“What time is it?” asks our four-year-old daughter Mara, a simple question that I have no idea how to answer. We are in an airplane over the Bering Sea, just past the International Date Line, halfway to Taiwan with part of our trip behind us and a long journey ahead.
In a few days we will meet our new daughter and sister for the first time. Mara is asleep on my husband Jeff’s shoulder. I remember her exuberance earlier that day, “I can’t believe we’re going to China! I thought this day would never come,” she exclaimed. I fight back tears remembering her words, amazed that our daughter so simply and eloquently captured our feelings.
We left our house this morning a family of three, but the next time we walk through our front door, it will be as a family of four. I try to imagine what adventures will change the course of our lives in the coming weeks. I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that there is a little girl in China whom we already love, and who I hope will grow to love us too.
The Long Journey to China
The trip from our house to Hong Kong took 30 hours, but our journey to this point was much longer and more complicated. Three years earlier, Jeff and I had begun talking about enlarging our family. We had always known that we would adopt our second child, and after investigating both domestic and international adoption, we had chosen to adopt a baby from China.
Parents hoping to adopt internationally must compile a dossier containing information with which the foreign country assesses their suitability as parents. Each country has different requirements. Among our first steps in gathering the necessary paperwork was applying for permission to bring our child into the U.S. We submitted our application in March, on a day like any other. Nine months later, we would discover that on that same day, our little girl had been born in southern China. We prepared our dossier that spring, and in June, our adoption agency sent it to the Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA). The process to bring our second child home officially began on Father’s Day weekend.
The Chinese government’s review of adoption applications is rather mysterious. The CCAA matches a child with each family that has applied for adoption. Many adoptive parents believe that their children bear some resemblance to them, share a family member’s birthday, or have interests like their new family’s. I have heard many families describe this connection. Waiting to uncover the bond with our new child and wondering what it would be helped me through the long wait.
Six months after we had applied, our agency called with the news we had been longing to hear. Jeff and I would become parents to a beautiful nine-month-old girl! At dinner that evening we celebrated the day’s miracle. We chose Leah for our new daughter’s name.
From that day forward, I carried her picture with me wherever I went. She sat on my desk while I worked, and she came with me while I ran errands. I proudly showed her picture to anyone who would look. On the plane, her picture sat next to me in an empty seat. In a few days, I would look directly into her eyes. I could not wait to hug her and stroke her cheek. I wondered if she would be afraid of me, and how our daughters would interact.
A Family of Three Becomes Four
Our family, along with the ten others in our travel group, had walked into the conference room of a hotel in Nanchang, Jiangxi, at about five o’clock. As we walked in, we were shown to one side of the room. Across the room were 11 babies, each held by a nanny. I struggled to find our daughter’s face. I had been staring at her picture for five weeks, yet I could not tell which baby was ours.
The baby on the right was deeply upset, her voice hoarse from screaming. Many of the babies were holding photo albums their new parents had sent. I looked through our video camera at the babies, one at a time, feeling inadequate because I could not pick out mine. Finally, one nanny opened her charge’s album to a picture of me! Tears streamed down my face. “There she is—on the end—it’s Leah,” I gasped to Jeff and Mara. She was the baby on the right, the crying baby that had captured my attention when we had first entered the room.
Her nanny walked to the middle of the room where the families before us had gone to meet their babies. Somehow I convinced my legs to move. The nanny placed Leah in Jeff’s arms, and handed us the items we had mailed just a few weeks ago: an album with our family’s pictures, a rattle, and a disposable camera. I wanted to help Jeff, but I was holding the video camera, hoping to capture this moment despite the tears obscuring my vision. We moved to the side of the room so we could comfort our new daughter. Jeff crouched down, holding Leah, and Mara saw her little sister up close. Leah stopped crying for an instant to look back at Mara. My heart skipped a beat as I realized that my family had just become four.
We returned to our hotel room where I finally held Leah in my arms. She bore little resemblance to the picture I had been staring at for so long; she is much more beautiful. Even though I felt like I had known her forever, she was probably wondering who I was. Within a few hours, though, she was sitting on our laps, eating Cheerios, smiling, and laughing as her big sister made silly faces.
Later, as I gazed at my two daughters peacefully sleeping, I thought about their future together. Both of our children truly are gifts, come to our family in different ways, and both so loved. We had a lot of work ahead, but also a lot of fun, laughter, and memorable moments.
Life At Home
As I hold Leah in the rocker at night, we look into one another’s eyes. I stroke her cheek and brush the hair from her eyes. She reaches up to my face, touches my lips, and says “Mama.” I smile at her and she blows me a kiss. The conference room in Nanchang is a distant memory, but one I hold fast to. Leah is now very different from the first moment I saw her. She is a happy, confident, loving, intelligent, and sneaky little girl, the perfect balance to our daughter Mara, and she belongs in our family.
We have been home for seven months now. I find it hard to remember life before Leah joined our family. Earlier today, the sisters were playing together, shrieking with delight. I watch as Mara leads Leah by the hand into the playroom. A few minutes later, I hear Mara yell, “Leah, give that back.” Mara and Leah are sisters in every sense—loving one moment and fighting an instant later. Our family of four was created on a winter day in China, and, nurtured with love, it continues to grow stronger and happier.