Michael's First Reflections on Sarah Grace Dunn/Chang Xiao Chao
and fatherhood generally

July 2, 2001. 4:00 pm China time. Changsha, Hunan.  Tam and Xiao Chao are both napping, so with both my best girls asleep, I thought I’d record some of my earliest reactions after knowing my daughter for only three hours.

She’s beautiful, of course, but then we already knew that. After more than two years of working on this adoption, to finally have it happen, to finally hold her in our arms, is what we have hoped for and waited for for so long. I find myself feeling very strong emotions, stronger than I think I expected when I played these scenes in my head in advance. I expect to write a good basic account of our getting her for the trip log webpage, but I also want to record for myself and her, and anyone else who may be interested, some of the feelings I’m feeling, if I can articulate them. First my reactions to meeting her: what strikes me most about her, since that will tell something about me as well, I think.

She’s tiny. All of them were tiny; even the one two year old in the adoption group was tiny. The photo of her with her nanny made her look bigger: I have to assume the nanny I thought was a big woman is in fact a rather small one. (She didn’t come to Changsha with the babies.) We knew most Chinese orphanage babies are much smaller than their American counterparts, but it’s one thing to know something intellectually and another to see how tiny she is. I think that is reinforcing and intensifying the natural protectiveness, the natural paternal instincts, that any father would feel.

She’s quiet. She’s really only cried twice, once for a moment when she was handed over, and once when we put her down in the crib a bit hard and banged the back of her head a little. She’s made a few other little sounds, but her earlier reports made her sound quite vocal, while what I’ve heard have been mostly little grunts or coughs, not real vocalization. Perhaps she’s shy and certainly she’s still at least a little bit afraid of these strange-looking people (one with a beard) who look nothing like any human being she’s seen in her short life. As she gets more comfortable, she may be more vocal.

But she’s bright, inquisitive, exploratory. Her reports said she liked toys that make noise. She also likes things that move. We took a small stuffed lamb down to give her when we took her, but she snubbed it, at least then (she’s shown more favor since). When we got her to our room, we gave her a complicated rattle toy with moving parts, colored balls passing through clear plastic, and lots of color, noise, and movement. It has become her new security toy, or seems to have: she watches it, manipulates it, looks at it closely, seems fascinated by how it works. This is a child who’ll probably take things apart to see how they work; more babyproofing at home may be in order.

And she’s tactile. Before we even came upstairs she was gripping my hand with her little fingers, though I think she was still terrified of the strange things that were happening in her life. She has played constantly with the rattle. When feeding, she grabs the bottle and moves it to suit her. She has been fingering the texture of her diaper changing pad, apparently a material she hasn’t felt before.

She watches closely. All the Chinese babies seem so serious, and seem to be studying you carefully. Partly it’s because these babies from Changde have never really seen white people. But she really seems to be soaking things up. She’s made eye contact several times and I get the sense she’s trying to figure out, not just what I am, but what I’m all about. She follows you with her eyes as you walk. She has turned to look at me when I spoke her name, though not every time; perhaps I only got the tones right once.

When we got her, the babies from Changde (there were three in the group) had been driving for three plus hours on a brutally hot day in a car that may not have been air conditioned. They were late for their lunch feeding and in need of a diaper change. We raced her upstairs and gave her water first, then I held her while Tam tried to follow instructions for the Chinese rice formula they’re used to. We’d been treated to stories of babies who wouldn’t eat if the consistency wasn’t just what they were used to, or the nipples weren’t right, or the mixture wasn’t sweet enough. Well, she wolfed it down and came back for more, either a tribute to Tam’s formula making or at least a sign she was hungry.

She let us change her diaper quite readily (just wet this time; I still have lessons to learn). She was a bit more recalcitrant about being put in new clothes. Though it took her a little while to go to sleep, she napped readily.

We’d heard plenty of stories about babies who, on delivery to the adoptive parents, won’t eat, or sleep, or just withdraw into themselves, or cry constantly. She hit none of those extremes. She didn’t exactly smile and laugh and make herself right at home, but she did seem to accept us and what we were doing routinely enough.

So much to get to know: she seemed to do fine on the bed, and in her crib, but when Tam tried to put her down on the floor to see if she wanted to explore there, she complained.

We still need to put a smile on her face: the reports say she smiles easily, but none of the pictures showed it and we haven’t seen it yet. But she doesn’t seem unhappy either, or withdrawn into herself: the rattle toy is quite the thing, and she likes to be held and touched and to have body contact. We’re glad to oblige.

As I write this I’ve known my daughter just a little over three hours. I can’t say I know her well. But I thought I should record these first impressions.

And a few about me as well: I’m feeling very paternal, very protective, as I said earlier. I teared up looking at her asleep: seeing her there really drove home for me the responsibility (and pride) of fatherhood. This tiny human being is utterly dependant, now, on Tam and myself, and just as she is changing our lives so wonderfully, we are changing hers in ways we can only barely understand ourselves. Tam and I have a deep love and commitment, but we are adults who survived on our own for years before we married; neither is dependant on the other except for emotional support and love. But Xiao Chao is totally dependant on us, and that makes for a different kind of commitment and responsibility.  And she can count on it.

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