When we took our daughter into our care, we were told that she was A) a very good girl, B) never cried, and C) was mostly silent and didn’t say many words. I have come to believe that this was all largely for self-preservation purposes, as our daughter now A) is testing her limits, B) cries for true needs and when she doesn’t get what she wants (the fake cry, honestly, kind of cracks me up), and C) wakes up jabbering. When we are out in public, she goes quiet again, though she does sometimes cry, just not with as much, ahem, gusto as she does for us alone.
This is a really beautiful time in so many ways that I hate to cloud it over with talk of the tough parts, but I do think that it will be helpful to you who are adopting or thinking of adopting, particularly an older toddler, to know what has been challenging for us and how we have handled it. First of all, I will confess that it can be incredibly frustrating when she chooses to be contrary, and as she has become increasingly comfortable with us, she feels increasingly comfortable in pushing against the boundaries we are establishing. But what I do my best to remember in those times is that she spent nearly six months being good and being silent, and it is quite understandable that she would be making up for that now. When she becomes upset, our method is for whoever is not currently holding her to remove her from the situation and let her figure out how to get her equilibrium back. When she is just plain being naughty, it’s harder, because removing her from the situation only works in some cases, and the language barrier seems absolutely huge in these moments. We cannot explain consequences or rewards to her, so we just do the best we can. The biggest struggle comes at naptime, when she needs to sleep but does not want to, not under any circumstance. Honestly, we usually just wait for her to get upset enough about being laid back down time and time again to need a cuddle. When we are cradling her against us, she will finally give up and drop off to sleep. When she first got comfortable with us, it took an hour and a half. We were down to half an hour until yesterday, when we took her for her TB test and really made her mad. Yesterday it took a little over an hour. Future adoptive parents, if this happens to you, it is normal. When you can’t figure out why your child won’t sleep, know that none of us have figured it out, but lots of us have observed this difficulty in our children. I’m just calling it an adjustment, and we will work through it.
In the beginning, she also wanted, even needed, us to do most things for her. When we brought her back to the guest house for that first lunch together, they had set a separate place for her. I set her in that chair, and she just looked alone and lost, and so I picked her up, set her on my lap, and fed her every single bite she needed to eat. Since then, we have taken turns holding her on our laps and feeding her. As she gets more comfortable, she wants to feed herself more, and will also refuse things she doesn’t like or just sort things out in her mouth and reach in and hand you what she doesn’t like in that bite (onions in her scrambled eggs, for instance). This can be a big challenge when we can’t figure out just what she wants and the table is full of options, but we are managing. We are also sharing absolutely everything on the table. She can have a bite of whatever she would like, and likewise nothing belongs only to her. At first she balked at this and didn’t want us to eat off the plate in front of her (though she still wanted the food in front of each of us), but now she has accepted that this is just the way we do it in our family. This is also the end of Coca-Cola for Mama, as I cannot tell her we are sharing everything and then refuse to give her a drink of my caffeinated beverage. The only case in which this does not apply is when I am having coffee, which she understands is not for children.
We have also witnessed another huge issue surrounding food, which is that she would eat and eat and eat and not want to leave any food on the table. This is terribly common in children who have spent part of their lives hungry and malnourished. Which is to say, we did expect this. One stressful evening, she was trying to hide french fries under her chin so that she could have them for later. She would eat more than was necessary every single meal and try to hoard the rest. We have responded by being firm about not hoarding food on your person, but allowing her to eat as much as she wants at the table and then keeping some small snacks within her reach for whenever she wants them. In our room, we have a shelf that holds all her things, and we have put a package of plain biscuits (cookies, similar to a graham cracker) there for her to have whenever she wants. We also keep bananas on the coffee table. Increasingly, she is pushing back from the table when she is full and not trying to take anything with her. She will also eat only part of the banana if she isn’t that hungry and has fed us more biscuits lately than she has eaten herself. This is significant progress.
We are also working hard on bonding and attaching. I have a lot more to say about that, which I will address in a future post, but suffice it to say that we are in the “two steps forward, one step back” phase. We see significant regression anytime she must visit the transition home or interact with the transition home staff (during her doctor visit yesterday, for instance). Whatever ground we lose in these instances, we work hard to regain. We babywear, we cosleep, we keep her on our laps and in our arms as much as she needs us to. She never reaches up to be held and is denied. But like I said, there is a lot more to say on this topic, and I will say it later, when we are a little farther down that road, and hindsight has taught us what truly worked for us here in Ethiopia and what didn’t.
So we are adjusting. Every day we figure out a little bit more, and every day she does a new thing to baffle us. But every day she also does a thousand things to delight us, so we feel that the scales definitely tip more toward happy family than challenging parenting. It’s all good; we just have to remember that when she’s wailing loudly enough to wake the neighbors.