Dear Adoptive Parents: It’s OK To Make Mistakes

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Meeting Our Adoptive Daughter

“On the first day my husband and I brought our adopted daughter Mitzi home from China, she fell down a flight of wooden stairs while we were distracted…

Mitzi had been placed into our arms just two weeks earlier in Yangzhou. She was a little over 14 months old, and our bond was instantaneous. I had been worried I wouldn’t feel a connection to her. My parental instincts had kicked in later in my life: I’d never been pregnant, never thought I would have children, and was focused on my career, until one day in my late 30’s I woke up wanting to be a mother. By that point, I had missed my window to have a biological child. So my husband and I chose international adoption, and we decided on China because of my Asian heritage.

mother sitting with her adopted baby in her lap
Courtesy of Laverne McKinnon

Those first two weeks together in China were idyllic and romantic.

We had no responsibilities other than showing up to the appointments and excursions the adoption agency had made for us. We got to visit the Social Welfare Institute where Mitzi grew up from the time she was two days old. We saw the crib where she slept, the toys she played with, the ‘secret’ drawer where they kept crackers for the kids to snack on, and met the Nannies who deeply cared for her. It was moving to see how much they loved her, and I think they were grateful to meet us – her forever family.

We visited parks and temples, and shopped; I couldn’t stop myself from buying her dozens of shoes. They were just too cute!

We spent a lot of time watching Mitzi eating her favorite food, watermelon, playing peek-a-boo games, singing ‘Hey Jude’ to her, and hanging in the hotel room. We were falling in love. The biggest surprise we had on the day we met Mitzi was that she was already walking and running.

adopted daughter at play place in China with mother standing nearby
Courtesy of Laverne McKinnon

I had imagined she would be more like a ‘baby-baby’ rather than a toddler. The photos sent to us when the match was first made showed her at 11 months old. She was healthy, able to stand, and active. It didn’t occur to me that, by the time we adopted her, she would be walking at 14 months old. And boy, that girl could move!

On our flight home from China, Mitzi slept in my arms the entire way.

That flight from Guangzhou to the States was one of the happiest times of my life. I was holding her in my arms, smelling her sweetness, soaking up her warm body, feeling the love soften my heart after years of broken trust and disappointments. She was bringing hope back into my life.

mother holding adopted baby against her chest on a train
Courtesy of Laverne McKinnon

The Falling Incident

The first morning we were home in Los Angeles, I carelessly took my eyes off Mitzi when I called the pediatrician to make an appointment for a check-up, and that’s when she toddled away and fell down the stairs.

My husband was also on his phone, chatting with his sister about how ecstatic we were to be back with our little girl. We both literally had taken our eyes off the prize for a brief moment.

I’ll never forget the rhythmic bump, bump, bump I heard while on hold with the receptionist. There were a few seconds of silence, and then Mitzi screaming. I hung up, ran to the door of the basement, and saw her at the bottom of the stairs, lying on her side, her face red and splotchy, mouth wide open screaming and tears. There were so many tears.

adopted daughter sitting on the floor eating watermelon
Courtesy of Laverne McKinnon

Unfortunately, I’m not great when sh*t hits the fan. I didn’t know if I should pick her up, how to tell how badly she was injured, or whether to call 911.

Here’s the thing: we live in the hills above Hollywood at the end of a long, single lane road in an area called Laurel Canyon. Our street is narrow with hair-pin turns. On any other day, it’s lovely and bucolic. That day, it was a nightmare; I didn’t have confidence an ambulance could get to our home quickly, and I was terrified Mitzi might have an internal injury and waiting would be life-threatening. I was frozen in fear.

This is what I now know about crisis. Three things happen:

  1. A threat is determined.
  2. The part of our brain called the amygdala kicks into high gear and releases hormones to help the body prepare to manage the threat.
  3. Our bodies have a biological reaction from the rush of hormones flooding through us which tees up a fight, flight or freeze response.

That fight, flight, or freeze response can equal success or failure.

After I flew down the stairs and was next to Mitzi, I was physically frozen. My thoughts were jumbled (pick her up, don’t touch her, call 911, not enough time, take her to the hospital, wait it out, how do I pick her up, don’t hurt her, where is she hurt) and within all those thoughts, the emotions of fear and panic escalated.

I don’t recall how the decision was made to go the emergency room and not wait for an ambulance. My husband says when I got to the bottom of the stairs he was looking into Mitzi’s eyes to see if he could identify a concussion. He also says he suggested we take her to the emergency room just in case. My recollection of that doesn’t exist at all, but I also know memory is deeply flawed, especially during traumatic times.

adopted daughter wearing traditional Chinese clothing
Courtesy of Laverne McKinnon

I do recall how I debated on whether I should put her in the car seat. Will that hurt her more? Do I keep her on my lap? I put her in the car seat and then oddly sat in the front seat and not next to her where I could have checked on and comforted her.

Full blown panic had sunk in: I couldn’t breathe properly, I was sweating profusely, I had tunnel vision, and it was like the sound dropped out and the world was on mute.

I don’t recall the drive to Cedars Sinai Hospital. My husband says he was going as fast as he could without being reckless.

Hospital Evaluation

Thankfully the ER team got us in right away. As we sat there, waiting to hear from the doctor, my brain started to compute what happened. We should have called 911. We should have waited for professional help. What if moving her injured her more?

It hit me hard: I was an irresponsible, horrible parent who clearly had no practical knowledge of childhood development. I was an idiot who should have prepared our home properly for our daughter. I was beyond clumsy and stupid for not watching her like an eagle 24/7 until we could properly child proof our home. I was absolutely incapable of being a parent, despite having an MBA and a ridiculous amount of privilege. Not only did we not deserve to be Mitzi’s parents, we were a liability.

I waited for the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to arrive. I wondered if they would take her away from us. If they did, would we be able to say goodbye? Would she be sent back to China? Would they give us a second chance? Could we take parenting classes and redeem ourselves? Would they allow visitation?

I had made one of, if not the biggest, mistake a parent could make: I was irresponsible.

Finally, the doctor came. Mitzi was okay, no injuries at all. ‘Babies and toddlers bounce.’ He was kind and compassionate.

adopted daughter walking down a tile hallway in pink overalls
Courtesy of Laverne McKinnon

No one from DCFS came to take our child away.

It’s now 17 years later, and I haven’t forgiven myself. I understand what happened and how it happened and took immediate action to rectify the situation, but it doesn’t make it right. I was clumsy and careless.

Mitzi doesn’t remember any of this. She recently graduated from high school and is healthy, strong, thoughtful, and discovering what she wants to do with her life. It’s beautiful to witness her.

Giving Myself Grace

There’s this concept I learned from one of the people who helped us adopt Mitzi. It’s called the Invisible Red Thread. The sentiment is this: people who belong together – whether it’s parent and child, employer and employee, husband and wife, student and professor, friends, lovers, neighbors – are bound together by an invisible red thread, and nothing will ever sever this thread (not time, distance, or circumstance).

I can feel the invisible red thread that binds Mitzi and I together. The circumstance of her fall down the stairs didn’t sever it… nor the time my husband and I separated (and then reconciled), nor the adoption of a second child that triggered Mitzi’s abandonment issues, nor my workaholic nature. Her growing independence, and not-too-in the distance future move to Europe, will also not sever it.

As parents we make mistakes, big and small, and it’s okay. Give yourself grace.”

mother and adopted daughter at high school graduation
Courtesy of Laverne McKinnon

This article was submitted to Love What Matters by Laverne McKinnon. You can follow her on Instagram. Join the Love What Matters family and subscribe to our newsletter.

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