La La How The Life Goes On

A Spoonful of Booger Helps The Mama Love Go Down–My Messy Beautiful

Posted on: April 14, 2014

My daughter hated me the second we met.

She was a scared 16 month old clinging to her nanny’s shirt in Nanjing, China. I was the flourescent-white blonde woman to whom she was being handed. I had anticipated and prepared for this moment; her fear, her sadness, her grief. I had not anticipated my own heartbreak in witnessing it. I learned instantly that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child, even when she has only been officially “yours” for mere seconds. Luckily she found my husband’s large nose (“da bizi” [da beedzuh] in Mandarin) fun to play with, and our older daughter’s familiar Chinese features comforting. And so our family began the long, messy, beautiful journey to completion.

In the days that followed while we waited in China for documents, visas and passports, she would only allow her big sister to feed her. She clung to her new toothbrush for dear life, carrying it everywhere as a talisman that maybe something in her life was permanent if only she hung on tightly enough. It would take her 8 days to make eye contact with me. I was allowed to change her diaper or put on her shoes, but I was not to be acknowledged as a person in her life. In the meantime, she would smile and laugh–but only when I was not present. My husband and daughter were getting to see the funny, sweet, happy child the nannies had described to us so proudly. I was getting Heismanned by a sullen toddler. The rejection didn’t bother me since I’d done enough reading to know it was coming. But the grief and heartache fueling it bothered me to my core.  This was a grief-stricken, confused and astonishingly brave little girl trying to make sense of a familiar life gone sideways. And I was struggling to know what to do to help her, beyond letting her ride whatever wave of emotion she needed to, giving her the space she needed to feel safe, but also making clear that I was not going anywhere; that I would pass whatever test she wanted to send my way. Come at me, bro. Come at me.

Each day saw progress, each night a retreat into grief. As smiley as she was in the daylight, the darkness brought restless dreams and tears. Each morning she’d awake, look around, and weep upon realizing that she was once again–still–in a hotel room with strangers rather than in her familiar orphanage with her nannies. We kept her busy, we bought her toys, we fed her only familiar foods. But nothing was going to make this better except for time and patience and love.  I knew that accepting me might feel like a betrayal of her nannies, and so I settled in for the long haul. After all, if you can have your feelings hurt by a scared and sad 16 month old baby girl, you have not Done The Work required of an adoptive parent. I accepted that my way to her heart would be through her body; that meeting her physical needs without requiring anything of her was what what she needed me to do. And so I did it. I wiped poop, expecting nothing. I cleaned bums, expecting nothing. I brought food, expecting nothing. It was messy and it was beautiful. Just being there for another human, even in the most corporeal of activities, makes something sacred out of the profane. I was not just changing her diaper. I was showing her that I could be relied upon. I was not just bathing her. I was showing her that I could be trusted. I was not just combing her hair. I was showing her that I could be called upon.


Ultimately, we did become pals before leaving China. But only because I extracted a cornflake-sized booger out of her nose, immediately followed by handing her a pint of Haagen-Dazs. She had been struggling to breathe clearly, so I asked her if I could take a look at her nose and mouth. She assented to it, me being The Functionary Who Delivers Services But Who May or May Not Exist. So I peered up and saw It. The Booger To End All Boogers. Epic. Enormous. Legendary. Borderline Horrifying. At least a week in the making.  I whispered, “Bie haipa” (don’t be afraid) and pulled that sucker out in a flash. The look she gave me will stay with me forever: a mixture of total physical relief and “what kind of magical witch are you?!” That, coupled with the discovery of delicious premium ice cream, began the day she looked into my eyes–and she hasn’t looked back since.

As I recount those first days and weeks in my mind I remember it all fondly, the sharp edges of the worry and heartbreak rounded off by time. Now that she’s almost 6, I tell her about the fear and the grief she felt, because it was real. This was not some forced Happiest Day of Our Lives scenario like a Lifetime Television for Women adoption movie of the week. This was not a shiny, happy, tidy day to chronicle for the benefit of our Facebook friends. This was real life. Messy, beautiful; painful, joyous; so much lost, so much gained. I want her to be okay with her story, with our story. I never want her to feel like she owes me a happier version of herself than she can give. She lost so much, braved so much, experienced so much to become my daughter. The fact that it was messy then does not make it any less beautiful now.


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!


1 Response to "A Spoonful of Booger Helps The Mama Love Go Down–My Messy Beautiful"

What a sweet story. Love the unexpected boogery twist. 🙂
(Found you on the Messy Beautiful page. Yours is perfect for this project!)

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