Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Adoption Diary Part 2: A New Life and Clues to a Former One

The first few months with our newly adopted little girl.

Mara's first day with us
Mara was about three years old when she joined our family. (You can read about that day in my previous piece: Adoption Diary, Part I: Giving Birth in an Airport.) But if age were measured by the ability of parents to get a good night’s sleep, it was as if we’d brought home a newborn baby.

From the very start, Mara was happy during the day. But for several weeks after we brought her home, she was up multiple times during the night, always sobbing, often calling for “umma” (“mother” in Korean). For the first ten days or so, she was inconsolable. After that, she’d calm down when we talked soothingly to her. But soon after she (and we) fell back asleep, the sobbing would start again. I think of that period as “the toddler as newborn.”

Clues to a former life

It wouldn’t have mattered to us if we’d had no clues to Mara’s life before she became our daughter. From the moment she was handed to us at the airport, she was ours and that was all that mattered. But it was with interest that, during the first few months, we picked up clues about her life in Korea.

Most importantly, we knew she’d been loved because she already knew how to love and how to receive love. For that we are grateful beyond measure to those who cared for her before she became our daughter.

Mara's second day with us
We also think she had a brother because, right from the start, she was completely at ease with our son, Jamal, despite the 4 ½ year gap in their ages. They had their spats as teenagers, but in their early years together, they formed an unbreakable bond. Also, there were clues that she’d been treated harshly by her father or another male in her life. Although from the beginning, she was very affectionate with her new father (my husband, Tony), he wasn’t able to raise his voice around her without her dissolving into tears. This went on for years and, at times, was very hard on him. Imagine having a toddler in your house and never being able to speak firmly to her!

We also think she was around babies because she loved to wrap a stuffed animal in a towel and then pretend to rock it to sleep. One day she brought me the towel and indicated that she wanted me to wrap it around her with the stuffy on her back—the way mothers carry their babies in Korea. As soon as I did this, she smiled with the most satisfied expression on her face as she showed off her bundle to Tony and me. Then she stood in one place and gently swayed from side to side, lulling her “baby” to sleep.

And we feel certain that her birth mother was an entertainer of some kind—perhaps a nightclub singer. From the very first day, Mara would pick up anything that resembled a microphone—a pencil, a crayon, a pick-up stick, a ruler—and start singing in Korean. She sang in the distinctive style of the torch ballad—those blues-based songs about unrequited or lost love.

Her performances were sophisticated. Holding whatever she happened to be using as a microphone, she’d begin by singing softly and then gradually increase the volume and intensity of her voice while gesturing expressively with her free hand. Then she’d throw her head back and look upwards as she’d lift the “microphone” to her lips and burst forth with a soulful lament. Think “Stormy Weather” by Lena Horne or “The Man That Got Away” by Judy Garland—sung by a three-year-old!

This idea of ours was reinforced by her behavior one night when she came into our room, unable to sleep again. When she joined us on the bed, we put on the television. A movie about Janis Joplin had just started. With her eyes wide open, Mara watched it for two hours, absolutely riveted by Janis’ singing.

As Mara learned English, her lyrics became a confusing mixture of Korean and English. Then, when she dropped all of her Korean (as we knew she would—this is what children do when they find themselves in a household where another language is spoken), she gave up her career as a torch singer. Mara did start singing again when she was a teenager and has always had a beautiful voice.

After three weeks…and after three months

I kept a journal after Mara arrived. On September 15th, at about the three-week point, I wrote about something that Tony and Jamal had noticed too: it felt as if Mara was part of the spirit of our particular family:

“We all have a similar temperament—she likes to joke and fool around, loves dancing and music, thrives on hugs and cuddles. She and I often spontaneously start laughing at the same things. I can’t help but wonder if the same thing would have happened if one of the other children on that plane had been coming to join our family. I guess it’s an unanswerable question. She is a true gift from the universe to us.” 

We were told that when a child joins a new family, it takes about one month of adjustment for every year of the child’s life. Mara was about three when she came to us. Sure enough, almost three months from the day of her arrival, I saw no reason to continue with the journal and I wrote in it that evening, “I’m going to close this journal with tonight’s entry.” Here’s how that entry ends:

“I had the strangest feeling as I sat in the park with three other mothers. We were watching our children play and chatting about them, and I was musing to myself how interesting it was that my relationship with Mara was already as profound as theirs with their children, when I suddenly realized that although I had been with her only three months as compared to the other mothers’ three years, I knew Mara as well as they knew their children. I still don’t understand how that’s possible, but it’s a mystery I have no need to solve.”

See Part III: My Daughter in Her Own Words. In this final installment, my daughter tells her story. She writes about what it’s like to belong to a family of a different race and about how, after giving birth to her daughter, she struggled to come to terms with her own birth-background.

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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