A few Saturdays ago I volunteered at St. Rita’s Orphanage. I thought this was something I would do often while living in the Philippines but I wasn’t prepared for all the feelings I had when I adopted my daughter to come rushing back. It’s not surprising, of course, but for some reason I just hadn’t anticipated it.
For me, my sense of smell is very acute and often the way a place smells will bring back all kinds of memories. As I walked up to St. Rita’s I was more numb than anything else. For one I was tired after not having slept very well the night before but I was also trying to deaden the thoughts I had about orphans and poverty and the like to avoid getting emotional around the other volunteers who are practically strangers to me. In addition, a few of them know I have adopted and I was trying to avoid conversations about adoption at that particular time. I didn’t want to share why I had adopted or talk about my daughter. I just wanted to keep my feelings private.
Walking towards the door I think I felt like everyone else but once I walked into the door I know that a clear division occurred. I was no longer just a curious volunteer, an empathetic individual eager to share love and compassion with Filipino orphans. I was now there as an adoptive parent with an entirely different perspective. And when did this divide occur exactly? I can pinpoint it to the moment I walked into the baby room and breathed in a familiar smell. The smell was identical to that in the orphanages I have been in in Ethiopia. A mixture of formula, cleaning products, dirty diapers and baby vomit I suppose. A smell that is exactly the same in East Africa and Southeast Asia. A smell with no identity, no allegiance, no connection but a smell that instantaneously transported me back to when I was there to change two lives.
Without much elaboration I can say that it was hard. It was clean, the children seemed very well cared for and the grounds were very well-kept but it was still hard. The crying babies, the rows of cribs, me wondering about each of their stories and thinking of my own child’s story made it difficult. Perhaps it was too close to my daughter’s adoption? Perhaps my feelings about adoption and family are too raw? I’m not sure and though I do hope to spend more time here, right now isn’t the time. And that’s OK.