We met our daughter in a hotel room in July 2017.
She was 20 months old.
She clung to the orphanage ayi as she said hello to her new Mama and Baba in the meekest voice we’d ever heard. She waved and smiled and appeared happy to see us but, when her ayi tried to hand her over to me, she clung to her. Our daughter was terrified.
While I had dreamt of the perfect “gotcha moment” I let my expectations slip away as the orphanage staff informed us about her many medical routines. Eventually, the ayi pried our daughter loose and set her down in a chair, leaving the room. Oh, how she screamed.
When my husband tried to pick her up, she whacked at him. Again, she hit and screamed at my attempts. We tried distracting with toys and stickers and bubbles while she continued to cry silent tears. Baba went with the guide to get formula and I was alone with our daughter for the first time.
We didn’t know for certain how mobile she was due to her special need. I quickly discovered she could crawl with vigor when she made her way to the hotel door, pulled herself upright and placed her sweaty head against the door.
Though we as adoptive parents saw the day as new life, she stood in another – abandonment. And she was desperate to escape from me. I stayed close and there we sat in the mess of adoption. I gave her many quiet moments and then picked her up and sang Jesus Loves Me as she laid her precious head on my chest.
We swayed as she began the never-ending journey of trusting me.
Our daughter knew love before us. Her needs were well met by her caregivers. She was worn in a carrier on her ayis back. She was spoon fed, bottle fed, covered with blankets at night and hugged. These ayis were her mothers. While in process, her adoption updates said things like “She cries when her ayi leaves the room” and she “loves to be tickled and teased”. These were not fictitious statements to make the orphanage look good, but true accounts of our daughter’s relationship with her other mothers.
When we visited the orphanage, we were met with smiles and even hugs. There was a spirit of family there even among the rows of cribs. The toddlers played with toys and sang along to songs. Eva wanted to stay. She waved goodbye to us. And as I tucked her back into the baby carrier, we felt heavily the absence of the woman she called ‘Mama’ before me. Her ayi called out of work the day we were visiting because the goodbye was too hard for her too.
What sacrifice displayed: to love and let a daughter go no matter how unconventional. How aware we are that this experience is the exception not the rule in China.
Most families, once home, deal with indiscriminate affection with their adopted child. They have to set firm boundaries and navigate the world of teaching the child what family means and painstakingly establish parent/child bonds. We were prepared to navigate those well documented waters.
Instead we sailed down a small unpopulated river of the exact opposite: discriminate affection. After months of cocooning, our sweet girl knew exactly who her family was. She let us rock her, and even hugged us back. She became the youngest of four children. Her big siblings doted on her, played and shared to Eva’s delight.
The fits and rages came unexpectedly when we began opening her world to our community. She would cling to us at the sight of another person. Good intentioned church members would talk to her, touch her back or extend their hands out to hold her. We had no expectation of her going to them, as we desired to keep her close, but she would quickly shake her little head no and try to hide.
At the beginning of this journey we welcomed her desire to stay close to us. We believed it said “She trusts us.” Instead, we’ve learned, it says “I trust you to provide for me, but I am still scared you will leave me too.”
We often felt like we were the ones who traumatized her.
When the holidays came, Eva had been home six months. Our families and friends desperately wanted to love her. She would offer a ‘high five’ or “hello” or “bye y’all” but no one else could touch her. She would literally not even take candy from anyone else. She desired only care from Mama or Daddy, maybe a sibling as well and my dad. (Somehow, Dad had quickly snuck into her small group of cherished people. It literally melted my heart considering how selective she was.)
Before China, we were well rooted in homeschool community, church community, family, friends. We stayed on the go with social events, serving the church and others, participating in community life freely and enjoying our tribe. While worth it, taking a step back from a well supported life felt incredibly isolating. There was no doubt that Jesus had called us to our daughter but the isolation felt a little like punishment. We desired to fully participate in the life we once had and Eva felt like the road block.
Instead of forcing affection, we followed Eva’s lead within reason. We tried occupational therapy in case any of the issues were sensory in nature. We brushed her, massaged her, crawled thru tunnels, and did lots of swinging. She loved these activities with her family and hated it with the OT because the OT touched her.
We had to get back into normal routines for the benefit of our family as a whole so I strapped Eva into my Ergo carrier and joined the land of the living again. We went to museums on field trips, homeschool community days, Thanksgiving dinner, birthday parties, church services, and Christmas events with our tiny girl in a pouch like my little kangaroo.
There were times our community supported us by keeping an eye on our big kids while I stood outside with my raging daughter because someone touched her hair. If another person came near she would say, “I love you too” to receive reassurance and attention from me. There were countless times that I said to kids and adults alike, “Please don’t touch her” and was met with confused expressions.
Little by little, she came to recognize ‘our people’. She still discriminated with her affection, but she could tolerate being in the same room with others. She became more tolerant of people entering our home as long as she knew ahead of time the plan and that the guest would be leaving and returning to their own home.
Little by little, Eva started getting down to play near me. At home, she will now wander room to room at times when she’s feeling super confident Mama isn’t going anywhere. At church, she can now stay in nursery most Sundays. Grandparents can even babysit her.
The time invested in moving slowly and letting her keep her guard up has proven invaluable. The sacrifices we made do, indeed, have an impact on her ‘felt safety.’ As Eva’s language has improved, instead of melting into a puddle of tears when I walk out of the room she can verbalize, “Don’t leave me.”
We spend a large portion of our days telling her what will happen next, who will be where we are going, how long we will be gone (if we’re actually leaving her for a short time) and reminding her that we will always come back.
Discriminate affection is a different kind of hard. Aren’t we all paddling down a river that is hard in it’s own way? Discriminate affection afforded us quicker attachment and trust with our daughter. It cost us date nights, cost our older children one on one attention, made a small drought in our friendships, exhausted us, frustrated us, left us unable to serve others and changed our world in a million small ways.
Yet every sacrifice is worth our daughter being closer each day to thriving within a community of people who love her and don’t expect anything in return.
So if you have a child who withholds affection don’t feel bad. Your friends and family will extend mercy and grace. Needs come in a lovely variety. This is just another opportunity to meet your child’s need in a somewhat unconventional way: let them save their affection for those whom they actually care for and desire to show their affection to.
It’s okay if they don’t ever hug anyone else. Even if they do live in the South.
– guest post by Brittany