Shortly before traveling to China, I had an introductory meeting with my pediatrician-to-be, and brought him information about the baby I was to adopt. It wasn't very much—the adoption agency had sent me only her date of birth and an almost indistinguishable photocopy of a picture taken of her several months earlier. There was also a handwritten record of her weight at two months (three kilos), and the results of what appeared to be liver-function tests.
The doctor told me he had seen several adopted children in his practice. He talked about the resilience of these babies, how quickly they caught up to their potential, and how well they responded to love and good food. He said to be prepared for some developmental delays; it was normal for institutionalized babies to be somewhat behind at first. Finally, along with his wishes for a safe trip, he gave me a copy of the Denver Developmental Screening Test, which outlined the order and timing of developmental steps in infancy and early childhood. "But don't take it too literally," he said. "She'll find her own path."
Disregarding this wise advice, I studied the chart obsessively in the days before I left, memorizing the "normal" ranges for major developmental milestones. I learned that babies usually smile responsively at 1 month, spontaneously at 3 months (their first personal-social achievements). I discovered that rolling over is a gross motor skill, ordinarily mastered between 2 and 5 months. Babies are able to clap (a fine motor skill) at around 2 months; they reach for an object between 3 and 5 months.
I was a single woman, 46 years old, and nervous. I'd had little experience with children. This single sheet of paper was all I had to go on—the sum total of parental knowledge that I brought with me to China.
I was unprepared, and the chart was no help. When I met her, my daughter, Amelia, was 5 months old, sickly and underweight, unsmiling and aloof. Apart from crying, she made no sounds at all. ("Vocalizes, not crying: 0 to 2 months," I read with a spasm of anxiety.) Most reference points on the screening test seemed irrelevant. "Resists toy pull," for instance—I doubted that she'd had much experience with any plaything. "Plays peekaboo"—she wouldn't even meet my eyes. "Feeds self crackers"—this chart was obviously from another planet.
At one low point in China, I called my pediatrician back in Vermont. Amelia was frantic, and I hadn't slept in days. He asked a few questions, then reassured me. He said she'd probably had gastroenteritis but was getting better, and I should make sure she was getting enough fluids. "And keep holding her. She needs to be held," he said. "Babies languish without physical contact." I cried then; I cried easily on that exhausting trip.
So I held Amelia day and night, and by the time we arrived home we were both calmer. She'd recovered from her illness and was eating voraciously. Her first smile filled my heart with pride, and her level, determined gaze gave me faith. But she was indeed delayed in most areas. I'd study the chart and try not to worry: She should be crawling by now; she should be playing patty-cake; she should have a vocabulary of five or more words. I could worry about anything, and I did.
She progressed steadily, though, and so did I. She lost a certain tenseness that one friend, also an adoptive mother, described as the "orphanage look." And as she learned to trust me, I learned to trust her, too.
I began to see the chart as much a measure of my own development as my daughter's. After all, I, too, was playing peekaboo behind schedule; I, too, was learning patty-cake later in life than my peers. "Walks, holding on to furniture," or "Stoops and recovers" (10 to 14 months) were phrases that applied as much to my own physical and emotional state as to her gross motor functioning. Her smile blossomed that first year; mine did, too. Together, we discovered how to blow kisses. At 20 months, Amelia began to talk. And at 47 years, I first responded to the word "Mommy."
"She'll find her own path," the pediatrician had said, and he was right. My daughter had begun her path far away and under circumstances of great hardship; she was taking her time for good reason. My journey to parenthood had been long and difficult as well. I was (and still am) finding my own way.
It took me a while, but one morning I freed myself from worrying about the Denver Developmental Screening Chart. I'd had a conversation with another adoptive parent, who had described how brilliant his daughter was. "She can count to 17!" he'd said with enormous pride. "And she's only 15 months old!" "That's great," I'd replied uneasily. At the time, Amelia was 2 1/2 and a chatterbox, but I'd never heard her count past 11 or 12, and certainly not in any particular order. I drove her to daycare later that same day, listening to her as she chanted "One, two, buckle my shoe" in the backseat. Her version of the rhyme was disorganized and jubilant: "Three, six, close the door, four, four, pick up six, eight, eight, buckle my shoe, my shoe, my shoe!"
"How high can you count?" I finally asked her.
Amelia is a careful soul. After a moment's deliberation, she had an answer. "Two," she said firmly, and resumed her song.
Four years down the road, I confidently tick off the numerous milestones of childhood development. My daughter's long past peekaboo; she turns somersaults with ease, hops and skips around the house, talks incessantly. Our walls are plastered with her drawings of flowers, lopsided houses, and strange-looking people ("Draws man, six parts," 4 1/2 to 6 years). She is fine.
I only wish I hadn't been so anxious for her to catch up and move on to the next developmental phase during our first year together. I strain now to remember her first triumphant steps, or the look on her face when she ate her first banana. Her babyhood already seems so long ago. How could this be?
So I still hang on to my copy of the Denver Developmental Screening Test, although I don't refer to it any longer. I keep it to remind me of our beginnings, clouded with anxiety, blurred by exhaustion, lit up with the dawn of emerging love.
Eliza Thomas is the author of The Road Home, a memoir.