Today I am here to share the story of our family day (the first time we met Nova and also the moment we became a family) and our two weeks in China. We traveled the first two weeks of December 2017.
We didn’t sleep much the night before we met Nova. We were excited, nervous and jetlagged. We woke up in Changsha, China. We nervously reminded the front desk to bring a crib to our room. We ate our last breakfast alone for a long time. It felt weird, because for months people (with kids) had been telling us to enjoy our last bits of “kid free” life, and we tried to. We really did. But it’s weird to try to enjoy the season you are in, when it’s all you really know. And on top of that we were so anxious and excited to meet our daughter.
Honestly, we were kind of bored that morning- or maybe just anxious. I organized all Nova’s tiny clothes like a little shrine in our hotel room. I got all the toiletries ready for her first bath. I set up a diaper changing station. I had done everything I knew to prepare, but it was still so mind-blowing that we were about to leave and come back with a child.
We even remembered to take a little footage for Nova’s adoption video.
At around nine thirty in the morning our guide arrived to pick us up. Our stomachs were in knots as we took a van ride about ten minutes away from our hotel. He told us not to be nervous.
We knew that Nova had taken a three hour van ride that morning (they bring the children to the capital city of their province for family day, so a lot of children have to travel fairly long distances). We knew there was a good chance that that was her first van ride, and maybe even her first time to leave her orphanage. We had just spent over a year reading other people’s adoption stories- so we had a million little scenarios in our minds about what might be about to happen.
(We took this photo while we were waiting to be picked up that morning.)
We arrived at a government building and rode the elevator up with a small child, a boy. We knew he was probably on his way to meet his new family as well and he was so adorable and shy (we met his family later and they were wonderful).
We expected a long wait in a waiting room and a private meeting with Nova and her caretakers. We expected a lot of other families there. We had a plan about setting up our camera to make a video. But, as we stepped off the elevator we saw Nova, sitting on a sofa just one room away. It felt like a scene in a movie where you see the main character for the first time, and everything slows down. Cue the dramatic music. We had never been more starstruck.
The contrast felt unnatural though, because even though our hearts were bursting with joy our little girl looked so hurt and so lost. She looked terrified.
We were terrified as well. In that moment all of our visualizations, all of our plans, all of our hopes and fears disappeared. I remember feeling so strongly the reality that now we were IN IT. Our story was happening.
We walked into the room and her orphanage representatives recognized us right away. They motioned for us to come over to meet her. I kneeled down to try to say hello. Her eyes were full of tears and her face was redder than we have ever seen since- red from crying in the van for three hours we soon found out. The orphanage representatives were telling me to hug her and repeating over and over “This is your mama. This is your baba.” until she burst into a wailing, heartbreaking sob.
Our hearts felt so broken in those first moments. Although we had read countless stories and we knew her reaction was completely normal and healthy, it still felt so strange in the moment.We were fully strangers to her.
We prepared as much as anyone could, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for how abrupt it feels in the moment.
Nova had a cracker in her hand that stayed there for most of the day. She couldn’t let it go. It was clearly the only thing in the world she had control over. It was the saddest cracker I have ever seen. We let her keep it until it crumbled into nothing.
In China adoptions you meet your child and take full care and responsibility for them instantly. So not long after we met Nova, maybe thirty minutes, we walked out of the building holding our daughter. I held her in the car as she cried and cried. We went back to our hotel room, signed some papers that our guide had, checked her diaper and put her down for her nap. She went to sleep instantly- anything to escape her big feelings we think.
(Jeremy took this photo in our van ride back to the hotel as we both cried. It was such a raw day.)
From that moment on we were together. After her nap we had to go back to the civil affairs office to sign some more papers and get an official family photo. I remember it took forever to get a photo because they wanted Nova’s eyes open, but the room was super bright. The eventually pulled the shades down.
We were surprised how calm she was, but in hindsight we can see she was just very shut down. She went right to sleep in her crib at bedtime and we naively remarked about how easy it was.
The next day, she woke up early (we woke up around 6am the entire time we were in China) and we went downstairs to the hotel breakfast. It was so surreal to us and every task we got to do together was SO exciting. I fed her some congee and we made some videos to send to our families. We were super, super crazy happy…. walking on clouds. Levitating.
We were totally in awe of every little thing she did.
(A few snapshots from our first couple days together.)
As that second day went by, Nova seemed more and more shut down. After her afternoon nap, I got her up to change her diaper and something changed. She was suddenly terrified of me and rejecting me completely. It scared me at first. And by the end of the day, I started to accept what was happening.
We had known that it was extremely common for a brand new adoptee to pick just one parent to accept first. We also knew it was common for them to choose the father because of feeling betrayed by their female nanny. Anyway- this common adoption challenge was now our challenge. Knowing it was common DID help. I even had friends who had been through the exact situation. I had read countless stories where this happened to people. But, even through I was mentally prepared to potentially be rejected by my new daughter, it still very difficult in the moment.
I’ll try to summarize my feelings for you….
-Painful. It was simply just painful to be reminded 100x a day that my daughter didn’t have room in her heart for me yet. She didn’t want me or need me for anything throughout our day and I had to make peace with that- usually many times throughout each day. My instincts were always to reach for her, or help her- so I had to remind myself over and over and over what she was needing in that moment and it was just painful.
-Frustrated. I felt completely useless. I had so much energy that I couldn’t give and I had to watch Jeremy feel more and more depleted every day. I was getting plenty of sleep and he wasn’t. I was bored, he wasn’t. It was a low point for both of us. I didn’t cry as much as I thought I would, but every day I’d have to have at least a small private breakdown. We were both exhausted, in very different ways.
-Thankful. I really was thankful. What we were experiencing was normal and healthy. I knew it was temporary (although it was challenging to not know how long it would last). I was thankful that Nova found a person she felt safe with in Jeremy. I was grateful that she was bonding with one of us. I knew we were on the right path and that kept me sane in that first week. I could see glimpses of how determined Nova was. Even though she wasn’t going to “win” this one, it made me proud that she held on so hard. I could see how strong she was, that she was a fighter.
I also felt so thankful that the our bond came quickly on my side. It wasn’t hard to love Nova. It didn’t take time. I fell in love with her instantly and it only grew stronger as the days and weeks went on.
I definitely had low points, but in all the other moments I could see the world from her perspective the sympathy for all she was going through drowned out my selfish feelings. I knew that only time could heal the pain and confusion she woke up with every day. There was nothing to do to speed it up.
After that initial switch on day two, Nova didn’t let me touch her or care for her (at least not willingly) for nine days. She also would not let Jeremy leave the room (again, willingly, he obviously had to leave at some points). Even when she was sleeping, she was always hyper aware of mine and his presence.
(This photo was from our medical appointment day.)
(The parks in China are absolutely incredible. When we got to Guangzhou it was so nice to have places like this we could walk to to escape our hotel room. We even took a boat ride one day.)
If we’re being honest, we don’t feel like we really “saw” China… at least not in a travel guide sense. We had some cool experiences, some great meals and got a feel for the culture in three different regions. But we spent a lot of time in our hotels too. It wasn’t a vacation in any way. We do hope to eventually take a family vacation to China, but this trip was completely focused around Nova (as it should be).
(One day in Guangzhou we got ready for the pool and it was HARD NO from Nova. The next day, we we’re dressed normally taking a walk and we walked by the pool and she basically tried to jump in. She was so into it we had to go change her clothes. haha)
Jeremy did an incredible job caring for Nova while we were in China. It was the most beautiful thing to watch him thrive with her. She didn’t talk for several days, but once she started to open up he was teaching her all kinds of new words and games. It was so special. My heart got ten times bigger watching him become a dad. I’m so proud of him.
Each day we took baby steps. Each day we journaled our milestones. We created our own “rule” that ONLY the good moments counted each day. I’m not going to go into all the negative things that happened (it feels more private) but I’ll just say it was extremely difficult and that we were in survival mode. But focusing on fixing the big issues didn’t seem to work (she mostly needed time) so we chose to focus on the baby steps each day and that helped us to stay encouraged. Sometimes when you take one step forward, you take two steps back… and that happens. We were basically only focusing on her progress.
Each night we would write in our journal the milestone we had that day. Jeremy started to say that “each day was 3% better”, which felt pretty accurate as time went on. Some of the milestones included the first time she touched things, the first time she spoke to us (in Mandarin of course, but it was still a sign of trust), the first time she played a game with me, the first time I took her out in her stroller solo, the first time I watched her in our hotel room without Jeremy, the first time she let me feed her- things like that. There were baby steps each day and we celebrated all of them.
(The first time she held my hand.)
Day nine was the first day we felt like things started to shift and positive changes started to happen a lot more quickly. We were in Guangzhou by this time, surrounded by other adoptive families (they all stay in the same two hotels and every family has to go there because it’s where you get your child’s Visa). We needed the support of people who understood what we were going through, but it was difficult, at time, not to compare our progress to other families.
Once we started to see positive signs each day, it felt a million times less scary. It was so encouraging and we were able to hang on to little things- like the first time we found a game (1-2-3 wee!) that made Nova want to hold my hand. Keeping a journal of the little bits of progress is by far the best thing we did. We remember so clearly the first time Nova left the room where Jeremy was on her own- a huge milestone!
One thing we talked about a lot from China was “seeing the girl from our videos”. We had these three really sweet videos from her orphanage that we had watched 100x each. When we first got Nova she was so shut down that we couldn’t see any of that personality from the videos. But each day a layer was peeled back and she showed us more and more of who she is.
It was the most beautiful thing because within a month we were seeing so much more personality than we had ever seen in the videos. It didn’t take long in hindsight, but I swear to you that those first few weeks felt like the longest days of our lives.
(Shamelessly feeding Nova whipped cream with my finger. Food was one of the first ways I could bond with Nova.)
(In this photo we were about to go on a ferry ride with the other families from our agency.)
Meeting other adoptive families was a high point for us. We were so inspired by all the stories we heard from other families. A single mom adopting her first child. A family with older kids adopting an eleven year old boy. And the cutest little button of a girl who was probably going to need a heart transplant- chosen as a daughter by two physicians. It was wonderful to see other families coming together and to feel so supported and cared about by complete strangers.
(Our first morning home with Nova. It was so magical- especially after that fourteen hour flight.)
By the time we left China, a few days short of two weeks together, Nova was letting me swing her around at the airport and climbing all over both of us. She still had a strong preference for Jeremy that lasted about a month, but once she began to accept me it happened very fast. I am writing this now just after our two month mark together and I wish I could send a big hug to myself in that first week… and a promise that it would all be ok soon. In those early days I just wanted someone to be able to promise me it would all be ok soon- but no one can do that. Only time can heal. Even though it tested my patience, it taught me so much about putting Nova first and seeing our situation from her perspective. Lessons I wanted to learn.
Adoption is scary, but it’s by far the most beautiful thing we’ve ever experienced in our lives. Nova changed us and opened our hearts forever. We do struggle with how much to share from such a personal and private experience, but ultimately we are sharing this here because reading an adoption story five years ago ultimately led us to adopting Nova. It changed our life, so for that reason we are happy to share all this with you.
We feel like the luckiest family in the world! Thank you for following along.