The day we were set to leave the hospital with our newborn daughter, no one asked us about our car seat. She was our first baby, and so I didn’t understand at the time how significant this insignificant thing would become to me. At the time, I didn’t realize that had she been born on this side of the Pacific, we would have had someone from the hospital staff inspect our car seat installation before we ever could leave the building. In the USA, they don’t give you a manual on babies, but they do make sure they are latched in properly for the ride ahead.
But in China we were asked about blankets.
And I thought I was prepared. I had a cute, fluffy, 3-sizes-too-large snowsuit that I zipped our newborn baby girl into when they finally told us we could go home. It was white with little ears, and she was our sleepy, cuddly teddy bear. Around the snowsuit, Jacob carefully tucked a fleece blanket and we were ready to brave the frigid-but-bright Beijing day. As we prepared to leave the hospital with all the confidence two new parents can muster, one of the older nurses looked at us bemusedly and rhetorically asked if we planned to leave the hospital with our child dressed like that?
Jacob and I looked at each other and back at the nurses, not sure how to respond. She was more direct in her questioning the second time around. “Do you have any more blankets in the car? Your baby will not be warm enough dressed like this.” As she spoke, she reached for Cora while another nurse ran off to gather up some more blankets. She deftly wrapped a few more blankets around Cora, pulling tight and tucking loose ends until she was satisfied with her work. She handed her back to me and sent Jacob down to the car to look for other clothing items that might pass for blankets so that we could swap out the hospital-owned blankets with our own at the car.
January in Beijing is frigid-beyond-description. And as I rode down the elevator holding my bigger-than-a-watermelon bundle of newborn and blankets, I almost laughed. She certainly wouldn’t get cold. When I got to the car and out of the nurse’s watchful eyes, I peeled off a few layers and tucked her into the car seat, setting aside one set of cultural values for another.
A couple of years before I left the Beijing hospital with my own newborn, I stood in a cold room in central China measuring babies enrolled in the formula project New Day Foster Home operated in the area. The room was not adequately heated, and all the foster mamas were frustrated by our insistence that we undress the children’s layers so that we could get more accurate chest measurements and weight.
Our team joked that the babies gained 3 pounds every winter – simply because of the extra winter clothes – but it was no real joking matter. Because in those long, cold months, the babies would fight an unrelenting stream of illnesses. The bitter cold and limited food and close quarters seemed to create the perfect storm for sickness, and as the little ones struggled to stay healthy, they inevitably lost weight. It was a slow march to springtime, and our wintertime visits to the foster program made my fingers numb and my heart ache.
At first, in all the idealistic confidence I could muster, I found myself as irritated at the foster parents for insisting on bundling the kids in so many layers and refusing to undress them, even for important measurements, as they were with me for wanting to unbundle them. To my western-eyes, the children seemed dirty and unable to move because they were so tightly bound. Plus, didn’t the foster parents understand we needed good data?
But it only took a few months of making these visits for me to start to see thing through their eyes. Bathe the babies in the winter? The house is cold and then the baby will become chilled. It’s too risky; they might get sick. Undo a bit of their clothing and make it easier for them to move? It’s too risky; their fingers or toes might get frostbite. Undress them so the once-a-month visitors can get good data points for their charts and graphs? It’s too risky; no chart or graph can make winter end any sooner.
It’s human nature, I think, to judge what we don’t know.
And I judged those foster mamas for bundling their little babies too tightly just as harshly as that Beijing-nurse judged me for bundling up my newborn too loosely. The thing is, judgments rarely ever take into account what life is really like from the other person’s perspective.
Sometimes I open up Facebook and see indignant posts about the “plight of orphans.” I see harsh pictures that paint orphanages and their caregivers in the most negative of lights, often at the expense of an orphaned child’s privacy and dignity, combined with self-righteous proclamations about how it ‘should’ be done; how we ‘should’ care for orphans; how others ‘should’ adopt. But so often this harsh perspective fails to take into account the humanity and point of view and intentions of the person on the other end of our pointing fingers… and so we wound, isolate, and divide rather than heal, understand and bridge.
One of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve ever received is: “Don’t should on yourself.” Which could be extended to: “Don’t should on others.”
And when we are standing on the periphery of an orphanage with 900 children, limited resources, and a handful of low-paid staff who spend their days cleaning up messes, making bottles and attempting to provide some amount of human interaction for each child, it’s far too easy to slip into the self-righteous position of a ‘should-er.’
I know, because I’ve been guilty of it.
On one of my first trips to visit an orphanage, I was part of a small team. We spent the first part of our week just hanging out in the giant playroom with a bunch of toddlers and a few caregivers, and in the course of about 3 days, I’d pretty much mentally identified all the caregivers’ weaknesses and none of their strengths. I developed strong opinions about how the nannies could do a better job and harbored a secret suspicion that none of them cared for their kids.
I had been in their world for less than a week, and I was a self-proclaimed expert (at least in my own mind) on the subject of how to do their job well. On the 4th day, one of our team members planned to do a training with the nannies – on how to better care for their children, of course. The training was scheduled to happen during naptime, and I took it upon myself to step into the nanny role for the 2 hours that were needed for training. The nannies put the babies to bed and turned off the lights in the rooms and traipsed down the hall to listen to a well-intentioned foreigner lecture them on an academic history of child development.
But while they endured the training, I set about my covert mission of being a better nanny than they were. I sat outside one of the bedrooms where 7 little ones had just been laid down to sleep. One of them started crying and so I tip-toed into the room. I laid my hand on her chest, and she quieted. But my presence disrupted the normal routine and one of the little ones in the crib to the left began to cry. I reached over and patted him with my other hand. I can almost remember smugly thinking that it was, in fact, possible to be emotionally present to these children, if only someone cared more for them more than they cared for a tea-and-conversation break.
But before long, one of the children behind me began to quietly cry, hungry for the same sort of attention. So I moved to that side of the room to whisper and pat and soothe yet another child. You might imagine what happened next… Before long every child in the room was crying, and I frantically moved from bed to bed, my hand a mere pause button on their sorrow. I’d pat for a moment, and they’d quickly quiet and settle; I’d move on to the next child, and the first would start up again.
In a matter of minutes, my inadequacy and their need brought me to my knees. I slipped out of the room and shut the door on their cries and sunk to the hallway-floor.
And I wept.
I wept for the injustice that led to these 7 babies calling this concrete building home.
I wept for the nannies that faced this kind of sorrow and hunger for affection every single day.
I wept with regret for my own ignorance and arrogance – sinfully assuming I would be so much better at the job than they would be, yet not even lasting 20 minutes.
There were no evil villains in the story… I came away that day believing that everyone was doing the best they could with what they have and deeply knowing I could do no better.
And I guess that’s what I want for our community.
I want us to embody grace and mercy – directed not simply towards the children growing up in orphanages, but also to those people who find it is their lot in life to be their caregivers.
I want us to treat others with dignity – not simply the nameless children whose orphanage-pictures we share on the internet, but also the staff of the places they call home.
And I want us to live with humility – doing the best we can to love and care for orphans through adoption, advocacy, and outreach, but never at the public expense of criticizing the actions of someone on the other side of the world, whose culture and values we do not understand.
I want us to believe that everyone is simply doing the best they can with what they have.