Two and a half years ago, I met my daughter through a photograph. The first time I saw her, two white spheres with chocolate brown hubs stood out against her thin and delicate face. She was awake, but her eyes lacked luster. My heart swelled with love, but a sense of urgency began to beat heavily inside my chest.
She was starving.
An earlier call from our adoption agency had reported that this little girl weighed eight pounds at six months old and was suffering from severe malnourishment. This was such a foreign concept to me. Hunger was not something I had ever faced, nor did I know anyone who could relate to what this girl, my daughter, had experienced in her short life.
This introduction was not only a moment I will treasure and hold close, but also a foreshadowing of what was to come when we were no longer separated by the ocean and a host of legal complications.
Our time together in her country proved that she did not understand food was certain. She would crawl to the food pantry, bang on the door and cry until it was opened. Upon our return to the States, hoarding food in her mouth became a new pattern, as she displayed chipmunk-like cheeks after meals. Sometimes in the mornings, we would even find additional food that she had kept in her mouth throughout the night. “Mouth-checks” became a common thing before bed to remove whatever choking hazard she may have stockpiled.
Things eventually got better. The hoarding stopped. Contentment was developing, and we thought we were in the clear. Something I didn’t understand about trauma was that progress can be made, but triggers will remain—even subconsciously.
Sparked by change, a trigger surfaced when she started school this fall in a preschool developmental program. When she’s with our family, she knows there will be food—she has developed trust. But when she’s away from us, with new people in a different situation, doubt sets in.
At 5 a.m. those words rattled me from a deep sleep one morning. I rushed into my daughter’s bedroom and found her out of breath and shaking on top of sheets damp from her perspiring fear. She was doing the sign for “more” and saying, “Eat! Eat!” I held her close and reminded her it wasn’t time to eat, that she was safe, and she needed to go back to sleep. I crawled back into my warm sheets, convinced that it was just a nightmare. But a couple nights later, it happened again—only I couldn’t get her to settle back down. This time, she crawled into my warm sheets with me.
Soon, this fear of hunger began to appear during daylight hours. She would beg to eat as soon as she returned from school. She would want access to a bowl of pretzels at all times, and she would eat two to three extra helpings at meal times. I justified this behavior by telling myself, “She must be growing!”
One morning, she woke up and asked to take an apple to the bus stop. Looking back, I should have recognized the signs. She kept hiding it from me on the way to the bus, even trying to stick this treasured fruit inside her backpack when she saw the bus appear down the road. As the bus approached, I opened my hand and asked her to leave the apple. That triggered the floodgates. Those chocolate brown eyes that now fit her healthy, round face reflected terror and anxiety. Her body became that of a rag doll, her screams permeated the air. The bus drivers got her on the bus, but my heart and mind had much to process.
Sometimes parenting her is hard. I don’t see her as an “adopted child” any more than I see my son as my “biological child.” My children are one and the same. My initial response to the apple incident was to ponder what consequence she should receive when she got home. But during a long phone call with my mom, she reminded me that my daughter’s experience with food is different. What was once a trigger when she was younger is still a trigger today. Especially now as she is facing a change with starting school. She is experiencing a new place where her trust has not yet had time to form. My initial response needs to be grace and understanding.
I hate that my little girl has experienced such a painful start to her young life. Few people understand this. But when she faces disapproving stares while dealing with anxiety, or receives criticism for her food intake, I have to put a new perspective into practice. I need to choose to be her protector. I will build that trust in the places that evoke fear from the unknown. And I will offer grace each and every time she is triggered, no matter how long this issue remains.
I may not have a personal understanding, but now that she is a part of me, her pain is my pain and her fear, my fear. Together we will create a place of trust and certainty one step at a time. Until then, her bowl of pretzels will remain, and an apple in the backpack will be more than fine.
Guest post over at Coffee & Crumbs