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Our Three Year Old Daughter Joins Us from Vietnam

By Marjorie Hershey

When we decided to adopt from Vietnam, we had two daughters (then 14 and 11) who were adopted domestically as newborns. But we never seriously considered adopting a baby as our third child. First, we had already had the benefit of two babyhoods, and, in our 40s, had no major desire for a third experience. (Besides, our second child had a really tough first year and a half, which we'll always remember!) And second, because our other daughters were already at least pre-teens, we wanted our third child to be close enough to them in age so that they would relate to one another truly as sisters. So we asked our agency to find us a pre-schooler.

If we had adopted domestically the third time, I would not have considered an "older child." American children who are placed for adoption after their first few years of life are normally adoptable because of real challenges in their birth families, typically involving child neglect or abuse. If we had no other children, we might have been willing to deal with that. But we had two daughters who would, after all, be this new person's sisters a lot longer than we would be his or her parents, and we did not want to create a problem that they would have to deal with throughout their lives.

In contrast, "older children" are placed for adoption in Vietnam for much more benign reasons -- because of poverty, or a new pregnancy, or the illness or death of a birth parent. The risk of adopting an older child with real behavioral problems, then, seemed to be lower in Vietnam than in the U.S.

Our daughter Lani was three and a half when she came home to us on Christmas eve, 1993. She was a very tiny, grumpy little bundle of itchy spots with a bad haircut. She looked at us balefully. She didn't speak a word of English, and not a whole lot of words of Vietnamese, either.

Within ten minutes, she was smiling and laughing, thanks to her two big sisters, who lifted her off her feet and onto a moving sidewalk at O'Hare Airport. Her early training was a blessing. When we strapped her into her car seat for the long ride home, I gave her a box of crackers, on the chance that she hadn't had much to eat. She opened it as though it were filled with the most precious delicacies, and then would not eat one until she had given both of her sisters a cracker apiece. We began to see, right away, that orphanage life must have had some good points.

When we got home, we could also see that our fears about the language difference were completely unfounded. If we had felt the need to discuss modern philosophy with Lani, then I guess her lack of English and our lack of Vietnamese would have been a problem. But it turned out that most of our discussions revolved around food and toys, both of which could be displayed and pointed to with ease.

In those first few days, she retrieved one of the very few possessions she had in Vietnam -- a big handkerchief, which she expertly fastened to her shirt with a safety pin. She then used the handkerchief to wipe her face when she ate, and after dinner she moved a chair over to the sink, got on the chair, turned on the water, washed the handkerchief, and hung it over the back of the chair to dry. We were flabbergasted. Here was this three-feet-tall person taking full charge of her mealtime behavior. We remembered other three-year-olds in our house who had trouble being persuaded to wipe up their spills, much less clean the cloth they had used to do the wiping!

I don't mean to dismiss the potential problems of adopting an older child. Some families have adopted older children who have found it difficult to form family attachments. My sense is that these attachment problems have been found disproportionately in kids coming from orphanages in Eastern Europe and Russia. We are close friends with two other families who have adopted older kids from Vietnam, and none of us have had attachment problems with our children.

There's also the fact that an older child may have had physical or health problems prior to the adoption, and little or no medical care. The thought of these problems wasn't a deterrent to me in adopting an older child. We have several friends who have homegrown children with health problems, and it's always been clear to me that these little folks, no matter how they come to you, do not come with warrantees. Just as you do with your own genetic background and early circumstances, you take what you are given and go from there!

Lani, thank heaven, had no serious medical problems. She came with scabies and several kinds of intestinal parasites, but these, while gross and extremely memorable, are trivial and short-lived problems. Her baby teeth were very weak, as is true of many children whose birth mothers did not have an adequate diet and whose early life was spent without fluoridated water. Neither of our older daughters has ever had a cavity. Lani has had lots. But once her adult teeth began to come in, our family dentist made sure that they were zapped with fluoride treatments and sealants and all the other wonders of modern dentistry, and they're fine.

She also had difficulty remembering things, which I imagine is related to her early nutrition. We've helped her make up for it by teaching her ways to memorize words and names by linking them with other words and names. She hasn't completely overcome the problem, but she started life with another quality that helps her to deal with it and virtually everything else. She works hard. She understands that what she gets depends on what she gives. It's a quality I wish I could bottle and sell to the parents of teenagers all over the U.S.

Of course I regret not knowing Lani during her first three and a half years. But there's a special joy in adopting a child of that age. I may not have been able to guide her as an infant and toddler, but the people who did guide her ought to be proud of the job they did! Besides, it was such fun getting to know Lani's interests and talents! Babies are adorable, but they're kind of like a wrapped package. You have to wait for a while to see what's inside.

Lani at almost 4 already had an affinity for some things more than others. She liked gymnastics, but was a little shy about it. She loved karate, and took to it right away. She thought the violin was nice to look at, but the piano was more fun to play. She was generous and sweet, very concerned about keeping things clean and organized, and able to relate to any child -- again, a talent that orphanage life may have helped her develop.

I think one of the biggest challenges parents face is learning to let our children be independent. We've had lots of experiences, and we have lots of expectations, and it's good that we can use those to create a learning environment for our children. But in some families, those parental expectations can become a prison for kids, and the resulting rejection and conflict can be terribly painful.

One of the best things about adoption is that as parents, we have reason to be a little more accepting of their differences. We are in a position to be able to appreciate that children are formed BOTH by environment and by heredity. I think that's great for us, and great for our kids. They can have room to explore their own individual gifts without feeling that they are carrying out Mom's talent for piano or Dad's competitiveness, with all the comparisons that that implies. Instead, they can express their OWN talents and qualities, in which their parents can take great pride.

So it was a special gift to me to be able to adopt an "older" child. We could offer Lani a whole range of things -- sports and instruments to play, crafts to make, people to play with, music to listen to -- and see where her talents lay. Then we could help her develop those interests and skills, and look forward to seeing what came next.

I think a lot of potential adoptive parents hold preconceptions that keep them from considering adopting an older child. That's a shame, because I think those preconceptions are largely unjustified. I'd be glad to talk with anyone who has questions about these issues. Thanks for your time and interest!

Read another Vietnam adoption story


Marjorie Hershey is the mom of three daughters, ages 9, 15, and 19. She is a Girl Scout leader and involved in other community activities.Her husband teaches genetics at Indiana University, and she teaches political science there. As professor of political science, Marjorie specializes in American politics, political parties and interest groups. She can be reached at <hershey@indiana.edu>.


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