Probably that title should read ‘children’ plural, instead of singular, since I’ve had the experience of meeting my new child five different times. Different children, of course, and different situations for each, but there were still some similarities between them all.

All of these children of mine were greatly anticipated. We had waited at least a year to bring every single one of them home, and had spent that year staring at pictures, visualizing what it would be like to have them home, and trying to imagine who they each were based on a few pages of medical and social history. I was convinced, on some level, that I knew every single one of them. How can you not know a child you have thought about nearly every waking moment of every day for over a year? I was so ready to meet each one and be their momma.

I was ready until I wasn’t, that is.

Every single meeting involved feelings of absolute panic on my part. A glimpse of this living, breathing child who looked more or less like the photograph I had memorized. A moment of awkward hellos, where the full realization dawns that neither of us can understand the other. The clarity of mind as I come to terms with the fact that this child is a total stranger, and I do not know him or her the least little bit. This all happens in moments, but the result is the same: an overpowering need to run. Run far and run fast out of the room or building I am in, and pretend this whole misguided endeavor never happened.

Since all five of these children are currently playing in the other room, obviously I did not heed the panicked screaming only I could hear inside my head. Instead I plastered on my best fake-it smile and powered through. For each of my children I can remember with utmost clarity the single action or realization that triggered my panic.

With one son it was when he took the toy car we lovingly offered him, looked at us through the side of his eyes, grinned, and threw the car across the room. With another son, it was the moment he was handed to me and I realized my new two-year-old was the size of a large infant. A daughter, when offered a piece of gum, looked at it and grabbed every package in my hands. For yet another daughter, all she had to do was walk through the door, and as I watched her, I realized her need was far more significant than I had realized. And finally, our last daughter . . . everything she did was causing waves upon waves of panic. Surely this could not be the same child who went with the extremely long and involved file I had read and nearly memorized. This flapping, shrieking, clinging, moving-non-stop, barely communicative child could not now be mine.

The trouble with falling in love with a picture is that it is just that, a picture. One second of a child’s life, caught in a photograph. You have no context of how the picture was taken, what went on just before and just after. You can’t really see who a child is, or what they like, or the hurts they have endured. Learning these things takes time and is hard work. I think my moments of panic were in part because that is the moment when the full realization of the hard work we all had in front of us hit me square in the face.

It doesn’t seem to matter that I had been through this process many times. I still created my little fantasies about who these children were, even though I would tell myself that it was all made up. You need something to cling to during the long wait to bring your child home. I also think my panic was greater at that initial moment of meeting with my more recently adopted children than with my first. In the jolting moment of reality, when the imaginary child totally evaporates with the presence of the real child, I am reminded of exactly how difficult the path ahead of us could be. Having walked that path before, I briefly wonder if I have it in me to do it all over again.

You would think I would consider this before finding myself in a sterile government building and coming face to face with the child who will become my newest son or daughter in a matter of hours. But a funny thing happens after that initial moment of meeting and panic. Over the course of the next days, weeks, months, and sometimes years, I and the new child learn to do our own little dance of attachment. We get to know each other. We begin to fall in love. And eventually, the new person is not a stranger any longer, but a real member of our family. It seems odd that there was a time when we didn’t know this person, when they weren’t there. Sure, there is always the memory of that jolt of reality at the first meeting, but it becomes a small bit of family history. An interesting period of time when we met a stranger who now is anything but a stranger.

It is a momentous thing to meet your new child. Each of the meetings with my children are indelibly marked in my memory. Not a single one of them ever matched the fantasies I had hatched along the way, but looking back and knowing, really knowing, each of my children now, I can see why they behaved as they did. None of it surprises me now. It may feel as though the mountains of paperwork, the months of waiting, the long plane rides, the worry, stress, and excitement are the greater part of the journey. It may feel as if meeting your child marks the end of a long journey. But all that is merely the prelude, the steps necessary to even embark. The beginning of your adoption journey is this moment, the moment when you meet. It is unforgettable, but it is the first step onto an unknown path that will sweep you along to new discoveries.