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.
Jake is 12. 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 adoption.
Finn is 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 we picked up these boys in China.
My husband, Mike, and I separated and flew on different planes, Mike into Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan Province and me into Guangzhou, the capital city of the Guangdong Province. 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.
He started wailing. Louder than any baby in that room. His terror was acute and it was heartbreaking. 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 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.)
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.
It was a long silent afternoon, but we worked it out. 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 peace 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 survival mode.
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 worst thing that has ever happened to them, next to being abandoned.
Just 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.
Mike’s gotcha 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.
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.
Flight children 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 this.
This catatonic 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 child. This is no place for that.
Leaving them 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 your 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.
They particularly 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 too.
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. 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.
Almost every single one of their behaviors in China was 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 hurts.
They are hurt.
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 is still growing, whose brain is still growing and adjusting to help them deal with trauma and pain. The one who has limited executive function, because they are a child.
Children get 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 your child. 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.
– guest post by Amber