In 2008, we decided to adopt. At first, like many couples who hear of the dreaded “one child” policy, I wanted to adopt from China. However, when we contacted our agency, the wait for a Chinese baby was four years. Instead we decided to go the quickest and most affordable route.
And so, several months — and a lot of paperwork — later, we got our referral photo from Ethiopia. She was a 14-pound two-year-old with a large head and twiggy arms. She was wearing camouflage, and it was noted on her file that she had experienced “extreme starvation.”
In retrospect, she wasn’t that cute, but we were blinded by love and adoration. My son, who was eight at the time, printed off her photo and took it proudly to school.
“Is that a girl?” a classmate asked. “Are you sure?”
On the way home from school, my son was devastated. “Why does she wear boys’ clothes if she’s really a girl?” he asked, his pride pricked by his friends’ doubt. “Are we sure?”
We weren’t. As with everything adoption-related, it’s hard to know much with certainty. Information is hard to come by. Language barriers and other factors make it hard to really figure out the truth. It’s an exercise in trusting God’s sovereignty.
A year and a half ago, my family traveled to Africa and met two-year-old Konjit, an apt name which means “beautiful.” My blonde-headed kids were amazed at her rich, brown skin and her dark-brown fuzz on the top of her head. The orphanage had shaved her hair off almost completely. It was probably a good thing — so much was changing in our family. I cannot imagine actually getting a new kid and learning how to feed, bathe, and take care of her exotic hair without sharing the same language.
I’ve always been the type of mother who resists pink for girls. When my first baby was born, I dressed her in greens and purples. I didn’t love the smocking and the frilly diaper covers. I didn’t tape bows to her bald head.
But when I first saw Konjit, she was wearing a Batman T-shirt that had come from America’s refuse pile. Although the orphanage was well-run and clean, my time in Africa sobered me. I’d never seen “absolute poverty” and couldn’t imagine that my daughter had almost starved to death. I’ve said that thing before (“I’m starving!”) when my meal was delayed by a few minutes. But I’d never really thought about the hyperbole that so easily came from my mouth. And I’d never seen the inside of an orphanage. I’d never seen people who literally didn’t even own the ugly clothing on their backs.
Suddenly, I wanted her to have something pink. Something clean. Something expensive. Something stunning.
I went out to the various stores that the city had to offer. I couldn’t find anything that would really work. The only shoes I could find — to replace the generic Crocs all of the orphans wore — were these gorgeous floral Swiss clogs. They were so beautiful — yellow flowers with greenery around them. They were also tall and dangerous for a little one to walk in. Not having another option, I bought them and presented them to her at our next meeting.
That’s the sound she made when she saw them. She didn’t know English, but that one gasp spoke volumes. The bright colors, the shape, the sheer beauty of the shoes thrilled her.
That’s when Konjit discovered the joy of pretty things.
Since then, she’s doubled her weight, grown five inches in a year, and learned English. But the one thing that has never changed is her absolute love of clothing. Every day when she comes home from school, she asks, “Can I go change clothes?”
It’s not uncommon to see her in four or five different outfits a day. She loves her skirts depending on how they twirl. She zips her sweaters only to a certain point, to reveal just a smidge of the shirt underneath. She has a favorite pair of boots that clip-clop on our new hardwood floors with every step — something that recently almost drove me to insanity.
“Naomi,” I said sternly. This is the new first name we chose to go with her African name. It means “pleasant.”
“You’ve either got to stand still or take off those boots.”
She stood still, right in that spot for a very long time, motionless.
As I looked at that little brown girl trying too hard to maintain the style and beauty of those little brown boots, I smiled. And I finally said, “Okay, go ahead and run around.”
My reluctant permission was like a gunshot at a race. She smiled and ran around the house with even more joy. And with every clomp, she drove poverty and death a little further back into her past.
— Nancy French is the editor of the Faith and Family portal at Patheos, where this article first appeared.