Realistic Expectations: Cleanliness

Recently I read a blog where the parents of a child adopted from one of our programs made some derogatory comments about the child’s appearance and behavior in their first days together. As I read through the blog, it made me quite sad. I don’t think they wrote such critical things purposely, but it was clear that they weren’t taking the time to see life through the child’s eyes instead of their own.

It made me think that perhaps I should write up a few articles over the next month about setting realistic expectations during adoption. I hope these can be practical blogs that address some very common daily issues such as standards of cleanliness. I have read more than my fair share of adoption blogs where parents complain about how dirty their children are on adoption day. So let’s do a reality check and better understand how difficult it can be in some areas of China to even take a bath, something we as Westerners absolutely take for granted each and every day.

I consider myself very blessed to have done extensive travel in rural China, and so I want to be fair to those who have only experienced the bathrooms at the White Swan Hotel. Please remember that many rural orphanages and foster homes often have no indoor bathroom facilities. If you are fortunate enough to have an indoor bath, there is a chance it consists of a tiny tiled or concrete area with a single drainage hole for both the shower and toilet.

A water heater would be RARE, so cold water is the norm. Your source of heat for the entire small apartment or orphanage could be a single coal stove in the center of the main room, and there is no heat in the bathroom area at all. So let’s start with a fact that pretty much everyone knows: children in China are bundled up in multiple layers in the winter to protect them from getting sick.

So if you truly care about your child – do you risk stripping them down in an unheated room and exposing them to ice cold water during the winter months? Is that bath really a NECESSITY or a luxury? Well, I’ve met enough foster moms over the last decade to know that the child’s physical health comes first and foremost in their minds, and so scrubbing down their face and hands with a washrag and pail of water more than meets their cleanliness standards.

Now let’s say that you don’t have the luxury of having a shower in your actual home. Instead, your only option is the public bath house, where you have to pay money to take a group shower with others from your village. Do you look forward to going there in the winter months? When your whole body feels cold most of the time? Well, I can tell you that on my most recent trip to China, one of the hotels we stayed in didn’t have heat and only tepid shower water, and I lasted a whole 15 seconds before jumping out and deciding I did NOT need to freshen up.

No adoptive parent should be surprised or disgusted if their newly adopted child “doesn’t know how to take a proper bath.” There is a good chance they have never had the extravagant opportunity of even knowing what that is! Adoptive parents should not be dismayed if a child’s fingernails are dirty, or if their body hasn’t been scrubbed clean in the last several months. It is very likely that your child’s first encounter with a five star hotel in the provincial capital is their first experience with centralized heat, running hot water, or a Western-sized bathtub. Be compassionate, and try to understand that even the most simple things in our minds, such as taking a bath, are often very difficult indeed in rural China. Try not to feel a need to immediately “wash off” the scents and smells and yes, even the “dirt” that could be a very real comfort at the moment to your child.

Always remember that everything the child has known as his or her safety and security has suddenly disappeared upon meeting you– and that things you might think are “wrong” (like a child being dirty) are completely and understandably acceptable in living situations where bathrooms and heat and warm water are complete opulence. Dirt is not an automatic indication that your child experienced neglect. In many cases, it can actually equal “loving care,” where a nanny or foster parent did not want to expose a child to the cold. Always try to think about the cultural differences between your life and theirs, and be slow to judge when you don’t have the full story of what their daily life has been.

~Amy Eldridge, Executive Director

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33 Comments to “Realistic Expectations: Cleanliness”

  1. Kim 2 April 2012 at 8:26 am #

    As the adoptive parent of a child whose first adoption in China was disrupted, appropriate parental screening and education is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have been increasingly concerned and appalled at the lack of education and understanding that some adoptive parents have going into the situation. In spite of some well-publicized cases parental abuse (even to the point of death) following adoption, the education of prospective adoptive parents does not seem to be improving. There have been several times that I have talked to adoptive parents in my local area and, based on some of the comments they make, I really wonder how they made it through the home study process. They act more like they were going shopping at Walmart, where they could pick and choose to please themselves, than adopting a child.

  2. Jessica 2 April 2012 at 11:11 am #

    Thank you for writing this series! It shocks me to no end how utterly UNPREPARED about 85% of families adopting from China are! They have no idea what their child’s life was like, how traumatic the transition it for them, or how to even start bonding with them much less the 1st thing about attachment with a institutionalize child!

  3. MDillon 2 April 2012 at 11:26 am #

    I am so glad to read this and other well written, compassionate blog entries of this nature and I will do what I can to spread it around on the internet. I think we need more education across the board so that adoptive parents can begin setting aside their own expectations as early as possible in the process and thus begin preparing their hearts and minds for what their new child will need. I feel sick when I read a family blog in which the parents seem clueless, unconcerned or ever aggravated by the things that come as a shock to them concerning their new child. Thank you for this.
    And let me say that sometimes, when I am being completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I could have done a better job at putting myself in my daughter’s place. That is what makes me cringe most of all- my own failings and how I could have been better for her.

  4. Vickie 2 April 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Thanks Amy for this post. This is a great lesson on many of the living conditions throughout China.
    We are paperchasing for our 4th child from China and I just completed the Hague training requirement on Saturday. I will be the first to tell you going into it I was a little put off at the thought of 10 hours of training after having 6 children, 3 of which were adopted from China.
    That being said, the training was excellent and focused on the adoption through the child’s eyes. It educated the families on the various phases the child will go through, much like the grief process, as they experience the shock and going through the transition of adjustment.
    I would have given anything to of had this training before our first adoption.
    Hopefully these new training requirements through Hague are going to help better prepare families for their international adoption experience.

  5. Suzanne AnkhruttSuzannaxpiratequeen 2 April 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    I totally agree parents of adopted children should be educated and aware that all is temporary what really matters is love and understanding so what if you are not at the white swan your child comes first as did mine

  6. Sonia 2 April 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    I’m so glad to read your blog. I am a guest speaker for the adoption preparation courses in Ireland and I always try and address this subject to the prospective parents. It is so important for them to realise that while they have been waiting for months and years, their child hasn’t. It should be a mandatory part of home study to be educated from the child’s perspective and what their experience will be.
    Keep up the marvellous work!

  7. Monica Keen 2 April 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Well said Amy! Thanks to LWB for being the voice of orphans in China. We all need to grow in compassion for others, especially those so unfortunate, daily. Write on.

  8. Holly 2 April 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    This was very insightful and helpful! thank you for sharing this! It does not come naturally to most of us to try to ask questions to figure out someone else’s perspective. Seeing things from a purely American perspective while in China breeds disdain and snottiness in attitude. (not that I’ve ever struggled with that. Ahem!!) It is so important to realize that cultures are so vastly different that we can’t just assume that we share same values or place equal importance on the same things. Most of us couldn’t IMAGINE using any of the facilites pictured above. Most of us don’t realize how very privileged we really are. Being more privileged does NOT in fact make a person better, just different. Thanks again for sharing this perspective. I hope many many adoptive parents will read it! I look forward to what’s to come in your future posts.

  9. Kristin Van Weele 2 April 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Amy, I am so glad to see you write this, and I look forward to reading more posts from you on this subject. I hope that some of your upcoming posts will address other issues as well..things like how/why these children exhibit certain behaviors, etc.

    In 2001, on our first adoption trip, the night before we were to return to the US, our group witnessed a family, not know how to deal with a 1yrs. old, who clearly had self soothing issues….this uneducated family sent this poor sweet little girl on a plane back to her province….each of us in our group, cried for that innocent baby…we were so furious with this’s been almost 11yrs. since that day, and I will still never forget it

  10. Janis 2 April 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Thank you so much for showing these pictures and sharing this information with others. Having adopted a child at age 2 who came from an orphanage where they wore no shoes most of the time, it did not surprise me in the least how ground in the dirt was in her feet. took over a year to come out. I was glad I had pictures of her in that setting though before I adopted her and knew what to expect. It also didn’t surprise me how much she hated shoes and still does to this day! 6 years later!

  11. NancyB 2 April 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    On a recent trip to my daughter’s SWI, I had occasion to use the “bathroom” which looked a whole lot like one of the above pictures. It had the squatty potty hole and a dipper in a bucket of water to wash things down with. Yet it was clean, just rustic in western eyes. This SWI staff was so delighted to see my daughter and it was obvious they cared deeply for her during the first 4 years of her life and remembered her well. That care was way more important than the facilities.

  12. Tori 2 April 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    I love it :D… They will be loved, Prayers will be sent their wayy!!… ;D

  13. Smart Mom 2 April 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    Along the same lines I would love to see a post about why families should NOT take their other children, friends, family, etc. with you to pick up your new child! These kids need and deserve their new parents complete time and attention during that time in China. It is not a family vacation it is an adoption trip.

    I also think if families were fully prepared for their new child and what the child is going through and how they may react that would be a lot less likely to bring their other kids with them.

  14. Deb Burns 2 April 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Thank you so much for doing this series!!! Although we were prepared, mostly because we are world travelers and know how spoiled we are, so many people aren’t! If I’d seen the people who sent that child back, I’d have read them the riot act! Thank God that child didn’t have o grow up with such awful, superficial parents! The child is better off without them!

  15. Lauren 3 April 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    What a great and enlightening post. Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge

  16. Fi McN 4 April 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Thank you for this wise and sensible post. I look forward to hearing more on the topic. I’ve heard people angry and upset because their child had mosquito bites, and I wondered then if they had ever really thought about village life.
    I would also be interested in your opinion about bringing other children. We travelled without our older kids for our first adoption (mainly because of cost), and we hope to bring them this time. I hope that they will actually be helpful and encourage our new child to relax a little. I felt that it was pretty intense for a 3 year old who was used to lots of children to find herself alone with 2 adults for 2 weeks. Once we got home, she followed our other kid’s cues and realized more quickly what this “parents” thing was all about. They hugged us, so she did too. They looked to our authority, so she did too. I really think they helped her a lot. I would love to hear how you have seen this situation play out.

  17. Kimberley Byrd 7 April 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    I do not understand why parents don’t study the culture before they go to pick up their children. This is a MUST! I read a book once that said when the adoptive parents bathe the child on their first night together and they peel off all of their clothes one layer at a time….this is a “derobement of familiarity”. My daughter is ALL about smell…..she was already traumatized, taking the only thing she had with the smell of the only home she ever lived in would have devastated her beyond imagination. Thank you for this series.

  18. mother4rose 7 April 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Before our adoption 5 years ago, some training manuals were required before our dossier was sent to China. However, after waiting for 2 years for the adoption to take place I believe most of that “training” was forgotten in the hub-bub of family life. Ideally the training should happen right before going to China so that is fresh and real in parents minds. I wish that had been so for us–why is only hindsight 20/20?

  19. roomforatleastonemore 8 April 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    These posts should be REQUIRED READING for waiting parents. Our precious son, adopted at 10, wore his shoes he came to us in from China until his toes curled under. To this day, he still has them though he can’t get his feet in them anymore. We searched high and lo here (and back in China) for the same pair and just couldn’t find another. But those shoes, they meant everything to him.

    Our baby girl was bundled up but her diaper had leaked while we completed paperwork on the day we met her (at the officials’ requirements) for 4 hours, and she was shivering so we had to take her clothes off. But we laundered them and several times throughout the trip she wore them again. We let her choose and she often chose those familiar clothes. Her little brown-striped sweater … she still wears it all the time.

    And Amy, that precious little hat she wore in the very first photo you all published of her … I CRIED LIKE A BABY when I saw it on another child in her former foster home. What I wouldn’t have given for that hat to have for her, but at the same time I realized the hat needed to stay in the foster home so another baby’s head would be covered from the cold.

    As a Momma to children with complex heart disease, yes, baths are NOT a necessity in cold conditions. Our DD wasn’t even dirty anyway. I imagine her sweet foster Momma sponge bathed her. I don’t know but she took great care of her!!!!

    And, hey, if dirty fingernails equals neglect, then this Momma of 4 sons–one of whom ALWAYS has dirt under his fingernails–is GUILTY. :)

  20. roomforatleastonemore 8 April 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    Smart Mom’s comment could not be any further from our reality of taking ALL of our children with us. They were a great source of comfort to our 23-month-old daughter. They also were well-prepared by us, their parents, for her grief and transitions.

    Our son, adopted at 10, knew better than any of us what she was (and still is) going through, and he is such a sensitive soul. How could we say he was a hindrance?

    That is purely one opinion.

    We have traveled to China and back on 3 adoption trips since 2008 (4 children home in 3 trips), and we took no children with us on the 1st trip which was the right decision for that trip, our then 11YO son to adopt our 10YO and 5YO sons (regret not taking all of our children on that trip), and our 13, 12, 9 and 6YO sons and 6YO DD to adopt 23-month-old DD. This was the RIGHT decision for our family.

    I think there is no one answer but to say you should not take your children is ridiculous in my opinion. Yes, sometimes, that is best and other times it is best to take the whole family.

  21. familynook 18 April 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Thank you for this. I also feel this should be required reading for all who adopt. We will be leaving tomorrow morning to get one of your sweet boys :) We are so thankful for all you have done for him, and all we want is for him to feel safe and comfortable with us. I truly appreciate that I read this right before we get on the plane. It is SO important!

  22. Theresa 19 April 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    Amy, I am reading this post less than a week after returning from a homeland trip with our daughter who we adopted when she was a year old and is now 10. This trip we saw much more of the conditions the average person in China lives with, whereas on our adoption trip we didn’t see much beyond the 4 and 5 star hotels. What an impact this trip has had on all of us. The communal bathroom with no doors in the hutong we had to use and the walk through a desperately poor village in the countryside left an appreciation for the things we take for granted here in the US. I am so proud of our daughter and the other children in our group for how they dealt with and adjusted to these differences. I’m sure all that they saw and experienced will leave a lasting impression as I know it will for me.

  23. […] Realistic Expectations: Cleanliness […]

  24. Sammy 21 May 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    We’ve adopted 10 times and 8 are from China. I knew most of what you wrote, but it was still great to hear it again and gave me something to think about. As far as Smart Mom saying, it is not a family vacation, well when you’ve adopted 10 times it may be the only family vacation you get. We have taken our other children back several times and we all have a blast. It meant a lot to our older Chinese kids to get to see China again. I think the kids we were adopting actually enjoyed other kids being there with us. The only times we didn’t take our others kids with us was because we didn’t have the money.

  25. MA 23 May 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Thanks for this great blog! Could you/someone comment on what the bathing situation was in most orphanages? I heard something about an assembly line style with a bucket of water poured over their heads at the end? It would be good for me to understand what my 20 month old went through before he came to us, and also to know how to be sensitive when introducing him to water over his face/ears/eyes.

  26. […] The rest of this article can be found here! […]

  27. Daniel's Mom 21 July 2012 at 8:35 am #

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Even though my husband and I have adopted three sons from China, you presented information of which I was unaware. You have provided additional pieces to the puzzles of their early lives in China. Almost four months ago we adopted our newest sweet little guy (wearing red and looking up while having his hand washed in a blue bucket/shown in this article), who had been in LWB’s Henan foster care program. He was well taken care of and – most importantly – well loved. Thank you LWB for precious “Daniel.” He is everything you reported and so much more!

  28. […] Realistic Expectations: Cleanliness […]

  29. megan8114 18 September 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Agreed! We are incredibly spoiled…and I’m incredibly grateful. What a nice reminder, and I hope many prospective parents read these articles.

    (And FTR, our agency–run by Chinese-Americans who also run charities in China AND have Chinese-adopted children–actually encourages whole families to travel together, and we are SO glad that we took all of our children to China for our adoption trip. We also ALL went off the beaten path to try to experience as much as we could, and many of those memories are priceless.)

  30. Patricia Trom 25 January 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    Thank you for this article. I am the adoptive parent of 2 children from China. Each trip was enlightening for me. I had some background that many families did not – I lived and worked for 4 years in rural Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980’s. I lived at 10, 0000 feet – quite cold every night. We lived very modestly without heat or running water. My time there taught me that the “American” way to live is not the only, or necessarily the only way to live. Respect when visiting another country cannot be overemphasized.
    I was appalled by the behavior of some of the “ugly Americans” that I had the misfortune of travelling with. They were loud, critical and impatient. They disparaged the precious caretakers who loved our daughters when we could not. It broke my heart to see America represented by such clueless people.
    When I adopted my older daughter at 8 months of age, she very little hair. At the marked in Fuzhou one day with a few other parents and their children, a group of grandmothers approached me and said “Di DI”? , to which I replied “No, Mei Mei.” They looked at me puzzled and again said, “Di DI”? , and again I replied “No, Mei Mei.” One grandma reached over to my daughter, Leila, pulled her diaper to the side and, with amazement said “OH Mei Mei!” and the others roared with laughter. I laughed also and felt very lucky to be a part of this touching exchange. Several of the other adoptive parents looked at the women, aghast. One said, “How could you allow that?” I told her to chill out, and walked away from the Americans..
    Neither of my girls loved their first bath. Some of my most precious memories are of introducing them slowly, at their speed, to the unfamiliar process. Neither of my babies came to me with pristine clothes – those clothes remain unwashed and invaluable nor will one day be passed down to my girls.
    I wish there was a way to prepare Americans for travelling overseas – especially to developing countries. All I can do is teach my girls the value of respect, curiosity and non-judgment.

  31. snakatac 4 February 2013 at 11:26 am #

    It’s sad to hear that ANY Westerners, adoptive or not, who after all have education & access to internet for research, can be so unaware of just how lucky we/they are, with our comfortable, middle class lives with our central heating, low energy costs & well insulated homes. I’ve been in Europe & had to use some pretty basic sanitary (a misnomer) facilities – in Greek villages, old churches, & older parts of the city. I staggered out of the 1st ever squat toilet I’d ever used, within the old train station, joking (discreetly) that I was traumatised. We need not to assume our experiences are the standard for the world. In Germany you have to pay to use the facilities & get some toilet paper from the attendant. Cringe, what if you had an upset tummy? In many countries there is no free toilet paper even in non-pay restrooms, BTW. We needn’t feel so superior. It wasn’t that long ago in the UK & North America when no one used deodorant & the norm was the Saturday night bath. Wasn’t it in the settler days that you got sewn into your back-trapdoor style union suit/all in one longsleeve underwear FOR THE WINTER?

    Adoptive families must open their minds not just their hearts.

  32. tobygirl4ever 16 February 2014 at 8:22 am #

    this is an absolutely fabulous article.alot of people do not realize the living conditions in orphanages or medical homes are any better than living in any rural community in China so they dont realize that no they don’t have any of the amenities that anyone else would either. they assume since it is an orphanage or medical community that they have all the best living conditions.. well they don’t, its still China. they just dont have the things we do here in the U.S. this article and comments have provided some wonderful insight as to what it is really like for these children and it makes me even sadder than it does for the “normal” children over there.. these children have to fight illness plus fight living in poverty. I can’t imagine how hard that must be and yet these people who are wanting to adopt them to get them out of this poverty is complaining about a little dirt?? Come on, what is wrong with you people? are you that OCD that you think a little dirt on a child is going to kill them? heck when we were growing up we were lucky if we got a bath once a week not because we didnt have heat or hot water but because we got dirty every day and my parents didnt see the point in wasting hot water which is expensive to wash off dirt that you were just going to get on the next day.. granted if your hands and face were dirty they got washed every day but unless you had school or had a special occasion you didnt get a bath every day cause kids get dirty when they play.. its a fact of least for a healthy well rounded kid i think it is.. I would rather see a child with a little dirt on them then one that is all neat and clean and prissy.. cause a little dirt shows a mind with a little imagination..
    anyway..from what i read im glad they are training the adoptive parents more on what the little ones are going through and how to handle the transition, it must be hard on them, especially if they are older than just toddlers, the older ones have more of the old culture in them. I had seen one a few days ago that was on the adoptive list that was 11 yrs old, he was the most adorable young man i had ever seen and if me and my boyfriend had been in better health we would have jumped on the thought of trying to adopt him in a heart beat.. it makes me sad looking at all these children and knowing that as much as we would love to due to our own health situation we could never adopt, it wouldn’t be fair to the child to come over here to sick parents.. but they are the most wonderfully, cheerfull,happy,children i have seen in a long time. they dont let their medical conditions or living conditions get them down and i think that has to do with the love and support of the nurses and the nannies at the facilities..
    Thank you all for such a wonderful job..
    I hope all these children find their “forever families” one day. they all deserve the best…
    {{{BIG HUGS}}}

  33. Andrea! 13 June 2014 at 3:30 am #

    Thanks for sharing this article my friend. It is deep and heart felt emotions. But I am amazed and rather irritated with the way people behave with kids. There is this word called sensitive: do they understand? I mean seriously, is bathing such a big issue? How shallow people are these days!

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