Our son does not make much eye contact. He is a combination of shy, overwhelmed, and developmentally delayed. When he first walked down the steps of the dormatory, he turned away from us, clinging to his nanny. She had to manipulate his head so he looked in our direction. The initial eye contact was brief.
Liz and I leaned in, knelt down, and introduced ourselves as Mom and Dad. We pointed to Claire and Margot: his sisters. These greetings did not melt or unlock our new son. He remained closed.
"He's embarrassed," his nanny said. "But he's a sweet boy. He understands everything." A fly landed on his forehead and danced around. Our son did not try to swat it away. A wave of panic raced through me.
Our first chance at bonding was not aided by the fact that our suitcase with the gifts and activities never made it to the country. The girls had picked out a special stuffed animal. I chose a puzzle. Several friends had given us art supplies and toy cars. These items and more remained in Canada (or were swiped by someone at the baggage claim).
We eventually accrued a pile of books from the kindergarten room and coaxed our son onto a bench. We began reading to him and an audience of orphans swelled around us. The crowd proved difficult for bonding, so we moved to a quiet room indoors with several couches and a stockpile of games. We settled onto a sofa and continued reading, talking, and hoping for flashes of eye contact. By the end of our two hour visit, the initial discomfort eased. But we knew we had our work cut out for us.
The second day followed a similar script. Our bag still had not arrived (would it ever?), so we could not charm our boy with new toys and interactive crafts (would we ever?). We met our boy's apprehension with a library of found books and selection of worn couches. We watched a Praying Mantis slip across the tiled floor. I unfolded a map of Addis Ababa and explained my confusion at the city's traffic patterns.
In all of this, my son did not nod. He did not grunt. He uttered no words. He is shy, overwhelmed, and a bit delayed. But the nannies assured us he understands everything. (One even said she thinks he knows more English than Amharic, since many of the volunteers and sisters speak it.)
I hope this is true. And if his eyes are any indication, I have good reason for hoping. For today our boy birth watched us and meet our eyes much more. This is progress. This is bonding.