There isn’t a thing in this life better than children. [Insert your best rebuttal here, won’t convince me otherwise.] I mean, there are lots of other things that are good, but none better. Children give us hope for a better tomorrow, reason to press on in difficult times, and help us remain young at heart. I still love to play LEGOs with nieces and nephews at holiday gatherings. Through our children we can pave a path to live on long after we’re gone; shadowy reflections of ourselves seen in the values we’ve taught and virtues we’ve instilled.
For some, having children is easy; almost too easy. It had always bothered Michelle that some of the worst parents on the planet could procreate like rabbits only to abuse and neglect the gifts they’d be given, while others (like ourselves) struggled for years to have even one. Why would god do that? she’d ask. For a long time I had no good answer for that.
Adoption had always been on the radar for us. I say us, but really it’s something Michelle was passionate about since day one of our life together; I had to be brought up to speed. Not that I was against it — just unfamiliar.
I think the desire to adopt is rooted in Michelle’s own childhood. Her parents divorced when she was young which led to spending a lot of time being raised by her paternal grandmother, an extraordinary woman who showed Michelle that some people can and will go out of their way to love another’s child.
Michelle always believed there was another’s child out there for her, one that needed a family — our family. You see, it isn’t that neglected, abused, or orphaned children don’t have a family, it’s that they are disconnected from that first family through circumstances beyond their control.
Adoption is about building families anew in the aftermath of destructive forces that can tear them apart.
And for us, China would be the place for several reasons. There was need; orphanages overflowing with abandoned children, mostly girls, and some boys with minor medical conditions. There was certainty; China had a proven adoption program that, while slow, if we met the qualifications and did the legwork stateside we’d get matched. And it was secure; the adoption would be finalized in China and recognized by our government with little worry that things could go off the rails.
Another thing about adoption: it’s not an either/or situation. Some families adopt their first child, while others adopt after they’ve already raised several biological children. We had no real plan either way, only that we’d tried and failed on our own with years of miscarriages and infertility.
Ah, those qualifications — China required both parents to be 30 at the time of the adoption and that meant 2002 would be our earliest opportunity to move forward. And so we wait — 1995, 96, 97, 98, getting closer, 99 — surprise, we are having a baby!
Welcome, Emily, to the year 2000.
Michelle’s pregnancy was not an easy one. She was diagnosed with Preeclampsia — full stop on work, almost total bed rest, the last five weeks in a hospital trying to get Emily as close to 40 weeks as possible while balancing that against the risks to Michelle’s own health. Putting an unborn child’s welfare ahead of her own; a choice she made. And for the record: magnesium does help to prevent seizures; it also makes your wife sick as hell.
Midnight on a cold January morning, it’s time. They’ve induced labor and that’s not working; Emily’s heart rate drops with every push. Waiting on an anesthesiologist to make it in during a mid-western snowstorm for an unplanned C-section. He arrives, we go in, and a few minutes later a healthy 4-pound baby girl has arrived!
Change of plans? Nope. Only a slight delay, and now with a big sister.
It’s 2004 and we are gathering documents, completing our home study, sending paperwork here, there, and everywhere for stamps, seals, and signatures, and then finally off to China through our agency in a big bundle of a FedEx envelope containing proof of who, how, and why we are worthy of a child. Very different from daughter #1 where the hospital staff handed her to us and pointed towards the door — didn’t have to prove a thing. I’ve always found that contrast interesting.
Now we wait. Bear in mind, with China you know absolutely nothing about your future son or daughter; the China Center of Adoption Affairs (CCAA) matches prospective families with a child. The family can accept or not accept, with non-acceptance meaning another match is unlikely. We knew that going into the process and in reality very few families take the first step without also taking the last; those who don’t accept do so for very personal reasons and I’m not casting judgement on that.
January 8th, 2005 — we are matched! We received a phone call from our adoption agency telling us her name, Xi Xiao Juan, and that a FedEx envelope was headed our way. The package included a two-page State of Growth of Prospective Adoptive Child with this tiny, dated photograph attached, a CBC blood test report, and a poor-quality photocopy of the Finding Ad.
Orphanages publish ads in the local newspaper — the thought being that the parents may have accidentally misplaced their child and the ad would help reunite them. There were a total of 16 children listed in the ad we received. I tend to believe that the Finding Ads also serve as a subtle reassurance to the abandoning parents that their son or daughter has been found and is safe. In China, there is often more of a message in what isn’t stated than in what is.
We poured over the English translations of the documents provided by our agency, taking note of her personality:
Her personality is extroverted. She is lively and active. She likes to play toys. She is a little stubborn sometimes. She is closest to her nanny. Her favorite toy is cloth dolls.
In hindsight I can say: SPOT ON, and to the CCAA: you did good. I think all of the families in our travel group would say the same about their child, a perfect match.
The medial statements detailed a healthy 9-month-old little girl. There was no question: YES! WHEN CAN WE TRAVEL!?!? We signed what needed to be signed and returned our paperwork to our agency the following day with tentative plans to travel to China in mid-March.
I often think about these words: She is closet to her nanny. We have photographs of the orphanage sent following our match acceptance, likely taken in February 2005. In several we see Xi Xiao Juan (Olivia) being held by the nanny who has cared for her those first 10 months. I see something in her nanny’s eyes: sadness.
This young woman has cared for another’s child for almost a year. She knows this little girl better than anyone, she knows we have been matched, and she knows the days with her are drawing to a close.
And we see her again here, on the day the nannies traveled to Hefei city, Anhui from the rural and remote orphanage to unite us as a family. She’s the woman in the distance in the upper right corner of the photograph. I didn’t catch it at the time, but the gaze between Olivia and her nanny is clear.
No doubt there is a bond, love, connection. No doubt there’s a separation to be grieved, for both of them.
March 8th, Gotcha day has arrived. After we received Olivia in the hotel conference room we headed back to our room for some quiet time. Olivia is days shy of 1 year old and weight 12 pounds (she’s in about the 2nd percentile.) She has a difficult time sitting up so we put pillows behind her. She has a raging upper respiratory infection.
She also has a beautiful smile, a calm demeanor, and an appetite — first English words: “I eat, I eat.”
Michelle gives Olivia what was likely her first bath in warm water and then we feed her our first meal together: rice cereal mixed in baby formula made with the hottest water you can make, in a bottle with a big cut in the nipple so the cereal doesn’t clog.
No, the hot water is not child abuse. In the orphanage the nannies would make up dozens of bottles like this and put them in a large metal wash pan filled with boiling water to stay warm as they each feed the half-dozen or so children in their care. It’s winter, it is cold, orphanages have no heat, and so you grow to love a hot bottle and reject those that are not.
The next few days are spent finalizing paperwork in Hefei, obtaining a Chinese passport for Olivia, and touring the city zoo, museums, shopping mall, and open markets in the freezing cold. What a sight we are — a blond haired daughter and wife, a 6’3" guy, and a Chinese daughter. I’m sure the locals have seen this before; every few months a group of adoptive families makes their trek.
Next stop is Guangzhou and the US Consult to receive a US Visa for Olivia’s Chinese passport. We had already completed the immigration paperwork, our I-600A Application for Advance Processing of an Orphan Petition, and so it was largely a procedure step to obtain her Visa. Then twenty-four hours and four flights back to the states, we are exhausted. We spent about three weeks in China, a wonderful experience.
Back home, a new chapter in life, the four of us.
And here we are today, teenagers through and through.
And I am mindful…
Mindful of the gifts we have been given in our daughters.
Mindful of Michelle’s late grandmother who both cared for and lived on in another’s child.
Mindful of Olivia’s unknown parents and the choice they made to abandon their daughter, how painful that choice must have been.
Mindful of Olivia’s orphanage nanny, the nurturing and care she provided for another’s child, and the sadness she must have felt in letting her go.
Mindful of Michelle who lives on in our daughters.
Mindful that Olivia was once another’s child.
…and now she is ours.
Supporting orphaned and impoverished children is easy. Love Without Boundaries is a small nonprofit organization doing amazing work to feed, clothe, educate and attend to the medical needs of children in Cambodia, China, India, and Uganda.
We support them as well.