One of the cold realities of adopting an older child from China is that she comes with a lot of questions, many of which you can't answer.
We adopted our beautiful (now-14-year-old) daughter when she was five. Sophie spent the first years of her life in a Chinese orphanage -- a clean, well-staffed orphanage where she received plenty of food, decent medical care, and lots of love from her caregivers. Still, it was an orphanage and what she didn't have during those years was what she wanted most: a forever family. Us.
For nine years, she has asked us questions about her past and we have offered her our best, if feeble, answers. We couldn't tell her what we don't know and what we did know of her story was slim. Her questions have steadily mounted and this was the summer we all recognized that it was time to try to find some real answers, and the only place with them was China -- and her orphanage.
I was warned by those who had gone before us on similar journeys that we were heading down a road pock-marked with emotional landmines.
"You won't know how she reacts until she is there and it could go either way," one mom cautioned me. Her own daughter was left distraught by the visit. "Leave well enough alone," the mom advised.
Another's child who made the pilgrimage a few years ago never made it past the orphanage's front door. "She just shut down, retreated into a quiet place inside [her] that I thought we had left behind years ago."
A third mom reported that her daughter couldn't bear to look at the children still there, making for an awkward visit, followed by weeks of haunting dreams where her daughter was one of the unadopted. Survivors' guilt in a 10-year-old, her mother called it.
But I also heard from many, many more parents who told me that their children's orphanage visits went smoothly, were cathartic and helpful. They said the visits gave them some of the answers they sought and provided a connection to a long-ago but ever-present past. "Answers; we are going for answers," I told all who asked why.
I am thrilled to report that our visit could not have gone better -- and that Sophie got her answers. But what the trip gave me may have even upstaged that: I got a baby photo of my daughter taken when she was just 40 days old. I never had one. (The photo was taken before her cleft lip was repaired and she asked that it not appear here; you'll just need to trust me that she was born beautiful and that hasn't changed.)
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