The other afternoon as we were winding down for nap time, I was cuddling on the couch with Q while she played with her Barbie laptop (or her "pink iPad" as she calls it). 

Normally, I don't like to get too close to that Barbie "computer", but it had been missing for a couple of months (I won't say who was responsible for its disappearance) and she was so thrilled to have rediscovered it. So I sat, clenching my teeth just lightly, as she pressed a button for a numbers game, and commenced matching. Once she had successfully navigated the first level of the game, the rudimentary screen of the computer flashed the silhouette of a woman's purse, and a staticky female voice chirped, "Great job, fashionista!"

At which point, I made a sound. It was a small sound, an involuntary sound, not even what you could call a snort, but apparently Q has reached that point in our relationship that she can guess my line of thinking based on even the subtlest of tells. 

She turned around (I was sitting behind her, her back pressed comfortably into my stomach), and shot me an astute, narrow-eyed glance over her shoulder.

"You don't like Barbie," she said, in an accusatory tone that said "I just realized".

 And at that moment, I had a parenting revelation.

Let me back up and say that I don't have many revelatory moments when it comes to parenthood. I don't over think it. I am not a control freak. I am, much to my own surprise, a very laid-back parent. I go with the flow.

 "Well, you must think about it," said a good friend of mine, who has chosen not to become a parent. "I mean, you don't just parent on instinct?"

"I do just parent on instinct, actually," I said.

Since becoming Q's mommy, I don't read the latest frightening statistics. I don't tremble with apprehension if my daughter eats a cupcake before lunch. I do buy organic foods whenever possible, but I don't censor food choices at restaurants, and I don't leap into self-righteous action if someone offers her a Cheetoh. 

Before our adoption, I had all sorts of ideas. I imagined myself enforcing a strict moratorium on Disney Princess movies, video games, and social media. I read up on the least-toxic type of finish for wooden toys (and yes, I imagined her playing only with wooden and/or homemade toys). I learned how to aerate a new crib mattress so as to run the least risk of releasing toxins into the air of my child's room. 

I also read everything I could get my hands on, and trust me, when you are preparing to adopt a child - a child with medical needs, no less - the list of recommended literature is both staggering and terror-inducing. Two or three books on post-institutional-trauma could easily result in several prescriptions for panic-disorder medication for a prospective adoptive parent.

I stayed up late into the night, month upon month, plowing through tomes on the subject of attachment disorders in abandoned and/or institutionalized children. I read one heart-rending case scenario after another until my hands shook as I held the books under the tiny circle of my bedside lamp. I read of parents whose adopted children physically attacked them, and others who suffered from such debilitating post-adoption depression that they were unable to display affection to even the most gentle and willing child. I read forum upon forum on the subject of post-adoption palate surgeries, the pitfalls, the surgical failures, the children who refused to eat for weeks after surgery, or woke each night with violent post-traumatic night terrors that left the parents torn, battered and defeated.

By the time we were finally cleared by both governments to travel to China and meet our then 11-month-old daughter, I was grim and clenched and ready for every worst-case-scenario known to mankind.
And then we brought her home. 

Stunned and disoriented at first, sure, but the happiest, smiliest, most resilient of children. After the first disorienting weeks, I fell into a sort of waking dream from which I have yet to emerge. With all my studying and worrying, all my worst-case-scenarios and personal fears, I found that parenting the Q was an exercise in pure, unadulterated joy. 

For two and a half years now, I have lived from day to day, confident in the fact that I did all my studying and my worrying and my dire predicting ahead of time, and that now I am free to simply enjoy. 

So, my revelation, you ask? 

Well, here's the thing. I am not a control freak as a parent, except when it comes to aesthetics and taste. 
When I was small, my parents schooled me in culture and art and the finer points of good taste. They took me to art museums and gave me books far above my age level. My mother forbade me Barbie dolls and refined sugars, and gently told me that I was not to emulate a school-friend's style of dress because it was "a bit tacky". My parents urged me to play out of doors, to read  use my imagination, do draw and sculpt and create rather than purchase and own. My mother disliked the color pink, and so I did as well. 

My greatest secret fear has been that my child would want to wear pink princess outfits and play with Barbie dream homes, that she would prefer Cheerios to salmon fillets, that she would want to watch Cinderella and wear plastic tiaras and gaze into vanity mirrors saying "Who's the fairest of them all?"

But when she turned to me with that hurt look that said, "Mommy doesn't like my Barbie toy, and all this time I never realized..." It broke my heart a little. This one toy was not going to hurt her. She doesn't even like Barbie dolls. But she likes the color pink, and she likes this little computer that lets her play number games. And what harm is there in that? This toy was not going to hurt her, and there was no need for me to scoff at the toy that she was enjoying. So I took her face in my hands and apologized for laughing at her toy. "You know what, Q" I said. "You're right. Mommy isn't crazy about Barbie. But this is your toy that you enjoy, and that's OK. You and Mommy don't always have to  like the same things. We can be different and still love each other very much."

These are things that I was discussing, quite rationally, with a three-year-old. A three-year-old who calls herself my daughter. And I wasn't just saying these things because I have to. I was saying these things because - here's the thing - it's OK. It's really OK with me.
I realize now, two and a half years into motherhood, that my perceived need for control over my child's tastes came from a deep-seated and entirely irrational fear that she might somehow go off the rails, that only my own guidance could save her from an innate inclination toward wrong things. What I've realized, belatedly, is that I am not worried about this child. I trust her. She is a good and strong and viable human being. She is not like me, nor need she be. She may, in fact, turn out to know things that I do not know, and to understand things about life that I have not yet learned to understand. My place is to gently guide her, yes, on the basis of my own limited life experience. But I need not think that she is about to take the wrong path at every turn, if I let my guard down for even a moment.

Tonight, after a long day of Easter celebrations with family and a distinct lack of napping, we came home to a long, early evening of trying to keep our daughter awake until a viable bedtime. We set her in front of the computer screen for a couple of videos in an attempt to wind her down before bed. I asked her what she wanted to watch, and she began to hum the Spongebob Squarepants theme. Now, I have never liked Spongebob. To me, he is a bit coarse, more than a bit crass, and full of simplistic, scatological jokes that do nothing for me. But I have learned that Spongebob is popular in China, and that her love for him probably stems from his constant presence on the TV screen in her orphanage during the first 11 months of her life. It's a memory that she enjoys.

So I told her, "You know what, Q? You can watch Spongebob for a little while, as long as you don't mind if Mommy doesn't watch with you. Mommy doesn't like Spongebob Squarepants. But remember, if Mommy doesn't like something, it doesn't mean that it's not OK for you to like it. We can have different tastes, and like different things, and we can still love each other very much. And that's OK." 

And, here's the weird thing, I actually meant it. 

ps - Yoli is right, our case is not like all, or possibly even most, cases of adoptive parenting. Many people do experience the worst-case scenarios of post-traumatic attachment disorders, night terrors, and many other issues. Q was extremely lucky to come out so well-balanced and happy, for any number of reasons, most of which we can't know. Partly her particular personality, which is confident and resilient, partly the care and attention that she received in her particular institution (which, it seems, was better than most).  We are all very, very lucky. But I have addressed this subject in other posts in the past. These are not our dragons to fight. We will have others, I'm sure, as time goes on. 


CdP said...

Waouhhh what a wonderful story of Maia that our fears of a parent sometimes lead us to do. I have loved you read and see the acceptance of their differences that sometimes scares us! Let their confidence, that sums up so well ...

But our example is a strength for them!

kenza said...

What you say is wonderful and so well written. Thank you for sharing this. Funny, I share much of the same feelings... I read everything and all before Petit Caramel was born, then relaxed. I realize that children can find their own way. Yes, he likes to play with cars (plastic or otherwise) but also books, and painting, music and more. Why forbid? Why try to mold them? We think we are doing them a favor by aiming for what we think is "best". I realize children know what is best. We can guide a bit, but we should let them be who they are, who they want to be. Now good taste is innate and acquired, and Q will get it from you and her father. No doubt about that! Thanks again for sharing sweet Maia.

Yoli said...

It is important to do the hard work. To read up on attachment and trauma and what to expect when you adopt. Particularly a special needs child who comes with an added set of difficulties. I agree 100% with you, cannot effectively parent out of fear, paranoia and control. I think it is one of the worst things you can do to a child. However, I hope your readers do not go away thinking it is easy to just ignore everything and go with the flow where adoption is concerned. You were incredibly fortunate to have such an easy going child, such a resilient child. Not all our children, unfortunately, leave that unscathed.

zameander said...

Oh how this resonated for me! I had a very, very similar epiphany a couple of years ago:

Anonymous said...

I love these photos, beautiful,,beautiful child, beautiful blossums,

FDChief said...

The part they don't tell you about parenting is that you will be confronted with all the things you grew out of years ago. And your only options are to pretend you still like them...or let the kiddo know that you DON'T, but you like HER, and so you'll play ponies, watch Barbie, get her the pink capris that look like hell but she loves.

And, hey - the nice thing is that in a year, the ponies, Barbies, and capris will be replaced. Probably with something you'll hate just as much.

And they wonder why we feel underpaid...

And I have to add re: the "hard work" part of adoption. I agree that it's worth doing the research. It's like anything else with kiddos; recognizing the symptoms of illness, figuring out how to head off tantrums, gaming strategies for compliance without need the tools to do the job. And in the past these aspects of adoption were really ignored, to the detriment of parents and kiddos.

But from being all things rosy now it's all gloom. From teaching, my experience was and is that you have to be careful; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a mad kid is just a mad kid.

I don't know the best way to do it, but there should really be some sort of middle ground, some sort of "here are the things to watch for...but remember that they could be this, this, or this, too; not every tantrum is an attachment problem, but sometimes attachment problems surface as tantrums..."

alexandra said...

It's very touching.
But I think that , adopted or homemade, we get good lessons from them, throughout life

Cavatica said...

Hmmmmm, I can relate to this on so many levels - parenting resiliant child that I trust, parenting by gentle guiding, but not pushing into. Preparing for manyy difficulties, but finding few (so far). I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!