Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences.
By Merrin Donahue
Full disclosure: I have no idea what I’m doing as a mother. I’m totally winging it here. I’m certain that I’m screwing so much up, so take my words with a grain (or a tablespoon) of salt.
Back in the fall of 2010, in China, a very nice lady handed me my son and sent me on my merry way back to the United States. My husband took to parenthood like a duck to water. I had a harder time. I had taken all the required pre-placement classes. I sought out advice from other moms, from books, even from irreverent parenting blogs. You know, people smarter than me.
I faked it for the first year. I got the hang of it the second year, and by year three I hit my stride. It was sometime in that third year that my kiddo decided he wanted to go back and visit his home country.
Jack: “Mommy. I want to go to China.”
Me: “Sure, honey. Someday we’ll all go back.”
Jack: “I hope that someday is soon.”
And so it began. Jack has always known his story. The day after we got home from the last trip, I put together what’s affectionately known as “The Jack Book”. It contains every picture we have of him, including those from his time in the orphanage. It’s filled with memories, mementos, and milestones. He LOVES it. We’ve read it countless times at bedtime, and he’s even taken it to school for Show And Tell (more than once, actually).
My point is, he knows where he came from and how he came to be ours. He knows he had a China Mommy and Daddy before he had us, and he knows he had nannies to care for him in between. We talk about it ALL THE TIME.
It was no surprise when he started, in the summer of 2013, to ACTIVELY lobby for a homeland trip (and NOBODY lobbies like this one. He is the future of Washington, y’all). We had always planned on it, but it was looming distant on the horizon, floating in the ether.
Once again, I turned to smarter people (this time I enlisted the brains of adult adoptees–the Holy Grail of smart people) to help me get a plan together. Turns out that the overwhelming majority agreed on the same thing: the earlier you can go home again, the better. It’s easier, it seems, to integrate heritage, culture, and ethnicity before cultural bias has a chance to kick in.
I began to work on our itinerary last November. Up to that point, adoption talk had ramped up to prodigious proportions. It was an every day occurrence: Birth Family, the weather in China, the orphanage, Chinese geography, nannies, Chinese history… it was mind-boggling just how mightily China Fever had taken hold of my child.
We answered every question as best we could (with a lot of help from Siri), and we were unflinchingly honest about what we did and, more importantly, what we DIDN’T know. The last thing we wanted to do was paint a forgery of his early life. The trip would be a whirlwind of every major city and attraction in China (think Great Wall, Terra Cotta Warriors, panda holding, Li River cruise).
We each picked an experience we wanted to have (Jack’s was tobogganing down the Great Wall. He loved it, by the way. I was ALL ABOUT the pandas). I scheduled all kinds of classes, and worked with a phenomenal travel agent who hooked us up with a bunch of in-home visits so we could experience actual family life. We decided to pull Jack out of the last week of school so we could stay a little longer.
The one thing we (my husband and I) were on the fence about was an orphanage visit. Our son just turned seven (he was six during the planning phase). I didn’t think he was ready for that quite yet. The hubs insisted on, at the very least, visiting Jack’s hometown. I was down with that, but I remained unconvinced about a visit to the SWI.
One morning on the way to school, after a particularly intense conversation about his Birth Family, I asked him if he wanted to see where he was from. I have never seen my kid so excited about ANYTHING. Later that night, I sat with him in the quiet dark of his room, and after stories were read and lullabies were sung, I asked again. This time I really, really listened. I listened between the lines.
So we added a couple of days to our already overstuffed itinerary. We booked an additional guide and translator, we paid the orphanage fee, we arranged transportation to his town from the capital of the province. And we prepared ourselves to pull the plug on the whole thing.
I remained unconvinced that it was a good idea. Nevertheless, we made sure he knew what to expect. We talked about the babies and kids there, we showed him pictures, we reached out to other families who had Been There Done That.
Our first week back in China was beyond anything we could’ve imagined. The FIRST thing he said when we stepped off the plane in Beijing was “MOM!!! There are SO MANY Chinese people! There aren’t any Americans anywhere! I love it here!!!.”
I had NO IDEA that he felt that way. Maybe I hadn’t been listening as hard as I thought. But still I remained unconvinced.
The night before the orphanage visit, we sat down with him (again) and prepared a list of questions he wanted to ask. I don’t know how he managed to fall asleep that night, he was so excited. I remained unconvinced.
The next morning we met our guide, boarded the G train and headed out. I remained unconvinced. We piled into cabs and fought traffic through downtown. I remained unconvinced. Our cabs stopped in the middle of the street (traffic jam), and we were unceremoniously dumped on the street and told we had to walk the rest of the way. I remained (way) unconvinced.
And then we crested a hill, and my son saw the building he had seen so many times in his Jack Book. His face lit up in a way I had never seen. I have never seen a smile so big. I swear I saw his heart light up in his chest. He couldn’t get there fast enough.
Right then and there I realized it didn’t matter AT ALL what *I* thought. I took my baby’s hand, and we walked through the door together. We met the Director, reviewed his file, asked questions, and then the door opened and a lady walked in with a large picture frame.
In it were all the pictures we had sent them over the years. It had been hanging in the Baby Room; a reminder to other kids that families DO come (there were too few frames on that wall, by the way). The woman that came in? She was his nanny. His caregiver. Think about that word: Care. Giver. One who gives care. She didn’t have to; she could have treated him like so many others are treated: feed, clothe, move on. But she CARED. She GAVE.
We looked at the pictures of the two of them in his file. She immediately hugged him, then didn’t let go. I will never be able to put into words the depth of the gratitude I have for her for caring for my baby until I could get to him. I’m crying now just thinking about her.
We went upstairs to the Baby Room. We met the sweet lady who had brought him to us six years ago. His nanny couldn’t stop touching him, but she managed to let him go long enough so he could explore the room and see the other kids there. He even got to see his crib!
What I saw, though, was my child’s soul healing right before my eyes (in truth, he’s been so much more at peace since we visited. He’s such an inherently happy kid that I had no idea that he WASN’T at peace until I saw that he WAS).
So much transpired that day, but I fervently believe those are not my stories to tell. Those moments, while unimaginably special to me, ultimately belong to my son. When, and if, he’s ready, I have no doubt he’ll share it much more eloquently than I ever could. What I want to leave you with is this:
There was a team of volunteers at the orphanage while we were there. One of them pulled me aside and asked me how I knew it was the right time to bring him back.
I thought about it for a minute. I could’ve given the stock answer of “Oh, the experts say yadda yadda yadda”– but I went with the truth: I listened to someone smarter than me. It turns out that it just happened to be my seven-year-old son.
Merrin Donahue lives in Amelia Island, FL with her husband, 2 neurotic beagles, and the sweetest boy on the planet. Her family just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime heritage trip to China.
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