First Days

First Days

The first night with M is a blur. Her flight came in late, and we had made plans to spend the night in a hotel instead making the hours-long drive home. I did not sleep well because of my own fever, and Alison was restless and feverish all night as well. No one sleeps well in a hotel room anyway, but when a fitful and feverish toddler is writhing on your chest all night, it pretty much guarantees sleeplessness. It gave me a little compassion for how exhausted M must have felt, traveling all day and night, but it did not make the next day very easy for anyone.

M slept in the next morning, and we missed the hotel’s continental breakfast, so Chris (my husband) ran to McDonald’s and brought back enough food to feed a soccer team. M was taller but much thinner than I expected, and when she ate very little breakfast, I was worried how we were going to feed her. And she was so quiet and shy. I mean, sure, she wouldn’t be talkative because she spoke very little English, but her silence was very uncomfortable. We tried to use the Google Translate app we had downloaded on our phones, but she would read the translation and just smile or shrug. This month was going to be even more interesting than I had imagined in my wildest dreams.

The ride home’s awkwardness was compounded by M getting car sick and throwing up about half-way home. We had been warned of this in training—gasoline is very expensive in almost all of Europe, and riding around in cars everywhere is not the norm. We had been instructed to bring a bucket and wipes just in case of a mishap. But I felt so uncomfortable about communicating with M that I hadn’t given the bucket to her. I didn’t want to embarrass her by giving her the bucket, and at this point, I didn’t trust the translator app to communicate what it was for. So because of my fear of looking foolish, the poor girl got sick on herself.

We pulled into a gas station, and I took M into the ladies’ room while Chris cleaned up the car. I helped M clean up and washed down her coat, where most of the vomit had landed, mentally kicking myself for being so selfish. Here I was, more worried about myself than about the comfort and feelings of M. In penance, I carefully rinsed out the cuffs of her coat and held them under the hand dryer to make her trip home a little more comfortable. Chris had a drink and some gum and mints for M when we returned to the car, and we made it home without further incident.

The next few days are also blurred in my memory. I had a very clingy toddler needing me every moment, and a girl who must have felt so lonely and bored and scared. My eldest daughter, Katelyn, who I always say never has a stranger in her life, was really amazing during this time. I didn’t know how my girls would react to having M here or vice versa, but M’s bio had said she enjoyed being with younger kids, and that was good, because younger kids I have! Katelyn played endless games with M: UNO, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders. They rode bikes outside in our neighborhood because our December weather wasn’t completely frigid. They played video games on Kinect. I think the second day she was here, I apologized to M (through Google translate, of course!) that Alison was sick and crying so much. I told her that we were very glad she was here, and I hoped she wasn’t bored. Her response was so sweet I could have cried:

M's response, via Google Translate, when I apologized for how sick we were.

M’s response, via Google Translate, when I apologized for how sick we were.

New Horizons for Children does an all-day training as a part of the requirements for hosting. One of the things discussed is the need to work very hard to build trust with your host child. You have to parent differently than you do with your biological children because these children often do not trust adults. They do not have safe authority figures in their lives. One way to break down some of the walls they may have built around themselves is to do something out of the ordinary—do something a little crazy and silly and unexpected to let them know that you are not like other adults they have known.  The director of NHFC illustrated this beautifully by having a frosting fight one afternoon while making Christmas cookies with one of their host children. I knew I wasn’t brave enough to have a frosting fight, but I did have a bag of marshmallows in my cupboard…

So we staged an indoor snowball fight. I threw marshmallow snowballs at all the girls (well, not all, because Ali kept clinging to me and wouldn’t let me put her down).  Katelyn and my middle daughter, Elise, joined right in, but M would laugh shyly and dodge but not participate. Our ipad was always close by to help us with translation needs, so she started taking pictures of us and videoing our silliness, but she did not engage. I so wanted her to have fun—I felt like this was the moment for a breakthrough. So I set Ali down and chased after M. I pretended I was putting “snow” down her neck. I tickled her. I pelted her with snowballs. She dashed down the stairs to the basement, truly laughing now. Katelyn, Elise, and I gathered up all the marshmallows we could, and laid an ambush. When M crept up the stairs, we unloaded our stash of “snowballs.” She started to loft a few at us, and we tossed them right back. It was crazy and hilarious, and just what we needed.

Me, sick toddler, bag of marshmallows...captured by M.

Me, sick toddler, bag of marshmallows…captured by M.

Our indoor snowball fight lasted over an hour. By the end, I was exhausted, but I knew there was difference in M. Something had broken through her reserve. Something had touched her heart. Her walls were not so high as they had been.

And from that moment on, this girl who hadn’t seen her momma for four years became my shadow. She needed a lot of attention and reassurance.  Her walls were still intact, and she tested us with some pouts and some feigned stomach aches. We continued to struggle with communication, and there were times when I wasn’t sure what to do.

But one thing I knew for sure: what she needed most of all was love.

“Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.” Ephesians 5:2