The first photo I ever saw of Winnie was so ridiculously cute. She is dressed from head to toe in a hot pink puffy coat with matching pants and black boots. Her edibly adorable face was framed by such a tragically terrible haircut that made me laugh and cry at the same time.
She and I both know way down deep in our hearts that we are meant to be together. And now we are both able to express our sorrow for the brokenness of her past too. At least once a day, Winnie will feel the need to reinforce the solidity of our bond by reciting to me out loud, “Mommy, I am the baby of your heart. Pearson and Henry are your tummy babies and Olive is your heart baby too. You found me and you came to China as fast as you could to bring me home.” And every day I remind her, “Yes, Winn Winn, you are my heart baby. You are safe and you will be my heart baby forever.”
Chris had been unsure about being able to attach with Winnie since the very beginning of her adoption process, but it only took him about 3 minutes and a travel magna doodle for her to win him over. We were riding from the Social Affairs office when Chris had drawn a sunshine and pointed to the sky trying to see if Winnie understood? Winnie quickly erased his and made her own, smiling at him with that ridiculous smile and he was a total goner. He loved her with his whole heart too.
That first night, as Chris and I lay with her between us, we were so uncomfortable trying to sleep on the wooden box topped with a thin pad and covered in scratchy sheets. The room smelled nauseating, like too much room service fried rice and McDonald’s French fries. But our discomfort was inconsequential in juxtaposition with Winnie’s silent grief. We held her and sang You are my Sunshine until she finally gave in to the sleep she needed so much.
Winnie’s transition into our family was nothing less than dreamy, and I found myself longing to go back to China. When we adopted Winnie, we met her foster parents and spent time in the orphanage with a few other children we hoped to advocate for back home. From the nursery rooms we toured through their little classrooms, we saw about 120 children. Easily half of them had Down syndrome. The faces of those children were burned into my heart and soul, and Chris and I both knew that it was a pull we couldn’t ignore.
A little over two years later, I was back on a plane to China to adopt Olive.
Unlike Winnie, I hadn’t had the immediate heart and soul connection from Ollie’s photos and file. In the clarity of retrospect, I now realize that I probably never would have found another child with a tug as strong as Winn’s. I had been advocating for Ollie (then Penny on Reece’s Rainbow) for about two years, and Chris felt very drawn to her. Frankly there was no way to “choose” a child from the hundreds of precious waiting girls with Ds in our age range. Olive was a precious waiting child who needed a family, and so we decided to bring her into ours. It was pretty much as simple as that.
Logistically, we couldn’t make it work for both Chris and I to travel, so I went to Fuzhou for Olive with our then 13 year old son Pearson. I was nervous that afternoon as we prepared to meet her, but I was also frankly feeling pretty self righteous – I had already fought my life’s share of really hard parenting wars.
I had adoption, autism and Down syndrome in my wheelhouse. Whatever this tiny 30 pound child was going to throw at me, I was sure I could handle it.
Plus, I persuaded Pearson to stay in and rest that morning so I would be at my best for her that evening. Looking back, I feel so guilty for not exploring with him more before we met her.
That afternoon we went downstairs to our hotel conference room to meet our girl. There were two other waiting families there, and the room smelled like fish flavored crackers as we nervously packed and unpacked the small backpacks of toys and snacks we would use to distract and hopefully calm our grieving children.
Olive was the second child to come into the room, and she toddled in looking like a marshmallow puff baby. She was dressed in three fleece jogging suits, one on top of the other, and she had three neon silk scarves in fluorescent pink, orange and yellow wrapped around her neck. Her hair was in so many tiny little pigtails and they moved up and down as she started running laps around the area. It soon became clear that she would stop moving for nothing, but she would slow down for fish crackers. This girl loves her food.
Olive couldn’t be as old as we thought she was, and she had significant health issues that we didn’t expect. Her behavior was primal and extreme, and her physical strength and determination of will were unparalleled.
She was easily the most dysregulated and physically violent child at the packed medical exam in Guangzhou. By that point in the trip I had lost my ability to even try as she lay face down on the waiting room floor, sucking it for comfort. I felt so hopeless and alone that day. I remember sitting in that long line of blue and white waiting room chairs with sweat pouring down my neck, soaking wet from the long journey over. I had been wearing Olive in the front pack with a hot impermeable rain jacket wrapped around us.
The front pack was the only way she could safely travel from place to place, and that meant that I was the one to take all of her abuse any time we left the room. She loved to pull my hair and bite, but she also loved to run away. The other children were starting to show improvements in their behavior, while Ollie’s seemed to worsen. My only focus was getting her home to Chris.
Back home in Texas, I plummeted into a deep depression. This experience had been nothing like Winnie’s, and I didn’t think I could parent a child with these kinds of needs. It was hard for me to think about attachment when I couldn’t even get Olive to sit in my lap.
I don’t know how I would have gotten through those first critical weeks and months home if Chris hadn’t been right by my side. I handed Olive over to him as soon as we got to Austin, and I basically relied heavily on him to get us through those first few months of endless doctors appointments, developmental assessments, hospital stays and surgeries.
His attachment with Olive began to grow, and I felt like it was all my fault for not being able to accept her. I think I was suffering PTSD from meeting her alone in China and bearing the responsibility for bringing her home. I was barely able to take care of the basic needs of the family, much less able to try to relate to a child with needs and behaviors that I didn’t even want to address.
From my point of view, all of this had been my fault. I was the one who initially wanted to adopt again. Down syndrome adoption was my passion. Something I had done in China must have started us off on the wrong foot, and I couldn’t accept the failure that I would be in the face of the adoption community. But I also knew that my day-to-day existence – living lost in a sea of depression, doubt, and blame – wasn’t a healthy place either.
Chris wouldn’t even consider the conversation I wanted to have about dissolving her adoption, and so we doubled down on childcare costs and looked forward to fall when Ollie could spend some time at school. During the solace of those school days, Olive found some female caregivers that she could begin to form healthy bonds with, and I found hope in the office of Vanessa Rosage, an experienced and wise adoption and attachment therapist.
I sobbed through the first hour with Vanessa, mostly because she told me that none of this was my fault. She gave me some ways to find room to breathe in my day, and she referred me to other resources that could help us find our family footing too. She helped me remember how to practically apply those tools I’d previously learned at the Karen Purvis seminar, and gave me simple ways to start to try to bond with Olive for only a few minutes a day.
I remember the first few times I tried to sing You are my Sunshine to Ollie as I held her before her nap. She would arch her back, turning her head to push me away like I was her biggest enemy. I felt like she and I would never find our peace.
Parenting Olive has uncovered so much of my own personal past, since her most bothersome behaviors trigger feelings in me that are hard to face. We now know that Olive is Deafblind, and she identifies and experiences people, in a large part, through the texture and smell of their hair. Olive loves to run her fingers through your hair, pulling and tugging as she smoothes it forward in your face and covering your eyes.
I literally cannot stand having my hair touched, and her pudgy sticky little hands in my hair sends a nauseating jolt through my spine as if she had run her sharp fingernails down the length of our old chalkboard. I even had one crazy doctor suggest that I dye my blonde hair jet black, and get it cut short in a China bob so that it would be easier for Olive to attach. Olive’s hands in my hair bring up such negative feelings, that I have learned to breathe through the anxiety, and Olive has blessedly learned to listen when I ask her to stop.
In the beginning, we didn’t know that Olive had dual sensory loss. We only considered her disabilities in terms of her developmental delays due to Ds and institutionalization. Now that I know how those with Deafblindness experience the world around them, and after hearing anecdotes of Olive greeting her playground friends with a deep whiff of their hair to identify them, I understand why she feels such a strong need to bond with me by touching and smelling my hair too.
We have come so far since our Ollie girl came home. She and I have some such a long way, and I now know that she is one of the sweetest little girls I have ever met. Underneath her layers of trauma, much like those layered fleece joggers, this child is a happy and hilarious love bug with lessons to teach all of us every day. I’m sure she has survived a war in her six-ish years, and she knows that we love her despite it all.
These are realizations that it has taken me two years to make, and changes in thoughts and feelings so profound, than anything less than this would have rendered me and Olive miserable failures at learning the attachment dance.
There is no magic fix, so we are totally still stepping on each other’s toes every day. But as she fell asleep this afternoon snuggled into the crook of my body and under the weight of the covers in my bed, I am reminded just how very far we have actually come.
Her sticky hand was curled around my long hair. And as we fell asleep. I sang our special version of our sleepy time song…
“You are my sunshine, my Olive sunshine
You make me happy every day
You’ll never know Ollie
How much I love you
Please just be my sunshine today.”