Today marks two years that we have been a family. I choose to mark it as the day that I took custody of Selam. There are other options. I could note the day she legally became my daughter (June), the day we met (September 18) or the day we came to the US (October 1). Since I didn’t feel like her mother until I was responsible for her care, I mark September 20.
I feel like it’s fair to choose that date because when I’m being honest, family day is about me. For me, it was a terrifying and wonderful day. For Selam, it was probably just terrifying. She was not quite 3, and left her second orphanage, after first leaving her birth home to go live with a ferenge who only knew about twenty Amharic words in a guest house with a bunch of other ferenge parents and habesha children. At the time, I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t really notice the things that would have been a clue to me that she was so, so, so, so scared. For one, she ate voraciously. She polished off plate after plate after plate of food. I thought she was hungry. She was hording. For another, she slept for hours and hours–twelve straight hours at night, and a two hour nap in the afternoon. She was terrified and sleep let her escape the exhaustion of just trying to figure out this new world. I’m not sure what I could have done that would have made her feel less scared. I knew she was scared. I didn’t realize how scared (until later when her real personality started poking through). And without being a familiar face or even speaking the language, I really couldn’t do much more than hold her.
Selam wanted a family. That much I know. She was in care for 14 months, and did not remember her birth mother. She told people at the care center that she wanted a family. I don’t know that she wanted this family, but she wanted a family. She still talks nearly every day about being in a family. “We are a family, Mommy” she will say about the most benign things. “We share salt because we are a family, Mommy.”I think Selam would probably happily celebrate a family day, but it might be the day that she felt like we were a family–I suspect that was sometime in November or December of that first year where she started having those feelings, and probably a whole year after that before she felt much closer to certain that I wasn’t going anywhere. And I know that there will come a day when this whole story will be much harder for her to hear.
Adoption seems so happy on the outside, but inside, it’s so complicated. My joy is only possible due to someone else’s heartache, so it’s a tempered joy, a joy that knows that I did not earn Selam, and I had no right to her or any child. Her love is what I haven’t to deserve, but it breaks my heart and mends it over again every day.
So family day is complicated. We mark it–quietly–she wore an Ethiopian necklace to school, and we’ll go out to dinner tonight and maybe look at old pictures and videos before bed. We talk about how we are a family, how we love each other, and we talk about her birth family in Ethiopia, too, what little we know about them. It’s a special but low key day. And it’s really my special day, as much as I’d like to say that it’s about her.
Last night we were talking about the day that I came to get her. I told her that I was so, so scared, and that we drove up in a big van. All the children were sleeping. We sat with the nannies while they finished coffee and then one of them went to get her for me. She came out, still damp with sleep, and half dazed. The nanny walked her to the car, and we loaded her in. She began smiling like a cheshire cat–a trip! She sat between me and Alex on the ride, and looked at some toys we had brought. She kept smiling. I was crying, though. I struggled to stop. I was crying for the nannies, crying “eh wood-eh shallo” to us as we backed out of the gate. I was crying for the security guard, her favorite, who cried silently as he opened the gate for us. I was crying for all that she had lost and all that I was gaining. I was crying in joy and fear and sadness. Everything changed the minute the gate clicked behind us.
The rest of that night was sweet and domestic. She looked at her clothes and toys–not many of each, but the shoes and hair bow delighted her (far more than the toys). We ate dinner, and I cut her food and marveled at that concept. I gave her a bath, and threw a rubber ball in the tub to play with. She thought that was hilarious. I read her books in a language that she didn’t understand, and sang her to sleep.
And it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last 24 months. Bed, books, songs, sleep. Mama.