On one of our first days as mother and son, Daniel asked me to make him some tea. (We were already speaking a homemade language of Amharic + English + Gesturing + Guessing) I made him some tea, but he grimaced and pushed the cup away. One of the lovely young women who worked in the guest house we were still staying in stepped in, quietly talked with Daniel in Amharic, and then made him some tea the way he wanted. She poured in hot water, adding 4-5 spoonfuls of sugar, and then poured the tea from one cup to another until it was cool enough to drink. He tasted it and smiled wide. I held back tears and made a mental note. Tea: lots of sugar, not too hot.
When you adopt an older child, you have to get used to not being the one who knows your child best. This is really hard for mommies especially, I think. We are conditioned to think that Mom= Expert. And for most mothers, that is true. When you've held your child in your womb for 10 months and when you are the one with the milk and the good smell and the voice your child is used to hearing, you are the expert.
It is so different when your "new baby" is 5 years old and everyone else, it seems, knows him better. The nannies at the care center know his favorite foods and songs. His friends know his favorite games and his secret fears. His social worker knows his history. Even the housekeeper at the guest house is able to figure out how he likes his tea. Then then there are all the unknowns that will never be known. Both my children have marks and scars on their bodies that no-one was able to tell us the origin of. Only their mother in heaven knows what they were like as babies, what songs they were soothed with and what little games they liked to play.
The trouble is, you have to let all this go. You have to acknowledge the unknowns and the fact that you are the Second Mother, and then move on. You can't let your crappy, clumsy position in your child's universe get in the way of being the best mother you can be in that moment. You've got to claw your way up into the Mommy position. And it takes a long time.
I took lots of (quiet, secret) mental notes in those first few weeks. This is how he likes his tea, this is what he likes to eat for breakfast, this is scary, this is soothing, this is funny. I studied how to be HIS mother; I learned to be a Daniel expert.
Two years later, I'm still learning. Just this week I finally put some things together and realized that small scrapes and 'boo-boos' are huge trauma triggers for him. He can climb trees and jump and bang and collide and be completely fearless, but as soon as a tiny scratch appears he is a helpless, inconsolable toddler. Sometime in his past he got a boo-boo and cried, and no-one came to kiss it. An unknown that is still haunting him. I wish I could call upon all the women in the world who are Daniel experts and have a conference. We would all sit together over coffee and they would help me learn how to heal this wound. Instead, I will have to use my imagination, and my "mommy instincts", and just wing it.
The good news is, you don't have to get the tea just right the first time. You can kiss a lot of boo-boos before the healing starts to work. And that is okay. It's just fine. It's worth the wait.