My daughter, Hannah, is nine years old. She prides herself on being a tomboy. Whenever I pick her up from after-school care, I find her with the boys kicking a soccer ball, playing baseball, or shooting baskets. For a while, she even dressed like a boy–to the extent that I would let her–and even talked me into letting her get her hair cut almost as short as a boy’s.
In my effort to be gender neutral, I’ve always tried to provide her with a wide variety of books and toys. Boy heroes. Girl heroes. Boy toys. Girl toys. My mom gave Hannah a couple of dolls in the first year Hannah was home, when she was six and seven. They were played with a little, but not much.
Slightly over a year ago, Hannah was diagnosed with RAD (reactive attachment disorder) and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). We began intensive therapy and I learned to implement therapeutic parenting. Throughout the early months of this, Hannah maintained her interest and abilities in sports and her tomboy image.
A year into therapy, however, a few things began to change about Hannah’s view of herself and her dress code. She got annoyed with people who thought she was a boy. She started to wear pretty colors; some of her clothes even had tiny floral patterns.
Also, there were occasional glimpses of the nurturing, mothering side of Hannah. One example of this was her complete devotion to her cousin, six years younger than her. She would play hide-and-seek with him, carry him around on her back, and tenderly help him when he hurt himself.
A few weeks ago, Hannah came home from a birthday party and described in minute detail the “cute” and “very cute” and “adorable” baby doll that the little girl got for her two-year birthday. I heard about the doll’s looks, her abilities (taking a bottle, sucking her thumb), her clothes, and her accessories (diapers and diaper bag).
Over the next day or two, this doll became an on-going point of discussion. We talked about the doll, about how Hannah had never “played house” as a little girl in Russia, and about how her birth mom seldom gave her good examples about how to nurture a baby doll.
Finally, it hit me. This is a big deal! This is meaningful! I need to act!
I called my mom and asked if she’d like a project—to find a baby doll for Hannah. Grammy was thrilled! She’d always wanted to buy dolls for Hannah and had felt somewhat cheated. (So she admitted.) Three days later, the UPS truck arrived. Hannah couldn’t imagine that the big box was for her.
Her look of joy as she unwrapped her baby doll melted me. She “oohhed” and “aahhed.” She touched and hugged. That night, she leaped out of the tub after washing her hair on her own, saying, “I want to play with my new doll, Charlotte.”
When Hannah arrived in America, she didn’t know how to play with a doll. She didn’t have the appropriate role models and examples in the early years of her life. She didn’t have the emotions associated with playing with a doll.
After nearly four years in America–surrounded by loving extended family, and enveloped in attachment therapy to teach human interconnectedness–she now knows how to play with a doll.
My tomboy is becoming well rounded. My survivor daughter who spent her early years scrounging for food, searching for affection, and trying to stay alive, never had the time, energy, or emotional stability to care about playing with a doll.
Now she does.
Some people might say, “It’s just a doll.” But I know it means my daughter has healed and turned into a capable, loving, attached, caring individual. The doll represents a new person, a new Hannah.
Susan M. Ward, an older child adoption specialist, provides parent coaching and resources for adoptive families. Susan’s training has focused on adoption issues relating to attachment, grief, and parenting. She’s also the adoptive parent of a child healed from RAD (reactive attachment disorder).