Realistic Expectations: Clothing

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, Executive Director

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8 Comments to “Realistic Expectations: Clothing”

  1. The Gang's Momma 26 April 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Thank you for such a great article. So good to know. I wish I had been more patient with our first adoption introduction – I am guilty of the de-layering as quickly as I could get to it with our Li’l E. Thankfully, it didn’t seem to be too traumatic for her that day but afterwards, I realized that my actions in those early hours of our meeting were more about me than about her. Will be taking this with me now, as we move to our next adoption.

  2. Ann Ozawa 26 April 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    Thank you. These posts are so valuable. I love the photos of the bundled children.

    We were in Lanzhou in 2006 to meet our daughter. We had her out and about one day and found ourselves surrounded by older women doing their best to make sure our daughter was covered and had her cheeks properly squeezed and generally fussed over.

    I though it was wonderful and a very open show of how much older Chinese people value little children. Our guide came over and waded through the crowd to ask if we were okay. I replied that we were wonderful. Our daughter smiled the whole time and seemed to very much enjoy the attention.

    I felt so sad for what she was losing as we got on that bus to leave her province. I took a moment to wisper a thank you all those who had cared so much for her, even strangers.

  3. Amy Murphy 27 April 2012 at 6:15 am #

    We traveled in the summer, so our son was not layered when we got him, nor did we have anyone come up to us to make sure he was properly clothed (as I thought we would have.) He did, however, come to us wearing a very cute pair of girl’s capris. Haha!

  4. ising2dlord 27 April 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    This is so true. We adopted two at the same time. Our four year old daughter came with new clothes, coat and shoes…she was sooo proud of them. Her nannies loved her very much and wanted her to look nice. Our son came in very dirty, very small clothes. He stank. But, I let him wear his clothes TWO DAYS in a row without changing because he was having trouble adjusting and did not want to part with them. I was just hoping that the hotel staff and everyone in our travel group understood. After a couple days he was willing to get a bath and I saved his clothes and let him hold on to them. When I got back I home and he longer drug them around with him, I washed them and put them away in a box of things I kept for him. The stench was just something small to put up with to ensure his feeling of safety. We stayed in our hotel room mostly.

    Our daughter, who was bundled head to toe, we kept her bundled. It was really funny to me when a group of older ladies came up to me and one told me I needed to put “two clothes” on her. She had a pair of thick sweat pants on and two layers up top with a coat and it was 72 degrees outside! Lol… I told her ok that I would take care of it and thanked her. Like the article pointed out, many do not have heat so this is very commonplace. This lady did not want our daughter to get sick. She only had her best interest in mind. I appreciated that. She also thanked me for adopting a girl. I wanted to cry. Very sweet people. I enjoyed my time in China and was sad to leave.

  5. roomforatleastonemore 28 April 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Again, Amy, you nailed it with this article.

    Our older son, adopted at 10 1/2, LOVED his shoes he was wearing on adoption day. They were like TEVA type shoes and … oh my … they smelled. :) BUT, what boys’ shoes don’t kind of smell anyway? Well, really, who of us don’t have shoes that are well-worn that don’t smell? He did NOT want to take them off for anything, so we didn’t care. They were a bit snug and we knew a day would come where he couldn’t fit in them anymore. But he wore them everywhere, even to church and that was just fine.

    He told us later how much it meant to him that we didn’t take them away or make him feel badly for being so connected to them, and he also told us they were the last thing his Foster Mom bought and gave to him … and he was very attached to and loved by his foster Momma.

    When we adopted our baby girl, she was so bundled but it was cold in Guiyang. We had to change her b/c she had soiled all of her clothes, but we didn’t wash the things that weren’t soiled. And she loved wearing a little sweater she had on in the many layers on top of her shirt and under her larger coat. She will still ask to wear it, and I’m so glad we have it!

    I once read a blog where the Mom said she THREW AWAY the clothes her child had come in b/c they were filthy rags. That broke my heart. I can’t imagine not having the clothes for them to always have. Our son, adopted at 5, came to us in shorts and sandals that fit where his toes curled over the end (they were that much too short). But he wanted to wear them and so we let him. In GUZ, we went to a shopping mall type of store b/c our older son was wanting some new t-shirts … our younger son spotted new shoes and got so excited. We bought him a light-up pair of ULTRAMAN sandals … oh my … did that win us some favor with him. He then decided his way-too-little sandals ( that were also Ultraman) could be put away (but he was happy to know we were keeping them).

    You really do just need to follow the child’s lead in all of this–bath, clothing, layers, foods, etc.–if you do, they will most likely feel much safer and relaxed and in may really mean a lot to older children to be allowed those familiarities (and younger ones too even if they can’t put a voice to that).

    Thanks Amy for this series. It needs to be read by every single AP.

  6. Peggy K. 30 April 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Wow, the example given about the shoes is our exact story! It was so touching and heartbreaking all at the same time. It was 3 days before she changed clothes (part of them) and about a week before she would remove her shoes. It did happen…and though it seemed like forever at the time. I look back and see that it was really fairly quickly that she accepted her new things. Now, 7 months later, she is a clothes horse and LOVES new things! LOL

  7. 66BookMom 1 May 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Shoes are definitely a sentimental part of one of our adopted son’s story. He was 3y 9mo at this time. We allowed him to wear them day…and night! He did not want them off. He wanted out of his hotel room and wearing shoes was part of his security. Ten days later, our dear son, to our amazement, decorated a side table with his blanket as a tablecloth. He then took off his shoes and placed them centered on top. Christmas Day…his gift to us.

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