First Impressions, last

six months home — why do I still think about that first week?

Not always easy, but always worthwhile.

That’s what I posted on facebook, that’s what I said about the past six months: this half year that we have known Little.

I thought this post was going to be all about reflection, about looking back and seeing what we’ve learnt. But it’s not that simple. There are parts of this story that are still untold, parts that are unknown because they remain unknowable still. I will find them, I’m sure, but for now let’s start with the facts, and how all this began.

Six months ago today, my wife and I boarded a plane from Beijing to Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province. It is not an exciting place. Provincial, municipal, it is to the wonders of Chinese culture what ironing is to haute couture. And it was cold, a full ten degrees colder than in Beijing: the mercury stayed well below zero for most of every day that we were there. Still, the hotel was nice: was warm and welcoming and well versed in what we were doing. They had had families like us before.

We were very nervous, were scared and irritable and ratty and tired. We tried not to snipe as we boarded the plane, and bought chewing gum at the airport when we realised that last night’s beer (an unwise perhaps, but welcome, distraction to celebrate the coming Christmas festivities) still played on our breath, still lingered as though our old lives refused to go quietly, refused to cede, to defer to our future: the life that started here. We had too many hours to kill. We wondered Tiayuan’s boring streets, looking for things to buy. We had ideas that we should buy clothes and a blanket, things that Little could call her own. We thought we could make her feel at home, feel OK about being ours right from the very start. And that some bedding and a coat — a jumper and some warm, snuggly, furry pyjamas — might help.

We were clutching at straws. And between that and a rubbish, forgettable meal — a meal at which we barely spoke, or even glanced in the general direction of each other — we passed the hours before we met our newest little girl.

She came to me first, would only settle on me. Initially

That then, was the meeting, or rather, a description of our frames of mind. Agitated, bored, excited and nervous. Cold, frightened: resigned. What happened next, I have written here already: about the meeting of Big and Little; The Jealousy and its opposite — of Hat Games and the First Days of Spring. What I haven’t described so far is about that first week, that week in a too hot hotel room (with it too cold outside): just me and Little and my wife.

I missed Big terribly. I found it really difficult to reconcile any kind of positive feeling toward Little with how much I missed my biggest little. I really battled with it, and wondered why I was doing this: absenting myself at my wife’s behest to pick up a child that was demonstrably wild. I was angry at times; frustrated with what now faced me, and what might might face me later, when we got back: what Big might throw at us were she to find all this unforgivable, something she could not condone.

But Little played a blinder. She came to me first, would only settle on me. Initially, I would have to be standing, seating freaked her out. I got her to sleep that first night prepared to sleep in a chair. But when she slept, it was the sleep of the dead: deep and long, silent and gone. I have never been more relieved in my life.

The days that followed were tricky. It was so cold outside and we struggled to know how to move her. We tried the sling and walking, but mostly we ended up carrying. She knew us not at all, and the flexibility of arms — their dexterity and ease of shifting a cuddle — pleased her, certainly they calmed her: they made her less afraid.

We didn’t go out much. Little slept a lot. Her years of orphanage training mixed with the shock of the new: her new and terrifying reality, meant that she slept about sixteen hours a day: all night through (12, 13, or even 14 hours) and would nap for 2 or 3 hours. We watched a lot of TV. Sometimes we slept and sometimes we read; occasionally we would work — checking emails, responding to them, or making and receiving calls: the kinds of thing you say you can do when you are asking for time off work (when you shouldn’t really have it) and the kinds of thing you long for when you are terrified and bored and any distraction (even work) is a better option that dealing with what you have just done. What you are afraid of.

Eating became a thing. Little would eat anything we gave her for the first 36 hours. And then she just stopped. Her first breakfast was croissant and jam and bacon and eggs and fruit and yoghurt and cheese. Her first lunch was rice and pork and cucumber and dumplings and broccoli. I can’t remember her first dinner short of it being expensive (we ate in the hotel restaurant: we never do that, they’re expensive and never as good as as the spit and sawdust place that’s always just around the corner). But she ate well, and went to bed not feeling hungry.

Then it all went wrong. Breakfast was OK, though not as successful as the day before. By lunch, she was an utter refusenik. Dinner and breakfast and lunch again, and I was beginning to worry. Another day, and I was adamant we’d done something wrong, had ruined our chance to get it right. We resorted to biscuits, to crackers and sweets, and by the time we got on the plane home to Beijing, she trusted us enough to accept food from us. She knew we weren’t going to hurt her with food, or ever keep it from her.

My wife and I went through some things that week, things we’re still dealing with. Never my idea, adopting was something that I happily went along with. But the reality is in stark contrast to what you think you’re agreeing too. I thought I was getting a baby, a blank canvas onto which we could make our marks. But even as little as Little is, she is already filled up with marks of her own. She is her own girl, her own person. And I think this has even taken my wife a back: how much we are going to have to undo and reverse, to reprogram, recode and rewire. I think she thought it might be easier; that with love, with cuddles, her script would easily be rewritten. That first week, I think we both realised how big a thing we had just taken on.

I got cross, I am still angry.

I felt lied too, like my feelings hadn’t been considered, or ever were. I felt like I had been marginalised, ignored. I felt like i hadn’t been listened too. It’s my own fault. I stand down too easily, stand firm not enough. My wife always wins. When we got married, I negotiated two vetoes and a mandate; I never used them and I wield them weakly to this day.

But I am not angry about what we have done, about bringing Little into all of our lives. Like I said at the beginning, it has not always been easy but it has always been worth it. I love her, and I cannot imagine our family without her. I just wish I had read more, had known as much as my wife about everything that was going to happen. That way I might not have felt so blind-sided, so battered by her being a part of our lives.

Six months in, and it has only just begun.

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