My daughter was two months shy of her third birthday when I adopted her in India. Rather than running into my arms the day I picked her up from the orphanage, she recoiled in fear. I had waited her whole life to hold her but she hadn’t been waiting for me.
Scared, malnourished and extremely fragile – I took her from the only home she’d ever known. Self-doubt blanketed me, was I doing the right thing for her?
I’d lived in India for almost five years and knew that her life choices were limited if she remained in the orphanage. I could offer her a loving home and a connection to her birth country because I am also Indian. But I wasn’t her mother, not yet at least. That was a title I had to earn.
According to the Adoption Australia 2015-16 report many prospective adoptive parents have a strong desire for an infant. While this isn’t a surprise, it’s often far from the reality. In fact, 90 per cent of adopted children in Australia were over 12 months of age when they found their forever family.
Adopting a toddler comes with its own unique challenges. My child came with a history that I’ll never know or be able to understand. This certainly made the first few weeks and months particularly difficult - not only was I a new parent, I was also trying to learn who this person was.
My child came with a history that I’ll never know or be able to understand
I watched in amazement as she folded her clothes yet didn’t know how to dress herself. She was riddled in scabies but had a stomach of steel. She’d never seen a television but slept through the night without interruption. She was potty trained but had no idea how to use a western (seated) toilet.
For the first few weeks my focus was on building attachment and ensuring she was healthy. Leading up to the adoption, I had prepared by reading as much as possible on toddler adoption. I knew that creating a bond of attachment was key and this required plenty of contact.
Fortunately my daughter was not only receptive to this approach, she demanded it. Like a newborn, she clung to me constantly - in bed, on the couch, in the shower. While this was hard on my back it forged our enduring bond of attachment. I know not all adopted toddlers are as open to contact, which means it can take much longer for parental attachment to form.
Even if they’re resisting any form of attachment, it is still possible to bond with toddlers at some level because they’re naturally inquisitive. My daughter was wary of my father initially but would knock down building blocks with him for hours on end. Two years later, they’re now best of friends.
Just like any toddler, my daughter was also curious. This came in handy when she initially wouldn’t accept food from me. I would leave biscuits around the apartment for her to “discover” instead.
My daughter was wary of my father initially but would knock down building blocks with him for hours on end
After about a week, my daughter started to show signs of settling into her new life. The whimpering dissipated, she started eating and I saw glimpses of the cheeky little girl I now know so well.
It took another five weeks before she called me Mum and smiled at me purposefully, that was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. It wasn’t the first time she had smiled, but it was the moment that I knew she had chosen me.
As a parent, you go into adoption choosing to love the child that you are given, but a toddler only makes the choice to love you when they’re ready. And when they do, it’s miraculous.
My daughter is now five and she has still lived more of her life without me than with me, but this doesn’t mean she’s any less my child. We just forged our bond and fell in love with each other when she was already walking, talking and seeking out independence.
While adopting a toddler is hard, it’s not to be feared. It’s a rewarding experience that is wrapped up in all the joy, charm and enthusiasm of a toddler. To quote Erich Fromm, love is a decision - and when you adopt a toddler that’s a decision that both of you have to make.
Image courtesy of Abhishek Vijay
Rakhee Ghelani is a writer, content marketer, traveller, foodie and mother based in Melbourne. She is a Director of Legal Writers and The Content Arc. Follow her on Twitter @rakheeghelani
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