All he wanted was for their new daughter to know he loved her. Instead he scared her.
- Posted on Jan 25, 2016
For a moment I stood in the doorway of our daughter’s room, watching 18-month-old Dari and my wife, Molly, playing with blocks. Dari looked so happy.
I’d tried hard to turn the room into a little girl’s dreamscape when I knew she was coming. I’d refinished my old dresser, put up shelves that we filled with toys and books, even painted my first mural—a pink castle on lavender walls.
I took a deep breath, walked in and sat on the floor next to her. Molly nodded at me. Be gentle, I reminded myself. Speak softly.
Dari tried to stack the blocks. They tumbled over. Her brow furrowed.
“Can I build a castle with you?” I asked. I picked up a block.
Dari bolted across the room. She didn’t want anything to do with me. Just like the day she arrived.
A few weeks earlier, Dari’s social worker had brought her to our family directly from the courthouse. Molly and I had two sons, Dash, 16, and Phineas, 5. We wanted a third child, and we both felt strongly about all the kids out there who needed a home. We decided to adopt out of foster care.
We knew that our new daughter was on the way, but we hadn’t expected her this soon. There was supposed to be a gradual transition. Visits, so she could get used to us before she moved in permanently. But the judge declared Dari’s foster home unsafe. She needed to be placed in her adoptive home immediately.
Molly and I had taken all the classes our adoption agency offered. We learned about how difficult bonding can be for a child who has been traumatized by neglect, poverty, a caregiver’s instability. I’d read books and articles on the internet on parenting traumatized children, watched educational videos, asked our teachers plenty of questions. I could handle this.
I knew something about childhood trauma. My dad had been my hero. He took my sister and me to the movies every Saturday. He had the patience to play catch with us for hours. I was proud to be his right-hand man when he did repairs around the house.
I loved waiting on the front porch for him to get home from his job as a welder. He’d give me a bear hug, then go inside, take my mom in his arms and dance her around the house. An idyllic childhood.
Until my dad got mugged, when I was seven. He was beaten badly. He survived, but barely. He spent months in the hospital, then went into a rehabilitation facility. Two years later, he finally came home.
He wasn’t the same man. He was permanently disabled, his personality changed by a traumatic brain injury. He couldn’t play catch or dance with Mom anymore. The dad I knew was gone. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t wait to become a dad myself, to make up for what I’d lost.
Dari and I had something in common. I could relate to her pain. I thought it wouldn’t be hard for us to connect. That first day her big brown eyes went to the boys, then settled on Molly, who knelt and flung her arms wide. Within seconds Dari was snuggled in her embrace.
Dash introduced himself and stuck out his hand. She shook it. Phineas gave her a stuffed toy bear. She held it tightly to her chest, the corners of her mouth turning up in a shy smile.
Finally she looked at me. Her stare was intense.
I stepped closer and gave her my warmest smile. “Hello, sweetheart,” I said. “I’m so happy that you’re here.”
Dari winced. Those big eyes narrowed. She turned away and buried her face in my wife’s shoulder.
I’d scared her!
Was I too loud? I have a deep, booming voice that can fill a gymnasium. In fact, I used to work as a sports announcer. Was it my size? I’m six foot four and a big guy. My exuberance? I’d coached boys’ volleyball for years and was used to motivating my players.
I tried to tone things down around Dari. I spoke softly to her, moved gently. I respected her space and didn’t automatically grab her hand or lift her onto my lap.
The boys and their friends thought I was a fun dad. I’d shoot hoops with them, talk in funny voices that got them all laughing, even bust a dance move or two. But nothing I knew about connecting with kids worked with our new daughter.
Molly tried to reassure me. “She’ll warm up to you.”
Really? I wondered now as Dari eyed me warily from the other side of her room. That was about the only thing I’d gotten right with her. She loved her room. She just didn’t like for me to be in it.
“That’s your daddy,” I heard Molly say as I got up and left the room. “He loves you.”
God, can you help a guy out here? I asked. I’m doing all I can! Not a great prayer, but an honest one. I was stuck.
By the time she’d been with us six weeks, Dari had adjusted well to our home and our family—mostly. She ran to the boys when they got home from school. She’d been calling Molly “Mommy” almost since the first moment she heard Phineas say it. But she still cringed when I spoke. There was no calling me “Daddy.” No hugs or smiles for me.
One afternoon Molly asked me to take Dari with me while I ran errands.
“Just the two of us?” I asked.
“It’ll be a good chance to bond,” Molly said.
I parked at the bank. I unbuckled Dari from her car seat and set her gently on the sidewalk. Instead of pulling away, she wrapped her little hand around my index finger. I had the biggest grin on my face when we walked inside together.
The teller gave her a lollipop. Dari was so excited she stuck it right in her mouth, wrapper and all.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Let me help you with that, honey.” I took the lollipop.
The wail she let out! I could feel people glaring at me. Did they think I’d hurt her? Did she?
“It’s okay, honey,” I whispered in her ear. “I just have to take off the wrapper. See?” I handed the lollipop back to her.
She popped it in her mouth, but the wariness had returned to her eyes. Whatever progress we’d made, I’d just pushed the reset button. We were back to Day One.
That night I told Molly about the fiasco at the bank, how I’d literally taken candy from a baby. “It’s like I remind her of someone. Someone awful,” I said. “But I can’t change the way I look, who I am. What if Dari never learns to trust me?”
“She will,” Molly said. “You’re there for her. That’s all God asks of you right now. Don’t force it.”
Forcing it. That’s exactly what I’d been doing. Trying to make Dari like me, instead of letting her come around in her own time, in God’s time.
One evening a couple of weeks later I was dancing with Molly in the kitchen, the way my dad used to do with my mom. Our sons never bothered to watch, but I caught Dari peeking at us, smiling. Should I let on that I saw her?
Dari really liked music and dancing. Phineas would play CDs for her, and they’d rock ’n’ roll. Was this my big chance?
“Come dance with me!” I said. I held out my hand to her.
Dari startled and burst into tears. Molly stepped out of my arms and picked Dari up, rubbing her back to calm her.
I looked on, feeling like a failure. The last thing I wanted was to traumatize Dari further. I wanted to be her daddy. Her protector. In your time, Lord, not mine, I reminded myself.
The next day I was getting Phineas ready to go to soccer practice at the park. “I need to get some things done,” Molly said. “Can you take Dari?”
I wanted to take her. There was a playground near the soccer field. We could have fun. If only...
“Sure,” I said. Phineas would be there, and Dari didn’t seem to mind me so much if someone else in the family was around.
At the park Phineas ran off to practice. I looked at Dari. “Want to go to the play set?” I asked.
She nodded. There were some little girls her age playing. Soon Dari was jumping around and laughing with them. I wish I could make her laugh like that.
I looked over at the soccer field to see how Phineas was doing. Then I heard a loud male voice. A dad shouting at his girls on the play set.
That would scare Dari. I turned to look for her. Her lip trembled and she started sobbing.
I didn’t think. I just held out my arms. She jumped into them.
“Daddy!” she cried.
I wrapped my arms around her. She nestled her face into my neck and held on tight. “It’s okay,” I whispered.
Dari’s tears stopped. She pulled back a bit and met my eyes. I didn’t see fear. I saw trust. Love.
“That’s right,” I said. “Daddy’s here.”
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