Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My daughter is a vivid dreamer. 

One of the great joys of her progress as she becomes more facile with the spoken word (for those of you who are new to our story, she was born with a severe cleft lip and palate, and is about four surgeries deep in the lengthy process of rebuilding her palate and jaw) is her retelling of her nightly dreams.

Q has a preternatural sort of memory. Like a little computer, she can map entire neighborhoods or the internal plans of large buildings in her mind, so that wherever we find ourselves (even if she has not visited the particular location in a year or two) she knows exactly where we are. She's a sort of miniature human GPS system. Naturally this is very comforting to any parent who ever worried about their child getting lost. It is also as alarming in a four-year-old as it was in a two-year-old. We just never quite get used to it. 

In addition, Q is the most disillusioned child I've yet to meet coming out of an institutional setting. 
It seems, both from my friends' experience in the adoption world and from the reading that I've done, that many children develop a sort of fantasy scenario to replace the parts of their early life that are, at this stage of their development, difficult to process. They ask repeatedly whether they grew in their adoptive mommy's tummy, and if not, shy not. Or they conjure images out of a fairytale to replace their birth parents and/or adoption story.

Q, on the other hand, appears not only to have both an unusually clear memory of her year in the Social Welfare Institute (she was only 11 months old when we adopted her, so this clear memory is astonishing in itself) but also a clear idea of what happened to her and how. She is never confused as to why she didn't grow inside me. It never seems to occur to her to fantasize that we are her birth parents, or to make up a "friendlier" story to replace the harsh reality of her early life. She clearly knows that she lost parents once, and that (in her mind) she now has to guard her parents and her own safety very closely so as not to risk losing a second set of parents. To this end, she is constantly on guard against ways that she might be separated from us.
"No one takes me away, right?" is still her mantra. "You fight, fight, fight if they try!" 

She is very clear about the fact that she was lonely and sad in the Social Welfare Institute (orphanage), and that she prefers not to discuss it. Period.

So I guess it shouldn't surprise me that she remembers her dreams, in their entirety, with such perfect clarity of plot and detail. 

One recent dream involved a plague of giant green spiders that chased our family through a mall with machine guns (this is the dream of a four-year-old child, let me remind you).  They shot at us mercilessly until her LaoLao (this is my mother, her maternal adoptive grandmother, who features heavily in her dreams) had the presence of mind to hide us in the Hello Kitty store, thus saving us all. (Of course it is a well-known fact that Sanrio retail outlets are the ultimate haven of all those plagued by heavily-armed mutant arachnids).

Then, yesterday, there was the dream in which a neighbor of ours had a pet frog with which Q immediately bonded (frogs, turtles and snakes have always been her favorite animals). The neighbors allowed her to play with the frog, as long as she was careful. So she put it on its leash, and took it for many walks around the neighborhood. 

This whole happy scenario goes down the tube (as so many dreams do) when Q inexplicably smacks the poor frog on the head. The frog immediately bursts into tears. This scenario plays itself out twice before the frog, understandably miffed, slips its collar and runs away, much to Q's immediate dismay. 
 Once again, in the dream, her revered LaoLao steps in, chastises Q for being unkind to an animal, and puts her in a time-out, foridding her to go in pursuit of the missing frog. 

The strangest thing about Q's clear memory of her dreams is that her dream memory does not seem to slip away. You know how, when you have a vivid dream, you are able to remember it clearly as you first begin to wake, but as the hours pass all but the most salient detail of the dream seems to burn off like a morning fog? Well, that doesn't happen for Q. The details stay with her. 

For instance, in this last case, she and I tried to repeat the details of the dream for her daddy over family breakfast ( a good two and a half hours after she first woke).  I had mis-remembered the part about LaoLao's part in the dream, and was trying to tell my husband that LaoLao had advised her to stay in bed. 

"No," she said, shaking her head decisively.
"No?" I said.
"No," she said. "LaoLao told me I could not leave the house and walk outside looking for the frog."

I don't know whether I should classify Q as having a photographic memory. It seems like the thing to say, when I'm trying to explain how she is able to recall the exact layout of a large building that she has not set foot in for over two years. But I know very little about memory, or about how it is categorized. When the manager of Q's Social Welfare Institution dropped her into our arms on adoption day, she and the nanny made sure to tell us that QiuQiu was a "Clever girl. A very clever girl." And so she has proved to be. But she is no model student. She is pronounced by her teachers to be doing "very well" academically, but she is also easily-distracted, boy-crazy, and a tomboy who generally chooses athletic pursuits over academics.

Honestly, I'm not sure that I feel any great need to categorize her. She is clearly bright, but I love that (unlike me at her age) she is also extremely social, popular, outgoing, funny and irreverent. If her memory is unusually clear, then more power to her. Maybe her pragmatic view of her early life traumas will make it easier for her to swallow the mystery of her past as she grows. Hard to say. 

So, let me ask this of you blog readers who are parents: do your children have exceptional memories? If they are adopted, what is their current view of their early life/adoptive history? Do they remember/relate their dreams? And if so, what sort of dreams do they have?


  1. What an interesting post, Maia! A lot of what you say applies very much to Hâuie — certainly her memory seems exceptionally good, and she often recounts dreams in the way Q does. Her memory is photographic in the sense that in the first years of practising spelling, I used to tell her to look inside her head, and she would sort of look at an interior screen and get the words right. This sort of memory works far better with English, where words don't change, whereas in French the "accords" mean that a visual memory isn't enough.
    As for processing her adoption "story", she is in a slightly different situation as she was adopted at 7 weeks old from a foster mother (though we don't know what proportion of those weeks was spent in the hospital where she was born). But she has always been absolutely clear about the facts and has never needed to change them, or discuss their meaning. I am far more fascinated by her history than she is, even after our 6 months in Vietnam. When we were first in Hanoi, she did say that it was strange to think that she might meet her birthmother in the street, but neither would be aware of it. I mentioned a while ago that I so wish I could have met her birthmother, wondering what she might look like (I keep being told that Hâuie is partly mixed race, and people often don't realise she is adopted). Hâuie's reaction? "yeah, we won't know. She might be ugly, anyway." She genuinely seems "sorted" about her origins. Of course, when the girls hit adolescence, it may change...I do think that the fact that both you and I are not of a straight-forward Northern European racial background helps. We both have several cultures in us, and don't look that different from our girls, at least in colouring.
    And lastly, rather like Q, Hâuie is clearly academic, but doesn't feel the need to show it all the time. Apart from her passion for reading, she is an incredibly cool, laid-back, witty and affectionate girl who is fantastic company. She far prefers playing with the boys than gossiping with the girls. As I told you before, I think we adopted a cat, not a girl! And how lucky we've all been...
    Carole xxx

  2. Thank you for sharing this. It warms all our hearts. She is a special child. Very special. And so full of love.
    Funny this came just as my little one told me about a "short" dream (his words) he had during his nap time. A spark came to me, he said, and I hugged it (he hugs and kisses everything and wants to do so with everything) and then it just went away...
    Thank you again for sharing. I always treasure reading your rendering of beautiful Q.

  3. Some of the things you wrote really reminded me of FF. Not the photographic memory- but her dreams are also quite vivid and often involve some sort of dramatic rescue situation and escape from violence. FF doesn't have any memories of China anymore, but she does understand her adoption and the existence of her First Family quite clearly and has never tried to clean up that part of her story. It actually breaks my heart a little - it seems like too much for someone so young to carry. Once we were talking about our family, and how family is forever - and she looked at me and said, "That's not true, Mom. Family is not forever. My China Mama was not forever." And this was a conclusion she drew for herself- as we are always careful to speak of her First Family with affection, respect and care. FF still has pretty severe separation anxiety, and sometimes I think about how that must feel - not having this comfort that most kids take for granted - that their parents will be there for them - period. I imagine what it would feel like to constantly be worried about losing the most important people in my world - and I ache for my girl. Sometimes it feels like I can't hold her close enough.

  4. Thanks for that, Maia. As usual, you're so eloquent. It breaks my heart on a daily basis that she has to deal with such harsh realities at such a young age. At the same time...maybe they have a leg up on the rest of us. Less time to suffer delusions. Because obviously, none of us are safe. Most of us only realize that through years of experience, and we have to suffer through the gradual process of disillusionment and denial. At least our children don't have to go through that process of painful disillusionment. They already understand the harsh realities, and from here on out the good experiences are the surprises in their lives. It may not be the "natural" way of learning, or maybe it is. Humans are more sheltered than most other life forms in nature. Maybe our little ones grow up more like wild animals, inducted from birth into the harsh realities of nature, but maybe that isn't the worst thing that can happen to them. I don't know.

  5. I am from far away... But I can feel you so much strong. I am crying all the time while reading your blog. You are BEAUTIFUL! And yor daughter too! I think I can see your inner side beauty. Best wishes for you all! Anna from Poland