Adoption is a peculiar experience; one day you are childless and the next you have a baby, a toddler, or even a school-aged child living full-time in your house. The suddenness of parenthood never fails to amaze as well as trouble me. How do two unacquainted persons get to know each other after having missed the intimacy of pregnancy, and early infancy, maybe even having missed the entire first, second or third year of life together? What if they do not share a common language?
Since adopting Mei Mei as a three year old, we’ve found ways to recapture the essence of some of the experiences we missed together. I call them the” living womb games”. These activities recreate the closeness of a pregnancy, except that Mei Mei is outside not inside my body.
On our very first evening together, I excused us from the family circle and took her into the bathroom. I showed her how we ran the water into the tub, striped us both naked and together we took our first bath. The warm water, her quiet discovery of the water and her own body, the steamy room, our skin touching, all created an interior atmosphere, a sense of being in a special place. We were together in the bathtub-womb.
I sat her between my legs, facing away from me. I felt that would be more comfortable for her, since she hardly knew me. In addition, because I’d heard China was a highly modest country, I didn’t want to overwhelm her. With her between my legs, her back against my belly I was able to hold her upright without intruding on her. I could watch her play without her being confronted with me; she was alone yet not alone.
Day after day we bathed together. I had a chance to watch her from a close distance which she did not otherwise allow. I observed how she needed to explore her own hands, like an infant. It took weeks for her to begin exploring the toys; the water and her own body were more than enough at the beginning.
In China we carried Mei Mei in a backpack, and she became quite attached to this mode of travel. Once we got home, instead of asking to be held or picked up, she would go and find the backpack and indicate she wanted to ride in it. This became another “living womb”, a time when we could become intimately acquainted.
There were two important sets of experiences from this backpacking venture. First, like a baby in utero, she began to learn who I was ( and visa versa) through the medium of our bodies. We felt the rhythm of each other’s breathing, the sound of each others voice not only auditorially, but viscerally, through our bodies touching. We became accustomed to the rhythm and style of each of our body’s movement patterns. Through this physical attachment to each other, our emotional attachment began to grow.
Second, riding on my back Mei Mei learned a lot about the routine of family life, which is what a child learns about in her first year or two or three of life. Her new life was experienced not from the distance of an observer, but as a part of me, her mother. What I did and how I felt moment to moment was seen and felt by her as she accompanied me on my daily rounds pressed against my back.
Another “living womb” experience was swinging. Mei Mei loved the swings at the park, but one day it occurred to me to put her on my lap and swing with her. Again, I began by facing her away from me, outward. Again, I realized that we were moving as one connected body, rather than as two people. As we became comfortable and Mei Mei leaned back against me, I changed her position, facing her towards me. The rhythm of the swing blended us into one. The warmth of the sun held us. We entered a magical place, a outdoor pregnancy. Afterward we lay on the grass together, watching the clouds in the sky.
Sometimes Mei Mei wakes up from her nap crying inconsolably. Holding her is often hard; she arches and squirms away. One day I got into bed with her, laid her on my body and rocked her from side to side. Gradually her squirming quieted. After several minutes she rested her head on my chest. “Listen to me breathe,” I told her, and took a deep breath. “Breath like me,” I said, and she did. Gradually she calmed and we re-entered the magical place we’d discovered on the swings. Some days this works and others it doesn’t. But even if it’s only occasionally, I treasure these moments in the “bed-womb”.
I’ve tried to expand on these four “womb” experiences, playing rocking games, carrying Mei Mei more often and not requiring she walk as much as a three year old is able. We must be the cleanest two beings in our neighborhood, for we bathe at least once a day, and now that it’s beginning to be summer, we play together in our bathing suits in her wading pool. I cherish the opportunity to recapture and relive the missed moments of her early childhood. I’m thrilled to know that many of the feelings of being one, inseparable being, that seemed possible only for a birth mother, can be experienced by an adoptive parent and child, if one is creative enough to invent a new “womb” in which to play together.