We’re finally here, we’re already here. The road to this day, the first anniversary of Willa’s “Gotcha Day,” has been slow, and yet in other ways, I feel like I blinked, and here we are.
I’m not exactly sure what meeting your adopted child feels like for many moms, the ones with a gaggle of bio kids already at home, and I’ve rarely heard much about it from those of us who became Mamas for the first time in those Civil Affairs buildings on the other side of the world.
So today, I’m going to do my best to be a voice for the first-time adoptive mamas. Still so new to this whole parenting thing myself, please know these words will not be a “how-to guide” for becoming a mom through adoption. What a joke! The thought of me as a “momming instructor” makes me laugh and cringe… seriously.
But what I can do is simply share.
I can tell you what it was like for me. Humbly, I can tell you what you’re feeling is all probably more normal than you think. And, perhaps most-importantly, I can be a reminder you’re not the only one crazy enough to do this.
It’s taken me a full year to be able to process what happened the day we met our daughter, much less put it into words. So if you’re about to board a plane around the world or got off one a few months ago, please know it’s okay to be in knots, to be shell-shocked, maybe I still am and just don’t know it.
At my worst, I’ll make you feel like a rockstar for not throwing up the morning you leave for China.
At my very best, I can cheer you on as you finalize paperwork, learn how to change diapers, or sleep on the floor beside a grieving child.
Before we even get to “the day” of meeting Willa though, I want to go back to the day we “found out” about her. It was March 23, 2016, and we were almost exactly one year from first submitting our initial application to adopt from China. Our agency set wonderful expectations, and we knew the call could come any day but assumed it wouldn’t be a few more months. Though I definitely didn’t “become a mom that day,” (trust me, you’re not really a mom until you’re the one comforting tears and responsible for providing every meal), the day we opened that email and first saw photos of our daughter was the day God started truly, and intensively, preparing my heart for motherhood.
I’m sure it’s similar to finding out you’re pregnant and perhaps even more so to finding out your in-utero child is not perfectly healthy, that day is where it all gets real. Suddenly, the nursery decor you’ve been fawning over for months (this was 100% me) seems incredibly unimportant. The registry list, the perfect family photo album in your head – it’s all just noise. Those things are wonderful distractions, but in that moment, they are just that… distractions.
The day you see your child, a child who desperately needs a doctor’s care, someone to advocate for them, a family, a mom – you are through the roof with excitement, and you are picking up pieces of your broken heart off the floor. That day will wreck you. But oh, how it needs to.
That’s the day it becomes less about you and more about a baby, usually a sick baby.
Whether an open/unattended cleft mouth like my daughter at 14 months old, or even the seemingly-healthy child you might receive on your computer screen that day, you will see a child whose needs have not been met. It will change you, probably more than you even imagined it would. Yes even if they’re in a great foster home, every child needs a family of their own, a family that’s forever.
And just like that, your needs go out the window. You’re no longer the one who “needs” a baby. Your waiting, the years of infertility, any and all of the brokenness that probably led you to this point, you’re just done with you. It’s no longer time to grieve any of your own loss, it’s time to be strong. For me, I loved this turning point. From the moment we claimed Willa as ours, I was putting on my armor, I was sucking it up, and slowly but surely, God was transforming me into a Mom. Pretty cool.
Fast forward to June 13, 2016, the morning we boarded that big plane. Yes, I wasn’t exaggerating earlier. I threw up that morning. I knew I was nervous, but I didn’t know just how nervous I was until it was time to zip my suitcase and walk out the door. Nerves are a tricky thing. I’m here to tell you, no matter how excited, how confident you are in your decision to do this, you’re probably still going to have major butterflies in your stomach. Or in my case, a hornet’s nest.
Consider this one of those, “it’s totally normal,” parts of the pep talk. For me, Jesus, prayer, and maybe a little champagne on our first layover in Chicago helped. The longest plane ride of our lives later, and we were on the same soil as our daughter. Walking through the cavernous, sweltering, and mostly-empty Beijing airport that night, I felt a calm. For the first time in weeks, I had the presence of mind to truly experience the adventure I was on.
I was in China… getting a daughter. For a few moments at least, I felt nothing but excitement.
The first couple of days in country were a blur. We were in Beijing. No matter how hard I tried to stay awake, our bodies would give into sleep at 4pm like clockwork. After all, that’s 3am Nashville time. We would both hit a wall.
Looking back, the delusion of jet lag was almost a gift. I barely knew what day it was. I had to use all of my effort to manage my way around one of the most-populated cities in the world. It was all a pleasant distraction.
Two days later, we flew down to our daughter’s province. That night, with two other nervous couples in our travel group, we shuffled our feet mindlessly around a gigantic, bustling mall connected to our hotel. We wanted to find a spot for dinner, but no one could put a series of thoughts together, much less decipher a Chinese menu and choose a restaurant for the group. We ended up picking up a few things (none of which I ate) and heading back to our rooms for the night.
A few restless hours later, and I was up before the sun. Our bathroom had a large tub and a picture window above with a view of the city. I sat on the edge of the tub. I was in awe of the size of the city. A city most of the world has never even heard of similar in size to New York City. High-rise building after building began appearing as the sun rose orange and bright.
I had no words of my own that morning, so I read the ancient words of scripture and listened to a few favorite worship songs. In that fragile state, none of my own words seemed worthy. In the quiet, I silently begged Jesus to get me through that day. “It doesn’t have to be great,” I thought, “just don’t let me pass out.” I prayed to be truly be in the moment. That’s all I wanted.
Complete humility feels good guys and, that morning, God welcomed and comforted my surrendered heart. No amount of training (I’d had a bit through the home study process) or babysitting experience (I’d had almost none) would be able to prepare me for this. It was time to just let God do His thing. After all, He’s the one who’d gotten me this far.
A few hours later, our group met in the lobby of our hotel. We each received a “file” from our group guide with information about our child’s feeding/sleeping schedule. Such a small thing to the seasoned parents of the group, I thought this information was gold. Printed in less than 100 words, this was the very first actual parenting program I’d ever seen.
When I tell you I knew nothing about how to take care of a child, I hope you know I’m not kidding. “Perfect,” I thought. “I’ll just do this. It’s just like following a recipe.”
With a few hours to spare before boarding the bus and my priceless list of “things she eats” in hand, Chad and I were on a mission. We went straight to the baby aisle of the Walmart, which was miraculously attached to our hotel. As if I even knew how to buy formula in English, I can only imagine the complete comedy skit we must have been trying to shop for it in China. No employees could even help us. They hardly tried.
Consider this the point as a first-time mom where your only comfort is knowing your child is too young to hopefully ever remember these first few days. So we bought it, the formula, or something that looked like formula. 24 hours later we would be back in that Walmart with our baby, letting her show us all the strange Chinese treats and fish-flavored cheese sticks she adored. And yes, I said fish-flavored cheese sticks. And no, I’ll never recover from the smell of hand feeding them to her for days.
What a long morning it was, but 2pm did finally come. It was time to board a charter bus along with the other families in our group. There were seven families total, each a gift I was not expecting. Three families had previously-adopted children in tow. I loved that. And one other family, dear friends to this day, were just like us: alone, scared, becoming a Mom and Dad for the first time. I loved that even more.
Imagine seeing every celebrity you’ve ever loved at one time. It doesn’t compare to the feeling I had seeing my daughter’s Ayi carry her quickly through the lobby of the Civil Affairs office that day. Barely breathing, I (creepily to her I’m sure) stared her down. I desperately wanted her to show some sign of recognition when our eyes met briefly. After all, she had a few photos of me I’d seen her holding in pictures, but there was no recognition. I was not the celebrity to her she was to me. She looked scared. So sleepy. I should’ve known she wasn’t feeling it.
We waited. One family was called back at a time. We were the last to be called. We followed our guide into a tiny room. I turned, and a petite woman handed me a child. The moment that always seemed so far away was here. It was over. Just like that.
I had a baby.
I was a mom.
A scared one, a clueless one, but I was a mom.
My baby. She cried and cried. She reached back for anyone but me. I was calm. I was Divinely confident. My body did all the right things. I swayed. I gently shushed. I began resembling someone I didn’t know I could be.
Her cry growing stronger with each passing second, I tried showing her a stuffed animal to distract her from this cruel reality. She wasn’t amused. I couldn’t calm her. Only a few seconds in, and I was experiencing my first failure as a mom. I just held her. I told her “I know.” Though really, I didn’t. But I wanted to.
She continued to cry as we walked back into the lobby. My daughter was screaming, but still, I wasn’t insecure. All the preparation of waiting, of suiting up with the armor of calling, I felt an unexpected confidence. Somehow, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. So I held her. I continued to quietly shush and rock. I knew I couldn’t fix it. No one could.
My job was to hold her through it. So I did.
A year later, and I know slightly more about being a mom, though I learn exponentially more each day. My girl. She keeps us on our toes every moment of every day. And today, as I think back on our first year together, I am more fulfilled than I ever thought possible.
The day we met our Willa might have not been picturesque to many but, to me, it holds such beauty. Our girl was hurting. She was confused. She needed me to hold her. And with the quiet confidence of a mother, I was somehow able to let her know we would be okay.
During those next few weeks, and sporadically throughout a few months, Willa’s grief returned. In different ways, I’m told it always will.
But these days, I don’t wake before the sun shaking with nerves. I don’t shuffle through Walmarts looking for baby supplies (well, not quite as cluelessly). I don’t worry (as much) about what to feed her, when to hold her, and when to give her space.
Some things changed in me instantly that day.
Other things have taken time, they’ve required practice, but eventually, I’ve acquired a trial-and-error kind of wisdom known only to moms and mother figures. Today, and every day since then, I walk more-humbly with God. I am as-aware of my weakness even as I am more-confident in my every day responsibilities. I still refer to myself as a “new mom,” and feel a little-closer to giving up that title.
A year later, and my “new normal” of worrying less about “my needs” is freedom in a way I couldn’t have otherwise understood. Don’t get me wrong. I can still be selfish. I still love “me time,” but I am just not the same.
These days, my life is first about providing for the needs of a little one who cannot do so for herself (though she certainly thinks she can.) At times it’s exhausting. At other times, it’s totally precious.
So get ready you mamas-in-waiting. I am truly so excited for you. All of the knowledge won’t come to you in an instant, or for that matter, in a year’s time. There will be nausea-inducing nerves, and there will be fumbling Chinese-formula-shopping moments. But you’re getting ready to experience humility and gratitude that will leave you forever changed.
It’s great. The fear, the longing, it empties you in the most-necessary way. But watch and wait as trust and surrender fills that void with joy like you’ve never known.