I thought bonding would be so natural.
When I became a mom, they laid that freshly born boy in my arms and it was magic. The love had been growing for nine months. As sinews and tendons were knitted together to become our son, my heart was expanding to make room for the love that was burgeoning inside; we were growing together.
And in some ways, it was like that when my China babies were placed in my arms. Maggie, so teeny and week, days or weeks from succumbing to a short life of neglect and near starvation… she was easy. Every protective instinct I had kicked in and I loved her instantly. This baby I met seconds ago, I would gladly die for now. She had been waiting for two years for a protector. Here we were.
Abe was four and walked in on his own two feet, terrified and clutching the snacks his ayi kept handing him as his eyes welled with fearful tears. That love was instant too.
When we met our China babies, the love was instant.
The like is another story.
Adopting a child is so different from growing one in your belly, or at least adopting an older child is. Adopting an older child is like having a very small and very dependent college roommate move in. There are quirks and foibles in place that have to be learned, behaviors that need to be decoded, language barriers to breach.
There are things you will love, like the way he rubs his soft hand on your cheek to be sure of you, and things that will drive you crazy like the way he snaps his fingers at you when he wants something like he’s signaling the dog.
Learning each other will be both the hardest and best class you ever take. You will need cliff notes, that why we write and you will feel like dropping the class sometimes, but you won’t because this is the degree you know you were created to achieve. You will never take a final exam because this class never ends and you can never reach an expert knowledge of the subject because just when you think you’re nailing it, you realize that the way she rubs her elbow as she drifts off is a self-soothing technique from years of neglect and loneliness. What you thought was a cute habit is a sign of her trauma and so you commit to studying harder and reading up and learning her more. Learning to like your new child will take a bit.
Adopting on older child (and I say this with humility: ours were 2.5 and 4) is a mixed bag of every emotion so intertwined you can’t separate them. The exhilaration your bios feel at the County Fair translates to anxiety for your adopted child, anxiety and exhilaration so similar that he can’t tell them apart. What makes your bios scream with delight might make your adopted child cower in fear. These are hard things to sort out and they take lots of time. Like, lots and lots of time. You will need to be patient with yourselves as you navigate these muddy waters.
This parenting gig is not a sprint; it’s a marathon, so tie up your shoes and get running. And know that the course will be lined with every adoptive parent who has gone before.
We are cheering for you because you are doing precious work and you will persevere, even when you are completely out of juice and ready to throw in the towel, you will dig deep and find the grit to give it another go.
It’s what mamas and babas do, after all. We are three years in with our Abe and finally feeling like our heads are above water; the like is catching up with the love.
Three years in and I can look at that yummy boy and feel a rush of gratitude for the joy of him as our son.
– images by Tish Goff