In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Portrait of an Adoption is running a special series called 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, waiting adoptive parents, and foster parents-turned-adoptive parents. Painful and beautiful, these stories will bring you a deeper understanding of what adoption looks like, allowing you to appreciate the many brushstrokes that comprise a family portrait.
A Cast-Aside Child Comes Home
By Alice Bengel
As the first rays of morning creep across my walls, I am already awake, listening for any sound, any movement coming from the room next to mine. Nothing. Wait… No, nothing, just a house sound, or a cat.
Actually, I have been in a semi-awake state all night, maternal radar on, just in case. I did not know that I had a maternal radar. This is the first of many new things I will discover about myself from now on. This is only the beginning.
I am a mother now, a new mother, and a single one at that. I lie in bed trying to remember when I decided to adopt a child, and I draw a blank.
I think about last night when they brought her to me, late, way past everyone’s bedtime, including mine. She came with a stuffed dog and one suitcase, wearing her only pair of shoes, a pair of pink canvas sneakers. I won’t realize until days later, when I look at the pictures, that her shoes were on the wrong feet. Last night, seeing her for the first time except for last year’s school picture, I was too struck by how alive and three-dimensional she was to notice such a detail.
I am supposed to wake her early today, and tomorrow, and the next day, to help her adjust to the three-hour time difference. I spent the whole night afraid she would wake up, and now I’m supposed to go wake her on purpose. Usually I enjoy irony, but today I don’t find humor in it.
I slip my robe on over the first pajamas I’ve owned in my adult life and make my way down the hall to her room. It was going to be a home office once, or maybe a craft room, but everything is different now. With a deep breath, I carefully open the door, and there she is, the child who already calls me Mommy, sound asleep.
Her head is almost completely under the covers, a shock of dark hair marking her exact location in the big bed, an “X” on the treasure map. I stand there watching her for a ridiculously long time, unable to break the quiet of the room. Afraid to wake her and not sure what will happen next.
I’m not good at meeting new people. What will I say to this new little person who’s come to live with me? My voice congeals in my throat, unable to pass by what feels like a tennis ball lodged there. Stalling, I feel a sudden urge to preserve this moment. I retrieve the camera, focus, and wince at the loudness of the shutter, as if I weren’t in here to wake her up anyway. Her breathing doesn’t change, still a soft rhythm rising and falling under the butterfly quilt.
I finally do wake her, shaking her gently and speaking softly, fearing that I will frighten her. I ask the child who already calls me Mommy if she knows where she is, and blink back unexpected tears when she says, “Home?”
Everything is different now. Within days my new stainless steel refrigerator will be covered with a sea of fingerprints. Within weeks I will be caught unprepared when she loses a tooth five minutes before bedtime, with only a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet for Tooth Fairy duty. I will be called Mommy, Mom, and Mama eleventy-two times a day, and I will love it.
In the coming weeks and months, I will help her cope with the losses in her life, the changes, the instability, the cruelty. Life so far has been brutal to this child. For her, monsters were real, and they didn’t stay under the bed.
I vow to be gentle and patient, to be firm and solid as a rock, to earn her trust and restore her faith. It will get easier as time passes, eventually becoming second nature to me, but today the magnitude of what I’m taking on threatens to drown me.
Today is monumental for both of us. Today we start a new life together, mother and daughter. Today she laughs when I give her the little t-shirt that says “My Mom Rocks!” I give today to this child, a bright-eyed seven-year-old whose past was a living nightmare, but whose future holds such promise. I pledge to her a lifetime of todays to be embraced, to be savored, and to put the yesterdays far behind her.
This is only the beginning. Everything is different now, for both of us.
* * * *
Three Years Later, Looking Back:
My daughter was seven when I was chosen to be her mother. It was rather sudden, really. People having biological children generally get nine months’ warning. I got nine days.
I’d been through my state’s adoption classes, completed my home study, and almost immediately I was contacted about taking a little girl who was coming back to our state from a disrupted adoption.
She needed to be moved into a new adoptive home as soon as possible. Before entering foster care, she had been profoundly neglected, one of the worst cases of child neglect in our state’s history. She had behavior problems. Maybe other problems. She had nobody and desperately needed somebody.
I decided I was that somebody.
The selection process was fast, but thorough. I was interviewed by a whole team of social workers and other advocates. It took most of an afternoon and was emotionally draining. At the end of the interview, somebody asked, “Just so we’re clear, if we choose you, you’re agreeing to take her and adopt her, is that right?” I agreed.
Then they asked if I’d like to see a picture of her, and handed me a photo of a little girl who looked exactly like me. I’d even had that haircut as a kid. I hadn’t even made it home from the interview when my cell phone rang. “We’ll have her there in nine days,” they said. Nine days. Yikes.
So that’s how I came to have a little stranger in my house. Because she’d been placed out of state prior to my getting her, we didn’t have a chance to meet before I agreed to take her. They brought her to me at 10:00 on a Wednesday night, fresh out of the Pacific Time Zone, so it was only 7:00 p.m. to her.
She was wired and tired from traveling all day. The social worker, who’d traveled all of that day and the previous day to go get her and bring her back, was exhausted and didn’t stay long. It was sort of a drop and dash.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to have someone drop off a child at your house, and even though you’ve never met before, the child is already calling you Mom. Not everyone would admit this, but I’m not afraid to say that it’s downright terrifying. Overwhelming.
I can only assume it was the same for my daughter. I asked her once what it’s like to change homes like that, leaving everything familiar behind and moving in with strangers. She said, “At first it’s exciting, like going to a friend’s house. But then it’s sad, because you know you’re never coming back.”
There was a lot for both of us to get used to. At seven, she already had her own tastes, likes, dislikes, etc. Routines. Ways of doing things. She could tie her shoes, but she didn’t do it the way I did it. And there were things nobody had mentioned, like that she could barely use silverware and that she was terrified of cats and dogs.
We had minor disasters constantly. We had meltdowns. We had tantrums. We had calls from school until I finally just gave up and went to school with her. (I was the tallest kid in “our” second grade class.) But we did have some fun, too, and with structure and consistency, things started to get better.
Her adoption was finalized six months later, and that was more than three years ago. We’re doing well. She’s an A student and plays the piano beautifully. I don’t get calls from the school anymore. Things aren’t always smooth, but I think that’s true no matter how you get your kid.
Now it’s as if she’s always been here. Sometimes I think back on those early days and wonder how we made it.
You know, when I buy a car, I test drive it first. When I wanted a kitten, I went to the Humane Society and held all of them before picking one. I would never even consider marrying someone I didn’t know.
But I took a child, sight unseen, to keep forever. I don’t know what made me do it, but I’m glad I did.
By Alice Bengel