Adoption: the severe and sublime work of bonding
She chose the wall
This first night I spent with my freshly adopted daughter from Ukraine three years ago reminded me of watching wildlife.
We were staying at my mother-in-law’s apartment in Kiev, Ukraine and three weeks prior to that night our visits were limited to two-hour intervals at her baby orphanage located outside the city.
That night, upon entering the bedroom, my daughter dove for the large pull out couch pushed up against the wall. Once in bed she observed my station next to her and sized up a blanket rolled up along the part of the edge my body didn’t cover. She realized this was not the plain, low wooden crib she had grown accustom to over the two-and-a-half years of her life in the orphanage, nor were there any other children from her group near her settling in for the night. Knowing my three bio kids back home and the types of tantrums they throw, my immediate expectation was for my little one to scream and howl with fear and eventually make her way over to me, the only other person in her proximity, for comfort.
That didn’t happen. She did not make a sound.
But she was not pleased I was there. She dealt with my presence the only way she knew how; to ignore me. As I lay on the edge of the bed, one foot resting on the floor, the sun set on the 27th day of my stay in Ukraine to complete this adoption.
I tried to imagine the trauma of leaving the only home a child has known, riding in a car for the first time, eating unknown foods, being dunked in a bath for what seemed the first time (she screamed through that) and swallowing a mouthful of blood after someone stuck a purple bristly stick into her mouth, vigorously moving it up and down, up and down.
I could not.
And I decided that first evening to sit near her quietly, a decision for better or worse, to watch the little girl I did not actually know but already loved, and see how she put herself to sleep.
After panning her head from left to right and back again a few times, she planted her pudgy little arms onto her legs while sitting. She started to rock back and forth, all the while grinding her teeth incessantly, and hard. She closed her eyes here and there and chewed her tongue.
I think, although I am not sure, that Evangeline spent a lot of time in her crib at the orphanage. And having been abandoned at birth due to her diagnosis of Down syndrome, she probably never experienced someone lovingly rocking her to sleep. It was still painful to watch.
But not as painful as her next trick. After rocking for forty-five minutes, she rolled over to the concrete wall, covered with meager thin wall paper probably dating back to the 1950s.
Upon making contact she leaned back and proceeded to smash her forehead up against the wall.
This was the only time I broke my role as observer that night. I placed my hands on her shoulders and whispered in Russian, “nelza, tak ne nada.” “No, no, you don’t need to do that”. My husband and children and I lived in Kiev for almost four years as missionaries until the birth of our third daughter.
I could have never guessed that God would have me use my Russian for something like this, though.
Evangeline shrugged me off and I moved her away from the wall. I pulled the blanket from my feet and wedged it between her and the cold, hard surface. She did not contest. Maybe she wasn’t aware she could? After her silent concession she made do with rubbing her head against part of the wall and part of the blanket.
It hurt my heart to watch her. I sat back on the bed and wondered if there would be a day she would let me, no, want me to rock her to sleep.
She chose me.
Fast forward three years.
What can I say? This adoption process has been arduous.
Evangeline and I have stumbled along, attempting to learn a mother/daughter dance, two steps forward in our bonding, a giant leap back. We’re awkward. We step on each other’s toes. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes. And I feel like at times, she still isn’t open to my love.
And worse yet, at times, I’m not open to her.
Last night I was sleeping downstairs on the couch because I’ve been terribly sick with a sore throat this week. I woke up to a smiley face next to me.
Evangeline had come downstairs to find me. I gathered her to me, and she complied.
She just cuddled right in, my six-year-old daughter who hasn’t muttered but a word here and there since she’s come to my family. This daughter whom therapists say is about twelve months old developmentally.
I rubbed her forehead, no sign of a bump from hitting her head. That behavior, thankfully, had long fallen away.
“Hello little one, how’d you find me?” She smiled at me, looking me in the eye, and hunkered down and I thought about how a few days ago I asked her for a kiss, and she bent her head, ever so slightly towards me, along my lips to brush her’s. She had let me in at that moment, just for a moment, and it filled the well of my heart to the brim.
I breathed her in, as we snuggled in the dark of night, thankful that this girl who used to choose to bang her head against the wall to fall asleep now, at least some nights, chooses me.
It’s not perfect, this relationship between my youngest daughter and me.
But it is a relationship.
A mother/daughter relationship, complete with ups and downs, and the continual frightening, beautiful process of knowing one another, the severe and sublime work of bonding for the glory of God.