10 Years Later: What I’ve Learned About Adoption

It’s been 10 years since we were handed our new daughter in the meeting room of a hotel in Guiyang, China.

Ten years since we wrapped arms and hearts around her and promised to never, ever let go.

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The moment our family of four became five.

That moment was the culmination of years of preparation, none of which actually prepared us for the job of parenting a child born to other parents in a foreign country.

We went into it for all the best reasons and wanting only to love her just as we already loved our biological children, and we do – fully and unconditionally. She is our daughter in every sense but genetic.

But that day was not just the end of the wait. It was our beginning as a new family and a bold step into the unknown.

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Notice the look in her eye. I should have realized what we were dealing with right then and there.

A lot of well intentioned people told us some hard things before our adoption but in my usual way I chose to focus on the positives and pretty much ignore the negatives, because we were going to do it all the right way. No room for the bad stuff in our adoption!

Side note: I remember when my first daughter was born and I inwardly resolved to be the first perfect mother raising the first perfect child. That turned out just about the way you imagine it might have, which is to say disastrous. When my second daughter was born I set out to be the best mother I could for her, but I’d given up (temporarily, it seems) on perfection.

Oh yes. We knew all about taking it slowly, things like not immediately stripping off the clothing she wore to dress her in the pretty things we brought for her. We knew to follow her lead and not expect her to behave like our other two daughters did at the same age. We recognized that developmentally she might be delayed and we were prepared for that. We knew that we might not feel a connection to this tiny stranger right away, that adoption is similar to an arranged marriage, where the commitment might come before the love develops.

All those things were useful, but it still wasn’t enough.

And so it’s been 10 years of love, lessons, and learning for us. Here are some things I’ve learned.

1. Adoption involves loss. Always. Maybe not for you, but always for your child. You can sugarcoat it all you want and imagine a happily ever after to rival any fairy tale. You can love her with all your heart (and hopefully you will, if not at first at least eventually) but you can never make up for the loss of her birth parents, so don’t waste your time trying. Your child may not be able to put words to the feelings but if you’re paying attention you will see signs of grief, whether in outright tears, or anger, or a quiet sadness. And just when you think the clouds have passed, you may still see storms pop up every now and then. There has been a loss and the sooner you acknowledge and accept the elephant in the room, the better for all concerned.

2. Not knowing is not ideal. I used to think that one reason we chose China is because the possibility of having our adoption disrupted by the birth parents was next to none. I liked the feeling of security. But that security comes at a cost. The same laws that mean my daughter’s birth parents can’t come forward to claim her also mean that we will never know anything about them. Were they smart? Athletic? Fiery-tempered? Which parent gave her that cute nose? Which shares her smile? We’ll never know. The sparse details we have are hardly enough to satisfy her curiosity when she comes asking questions, and I’m deeply sorry about that. I wish I knew more so I could tell her more.

3. Love doesn’t conquer all, but it’s a great start. I think I believed that once we held our daughter she would suddenly feel secure, and she would latch onto us and never look back. (cue the violins and send out the rainbows and unicorns) Attachment disorder is a thing, people. Our daughter loves us and she is attached, but there’s still some push/pull going on sometimes that is painful for all concerned.

4. You can’t force a child to love her heritage. We have tried to lead her there and she just won’t go. For the first few years we celebrated Chinese holidays, joined a Chinese cultural group, took Mandarin classes, and incorporated Chinese art in our home decor. I bought Chinese cookbooks with the idea that I would learn to cook some authentic foods that we would all enjoy together. Once she got old enough to ask that we skip the Chinese New Year celebration we chose to respect her wishes. At this point she seems totally uninterested. The only Chinese dish she likes is rice – not the fried variety but the white kind that can’t even properly be considered “Chinese”. Occasionally we mention that it’s the time of year for a particular Chinese celebration, only to be met with a shrug. I still hope that one day she will be interested in her heritage but right now she considers herself strictly American.

5. Sometimes different does not equal special. When I reminded my daughter this morning that today marks 10 years since we met for the first time, her reaction could only be termed “underwhelming” if not downright hostile. She’d just rather not discuss it. It could be that she doesn’t like being reminded that she joined the family in a way different from her sisters. Being different in that way apparently doesn’t make her feel special. In fact it’s just the opposite. I’m guessing she feels like she stands out but not in a good way. On a similar note, she doesn’t like to see pictures of herself as a baby and she can’t or won’t articulate exactly why. I suspect it has to do with being reminded of how she came to be one of us. I love the process of adoption and am terribly sentimental about those days, but then again I’m on the other side of things.

6. Her story is her story. When her questions come (and they do) I try to answer them as best I can but I do my best to refrain from discussing personal details with other people. But you say, here you are writing about it for all the world to read. Yes I am, but in general terms. We don’t have many details about her history but what we do have is hers, which is why you won’t read it here unless she gives me permission to write about it.

I used to think that raising an adopted child was just like raising a biological child except for the way they joined the family. Uh, no. There are so many nuances to the dynamics of adoption that don’t apply to your other kids. And not all adopted children behave the same way. It’s all pretty confusing, isn’t it? We’re learning as we go. Ten years from now I might have a totally different outlook.

But then there are the days when I forget that she looks different from me. That it surprises me when strangers do a double take, as they sometimes do.

It reminds me of the old joke about the adoptive Mom who says, “One of my children is adopted but I forget which one.”

So yeah, love may not conquer all.

But it sure is a good place to start.

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4 thoughts on “10 Years Later: What I’ve Learned About Adoption

  1. Really beautiful Kim. So insightful and something Quinn will treasure when she is old enough to appreciate it. I would love to share some of it with my adoption classes if you are comfortable with that?

  2. As an adoptive parent myself (X2), I LOVE your honesty! So many adoption stories are only about the good parts (and there are MANY good parts!) but leave out the mundane faithfulness of raising and loving a child not born to you. It’s quite an adventure, isn’t it?

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