After the long wait of the adoption process, we all anticipate bringing home our child forever. An orphan no more, we dream of settling in as a family, having siblings instantly fall in love with each other and for the new scenery of home to take root in the child’s heart. We brought our daughter Joya home nearly a year ago when she was 26 months old. When people ask me what has been hard about our adoption experience, I truthfully express that the first 60 days at home were the darkest and most trying times. Now on the other side of that time, hindsight makes it easier for me to see what particular parts were so difficult.
Even if travel was easy – home can be hard! After Joya’s initial separation from her foster family, she was pretty easy to cart around China. From restaurants to shopping centers, naps, walks in a nearby park, even to bedtime, she went where we took her without protest. With the exception of the first night, she slept in her crib peacefully. I really thought that the ease of traveling with her would continue in life at home. Not so. Although jet lag definitely compounded the problem, starting from our very first day at home, I am certain that Joya realized that this was final. She was riddled with anxiety and was terrified to go to bed. She liked her brothers, but she mourned for the people, language, and environment of China that she was accustomed to.
Lots of crying. After nearly two weeks of having our exclusive attention during our travels, normal life at home was a trying transition for her. Daddy had to go back to work, and although her brothers were mostly in school, it was a harsh realization for her that she wasn’t the only child to be mothered. I very quickly realized that her grief came in waves. Crying was one major way for Joya to grieve. She would burst into tears for no apparent reason and cry inconsolably for an hour or more. Enduring this took a lot of emotional energy out of me. It was very much like mothering a child who is sick or has an injury. There was nothing I could really do to make her feel better – she had a hurt, and love and time were the only medicines.
Staying home is best. Establishing a schedule smoothed the transition. For us, too much activity in a day seemed to bring more of Joya’s anxiety and emotion to the surface. Although I was not prepared for it, I quickly learned that spending lots of time at home and keeping our schedule quiet was best for her. I think it gave her the time to work through her emotions under the security of not having to wonder what was coming next. For me, that meant the decision to say no to some things that I would have preferred to get out of the house and do. However, once I recognized the benefit, the sacrifice was worth it.
Grief can take many forms. Adoption is wonderful, but it always starts with loss. Sometimes an orphan endures multiple losses before joining a forever family and that hurt doesn’t just disappear. As an orphan, Joya was fortunate to not live in an institution, but was placed with a wonderful foster family who clearly loved her. They treated her as their own child. She was fed, clothed, cuddled, and doted on as the only little one in the household. She even had two loving grandmother figures in her neighborhood that she loved and had strong relationships with.
All these good things definitely contributed to her ready understanding of what family life is all about. Her heart knew how to love and attach, but breaking those relationships and re-assigning them equaled one word: trauma. During the first 60 days at home, Joya was a rollercoaster of emotions. The hardest moments for me were when she expressed that she wanted to be physically close to me (i.e., reach out for me to hold her), but then when I drew her close she would try to physically hurt me. Without notice, she hit, pinched, scratched, and head-butted me. I now describe it as “she hated to love us”. She needed that attachment to parents, but hated that it had to be us. Particularly, that it had to be me.
I quickly caught on. I began to anticipate her behavior and worked to lessen it. For example, I would prepare her verbally that I was about to pick her up, but she may not hit and needed to “be soft” with Mommy. Then I would put one hand gently over her arms or hold her so that her head could not hit mine, just in case. This behavior was over by the time we were home for two months, but had I anticipated it happening, I would have steeled my own emotions to it. As it was, my own hurt feelings added to our tumultuous transition.
The red phone: All this being said, my biggest asset I had during our adoption was a friend and mentor who had walked this road before me. My husband and I deliberately sought out David and Mindy when we were first thinking about adopting from China. They had added three children to their family through this process, and we wanted to learn as much from them as we could. During this time, Mindy gave me “red phone” privileges. By immediately responding to texts and phone calls with understanding and advice, she gave me the confidence to keep moving forward. She rejoiced with me and counseled me. When I was jet-lagged, sleep deprived, and emotional from all these transitional issues, she was the one telling me that this was all normal and would get better. Her most powerful words to me were, “Adoption can be hard, but it is SO BEAUTIFUL.”
Now I can encourage this same truth to others.
My number one piece of advice I give when people talk to me about possibly adopting is: find a mentor! Support and advice protected me from despair.
Adoption is so wonderful. There is a particular beauty in the process that can be compared to nothing else. Joya, now three years old, is thriving as the youngest of our five children. She is beautiful, funny, smart, and simply a delight. We adore her, and she genuinely loves us with a full heart.
~Laurie Sweeney is the assistant coordinator of LWB”s True Children’s Healing Home.
What stories and advice can you share with others about your first 60 days home?