“So, Mom, I’m not saying I did do it. But if I did do it, what would happen?”
This is Iris, my seven year-old daughter, who was born in Guizhou, China. Six years ago this spring, she came home with me, my husband, and our birth-daughter, Charlotte, and made our family complete. She is full of fire and sweetness and contains somewhere in her little belly the most contagious and fabulous laugh that God ever stuck in a human being. And with her adoption came some unique challenges for me and Eli as her parents. The “it” in her above statement is the hunk of sodden toast I found in my teapot after telling Iris that she needed to eat the slightly-too-brown, but not burnt, piece of toast instead of wasting it and toasting another piece of bread. My answer to her question was that there would be a consequence for the action that led to the floating bob of bread in the teapot. It certainly wasn’t what she wanted to hear, so she leveled a perfected look of obstinacy at me and said, “My real mother wouldn’t holler at me or give me consequences.”
Eli and I are in a team together with two ghostly figures in Iris’s past: her birth parents. The tangle over the toast and her barb about her “real” mother are good examples of the easier issues we have to navigate as adoptive parents. I thought I was ready for them. While we waited for our paperwork to return from China, I grabbed every source of information I could get my hands on – books, articles, magazines, documentaries – because I wanted to be prepared for whatever we were going to face as an international family. The looks we would get at restaurants. The well-intentioned but rude comments made in the grocery line. But, no matter how ready I made myself for them, there are moments that I dread. The ones that hold the nebulous hurt inside a child who lost her mother and father as an infant. Despite all the ways I walked through these scenarios in my imagination in order to try and anticipate how to become the soft place Iris needs to land now and then, they’re still hard.
They started when she was only three years old and I was bustling around the house getting ready to go to a meeting.
“I miss you,” Iris said to me, as I rifled through my drawer for matching socks.
“You mean you’ll miss me when I’m away?” I asked.
She nodded, her little ponytails swinging. How I had cherished those ponytails in the three images I had kept tucked in a journal in my backpack through the entire sixteen-hour flight to China.
“Well,” I told her cheerfully, “you know Mommy always comes home, right?” Iris looked up at me and replied, “Sometimes mommies don’t come back.” It pulled the oxygen right out of my lungs. I forgot about the meeting, dropped the socks, and scooped her into my arms. I didn’t want her to see the emotion that had very suddenly bloomed in my face, the realization that at three-years-old she understood, in some way, what had happened to her as a baby. How do you fix that, even if you know just the right words to say?
You take a breath. You remind yourself that you can do it, that you need to be whatever your child needs in that moment. You try your best for her.
Though she doesn’t remember her birth parents or her life in Guizhou, they hold a special place inside her that requires careful tending. I need to pay attention when she says, “I don’t like black hair. I want hair like yours.” It means something much different than she wants to look like Barbie or Cinderella. She wants to look like me. She wants to have grown in my uterus like her sister, to look like the rest of her family, so we find ways to remind her how much we love her for every bit of who she is and what she looks like – that love, not appearances, make a family. And there was the afternoon she came home from school and told me she felt like she didn’t “match” anyone in her class, so I called the teacher and we came up with the idea of an Asian doll for the class play area. The teacher not only took the idea and started a unit on the different types of skin tones there are in the world and in their classroom, but she also had a welcoming ceremony for the doll, naming her Mei, and told the kids about Mei’s home country of China.
The other night Iris crawled into my lap with her deep black eyes filled with tears. Iris doesn’t cry very often and when she does it usually means she is hurting emotionally. My mother always says that when your kids hurt, you hurt, and with Iris the hurt is deep and sometimes confusing for her. I steeled myself up and asked her what was wrong.
“I miss my parents,” she whispered, huge tears rolling over her long lashes and down her cheeks.
Okay, I said to myself, as my heart broke for her, you know how to listen. You know what to say. You know what to do. And you need to love this daughter of yours with everything you have.
So we talked. I told her it was okay to miss them, that I was sure they missed her, too, and that I was glad she could tell me what was wrong. I held her close when she said she was sad that she didn’t know what her birth parents looked like, so together we created them in her mind, our foreheads resting against each other. We agreed that her birth-parents probably have hair like hers, eyes like hers, and her nose, my most favorite part of her, was probably just like theirs. I suggested that she write a letter to them and draw a picture of them that she could hang by her bed. She lit up and ran for her paper and crayons, returning to me with a portrait of the three of them, along with a letter that told them how much she loved them, asked them why they had decided not to keep her, and described the April Fool’s joke she had nailed me with earlier in the day.
I gushed over the picture and then held her little hands in mine, saying, “I know that they love you, but for some reason we don’t know, they couldn’t take care of you. And maybe someday we can find them. It might be difficult, but if you want to try, Daddy and I want to help. We want to meet them, too, and thank them for giving us a daughter to love always.” While these issues regarding Iris’s past, what she has lost, and her family in China take a special balancing act so that she can both celebrate her ethnicity as well as feel secure in her place as our daughter, there are also many points of levity. The “my real mother wouldn’t” comments are normal and not uncommon and I have a hard time keeping a straight face when Iris uses her birth parents against me. I try to see those exchanges as tennis balls lobbed at me from across the court by a three-foot-tall firecracker with a ninety-mile-per-hour serve, like any other comeback from a child. And it is my job to keep a sense of humor and softly return that serve with a motherly bump of my racket. I know that were I the adopted daughter, I would have undoubtedly tried those zingers on for size with my own mother. Take that! Zing! And that! Zip! The other day I had to force myself to look stern when Iris took offense to the loss of her bedtime story for three nights. The crime? Writing, in pen, on Charlotte’s bureau, “I hate you,” after a sisterly argument, and surrounding the sentiment in a perfect ballpoint heart. When she learned of her punishment, she told me, point blank, that if she couldn’t have her story back then she was moving to China to live with her birth parents. My girl’s got spunk, and I had to turn away from her so she wouldn’t see me laughing.
I am Iris’s mother. She is my daughter. There is a lot to consider each day for her. There is also Charlotte, our nine-year-old, and her take as the older sister, the birth-child, our firstborn. Not all of my parenting moments are as stellar as I’d like them to be, but if I can help both Iris and Charlotte along through whatever they feel, whenever they feel it, each in their own way, I’ll have done what I set out to do when I signed my name all 4,391 times on our way to Guizhou Province and in the hospital when Eli and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s have this baby.” And if all of us can laugh about our tennis ball moments? Even better.