Of all the ways we communicate love, gazing into a child’s eyes is among the most powerful. Children whose parents don’t spend enough time looking directly into their eyes have lower self-esteem, less confidence, and higher rates of depression.
I learned this while reading a slim but powerful book, “How to Really Love a Child” by Dr. Ross Campbell. At the time my husband and I had just one child. We now have six–including our precious adopted daughter, Ruth, who died just before turning eight from complications related to cerebral palsy.
Over the years, I have found the importance of eye gaze to be startlingly true. Have a child whose acting out or upset or feeling down, spend a few moments directly gazing into his or her eyes. The connection is powerful and immediate. Avoid a child’s eyes and they will feel undervalued and shunned. Eye gaze makes us feel seen, valued, and loved.
I have also noticed this powerful effect while gazing into the eyes of each of our babies. Did you know that when holding an infant, the distance from a mother’s arms to her eyes is optimal length for a newborn to focus on a mother’s face? Yet what happens when the connection is lost because a mother is too busy? Or disconnected? Or gone?
Our youngest child is four-months-old. Without the ability to talk, he searches for my face and will spend as much time looking into my eyes as I look into his. That connection is the umbilical cord that feeds his developing self-worth, supplying emotional nourishment that will allow him to thrive and grow.
Time spent this way is among the most precious I’ve had with each of my children. Yet it haunts me when I think of the millions of abandoned and orphaned and neglected children, looking for someone to fill them with this love. What does it feel like to be a baby with no mother to hold him? An abandoned or orphaned child looking for a face that isn’t there?
Our daughter, Ruth, was born in April of 2003 in Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. Within hours, her mother abandoned her three-pound, gasping-for-breath daughter. Ruth spent three months in this same hospital–a place so overcrowded and understaffed that women bring their own mats and often give birth on the floor.
But Ruth was blessed. That July, she was transferred to Welcome Home Africa, a beautiful children’s home two hours away in Jinja. Nine months later, a doctor diagnosed Ruth with cerebral palsy and she was sent to Maine for six months of physical therapy, which is how we met her and fell in love.
It’s a long story, but the following summer, I brought Ruth back to Uganda and got permission to adopt. After a month there, we received the final paper needed to bring her home six hours before our plane left, from Nairobi, where we’d gone to finalize her visa. As our plane taxied down the airstrip, the middle-aged, Californian woman sitting next to me wiped tears from her eyes.
She’d spent a month teaching in the Nairobi slums, some of the worst in the world, tutoring children who were crammed into cardboard houses that stretched for miles.
“They wouldn’t look in my eyes,” she said. “I couldn’t get them to speak. I had to hold their chins up with my hands.”
What more powerful proof of the emotional damage done when a child is not properly loved?
This is National Adoption Month. According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, more than 400,500 American children are in the foster care system living without permanent families. One quarter of them are eligible for adoption, but nearly half will spend three years waiting for a family.
Around the world, 17,900,000 children have lost both parents or are living in orphanages or on the streets. More than a million more have lost one parent, placing them at a greater risk of abuse, malnutrition, and disease.
Adoption is not easy, but the emotional rewards vastly outweigh the cost–even after a child is gone. Adopting Ruth was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In the six-and-a-half years she was with us, she never spoke a word. Instead, she communicated with her eyes. When I looked into them long and deep, it was clear she knew she was loved.
This November, I’ll be sharing about adoption–mine and others. I hope you’ll join me by subscribing to this blog and liking my facebook page, sharing it with others. Through social media, I hope to raise enough “likes” to show publishers there is interest in my memoir about Ruth, which will raise money for other abandoned children and those with disabilities.
Together, let’s show them they are loved.
“God’s eyes are always watching over you, because you are precious to him and he loves you,” Isaiah 43:4.