"Sometime in the Night"

In this personal essay, one dad describes his journey to single parenthood, and the day he met his daughter in China.

A story of single dad adoption, and finding his daughter Suki in China

In the middle of the night, Suki, my six year-old daughter, is mysteriously in my bed. There are other beds in our house, maybe eight. No matter where I put her down, whether tucking her between the Minnie Mouse sheets in her own room or burying her in my North Face bag in the spare room, and despite the fact that I could stand her up in the middle of the kitchen and she wouldn't wake, she finds me. It happens sometime in the night. I feel her bicycling kicks in my belly, hear her gritting teeth, feel her heat. I lift her up and take her back to her bed. We've been together for almost three years.

This is what I believe is true about her early life, but will never know for sure. My daughter, Suki, was born March 11, 1991 near Fuyang, China. Because of the one-child policy and the need of rural families for boys, she was abandoned. A farmer found her and, with his wife, took care of her. After three months, they were forced by the authorities to turn her over to the Fuyang Social Welfare Institute of Zhejiang Province—an orphanage. It was there Suki spent her first four years, playing in a room with a few girls like her on a yellow plastic mat. She ate mostly rice, used the pots lined up in the closet, and shared a bed with another girl. She never learned to speak and was repeatedly passed over for adoption. They called her Hua Jun. Precious China.

There is a video of Suki at two, bowlegged, tipping right and left in her swaddling clothes. The photographer wiped her nose. She had a face marked by agony, on the verge of tears, cheeks puffy, maybe from months of crying, and red from the lack of heat. If she had remained there, at sixteen she would have been let go to the street but likely with nowhere to go.

The rest of the story of Suki I know well. Around the time of Suki's fourth birthday, I sat across from a social worker in a Connecticut adoption agency while she flipped the pages of my dossier and I watched for the lift of an eyebrow, a nod, any sign of approval. She took note of my three houses, the way I dined out, and my ease in hopping to Europe. I wasn't a childless couple holding hands, nor a single woman tricked out of motherhood wringing hers. I was a single man. My motives would be up for questioning. I couldn't just make the same heartfelt claim as a woman: "I want to be a mother."

Why I was there was complex. I even discover new reasons as I try to explain it. She asked whom I was seeing. I wondered exactly what she wanted to hear. It didn't come out nice and even, but I said I go out with women, even admitted I'm crazy about women. And I'm not promiscuous. I'm capable of a long-term relationship, I told her that. She said, "They like the idea of a steady relationship." I said, "Then put down Nicole." "Where is she?" "California." "California?" "The last I knew." She flipped some more pages, then said, "Do you know what you're doing?" I stared back and said, "What do you mean?" She said, "You can't divorce a kid." "Thanks. But I won't have any problems." I also knew that that would depend on the kid. I didn't say that.

If churchgoing couples in their thirties with perfect credit ratings who had spent five years going through the rites of an infertility clinic had to walk on hot coals just to adopt, then what chance did I have? For starters, as a single guy over forty, I had to convince this agency of my intentions–I just wanted a child, pure and simple, and I was willing to be its mother, all the dirty work included. I called an agency that did mostly Chinese adoptions. The director, herself with several adopted kids, thought China might not accept a single male, but since I was willing, they would back me. When they said sign, I signed, and when they said pay, I wrote checks and never bothered to add the costs. I knew I would eventually hit a trip wire somewhere in the questionnaires. But I wasn't too old, too irresponsible, too single, too poor, too lawless, or too anything and when I asked if I qualified, they said, "Yes."

The bracing moments of adoption boil down to two: when you get the referral and when you get the kid. One is like being pregnant and the other like giving birth. I'm told. Getting my referral would be my third trimester. My day came. I got a call from my agency and then a photo packed in a Fedex. I stopped on my porch, laid down my work papers, and picked up the blue and red cardboard envelope. I peeled it open and froze. The picture of the girl, named Hua Jun, was re-xeroxed five times and was hardly a photo-op. She looked like she came off the steppes of Mongolia. Her cheeks were burnished and swollen, her mouth pinched. They later told me, "We don't say 'cheese' here." Her hair was cropped, an institutional cut, or as she described it when I showed her a year later, "I was a boy?"

I secretly propped the photo everywhere I went so we could talk, over the speedometer or in front of the Corn Flakes. With my pencil, she got mid-length hair and bangs. I shook my finger at her for leaving her Reeboks on my bed and teased her about her pigtails. I imagined walking her to school in September, pushing her hand through the gears on my stick shift, and giving her away. Under Hua Jun's picture were some stats: 14 kilograms and 93 centimeters. At four-and-a-half, the size of a healthy two year-old, her height four squares below zero percentile on the American growth chart. And for her personality, there were two Chinese characters. Xin Hua, a nurse's aide said they meant she was "very willing, very able." I said that sounded like a kid with no zip. But she said, "No. She's smart, she's like a cheerleader."

Three months later, May 1995, in a sweaty office in the Zhejiang Province, I stood leaning into a window overlooking the yellow air of Hangzhou. I gazed down to the street below. It occurred to me: this is crazy, with $5,000 taped to my chest, to go on stage with an unwitting four-year-old. My breaths were shallow, my fingers drummed the window sill. There were seconds to call the whole thing off. An American lady did it when she saw her little girl had a milky eye, a cataract. Could I really do that?

As the door creaked open, my heart surged. A little girl stood frozen, then was nudged into the room. All eyes turned. Silence turned into Chinese chatter. She was scared, wan, with chin trembling, and smothered with bites. She had no doll, no book, no bag of clothes. She wore a frilly dress, a thin white vest, and purple patent leather shoes. As I came close, she whimpered and backed away. A Chinese woman who came with her pointed at me and said, "Baba, Baba."

Every question I asked, they answered yes. Yes, she liked to run. I saw a girl that could barely hold her head up. Yes, sing. I heard no sound. Yes, yes, happy about her new father. She didn't know me from the window washer. I called her Suki and handed her an apple. We filled a film canister with quarters and between us rattled it. We rolled a ball across our laps. Ten minutes later, she returned the apple. One inch of stem, nothing more.

After some coaxing, out came a word—the last one I thought I'd ever hear: "Papa." At the hotel, I ran the bath water and she screamed and stomped her feet like they were on fire. With the tub one inch full and me in it in my stocking feet and rolled-up pants, I lifted her in. She cried. I poured water on her back and she cried more. I fed her a milkshake. A sandwich. In my room that evening, she melted into her little bed. I whispered, "At last the world can't hurt you." I sat on my bed and watched her sleep, curled up in her crisp pajamas. That night, her cheeks turned cherry red and the bug bites disappeared, along with all memory of the last four and a half years.

Postscript: Suki, now nine, and her dad live in Connecticut where she loves her school. She has traveled with her dad to Bolivia, Iceland, Mongolia, France, Panama, Thailand, and Fuyang. Healing the Children gave her an award for her help with the Chinese orphans. Doug and Suki Hood live in Connecticut.


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Adopting the Older Child: What About Attachment?

Trish Maskew, author of Our Own: Adopting and Parenting the Older Child, asked many experienced families how they had helped their child bond. They shared these suggestions:

  • Read a bedtime story every day, perhaps as part of a larger, elaborate bedtime ritual.
  • Have family meetings where you discuss such things as what everyone in the family is doing, and what strengths the children have and how they can use them.
  • Put on kids' music and sing and clap to it.
  • Have a new family portrait made early on.
  • Have fun together. Play in the snow, make hot cocoa, see a movie.
  • Rock them to sleep.
  • Establish set routines, especially at mealtime and bedtime.
  • Don't try to change bad behaviors all at once. Allow time for bonding first.
  • Let the housekeeping go and focus on your child.
  • Find opportunities to touch: tickling, back rubs, feeding each other ice cream.
  • Exercise together.

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