Our adopted daughter's mysterious request

Illustration by Greedy Hen/The Jacky Winter Group.
Illustration by Greedy Hen/The Jacky Winter Group. 

Soon after Benjamin Ludwig got married, he and his wife adopted a 12-year-old girl. As the new family evolved, she made an unusual request.

I was used to a certain level of craziness in my life, and I liked it. Maybe it was just familiar to me. I came from a big family in which there was always something loud and emphatic going on, so it felt comfortable – normal, even – to live in the midst of hustle and bustle, to watch babies passed from person to person, to sleep over at other people's houses, and to have visitors over all the time.  

After college I became a middle-school [ages 11-13] language arts teacher – and if you know anything about education, you know it's an age of in-betweenness, where kids can run around like they're still in elementary school and then get caught smoking or making out in the bathroom. It's sort of crazy, and so I loved it. 

If an adult or child touched her on purpose without formal permission, Ariane would shriek and snarl.

It's where I first learnt about foster kids. I had children in my classes who were in foster care. I taught children who were homeless, too. Combine that awareness – the awareness that there are children in the community who don't have homes – with the familiarity and comfort of my own upbringing, and adoption just made sense.

I'd known, ever since I was a kid myself, that I wanted to have children someday. My experience in the classroom showed me that there was more than one way to go about it. Years later, when I was in my 30s, I met a woman who shared a similar desire. She and her brother had been adopted when they were kids. In fact, one of her dreams was to adopt a group of siblings. 

She was beautiful, smart and warm, and she had a red-hot name. Ember – with an E. There was nothing slow-moving or sap-like about her. Our mutual desire to adopt isn't what brought us together, but when you meet someone who shares a goal as rare and personal as that, you don't stand around wondering if you're compatible. What more was there to think about? Within six months I proposed. We married, and immediately started exploring our options.

Adoption isn't at all like you see in the movies, where a couple visits an orphanage, roams up and down an aisle of beds, then stops to gaze at a cute five-year-old holding a teddy bear. When you decide you're ready to adopt, you become a foster parent first, a process which involves taking seminars and classes, allowing social workers into your home and agreeing to extremely personal interviews. At some point, you start reading through profiles of kids, requesting more information about some.

And then you settle on one you're truly interested in. You email and talk with her social workers and current foster parents, read through counsellors' notes and legal documents, and then – if you decide you want to adopt this child about whom you still have only second-hand information – you create, for the child, a picture album/portfolio of what you and your home look like. All of which we did.

I remember the day our social worker, Karen, sat us down to talk about the child we'd selected. We looked at pictures of her holding her clarinet, posing behind too-wide glasses that made her eyes look big. Her eyes were green, like ours. We hadn't realised what colour they were until that moment. "I don't know if she's really the one for you or not – there are an awful lot of kids out there – but she'll certainly fit right in," Karen said. "People who don't know you will think she's your biological daughter."

Then Karen shared some more reports we hadn't seen. We learnt that because of her autism, she was easily tricked and taken advantage of. We learnt she'd been mistreated by adults as well as children. She'd been through a tremendous amount of trauma, none of which, even now, eight years later, is mine to share.

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But in the end we told Karen yes, this was the child we wanted to adopt, a 12-year-old, brown-haired, green-eyed girl with autism and developmental disabilities. Our main reason for choosing her was because it was unlikely that anyone else would. We wanted to be a family for someone who truly, desperately needed one. Infants and toddlers eligible for adoption get scooped up quickly. Teenagers and preteens are much more difficult to place. 

We gave Karen the picture album we'd put together. The plan: she'd present it to the child, and see if she – Ariane – wanted to meet us.

Then we learnt that my wife was pregnant. Did we want to put off adopting, Karen asked. With a baby on the way, surely we'd want to wait a year, maybe two. There'd always be plenty of teenagers in the system. In fact, Ariane would probably still be there when we were ready.

She didn't mean it that way. She didn't mean to say it was fine to make the girl wait. But that was the truth of it. The foster-care system would always be filled with teenagers hoping to be adopted, and if we were to put off our plans because of the pregnancy, Ariane – who we were already starting to envision as our daughter – would be without a home for at least two years. 

Maybe more, if we chose to adopt someone else. So we said no, thanks, we'd prefer to move forward; and in June of 2009, Ariane came to live with us, six months before our first biological child was born.

She blended in easily. She learnt the rules of the household quickly: Always tell the truth. Ask for what you need or want. Tell us when you don't feel comfortable. 

It was like teaching school, at first. She set her alarm every day so she could get up at the right time, and marked off days on the calendar. She was initially resistant to buying new clothes at first, because she'd developed a particular liking for certain shirts and pants. But we got through it. She went with us to dinners and to community events.

We brought her to playdates. Every Wednesday night I took her to Special Olympics basketball practice, where she could be a star.

Whether it was her autism or her past trauma, though, she didn't like to be touched. She was fine on the basketball court if someone bumped into her, but if an adult or child touched her on purpose without formal permission, she would shriek and snarl. It didn't take long for us to learn some rules as well, though she didn't speak them to us directly: Ask permission if you think I might want a hug. Please move slowly when you have to get close. Tell me when I'm going to be physically touched, even if it's just with an object.

By the time my wife's due-date arrived, Ariane was fully integrated into our family and community. She was excited to have a baby sister, and came to the hospital to visit the baby. There, she cooed and sang lullabies. She read her baby sister Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and got up to get items that my wife couldn't reach from the hospital bed. But when my wife asked if she wanted to hold the baby, she said no.

I was surprised, at first, but it seemed reasonable that some people might not want to hold such a tiny, fragile thing as a two-day-old child, especially someone who has issues with physical contact. My wife asked her again when we brought the baby home, but Ariane still said no. Thinking she'd come around eventually and make the request on her own, we let the matter drop. A week passed. Then two weeks. A month.

Finally, one evening after I finished feeding the baby a bottle, I decided to give it another go. I handed the baby back to my wife for burping, and said, "Ariane, would you like to hold the baby after she burps?"

"No."

"Why not?"

She hesitated. "I would like you to hold me instead."

I was stunned. "What do you mean?"

She pointed at her sister. "You could hold me like you hold her, if you want." I lifted my arms in front of me, one cradling the other.

"You mean like this?" She nodded.

"You know I'd have to touch you, right?"

"Right."

My wife shrugged. The baby burped. "Okay, then," I said. "I think I'm ready."

A moment later I was cradling a 55-kilogram, 13-year-old body in the chair. Back and forth, back and forth, more rocking than cradling, shifting my weight awkwardly left, then right in order to simulate the correct motion. The whole time, she looked up at me blankly, her arms crossed on her chest because there was no room for her to put them anywhere else.

"Well, this is nice," I said, after five minutes.

"How long do you want to keep this up?"

"One minute more," she said.

So we kept rocking, and a minute later (she lifted her wrist to check her watch) she sat up, and stood.

"Well," I said again, "how was that?"

"It was fine," she said.

She showed no sign of knowing that what she'd just done was in any way unusual, any way out of the ordinary. This was a girl who still held my hand when we walked from the parking lot to the grocery store, who confided in our two Shetland sheepdogs because they were "really good at keeping secrets". I took the opportunity to try again.

"Now do you want to try holding the baby?" I asked.

"No, thanks," she said.

And she never did. As the days and months passed, she stayed far away from her little sister. It wasn't until the baby had become a little girl that Ariane showed any interest in her.

But we wondered at the mystery of what we'd witnessed, that day in the chair. What was it, we asked ourselves, that made her want to be rocked? Was it because she hadn't been held as a child? Was it because she was feeling left out? Was she testing whether she could trust herself to hold another human being? We jumped from the arms of one theory to the lap of another, back and forth. Nothing could explain or support what had happened.

Joining people together into a family is a mysterious process. To find everyone's place in the mix, you sometimes end up trying things that feel a little awkward. But you keep trying. You try new ideas, new positions, until you find something that feels just right. 

Our daughter is 20, now. If being cradled was what she needed when she first came to live with us, it certainly isn't what she needs today. As an adult with intellectual disabilities, she depends upon a network of friends, family, and professionals to help her make good decisions, and to keep herself safe. My hope is that as new people enter into her life, they'll all continue to buoy and support her. 

Benjamin Ludwig's novel, Ginny Moon, published by HQ Fiction, is out now.