Ten days before my 10th birthday, my little sister was born. But I didn’t know her. I didn’t know what she looked like or how long it would be until I would meet her for the first time.
For those first, long, ten years of my life, I prayed for a sister. I begged for a sister. And it wasn’t until I was nine that my parents started the process to bring a little girl home from China. That was back when the wait for a “healthy little girl” was a loooong 13 months. Elisabeth joined our family in 2002.
I remember all of the feelings… the excitement, the nerves, the unknowns. And I remember what my parents told me back in August 2002 as we prepared to meet a little girl we had only seen one picture of. They told me, “Hannah, you can come with us to China, but you need to require zero parenting. Are you up to that?” I was. So I went. I climbed the Great Wall with my parents, got 15 (I counted) photo ops with random Chinese people on the wall and then a couple more in Tiananmen Square. I adored our guide in Beijing but didn’t care for the one in Guangzhou. I thought that it was hilarious that our guide wore high heels with us to the Great Wall, and when we were in Hunan and one of the children – the only 2 year-old in the group, was having a rough time, so I wrote a note to her mother and slid it under their hotel room door. I thought that another family’s 10-month old was cuter than my 11-month old sister, because the other baby actually had hair, whereas my sister’s head was completely shaved. And I loved China with all of my heart.
Maybe you’re still stuck on what my parents told me before we left. Yeah, I know. Zero parenting, what’s that all about? But they were wise, oh so very wise. They knew that adopting is not just a paperwork process, but a journey that goes far beyond Gotcha Day. They knew that Elisabeth would need their full, undivided attention, and that if I needed them all of the time, or even some of the time, they would not be able to give Elisabeth what she needed. They also knew that if I came, I would need to be the most independent nearly-eleven year-old I could possibly be. And that I absolutely, positively, definitely-could-not-be a parent.
The parenting needed to be their full-time job, their only job, and only their job.
For this to happen, I wasn’t to meet her needs. That was my mom’s or my dad’s job. I still remember, vividly, standing in the doorway of the bathroom in our small hotel room, watching my mom struggle to feed my new baby sister a bottle. She was having none of it, and crying and screaming and fighting and I too was fighting, fighting back tears and just longing to go and comfort her. My baby sister was crying and I couldn’t do anything about it. (Turns out Elisabeth needed her bottles to be scalding hot in order to be palatable, which we learned quickly.) I know that I had tears trickling down my face, watching her cry for the first time, when my dad reminded me then that this was an important moment in Elisabeth’s attachment. This is where she would learn to trust my mom and to look to her in order for her needs to be met.
Looking back, I understand it all a lot better. I understand now, why after we got home from China, my mom wouldn’t let me pick Elisabeth up when she was crying. I understand now, but I didn’t back then, and that’s okay.
As a sister, it was important for me to attach to my little sister, and for her to attach to me, but this relationship comes long, long after the attachment between Mommy, Daddy and Baby.
What if she had liked me better at first? What if she had been a two year-old and had run to me for her needs to be met? That would have been hard. I would have had to step back (or be gently reminded by my parents to do so), slip out of the scene of action and let them meet the needs. It’s agony for a big sister who has been dreaming about her baby sister for years and years; But. It. Is. So. Worth. It.
So can I encourage you, parents who have older children at home whom you are considering to bring to China with you? Do it. Please, please bring them to China if you can! But make sure they know, even if they don’t understand, how important those intense and exhausting 10 days will be for the new little one about to join your family. Bring your oldest daughter to China, and give her heart an opportunity to be softened like mine was! But don’t let her “play mommy” with the new little one in your family. It’s really not necessary, and in the end the sacrifice will be so worth it.
Because today, Elisabeth and I are the best of friends. We’re ten years apart, but what’s that to sisters?