This post started as a comment on Janet Lansbury’s blog post, The Most Powerful Way To Love A Child. I debated posting it there, then I debated emailing it as she often shares parent feedback on her facebook page. Then I realized I’m paying for webspace I don’t use, and that for so many years, I wanted to tell some of our stories and couldn’t. For the first few months we spent as a family together, this quote and photo were constantly present in my mind. Gradually I forgot. Life got busier and more chaotic and the “honeymoon period” – from my side, not theirs – faded. (Interestingly enough my children never had a “honeymoon” phase, what I got with them from day one was what I have had ever since. I need to state that very clearly now because I think it makes the following story even more meaningful. I also need to state that I don’t think that is normal and that ours is only one single story).
Around the time that I met my children, more specifically when I met my daughter, since we met first, I came across an unattributed quote on the internet, something to the effect of, do your eyes light up when you see your children? I’m not really into unattributed quotes so I searched for the source, which turned out to be Toni Morrison in this video with Oprah:
As usual, the video and actual context is better than the unattributed quote.
The information I got regarding my children before I met them was overwhelming negative and remains shockingly nonrepresentative of who they have shown themselves to be. For both children, I was painted a picture of nonresponsive, avoidant, near feral children. I was told they wouldn’t make eye contact. I was told they ignored adults and purposely (at 15 months!) avoided their name. I was told they screamed for no reason and banged their heads on their cribs. I was handed a plethora of armchair diagnoses as if they were free magnets at the county fair.
Before we met, I had no idea what to expect.
I took the following picture of my daughter within 2 hours of her arrival. It may have been within one hour. It may have been within 45 minutes. I can’t be certain because I can’t pull my phone records from that day without calling AT&T and sitting on hold for a while, and to be honest, it doesn’t really matter that much anymore.
We played peekaboo with the Baby Faces book.
But they don’t make eye contact. They avoids adults. They doesn’t listen when their names are called. They scream for no reason.
(Everything has a reason).
We were essentially strangers. When these photos were taken, I had spent less time with her than I have spent with the guy who repaired my hot water heater.
I have more photos from that weekend and the weekends that followed. Hundreds, if not thousands. I have videos. At first it was unconscious. I was photographing her because it felt completely right and natural. I had had a previous sibling group for respite, the same situation in which I found myself with my children, with my daughter that first weekend. I had only remembered pictures existed on the second or third day. I took a few pictures of those children playing with soap suds in the sink to remember them. That was about all. It was an afterthought. And I loved them as much as I could that weekend. They were my little buddies and I took them to a visit and I missed them. That was what made me realize this could work, because it went from BUT WHY WOULD YOU ENTRUST AN ACTUAL LIVE HUMAN CHILD TO ME?! to hi, I’ve never met you before, guess we’re in this together, come live at my house for a while.
But with my daughter I was taking photos like a mama. It just happened and I didn’t realize it until much later. As we went on, I also began taking them as a meansof amassing an arsenal of evidence. Evidence of what, I wasn’t entirely sure. Evidence of who she was: a beautiful, engaging, funny little girl. She loved to play peekaboo. She exchanged in a playful give and take with me at every turn, feeding me Cheerios, crawling away and turning back for me to chase her, sharing her excitement over toys. I have videos of her hysterical giggle, videos of her attempt to say woof “fffff”, videos of her feeding me Cheerios in the backseat of the car.
It was in the context of all of this that I ran across the Toni Morrison quote. In the midst of Cheerio exchanges, picture taking for some greater purpose I didn’t yet know, and “fffff” at the neighbor’s dog, I found the quote that resonated with me. Does your face light up when you see your child? I think that mine did during those late spring months. I can see it reflected in her eyes.
My intention in writing this post isn’t to call anyone out for being a liar, except, you know, if the shoe fits… (as an aside, my son’s didn’t. Fit, that is. He has new shoes now. Lots of them. So many shoes. Tiny shoes, everywhere. I can’t stop buying shoes. Send help).
My intention is now to say this: regardless of what was true or not true, look at her eyes. Look at her eyes.
That’s the difference between your face lighting up and the “critical face” Toni Morrison describes. It’s the response to what Dr. Karyn Purvis refers to as “gentle eyes”. When my daughter was placed in my arms she ducked her head and turned away. Her response was completely appropriate for being handed off to a stranger. I remember in that moment feeling that if that reaction was the extent of our relationship, it would have been enough. I remember feeling a flood of overwhelming love and protectiveness for the child I didn’t yet know. I remember thinking that if she never spoke to me, never responded to me, never looked at me, it would have been enough because I loved her like I have never loved anyone or anything.
And I saw her. I held her. I think she knew it. I had no expectation, because I had no idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect to feel like I was holding my daughter.
Regardless of what was or wasn’t true about what came before, what was true was this: the behaviors that I was told to expect never happened. Not during that weekend. Not during the next. Not during the next six months.
It’s since been two and a half years.
There was behavior. Some of it was not in keeping with my parental ideals of pacifism. But the behavior that I had been told about never happened. The descriptions I was given about both my children were so inaccurate in light of who they are when they – I hope – feel safe and feel loved.
That’s the difference, I hope, of being seen. That’s the difference of “does your face light up.” The children described to me in the paperwork were never the children in front of me. Are they ever? The children described in the paperwork were either a lie, or a textbook example of the human fight, flight, or freeze response. They were children living in extreme stress and fear. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because both are equally inaccurate, tragic, and nonrepresentative of who they actually are.