For as long as she can remember, Liz Larson wanted to be a mom. But the China adoption process, by herself, tested her patience and perseverance. It took her more than 7,000 miles. But it also made her lean heavily into God’s promises for herself, for her daughter and for their new life together.
On days when Liz Larson’s journey to her daughter felt overwhelmingly long, she repeated three words to herself like a prayer. God has answered.
And on the morning she meets her daughter, she appears calm, attentive.
“I’m not nervous, really,” Liz says in the expansive marble lobby of the Kempinski Hotel, a favorite among adoptive families bringing home children from Shanxi province. “I’m just ready. I’ve been ready.”
Liz’s daughter is 2-and-a-half and the little Liz knows about her has come from email and photo updates, often translated from Chinese to English with minimal fanfare or specificity.
“According to her paperwork, she’s a shy, slow-to-warm kind of gal. She supposedly likes her doll. I don’t know much. You just get the paperwork and you have to trust it,” Liz says. “When I was waiting for the match, I wondered what she would be like. But then you get the match and you still don’t know what she’s like. You have a picture, but it’s just a picture.”
From Franklin, Tennessee — where Liz lives and works as a child and family counselor — to Taiyuan, China, it’s more than 7,000 miles. But as a single woman, the journey to motherhood — the journey to her daughter — has been more arduous than any physical distance.
It’s a journey that has already brought Liz to China once before.
“I’ve wanted to be a mom since I was 4,” Liz says. Even during childhood play dates, she remembers wanting to hang around the moms more than the other kids.
Four years ago, Liz thought the time to begin the china adoption process might be right. She bought a house in a great school district outside of Nashville. But within weeks of closing, Liz realized she had more work to do to feel fully equipped to adopt on her own.
For a while, she wondered if she would ever adopt a child.
But in the summer of 2015, Liz started to feel excited and ready to begin again.
She started researching agencies, and began discussing the possibilities with her friends and family, who encouraged her to go for it and take the first steps.
Liz applied to adopt through Holt’s China adoption program on September 3, 2015.
As a counselor with a specialty in trauma and 10 years of experience, Liz feels like her entire professional career has helped prepare her to parent a child who has already endured one of the most heartbreaking traumas a child can experience — the loss of her family.
“Kids and trauma is something I’m really passionate about,” Liz says. “I really believe in the brain’s ability to rebound. It’s also the most important thing for adoptive families — educating themselves about trauma.”
Shortly after she applied to adopt, she decided to join an advocacy trip to China — a trip specifically designed to help find families for older children with HIV, a disease that is heavily stigmatized in China.
For Liz, this trip helped affirm that she made the right decision to adopt a child from China — a child like any other child, except one who needs a family.
“I always knew that orphans are people, but to have them be like pre-teen, real people — who like boy bands and this food and made fun of us for not being able to use chopsticks — it really was affirming in the end,” she says.
Despite Liz’s vast knowledge about bonding, attachment and parenting children who have experienced trauma, despite her experience meeting children waiting for families and despite all her analytical knowledge about the adoption process, she still felt the the same internal struggle that many parents face during their adoption journey.
The pain of waiting.
“It turns out waiting is not my super best skill,” Liz laughs.
Liz’s process had a couple of small delays with paperwork and other items that were out of peoples’ control, which extended her china adoption process by several weeks.
As those children found families, it was like another step in the process to bring her own child home.
On August 10, 2016, nearly a year into her china adoption process, Liz finally got the call she’d been waiting for.
Forty minutes after a short phone call with Holt’s China adoption services director, Liz received an email with the first information and first photo of her daughter.
But unlike most families, Liz waited to look at photos.
“The waiting gets worse when you have a face,” Liz says.
Not wanting to fall in love with a child she didn’t feel equipped to parent, she read the whole file first with “insane self control” and had a doctor review the medical information in the file.
Then, certain that she would be a great mom to a toddler with potential hearing loss, she accepted, and became formally matched with her daughter.
Liz’s friends threw her a shower and set her up with all the essentials. She began working on her daughter’s room and doing everything she could to stay busy. She flew through the remaining adoption paperwork and decisions with authority.
“As a single person, I think in some ways it is easier to adopt,” Liz says. “It’s cheaper — not a lot, like a couple hundred bucks. The place where it’s easier and harder is in decision-making. On one hand, I can just decide. But on the other hand, I have to decide. There’s no one to necessarily bounce stuff off of. With the referral, I was like, ‘This seems great.’ But wait, does it? I am fortunate to be a fairly decisive person, so it was mostly okay.”
As the holidays neared, Liz’s patience waned.
“The last four weeks are so hard, because you are like ‘any day now, any day now’ and that’s really when you can count forward to travel,” Liz says. “So I thought for a long time that I would be traveling in November, and if not, definitely December.”
On January 12, 2017, Liz left Nashville, traveled to Chicago where she was joined by her cousin Jill — a mother of four including one teenage son from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — and began her journey to China.
Meeting in China
On the train from Beijing to Taiyuan, the reality of what is about to happen weighs heavily on Liz. Through the car windows, the Chinese countryside whizzes by, blurred by heavy, grey smog and the diluted shades of winter. The occasional village of small brick houses interrupts miles of barren farmland. As the train moves closer to the capital city, clusters of identical, towering apartment buildings — likely empty but a sign of China’s growing population — erupt straight up from the earth.
“I feel sad for her,” Liz says of her daughter. “Her world is about to be flipped upside down. She’s only 2. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand why it has to happen. Someday, I hope she will. It’s going to be a scary couple of weeks for her so I feel sad for her. I hope she can feel safe with me.”
On the morning they are set to meet, Liz feels both fear and excitement simultaneously.
“I’m worried about the logistics,” Liz says, half laughing at herself. “Will she sleep tonight? What will she sleep in? Will the clothes I bought fit her? I have a very practical, sensible streak, and that’s my worry now.”
For most adoptive families, their greatest fear in the moments before they meet their child is bonding — whether their child will attach to them and they will attach to their child. But Liz, with her deep understanding of bonding, says she knows it isn’t going to happen in one day.
“I hope I can plant seeds of trust,” Liz says. “But it’s not going to happen over night, so I don’t need to worry about that right now. I know what to do to intentionally grow our bond over a long period of time. But some of the things about her history are unique and I just feel the privilege of being a mom to this child who just really needs love and healing, even based on the little I know now, it feels really weighty.”
Liz focuses on the excitement of learning more about her daughter.
“She has likes and dislikes,” Liz says. “She’s 2. She’s not a baby. I’m excited to see what she’s like.”
Mostly, in these last moments before they finally unite, Liz thinks about how much she wants her daughter to know that she isn’t alone and will never be alone again.
“We’re in it together. This part is going to be worse for her, but I wish she could know that I’m on her team, even from the beginning,” she says. “She is so wanted.”
Exiting a van into the frigid cold of winter and the heavy smog of industrial Taiyuan, Liz leads the way through the glass double-doors of a tall, brick building. Jammed into an elevator, Liz and Jill travel to the 7th floor where they enter a dark hallway.
At the other end, three women stand holding hands with a little girl in a bright pink, puffy coat.
Liz walks to her and bends down as calmly and casually as possible.
“Ni hao,” she says, offering her a sucker. Her big, brown eyes brighten and she takes the candy and pops it into her mouth.
Liz pulls a sheet of panda and heart stickers from her bag and offers one to her daughter. One by one, they layer heart and panda stickers onto each other’s arms and faces, and Liz watches her daughter with a happy, attentive smile — two people alone in the chaos of a room of people.
This is the moment Liz has waited a lifetime for. And, perhaps without knowing it, a moment her daughter has waited for, too.
As they move into a sunny room to sign paperwork with several ministry officials, so quickly, a friendship begins to bloom between Liz and her daughter.
Liz hands her a light-up toy phone, which she holds up to her ear. They are both covered in stickers, from their noses to their arms and coats.
“What’s her American name?” a government official asks Liz.
“Ellia,” Liz responds. “Ellia Xiao.”
Ellia. In Hebrew it means “God has answered” — the same words of affirmation that Liz repeated to herself as a mantra over the past 16 months.
“I named her that because I wanted her to know that even though her story is hard, that He’s in it and He has answered,” Liz says. “It’s a reminder that you can’t control everything. Especially in adoption. I mean, you can’t control life anyways, but you really feel that in adoption when your heart is just out there.”
Billie Loewen | Creative Lead