Today we have another installment in our series of interviews with inspiring working moms. But this one is a little different – and completely fascinating. Zeena Dhalla and her husband adopted their daughter from India, and she was generous enough to share the story of their international adoption process.
I suspect this is a subject a lot of parents are curious about, or have considered at some point. Zeena was really candid and open-hearted during our talk; she answered even our most ignorant questions with humor and kindness. So if you’ve ever wanted the straight scoop on adopting a baby from another country, read on!
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Work Kids Wine: Thank you so much for doing this. To kick this off, we’re going to ask something probably everyone asks you: How long did the adoption process take, from start to finish?
Zeena Dhalla: It took one year and ten months from the time my husband and I attended our first meeting, to the time we came home with our daughter. The process has changed a little since our adoption was completed though, and now all adoptive parents have to go through a Central Adoption Resource Authority in India. That entity assigns you to a particular orphanage.
WKW: Do you think your wait time was typical?
ZD: It’s hard to say what’s “typical”. I know someone who waited four years. The process is not for the faint of heart.
WKW: Four years!
ZD: Yes. We had a false start, which contributed to our wait.
WKW: Can you tell us about that, and sort of lay out the steps you had to take?
ZD: Sure! To begin with, it took us about five months to complete the paperwork. I know that sounds crazy but the paperwork is very difficult. A lot of it has to be notarized and authenticated by an apostille. It takes a lot of coordination. (Editor’s Note: Apostille authentication is sort of like having something double-notarized; it’s a level of authentication sometimes required when transferring documents to another country. You can read more here.)
Once the paperwork is done, you “get in line” to be matched with a baby. My husband and I got pushed to the front of the line because we are of Indian descent, and we were immediately matched with a baby boy. We were absolutely thrilled.
Six weeks later we got a video of the baby from another family visiting the orphanage in India. I have to tell you, I watched it and my heart dropped. He was five months old, and in the video he couldn’t hold up his head. My husband and I immediately knew something was wrong.
We got a second video and saw the same thing, and upon our request the agency was able to get the baby some medical testing. We learned he had a form of encephalopathy, and his prognosis was not good.
After we received the information about his health, we did a lot of soul searching and crying and talking. We decided to call off the adoption. [Here Zeena took a long pause, and I took a very deep breath. Clearly, even many years, later, this is very difficult for her to discuss.] We’d had a baby shower planned for two days later, and we called off the adoption and cancelled the shower.
WKW: I am so sorry.
ZD: Me too. The agency was great about it though. They totally understood and empathized with our decision, and we went back on the list. Three months later we were matched with our daughter.
WKW: And this time it was smooth sailing.
ZD: Long but smooth. The paperwork took an additional eight months from the time we were matched, and we got pictures and videos regularly during that entire time.
WKW: That must have been reassuring.
ZD: It was very reassuring until she turned one. Right around that 12-month mark, you could see she’d stopped thriving. She didn’t look happy in pictures anymore, and she wasn’t gaining much weight. The Ayahs [caregivers] at the orphanage were wonderful but you have to understand the babies at this particular orphanage are living in cribs. They didn’t get tummy time, crawling time, exploring time. Perhaps if they were at a fully functioning orphanage, things might be different.
WKW: Oh my.
ZD: Yes, and I really didn’t allow myself to connect to the baby during this time period. I was still grieving our original failed placement, and I was so worried about something going wrong again.
WKW: I can totally understand that. So what was it like when you finally got to go pick her up?
ZD: It was crazy! You’re prepped for what size clothing to bring, what bottles to bring, and what kind of foods she’s been eating…but all of that kind of goes out the window once you actually have the baby in your arms! After we got her, we stayed in India three additional days to get her passport. We picked her up on a Monday afternoon and left the country on Friday morning. Then we had to face two ten-hour back-to-back plane rides with a baby who barely knew us, and who had really never spent much time outside a single room. That was tough. I joke that that experience was my equivalent of labor.
WKW: I am trying to visually picture this, and all I can say is it sounds wild.
ZD: Yep. We knew so little about her then. When we were at the orphanage, we asked the Ayahs if she could crawl and they said, “We think so!” But she didn’t crawl at all those three days we were in India together, so we assumed she didn’t know how. Then, in the London airport in between flights, we put her down on the floor and she started to crawl away! We were really just learning about each other!
WKW: Before your “gotcha” day, what did you anticipate being the biggest challenge once you were all home together? And were you right?
ZD: We anticipated that attachment would be the most challenging part, and that sleep would be hard. We were right, and in fact it was way harder than we thought. The conventional wisdom is that attachment takes half the time that the child was in the orphanage. Our daughter was abandoned at birth, and at 13 months she was taken from the only home she ever knew. Her attachment issues lasted much longer than half of that thirteen month time period.
It’s very common in situations like this that the baby resists attaching, because she’s afraid she’s going to be abandoned again. The symptoms are very similar to what a normal two-year-old is like, but much more extreme. Defiance and control issues are huge.
WKW: This sounds so hard, for both you and your daughter. What did you do?
ZD: We had a social worker for six months after the adoption, and she advised us to co-sleep. We tried it for six weeks but really weren’t comfortable with it, and tried sleep training, which never worked (she would scream and scream and just couldn’t calm herself down).
We ended up going to an attachment therapist after a year because we just couldn’t get the sleeping and tantrums under control. (And as a side note, I really recommend Beyond Logic, Consequences, and Control by Heather Forbes. It’s an amazing resource for any parent with a child who has a trauma-based background.)
About six months after attachment therapy, our daughter’s separation anxiety got worse. That’s a good sign, it means she is attaching. Her separation anxiety went on for about three years after that.
WKW: Oh my goodness. Three years?
ZD: Yep. Here’s a typical example. When she was five years old, we took her to an Angels baseball game. At one point I got up to go the concession stand and left her with my husband. After just a minute or two, she panicked. Her heart rate went up, she started to sweat. My husband picked her up and they came to find me, and the entire time she kept repeating, “We’re never going to find Mommy again. She’s lost. We’re never going to find her again.”
WKW: That story is crushing. Let’s talk about something a little more mundane. Before you brought your daughter home, did you have a plan in place for returning to your usual work schedule? And how did that play out?
ZD: [Laughs.] Before gotcha day, I worked full-time as a Pilates instructor for YogaWorks. Previously I’d owned my own business, but in anticipation of the adoption I sold my business and took a more typical job because the hours would be a lot more manageable than my hours as an entrepreneur. I planned to take three full months off, then come back part-time, with my mom and my husband being caregivers while I was at work.
WKW: How did it go?
ZD: Not well. Again, remember, this was a baby who had been in one room for basically the entire first year of her life, so even leaving the house once a day was incredibly overwhelming. Transitioning back and forth to her grandma’s house so I could go to work was just not doable for her.
Basically, she wanted me, and she wanted to be in our house. This was actually really hard on me; I am not a natural homebody and being more or less housebound made me sad.
I ended up adjusting my schedule so I only worked one day a week (and I needed that one day a week for my mental sanity!). After a year, I went back three days a week. I totally respect stay-at-home moms but I am not cut out for that.
After that year at home, childcare was more of an option. We arranged for our daughter to attend an in-home daycare, then a Montessori school that was really willing to work with us. They made sure she was in the same room with the same teacher for two full years, which was a big deal.
WKW: Here’s a big question: What would you tell other parents considering international adoption?
ZD: In my opinion, you’re likely to face many fewer developmental challenges if you have the baby from birth. Originally I was fearful of domestic open adoption, but I’d strongly consider that now. My child is my child, and our bond is so deep that I would not feel threatened by having my child’s biological mother in my life.
Also, you should be prepared to have one parent at home for a while. It might be OK for both parents to return to work after some leave, but you can’t count on it.
WKW: What advice would you give yourself at the beginning of the adoption process, knowing what you know now?
ZD: I’d tell myself this: Control less, love more. I am kind of a naturally controlling person, and that part of my personality just didn’t function well in this situation. And for sure, I would have taken the advice to co-sleep.
Also, I believe adoption is not natural. It’s beautiful, but it’s not natural. I didn’t have those postpartum hormones flowing through my body, and I adopted a one-year-old, not a little baby. Newborns are designed to be bonded with – their little bodies just want to be held and carried around. This isn’t true of an active one-year-old. I think it’s very important to be realistic and realize that to some degree, you are fighting nature. So you have to work a little harder and parent a little differently.
WKW: Anything else you want to share with us?
ZD: People have a very romanticized view of what this looks like. And it really is amazing. But go in with your eyes wide-open: there will be challenges. We’re part of a group of five families who adopted babies from India; all the children are roughly the same age. We get together about once a month. And every other family in that group had some type of attachment challenges.
I would encourage families to plan for this, and to save or set aside some money to spend on family therapy if it’s needed.
WKW: Zeena, we can’t thank you enough for talking with us.
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Zeena has returned to her entrepreneurial roots and now works as a posture coach and wellness trainer (check out her website at www.VerticAlign.com!). She has kindly agreed to give us some pointers, specifically geared towards moms who spend a lot of time in front of their computers and/or a lot of time carrying a baby! Check back next week for that.