Navigating the Mother-Minefield (Part 1)

I’m so glad our daughter doesn’t have telekinetic powers, I thought while finishing off the series Stranger Things with my husband last week. Watching Eleven—the latest character that fits the Hollywood trope of damaged-child-with-wild-superpowers—smash cars with her eyes and break necks with a flick of her head made me shudder. The scene was exaggerated and dramatic, of course, but there was a core of truth that hit me close to home.

‘Damaged’ is not the word I use, or will allow anyone to use, for our daughter who is adopted from China, but it is a word I’ve heard said about her and other adopted kids, and it always makes me cringe. If you know me in real life, please never call my daughter ‘damaged.’ (Also, while we’re at it, don’t call her an orphan either—she has two mothers and a bunch of ayis who loved her fiercely in those years in between mothers. Call Oliver Twist an orphan, but not my kid.)

I like the term ‘comes from hard places,’ which many attachment-savvy parents and therapists and social workers use. It puts the focus on the situation from which the kids came rather than the kids themselves. I remain resolved in my commitment not to talk about our daughter’s hard places on the internet—her story is hers to tell.

But lately I’ve had too many conversations with other people in my life who were surprised by the truth of our daily life. Out of a desire to protect my daughter, I’ve often been silent about what life is like with an older child who was adopted out of an institution (Again, I’m not too fond of ‘orphanage’ either—in China, they’re called Children’s Welfare Institutes, or CWIs. I’ve found ‘orphanage’ sounds too romantic, too “Please, sir, can I have some more?,” for most Americans I know.)

As I’m learning, silence on the internet can often mean that everyone assumes our life is lovely and grand, full of sparkly tea parties and earnest adoption talk.

Let’s go ahead and bust through that myth.


Our daughter has been home for almost three years. In fact, this month marks a milestone—she’s been home as long as she was in the institution. In most ways, it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t even been three years. So many things have happened. She was the size of an eighteen-month-old when we met her in that tiny government boardroom crammed with oversized mahogany-like furniture. She toddled in wearing a yellow panda coat and looked at us with mild interest. I knew at the time she was checked out—how could she not be? She had no idea the depths of the transition that was happening.

I don’t think it occurred to her that this was a real life change until the third day, when we tried to entertain her all day at a government office with stickers and snacks and she let us and everyone around her know that she was done as done and just wanted to go back home

She is strong-willed and spirited, this little one. She fits right in to our family.

We did take her home, one more time, when we visited the institution where she lived. We went for less than an hour. My girl who could barely walk toddled as fast as her short legs would carry her back to her crib.

She clung to it with the white-knuckled grip of a drowning girl who finds a life raft.

We had to peel her fingers off of the last safe place in her life.

She still talks about that crib. She still remembers what it felt like to be in that room. She still knows the layout of the place, the faces of the ayis who loved her, the faces of the children who were her constant companions.

Those kids have become “my Chinese” and she surrounds herself with them constantly in her mind; they have become her imaginary playmates. When we are separated, she sends some with me so that some of “her Chinese” can be with her mama even when she cannot.

And when the desire for real-life time with “her Chinese” comes up, when things change unexpectedly, when breakfast is five minutes late, when someone grabs her Lego, or when some thick shard of grief surprises her, she rages.

How could she not?

With everything she has lost in her life, with the way that her life was uprooted without her giving permission AT ALL, how can she not respond with rage? She has had zero agency. She has been in charge of exactly nothing. She had no choice about any of this adoption business.


Here are the people who have had choices in our daughter’s story: the government officials, the adoption agency, and us. The people whose lives were affected the most—her birth parents and our now-daughter—had the most limited choices available. For a variety of reasons I won’t put on the internet, we know that her birth parents did everything in their power to care for that tiny, squalling scrap of life. When it became clear that keeping her would essentially be a death sentence for her because of her medical needs and the health care available to them (which was, in reality, probably none at all), they made one grand gesture of enormous, death-defying love.

They made sure she would be found.

And if you think for one second that she wouldn’t have been better off with the birth mother whose heartbeat filled my daughter’s ears for nine months, with the parents whose DNA twisted together to give my daughter someone’s eyes, someone’s ears, someone’s grandmother’s nose, with the parents she longs for with every fiber of her being and whose loss defined her life, then you are wrong.

I am her mother. But I am not her only mother. And I never want to forget that fact. There is room in my love for my daughter for those other parents. I love what I see of them in my girl. I love them with my whole heart.

And, whatever grand ideas I had about adoption before we brought our daughter home, now I know—I would give anything, for her sake, for my daughter to have been able to stay with those parents.

Their loss has forever defined her and, subsequently, defines our relationship.


When something changes—Mommy goes on a trip, or Daddy leaves early for work, or sisters go to school, or preschool starts up for her—don’t you believe for a second that my strong daughter takes it in stride. Of course not. That happened to her before and she had no choice in the matter, no words to articulate the rage and grief that ripped through her body. She was young, so young many people dismiss her losses, but she does not. And we do not.

Any of those changes can trigger an explosion in the part of her mind where she processes her mothers’ love and the love she feels for her mothers. In my biological daughters, that area is pretty wide open—they love and are loved in a cycle that has been uninterrupted since the womb.

For my youngest daughter, a mother’s love is a minefield of loss. And any transition or even a good day with her mom can trigger an explosion in that minefield.

When that happens, with her anger electrifying the air around her, she charges into the room. That anger is good. It is healthy. It is a sign of a girl who is learning that her mother—her adoptive mother, still every inch her mother—is a safe place. She is learning that I can handle the grief, that I can stand with her in the rage. She knows, because I tell her every day, that even when she is upset, that I will not leave her.

And so she lets those wild explosive feelings slam against the solid wall of my love for her.

But I’m not going to lie: I’m deeply grateful she doesn’t combine those feelings with Eleven’s mind-bending, earth-destroying telekinetic powers. It’s hard enough to take as it is.


4 Replies to “Navigating the Mother-Minefield (Part 1)”

  1. Really beautiful. I had to take a couple of days to read it because my tears kept interrupting my ability to read the screen. Thank you for sharing.


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