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Learning the Language of Motherhood

by The Next Family July 14, 2011

By: Stacey Clark

My first daughter came the more traditional way, with good old-fashioned sex and a C-section. My second daughter involved an 18-hour airline flight and signatures on documents written in Chinese pinyin. I met my first child high on hormones and morphine. Meeting my second, I was jetlagged. Taking two such unique paths to motherhood taught me something remarkable about what it is to be a mom

There was a time I would have said DNA and the mother instinct were inextricably linked. Seconds after birthing Kathryn, I shook her bluish hand between my thumb and forefinger and said hello as if I’d always known her. Hours later, cradled in my arms, she stared up at me with ocean blue eyes, her face a reflection of my genes. In the days that followed I felt a rush of love and protectiveness sweep in and settle deeply into a mother-daughter bond, forged by birth—or so I thought.

Scroll forward seven years to a warm, November afternoon in Nanchang, China. Kathryn, my husband Jonathan, and I walked into an administrative building, up a narrow staircase, down a hall, and into a room filled with Chinese children and their caretakers. Our guide through these 10 days in China pulled heavy curtains from the windows and flooded the room with light, announcing, “These are your babies.”

I walked through the room, my heart thumping, as I searched the benches, looking for the pair of cheeks I’d come to know in three photographs I had studied since September. I was about to meet my second daughter—the one we would call Hanna—not moments after birth, but nine-and-a-half months into her life.

Still, when I saw Hanna for the first time, sitting there on a bench playing with her pink shoes, I said the same thing I said to Kathryn: “Hello.” She looked up at me with her deep brown eyes and pouted lips like an upside down heart. Her features were nothing like mine, yet I felt I knew her, too, in that odd, outside-of-time kind of way.

After a while, I held Hanna in my arms, whispering words she could not understand. She brushed her fingertips across my moving lips, as if reading my breaths like Braille. Kathryn could not understand my words the first time I held her either, but she knew the sound of my voice. Hanna knew nothing of me.

Hanna came to us that afternoon with only the clothing she wore. Jonathan rode off on the bus to the Wal-Mart in downtown Nanchang to buy formula, while Kathryn and I took Hanna back to our hotel room. I lay her on the bed. She flopped like a rag doll as I removed her pink knitted jumper, yellow sweater, checkered shirt…until I came down to her diaper tied on with a red-and-white striped string.

As I slowly removed each layer of clothing, it was like discovering my baby in reverse, gently unmaking her to see who she was. No birthmarks, physically.

After redressing Hanna in a disposable diaper with adhesive tabs, a pink shirt and butterfly overalls, I sat her between Kathryn and me on the bed. She took Cheerios from our hands, pinching them in her fingers one by one and pushing them into the tiny O of her mouth. Once Hanna wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips. Kathryn and I caught eyes. This was Hanna’s first smile, at us.

As dusk cast darkness across the sky outside our hotel room window, Jonathan still had not returned with formula. It was seven or eight in the morning according to Tampa time and Kathryn had, in effect, been up all night. She was hungry, tired and far from home and anything ordinary. Kathryn began to cry.  Hanna looked at Kathryn, reaching out to touch a tear on her cheek, and her own tears began to fall.

There was no reasoning with one exhausted daughter and the other could not make sense of the strange sounds coming from my mouth. Five hours ago I had become a mother again. I had to find a new way to speak comfort to my children now. Without words, I pulled a daughter into each arm and leaned back against the pillows of the bed, patting them while they cried. This is going well, I sighed, not thinking so at all.

Kathryn fell asleep. Hanna’s rolling tears escalated into sobs and high piercing screams. This was to be the first of many nights of crying. During our travels in China, after we returned home to Florida, Hanna would cry and thrash and bat herself in the face with her tiny fists for hours before, finally, she would fall sleep.

For months, I tried everything to calm and comfort Hanna when she cried. Nothing worked. She could not tell me what she had left behind or needed now. I could not tell her that I understood her loss, she was safe and I would be here when she awoke. Some nights I stood by her crib for a while after she had given in to sleep. I’d stare at my child who came from so far away and wonder if I could be the mother she needed me to be. Could I reach her without words to soothe or explain? Not yet.

Then one night, Hanna woke up crying again. I gathered her up in my arms, and instead of straining away, this once, she nuzzled close. She quieted against my chest as I rocked her in the shadows of the moonlight falling through the blinds. She looked up at me, I looked down at her, and a secret passed between us.

From then on, Hanna cried sometimes, but I could comfort her. I was her mother. I knew then the language of motherhood had nothing to do with dialects, and little to do with genes. Motherhood was not about how a child is born, but how she is loved.

Soon, Hanna learned to talk. She sounded like Elmer Fudd with the hint of a Chinese accent. Tearful nights had long since turned quiet. But sometimes, in the wee hours, I would be asleep downstairs in my bed and Hanna upstairs in her crib. Out of the silence, I would hear Hanna shout like a giggle in the dark, “Mama, where aw you?”


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