Our daughter spent the first year of her life in a “children’s home” in Armenia, aka an orphanage. All of the children’s homes I visited in Armenia (three in total) were, as orphanages go, “good” homes. The facilities were clean. Children had their own crib or bed. Basic needs were met. Our daughter was well cared for by loving nannies.
But nothing in that orphanage was hers and hers alone. The eight nannies who cared for her, also cared for other children. And whereas in most families a baby can count on the same person feeding, dressing or bathing her, a baby in an orphanage can never be certain who will come soothe her cries, when they will come, and sometimes whether anyone will come at all. Diapers were washed, hung on the line outside to dry, and reused. Blankets, towels, clothing—all shared. Everything our daughter touched or wore, was touched and worn by other babies. I’ve seen pictures of babies who were also adopted from our daughter’s orphanage wearing the same bunny slippers or the same sweater.
I think about this a lot, especially when I see babies being cared for by a mom or a dad, knowing that baby associates comfort and security with seeing the same face over and over again. The familiarity her mom’s arms wrapped tightly around her, how she smells, even the baby’s own scent on her very own blanket. Visceral memories deeply ingrained in our psyche.
As an adoptive mom and a photographer I also think about how the minutiae of infancy is meticulously documented, at least in the U.S. Most moms I know have albums full of pictures showing their baby being held and fed, sleeping in their crib, their first smile, cute outfits they wore. Images reflecting their baby’s life during that formative first year.
These are the kinds of things many kids look back on as they grow up, and ask questions about. What did I look like as a baby? What was my favorite toy? What did I wear?
This is why the day we took our daughter out of the orphanage is forever etched in my mind. I was excited and nervous because our lives were about to change and from this moment forward we would be together as a family. At the same time I felt a deep sadness, knowing we were taking our daughter away from the one place she’d lived and the people who had taken care of her. Imperfect as orphanage life was, it was all she knew.
Other than the memories my daughter has tucked deep inside, there are only a few things we can share with her about her beginnings. We have referral photos and a short video we received from our adoption agency when our daughter was a few months old. There are pictures I took on our first visit to meet her when she was almost six months old. But until she became a member of our family that is all we have, except one precious gift: a pair of tights.
When we picked up our daughter we made sure we had all the clothes we thought she’d need, because her nanny would change her out of whatever she was wearing before bringing her to us. We brought a long-sleeved onesie, cotton pants, a cotton shirt, a sweater, one coat with a hood, a cotton cap, socks and shoes.
We waited on a bench outside the office of the orphanage director. Her nanny dressed her in the baby room and then came down the stairs and and handed her to us. We took a few pictures with the director and then piled into a taxi and headed to Yerevan.
Two hours later, when we reached our apartment in Yerevan and changed our first diaper, we discovered her nanny had also put her in a pair of tights, blue cotton with pictures of buttons and spools of thread woven into the background. I remembered those tights from our “get to know you” visits to the orphanage. Each day when one of her nannies brought her out to us, she was dressed in an adorable outfit. One day she wore a tiny beret, another day she was completely decked out in a white hand-crocheted ensemble, and on yet another she was sporting the cutest bunny slippers. On several occasions her outfit featured the blue tights. But cute as those clothes were, they weren’t hers.
When I look at her tights now, I see a treasure, the one tangible thing she has from her days spent in a children’s home, and the only thing she can literally hold in her hands knowing they were once on her legs when she was a baby. The tights are tiny, only 15-inches long, yet enormous when I reflect on what they stand for. To me those tights are priceless.
It’s all about the journey,