My last memory of Hungary was the final meeting where Ellie became legally mine. I had to grip the table to avoid standing up and saying, "No! No! I can't do this." Fortunately the Hungarian authorities were intimidating enough to keep me in my seat.
Then off we went on a night flight back -- Ellie's first plane ride. (She was terrified of planes for months afterward, since her first experience with them had taken her away from everything she knew.) The following 12 months were among the hardest I have ever known. Ellie, frustrated by her inability to communicate, grieving at the loss of her entire prior life and trying to belong in a family where the bonds had formed over time, became filled with rage and expressed it by hitting and biting Michaela and me. As is true for many adopted toddlers, Ellie was charming and gracious with strangers, leading them, I am sure, to think my reports of her aggressiveness were completely exaggerated.
Finally I got serious about understanding what was going on. I went to the Barnes & Noble that is open till midnight, picked 20 books from the shelf on adoption and sat at a reading table for three hours until I found the one book that clarified all of this:
Adopting Toddlers. It explained the rage (actually grief), the acting out and what I had to do about it, namely, set the same limits I would for any other child behaving this way. This book was a real turning point for me, because it encouraged me to respond naturally and appropriately to Ellie's behavior, and suggested that over time the intensity would diminish. I tried to teach Michaela to defend herself, but she is a natural pacifist and it was hard for her to learn. Today she is a much stronger person for having discovered how to protect her own boundaries, but I felt tremendous guilt about putting her through this. Today I don't; she has forgiven Ellie and become a more compassionate six-year-old as a result of this experience. To this day, however, I will intervene when they squabble if Ellie acts physically aggressive; I came to feel that Michaela must be able to count on my protection against abuse in her own home.
We are a happy family now. One lovely Irish six-year-old and one five-year-old Hungarian beauty, who love and compete with each other, get mad and make up -- in short, a real and loving family. Michaela, who is learning to write, sent her sister a love letter last week. Ellie seemed unimpressed, but Walli (our wonderful nanny) and I were bawling.
To this point, we have had a child therapist, a close collaboration with her school and a shift system for two nannies, because Ellie would be too much for a full week's stretch at a time. My trainer, a man whose background is in social counseling, became Ellie's father figure; Michaela's grandparents adopted Ellie as well. I have engaged everyone in my life. Many of you have nuclear or constructed extended families to fill these roles. A team is what's needed, however it gets put together. Even if I did not work at all, I would not have been able to do this without a team.
The girls and I recently decided to add two more children to our family. We are debating between Hungary and Vietnam, babies or toddlers. We know we want two girls. It is a measure of how rewarding the harder road can be, choosing richness over simplicity or convenience, that we would try this again despite all of the difficulties.
When I left home this morning, the two girls were doing a dance routine, laughing and prancing about to Michaela's favorite music group, 'Nsync, blaring in our living room. I am grateful every day for following my instincts and to the women of iVillage for helping me do so.