BANGOR, Maine (WOMENSENEWS)–If a newborn’s first squall is music to every mother giving birth, a newly adopted toddler’s first music is a giggle.
Simone’s first music sounded during a diaper change in a Chinese hotel bathroom. About 36 hours had passed since we swept her away from her orphanage nannies, away from the only life she had ever known. Just 22 months old, she was still in shock, impassive as I bumbled my way through cleaning a little girl’s complex body parts. She used her leg to push me away, as if in rejection. I stumbled back as if she and her tiny foot could have knocked me down. I feigned offense.
Hilarious! She was impressed with herself.
Toddler laughter had never sounded so miraculous.
She tried a repeat, and my improvisational comedy worked again. My husband and 7-year-old son peered in from the other room. She pushed me away again and again, each act of slapstick as funny as the first. The four of us, still trying to conceive ourselves as a family, laughed a long time, inventing a new harmony.
Now we could exhale. I knew then that it would take time for Simone to work through her grief, but we were on our path. I also knew that we could claim true attachment when her behavior demonstrated such spirited fullness.
Participating in family humor, I learned from our adoption social worker before meeting my daughter, is actually a sign and a symbol of bonding. It shows that a newcomer understands the family system, understands how to elicit positive responses and wants to be engaged. More humor was to follow in the coming days as this 20-pound Chinese toddler discovered the wonders of a belly button that made people around her say “ding-dong;” noses that when grabbed went “honk” and a big brother willing to clown around for hours just for her entertainment.
Simone came to us with the Chinese name Lin Xin Ci. We met her in the late afternoon Jan. 28 in an unheated government Civil Affairs office in Fuzhou, a prosperous coastal city across the strait from Taiwan. The orphanage director, the care director and an exuberant nanny arrived in a heavy rain with two tiny 22-month-old girls. First, the other family’s daughter, Lin Xin Mei, walked into the office where we waited as her adoptive father recorded the moment on DVD. Xin Ci was propelled in a few minutes later, sporting a tiara with twinkling lights and a bewildered expression.
Our meeting was not rapturous. I gazed at Xin Ci, dressed in six layers on top and four layers on the bottom. I gulped, picked her up and held her for a moment, then let her walk back to the nanny. As much as I had longed to be mother of a daughter, as crazy as I had been about this child in advance, mostly I felt numb. My husband and I went to work signing a 24-hour guardianship agreement with the help of our guide and two local interpreters. My son, age 7, returned to his Gameboy. In the background, Xin Mei’s new mother played with her daughter and cried tears of joy for a long time.
Screaming Through Official Portrait
When we left the Civil Affairs office in the rain, Xin Ci cried out in terror for a while, until she was too tired to cry. I held her gently; she was limp. An hour later in a photo studio, we captured her terror on film. She screamed through our sitting for a photo that would verify on Chinese documents that my husband and I are her parents.
The next day we signed adoption papers, and Simone legally became part of our family. She entered a life, like many Chinese-Americans, with two names and a personal history that spans two distant worlds.
Afterward, the orphanage director and staff presented us with an amazing bundle of papers and symbolic gifts. We have the police report from when orphanage staff found her outside the gate in March 2002. We have a bag of earth from Simone’s hometown, Gutian. (Gutian, among other things, calls itself the “edible fungus capital of China.”) We have a small photo album identifying her caretakers and showing the orphanage grounds. We have booklets about Fujian province arts and culture.
Handwritten Birth Note
It was during this exchange that I finally cried the tears of gratitude and grief that had been waiting to come out. It was Lin Xin Ci’s red birth note, a crucial link to Chinese traditions that place great importance on the date and time of a child’s birth. This handwritten note was pinned to my daughter’s blanket when she was left outside the orphanage gate, five days after the date the note said she was born. We’ll never know whose hand it was written in. But I do know that her birth mother, and maybe her birth father, gave something that is unspeakably painful and profound.
The first six to eight weeks were as exhausting as having a newborn, in part because like most adopted toddlers, she could not sleep through the night.
By now, though, Simone’s entry into our family by adoption has become a moment fixed in the past, not a fact of daily life. Now Simone’s English vocabulary is growing by the day. Beyond “Mama,” “Dadd’n,” and “baby,” she can say something like “blankie,” “up,” “kitty,” “doggy,” “book,” “juice,” and select words from children’s books, like “balloon” and “hush.”
And we have evidence in recent weeks that attachment is fully rooted.
The sign I had been looking for started with our portable phone. I hadn’t always been so strict with her playing with the buttons. But then I got a callback from the 911 dispatch center asking if we had an emergency, and I knew I had to change my policy.
So one day, 15 weeks after we’d returned from China, I asked Simone to please put the phone back on the telephone table where it belonged, pointing to the phone cradle. She clutched the phone tightly to her chest, looked me in the eye, and shook her head vigorously from side to side.
Truly, an adoptee’s milestone: Simone had staged her first act of open defiance. Now I was the one laughing, and my heart leaped for joy. We’re family.
Marie Tessier writes about national affairs for Women’s eNews, and covered women’s issues from China in 2000. She lives in Bangor, Maine, with husband Paul Grosswiler; son Leif Grosswiler, age 8; and daughter Simone Xinci Tessier Grosswiler, age 2.
For more information:
I Become a Mother of a Chinese-American Girl:
Families with Children from China: