Elsie and I had very different ways of preparing for our China adoption. She spent the better part of a year setting up a nursery in our home, buying clothes, and watching other “family day” videos on Youtube. She is an optimist and a planner, which makes her the perfect counterpart to a cynical procrastinator.
During the year leading up to our adoption, I spent most nights reading Facebook posts from families that were going through every emergency imaginable in China, along with the responses from other supportive families. I spent so much time attempting to prepare for the worst, that there was a point that our social worker instructed me to “maybe spend a little more time researching a positive side of adoption.” There were mornings where Elsie would walk into the living room and I’d be sitting on the couch with my laptop open. “I think I’ve finally got a handle on how to address the whole “hitting” problem.” I’d say. And Elsie would say something like, “We haven’t met her yet, and she has not hit you.”
I guess in my mind, I wanted to be prepared for anything, and part of that was not wanting to be surprised by anything. In hindsight, it’s like I thought that this information and preparedness would help keep me strong and balanced while in China. I was certain that I could be a impenetrable tower of stability for my little girl for probably a month or so, at least for our two weeks in country. Plus, if any positive experiences came along, it would be a bonus! (read sarcasm there) Before moving forward, I want to say that Elsie has written about her experiences in this adoption here. She can tell her story better than I can, so I will leave you to read that separately.
This quote from Mike Tyson is over-used, but I have to mention it: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
I’m going to go ahead and answer two questions you may have, and then work backwards. First answer: three days. That’s about how long I was able to be a “tower of stability” for my family before utterly collapsing under the weight of the situation. Second answer: no. No, reading other people’s stories about their struggles does not equal going through them yourself, and none of those things happened.
Our story was different. Every adoption story is. So here we go.
The Plan: stay awake on all flights to China, and once we land, keep walking until 8 PM and then go to sleep. Do not fall asleep in the afternoon.
What happened: we fell asleep at 4 PM.
The Plan: don’t get sick.
What happened: I got sick the first day. I didn’t know at the time that I would be sick for the next six weeks.
The Plan: Be patient, be kind, consistent, stable and be the dad you promised you’d be this whole time. But as I already mentioned, this is not how it worked out.
What happened: Everything was different in person. I had a pretty good plan for how to film the moment we met Nova. I brought my camera equipment and had it all in my backpack ready to go. Empty sim card, charged battery, tripod etc. I thought I’d have time to set up while we waited for them to bring her out to us.
But as we exited an elevator in the government building, I saw her out of the corner of my eye. She was just sitting there in the next room. There she was. Our daughter. My brain has never felt so “manual”. My brain said, “Get your phone out. Tell your hand to grab your phone. Take your phone out of your pocket. Unlock your phone. Open the camera and record. Record. Now point it in her direction.”
If you were to see the entire clip from my phone, you would see that it recorded for several minutes, and I only occasionally remembered to point it in the right direction. My body was bursting with love, pride, and fear, and I couldn’t think. Our guide kept handing me papers asking, “Is this your address? Is this your birthday?” and I kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m really not sure.” He circled back several times before I was able to confirm my birthday.
There were so many things I planned to say to her in our first moments, but my head and my heart were consumed with one and only one thought that I repeated over and over and over out loud, “Hello beautiful girl.” It’s all I had.
There is a reason that up until this point I’ve said very little about Nova in this post. This is how it goes in real life. You have a picture and a file of your child. You have a plan, you have ideas, you have a parenting strategy, you have clothes, and a nursery. You have a heart bursting with love.
But a photo is not a child, and a file is not a child. You don’t have a child until they are in your arms. All of the planning – all of the research, all of the books you read – was, in fact, more about you. About your expectations, your goals, your perfect picture of yourself as a parent. It’s all noise now in the background.
Because there is your child. And you are about to break her heart.
Nova grieved very hard while we were in country. After the first day when she was in complete shock, she clung to my hand or leg at all times. She would scream in terror if I wasn’t touching her, or at least within range of touching. She was very afraid of Elsie. But even with her clinging so tightly to me, the heartbreaking truth became apparent to me early on, and that is – these children have to go through this alone. Yes, we were by her side, with her at all times, but I’m talking about what I saw in Nova’s eyes as she grieved the loss of everything she knew.
She did not know us, she did not know what was happening or why. And nothing we said could change that. She had to experience this fear completely alone in her head. And what a thing to have to experience as a two year old.
The hotel we stayed at in province had an electrical problem that seemed to suggest that the universe was angry at us. Nova has albinism (our good friend Martha did a wonderful post on this site that goes way more in depth about the condition), which is not only a skin condition, but an eye condition. She has a sensitivity to light that can make her very uncomfortable. In our hotel, all of the lights in our room would turn on at random throughout the night. I believe this is a torture technique that the US military may or may not have outlawed in recent years… And when I say no one at our hotel spoke english, I do mean no one. We tried to complain, but no one could understand us.
I can’t imagine what was going on in Nova’s head throughout this time. Why were we doing this to her? When will this all stop? She developed what appeared to be a fear of sleep and was doing everything she could to stay awake. As she would get tired laying in our bed, she would put her arm up in the air so that if she fell asleep, her arm would fall, and it would alert her that she had fallen asleep.
My entire life became so much more narrow than “what to do if your child has a hitting problem”. The universe shrank down to very small individual goals.
“Today I want to make Nova smile – even one smile.”
“Today I want to get her to show an interest in an object- any object.”
“Today I want Nova to make eye contact with me.”
These are the things that consumed my first week with my daughter. This became my entire world – these very, very small singular goals. We made a new rule for ourselves. We only counted the good moments, and we don’t count the hard ones. We wrote down every positive milestone:
December 7th: “she handed Mama a cup”
December 11th: “walked away from Dada into a different room”
December 13th: “played alone for a minute”
Elsie and I agreed that, if we had to put a number on it, things got about 3% better every day. In hindsight, that’s actually pretty fast. In real time, it’s a non-stop marathon. That Kafka saying, “The meaning of life is that it stops” can also be applied to parenting. Every phase begins and ends – often without you even noticing.
Though I’m elated that Nova has made SO much progress since we’ve been home, I still feel a slight sense of sadness that that very first initial phase is over. It creates this urgency in me to find meaning and joy in every phase, including the current (very annoying) “MAMA-DADA-MAMA-DADA-MAMA-DADA-MAMA-DADA!!!” phase. Because this phase, just like the last, will be over soon – and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
– guest post by Jeremy: email || instagram
Love this!! Your baby girl is beautiful! We have been home since 2016 with our daughter…..I have read A LOT of these posts in the last 3 or 4 years and this was the best ever!! You have a gift as a writer and I hope to read more from you soon; it was so real and sooooo spot on!!! All the best! 🙂 Jennifer
Thank you Jennifer!!
Beautifully written! Is your daughter from Wuhan? Some of the things from your video reminded me of Wuhan where my son is from. The hotel, the smog, the store fronts. Just curious. We traveled in Dec 2011 so it been a while. Rough trip for us too!
We got her in Changsha. I have to admit, it was a pretty dreary place. Smelled like jet fuel, and the air was heavy…
That’s got to be my favorite post here, and I’ve read a good amount of them. Perfectly captured how my brain felt when I saw my daughter.
Thank you so much Michelle!! I appreciate that.
This post. I am crying so hard. Jeremy, I have read every blog/Instagram post that you and Elsie have written about Nova, and they become more and more beautiful with each one written.
Amazing words. Love your sharing with the us.
I loved mommy’s story too. Both are beautifully told
Oh Jeremy, this had me sobbing and I don’t even know why. I’m so proud of you and Elsie and Nova is a very blessed child.
Ah, this warms my heart, Jeremy. You will be a terrific dad. You always had the love of Jesus in you when I was around you. Let Him shine through. Congratulations to you and your beautiful wife.
Love your adoption story so much! Your story is a true story of being a parent. Things will never go as planned. They will always surprise you and fill you with a love so deep that you can’t even explain it. You will even turn into a person you didn’t know existed inside your body if someone hurts your child. This is all being a crazy good parent! Y’all are the epitome of wonderful parents!!!!! God is writing a beautiful story through your adoption journey and inspiring so many people through your story. So honored that I got to meet y’all at Willa’s party. Nova is a beauty!!!!!!! Truly gorgeous!!!!
You will be a great father, Jeremy. It has been cool to watch your journey with your beautiful wife. Just let Jesus shine through you like you did when you were younger, and HE will do the fathering for this little one the way he wants you to do it.
Thank you so much for this post. My husband and I are in Thailand right now to adopt our first child. We met him yesterday and placement day is tomorrow. Your post resonates with me so perfectly.
Your story has been so inspiring in our adoption process. I love how you tell the honest story with a warm heart. You are blessed to have such a lovely little angel, and I can tell from Elsie’s Instagram that Nova has had the best life so far with you guys by her side! Keep filling her life with magic and wonder! You guys are doing an amazing job and are a huge inpiration to all of us! Much love your way!
I’m curious: Why doesn’t the orphanage in China allow you and Elsie to hang out there for a week so that you can slowly integrate into Nova’s life? It would’ve been so much less traumatic for Nova and not tear her away from everything she knows.
Thank you so much Jeremy and Elsie for sharing your story. 🙂 I am cheering you on… 🙂
Great article Jeremy! I had to laugh when reading your preparation for the adoption. The first time we adopted, I thought at first sight of our little girl, I would be this pillar of strength. Instead as my wife went to pick her up, I froze like a statue. Overwhelmed by all the dreams, discussions, and hard work finally appearing in the form a little 16 month old. Needless to say, I recovered and it’s been an adventure ever since. We can honestly say it’s been a dream come true. Thanks for sharing your story. God Bless Your Family