The Waiting is the Hardest Part

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

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.

By Merrin Donahue

Kevin and I started the adoption process almost five long years ago. In fact, it was about this time in 2005 that we decided to commit to the process (although we didn’t tell our friends and family until quite a few months later).

The last time I checked, most women are typically pregnant for 9 months. That means that they have a mere handful of weeks to plan a nursery theme, obsess about names, buy baby clothes, read child-rearing books…..You know, all the usual stuff.

I’ve had FIVE YEARS.

We’ve changed nursery themes twice (granted, it was because surprise! we had a boy, but still), we’ve debated every single baby name in existence as well as a few that aren’t, we’ve bought enough clothes to make Suri Cruise look like a vagrant, and I’ve read just about every book ever published about children and adoption. Additionally, I’ve spent the last five years learning everything I possibly could about China.

Mostly, though, over the last five years I’ve learned to squash any and all sense of hope or anticipation.

I spent the first year convinced my referral was just around the corner. I studied charts and timelines detailing average wait times. I did MATH, for crying out loud (like real math, too, not just simple addition. I DIVIDED stuff.  By HAND.  With no calculator).  After the first year, though, and my extensive mathletics, I came to the ugly realization that we were in for a VERY long wait.

Sometime during the beginning of the third year, I learned to let go of anticipation.  I stopped stalking China adoption websites.  I withdrew from the message boards.  I screamed in my head EVERY SINGLE TIME somebody asked me if we were still planning to adopt or why it was taking so long.  I buried my hope so deep that I convinced myself that it never really existed.

And in doing so, I was able to go on living my life. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 11:1, which says that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen”. My faith wasn’t gone, but it was getting *really* hard to find the substance of things hoped for.

And then we entered Year Four. It started regularly enough: Time at the beach, walks with The Beagle, the usual. One day at the end of March, everything started to change. I saw my son’s picture for the first time. We had 24 hours to lock his profile, and after a very late night discussing it (and his special need. Also? I cannot emphasize this enough: ALL INSTITUTIONALIZED CHILDREN HAVE SPECIAL NEEDS. There. I feel better now) we did just that.

Really, we knew from the second we saw his sweet face that he was our son.  As soon as we signed our Letter Of Intent, the funniest thing began to happen.  My hope began to come back.  It was a little like the Grinch looking down at Whoville, really.

With every step we completed, my hope grew and grew until it was huge and tangible. It filled entire rooms.  It shattered the numbness that had been my self-preservation.  Mostly, though, I don’t think I needed the plane ticket to fly to China, since I’m pretty sure I could’ve sprouted wings by the day it was finally time to travel.

As far as the actual details of the trip, we really did see and experience some amazing things.  All of it, though (even Chinese WalMart and the Great Wall) takes a backseat to October 18, 2010. People who haven’t experienced “Gotcha Day” (or as we’re calling it, “Family Day”) really have no concept of just how strange and wonderful it is.

You wake up in the morning, and it’s just like any other day.  You shower, have breakfast (and if you’re me, you remark at the delightful oddity of having goose feet available on the “Western” breakfast buffet), read the news, and then a car comes to pick you up.

You’re not headed to the mall or the airport, though, but rather to a nondescript building that sits off of a busy city street.  You park, walk up 5 steps, and get in an elevator with a guy who is smoking like a chimney.  Three floors later, you emerge into a hallway.  On the white wall, in huge gold letters, are the Chinese characters and English words: “Hunan Adoption Registration and Service Center”.

You take a quick right into a room outfitted with low-slung bamboo chairs, tables, and couches, and you wait.  All this time, though, you feel like you’re moving in jello.  Nothing seems remotely real, except for the super-urgent sensation of desperately having to pee.  Okay, maybe that part’s just me.

You feel like you’re jumping out of your skin, but on the outside, you’re holding up remarkably well. Also?  You feel every millisecond of the four and half years you’ve been waiting; in fact, every second that ticks by feels like ANOTHER four and half years.

You sit calm and composed, though, as babies are brought into the room. You quickly scan faces, but none of them are yours.  And you KNOW which one is yours, because you’ve been obsessing over his picture for the last six months; every dimple, every freckle, every eyelash.

And then it happens.

Jack’s nanny came in with two babies, a little baby girl and my sweet boy.  Kevin didn’t recognize him at first.  I had to point him out.  We got up and slowly walked over to him. He shrank back into his nanny, and she tried so hard to get him to come to us willingly.

He was not a fan of us at ALL.  After a few minutes, though, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I picked him up.  He immediately began to wail (duh. Who WERE we, anyway???).  She tried to explain that we were his new Mama and Baba, but he was having no part of it.

I held him for a little while, then handed him to Kevin (we were both in tears, and I think Jack either thought we were nuts or wanted to petition for different parents at this point).  Shortly after that we were able to ask his nanny some questions (you know, important things like naps and poop), and then we were on our own.

Parents.  Of a toddler.  Just like that.

Somebody somewhere (including a couple of social workers) gave the go-ahead for us to be parents (although I’m fairly certain that if I had mentioned my deep and abiding–not to mention creepy and a little stalker-like–love of Don Henley then they would have reconsidered).

It’s not like being pregnant. If you get pregnant, with or without medical assistance, you still don’t have to run the adoption gauntlet. You don’t have social workers asking about details of your marriage or family relationships or looking in your closets or cabinets.

You don’t have to justify your desire or ability to parent a child to various US (and for us, foreign) government agencies. Don’t get me wrong; I actually think that ALL parents should be subjected to the rigors of the adoption process. I think it would *definitely* change some minds, and at the very least, people would get an education in child development and crisis management.

In fact, forget watching “Teen Mom”; just have teenagers attempt to fill out the 18 million forms for the adoption process.  That’ll work better than any condom would.  Oh, okay.  You can still watch “Teen Mom”, but you get my drift.

My point is that the weirdest and most wonderful experience in the wide world is having someone hand you a child who, until that exact moment, was a stranger to you.  We were judged to be two people capable of lovingly parenting a child, and I’m not sure I believed that about myself until the minute I held my son.

As soon as I picked him up, though, I knew two things with absolute certainty: This was my son, and I had this whole Mom thing locked.

Our journey was a long one, and I’m not just talking about the eternal flight to China.  The process that morning though, from the time we got in the car until the time we loaded back into it with Jack, took less than an hour.  It’s amazing how quickly four and a half years fell away.

Four and half years of waiting, of self-doubt, of fading faith, of hope buried so deep I was honestly afraid it would never again see the light of day….Four and half years vanished in the blink of an eye, and I became a Mom.

Merrin Donahue, adoptive mother of a boy from China



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  • Beautiful post, Merrin. You made me feel like I was right there with you. Thank you for sharing your story, your husband's story, and Jack's story.

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    In reply to Mary Tyler Mom:

    Thank YOU! Your story inspired me to share mine.

  • What a beautiful boy! After 2 years of thinking about adopting and another 2 years of going through classes and paperwork and an initial failed placement, we too are now the proud parents of a little boy. Congratulations to you and your family!

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    In reply to jiyer:

    Thanks! Congratulations to you and yours. Little boys are the best!


  • Merrin, thank you for this beautiful post, which I'm going to share with one of my best friends, who adopted her son from China, as well. We are from the Boston area, and adopted our beautiful son through The Cradle (in Evanston) this past June, after a 2.5+ year wait. I feel like I could have written much of this article myself. Thank you for writing it for all of us.

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    In reply to MarthaC:

    Thanks! I wrote this one week after returning from China; in fact, it was almost one year ago to the day. The wait was a killer, but oh, so worth it. The irony of it all is just how fast the last year has flown by. If only I could get Jack to stop growing up so fast! :-)

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    I feel ya! The day I finally was allowed to adopt my daughter (whom I'd parented as a foster parent for 2 years) I just about sprinted from the building CERTAIN they were going to change their minds as I exited the courthouse. Happy Gotcha story! The foster licensing I went through was pretty much what you went through minus the Chinese Gov. caring if I was crazy or not.

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    In reply to Meg71:

    I know *exactly* what you mean about sprinting from the building. We did the same thing! Congratulations on finalizing the placement of your daughter. :-)

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    I can so relate to the difficulty of waiting, although my wait for my girls was far shorter than yours. When I adopted my daughters as a single mom rom Bulgaria in 2001, I had to visit them in person before their paperwork could be processed. This happened in January. They were both 5 at the time (not bio-sibs). Then I had to LEAVE them for nearly 11 months - during which time 9/11 happened and I did not yet have my signed court decree - before I could go back to get them. But it is SOOOO worth it in the end. We celebrate our 10th "Gotcha Day" this Saturday, and I'm amazed at the beautiful, talented, intelligent young women they've become. Cherish every second with your darling boy - the time flies far too fast.

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    In reply to Teresa Cline:

    Happy Gocha Day! You're right: the time DOES fly. :)

  • Merrin,
    Beautifully described. I am a fellow adoptive mom to a beautiful girl, Ella Xiaqing from Jiangxi Province, China. We became parents in the same manner and it is quite an experience and flood of emotions. We were in China 8/4/10 to 8/20/10. Our family day is 8/8/10. Who knew that a declared 6-8 month wait at the beginning of LID would turn out to be 49 months and 2 weeks to referral.
    I just love that photo of your son. And aren't you just enjoying every minute with him?

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    I remember trying to explain The Wait to evrybody who asked whether or not we were still adopting. It was unfathomable to almost everyone that what started as something that was supposed to be relatively quick would stretch out so far. I tell people now that it was a lesson which was meant to teach me patience (something I've never had). It definitely helped prepare me for being a mom to the most active toddler in the world. ;-)

    Congratulations on Ella! Jack's best friend in our FCC group is a Jiangxi girl!

  • Merrin-thanks so much for sharing this story. My husband and I are adopting from China (LID 6/7/11) and stories like yours are what get us through the long wait. However, we started the adoption process January of 2010. I know what you mean about everyone questioning "the wait." I guess people don't understand unless they go through the process on their own. For us the hardest part of the wait so far has been people questioning us about our decision to wait. For us, it seems more like a journey. So thank you so much for sharing your journey to your beautiful son Jack!!! Many blessings to you and your family!!!!

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    Heartfelt thank you for sharing this splendid story! I cried. I laughed. I relate. As I sit here rocking our 22-day old miracle, I thank you for giving words to my adoptive-mom experience as well. I'm honored to share the title with you. Blessings.

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