Our Baby Bird Sings

by Cathy Crenshaw Doheny

Singing Bird “Do I know her?” I asked softly.

“What?” questioned my husband, Kevin, from his desk on the other side of our home office.

“Nothing, just mumbling to myself again.”

“About what?” He was half interested, his head still in the online game he was playing during our lazy Saturday afternoon.

“The agency’s Waiting Child list.”

“Aren’t those Special Needs kids?”

“Yeah,” I said, a shade of embarrassment entering my tone.

“What kinds of special needs?” His eyes remained on the fantasy landscape engulfing his screen.

“Cleft palate, missing or extra digits, some have vision problems. This baby has congenital heart disease.”

My husband responded with silence.

“Mild pulmonary stenosis.”

More silence.

“Her birthday is in February, just like both of ours. She looks just like a little bird. She’s got this crazy spiked hair too. It’s weird; she looks so familiar. You’ve got to at least take a look at her picture.”

His eyes cut quickly to the side, as he took-in the baby’s face, and then back to his mesmerizing game.

Silence again. Then finally, “If you want her, we’ll get her.” He didn’t bat an eye at her intimidating diagnosis.

“What do we need to do to adopt her?” I was stunned, unable to answer him. “I’m serious, Sweetie. Do you want this child?” He stopped his gaming and swiveled his chair around.

“I … um … I …. Well …. yes,” I finally managed to utter, as tears came to my eyes.

“Great, then we’ll get her.” My amazing husband swiveled back around and resumed his game, having just closed the deal.

“But, her heart … what if she’s really sick? What if … what if she dies? Can we handle that possibility?” The tears journeyed down my cheeks.

“It will all be fine. If she’s sick, we’ll get her the very best care. If she dies, we’ll have had the good fortune to have loved her for a little while. But, she’s not going to die. You’ll see; we’ll do whatever is necessary to get her better. Just fill out the paperwork, and we’ll go to China to get her. I loved China when I worked in Beijing. It’ll be great going back.” Kevin spoke, as if he were just planning his next vacation.

“It’s not that easy. I’ve been doing some research on this, and it’s very competitive. Great Wall China Adoption just posted this list. They’ll take applications for the next couple days. From what I understand, there are sometimes hundreds of applications for each child. Then, if we are chosen, we would still need to get a dossier together and complete all the paperwork to get approved by China. It’s very expensive too. We would have to wait for months to be invited to travel to pick up the child. The chances that we would ever really adopt her are just very slim.”

Having just convinced myself to drop the subject, I rose from my chair and headed downstairs.

“Don’t worry about all that. She’ll be our daughter. We want her, so we’ll get her. What’s the first step in the process?” My wise and always calm rock-of-a husband suggested, “Why don’t we just concentrate on that?”

“We would need to fill out this long application and prove to the agency that we would be the best parents for Chun’an.” I sat back down, half-believing that it would all work out.

“Is that her name? Chun’an?”

“It means Spring Peace. Isn’t that a beautiful name? She looks like a little baby bird, hatched on a perfect spring day. ”

“Of course, she’s perfect; she’s going to be our daughter. Let’s get started. What’s the first question?” Kevin swiveled around with a smile, my Superman ready to bring a broken-hearted child a world away into our family. If I didn’t know my husband’s heroics so well, I would have thought the feat impossible.

“You must understand that the state of South Carolina has ruled that all children adopted internationally are Special Needs, even if they are perfectly healthy. These post-institutionalized children have so many challenges when they are brought from a foreign orphanage into an American family. They may be malnourished and underweight. There can be developmental delays from lack of stimulation, as well as attachment disorders. These children have no concept of parents or family. They may have had many people caring for them, making it impossible to attach. You will need to plan for these challenges, in addition to Chun’an’s heart disease, especially since she will most likely be close to two years of age when you adopt her,” our home study social worker advised us during one of the required interviews.

We knew there would be challenges, but didn’t all parents have challenges unique to their child? Babies with birth defects were born to unsuspecting couples all the time. At least Kevin and I knew what we were getting into and had time to prepare. We had no doubt that what we signed up for was going to be tough, but we remained undaunted. We had already gotten this far. The agency had chosen ours – out of stacks of other applications to adopt Chun’an -- whom we had now planned to name Jade Chun’an. She was obviously meant to be ours.

And so we read and researched, wisely utilizing the long months of waiting for our travel approval. Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) was what Kevin and I feared most. This disorder could be caused by a failure to form normal attachments to primary caregivers in early childhood, which could go on to cause devastating difficulties later in life. In order to foster a secure attachment, most of the experts promoted a particular technique, where only the parents fulfilled the child’s basic needs during the first six months following placement. This meant that only Kevin or I could hold, feed, or put Jade to bed. The technique would help her to understand that we were her parents, encouraging her to securely attach to us. According to these experts, once attachment to the primary caregivers was secure, the child could then go on to form attachments with grandparents and others family and friends.

“This is the really the only way to responsibly start Jade’s life with us,” Kevin declared.

“You know, this is not going to be an easy task, especially since she’ll be the first grandchild on either side of her new family. You know how grandparents are,” I reminded him.

A few days before we departed for China, we sent out a letter to family and friends explaining the situation and asking for their understanding, support, and patience in our need for space during the first six months as parents. This letter was met mostly with agreement, however my best friend had counted on being a Nana and was very hurt that she would not be able to hold and spoil baby Jade.

“I feel so cheated. You got everyone so excited about Jade’s arrival, only to then isolate her from everyone who cares about her,” she argued.

“It’s not our intention to hurt anyone, only to make the very best decisions possible for our child’s well-being,” I explained.

Sadly, our friendship ended. As I crossed the thresh hold into parenthood, I was beginning to realize that making unpopular decisions was the hallmark of being a mother.

Later on, Kevin’s parents would have a similar reaction, finding it difficult to follow our rules. They just couldn’t resist placing their adorable granddaughter in their laps or doling out goodies at snack time.

“The same rules aren’t appropriate for grandparents. We should have more rights than other family members and friends,” Kevin’s mother pointed out.

“Mom, it’s not about rights. It’s about doing what’s best for Jade’s development. We can’t just treat her like a two year old we’ve had since birth. She has very special circumstances, which require special precautions,” Kevin defended.

Despite the little support we were offered by some, we still continued to protect our precious daughter. We knew that their intentions were good, even if their reasoning was poor. The territory of parenting a special needs child of this sort was just so unfamiliar to most folks; we knew it was up to us to educate those closest in our lives.

Jade’s attachment process became even more crucial in the months following the adoption. Kevin was diagnosed with a deadly and incurable cancer at just 35 years of age. Our young family was immediately thrown into the world of dire illness, as Kevin endured hospitalizations, months of intense chemotherapy, and eventually a stem cell transplant at one of the leading cancer centers in the country. Jade and I packed up to relocate across the country to be by Kevin’s side, as he fought for his life.

“The best medicine for Daddy right now is our love,” I explained to Jade, as we packed up her most beloved stuffed animal. “As long as the three of us stick together, we can bear anything.” And so we did.

Kevin is now in remission, and our family is back at home. Through it all, we stayed committed to our plan to facilitate Jade’s attachment to us. After two years with our family, Jade is now happily attached to her devoted parents, as well as grandparents, her uncle, and friends. She displays appropriate reactions to others, and is an exceptional little girl. She learned compassion early, through her own experiences and through our family’s ordeal with life-threatening illness. She has seen more adversity in her almost four years, than most of us experience in our entire lifetime.

As for her heart, she remains asymptomatic, though we are told that the defect will never go away, either staying the same or progressing. She may one day require open-heart surgery. Should that day come, we will vigilantly stand by her side, just as she stood by her beloved father’s side and helped him through his “special need”. After all, don’t we each have our own set of problems and needs that require special attention? Isn’t that a prerequisite for inclusion in the human race?

As Kevin predicted that day, when we first saw the photo of the Chinese child, who resembled that baby bird hatching in spring; our daughter is perfect. More importantly, her heart is perfect, defect or not. Every morning, our baby bird proudly sings her special song of peace, first to us and then to the tone-deaf world outside.

Additional information