When we first met FD in Wuhan, it felt like we bonded with our new daughter incredibly fast. I’ve read so many accounts of other adopting parents reporting the same experience: The match is magical, the connection nearly instantaneous. Boom. In Love. Um, maybe.
Now we see the experience a little differently. When we look at early photos and then those from a few months later, the change in FD is obvious. We know her so well now we can see that she was more reserved at first than we realized at the time. It was only after we got home and some time went by that what we can see on her face in pictures is full-on love and trust.
With SD, it wasn’t so simple for me. She seemed to bond quickly with Doc in Zhengzhou, but she cried and screamed every time I came near. With a lack of perspective I find embarrassing now, I felt rejected, with hurt feelings and little hope that things would ever improve. (I was wrong.)
Doc explained it to me one day when I was sulking in China. When a child is first handed to his or her new adoptive parents, what kicks into gear immediately are survival instincts, nothing more. Love’s not even on the table. The first concern — it’s obvious, once you think about it — is whether these new people mean to cause me harm. Once that threshold has been met, the next item on the agenda is food: Who’s gonna feed me? From there we move down the list to who provides comfort. For kids with tough, or institutionalized, backgrounds, once you’ve identified an adult who meets your needs, you’re done. Anyone else is just getting in the way of your baseline needs.
We see now in FD’s pictures that she, too, was firmly in this survival mode for the first months. Thanks to her loving foster-family background she was confident enough that we didn’t see it. She wasn’t scared of us, but she was questioning and wondering. In a little while, though, she could take us for granted — in the best way — relax, and begin to fall in love with Mommy and Daddy.
I can’t really remember for sure how long it took for SD to trust me and let down her guard, or what changed. I think it had to do with tickling. We’re pretty much over that now — she’s learned she can set physical boundaries — and now, of course, we’re tight as can be.
Still. What a stunning thing it must be for a young child to be removed from everything she or he knows — people, places, sounds, words, smells — with no comprehensible explanation, and no idea if this is going to be a thing from now on. Are these new people the first of a series of upheavals? And where did my grownup go? And where am I? And who’ll take care of me? Yipes.
We may fall in love right away, but for them it must inevitably takes time. All we have by way of explanation in those scary moments is kindness, warmth, patience, and — oh, yeah — food. All the food they want.