Take a look around your house–the kitchen where you gather each morning to eat breakfast, the living room where you crash into your favorite chair at the end of a long day, the bedroom where you snuggle on cold winter nights under your favorite blanket. If you look closer, you may find plenty to complain about–a broken handle here, a tear in the chair there, a slight draft from the window, but no matter–it’s the place you call home. Be silent now, listen to the sounds around you–the television playing your show, the radio set to your favorite station, the fridge kicking on, the sound of your neighbor mowing his lawn. Familiar sounds that you come to count on throughout your day. Now pour yourself your favorite drink and fix yourself your favorite snack–the staples that appear on your shopping list week after week. And take a deep breath, take in the familiar scents around you–your shampoo, fabric softener, candles, the fresh breeze blowing through an open window.
Now imagine a strange couple coming to your front door, speaking to you in a language that you’ve never heard before and motioning for you to come with them while you realize that you are to go with them. Imagine getting into a strange car and driving a long distance to an unfamiliar place–perhaps even hitching your first plane ride along the way. The couple is nice enough, but you’re not quite sure what to do or say around them. And the new place is clean and neat, but it’s not your home. It’s not your chair or the sounds you’re accustomed to hearing or the food you’re used to tasting or even the smells you’re used to smelling.
While adoption is a wonderful thing, for children who have spent time in an orphanage, it can also prove to be a difficult and confusing thing as they transition from the only world they may have ever known into your world.
As we sat waiting in the presentation room waiting for the staff and nurses to bring in our youngest daughter, thoughts flooded my head–anticipating that moment we would finally be able to hold her and tell her we loved her.
I thought I knew what to expect, but really, there’s no way to prepare for it–not knowing the whole story, not knowing your child’s personality, not knowing how she’ll adapt to new surroundings–not knowing.
Whereas our oldest daughter had been just an infant at the time of her adoption, we were told that our toddler-aged child might react in fear or anger at being removed from the only home she’d ever known. So, when they placed her in my husband’s arms, we were ready for anything.
She looked at us and looked through us at the same time, not quite sure what to make of this strange change from her daily routine. We, of course, smiled and cooed and whispered that we loved her and did all the things you do with a toddler whom you’re just meeting who doesn’t speak your language, but yet has already taken up residence in your heart.
She welled up as the moments passed and after some tears, fell silent in my lap, squeezing my finger while becoming stiff as a board. After a short drive from the orphanage to the residence where we would spend the next couple months, she loosened almost immediately. Maybe it was the bridge of having her older sister there, from whom she quickly drew the sibling rivalry line in the sand or maybe it was her curiosity with her new surroundings, full of objects she’d probably rarely, if ever, had seen. And although our experience was a good one, it did not come with plenty of adventure and learning lessons each and every step of the way. When it was finally time to go back to go home–our forever home–we knew to expect yet more reactions and as expected, we got them each day and for a very long while afterwards.
And while every child’s experience will be different, there are some things you can do to help with the transition.
While you’re going to be nervous meeting your child for the first time, imagine how nervous he or she will be. Do your research well ahead of time and you’ll better know what to expect and how to handle it. Be prepared for the possibility that your child may feel sad, scared, and unsure of what’s happening. By understanding this and knowing how you can respond to your child’s needs, you can remove some of the anxiety.
A proper goodbye
If it’s possible, try to involve your child’s caregivers in the presentation so that he or she has an opportunity to say goodbye, if it feels appropriate. Ask to speak with staff who have cared for your child and take pictures for your child’s life book. Take your time to look around and take in the surroundings. Don’t rush through, but rather, be calm in the moment and follow your child’s lead.
Ask for your child’s daily routine
What time did your child wake up each morning? Did your child take naps? When is bed time? What was your child’s meal schedule? If your child is old enough to eat solids, what sort of foods is she/he used to? How often was your child bathed? Is your child potty trained? Did your child sleep with a light on? Were your child’s surroundings relaxed or noisy? What was the nurse to child ratio? Did your child spend much time alone?
While you won’t be able to, nor will you want to replicate your child’s life at the orphanage, providing your child with a similar structure while she/he settles into a new home may make the transition more comfortable. Similarly, food will play an important role, so be proactive in finding out some foods that may make mealtimes go over more easily. Believe it or not, what you were raised on and reach for as comfort food may not have any appeal at all to your child.
If your child doesn’t have any of her/his own belongings–toys or clothes, consider sending some ahead of time. When she comes to live with you, these things will be your child tie to her/his “old” life while she/he settles into her/his “new.” If your child does have a favorite toy at the orphanage, consider asking the staff if you could trade it out for another toy (orphanages are always in need of donations). Oftentimes, children have a difficult time sleeping in their new bedroom no matter how cute you’ve fixed it up, so it helps if they have a familiar object to take to bed.
Family and friends
Share some of what you have learned about what to expect with close family and friends who your child will be meeting and spending time with so they will feel comfortable and know how to read your child’s cues. Make sure not to overstimulate your child before your child has even set foot in a new home. It’s important to provide your child with a sense of safety and security with your child’s new immediate family before expecting your child to be comfortable with a long line of well-meaning visitors.
From your social worker to your pediatrician to your child’s school, make sure you have a support system in place. Know who you can call if you have questions or concerns. If your child is school age, check into any special programs they may offer for children whose first language is not English. Communication is key to bonding. Read together, play games together, do chores together, and slow down and listen to what your child is saying verbally or nonverbally. Use whatever means necessary–from pictures to pointing to objects while your child becomes familiar with his/her adopted language. If a situation comes up that you feel unable to handle, reach out to your adoption support network for help.
It goes without saying that a child with special needs will require an extra dose of all of the above. While all children transitioning from orphanage to home will experience ups and downs, your special needs child needs you to have the resources in place that she/he will need from day one.
Getting to know you
It may seem like a given that your child will understand what’s happening and who you are, but in truth, your child may not have ever experienced the love or attention of a mom and a dad, or any other relative. Your child may not understand your purpose or role in his/her life–a life in which up until now, he/she was forced to rely on himself/herself for comfort. Some children take time in opening up, in communicating, in allowing a parent to assist in things like mealtime and things such as playtime or even bedtime rituals like singing a goodnight song or saying prayers. If at all possible, send down photos ahead of time. Ask if there is a way to communicate via Skype or another program where your child can become more familiar with you. Eventually, you will become an important part of each other’s lives, but like any good relationship, love and trust take time. Don’t expect it to happen right away.
While the transition from orphanage to home may not happen without a few bumps, every child deserves to have a family–to have a place to call their own and in time, your house will feel like home to your child. Be ready for good days and bad while you and your adopted child feel each other out, but also while your child feels out the new surroundings–figuring out which chair will be her/his favorite one and which blanket is the best to cuddle up with on cold nights. While the short term may be challenging, an orphanage is no place for a child to grow up and (as a famous Dorothy once said) there is no place like home. But even Dorothy had to find her way (back) to understand that a home is only as good as the loved ones who fill it.