|The New York
I Lived Mom's Adoption Pain
By Tina Traster
April 18, 2010 -- Everyone said I would fall in love with my daughter the minute they laid her in my arms. She was beautiful, with her broad, alabaster face and deep, brown eyes. And she was a flirt: At 6 months, she could flash a dimpled smile. I was awed by her perfect features as the orphanage worker pressed her to me and handed me a bottle. I took the bottle hesitantly and tipped it toward the baby's pursed lips. How would I know when she was sated or whether she needed to burp? I felt as though someone had lent me an expensive camera I was afraid to fiddle with.
At the airport in Siberia, I held our baby on my lap. Suddenly, I heard a pop, then an ooze of yellow diarrhea exploded from her diaper. I was horrified. Unable to stand the stench, I thrust her into my husband's hands. Calmly, he changed her diaper and pulled out a clean snowsuit. How could I care for this baby when my first instinct was to push her away?
Loving a child is not always an immediate impulse. And when you bring home an adopted child who has lived in a Russian institution, you bring home ghosts. Everyone has a harsh opinion about Torry-Ann Hansen, the Tennessee woman who put her adopted son on a flight alone and sent him back to Moscow. A cold and desperate move, indeed, but I have some idea what it might have felt like to walk in her shoes.
I was 40 when we went to Russia, and in my second marriage. When my husband, Ricky, and I couldn't conceive, we tried non-invasive fertility treatments. When that failed, we moved on to adoption with the Frank Adoption Center in North Carolina, specialists in Russian adoptions. I was secretly relieved because I didn't want aggressive fertility treatments. Maybe I was ambivalent about motherhood and didn't know it.
Ricky and I chose an international adoption because it is easier than in America. Russian adoptions are "closed," meaning you don't need to worry about the birth parents backing out at the last minute or showing up in your children's life in the future. We also thought it would be cool to parent a child who came from our Jewish ancestral land.
Everyone warned us to hunker down because adoption can drag on for years. Yet ours took less than seven months, although it cost $40,000. We filled out a dossier in August 2002, went through the steps of a home study, background checks and other bureaucracy. We requested a baby girl. And in November 2002, I got "the call."
Three months later, we flew through a dark, snowy night to Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, to meet "Yulia," who was 6 months old. Because the Russian government at the time required families to make two trips before completing an adoption, we returned three weeks later in February. The orphanage handed us a naked baby and a tiny baptizing cross. Other than being told the name of the baby's birth mother, we knew nothing else about her first six months of life. Only that she had never been outside the orphanage, which likely explained her powder-white complexion.
When you're adopting a child, you become so utterly focused on that desire, you lull yourself into believing that none of that matters anyway, that loving her will be enough. We decided to name her Julia, an American version of her Russian name.
Six months later, Julia was in a makeshift nursery in our small apartment in New York City. It had all happened so quickly, I had not had time to hang wallpaper or animal-themed mobiles.
Pregnant women have time to arrange the spice rack. Nature slows them down. They come to their baby slowly, symbiotically. When we brought our baby home, she weighed 15 pounds. With neck and back injuries from sports, I could barely carry her.
During the first year we were home, I fed her, changed her diapers and sang to her, but I was numb. I could have been loading the dishwasher. Ironically, I wasn't suffering from sleep deprivation. Life at the orphanage had taught our baby to sleep 11 hours a night, in a bed by herself. But I had not had a chance to welcome the mother in me. In my naiveté, I was not prepared to slow down, to be so needed. While my baby was squealing with delight at Elmo or crying because she was groggy, I slogged away at my computer in the next room, teeth clenched, stomach churning.
I had not given birth; my hormones were not awry. I knew I couldn't attribute the feelings I was having to postpartum depression, but I was bluer than I'd ever been. I'd look down at my gorgeous child sitting on the floor, surrounded by blocks and toys, and feel a surge of guilt.
I had gone to the end of the world to get this baby, yet we were not bonded.
I thought I was damaged goods. Or maybe she was. Perhaps I was not bonding with her because she was not bonding with me. Psychologists say some infants are so traumatized at birth that they develop a self-defense mechanism that makes them unable to trust adults. This made sense to me. When I tried to hold my daughter, she flexed in the opposite direction. Her instinct was to flee, not to cling. Julia would not look me in the eye. I didn't know what to do. We were sinking.
During a recital on her last day of nursery school, I was shaken from my stupor. As I watched my daughter disrupt the concert and her teacher take her aside to restrain her, I cried hard, for the first time. That evening, I went online and researched reactive attachment disorder, the syndrome that prevents adoptees from attaching to their new parents. I saw descriptions of my child's behavior and suggestions for bonding with and raising these children.
WHILE I can understand the despair an adoptive parent might feel -- and even imagine what frustrations drove Torry-Ann Hansen to relinquish her son -- I knew I had to rescue Julia and me.
Over the next year, my husband and I focused on interrupting our daughter's hard-wired defense system. We said things you'd never imagine saying to a child: "I know you are afraid for Mommy to love you. But I do love you."
We kept her close to us. I organized play dates. We met her fits and taunts with calm indifference. Sometimes, we'd even laugh in the middle of a tantrum, and she'd stop and break into a giggle. Our united front threw her off.
Last year, my daughter, now 7, and I began to find each other. She started to think about her behavior and its effects, rather than acting reflexively. Julia could reach for my hand without feeling inner ghosts.
Over time, we became a unit. We replaced distance and indifference with fierce emotions. I don't worry if she tells me she hates me, because it shows we're tied, finally, in the tumult of a mother-daughter relationship. I try not to be sad when I think back on our early days together. We needed time to trust primal love.
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