I haven’t talked a lot about adoption. Mostly, it’s just not what I typically think of when I think of my son. Because he was adopted, there are things to consider and keep in mind as a parent. But as parents we also have to keep a thousand other things constantly in mind, so it just depends which “thing” is most present at the time as to whether the fact that Henry was adopted from Taiwan at 11 months old is material.
The first few months weren’t so natural, however. The parent-child bond is a complex and transcendent thing. It often defies logic. It rarely follows common sense. It cannot be completely understood by the mind, by normal emotional standards or even by time. It exists at a higher, deeper level — a mysterious blend of heart, spirit and the soul’s journey. Before I ever met Henry in this lifetime, before his name was Henry, I knew he was my son. The bond on my end was set. My husband Larry describes the same experience. The meeting and getting to know each other part was just the next necessary phase in the relationship.
But for Henry, we were the next two in a thankfully short line, but nevertheless a line, of caregivers. Immediately after he met us, we took him away on a train and then a plane to a place where everything looked, smelled, tasted and sounded different, including every word spoken. We spent the first few weeks staring at him like deer in headlights, immeasurably grateful for every consent to sleep, eat, hug or play. Understandably, at times he seemed to wonder who the heck these crazy people were and when he was going back to the nursery.
After not long, he seemed happy to be with us. He trusted we would meet his needs, come back when we said we would and catch him when we playfully swung him up in the air. He enjoyed our company and his new home, even warming up to the dog on occasion. He knew we were his primary caregivers, but this Mama and Dada thing we kept talking about… Even after several months we sensed he wasn’t there yet.
Of course he wasn’t. He was thrown into a new situation without warning. He was understandably confused. Every parent of children adopted older than newborns, every book, every adoption class all said this was to be expected. It’s normal for the bonding process to take months or even years, especially for the child. But what we often felt like were parents of a child who thought we were his favorite babysitters. As if he couldn’t or was fearful of understanding what family, Dada or Mama meant. He loved us, but we were still merely characters in his own play and he wasn’t ready to accept it as real.
More than once I wept tears of frustration and sadness about this unrequited bond. At particularly difficult moments I even railed at the universe. Hadn’t we been through enough paperwork and heartbreak and waiting just to get the little guy home? Why does this part have to be hard, too? You know where you can put your lessons…?!
With love the patience came.
Deep breaths brought me back to each moment. Each moment brought me Henry and Larry and our evolving family, and therefore joy. Joy brought me into gratitude, for however they chose to be in my life in that moment. And once I learned to live there, the unconditional love flowed as freely as the days passed. We were perfect exactly as we were, challenging days and all.
One warm spring day only a few months before moving to Seattle, Henry and I went to the Long Beach Aquarium. He was now about 20 months old and home with us for nine months. He asked to get out of his stroller so he could get a closer look at the sea lions. He stood with his face next to the glass for several minutes, a long time by toddler standards. The sea lions played with him, swimming belly forward right in front of his face, flipping their tails as they retreated, making him laugh and widen his eyes in wonder. I watched from behind, took a photo and smiled at this being I so adored who was so filled with curiosity and fearlessness. I took a breath and knew everything was going to be okay. Right then Henry turned, said “Mama” and beckoned me next to him at the glass. I crouched beside him for a minute or two, then he grabbed my hand so we could walk together back to the stroller.
That few minutes, the whole day, was so natural and easy for us both, I almost didn’t recognize the significance of it until he was asleep in the back on our drive home. It was like the last piece of the puzzle had just satisfyingly thumped into place. This may not have been the exact moment, or even the day or month it happened. But it was when I knew he knew I was his mother.
Our bond now resides, unexplained and unexplainable, in our hearts, in our souls and somewhere up in the heavens. It will never be logical. It will always be exactly what it is — what it came to be in its own time. And it can never be broken.