago when she woke up one day and literally just would not be put down all day long. And then in the afternoon, my non-napping child crawled up on my lap and situated herself so I had to hold her like a baby and closed her eyes and fell asleep on me.  I can only imagine that transitioning to a new life can be exhausting on some days.

There are times when I can tell people think I am coddling her too much.  And maybe I am.  But I just don’t think it would be fair to try and parent her exactly the same as my other kids.  She just didn’t have the same start in life as them.  My sister had three premature babies.  I remember she fed them different formula, adjusted their age for certain things, and cared for them differently than I cared for my full-term babies.  They had a different start to their life and so they needed different things.  So do kids from hard places.  They sometimes need different things, different strategies.  You just can’t expect them to fall in line with your family and do things the same way your other kids did.  You can’t expect them to leave their past in the past.  It is in their hearts.  You have to make adjustments for them, for all they missed. You have to allow them room to grieve.

And make no mistake, they all grieve.  How could they not?

The other thing I think people have wrong is when they tell us how “lucky” Vivian is.  Everywhere we go, well-meaning friends and strangers say “what a lucky little girl”.  Just a few days ago Rob took Vivian to breakfast.  A sweet old woman came up and said to Rob …. you guessed it….”isn’t she lucky”?  He came home and said to me, “I hate when people say that,  I mean, what am I supposed to say to that?” 

Of course we understand it is meant as a compliment to Rob and I and our family.  And we appreciate that.  We can all agree that Vivian is better off here with us than in that orphanage.  We can all agree that we are glad the orphanage decided to file her adoption paperwork when so many others at her orphanage were not given that chance. 

But I have a really hard time finding anything in her life that should be deemed “lucky”.  When people use that term I feel it minimizes all the hardship she has endured.

My daughter was left alone on a cold night in the middle of the winter at the gates of an orphanage.
The only information she has about her first few weeks in the world are a few words written in her file, “female abandoned baby found at gate and sent to Welfare Institute to be raised”.
She lived in an orphanage where she was left in her crib 22 hours of the day for 33 months.
She was fed congee, and only congee, for every meal for 33 months.
She was not fed when she was hungry, she was not picked up when she cried, she was not held when she was sick or scared, and she was rarely taken outside.
She was one day handed over to complete strangers by the only people she trusted in this world and, as soon as they handed her over, they disappeared from her life forever.
She left China with ONE possession to show for the almost 3 years she spent there:  a pair of squeaky shoes.
She will never know the man and woman who brought her into this world.  She will never know whose eyes she got or who her beautiful little lips come from.
She will never know if she has siblings in China. 
She will never know why she was left.

None of this is lucky.  It is tragic actually. 

I want people to stop telling her how lucky she is because I don’t want her to grow up feeling like she has to feel lucky.  I have no idea how Vivian will feel about her adoption as she grows up.  But I do know that she will be allowed to feel however she wants to about it.  If she feels lucky, great.  If she feels sad or angry or confused, that will be completely understandable and fine with us.  I am afraid if all she ever hears is how lucky she is supposed to feel she may struggle to admit when she is feeling some of those other emotions.

I do not consider Vivian lucky.  But you know who is lucky?  Rob and I.

Vivian has lost so much.  We have gained so much.
Vivian has experienced so much sadness.  We have had nothing but utter joy since the day we met her. 
We got to choose to adopt from China.  She had no say in being taken from her birth country.
We got to choose Vivian to be our daughter.  She had no say in who would be her parents.

Lucky for us she seems, for now, to be pretty happy to have gotten stuck with us.


And while her past shows itself from time to time, she does not let it have the last word.  I hope that is how it can always be for her.  I don’t ever want her to forget all that she has been through. I think it has made her an incredibly brave and strong person.  But I hope she can continue to hold on to this amazing ability she has to live in the present and with an open and trusting heart in spite of all that she has been through.  I need to follow her lead because God knows I spend more time wrestling with her past than she does.  She has such an amazing spirit.
She is my hero.

19 responses to “day 4: the past is not in the past”

  1. CSmith says:

    I, too, hate it when people say my son is “lucky”. Lucky would be if he was in a safe, loving home being cared for by the parents who created him. If anything I am the lucky one to have him in my life. As much as I love him, as grateful as I am to have him be a part of my family, as much as I feel he is part of my heart and soul, I would give him up if it meant he was never separated from his first family, never shuffled from stranger to stranger, never neglected, never made to feel frightened, helpless and insecure. He will carry the emotional scars of his first 3 years for his entire life and being in a good situation now can never erase that.

  2. Megan says:

    I read this when you posted it on your site, and was actually just reflecting on it a few days ago. We have accepted our referral, and I was just thinking about you saying how she didn’t have a choice in any of this, but you did. I think that’s so profound and not often talked about. I also just read another story about a teenager who felt like she had to feel lucky and thankful and like she was never allowed to feel anything else because she had this great family (and she said they were great), but that the feelings were so much more complex.

    Anyway, I’m rambling, but I’m glad this was posted again today, because I hadn’t come to look for the actual post, and it was exactly what I needed to read tonight.

    Thanks for being courageous enough to speak the truth, even when it’s hard.

  3. Megan says:

    PS – I’d love to have some dialogue about how to actually respond to people when they say, “She’s so lucky.” We don’t feel like we’ve figured out a polite but educational and truthful answer yet.

  4. Lisa says:

    Thank You for putting into words what I havent seem to be able to express myself. This is 100% correct and I feel like I should just insert my daughters name for your daughters. I feel I should make copies of this post and hand them out to everyone who says the word “lucky” or to those who expect me to justify why we arent rasing her the same as the bio kids. My bio kids were never hungry, never mistreated, and have never worried about being sent back to an orphanage if they have done something naughty. I have the full range of emotions daily from pure joy to utter pain when I hear her tell me how I am going to text someone and tell them “we dont want this girl anymore.” Those were her words tonight and all I could do is tell her that that will never happen, ever. We have had this conversation ( or some form of it) for months.We talk about it and we love on her to get her through the fear. And this is what people call Lucky? I dont think so.

  5. martina says:

    When people tell me how lucky my daughter is I just tell them ; No she is not lucky ,we are the lucky ones to have her in our lives.
    And I leave it at that. Most times people do not know how respondes to that and it ends that conversation pretty quickly.

  6. Martha says:

    Thank you for helping me understand what my friends who have adopted are going through.

  7. Amy Eldridge says:

    Maureen, thank you for this absolutely beautiful and honest essay. I had to wipe away tears several times as I read it, since I know so well the realities of orphanage life. I am anxious to share your words with my teenage daughter, as the “lucky” comment is one that really wounds her heart – but of course she hears it all the time.

  8. Debbie says:

    You are doing the right thing…children that come from early trauma need to go back to the beginning and be cuddled and reassured so that their brain can rewire itself. Go to It is a fabulous website on helping parents to understand their adopted child.

  9. Lauren says:

    I am so sorry she had to endure what she did in the beginning of her young life. But I disagree with you…..she is a lucky girl!! God took her from the gates of hell and gave her new life…. isn’t that what he does with us?? And we are beyond lucky!! p.s. I have an adopted child.

  10. Diana R. says:

    Maureen, I love how you point out that her past does not have to get the last word… A beautiful and real post.. Thankful Vivian is blossoming. Continue to press on and love that tiny and precious blessing!

  11. “There is one place she likes to be: right next to me. Oh, and if we are touching she is that much more content. Sister does not understand the concept of “personal space” yet.”

    YES! YES! YES! I never thought of myself as a person who needed space or at least not much space until Mei Mei came home. My left arm and my left cheek are her kryptonite, particularly when she’s tired (bed/nap/etc) or sad and insecure.

    But to diffuse her powers and soothe her spirit means to endure her finger stroking, her nail scratching, her tiny hair pulling on said left arm and/or left cheek. It. Is. EXHAUSTING.

    Sometimes I go sit in the car in my garage while the Hubby takes over for a nap or a bed time routine. Just to hide and NOT be touched for a moment. Sigh…..

  12. Susan says:

    i say, “Thank You, we are all Lucky, and Blessed, to have each other”
    Most folks are just trying to be kind and have never thought for one minute what the appropriate response would be to a beautiful family who have adopted internationally! And truth be told, we are all lucky aren’t we? We have all persevered through hard times, child and parents, and we continue to each day. But we have a loving family and we have each other, we have food, clothing and a place to call home. We are all Lucky and Blessed, every single day.

  13. Fliss says:

    Oh dear… did you write this about my daughter. I see some of these things in my daughter – she was born in 2009 and we got her at 10mths in 2010… still so young but she still had her moments… when in a China from day one she wanted to touch us when going to sleep and when I would move my hand away she would fuss like crazy… only now (5 1/2) is she starting to sleep through the night without one of us, but once in a while she wants us to cuddle etc… Preschool at 18mths and we took her one day a week from 8.30-11.30 and she would scream like a banshee but after a while she got it that we were coming back… even today, she asks me questions about her ‘China parents’ and will cry etc if she is mad she will scream at us that we aren’t her real parents and I sat down with her one day and asked her to pinch me, she did and I asked her ‘Am I real?’, and said we are your real parents and your China parents are your other real parents too and it is ok to love us all… you are entitled to be mad, hurt, angry but we tell her it is unacceptable to be hurtful (I can take it but my hubby can’t) and we are trying to teach her about that fine line of being mad etc and going around screaming at people to hurt their feelings… it too is hard to know what is adoptive related and what isn’t. Thanks for this article…

  14. Stacy says:

    A friend linked this post and while I do not have an adopted child nor am I trying to discount that the adopted child’s loss impacts their seperation anxiety, please note that my child, who had been with me since the moment she exited my womb with no other caregivers than me and her father, had literally the exact same behavior. What you describe is exactly what she was like. I had to drop out of a language class that had babysitting because she would get hysterical even though I was in the room next door. I sat through weeks of drop-off playgroup because she would lose her mind if I left for even a few minutes. I have no idea why she was so afraid of losing sight of me, since there was no loss or trauma in her history and until 18 months was absolutely fine with not seeing me or being held by strangers. It was a slow process to get her to be without me and I didn’t rush her. I only say this so that you know that even non-adoptive parents struggle with this and that the anxiety and fear, while being perfectly understandable from a child who is still dealing with early loss and trauma, can also be partly attributable to normal childhood seperation anxiety and it’s not coddling them if you allow them to work through this at their own pace while slowly helping them to be independent at the same time. One thing I can say as a former nanny, do not EVER “sneak out” on a child. Always be very clear that you are leaving but that you are coming back. “Mama come back” I always told my daughter. 🙂 big hugs and best wishes to you.

  15. Laura says:

    I totally agree with so much of what has been said here. The article is spot on and my daughter Katy has been through so much. Not only adoption/orphanage related but her dad and I went through a divorce when she was 7 (she is 11 now). We took her to counseling and she was diagnosed with RAD. She doesn’t know this of course as we didn’t want to give her an excuse for inappropriate behavior. I went to South Carolina recently to see my son graduate from Army basic training and had to leave her at home with her step-dad and sister. She cried inconsolably for almost an hour at the thought of me being gone so far from her for 4 days. I had to hold her and reassure her I would be back. I am the only person who has always been there for her since she was 22 months old. My husband has been trying for the last 2 years to develop a closer relationship with her but it’s hard. There is a wall there. Does anyone have suggestions? My husband is very loving and always, always there for her. We are making progress but it is slow.

  16. Lisa Breda says:

    Your goodbye ritual for preschool sounds so familiar. We adopted our son when he was 18 months old. I went back to work about 4 months later. He is now 6. We still do this ritual EVERY DAY. We’ve moved to a new city recently, and I’m a stay at home mom for the moment. Every day I say “I’ll pick you up at 3:00.” Then T says “You’ll pick me up at 3:00, right mama?” Then I say “Yes, I’ll pick you up at 3:00.” I’m sure it doesn’t even pique anyone’s interest in the drop off line at school, but I know it’s an important ritual to let him know his family will be there for him.

  17. Elizabeth says:

    I too always feel uncomfortable when people say she is so lucky we adopted her. I know that in general their comment does not come from a place that they are trying to hurt my child so I always let it go. But you articulated so well why the comment makes me uncomfortable.

  18. Becky says:

    Wonderful post. My sentiments too. We returned home from Thailand with our second daughter 1.5 years ago. She is in Junior Kindergarten (Canada) and she still cries sometimes after the bell rings and I have to coax her into the JK area.

  19. Becky says:

    Oops – I forgot to mention she is 3, turning 4 this December.

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