Of Love and Losses: Adopting the Older Child

Marybeth Lambe
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Two chinese girls playing

JinJin Joseph Levy and MeiMei Julia Levy leap off the school bus every afternoon, laughing and talking loudly. Competing with each other for my attention, they tell me about their exciting day in kindergarten. They speak of friends, new songs learned, and their adored teacher, Miss Ferries. Their words spill out in a mixture of English and Mandarin Chinese, for these two children have only recently joined our family.


My husband, Mark, and I adopted JinJin and MeiMei when they were five years old. What is it like to adopt an older child? What are the risks, and what are the rewards? Although we knew there could be concerns — difficulties in attachment, delayed development, and other psychological issues — for us it has been simply a delight.


Both children lived in a Shanghai orphanage and were featured in the “Waiting Children” portfolio of our adoption agency, World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP). We were intrigued by each of them — and, yes, we fell in love with their photos. We had adopted before. Our daughter Emma Rose came to us at the age of three months; now eight years old, she is proud of her African American heritage. Shen Bo, now four years (another “waiting child” from China) was adopted at the age of two. He had been waiting for a family because of his special need — missing fingers on one hand.


Now we were looking at photos of MeiMei — also missing fingers on one hand and testing positive for Hepatitis B. JinJin was a waiting child because of his bilateral clubfeet. We had never before considered an older child adoption, and WACAP helped us greatly in searching our hearts. After discussing the idea at length with our other children (we have four biological children as well), we added MeiMei and JinJin to our family in June of 1998.


How to express the wonderful journey it has been? I cannot imagine our family without these two children. My new son and my new daughter have entered all our hearts and added richness to our lives. Can you imagine the courage it would take to start over in a new country? JinJin spoke openly and longingly of the friends he had left behind in the orphanage. MeiMei expressed it in nightly dreams, when she would weep piteously in her sleep. Though she no longer grieves so painfully, we frequently discuss the country of their birth and the fond memories they cherish.


Recently, JinJin has revealed more and more memories of his life in China. He was with his birth family until he was three and frequently speaks of his parents and a younger brother. He struggles to hold on to these dim memories, and we have written these recollections down to preserve them for him forever. Such a small boy to have such loss already in his heart! At times, he worries that his birth parents placed him at the orphanage because he was too “bossy” to his baby brother. Other days he wonders if he was “too ugly” to keep when his adorable brother appeared on the scene.


His most poignant reminiscences are about this little sibling, whose name he can no longer recall. “Remember?” JinJin asks me. “Remember how he would laugh when I made faces?” My new son smiles, his eyes staring at unseen memories. “He had two new teeth, right here in the front of his little mouth.” He touches his own mouth. “And two on the bottom.”


Gently, so as not to destroy the moment, I kneel down beside him. JinJin turns his sweet brown eyes to mine. “I miss him, I miss him, mom.”


Oh, JinJin. That I could save you such pain. To rush in, to tell him, over and over, until he believes me: You were not too bossy, you were not too ugly. You are a fine and handsome boy, a boy who is gentle and kind. None of us is perfect, but there is nothing you did to cause anyone to reject you. You are lovely; you are loved. Your birth parents did the best they could; they are with us even now.


Almost, I would wish to take away his hard memories, in my hurry to save him grief. Better to forget than to search forever for the reason why they relinquished you.


But I have learned not to plow into a moment of pain, a moment of memories. For these recollections are a gift as well; they are JinJin’s keepsakes, his only mementos of his first family. And so we treasure them together. He unwraps them at the most unexpected times — in the car, waiting for the bus, playing quietly in the bath. I try never to push such moments away, though sometimes I fight the tears that come to my eyes. It is achingly difficult not to sweep this sorrow away from both of us, to stop myself from distracting him with happy chatter; to try to solve this loss.


It is one of parenting’s most difficult lessons, isn’t it? To learn there are wounds that can never be completely healed, grief that never fully disappears. All of us learn it again and again: the first friend who rejects us, the boyfriend who jilts us, the death of a loved one. A lesson that is as hard to learn as it is to teach. We can endure loss, we can cling to our old memories, we can learn to love again. This is what I recite to myself as I hold a young boy as he weeps for his long-lost baby brother.


Most of the time, life is too busy for such reflections. MeiMei and JinJin have blended well with their new siblings. They have done marvelously in school, even though English is their second language. We have tried to use some Mandarin at home, but both children became adept at English within a couple of months. We had initially planned on waiting a year before they started kindergarten, but they wouldn’t hear of it.


They proudly carry home their first library books, their first homework, their first report cards. An even greater thrill for them are the phone numbers of new friends and the excitement of their first birthday party invitation. Beaming with joy, MeiMei proudly displays a tiny pink envelope. With great ceremony, she pulls out a rumpled invitation and hands it to m e. “Read, Mommy. Read to MeiMei.” She folds her arms and cocks her head to one side — a connoisseur listening to great poetry. Before I have fully disclosed the details of her friend’s party — the who, when, and where — she has snatched the paper from my fingers and hugged it to her chest. “A party, MeiMei’s going to a party,” she chants as she twirls around the room.


We had also expected to wait on the surgery for JinJin’s clubfeet. It would be enough, we thought, to join a family, learn a new language, and start American school. To add a painful surgery, which would require months in a wheelchair, seemed too cruel. We did not reckon, however, with JinJin’s own wishes! He was anxious to be as mobile as his new siblings and underwent surgery just five months after coming home. “Don’t worry,” he told us jovially. “I will be fine. I want my new legs.”


Finally done with wheelchairs, and out of casts, he now runs through our woods and pastures, chasing his brothers and sisters. He is delighted with his new sneakers and with his skill in hide and seek.


MeiMei shares a room with her big sister Emma Rose. At night I catch them under the covers with a flashlight — Emma is teaching MeiMei to read. They fight like any respectable pair of sisters. They spend hours doing each other’s hair, and occasionally getting into older sister Sara’s makeup. Sara and Emma protect their little sister against the bullies on the bus; in return, MeiMei worships them. It seems a fair exchange.


In short, they are family. Our concerns about bonding, adopting out of birth order, special needs never materialized. JinJin’s grief is balanced with his joy. MeiMei’s nightmare sobs have stopped. She seems to float happily, delighting in every new discovery. There will be hurdles ahead, we know. But as we cuddle JinJin and MeiMei, we can smile at our earlier fears. We claim these two children, and they have claimed us.


About Marybeth Lambe

Marybeth Lambe lives with her husband and eight children on a small farm in Sammamish, Washington. When she is not chasing cows, chickens, or children, she works part time as a family physician and writer.

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