It’s a peculiar thing to love a child who does not love you back.
When a child grows in your womb, she is part of you. You speak to her, you feed her, you nurture her. You are familiar to her. The first time she’s placed on your chest, she naturally snuggles up. She doesn’t have the muscle tone or coordination yet to try to move away from you, but even if she did, she wouldn’t want to. A newborn’s body naturally curves onto yours as she leans in, not away, for reassurance. She may cry, but she nestles against you for comfort. Being apart from you is scary and unknown; being held by you is home.
My Chinese adopted daughter Lucy and I did not get the privilege of this natural form of bonding. She and I missed out on crucial months of stroking, rocking, singing, and cuddling. Left alone for most hours of the day on a wooden slat that cruelly pretended to be a bed, she soothed herself with tapping or tongue-sucking. She had no one else. I entered the scene 15 months into her under-stimulated life and wanted to hold her. I wanted to kiss her and stroke her and give her all the things she’d missed out on for so very long.
I was not welcome.
I was a stranger, and because she was sensory-deprived, touch was almost painful for her. When I held her on my hip, she leaned her body back, hands in the air. Her newborn body never got the opportunity to nestle against the chest of someone who loved her, so she never learned how to lean in for comfort. Instead, she stiffened at my touch, her expression stoic. When she awoke from her nap, she didn’t cry for me—not even when she had a soiled diaper. Why should she? When no one rushes to your side when you cry, you eventually stop crying. Lucy didn’t know she needed me because her needs had never been met well. The concept of a mother was foreign to her.
This form of rejection would have been heartbreaking enough had I brought Lucy home under normal circumstances. But I was wrestling with the unrequited love of an infant as a temporarily single mom in the center of a bureaucratic nightmare. My husband and I are missionaries in Australia and traveled to China with our three children in tow to adopt Lucy at the end of 2013. Following the instructions of our adoption agency, the National Passport Center, and fellow ex-pats who had gone before us, my new, malnourished, 15-month-old daughter and I flew to the United States immediately after her adoption to secure her automatic U.S. citizenship, obtain her U.S. passport, and fly home to Australia, to which my husband and other children had already returned.
Her passport application was denied.
Based on a residency issue we didn’t know existed, and to our knowledge had never previously been applied, the agent refused to issue our daughter a passport. Eventually, to our shock and dismay, her U.S. citizenship was denied as well. This left me and my frail, sensory-deprived daughter indefinitely stuck half a globe away from the rest of our family. The longest I had ever been away from my children was eight days. I was now staring down the barrel of a potential six-month separation, possibly longer.
I was so torn. My three biological children who were bonded to me, and had been since day one, were on one side of the world. My adopted daughter, who still didn’t quite know what to think of me, was with me on the other. I felt so guilty for “abandoning” my older three who needed their mom, yet I had been called to love one who had already experienced abandonment and was only beginning to heal.
Loving the three was easy; loving the one was hard.
When all we knew of Lucy was four pictures, a video, and a limited medical file, the words “She’s worth it” flowed easily. Worth the paperwork, worth the adoption fees, worth whatever it would take to mean she was ours. My husband and I knew it would be hard, that it would change our family forever, but we emphatically claimed that she was worth it all.
Now that statement was being tested.
Was she worth being separated from the rest of my family indefinitely? Was she worth the legal battles, the hours on the phone with congressmen, senators, and the State department? Was she worth the enormous stress?
During this period of separation, a question hovered on the lips of those who meant well: If the battle over Lucy’s citizenship and a passport became lengthy, would I consider leaving her in the United States with family and returning for a time to Australia to be with my husband and the other kids? I could understand why some people thought I should do so. I’d only had Lucy for a short time, and she was just getting used to me. Babies are resilient, and oh, the hero’s welcome I would get at home! I could imagine my older kids’ response: My youngest would squeeze my neck as hard as she could. My second-born would give me lots of sloppy kisses, and my oldest would sweetly say, “I’ve missed you, Mom.” It would be such a relief to hold them again.
On the other hand, I had to fight every day for another tiny little piece of Lucy’s heart. She didn’t give kisses. She didn’t know how to hug, keeping her hands defensively in the air most of the time that I held her. She would have rather been alone in the dark than with me.
It would have made sense for me to go home, right? Except, she’s my child. Mine. God gave me a love for her that is just as intense as the love I have for my other three. This baby came to us traumatized and neglected. She had experienced abandonment once, and I could not do it to her again. I couldn’t undo the security she was just beginning to feel. I just couldn’t.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go after the one lost sheep. This priority would seem foolish to most, but Jesus is no ordinary shepherd. He knew the one was worth it. I was worth it. You are worth it.
So was Lucy worth it? Even though she didn’t lavish me with affection, didn’t yet fully accept me? Even though she pushed me away? Even though it meant indefinite separation from the other loves of my life?
I looked into those deep brown eyes, full of mystery, sorrow, and yet the slightest hint of hope and light, and I said, Absolutely. Our commitment to her was being tested to the fullest extent, but our answer was still yes. We would do it all over again.
In a world that so easily throws up its hands and says, “Too hard,” and walks away, God was asking us to mirror his commitment to his people by looking at sweet Lucy and saying, “Dear one, you are not too much for us. No cost is too high; no burden too much to bear. We will fight for you, because you are worth it.”
Who knows? Maybe a day will come when Lucy walks through the pain of questions of identity. It’s almost inevitable. Maybe one day she‘ll feel sad because she looks different from us, or maybe a peer will cruelly joke about her “real parents.” Maybe it is for these moments that God created an opportunity for us to fight for her, for me to choose to stay with her rather than return to her adoptive siblings. Maybe God knew about weak times to come when she would need to know for sure that she is worth it.
I pray that she’ll be able to look back and see that at a time when she offered me nothing, I sacrificed presence with those closest to me in order to love her and bring her home. I pray that the memory of that sacrifice will draw her heart towards a Savior who also forfeited presence with the One closest to him so that he could one day bring her home, for good.