Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Birthday - Happy Homecoming 2010

On the second anniversary of our daughter’s homecoming which also happens to be my birthday, I find myself reflecting back. I remember having so many concerns. I worried about bonding with our new daughter and her successful integration into our family. I also worried about the travel, remembering not to drink the water, and the vaccinations. I worried about taking care of an infant who would be a stranger to me and I to her for the first few weeks. I worried about how my boys, then seven and eleven, would adjust to a new baby in the house with their settled routines and comfortable roles. I worried about my husband adjusting to new fatherhood as he approached his 50th birthday. I worried about her health, potential developmental delays and special needs given her start in life. I worried whether as a family we were prepared to deal with what was to come. I am not much of a worrier so all worrying was very unsettling

I probably worried most about whether I would have the same bond with our newest child as I had with my two boys. Would I intuitively understand her like I felt I did with my boys? Would I understand what she needed during this phase when she couldn't ask? Would I understand the "why" of her actions like I often did with the boys? Would I be able to provide the nurturing safety net that I strove to with other children? Would she feel the intense connection to me I desperately hoped she would? I felt a heightened responsibility as the mother. Those early months and years would set the stage for her in life. All these concerns weighed on me as we traveled half away around the world to Ethiopia to meet our daughter two years ago.

I remember waiting in our Addis Abba hotel to be picked up by the van that would take us to WACAP house where we would meet Leyla for the first time. I emailed friends and family nervously as we passed the time. African time, as we had been warned, was between 30 minutes to an hour later than the appointed time. We were ready just in case this was the rare occasion they would be on time (which incidentally it was not). My heart pounded as we rode in the van. A typical view of what we saw out the window as we drove along is shown above. We made small talk with the another family who was also meeting their daughter for the first time. Part of me wanted to withdraw into my head with my thoughts. The drive reminded me of starting labor in that it was both exciting, frightening and inevitable – within and outside your control.

The van pulled up to a gate which seemed to open unnaturally slowly as we waited. We drove into a concrete courtyard where some older children were playing with a soccer ball. We could see the rooms where the children slept bordering the open area. Everything was clean but minimalist. The staff led us to the main room which was set up for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Reeds were strewn on the floor. Coffee beans were roasting and filled the air with a wonderful aroma. I truly felt exported to a different, exotic and wonderful world. But thoughts of meeting our daughter still dominated. An eternity passed before the nurses walked in with three baby girls.

I instantly recognized Leyla’s beautiful, sweet face from the pictures. She was a petite girl with surprising thick, bare thighs poking out of her dress. Her eyes were, and still are, her most striking feature. They are a liquid inky black and pierce through you. On our first meeting, they took in everything. She didn’t appear afraid but rather curious in a very focused manner. Holding her was heaven, just drinking in her baby smell, feeling her silky smooth skin and running my fingers through her soft black curls. The backside of her head was rather bald because she slept on her back and rubbed it the nurses told us. I did the same as a baby – interestingly. We postulated that the staff often put her in hats to cover it. I loved every inch of her, even her bald spot. Below is a picture from Ethiopia with Leyla in one of those hats. I see more looking at it again. Now, I know the look on Leyla's face is a wary one. She raises her eyebrows just a bit and her mouth is not as relaxed when she is unsure of what is happening.

We visited her each day. She came to us easily although she had a clear bond with one of her nurses. It was wonderful to see that bond but also bittersweet because it was one that could not be sustained as she moved into her new life with us. On the day before we traveled, we were allowed to take her back to the hotel with us. Our long trip home (33 hours in total) was noteworthy in that it was generally uneventful. Leyla was a "spitter" but smelling a bit like milk most of the time seemed a minor inconvenience. Leyla's big eyes took everything in - she seemed to want to look directly into the eyes of each person who entered her line of sight. I noticed on our flights she would study someone until they made eye contact. She would hold it briefly and then, as if satisfied with the connection, move her gaze to the next person. It gave me a sense of the deep person she is inside although she was a mere 6 months at the time.

I recall during the early days home feeling a sense of being slightly overwhelmed by all the changes that come with having an infant in the house. It brought back memories of when my boys first came home from the hospital although then I also had to deal with the physical recovery and fun hormones. This time, I instead had the unfamiliar weight of the worry about bonding – her bonding to me, her bonding to her brothers and they to her, bonding with her dad. I felt inadequate in a more extreme way than I did with my boys because I did not know what soothed her. I didn’t know what would make the transition better for her. I found my confidence in my image of myself as a mother was a bit shaken. This was new territory and I needed to learn a new set of skills and approaches. My third child entered our lives in a fashion where the connection was not already formed as it is through pregnancy and early infancy. It was hard to fathom but I didn’t know my child then although I loved her with all my heart.

Now reflecting back, I find it challenging to bring those feelings back to life. Leyla has done so much to make herself not only an integral part of our family unit but also the hub of joy and activity. I have a much younger sister and I recall a similar experience when she was a little girl. Everyone wakes up and asks, "Where's Leyla?" Beginning the day with her is guaranteed to start it with a smile, a hug or a laugh and often some combination. I previously blogged about the boys bonding with their little sister and it is a source of much happiness to me. Two years later and they still regularly comment on how much they love their little sister and how glad they are she joined our family. My husband is similarly smitten and she dotes on him.

Maybe it’s because I am in my middle life and am more reflective, or maybe it is because of the doubts I originally had, I find a vivid delight in the small moments with Leyla. My heart leaps every time she adds “My” before “Mama” and says it in her most definitive tone, “MY MAMA!!” I feel amazing when she violates my personal space as she snuggles with me in bed, making sure she has a body part of hers overlapping one of mine. Often that includes pressing her face against mine and saying, “You awake, mommy?? I awake!” The cares of the moment disappear when I pick her up from pre-school and she runs to me yelling, “Mo-o–mommy!” and wants to be scooped up. In the middle of the night, if she wakes up and calls out, “I want my mommy.” - I feel wonderful and happily settle her back down to sleep. She has a habit of gratuitously lavishing me with “huggies” and “kisses” and says “I lub you SO MUCH!” which makes me wonder what I did to deserve such bliss. Leyla imitates me in a way that makes me laugh at myself as well as her. She wags her finger at her brothers when they bother her and says, “I NOT happy wit’ you!!” I know where she heard that before. She also enjoys teasing (you can see an example in the last picture).

However, I feel a lurch in my stomach when she will on occasion innocently ask me, “Are you my mommy?” I always answer, “Of course, I am your mommy.” I know one day the question and answer likely will not be so easy and direct. For now, I cherish the simplicity of the love we share. Hopefully, it will set a good foundation to help us weather whatever lies ahead. I have so many wonderful mommy/daughter memories from our first two years together. You can see some of my favorites below.

On my birthday which now has so much more significance, I couldn’t ask for a better gift than being loved fully and deeply by my youngest child (and my terrific husband and two amazing sons). Leyla, we all love you so much and can’t imagine our lives without you. You have brought us so much happiness, learning and laughter.

Happy Birthday to me; Happy Homecoming to Leyla.