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A Fearless Love

I expected that my new daughter would need some time to get used to me, but I never thought she’d be frightened by me. by Debra Zickafoose

"Mom, I was scared of you.” My daughter, Anuja, widens her eyes to emphasize the intensity of the fear that has since passed. It’s the eve of her seventh birthday. We sit at the kitchen table as she shares the story of her first impression of her new family. “I wasn’t scared of Dad or Nish, just you! I never saw anyone like you before.”

We adopted Anuja from India when she was five. She experienced her first car ride, her first city, her first hotel, and her first family within a 24-hour period. We met in a hotel lobby in Mumbai. Live piano music swirled in the background as my eyes fell on the small figure I had waited so long to see. She was tiny, and her dress was baby blue. It was frayed at the bottom and two sizes too big.

I knelt down and took her hand. “Hello Anuja, I’m your mom.” My Indian-American husband, Ajay, introduced himself to her caregivers while Nischal, our son (above center, now at age five, with Ajay, Debra, Saritah and Anuja, ages one and seven), who was then three, snoozed on his shoulder.. Up close, Anuja looked tired and terrified and on the verge of crying. Looking at me, my daughter probably had the same thought.

Family roles
Our first night together, Anuja sat on the couch between us and sobbed inconsolably for two hours. She didn’t want us to get too close to her, so we wrapped her tightly in bath towels to take the place of our arms. The

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weight of her fear filled the room. None of our planned distractions worked, and our trump card, Nischal, had long ago fallen asleep.

When she’d exhausted herself, we seized the opportunity to try to communicate. She spoke only Marathi, and my husband only Hindi, but they exchanged a few questions and a few nods. “Yes” to the bathroom, “yes” to being hungry. Then a word we didn’t know, over and over again. The hotel staff translated “rice and dal” and Ajay immediately scooped her up and took her to a restaurant. He reported that she laughed, talked with the waiters, and ate to her heart’s content. He could communicate with her, feed her, and carry her in his arms. From that moment on, their relationship was on solid ground.

Read more personal essays and find expert advice about parenting children adopted at older ages:

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  • Jon’s Smile, by Emily Jamberdino

  • When One Parent Is Rejected, by Mary Hopkins Best

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  • And the next morning, Anuja and Nischal woke up ready to assume their new roles—she was the older sister and he was the brother and mentor. He brushed her hair, picked her new clothes, and pulled out the Play-Doh. They seemed instinctually to understand their relationship, and I watched them adjust to it within hours.

    Things didn’t go so smoothly with me. Anuja panicked if I took her to the bathroom and tried to close the door. She hid behind Ajay if I offered her food. I knew that my daughter was terrified of me. To walk with her, I had to hold her arm tightly above her wrist to prevent her from fleeing. It became a daily challenge to confront the glares of people who wondered why I was holding this child against her will. I was exhausted and defeated, and we hadn’t been together for even a week.

    All told, we spent nearly a month in India negotiating the bureaucratic channels. Anuja began to accept me, but only as someone who helped with her basic needs—in the bathroom, with bathing and dressing. Beyond that, I could have little to do with her. One night, at a pizza restaurant in New Delhi, she saw that the only empty seat was beside me and threw herself on the floor, refusing to get up. My feelings quickly moved from frustration to anger. I was angry at her, angry at being out of control.

    A turning point
    Finally, we got Anuja’s passport and flew to Singapore. One day we decided to go swimming. She didn’t know how to swim, but showed no fear of the water. Being left alone with me to change out of her suit, however, was more than she could take. I had read about older child adjustment, but experiencing it was a different matter. Emotions take over, raw feelings. That day in Singapore, I held my breath and wrapped her in my arms on my lap. She screamed and kicked and cried, then, after a long 20 minutes, became limp and accepting. A turning point.

    We found limits. She would give up after 20 minutes, knowing I was prepared to spend the day holding her. Steadily, she began to give up, in less time. Sometimes, she’d smile if I

    Steadily, she began to give up, in less time. Sometimes, she’d smile if I “threatened” to hold her.
    opened my arms and “threatened” to hold her. By the time we landed back in the U.S., the tantrum took only five minutes. She resolved that I was the one who would care for her and love her—and not let go.

    Just “Mom”
    Arriving home was the milestone. My husband and I had defined our roles in her life by that point. He was her father, the disciplinarian, and I was just “Mom.” Anuja began to come to me for all her needs.

    As her language skills grew, I began to be asked about which shirt looked better, tucked in or loose. Sitting in the bleachers at gymnastics, I heard “Hi, Mom,” and saw the beautiful smile that caused all the parents to look for me. Within six months I was fully engaged as Anuja’s mom, with no doubt in either of our minds.

    After a year and a half home, Anuja has mastered the language. She is gregarious and compassionate beyond her years. And she is open about her life in India. Now she’s able to describe the emotions she felt when she first saw me. In a reversal of roles, she’s quick to reassure me when she describes her fear. “Mom, you know, that was when I was only five.” Recently she described my skin as “peach” when talking about a picture she drew. She confided that it was a very special color.

    After she retells the story of how scared she was, and we agree that this is not the case now, we consider a SpongeBob theme for her birthday party. We choose a cake with not too much icing, and we hope that all the boys she invited can come. She leans forward and whispers, “Promise you won’t tell, Mom.”

    Debra Zickafoose is a physician who lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband and three children.

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