I have a photo of our daughter in the car on the day we brought her home. She's buckled into her big-girl booster seat, swaddled in my scarf. Her hair is dark, and her eyes are tightly shut, squinched against the sun.
In that moment, as I reached up to take the photo selfie-style, moving in the quick, silent way that parents do, I knew I would do anything to keep her safe. I knew I would sacrifice everything to help her grow. And most sharply, I knew I would have given anything for her not to have been in our car wrapped in my scarf and would have given anything for her to be with her biological family instead.
In the photo, our daughter is snuggling tightly with the huge stuffed dog we gave her during our visits to the facility where she had been living, a fluffy promise that we'd be back—tomorrow, then Wednesday, and then we can all go home. Several black trash bags are visible behind her headrest, full of everything she owns in the world.
When my partner opens those bags to sort through them on the day we brought our daughter home, he finds a riotous mass of too-small clothes, underwear that cuts a line across her belly, thin T-shirts that expose the underwear line. Everything smells like the facility. He also finds the loose pieces to six puzzles, one ice-skating Elsa doll, two blankets, a toy stroller, and 37 stuffed animals. We sort through our daughter's life in the dining room: to wash, to donate, to throw away. We have no sense of which items are sentimental to her.
Bringing Our Daughter Home
Adjustment to living with a 5 year old was intense. My partner and I were on family leave and the three of us were with one another all day, every day. Our daughter wasn't yet enrolled in school—the district wouldn't let her enroll until she was physically living at our address, a technicality that meant a three-week delay before she could join the other pre-Kers.
No one else visited our little haven during that time. According to the adoption books, children benefit from significant time nesting with their new family before being thrust into the dizzying world of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends. Since our daughter was the only grandchild, it was right to wait before switching on those spotlights of affection. Love can be burden, particularly if you are a 5 year old who has never met these people who know everything about you.
I remember the feeling of sudden, intense isolation. My partner and I didn't see friends for a month. We couldn't go out after bedtime because we were terrified our daughter would wake in the night to find only one of us in the house, potentially setting off a tantrum. (We need not have worried. She sleeps 10 hours a night.)
So my partner and I huddled in front of the TV, watching every episode of The Office on mute, whispering as we dissected each day, planned the next, and flinched at the smallest sound.
Social media was where we shared, or rather where I shared our progress. Little anecdotes. Little lessons. Tiny, funny moments that served as paltry summations of the endless days and weeks with our new daughter.
And social media was where I heard that detestable phrase: "She's so lucky." I first took the platitude for just that, a senseless nothing typed quickly into a comment bar. "Oh congrats! She's so lucky to have you!" "Lucky girl to have such dedicated parents!" (Dedicated? Why did that word carry so much power to imply that adoption was somehow more work than literally creating an entire human in one's body?) "You three are so brave! I could never. How lucky she is!" I hesitated to share the stories of her tantrums, or answer questions about her past. Every scrap of information was met with maudlin delight. "Oh, how terrible! I'm so glad she has you now."
Here's Why She's Not 'Lucky'
I resist that narrative. Our daughter is not lucky. She was taken away from her parents and siblings. She experienced indescribable grief and trauma at an age before many of us even begin to understand that level of misfortune is possible.
One may counter with, "But her parents couldn't keep her healthy and safe. She's fortunate to now have parents who can." To that I say: "I am doing my job, which is to love and care for the child who, by circumstance, is in my life." It's the same as all parents. We try to provide the best possible life for our children. A safe life. A life into which they can grow and from beyond which they can expand.
Some parents are unable to keep their kids healthy and safe. Our nation's child-welfare services are designed to support these families in need. They are supposed to keep kids healthy and safe while parents are getting the assistance they need. And if further tragedy strikes and parents are wholly unable to care for their children, the system turns its gears (through the endless, thankless, underfunded, powerful labor of social workers), and tries to find a new home for the child.
When I read those messages online, and later, when I started to hear them in person, I wanted to ask: "When? When was she lucky? Show me!" Because what I see is a young child who walks through life with the burden of knowing one may lose what one loves without warning.
"But she's lucky to be with you now—you know!"
Lucky to be with parents in a higher tax bracket? What does that say to the children in low-income families whose parents are keeping them healthy and safe? Does it tell them that poverty itself is justification for removing kids from their parents?
"It's just, she's lucky to be the only kid in your family!"
Lucky to lose the physical comfort of her siblings? Lucky to sleep alone in her room after years with another warm body breathing into the dark? Or are you implying something about her mother's sexuality or access to birth control or access to childcare services or access to family support networks? Maybe that?
"Oh, you know what I mean! She's safe now! She has food! She's clean."
Yes. She is. And there is nothing I would not give for her to have been safe, fed, and clean in her first home, without having to have gone through hell first. But, no, don't tell me our daughter is lucky. She is incredibly unlucky and will spend her life carrying her tragedy with her. It is our job to help her understand her tragedy and help her carry it.
I keep that photo from my daughter’s first car ride home on my phone as a reminder. Not of my daughter's trauma. Not of the fear and joy of that first day. A reminder that she was just a child. A little girl. A terrified kid being driven in a car by people she'd met two weeks earlier to a new house where she'd live "forever." A reminder that to my daughter, "forever" doesn't have any weight. She's been that unlucky.