Wow, can it really be a month since that big day? I've wanted to share more about our meeting day for you families that are adopting older babies. I was so grateful for the families that shared with us, to help prepare us for the possibilities.
We had gotten those infamous "updates" from Gladney helping clue us in to the fact that our babe would likely not be leaping for joy into our arms. Ya know ... those phrases like ... slow to warm up to strangers, tempermental (yes, Travis had the audasidy to tell sweet Arsema's parents that she was tempermental!). In fact!! .... when we met him at the airport after all those LONG flights he kind of chuckled when he knew we were Arsema's parents. But now I chuckle at him to know she was just savin' up all her charm for us. Anyway, point is, we knew it was going to be a process to earn this child's trust. Keeping a few things in mind really helped us.
1) Have realistic expectations and take things slow.
2) Be continually mindful that EVERYTHING is changing for this child: every routine, every smell, every sound.
3) Be patient, both with your child and each other.
4) Prepare! . . . Lift weights prior to travel, these kids are HEAVY!
Every child is unique and different, as are their circumstances that brought them to the point of being an orphan to begin with. We knew Arsema had already had a long battle with illness and two major moves in her short life. When she arrived at Gladney from the orphanage she could hardly bear weight on her legs (at nine months old). You should see her strong thighs now! Wowzers! You could describe her our first day as being quiet, cautious, withdrawn, shocked, solemn, sad, scared, timid, fearful. She'd stare through us down to our core. She didn't even cry, it would be too risky to show that much outward emotion. She was somewhat stiff. But we had seen her in action (THANKS to some traveling families) so we knew what some of her facial expressions were when she wasn't in such shock and stress. This helped tremendously.
EVERYTHING changes. When you are out and unsure of what those around you are saying, or trying to communicate to your waitress and they don't understand ..... this is your child's new reality every moment! We tried to keep this at the forefront of our minds. Older babies aren't so naive about everything changing and they aren't old enough to be able to prepare them as are pre-school age children. It's just all of a sudden, in one moment, their entire life is turned upside down. You the parent are dying to get there .... you have LONGED for this moment ... but you must remember that for your child, their whole little world is getting flipped upside down and shaken up. We found that it really helped to relate to her when we kept this in mind.
We knew it was possible she would not bond to either of us quickly, or possibly just one of us. Poor Arsema, it was like I was the best option of the choices before her and she would "tollerate" me. That's all it was for awhile. I'd hold her stiff body and just gently rub her back. I tried not to speak tons to her, as humming seemed to soothe her more than a bunch of English chitter-chatter. I could tell by her pictures she was teething, but the first day she didn't even dare open her mouth to chew on her fingers. At first she wouldn't eat even for me. We knew by the size of that belly and thighs the girl liked to eat! :) So I'd just offer things to her and let her go at her own pace. Looking back, I think this was a huge part of the progress that followed. While all this was going on, her daddy's heart was breaking (though he tried not to say it) as she would not have much at all to do with him. We just took it slow. We were pro-active in showing each other affection in front of her, so she'd know we were "together" in this. In all those car rides (trust me you'll be in the car a LOT) I'd sit close to David, with her on my lap. Eventually (this took quite awhile) I'd have her sit between us ... huge step. Before long she'd hold out her foot for David to play with it. It was all on her terms. She'd pull it away like she didn't want him touching her .... then she'd put it right back for more. These simple little games really built trust. If this happens to you, where your child bonds to one first before the other ... I'd encourage you just to support each other and remind each other this is perfectly normal and it won't last forever.
Seriously! .... prepare yourself for a LOT of carrying, especially that of an older baby. I knew my girls would be similar weight. Thankfully Naomi still likes to be carried a lot when we're out and about. She helped keep my arms strong and ready. But there is a difference of a 25 lb toddler/preschooler that "hangs on" and a HEAVY 23 lb baby that is resisting being held. Since she would only let me hold her ... and since you're on the go SO much while in Ethiopia ... you can imagine that even the most dedicated mom would grow weary ... especially on the days you don't feel so well. I would switch off from just carrying her myself, to using a sling, to using a front pack carrier. This helped as each version uses different muscles. Prepare your heart too. It is a process! Did Arsema fall in love with us instantly? ... no way. She wouldn't even touch the toy I brought her to entice her. But each few hours we saw progress. There were so many little milestones along the way during our time in Ethiopia. Now instead of the "mostly sad and occasional smile" we get the "tons of smiles and laughter and occasional sadness". It has been SUCH A JOY to watch her blossom in this process.
It is hard to watch your child have to go through this transition phase. I hated seeing her sad. I wanted her to know so much how I deeply loved her and worked SO hard to get to her. But the grief IS part of the process. And as you just work to meet them right where they are at ..... the bonding comes. As you work to meet their needs consistently ... trust comes. And before you know it .... attachment has begun.
People ask how Arsema is doing with bonding/attachment. I'm so grateful to be able to say she is doing WELL. As I write this she has woken from a nap and her daddy got her up, fed her a bottle (she would not take food from anyone besides me at first) and has her out in the yard in the stroller. Just four short weeks ago I could not leave her for 2 minutes to use the bathroom without total breakdown. She's come a long way. The language barrier is still there. But every few days I hear her say a new English word and it just cracks me up! She's learning from us ... but I think more importantly we've learned so much from her.