I am fortunate to have pictures of my children when they were first taken from their family, before we came together through adoption. They are not easy to look at. My son is little more than a baby. He is tiny for his age, but the expression on his face is not childish. He is enraged, his brow furrowed. Even in the pictures where he is crying, his face is contorted with fury and pain. Without being there, I can tell that the tears are scalding hot on his face. His expression seems to say, “I knew this would happen.” He is being punished, and he knows why: it is not his fault, but he should have been able to prevent it.
The photos of his sister are equally hard to look at. In the picture where she is being given up for adoption, she is smiling tentatively, an expression I still see on her face sometimes when she is unsure but trying to make the best of it. Looking at that one makes me feel like someone is crushing my heart with a combat boot. In later photos, her face is a complete blank. Her eyes are like glass. Wherever she is, she’s not there. In group pictures, she’s looking in the other direction, always. Despite the distinctive beauty of her features, it’s difficult to pick her out. This wax figure of a child is not my vibrant daughter.
Several years later, and these children have changed, as everyone does. My son is pretty tough about most things, but not about his mother. He can’t watch the movie Brave because the mother turns into a bear. It terrifies him, even though I reassure him that it’s not a permanent change. I get it: he’s seen other people he loved turn into something he can’t recognize, and then he’s lost them.
My daughter is learning to stand her ground sometimes. For a long time, she would hide from anything that could be trouble. I remember one time when her brother called 911 — just to check it out — and the police came to the door. I turned from the door only to see that she had gathered up all of her dolls, a huge number, and had fled to her room. Now she would probably remain somewhere nearby, albeit still out of sight.
In many areas, the healing seems to be complete. For a long time, I had to wrap up even the tiniest scrap of remaining food to prevent my son from trying to eat everything on the table. I’d showily put two french fries in a tiny tupperware and tell him that they were there for him later. He’d check on them frequently, even if he wouldn’t eat them, and I’d wait quite a while before I threw them out. At this point he allows me to throw out hamburger bun crusts (or he feeds them to our dog) rather than making me keep them. This is a huge breakthrough for him. He still gets a little desperate when he’s hangry, but a lot of people are not good when their blood sugar drops, so he’s well within normal range. He has gone from the 5th percentile of height for his age to being completely average height, which is more than we could ever have expected three years ago.
My daughter has ceased the “mommy shopping” that was a frequent behavior in her early years. In the past I’d watch as she would fawn all over female visitors to the house, barely talking to me, something that I understood but I admit made me wonder if the visitor thought that I was such a horrible mom that this angelic little girl could barely tolerate me. She still roars off to visit her favorite aunt with nary a backwards glance, but when she gets back she’ll tell me many times that she missed me, and I know that it is true.
A lot of the biggest changes have been in me. For a long time, I doubted my own expertise. Now I’ll say authoritatively, “I know my daughter and this is what she needs.” I come down on bullying like a pro wrestler sailing down from a turnbuckle. I don’t avoid conflict when it comes to them.
Before I adopted, a friend told me that the French believe that you only grow up fully when you have children. I didn’t believe that then, and I don’t believe it now. However, it’s definitely made me — and by made, I mean FORCED me — develop aspects of my personality that were dormant before: The watchful part, which knows 10 minutes before her children are getting ready to have a meltdown. (In fact, I’ll leave places saying, “They are ready to blow.” Most moms seem to get that.) The immensely patient part, which knows that some types of recovery are going to take a long time, and who gives herself pep talks to that effect. It’s been interesting to observe these things in myself.
I am also immensely conscious of my numerous failings. I give up on some things — normally related to housekeeping or my daughter’s hair — way too quickly. I don’t fight depression as hard as I could when it comes. (I know, I know, but that’s how I feel.)
We still have a long way to go. It was just a few months ago that I was coming off the worst time I had ever had with them. (Those are the times when I consider changing my identity and leaving town to start a new life someplace low stress, like on an oil rig.) They have some behaviors that make daily life a challenge. I don’t know what is coming next, but I hope that I can remind myself that it won’t last forever. If not, though, I have good friends, both childless and child-ed, who have been able to support me. Whatever comes, though, progress has been made, and progress will continue to be made.