When I was waiting to adopt my first child from China in 1999, I read story after story in online forums about the infamous “clothing police” I was sure to encounter on my adoption trip. I was warned about grannies who would come up and yell at me or wag their fingers if my child-to-be wasn’t covered from head to toe even if I thought the outside air temperature seemed fine.
Well, now I can say that many of the clothing police are women I greatly admire. They are devoted foster moms and grandmas and orphanage nannies who have watched far too many children over the years struggle with issues like pneumonia and fevers when they fall sick. As I’ve already covered in my last two posts, many orphanages and foster homes don’t have central heating, and even in the southern provinces of China, the orphanages are quite cold at times. To protect children from the cold and becoming more vulnerable to infection, they are bundled, almost from the very moment that they come into the world.
It is not uncommon for children in orphanages to wear a coat 24/7. Kids will nap in them, eat in them, sleep through the night in them. It is a very familiar site in rural areas to see children toddling around looking like the Michelin man, bundled in 5, 6, or even more layers to keep them warm. We often play a game when we get in foster care photos where we try to guess the number of layers depending on how far out to the sides a child’s arms are sticking. This is the “norm” for many children, and while some kids might look red faced or even sweaty, that is what they are used to. There is a comfort in being bundled as it is often all they have ever known.
Many parents feel a real need to strip down their children almost immediately upon receiving them, however. It is common on blogs for parents to comment that their children were “sweating to death” or so bundled that the parents worried about possible heatstroke. They remove all the layers as quickly as possible and feel a need to wash off all the smells and scents that could very well have been a comfort to the child. It can be extremely stressful for a child to have lost everything that was known to them, and then lose all their clothing as well. Of course each situation is different, and so parents need to watch their child’s signals very carefully.
Each orphanage handles the clothing for adoption day differently. Some save new clothing donated by parents until this special day, and so the outfit the child is wearing is brand new to them and might hold no sentimental value. But some clothing might be very important to a child. For example, one little girl was in foster care, and the very last special day she had with her foster mom was going to the store to buy a new pair of shoes for her adoption day. Those shoes meant the world to the little girl, as it was the last memory she had of the only mom she had known. She clung to those shoes, and even wanted to wear them to sleep in. How wonderful that her new parents recognized quickly that these shoes must have held a very special meaning to their new daughter, and they didn’t make any efforts to make her remove them.
The clothes your new child arrives in might look ragged or worn or even dirty, but remember that they might be a piece of comfort to your child that will be very important during those first days together. I once read a blog where the mom was complaining about how the sweater her daughter was wearing had a terrible smell that she couldn’t stand to be around, and so she stripped it off her daughter and washed it in the hotel sink. Well, of course her daughter had a complete melt down. It reminded me of my own children, most of whom had beloved blankies as toddlers, and woe to the person who tried to take it from them to put in the washing machine. I had one son who would drag his blanket around the house as soon as it came out of the dryer to try to make it “smell right” again. Part of his comfort was in the smell it carried when it had been loved for a few days (AKA, when I thought it smelled terrible). So any new parent needs to remember the deep importance of smell to many children, and perhaps not rush to immediately wash off every scent that the child carries with them to adoption day.
Every child handles this day differently, of course, but just remind yourself before you walk into the building to meet him or her for the first time that your child is about to lose everything they have known. The only concrete and material thing from her past life could very well be the clothing on her back or the shoes upon his feet. Watch their cues carefully on how important those items might be to them. If having to snuggle your new child in a stinky sweater is all that your child asks of you in those first few days together, then just take a deep breath and give thanks. Just as that item brings comfort to your child right now, you will soon be her biggest comfort in the world.
Don’t be in a rush to wash off all she has known. You have the rest of your lives together, don’t you?
Amy Eldridge is the Chief Executive Officer of Love Without Boundaries, a non-profit organization providing educational, foster care, healing homes, medical and nutritional support to thousands of children throughout China.