The Importance of Being Mommy

Learn how one mother experienced the joys and sorrows of bonding with her adopted daughter.

I’ll never forget the taxi ride back to Moscow the day I became a mother. As the car bumped and jostled over worn out Russian roads, I wept for the stiff, shifty-eyed 15-month-old in my lap. Though I’d offered her my finger to hold, she chose to clutch a damp, stinky Cheerio. Swollen sores and rashes enveloped every inch of her tiny body, and the orphanage workers had tried to hide her shaved head and scab-covered scalp beneath a flowered bandana. But they couldn’t veil her eyes, glassy with confusion and pain. She had to be wondering, who are these people speaking so strangely, dressing me in new clothes, removing me from the only life I’ve ever known?

I vowed at that moment to offset her suffering somehow, to compensate for the struggles she had endured before joining our family. I would quit my job, bake cookies with her, and teach her the motions to Itsy Bitsy Spider. We would snuggle under homemade quilts and she would fall asleep every night with a smile on her lips. I knew she would thrive with a mother’s constant care, and I rejected the warning of our adoption training instructor. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve ‘saved’ these kids from,” she’d said. “Kids are selfish by nature. Don’t expect them to suddenly love you or treat you like a hero.”

As months passed, our daughter settled in to our rules and routines. I appreciated her good behavior, but her hugs remained stilted and eye contact sporadic. She impressed her new friends and relatives with her emergent vocabulary: she could say “doggy” and “daddy” almost immediately. Then, “Elmo” and “Dora.” My repeated attempts to add my name always generated dismissive squirms. Her cousin Michael made the list. Then my former boss, Shelly.

“Maybe it’s just too hard for her to say ‘mommy,'” a friend suggested. But even the variations I introduced to her – mama, mom, etc. – met with disinterest. By the time she said “mailman,” I’d had it. My spirits began to drag the ground like the baby dolls she hauled from room to room. Even they had names she knew.

Irrational as it seems, I started to resent waking up every day to the loveless wail of an egocentric stranger. If she wasn’t howling for bottles, diapers or food, she was falling off a chair or riffling around in a drawer. Through constant, demanding cries, she reached out for me – but only because I was near enough to provide the things she needed.

My apparent lack of significance to her made my drastic life changes all the more agonizing. During those lonely days, I mourned the passing of my career. Coworkers might once have described me with adjectives like congenial, competent, commendable. Now, I was just cranky‚Ķand concerned. We’d amputated half of our income. Adoption bills mounted, along with the tension in my neck and shoulders. I’d forfeited nearly all sources of adult conversation and affirmation to spend my days tending an indifferent toddler.

Had I given up everything I cared about – my life savings, my friends, my free time – to become a babysitter? In my misery, I found myself firing off quick prayers as urgent and jarring as a car backfiring:

Help me!

Fix this!

Change things!

And then, like that moment of bliss and buoyancy when your kite finally catches the air, everything did change. Nearly six months after legally becoming my daughter, she touched my chest with her little fingers and said, “Mommy.” She wasn’t asking for anything, wasn’t upset or cranky. She was simply telling me for the first time, “I’m starting to understand who you are.”

Once she called me by name, our relationship developed clarity and momentum. She remained inquisitive about her world, but always returned to proclaim the critical new truth she’d learned. She began inviting me into her toy kitchen, patting the seat of her little red folding chair and announcing, “Mommy! Tea!” She dragged me around the house by my finger to discover the wonders of life with her. Nodding confidently, she told strangers in stores that I belonged to her.

I stopped dreading the static of the baby monitor each morning. I knew the whimpered request for “Mommy” would be next – and I would gladly rush to her side. I felt like I’d been transformed from slave girl to Cinderella. Through this same magic, holding her at night ceased to be a responsibility and became a gift. Her little arms clutched my neck as I whispered, “It’s OK‚ĶMommy’s here.”

Just when it seemed life couldn’t get any better, we received unexpected funds that helped pay off the adoption! My prayers had been heard, and my needs met. But a pang of guilt overshadowed the relief I felt.

After all, my methods of getting what I wanted had been just like my daughter’s.

I’m no different than a lot of people. It’s natural to shoot prayers at God in times of crisis. Even if we never set foot in church or pick up a Bible, we cry out to him like children when discomfort or discontent overpowers us.

Still, I was always taught that God loves us like a dad loves his kids. Now that I’m a parent, I’m starting to get that. I don’t want my daughter just to follow the rules. I don’t want her simply to ask for things, though I would give her the moon wrapped up in ribbons. I want her to know me, to embrace me, to clutch my finger and walk through the world with me.

It’s easy for me to become like a toddler, indignant when I don’t get my way. My first inclination is to blame my provider for falling down on the job. Then I think about the frustrating early days when I tried to clean and medicate my daughter’s wounds. She jerked away, screaming, and I wanted to shout:

How can I make things better if you don’t let me get close enough?

Maybe those are the words God wants me to hear.

I don’t want to live like an orphan. I don’t want to settle for a sugar daddy when I can have a father. If God knows my past, my issues, my fears, then I doubt he has expectations of me becoming the model child overnight! I have to believe he’s pleased when his kids take even a small step toward his open arms. So I’ll start today by acknowledging: “I’ve got a long way to go, Father – but I’m starting to understand who you are‚Ķ”

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