My daughter hated me the second we met.
Baby Sister was a 16 month-old cherub from China, nestled in the arms of her nanny. I was a short blond white lady from America, standing nervously apart so as not to overwhelm her. When her nanny finally placed her in my arms, she promptly turned purple, flailed, and wailed “Mama!” to her nanny–the only mama she had ever known. My heart broke for her, for her tearful nanny, and, yes, for me.
Our adoption 5 years earlier of our older daughter, The Bambina, had been straight out of adoption central casting: we were young, naïve, earnest and bubbling with positivity. She was an infant; sweet, unruffled, and ready to bond with me instantly. As a family, we struggled with nothing, worried about nothing, wanted for nothing. We were living proof of unadulterated joy.
And then came Baby Sister. On that chilly March morning in that chilly government office, there was no such real or imagined joy. I had read voraciously and prepared furiously for this adoption day. I knew it would be traumatic for a sentient, verbal 16 month-old who already had a “family” at her orphanage. I harbored no illusions about the rupture I was creating in her life. The thought of it ate at my soul, but I comforted myself with thoughts that our lives would be better together than apart. I knew her rare heart condition, inoperable in her small town, would be easily cured here in America. And yet a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child, and my newest one was inconsolable with loss, fear and confusion. I felt no joy at all. Not for my husband and elder daughter. Not for the tearful but resolute nanny. Not for the sweet, scared baby whose apple red cheeks on any other day would have conjured images of robust health and happiness, but today reflected only unrelenting, devastated tears.
The days that followed while we waited in China for visas and passports amplified our collective family heartbreak. Baby Sister struggled to make sense of her new circumstances. She clung to her new toothbrush for dear life, carrying it everywhere as a soft-bristled talisman that maybe something in her life would be permanent if only she hung on tightly enough. She barely acknowledged my presence while tentatively bonding with Dada and Bambina. She gave her first laugh and smile, but only when I had left the room. She smiled demurely for the camera, but only when I was not the photographer. For the first few days, she could not bear to make eye contact with me, nor to acknowledge my existence beyond assenting to a diaper change.
As the days turned into weeks, Baby Sister slowly learned to trust cautiously, and I rapidly learned to love unconditionally. Not the weak, lip-service version of unconditional love I previously thought I understood. Not the unconditional love that is gritted-teeth tolerance for another’s shortcomings. Not the unconditional love that furtively hopes for some kind of reward for the kindness. This was the real unconditional love: the one that requires you to love, care for, nurture and protect someone even—and especially—when that someone cannot love you back.
I wiped poop, expecting nothing. I brought food, expecting nothing. I met her every physical need, expecting nothing. As we hesitantly shared in these corporeal activities, Baby Sister and I found ourselves crafting a sacred narrative out of the profane. I was not just changing her diaper; I was showing her that I could be relied upon. I was not just bathing her; I was showing her that I could be trusted. I was not just combing her shiny black hair; I was showing her that I could give without requiring anything in return. Indeed, the moment I stopped needing love from Baby Sister was the moment she was truly able to give it.
As I recount those first days and weeks with the benefit of knowing how it all turned out, I remember it all fondly, if ruefully; the sharp edges of the worry and heartbreak rounded off by the passage of time. The profoundly heavy weight of seeing my child grieve now in the shape of an ever-present but distantly-painful memory.
The pain of this memory and all the thousands of memories like it are caused by the Myth of Adoption. The myth that says adoption mirrors the birth of a child. It assures new parents that it is The Happiest Day of Your Life, forgetting that other humans are involved in that day too. It emphasizes that the day you become a family is Day One of the rest of your lives, as if no days existed prior. This myth guided us in our first adoption, an event centered on our happiness and our parental dreams fulfilled. With a baby too young to express her terror and confusion, we mistook her calm dissociation for acceptance. We failed to recognize that adoption cannot by definition tell a story of unalloyed happiness, its very raison d’etre steeped in loss. To adopt a child is to court heartache. To welcome hurt. To wrestle with grief. The only reason I am this child’s mother now is because she lost her birth mother then. The only reason I am this child’s mother now is because she lost her nanny-mother then. The only reason I am this child’s American, Jewish, White mother now is because she lost her Chinese culture and religion and ancestral connections then. Every adoption begins in a loss that must be utterly respected. I did not show sufficient respect for that loss with our first child until our second child demanded it with her tears, her cries, her silence, and her soul.
Today, the scared baby who dragged me kicking and screaming to a place of truth and love and ruthless honesty is 7 years old, and every bit the buoyant, devilishly funny and warm lovebug her nannies described on that damp and windy March day. She and I talk about those weeks when we cautiously tiptoed toward one another. We talk of how she lost so much and braved so much to become my daughter; how she never owes anyone a happier version of her story than is true; and how whenever some well-meaning but clueless person tells her that she and I are “meant to be together,” she should know that person is mistaken. My daughters were meant to be with the women who bore them, the women who brought their beautiful souls into this broken world. It is unspeakable cruelty to suggest otherwise. But in this broken world, sometimes the next-best, heartbreaking, hard-fought path turns out to be beautiful too.
Esther Potter is a Boston-based writer and blogger. She is a graduate of The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and has taken a happy detour off the political road to be a wife and mom to two daughters and one Havanese puppy.