International Adoption: Celebrity or No, It's Hard.

The bittersweet nature of international adoption hit me in the Guizhou airport. A parade of children from Guiyang City trundled through the terminal dressed in batik and embroidery, their silver bangles jingling. My adopted sixteen-month-old daughter, finally in my arms, looked just like those children. She’d grown up looking at those conical mountains beyond the airstrip. And here we were, about to take her away from this country where she had a foster family and – somewhere – a birth mother, a birth father, possibly biological siblings; to get on a plane back to Philadelphia, where she would speak English, eat American food and wear overalls.

We had been waiting for this moment for sixteen months, through piles of paperwork, red tape and checks totaling almost $20,000 (some of which would be recouped with an adoption tax return). But in that moment at the airport, I wondered: Do I have a right to take her away from her country? I looked at her beautiful face. She was hesitant to make eye contact with me. I was still a stranger to her, even though the governments of China and the United States had both declared me her mother. And even though I already loved her.

When I read in People about Angelina Jolie’s adoption of a three-year-old Vietnamese boy, my first thought was that she was doing something noble. Mary Hopkins-Best, author of Toddler Adoption: The Weaver’s Craft, reports that if babies aren’t adopted by the time they’re toddlers, they typically Pax had a family already; he had bonded completely to the caretakers and children at his in an orphanage until they’re able to go out on their own. To place a child over two years old is nothing short of a miracle. Glamorous parents aside, Pax is lucky just to have what adoptive parents call a “forever family.”

But the usually sunny People hinted at just how emotionally difficult older adoptions are: “The three-year-old Vietnamese boy started crying when Angelina Jolie knelt down to speak to him at Thursday morning’s welcoming ceremony at Tam Binh Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh.” Pax had a family already; he had bonded completely to the caretakers and children at his orphanage (which had also neglected to tell him he would be adopted that day).

I was reminded of an exercise that a social worker did with our adoptive parents group. She had us close our eyes and imagine going about our daily lives, when suddenly two strangers walk in. These strangers speak words we can’t understand. They smell different. Their skin is not like ours and their eyes look strange. The people we’ve thought of as our family tell us that we are going to be leaving with these people. We’re told that we will be happy, but that we’ll never see our family again. Soon, we’re in a strange bed, a strange house, told to eat food we’ve never even seen before. When we opened our eyes, the entire room of soon-to-be parents looked grim. I put my face in my hands.

Still, I knew in my heart that adoption was meant for our family, and when our paperwork finally arrived from China, we rushed to our adoption agency. I stared at the serious little face that looked up at me from the six photos stapled to our folder. My mind raced as I tried to memorize every inch of my daughter: her ponytails, her wispy bangs, her moon-shaped face and irresistible cheeks. I mourned all the months I had missed. All I had were six photos. No kicks to the abdomen. No ultrasounds showing a heartbeat. And yet during the process of adopting her, I felt all the same feelings of excitement that I’d had carrying my birth-daughter, Charlotte, who was three years old when we brought Iris home.

We flew to China and whisked our new daughter, whom we named Iris, into our arms. But it was hardly a joyful moment on her part. She was terrified, and stayed so for that whole first week in China. She refused to eat for almost forty-eight hours. She alternately cried when I got up to walk across the room and pushed me away. Huge tears would roll down her cheeks while her face remained still. She screamed when I undressed her for a bath. It took three days for her to smile. At dinner one night, she refused to come back to me after being held by a Chinese waitress. When I managed to get Iris back, she slapped me. The transition was excruciating for her and for us. How much harder must it be for a child as old as Pax?

Now, almost two years later, that scared little girl is gone. Iris no longer remembers Chinese, and for a span after she turned two she would even shy away from anyone who looked Asian. She would shake her head emphatically when a Chinese friend tried to hold her and croon to her in Mandarin. She loves to announce that she was born in China, but she prefers to fast-forward past the birth mother/foster mother chapter and get to the part when we came to get her and bring her home. She often asks me to read her I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, a Chinese adoption story in which the mom looks a lot like me. Chinese culture will always be a part of our life, because we want her to know about the beautiful country she comes from. My husband, Eli, devotes weekend cooking to Chinese dishes, and we go to events at our agency that expose her to other families that look like hers.

Unlike Angelina, who can whisk Pax back to his birth country any time, we need to plan for years to finance another trip to China. But in other ways, we’ve tried to make life easier for Iris. At the age of two, she attempted to use chopsticks, so we bought her her own pair. We maintain contact with her foster family, sending photos and little gifts. Her foster mother once responded by sending red sweaters for Charlotte and Iris. Some afternoons, I put on a CD of children’s songs sung in Chinese, and the two girls dance and sing along.

Today, the girls are playing in the backyard. I look out my back window and see Iris, running around with her big sister, her spring-lamb legs skipping through the grass. And in that moment, I understand why Angelina is so addicted to adoption (rumor has it she’s at work on a fourth). Watching Iris frolic around, I find it hard to believe there was ever a time that she was someone else’s daughter.

Article Posted 9 years Ago
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