My daughter was nine years old the first time I laid eyes on her. The image is forever ingrained in my mind, I imagine, the same way it would have been if she was handed to me at the hospital right after her birth.
She was wearing capri jeans, a pink floral blouse and sparkly flip flops. Her hair was pulled back and so very greasy – she’d arrived at the group home with lice and the caretakers kept oil in her hair as a preventive measure.
She was so much smaller than I expected; she looked bigger and older in the photos. Her brown eyes were huge and obviously filled with fear. I’m sure mine were, too.
I got down to her level, looked her in the eyes and whispered, “We’re scared, too, but we’ll get through it together. We’re a team now.”
Those were the first words I ever spoke to my daughter.
My husband and I had arrived in Texas from Florida the day before. Knowing she was so close, but having to wait 24 hours to see her was torture. We should have been used to the pain of waiting, but I don’t think it’s something you can ever get used to – especially when it involves your child.
We were chosen to be her parents just before Thanksgiving. We thought she’d be with us for Christmas. Definitely Valentine’s Day. Easter? Nope, nope, nope. We were told four weeks is average. Six long months was our reality.
Six months of knowing our child’s name, of seeing her precious face in photos, of knowing her history and how badly she needed stability, but not being able to get to her because of paperwork.
Six months of our child being in a group home thinking no one wanted her while we had her room ready and desperately wanted her with us.
She didn’t know we existed until a few days before we arrived in Texas. So while we were anxiously waiting for red tape to be lifted, she hadn’t had enough time to wrap her head around all that was about to happen.
Of course she had big scared eyes.
I was devoted to her from the moment I saw her photo. I saw her face and said, “I could be your mommy.”
When we found out we were officially chosen to be her parents it was if the powers to be were finally catching on to what I already knew. I was made to be her mom.
After that first encounter, everything moved quickly - perhaps too quickly for our new daughter. On our first outing together she cried and wailed; she said she didn’t want us to be her family. She didn’t want to go to Florida. We brought her back early because it was all too much, too fast for her.
We explained we’d always do what we thought was best for her. That won us some trust. She asked us to come in with her to see her room. One of her housemates asked, “Is that your mom?” My heart swelled when I saw her shyly nod her head.
Yes, I was her mom.
One week later, her caregivers handed us a box filled with her few belongings and she was ours forever. I drove while my husband sat in the backseat with her and held her as she cried. We both understood how much loss and uncertainty was piled on her. Yet again.
She’d had a dozen homes before us.
Her life had been filled with broken promises (and worse). How could we possibly expect her to think this would be any different?
We had a quiet first night together at the hotel. She put on bright yellow Spongebob Squarepants pajamas and was overwhelmed with fear and sadness as bedtime neared. I sat next to her on the floor. She sobbed for all she was losing.
I pulled her onto my lap and cried with her. I rocked her and told her that I knew how hard this was. I knew that she had no reason to trust us.
“I know you’ve heard all of this before, but we really are going to be your last mom and your last dad. This is it. We’re a team and the three of us will figure it all out together,” I told her over and over until she was too exhausted to cry anymore.
We tucked our little girl into bed for the first time that night and sat with her until she fell asleep. Then the three of us flew home to Florida.
It wasn’t an easy transition for any of us. She’d experienced significant abuse, neglect, instability and abandonment before us. This left her with significant anxiety and insomnia that was overwhelming and exhausting for all of us.
We’d promised her we were a team. We’d promised her we’d figure it out together.
And so we did.
And we still are.
Despite all she’d been through, all the broken promises, pain and betrayal, she was still willing to give us a shot. She wanted to trust us. She wanted to believe we really would be a forever family.
We tucked her in every single night and were there when she woke up every single morning. Even after the really hard days.
Especially after the really hard days.
We’d assure her, “Tomorrow is a fresh day. Nothing happened that we can’t get through together. You’re safe. You’re loved. You’re not going anywhere.” We repeated those words over and over. We must have said them thousands of times. And finally she believed us.
The tiny girl with the greasy hair and big scared eyes is now fifteen. The adoption has been finalized for over five years, but she’s only fully accepted our promises were legit in the last year. One day she said, “I get it. I believe it.” And we knew she did.
It’s been so much work for all of us, but the commitment has paid off. Older child adoption is challenging. But it’s so worth it.
She’s so worth it. And so are the hundred thousand foster kids waiting for families right now.
We still tuck her in every night, but she no longer needs to hear constant reassurances that we’ll be here forever. She knows it in her bones now.
We’re a team. We’ll figure it out together. Whatever it is.
And what a fantastic team we are.