When you adopt a child who has essentially lost over half their life to institutionalization, you are faced with a dilemma that many parents of pre-teens would never understand.
In this world of over-sexualization of our children, where dating begins at 10 and parents brag about how "cute" it is that girls are phoning their sons every night, we have children clinging desperately to the childhood they never got. Sleeping with teddy bears, carrying around baby dolls at 10 years old, learning to play with Legos for the first time and proudly running out to show us the latest car or airplane they built...thankfully we are not yet struggling with the typical issues faced by parents of "tweens".
But I can not begin to tell you just how heartbreaking it is to have your 12 year old daughter literally beg you to think of her as 10. Angela has become almost vehement in her assertion that she is still "malinky", that she is not grown up. Yesterday I finally talked to her seriously about it all, and for the very first time with any of our kids I had deep regrets for her that we did not become her family sooner, and it is a regret I won't easily let go of.
She is really suffering in a way over this, and I think it is that she is finally happy and surrounded with the love and encouragement she always dreamed of, and sees how old she is and how little time she has left. The subject came up as we talked about the "big" birthdays to celebrate, and turning 13 meant you were a teenager. Oh, how she didn't like that one bit! She kept insisting she was only a little girl still, and 13 was too old. She doesn't want to be 13.
Knowing Kenny is fine with it, we talked about how both she and Kenny may be 12 or almost 12, but that they are behind in school and will be home at least a couple more years than other kids would be to finish high school. She said "Me like Kenny, Kenny malinky and me malinky too...me too tall, me...uh...me no 13, me maybe 10!".
We were in a beautiful location for quiet conversation, as I had taken the kids up to the Grand Mesa to explore and show the girls. We were walking through a forested area near a small lake, the other kids had all run ahead of us on the trail. We talked about the smell of pine trees and how it reminded her of the camp they used to go to over the summer back in Kazakhstan. We stopped and found a rock to perch on and I attempted the impossible, I tried to give her what has already been lost.
I told her the best I could with the language we have that her age was just a number, that Daddy and I don't care at all how old she is...that she will forever be our little girl because that is how it is with parents and their children. I offered to her that if she wanted us to view her as 10, we certainly would, but that her age is not important to us. I reassured her once again that she never had to ever leave our home, that she could remain with us for as long as we lived and that being in a family meant never being alone anymore. She asked about college and if she had to go away for school, and I explained to her that there were many ways for her to get a college degree, and that included staying home and doing it on the computer if she wanted or attending a nearby college an hour away. But I also reminded her that she had many years before worrying about that, and the important thing she needed to always know was that this home was permanent, that these people were forever and that love would always be there for her.
"Me stay home I 50 years old?" she asked.
"Forever" I replied "Even if you are 70 years old! But someday you might get married and have a family of your own."
"Me too little, Mama, me no married long long time. Me no boys!" she said.
"Someday, you are a beautiful girl and lots of boys will want to take you out." I said.
Blushing..."Thank you Mama, but me no boys right now, maybe me 18 or 25 years old boys, no boys now."
"Whew! I am so glad to hear that!" I threw out with a chuckle.
"Mama...me your baby like Matthew and Joshua? Same thing?" she asked, staring off at the lake, not daring to look at me.
I sit there for a moment wishing I knew exactly what I could offer to help her soul feel more at peace. I hear the voices of the other kids as they horse around in the distance, and I put my arm around her shoulder as I too look out at the lake, and I do the only thing I can think of....
I sing to her from our favorite book, softly the words come "I love you forever, I like you for always, as long as I'm living my baby you'll be..." and it trails off as she lays her head on my shoulder.
"Thank you, Mama."
I say nothing for a few moments, then draw her even closer as I whisper "You have always been my baby, Angela, no matter how big you are. In my heart you are my little girl."
We sat there like that for a bit, leaning into one another, both of us lost as we thought of all we had been cruelly denied by governments and red tape. We live in the here and now, and are so grateful for it, and yet there is all that we can never get back that occasionally creeps in and makes us yearn for the missing years.
Yet I know I would not be the mother I am if it happened any sooner, and the mother I am seems to be the mother she needs.
She is caught, our oldest daughter, in a very tricky place. Where her younger sister can easily slip back into childhood with nary a glance from others, Angela is on the brink of adolescence yet never got her fill of the innocence of childhood. She can not change that she is unable to be very interested in many of the things we long abandon in our "tween" years, and yet she desperately wishes she were young enough to take that step backwards and live in that moment. Hormones and maturity are fighting against her heart and desire, and it creates an unavoidable inner conflict which I wish I could snap my fingers and resolve for her.
So she will hang on for dear life to the thought that she is our baby, beloved and accepted for whoever she may need to be on any given day. And I'll be there to rock her to sleep, if necessary, and to remind her that she will always be Mommy's baby.