We saw our daughter for the first time on a Saturday. After a late Friday night, my husband and I were lounging around the living room, poring over the newspapers and our social media timelines, still in our night suits at 11 a.m. On Facebook, I saw that another set of PAPs (Prospective Adoptive Parents, for the yet uninitiated to adoption terminology) was bringing their 6-month-old daughter home. They had found their daughter on the Immediate Placement list on the CARA website, where I’d only ever seen profiles of older children waiting for their families, and sets of siblings who deserved to get a home together. My curiosity piqued, I casually logged in to our CARA account, and went over to the Immediate Placement section. On Page 5 of the list, we first saw a picture of our little dumpling, just shy of 15 months, who – the whole family thought – looked just like I did when I was that age.
So, of course, we clicked that button, and frantically called the social worker to ask how soon we could finally meet our baby. Excitement, delirium, worry, all fighting for uppermost mind-space, as was how we were going to tell our respective offices, given how sudden this was. Over-planning, as I always do, I was charting out a plan for the next 15 days – telling our managers and HR, buying the essentials (of course, I had a list), preparing our home, and our two dogs who had never lived with a tiny screaming human before.
As it turned out, we had even lesser time that we’d thought we’d get. Eventually, we flew out just four days later, late on Wednesday night, with the baby’s Naani-to-be along, so there’d be someone who knew what to do. The next few days were a whirlwind, and my brain was dealing with stuff before it could even process any of it, and we felt things more intensely than we had ever thought possible. The magnitude of what it meant to be parents struck us only a few days after having brought our baby home. But, through it all, I learnt five basic things – mantras, if you will – that I hereby pass on to you, dear readers.
Contrary to all the sage advice you’ll undoubtedly get, I’m telling you to forget everything you’ve heard about how you’re supposed to feel when you meet your baby for the first time. For those of you who believe in destiny, you will see it at work. For those of us who don’t, we are hard pressed to explain what looks like incontrovertible evidence of it being at work, and so we ignore it or try to rationalise it, and maybe a hint of agnosticism creeps in.
But, nothing prepares you for how you will feel when you hold him or her for the first time. Especially if you’re a first time parent, but even if you have a biological child already. When you see the social worker or ayaah walk in with your baby, how are you supposed to feel? When you finally hold her in your arms, do her softness and weight feel familiar? This is a child with her own history, and there you are – the two of you, sometimes just you alone, with a whole family waiting to be owned by this child right here – and you’re to be joined as one, as parent and child, forever.
There’s magic in letting yourself go, to feel each feeling intensely, to allow yourself to drown in the whirlpool of the next few days, as your child becomes yours. Of course, my intense feelings also led to stress-snapping at the Dad and Naani of my new baby, and I hope yours are calmer for those around you, but all I really remember feeling is, well, disbelief.
Be unprepared, but do have a name in mind, or a few. We had a list of names we loved, and had decided to go with the one we felt would ‘fit’ her the best. And, it worked. She fit the name that meant ‘happiness’.
If you do have time before the trip, unlike us, get wet wipes, a feeding bottle, or a bowl and spoon if your child’s older, a water sipper, and something to keep her or him entertained on the flight. You’ll be able to buy clothes and diapers only when you’ve seen her or him. Children are often tinier than they should be when you meet them for the first time – our 15-month-old would fit into clothes meant for 9-12-month-olds – but wait till you see how fast they shoot up once they’re home with you. Other things aren’t absolutely essential, but we did get a stroller and a cot ready at home, before we left to bring her home. And we prepared our dogs, but more on that later.
Get a baby carrier, or a sling, and wear your baby as much as you can. We couldn’t, since she was already walking, and refused to be tied down. But, if your baby will let you, please do it, and lots of it. Being held close for the first time in their little lives will do so much unimaginable good to their psyche, and to their understanding of self, of love, and of family.
LET YOUR BABY DECIDE
For the first few weeks together, it’s okay to just go at the speed that your baby wants. She will probably cling to her mother, and be wary of her father, since her main caregivers up until now would’ve been women. He may refuse solids, even though the agency gave you a list of things they’ve been feeding him. She may scream bloody murder if you keep her down even for the two minutes you need for a quick run to the loo. He may wake up, screaming, many times through the night, and need to be held close and walked to sleep, or sleep quietly through the night, making you a little bit sad thinking about the nights of sleep-training the poor thing would’ve cried helplessly through. She may be wary of strangers, or happily jump out of her new mother’s arms at every other person she meets.
Every child is unique, but your adopted baby is going to be different from a child who has had continuity of love and care from within the womb to after they’re born. Read Nancy Verrier’s fabulous book called ‘The Primal Wound,’ and educate yourself on what your baby is going through, and will for the rest of your lives together. Not all of it may be true for your child, but it has been for many adoptees, and you may see shades of it in your daughter or son as they grow.
In the first few weeks together, let this tiny human who is going through the biggest, scariest change, anyone can at that age, decide how fast or slow your relationship will grow. Let them live on the basic nutrition of formula milk for a few days, if giving solid food a chance is too much for their stressed minds to handle right then. Babies will not let themselves starve, and their bodies can survive on formula for a few days. It’s their minds and hearts that need greater sustenance during this time of change. Cherish them clinging to you, and let them heal their minds, and start believing that you aren’t going anywhere. Whisper in their ears, or sing, as you rock them back to sleep for the fifth time in one night. Don’t stress about their schedule, or how much sleep they’re getting. Don’t worry about thumb-sucking. It’s a comfort mechanism and your baby needs it. Nothing bad will happen with a few days of this chaos of letting the baby decide, and everything wonderful will come out of it.
BE YOUR CHILD’S BEST ADVOCATE
I talk about adoption to everyone who asks, looks curious, or gives me the slightest opening. I’m an over-sharer, and my Facebook timeline is filled with unthought-through posts with #TMI. And thus, I open myself up to comments and questions that range from how ‘noble’ we are, how ‘lucky’ she is, and whether we know who our daughter’s ‘real parents’ are. I try to answer each question logically, unemotionally, factually – because often people really don’t know any better, and I’d like to contribute to maybe opening someone’s mind enough to have some baby somewhere find their way to a loving home and family. But, I do wonder whether I do my daughter a disservice by allowing these questions, or not answering them with the derision they sometimes deserve. It’s a work in progress, this journey of being an adoptive parent.
But, at the risk of sounding like a certain reality TV anchor, never-ever-ever have I allowed anyone to decide how I parent my child. No, not even her doting grandparents – except in an indirect way with my wonderful parents, who, after all, made me the parent I am.
People told me that we should never remind her that she is a Malayali by birth. We started a family tradition of celebrating Onam and Vishu since they are part of our baby’s heritage. People said how difficult handling a baby with two dogs in the house will be. Our two dogs are our daughter’s best friends, and would willingly give her their food, which if you knew our gluttons, you’d know is the ultimate sacrifice as far as they’re concerned.
People tell us how we should tell her (when we do) her homecoming story, whether we should tell her at all, that we should keep her hair cut short, when we should pierce her ears, how much screen-time she should get, what she should eat and what she shouldn’t, that we should’ve given her the ritual head-shave or mundan, that we made a mistake making her regress to drinking from a bottle – it never stops, and it won’t – and what’s more, it shouldn’t bother us. It doesn’t. We must be our child’s best advocates, fighting for them, setting the record straight, making sure they see the best versions of themselves through our eyes. There are always going to be people who don’t get it, and those who never will because they don’t want to. I answer questions of the former in an effort to help them understand, and don’t bother with those who insist on treating our child as either lucky or special. Let me explain that. She is special, and unique, and there will be issues that we will face together as she grows that come from what Verrier calls ‘the primal wound’ and being separated from her birth mother, but as far as the world is concerned, she is our daughter, and we are her family, and that’s where their influence on her life begins and ends.
YOUR OTHER BABIES
Do you already have an older child – human, canine, or feline? If you do, then they’re about to have their lives turned upside down, and should be prepared for it. Older children’s consent is necessary for adoption paperwork, so of course, they’ll be aware. But there’s more to it than knowing they’re about to get a sibling. Help them shop for the baby, buy toys that they can play with together, discuss things you’ll all do together once the baby is home, and the ways in which your older son or daughter’s life will change. Take them along when you finally go to meet your new baby for the first time and bring them back home. Spend the first few weeks after your baby comes home, together, just a regular family, and normalise things for your older child.
For canine or feline children, consult an animal behaviourist if you can. The wonderfully helpful dog behaviourist we consult sent us a list of recordings of the strange sounds babies make, from happy gurgling to rage crying, and asked us to play these for our dogs multiple times a day, at varying volumes, building up from the lowest level, almost inaudible to human ears, to how loud it would eventually actually get once the baby came home. I think this worked brilliantly. Get professional help to prepare your pets. It will make them comfortable with the huge change, especially if they aren’t used to babies, and it will make your home safer for your new baby too.
A lot of the above isn’t, of course, only for adoptive parents. I believe that most children benefit from love and patient understanding. The only difference is that adopted children deserve and need truckloads more of your patience and love, and the freedom to build the most important relationships of their life at their own pace. What you get in return is the most precious gift of all for an adoptive parent – a securely attached child who understands unconditional love.
Aanchal is a book-hoarding, Kindle-reading, compulsively-Instagramming, freelancing media professional, and mother to an almost two-and-half-year-old.