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.