Tom and I spent two weeks away from two of our children, Adele and Archer, while we traveled to China to adopt Haddie. For an entire year, our young children had waited for their new sister. They were familiar with her face, and by the time they met, they had giggled together on Facetime. Haddie, in China, had clung to the photographs of her new siblings and learned how to pronounce their names. All parties were highly anticipating the party to come.
This is how it went down: Tom, Haddie, and I traveled for over thirty hours from Guangzhou, China, to Atlanta, Georgia. When we made it past customs, and burst through the doors, our two other precious children broke past the security gates that separate the waiting families from the newly arrived passengers and ran into our arms. At first we were too tired to notice whether we were bonding or not, and we were overjoyed to finally be together as a family of five.
After sleeping (at last!) at my parents’ house in Atlanta, we all headed to our home in South Carolina. We were doing great, too! Haddie had the choice to sleep in the room with her parents or in her room with her big sister, and she chose to sleep in her own new bed near Adele. Archer clung to me to make up for lost time, but he was still interested in this new person in our family and, at the moment, there were enough parents to go around.
Then we resumed real life: Tom went back to work, Adele started school, and I had two small children who both needed my full attention… and were willing to do whatever it took to gain it.
Archer was only two, and still learning how to talk and communicate, and Haddie was almost four, but looked and acted more like a eighteen month toddler. My two babies were so lovable, so cute, so huggable and squeezable! It was almost bliss. If only there hadn’t been so much screaming, and shouting, and fighting, and hitting.
When I held Archer, Haddie dug her fingers into my legs, wailed for her Daddy, and plain ol’ bawled her eyes out. When I held Haddie, Archer thrashed on the floor, turned red, and broke my heart. If I put them both down for a split second, we all could lay on the floor together, punch the air, and block out the other screaming with our own raised voices.
What a sight we were in those days. We needed two stay-at-home parents, two working parents (to cover our mounting bills), a chef, a housecleaner, a dog-walker, and a stand-up comedian. Instead, we had one parent who went to work, and one parent who stayed at home and cried with her children. That parent (I’ll keep her anonymous) may have cried because she wondered if it was a mistake to bring this chaos into her home. She may have cried because her oldest daughter wasn’t getting the attention she deserved, or because her son appeared to be regressing developmentally, or because — and this was the hardest of all — maybe her newly adopted daughter deserved a better family.
The day soon came when these crying people had to pick themselves up from off of the floor, take a bath, and head to the pediatrician’s office. If they had known how that appointment would go, they might have saved some tears for afterwards, but as it was, the tissues were spent, the tantrums had tired out, and the tears were dry. The pediatrician weighed and measured Haddie, took note of the scrap of medical information we had about her already, and exchanged this data for a long list of referrals, a poor prognosis, and her best wishes for our future together.
Our new little daughter was too little. She was below the zero percentile for both height and weight. Her muscle tone was poor, and based on the multiple accounts we had from her previous caretakers, she was exceptionally delayed in her native language, which meant that learning English might prove impossible.
In addition to her lack of muscle strength, her doctor wondered if she was missing some bones. We weren’t sure if she knew how to eat solid foods, and it appeared to be a miracle that she could walk. We needed to dig deeper into her medical needs, and our next step was to join long waiting lists for specialists and therapists.
In the meantime, the best thing to do was to stay occupied and avoid the war zone (our house). The late summer weather was nice, so we headed to the park. Here, we learned, Archer had something to offer Haddie. She walked up to the playground not knowing what to do. She stared at the twisting plastic and screechy metal chains. What was this place? She tugged on my sleeve to take her back to the car, but Archer was already marching forward. When he looked back and saw that she wasn’t coming, he turned back for her, grabbed her hand, and took her with him to explore.
“C’mon, Haddie. Come here!” he shouted at her. Quite an improvement from, “No, Haddie. Dat’s my mama!” He scrambled up a short ladder, calling her name. I wasn’t sure this frail and fragile child would be able to follow. Did she have the strength to pull herself up a few feet? Did she trust him enough to go after him? Did she know how to play? I lifted her up to the platform, and she followed her brother to the slide and, mimicking his actions, slid down behind him, laughing. He patiently showed her how to climb back to the platform again, demonstrated different ways to go down the slide, even how to climb back up the slide itself. She was willing to try anything he could do, so they soared into the sky together as I pushed them in the swings, and later they ran around in circles, Archer often slowing down a little to allow for Haddie to catch up.
By the time we made it to the top of the waiting list to see specialists, Haddie had gained so much strength, her doctors thought the pediatrician had made a mistake worrying about her muscle tone or missing bones. Her motor skills developed at such a rapid pace that we never needed a physical therapist. One of her doctors even called her brother “the best therapist she could have.” From him, she learned how to throw a ball, how to run up the stairs, how to swim, how to play hide and seek, and how to jump on Mommy and Daddy on Saturday mornings so we wouldn’t sleep in accidentally.
Within a few months, Haddie was zooming down our street on her balance bike.
Within a year she had surpassed normal developmental expectations for gross motor skills.
Her language blossomed as well, and what made this growth really special was that she helped improve Archer’s language skills, too. When we first brought Haddie home, Archer had a limited vocabulary and wasn’t particularly verbally inclined. He was a natural athlete who could ride a bike without training wheels at age two and do tricks on his skateboard at age three, but he was a man of few words. Perhaps his tendency to use the same set of words repeatedly was an advantage for his sister because this gave her the opportunity to hear the same words and phrases over and over until she learned them.
In spite of her doctor’s concern that she would struggle with language, she mastered English quickly. Archer taught her how to say important phrases such as “Happy Birthday,” “Georgia! Bulldogs!” and “You my best friend,” but we’re pretty sure she learned how to say, “I want to go to school” all on her own. Archer surprised us all and suddenly became a chatter-box himself, maybe because he needed someone around at his own level with whom to talk, or maybe because Haddie sparked his competitive nature.
Haddie has now been home three years, and we’ve made great progress on our sibling feuds. Archer and Haddie have scaled back their fighting, and probably only shout at each other a dozen or so times a day which, based on my experience with my own brothers, is well within a normal range. Now that he’s able to communicate at the more advanced level of a six year old, Archer will ask some difficult questions about adoption that Haddie likes to avoid, such as “Who is Haddie’s China mom?” and “If Haddie is bad, can we just take her back to China?” And yes, some of these questions are horrifying, but they do lead to healthy conversations adoptive families need to have.
When I question my own parenting abilities, and return to my doubts of being able to provide the best family for Haddie, I find great comfort in Haddie and Archer’s tumultuous relationship. If these two people, who are sometimes downright mean to each other, can help each other in astonishing ways, then children don’t need perfect families. They need families who will stick out the hard times, forgive each other, and do their best.
My children are still learning how to love each other, and in doing so, we all have learned that love is something we work on every day.
– guest post by Lara