When I adopted an older child, I was prepared to teach him what it means to have a family. Instead, I found myself with a little boy in deep mourning for the loss of his loving foster parents.
by Melanie Curtright
Last week, my six-year-old son, Eli, chose to celebrate the first anniversary of his arrival in America at a local diner. Initially, he’d chosen a Chinese restaurant; both choices made sense to me — Chinese food, which he’d left behind, or the American food that he has embraced.
As I watched him chow down on a hamburger and a strawberry milkshake, arguing with his brother, Nick, over who is a better hero — Luke Skywalker or Spider-Man — I couldn’t help but feel a bit triumphant. My little family of three had made it through Eli’s first year — one that my social worker warned me would be “very trying.” What an understatement!
Every day since bringing Eli home, I’ve struggled to help him adjust to his new life while trying to preserve the relationship I have with Nick, now an older brother by just nine months. This has not been a path for the faint of heart.
The First Tests
I adopted Nick as an infant, from Cambodia. Four years later, I realized that neither of us wanted him to stay an only child forever. Since I didn’t need the baby experience again, and Nick needed a playmate, we decided to adopt an older child from China.
The referral for Eli included pictures, medical reports (his cleft lip and palate were repaired when he was two), and some information on his personality. I read that he was outgoing, active, and made friends easily. The report mentioned a foster family. When I inquired about them, I was told that children who underwent surgery were often temporarily placed with local families, so they could receive one-on-one care during recovery.
What I did not know until I arrived in Hangzhou was that Eli had lived with a very loving foster family since he was abandoned as an infant. He’d been taken from that family — the only family he’d ever known — and moved to the orphanage just one week before I arrived. When I got to the government office to sign the adoption papers, I found a stricken and terrified little boy who would not turn around to look at me. His face was streaked with tears, and he clutched a small toy his foster family had given him. When I took him back to our hotel room, he quickly figured out how to work the security latch on the door and continually tried to open it and leave. When I took him shopping for toys and clothing, he told the interpreter that he wanted to go home and show his new things to his mama.
I requested a meeting with his foster family, but the orphanage representative told me that his foster mother was distraught and that it would be a mistake to let Eli see her again.
Unlocking a Past
Nick and I have asked Eli to talk about his “China Mom and Dad” many times during the past year. He finally opened up, after I assured him that talking about them wouldn’t hurt my feelings. He told us that he was raised as an only child by an older couple who had one grown son. They lived in a two-story house and Eli had his own room. He had a yellow backpack for school, and many books. His father, an emergency worker, wore a white coat, rode a bike, and smoked. His mother stayed at home and, as I’ve deduced from Eli’s behavior, waited on him hand and foot. He was happy, safe, and well cared-for. When his foster mother and father told him that he was leaving them to go to America, everyone in the family cried. Knowing Eli as I do now, I can picture the tearful scene. And I understand, in hindsight, how deeply he was grieving when we met in Hangzhou.
Upon arriving at our house, Eli proceeded to dictate how things were going to be from now on — to Nick, to me, and to anyone else who got in his way. This was all communicated in rapid-fire Chinese, punctuated by jabbing fingers, screaming, spitting, stomping, and flying objects. I understood the reasons for his provocative behavior, but that didn’t make the tantrums and stubbornness easier to deal with.
There was one day, after Eli had been home for about seven months, that began on a sour note. Eli got upset when I wouldn’t carry his backpack to the car (he had dropped it at my feet as he walked by — not the way to ask for help!). He must have stewed all day, and, that evening, while I was making dinner, he launched into a tantrum — hitting Nick, crying, throwing toys around. I turned off the stove and sat on the floor with Eli. I pulled him onto my lap and asked him what was wrong.
“I want my mommy,” he said.
“Well, I’m your mommy, Eli,” I replied. But he just wailed, “Not you! I want my China mommy.”
During the really low moments this past year — and there have been many — I wondered whether I have done the right thing by this little boy. He lost a stable, happy home and a loving family; he gained better medical care, educational opportunities, a new mom, and a big brother. Does either side outweigh the other? Would he have been better off if he’d stayed where he was? These questions will continue to haunt me.
Eli still misses his foster mother and father. I expect that he will for a long time. But, alongside his grief, Eli has begun to trust Nick and me, even to love us. This change did not happen on its own. All three of us have worked hard to establish our places in each other’s lives.
Nick, ever accommodating, tries to patch things up when Eli and I are at odds—his innate sense of fairness and empathy keep us in balance. Eli has learned that big brothers are pretty cool, and that both of the moms he’s known will always love him.
Besides memorizing our therapist’s phone number and figuring out how to keep two screaming boys apart in the middle of a crowded mall, I’ve learned to think about Eli’s behavior in the context of his life experience. And that, seven years into this adventure called parenting, I’m still growing as a mother.
As we three celebrate our first year together, with burgers and shakes and superhero debates, I feel joy that we found each other, that we’re becoming a family. And I see signs that Eli’s beginning to feel that way, too.
Melanie Curtright, a project management consultant, lives with her sons in Sammamish, Washington.