When you adopt you calculate. Doubt divided by hope. I think that’s it. Our daughter spent six months with her birth mother, in squalor. In and out of respite care. Three months with a great aunt, then relinquished to foster care.
Adopting means stepping behind the curtain to see how the conjuror performs his magic. They teach you what love is. It’s not a mystical miracle. It’s a hard equation. Algebra, calculus, trigonometry, attachment theory? Love comes from attachment and attachment grows out of trust. You build trust through routine and predictability. If you can do that, and be patient, really patient, you get love. Adoption is home-made Stockholm syndrome. It’s still magic. Nature isn’t less natural because we discovered atoms.
The night she moved in she cried. Strange bed. Strange bedroom. New family. No choice. She was grieving. When I held her tight, for comfort, my arms came away scratched and bitten. My ears popped from her terrified scream.
OK, I remember, here’s the calculation. If she’s two years old on the first night you kiss her goodnight, you’ve put her to bed for 0.14% of her life.
At the park she didn’t respond when I called, tottering towards the gate as though we were strangers parting ways. Furious with myself for being embarrassed. A chilly October raincloud breaks with unexpected hail. We’re pelted. Tucked under the canopy of the ice-cream hut, closed for winter. She stares past me at the sky.
Life is like a spreadsheet. 1.8% of her life’s bedtime kisses. My routine is meticulous. Everything is the same every day. Same bowl and spoon at breakfast. A stroll to the park at 10am regardless of the weather. Snack on the dot. We repeat phrases like sleep-deprived salesmen. “Daddy and Dad love you.”
At playgroups they serve toast and tea. Children are released into a church-hall littered with toys and soft mats repaired with duct-tape. Around them, a watchful wall of child-minders. They talk to me like starved cats prowling for scraps of my daughter’s history. I tell nothing. They drift away. Occasionally they intervene with parenting advice. I don’t notice them giving advice to mothers. I’m the only man in the room, and Mia is clinging to my leg as if it’s the mast on a sinking ship. She’s never played with other children before. She’s horrified. Oh – my daughter’s name is Mia. I’ll share that now that she’s starting to learn my name. I’m Dad.
What’s a child to do if the adults around them don’t keep them warm, fed, or clean? What if the adults are barely there? Do they shout and scream? Manipulate and coerce? Maybe, they stop expecting anyone to answer them. Mia tripped and banged her head on the coffee table, she’s rubbing a sore red lump. “If you hurt yourself you say owie! And you call for Dad to come and kiss it better. Can you say owie? Let me give you a cuddle and kiss.”
At the park. She plods off the path in spattered unicorn wellies. I call to her and she pays me a quick glance, then turns to stomp away alone. We’ve given Mia 7.5% of her lifetimes’ bedtime kisses.
After speech therapy I sit with my girl on my lap peering at ourselves in the mirror. She’s blonde with big blinking blue eyes. “Watch my mouth, see what my mouth does when I go Ooooooh! Can your lips go round like you’re doing a big wet kiss? Ooooooh! Can you say moooooo like a cow?” We’re doing our enunciation homework. Only we wind up in giggles, blowing raspberries at our reflections.
Mia’s first morning in nursery arrives just before Easter. For three hours I pace the house, then leave early to welcome her bobbing out wearing a cardboard crown.
The warm smell of early summer is rising off the pavements. I’ve kissed Mia goodnight for 21% of her life. Mrs Morris waves a sombre hand to ask me to hang behind. Mia doesn’t play well with the other children and doesn’t follow instructions, could you work on that please. When social services finally removed her, she went to hospital for the deep agonizing bed-sores around her sodden nappy. Now she’s expected to act like all sweet little girls as supposed to. I clench my jaw and hold back tears.
The day before going back to work I cried on the hallway floor like a broken toy. What if Mia thinks I’ve disappeared like all the adults that came before? I asked for a flexible work pattern, but was told no. At work, I’m the first man they’ve ever dealt with as a primary carer. No special treatment. No exceptions. Not even childhood trauma and the risk of breaking our fragile new attachment. My time at home building bonds finished with swift precision.
At the park, daffodils are nodding in the spring breeze. Suddenly a black Labrador blurs past us chasing a squirrel. Mia is frightened. She screams and run towards me, “Up, up, Dad!” I scoop her into my arms. The protector. The one she runs to scared. The one she trusts to keep her safe. At night I kiss her forehead, “Night night – love you.” I repeat for the 300th night in a row. As if from the bottom of a well, a tiny voice echoes Night night.
After her fourth birthday, we’ll have kissed her goodnight for over half her life. More than anyone else before. Adoptive parents can’t have 100%. No amount of niceness, patience or devotion can give us 100. That’s the equation that takes your heart and breaks it and builds it all at once. Adoptive parents know the puzzle will have missing pieces. But we have the future. We have hope. We have a bloody good routine. With it we can grow trust, a bond of attachment, and finally, love.