Monday, March 10, 2008

Leaving a Child in China

My husband and I had to leave behind a disabled child in China. This is what it was like for me. It’s not an account of hope or courage, only a piece about the emotional fallout.

Everyone assumes that we’ll visit her when we go back to China. Why wouldn’t they? They watched us spend 18 months putting together the paperwork for an adoption. They listened as we gushed with excitement over her match photo when it arrived. They know that we were so devastated by what we found in China that we cut off all contact for several days while we grieved. And they know that we send money (a lot of it) to the orphanage every year to help pay for her care.

The truth is that I’m afraid to see her.

My best friend understands, but for the wrong reasons. She adopted on the same trip we did and saw everything that happened. She has her own tragedy, having adopted a child with an unrecognized genetic syndrome that will require lifetime care. “I understand why you don’t want to see her,” she told me. “It was awful, the whole thing, and it took you a long time to come to terms with it. Why would you want to put yourself through that again?”

But I’m not afraid of what I’ll feel. I’m afraid that my face and voice will terrify her by awakening dim memories of the week she was taken from her foster family and delivered into our hands. I fear that memories of fever, being drugged for medical tests, and adults sobbing will echo up from our shared past.

Infertility is a hard wall to come up against, but there are even harder walls. The child who had been chosen for us was an eighteen-month-old toddler with profound motor problems and the neurological development of a six-month-old infant. We only learned that after crossing a continent and an ocean, after being the last breathless couple in the travel group to be handed our baby, after caring for her and completing the Chinese portion of her adoption. We learned it only because our seasoned agency rep kept suggesting (quietly but insistently) that we consider taking advantage of any medical testing we could before moving on to Guangzhou and the trip home.

I was angry for a long time, in ways I didn’t even know I could be angry. I was resentful with people who had told us that all orphanage kids had delays and that they’d catch up in no time. I was furious that her pre-adoption health report contained outright lies, listing skills that she is just now learning at 4 years old. I was incensed when I found out that the orphanage only had the resources to check on foster children once a month. I was livid when, upon our return to the United States, the Provincial government in China refused to allow us to find her a consulting specialist because it would involve sending copies of her medical records outside China. I was disgusted when the orphanage continued to contradict it’s own information in the quarterly updates we received. I was frustrated with the members of the adoption profession and prospective parents who didn’t want to us to speak very honestly or often about the experience we had (or any other issue that might challenge the state of future adoptions.) I was profoundly unhappy every time I read about one more couple that had the courage, youth, energy, love and resources to bring home a disabled child…because I didn’t.

Worst of all, I battled my husband because he didn’t grieve the same way I did, and resented my new daughter for being perfectly healthy, achingly beautiful and the object of everyone’s adoring attention. Every time she unwrapped a gift I felt like I was watching her unwrap something with another child’s name on it. Like a phantom, my first match child was with me for months. But she was invisible to everyone else. Since you couldn’t see her in family photos, I didn’t take any. I couldn’t hold her so I tried to make my 17 month old walk everywhere instead of riding on my hip like she wanted to. In my mind the healthy child was a usurper, taking something away from a child who needed it more than she did and but who would always have far less.

It took four months for my phantom baby to re-cross the ocean and go back to her orphanage. I remember staring at my reflection in the glass top of an end table one day and realizing that the child in my home hadn’t committed a crime by being healthy and beautiful. She had suffered a loss, no less than the rest of us. She deserved better than she was getting; after that day I worked harder to give it to her.

Deep wounds leave a scar. Here is one my daughter and I share, unbeknownst to her: sometimes I look at her, my perfect girl who is so lovely that hearing comments about her beauty has come to seem an everyday thing, and I wonder if that beauty is a consolation prize. Did the adoption office in her city look for the most attractive child they had available in hopes that the substitution would better appease the sad, angry American couple who had spent that last three days weeping openly in taxis, hospital halls and a civic office? In a country known to take great care in matching children and parents, is she my child because the information contained in her file made us compatible or because the photo clipped to the front promised perfection?

If I were still engaged in the need to blame, it would be hard to find a rightful doorstep at which to lay it. Our home study agency was well versed in international adoption and warned us of potential health risks, as did our large and experienced adoption agency. People who’ve met the orphanage director under better circumstances have said time and again that he is devoted to the children in his care and does the best he can with limited resources. Even then, her foster mother worked hard (as she does now) to provide loving and conscientious care. The type of brain damage she sustained often occurs during birth but I can’t find it in my head to follow the path back that far. It’s one set of people too many on a road that winds between adoption professionals, orphanage staff, the adoption community, the Chinese and American governments and my own family. I just had to let it go, all of it, every shred of blame.

I don’t believe in the red thread. I believe in the money that flows between our household and her caretakers. That’s our destiny together. Someday my daughter will have to figure out for herself how deeply this girl she’s never seen is woven into her adoption story. For now, there’s a picture on the refrigerator, and a name, and a story that begins (ironically) “Mommy and Daddy couldn’t take care of this baby…”


Anonymous said...


Your story could be mine. 9 years ago, we made the hardest discission to bring our 1e daughter back to the orphanage. The feelings about the 2e daugther, about the regret, about the doubt were/are also mine. Thank you for sharing and I hope you can give it a place in your live.
Warm regard from Holland

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your courage in sharing your story. I know it must have been very hard. Unfortunately you are not alone in this experience. I pray for peace for you, for your family and for the child you tried to help in China.