Our daughter is seven today, which means it has been six years, three hundred and forty-two days since we first saw her picture emailed from an orphanage in Haiti with our referral package. It’s been five years and ten months since we stepped inside the guarded gates of the orphanage compound and first held her in our arms.
Strangers still see our mixed family and smile at Saige and me. “How beautiful. What a blessing.” It’s a common misperception, I believe, to see that moment when a parent first holds a child in her arms as the end of an adoption story. Heart and rainbow glitter explodes over the united family and they ride happily into the sunset. In actuality, very much like the birth of a baby, it’s only the prelude.
The story is all that comes after. The story is how strangers become a family and a couple becomes parents. And as most parents know, it’s not all hearts and rainbows. There is intense joy and intense fear. Intense love, yes, but also intense doubts. A mother can struggle with post partum depression, a baby can be easy or fussy, colicky or calm, a teenager can be well-adjusted or depressed.
The first seven years of our family’s story weren’t perfect – god knows – and they weren’t easy. I had no idea how large the struggle to attach with a traumatized toddler could be. I have rocked a screaming child until I wanted to scream. I have set hard boundaries and stuck to them. Please don’t pick my baby up; please don’t let her sit in your lap; I know she’s cute, but her indiscriminate friendliness is a survival behavior and we have to teach her that we are her family and no one else.
I have talked to teachers again and again: Special attention causes emotional disregulation, which translates into behavioral problems at home. Hypervigilant children feel unsafe when they think they are controlling a situation. I need you to set rules and stick to them. I need you to tell Saige no when she wants to skip recess or “help” you and send her back to the other children. I need you to send her home for special attention.
To me. I need her to come to me.
For five years, I left every fun activity, every park, every session on the swings, every party, every treat, with my daughter screaming, “Mommy, Moooommmmmyyyyyy,” while she sobbed and whined and stomped. Because the end of something fun triggers in her a fear that good things won’t happen again, that this is it forever.
I have cried all the way home from so many outings, feeling tired and hopeless and judged. I have explained countless times, that’s not okay, tomorrow you won’t have a treat, tomorrow you won’t get to swing, tomorrow you will have to stay beside me and hold my hand, but we’ll always have another chance. The next day you may.
I’ve lost my temper. I’ve sobbed into my husband’s shoulder. “This isn’t going to get better. I’m not getting through. I’m doing something wrong. I don’t understand.”
But it has gotten better. We have attached and grown into a secure family so slowly and incrementally that it’s sometimes hard to remember how far we’ve come. I have to stop and take a breath on days like today – our perfect daughter’s seventh birthday – and acknowledge that we went present shopping, we picked up a cake, we went to a party, we went to the pool and there was not one tantrum, not one tear. We will go out to dinner tonight and I’m not worried. She will start first grade in two weeks and I have not made an appointment to meet with her teacher to discuss hypervigilant behaviors, not because I can’t face it, but because we rarely see them any more.
Anyone who tells you adoption is beautiful or a blessing is missing the point. Adoption is a lot of paperwork. What comes after, parenting, is hard and challenging, exhausting and joyous, terrifying and loving and intense. Family, however formed, is both beautiful and a blessing.