Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield


I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.


Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

I pulled down my award-winning adoption blog. I removed myself from all online forums and listservs. I unfollowed certain adoption people on Twitter and unfriended them on Facebook, keeping only my daughter’s mother and those who held rank in other categories in my life. I even cold turkey stopped attending an in-person adoption support group, which I had been helpful in creating and sustaining.

I walked away without looking back. If we’re speaking in adopto-speak, you could say I “closed” my adoption world.

And I’m better for it.

I so badly wanted to be understood in those early days after placing my daughter. I wanted to talk to people who knew the deep hole ripped within my being. I didn’t want to explain the loss to people who had no clue; I wanted the silent understanding that comes with having been there, done that.

I turned to online groups first, my inner introvert and the area in which I live not leaving me other options. I wasn’t welcome in any support groups for birth parents as I maintained an open adoption with my daughter’s family; their losses as birth parents in closed adoptions were more real than mine. At one point, a woman took pictures of my daughter and placed anti-adoption rhetoric on them.

But those with deep hurt, caused by adoption and its years of secrecy, its problems with ethics, and life-long loss associated with relinquishment weren’t the only ones who didn’t like my presence in their online groups. Adoptive parents didn’t like the way I shared the realities of my loss; should openness heal those wounds? They called me bitter and angry when I questioned unethical laws. Instead of offering solace when I grieved the loss of my daughter in my life, they lashed out and told me to quit complaining; I chose this, after all.

We talk so much about the mommy-wars, about breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, but no one was talking about the parent-on-parent hate so prevalent in the adoption world. No one wanted to discuss how to fix the problem as nobody wanted to own up to their own participation in the hate. I needed support to make sense of the challenges I faced in open adoption, but I couldn’t find any. I knew many parents who gave up long before I did, their adoption relationships paying the price.

I shared less and less of my adoption-related life online, instead choosing to help local women start a face-to-face support group for birth parents. My hopes of being heard and, most importantly, respected soon shattered on the floor of a coffee house basement when another mother yelled at me and stormed out for sharing my truth.

My truth isn’t always to understand, of course. Sometimes I’m thrilled when my daughter’s family includes me in her life, when she texts me to ask me a question, or when the sons I am now parenting delight over a visit. Other times I struggle with the overwhelming reality of loss, most often when my younger, parented children express their own feelings of grieving her lack of daily presence in our lives. I present an odd mixture of truth to the adoption world, one that doesn’t fit a mold.

A few months later, I quit everything.

I don’t fancy myself a quitter, but a human being can only stand so much hatred, so much blame-game, so much time in fight or flight mode. At some point, it has to be acceptable for a person to say, “This is enough.” And so I said, “This is enough.”

I turned inward, sharing and seeking comfort in only those closest to me. I turned to those trusted few each time her birthday month rolled around; I struggle the most around her birthday. I found a new therapist who also helped me understand some of the bigger picture of my adoption journey. Together we focus on what I need at any given time rather than engaging in a combative back-and-forth as to who has it worse. I’ve also learned to share more with my husband; I thought by not sharing how I felt, I protected him. Instead, I isolated both of us from bigger healing.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing about adoption again, gently sticking my toe into the water. For the most part, the tentative return feels a bit like the first ocean swim after a winter spent indoors. I’m struggling a bit, but I remember how to do this. I’ve already felt some of the hatred in anonymous comments and not-so-anonymous questioning of my exit and return. But I’ve also felt the warmth of love from friends, family, and strangers alike.

The warmth of the larger community, even beyond just those specifically touched by adoption, is what drew me in over a decade ago. People wanting to connect with people, to meet others in their space, to say, “You are not alone;” these things will always matter the most to me.

As I find my footing again in what I share online about adoption and how it touches me and affects my family, I feel grateful for the lessons I learned before, the space I gave myself, and for the open arms of the online community. I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

For now, I’ll wade in a little deeper, but maybe only to my ankles.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo by Scott Boruchov




History of David

History of David

Snow on the trees in spring season

By Kris Rasmussen

I know you only from the April showers that always flowed down our mother’s face, but never fully drowned her sorrow. By the lilies she places on the your grave each year;the only evidence of your few  breaths  on this planet.

Tonight, a snowy-mix fills the Michigan spring night, and Mom mentions you to me in a moment of spontaneous reminiscing, the kind she has too frequently these days. “Dr. Frye revived his body three times, you know. He decided that was enough. I always had to hope he was right.”  Then she notices how dirty the front windows are looking.

I, too, notice the smudges and streaks clouding our view of the sturdy maple and the precocious squirrels racing around it. I don’t answer Mom right away, because middle age brings its own wistful wanderings. I list all the ways someone I never met has marked my life.

I would never have been delivered to our parents’ doorstep from the William Booth Hospital for Unwed Mothers.

I would have remained Eleanor, a name I despise but was given to me by my foster mom.

I would have missed Coming Home days, which were, as I smugly told the kids at school, way better than birthdays.

My birthday featured all the traditional trappings of cake, parties, and gifts. My Coming Home Day, January 28 included indulgent after-Christmas bargain shopping for more presents, and permission to gorge myself on macaroni and cheese and Chicken in a Biscuit crackers until I almost puked. One year, I forced my brother to sit next to me while we went to see 101 Dalmatians, just because it was my day. (He  was adopted, too, so don’t worry, he had his day as well.)

Mom never forgot your birthday, but it was marked by screams, tears and, occasionally , broken dishes, not wrapping paper and bows. Every April Mom would say the same thing by way of explanation, “Well, the anniversary of David’s birthday is this month. What do you expect?”

What did I expect? Nothing. Our mother was the only one in my family who even spoke of you. Grandpa and Grandma Smith, Dad, Aunt Paula and Uncle Harold never mentioned you. Hundreds of photos of camping trips, hunting trips, fishing trips still exist, but not one photo of Mom pregnant with you – as if that might have been some sort of jinx.

Yet you lingered along the edges of my childhood anyway.

I felt your breath exhale from our parents’ lungs every time I asked to ride my bike beyond the usual boundary of Jennings Avenue to venture some place all by myself, like to the corner of Myrtle Street. Their response: “It’s too dangerous.” Doctors tried six different times to fix a  chronic condition in my knees growing up. Before each operation, you flickered in our parents’ eyes along with their anxiety. At 21, I was rushed to the hospital after being pummeled to the pavement by a sedan. Despite the searing jolts of pain, I refused to tell the police officers how to call Mom and Dad because I didn’t want to upset them. They had lost one child, but they were not going to lose me.

When my brother rebelled, fought someone in school, shoplifted from a grocery store, Mom hugged me too tightly and said “Losing David was a sign I shouldn’t have been a mother after all.”

You were the one God sent us because you were just what we needed, Dad scribbled on a card to me once.

You told us that before you came to live with us you were walking around in the woods with Jesus, my mom would remind me, shaking her head in amazement.

Surely it was this religious fervor over my “filling in” for you that somehow contributed to my stellar GPA and pristine high school reputation.

Tonight, I press Mom for details about your life. I’m learning almost too late that stories can drown in bitterness, wither from neglect, and vanish from inevitable forgetfulness. If I don’t learn your story now, it will die with our mother. One way I can honor you both is to find out the history of your life.

Mom snaps out of her reverie to tell me more.

Dr. Frye actually forbid Mom to become pregnant. Her high blood pressure and high risk of eclampsia made her a poor risk. “You’ll never make it to term,” he’d warned.  If there is anything you should know about Mom, it’s that she listens to no one when she really wants something. She wanted you more than anything, so you were conceived after years of our parents dodging the shame-filled question, “Why haven’t you started a family yet?”

The two of you made it only to twenty-four weeks. Mom never saw your face. Neither did Dad. Convinced he was losing both his wife and his son, he huddled on his knees in a janitor’s closet. Meanwhile the Catholic nurses, some my mother had worked with for years, refused to participate in the emergency procedure which saved her life – barely – but couldn’t save yours. She never forgave them.

Arms empty, Mom refused to sign a consent to have her tubes tied. Did I mention Mom was – and is – a stubborn woman? But Dad won this argument – in fact, this may be the only argument he ever won – when he told her he would never touch her again if she didn’t have the surgery.

Which brings your story back to me, sitting here in an olive and mustard living room, weary and striving to hold onto one more piece of Mom before it’s too late. I allow myself to dwell on one final connection you and I have. Someday I will likely be buried in a plot next to yours.

I wonder what our stories will mean to anyone else then.

Kris Rasmussen is an educator, playwright, and freelance writer living in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction work has been published in magazines and journals such as The Bear River Review and Art House America. She was a contributing editor for the multi-faith website Beliefnet for several years. In addition, her dramatic work has been by produced by the Forward Theater Company in Madison, Wisconsin and published by Lillenas Drama. She is grateful to authors Lauren Winner and Charity Singleton Craig for introducing her to the work of Brain, Child. You can follow her on twitter @krisras63 or visit her website at






Why I Put my Drug-Affected Daughter Back on Drugs

Why I Put my Drug-Affected Daughter Back on Drugs


By Melissa Hart

“Stupid Mommy! I hate you! You’re an idiot!”

It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. I cower in a corridor like a kicked mutt surrounded by serene hemp-clad parents and their eight-year-olds. Patchouli oil emanates from their golden arms and legs. They bend their sunny open faces toward one another—faces that cloud and pinch at the sight of my second-grader.

She’s flushed and furious, sweaty curls standing on end. She smells of spilled tempura paint and noodle soup from her overturned Thermos on the floor. Her green dinosaur boots stamp a frenzied tarantella around me as she screams.

“You never do what I want. You’re the worst mother ever!”

Shame flames my cheeks. The other mamas in the hallway, the bearded longhaired papas, probably believe her. I’m Snow White’s Evil Queen, Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel. In short, I most surely suck.

I don’t meet the eyes around me, I don’t say a word. I turn, chin ratcheted at an ignoble angle, and walk out the door praying my child will follow. She does, still shrieking insults. Then, she kicks me.

My transgression? I’ve left the Honda in the garage on this sunny day and asked her to walk a half mile home with me.

*     *     *

“She needs medication if she’s going to stay at this school.”

My daughter’s principal, boyish and skinny as a weasel, sits in the counselor’s office across from the tranquil second-grade teacher and me, and delivers his verdict. “In the classroom,” he tells me, “she screams over math and reading assignments. She does cartwheels behind the teacher when she’s delivering a lesson. A boy called her ‘weirdo’ and she slugged him. She refuses to sit at her desk for anything academic and wants to spend all her time at the Peace Table.”

The Peace Table. Most schools have detention. My kid’s classroom has a hand-carved wooden table where a troubled student can go to chill out. My child has, I discover, taken up permanent residency there. We’re gathered together in the principal’s office today because two hours earlier, he bent low to her ear to suggest she return to her desk, and she shoved him.

“She threw my back out.” He reaches behind him to massage his injured lumbar. I bow my head, but he isn’t finished. “I saw a documentary on kids adopted from Romania. They had reactive attachment disorder—all the same issues as your daughter. The only thing that helps these kids is medication . . . mood stabilizers.”

Gently, the teacher’s mouth falls open. Marijuana’s about to be legalized in Oregon and the smell of it competes with patchouli in the afternoon corridor. My fellow parents may rock the ganja, but our school’s a hotbed of anti-vaccination activists. They carpool up to the Capitol to protest mandatory inoculation, hold chicken pox parties and embrace each other in celebration when their kids present with the itchy red spots. Once, I mentioned to a father in the corridor that I’d taken my child for a flu shot, and he got up in my face.

“Why,” he snarled, “Would you poison your daughter?”

Me, I’m a fan of modern medicine. My child is vaccinated, and when she falls ill, she takes Tylenol. But mood-altering drugs? For a second-grader?

I want to remind the principal that my husband and I adopted our daughter at 19 months old from a skilled foster mother in Oregon—not from Romania where kids once languished, cribbed in their own excrement, for a decade. Instead, I spread my palms out on the table in supplication. I’m beaten, pummeled by years of similar meetings in preschool, in kindergarten, in first grade. I think of a summer camp counselor who summed up my child’s temperament in one sentence:

“She’s not one who earns a lot of stickers.”

At last, I address the principal. “We’ll do,” I say, “whatever you think is best.”

The second-grade teacher stands up, long hair swinging. At six-foot-four, she’s quiet royalty in the shabby room. “I’ll meditate on her,” she says, by which she means she’ll actually stay up an extra half hour that night to sit in lotus position and ruminate upon my child and her issues. “I think there are alternatives,” she concludes mildly, “to drugging your daughter.”

I’d love to believe her. But I think we’ve run out of options.

*     *     *

Research abounds on the effects of constant loving touch and eye-contact with babies. In parks and grocery stores, infants dangle from frontal packs like Sigourney Weaver’s alien baby. My husband and I wore our own daughter in a soft cloth backpack until her feet nearly touched the ground; we gazed into her eyes and hand-fed her long after she could feed herself. But even those ministrations weren’t enough to soothe prenatal exposure to god-knows-what substances, coupled with early emotional neglect.

At birth, relinquished by parents who—in social worker speak—”had priorities other than child-rearing,” she moved in with a career foster mother—a woman who devoted her life to giving bereft babies a decent start in life in exchange for financial stipend from the state. The foster mom—a stoic big-hipped brunette with a passion for dragon decor–drove her charges to medical appointments and arranged for occupational and physical therapists to visit her home. With four children roughly the same age howling the same basic needs, she found little time to coo and cuddle. My husband once walked into her kitchen to find four toddlers arranged in a high chair assembly line, opening their mouths in turn to receive spoons of canned pears.

“She’s a feisty one,” the foster mother told us on the day we met our new daughter. She chuckled, a toddler under each arm, their chubby hands clutching hand-knit stuffed dragons. “Falls asleep squalling in the middle of the living room floor. I just step over her.”

I gazed at the strange little girl tottering across the sunny summer porch. She was dressed in a peach pantsuit with her curls gelled backward. Somewhere, she’d picked up a pointy lawn ornament, which she brandished it in my direction. With her face wrinkled into a scowl, she looked like an aggrieved elderly bingo player who’d been dealt a crappy card.

I didn’t know then about the trauma that foster babies experience—hadn’t considered what it felt like for her to be ripped from the only body, the only sounds and smells she’d known for nine months and embraced by an incubator for a week, and then a car seat and a high chair and a crib, but not by much else.

Perhaps, when no one responds to her pleas for assistance with a wet diaper or with a favorite ball that has rolled under the couch, she learns to holler like hell. She learns to kick and yell and scream because it earns her attention—even if it’s attention in the form of exasperated assistance. Lacking that, she shuts her eyes and withdraws into herself. Alone behind her closed lids, she ignores the fuzzy dragon-slippers that step over her. She searches for peace.

*     *     *

It’s Parent-Teacher Night. My husband and I walk into the second-grade classroom with its walls plastered in colorful drawings and watercolors around rows of two-seater tables. We weave through a crowd of parents embracing and planning play dates and roller-skating parties to which our child is never invited. We stop at a desk in front of the teacher’s podium. “Here’s her name tag,” I tell my husband. “Front and center.”

“She’ll always sit where I can put a hand on her shoulder if I need to.” The teacher looks down at me from her awesome height. “A soft touch helps to focus her.”

As other parents exclaim over their children’s hand-knitted flute cases and beeswax candles molded into the shape of Mozart or Lao Tzu, we look at the curious one-legged stool that stands in place of a chair at our daughter’s seat. “It gives her sensory information,” the teacher tells us, “and helps her to be aware of her body in space.”

We look at her, blankly. She smiles. “It calms her down.”

We heft the weighted blue blanket under our child’s desk—another calming device—and note the noise-canceling headphones. There’s a necklace on her desk—a black string with a blue and white rubber triangle. It’s for chewing; otherwise, she gnaws her pencil in half.

We move toward the Peace Table at the back of the room. “She spends a lot of time here looking at books,” the teacher tells us, “particularly if she’s having a rough day.”

My husband and I sink into the little chairs at the scrubbed wooden table. We grip each other’s hands, no words for our humiliation.

“Breeze is racing through the Little House series,” I hear one mama tell another. “She wants to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. She sewed her own sunbonnet and apron.”
“I wish Moss would read,” a father says. “It’s all about lacrosse at our house.”

My daughter refuses to read. We’ve blown through soccer lessons, basketball, ballet, gymnastics, horseback riding, aerial silks. Each coach and teacher says the same thing. “She doesn’t like to listen,” by which they mean, “She’s giving us a boatload of grief, and we’re sinking. Please, please bail.”

“We’re sorry,” we tell them and slink away from the field or gymnasium or dance studio in the wake of our failure.

At home, presented with requests to feed the cats or set the table or finish lessons sent home from school, our eight-year old howls. If we persist, the insults begin. “I hate you! You’re stupid!” And—wait for it—”You’re not my real parents.” She calls it the “Everything Feeling,” those emotions that collide within her and explode in all directions, causing her hands and feet and words to lash out and hurt someone else as much as she’s hurting.

I look around at the life we’ve created for her—the bedroom full of books and dress-up clothes and musical instruments, the photos on the wall of our family vacations to tropical beaches and wildflower mountains and national parks. I fight an urge to shake her little shoulders and stare into her big brown hostile eyes and yell, “Why can’t you just be happy?”

            But I don’t . . . because I know better. The Everything Feeling’s got me in its grip as well, and has since I was her age.

*     *     *

            I’m eight years old. My mother—my confidante and playmate and Brownie leader–buckles my siblings and me into our station wagon and flees from our chic Los Angeles suburb. She deposits us in a scrappy duplex half an hour north in a scrappier beachside community. A makeup less woman–Budweiser in one hand and Marlboro in another–embraces her. She’s my mother’s new lover. “We’re leaving your father,” Mom tells me.

And, I add silently, my friends and my school and my Brownie troop, our cats and never-ending rabbits and the cute neighbor boy who’s taught me to shoot the bird and pass gas like the Fourth of July.

I don’t say a word; I don’t cry. I’ve heard the midnight screaming and the shattered glass. I’ve seen the black eyes, her bruised nose. I’ve felt her fear and mine, and I’m old enough to grasp the necessity of loss.

To a point, and then, not.

Something in me begins to hate my mother for not protecting me from trauma. I despise her new girlfriend—her rasping voice and her habit of striking a match on the zipper of her Levi’s. I flee our duplex every chance I get and run wild on the beach with a pack of stray dogs. I go feral. I growl at the nicotine stink of the living room as we eat dinner on tired carpet in front of the cold empty fireplace. I fall asleep to the wail of the foghorn on the jetty with my teeth and fists and stomach clenched tight.

It takes my father three weeks to find us. He appears at the front door with a patrol car’s lights whirling behind him and demands that my mother meet him outside. She and her girlfriend stand in the doorway, arms folded across their Superman t-shirts, sans bras. They shake their heads. “No way,” they say.

An officer steps from the car. Red and blue beams flash across the sandy volleyball court between duplexes. He walks up the steps and presents a piece of paper. My mother’s face crumples. We follow our father—me first, then my younger sister and brother, down the stairs and into his Buick. It’s 1978. The DSM IV has recently deigned to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Still, a psychologist declares my mother unfit to raise children.

I never live with her again.

As a concession, the judge allows us to see her two weekends a month; apparently, she can’t turn us gay in 48 hours’ time. Every other Friday, she drives down in her VW bus to pick us up from our father’s house. I murmur tearful goodbyes to the stepmother we’re learning to love and shed more tears on Sundays when I’m ripped from my mother. I can’t feel her arms around me, smell her, or see her for ten days at a time. I forget how to draw a deep breath; I walk on tiptoe and read a novel a day between school and bedtime, four on the weekends I’m not with Mom.

“Why can’t you just be happy?”

Each of my parents demands this throughout my adolescence. Every other Sunday night, I sit in my bedroom on the ice-blue carpet, head pillowed on the rosy bedspread, and replay my weekend at the beach. Saltwater and sand still cling to my calves as I sit there for hours, eyes shut tight, hands shaking. No one comes into comfort me.

Therapy? No one has time. Mood stabilizers—out of the question. The Reagans are in the White House; red ribbons tied on the fence around my school remind me to just say no to the hooded stoner kids lounging in my classroom’s back rows. Drugs are for weak people, my father and stepmother tell me, mixing a third gin and tonic. “We’re fine. We’ve got this.”

My insomnia begins that year. My mother’s first girlfriend leaves her. I lay rigid in the darkness, worrying about her until the wee hours. Is she lonely? Is she suicidal? What if she dies? In my father’s bedroom, the battles begin anew—the slamming doors, the screams, the shattering glass. My brain waves twist and warp, training themselves into terror.

But I know nothing of neuropsychology. All I know is a longing to run the safety razor across my wrists as I stand in the shower at six AM. A crushing depression follows me to school, trailing me onto the high school track and the drama club stage.

I don’t do drugs—I do musical theater. I try unconsciously to restructure my neuropathways, boosting serotonin with exercise and music and laughter with friends. Some days, I almost achieve a retraining. But fear triggered by years of Sunday-night separations, by domestic disturbance and an officer at the door suggesting my stepmother take us to a friend’s house until my father stops losing his shit—these incidents reinforce my faulty neuropathways until I stand sobbing in the shower at dawn

*   *   *

I make it through college eschewing all other meds save Benadryl—two of the pink pills at night when chamomile tea and melatonin tablets fail. When diphenhydramine stops knocking me out, I add acetaminophen to the mix. Tylenol PM enables graduate school, marriage, and the adoption of my daughter.

In the daylight, I’m functional. My child is in preschool each morning with a teacher who loves her. But then, she hits kindergarten. Our world becomes afterschool meetings with principals, IEP circuses. The rooms of our house echo with screaming and slammed doors. At night, I lay in my husband’s arms and curse the anxiety that robs me of sleep.

He finds me a psychologist, a mellow and intelligent young man who tells me how much my husband loves me, how much I need help. He tells me a story of his husband—a man my age plagued by insomnia until he went on a low dose of Ambien. “It’s okay to take sleep aids,” the therapist concludes, but I shake my head.

Beholden to a prescription, I explain, means more than just a half hour wait at Rite Aid once a month. It means inadequacy, a failure to function like everyone else, to get a grip.

“Lots of people take prescription meds,” he argues.

I think of Nancy Reagan’s red ribbons and shake my head. “I’m fine,” I tell him. “I’ve got this.”

I take up long-distance running; now I’m thin and muscular and exhausted. Periodically, I break out in hives. An allergy, I tell myself, to sports gel or Gatorade or the flax seeds I spoon into kale smoothies. But when my lips bulge and my eyes swell shut and my husband drives me to the emergency room looking like the Elephant Man and with his same wheeze, the doctor refers me to another who diagnoses Hashimoto’s Disease. Three and a half decades of anxiety and sleeplessness have caused my immune system to attack my thyroid.

“Take this pill every morning.” The pharmacist at Rite Aid shows me the little blue oval of Levothyroxine.

“For how long?” I ask him.

He blinks surprise behind his spectacles. “For the rest of your life.”

*     *     *

Shortly after Parent-Teacher Night, I attend a regional adoption conference. Adoptive parents, foster parents, and social workers share watery coffee and stale maple-glazed donuts in a chilly borrowed office suite, listening to a sociologist talk about the effects of early trauma on a child’s neurological development. Brain scans appear on her PowerPoint like a couple of cauliflowers. “This is the brain of a normally-developing child at three years old,” she tells us. “And this is the brain of a three-year old foster child who’s experienced trauma and neglect.”

We study the runt cauliflower, significantly smaller, and listen to the list of potential stressors affecting our kids. They start in the womb with little pre-natal care and periodic baths in drugs and alcohol. They extend to the shock of delivery and removal from the birth mother, then placement in a sterile neo-natal unit and a transfer to foster parents who may or may not offer physical affection and a tranquil, structured environment.

Some foster parents—mostly retired and courting sainthood—have the luxury of accepting one drug-affected infant at a time. They carry the child everywhere, cuddling, crooning, and feeding them pudding while gazing into their eyes–the works. Others juggle several needy kiddos at once. Money and time, in short supply, don’t permit a whole lot of baby wearing and eye contact.

“Foster kids’ brains have a different structure,” the sociologist tells our goose bumped group of conference participants. “They have a low volume of calming chemicals and a high volume of excitatory chemicals. Our kids view conflict—any conflict—as a threat to their survival. Adoptive parents, no matter how noble their intentions, represent one more trauma.”

Someone raises a hand. “What about medication? Anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants?”

The presenter taps the poor little wrinkled cauliflower on the screen with her pencil. “Meds can help,” she says. “A lot.”

She clicks off her laptop and invites questions from the group. I flee to the restroom. In a sterile stall I sit and stare at the door. Right there on the cold toilet seat, I have an epiphany that changes my life.

My brain needs help.

I slink toward my little white anti-anxiety pill at 44 years old, resolute but convinced that I’ve failed at the basic human tasks of sleep and moderate optimism. Within two days of swallowing it, I sleep an eight-hour night. “Everyone’s getting medication for Christmas!” I joke with my husband.

Everyone that is, except our daughter.

            *   *     *

Our eight-year old, I continue to insist, needs affection and attention and hip hop lessons—not mood stabilizers. Never mind that she screams over her plate of spaghetti because it’s got the wrong sauce, screams over the loss of her favorite TV show, chases the cats, fists me in the stomach, and falls into bed squalling. “We’ll find her a good therapist,” I tell my husband. “That’ll help.”

We agree on a kind Polish counselor who does sand play therapy with innumerable plastic Disney figures and teaches our child to lie on her back in a warmly carpeted office and blow soap bubbles, breathing deeply to combat stress. The woman teaches her “rabbit breaths” —short bursts of inhale and a long exhale designed to replace hyperventilating over second-grade math assignments and requests to set the dinner table.

None of it helps. My daughter shoves the principal, who begins sending her home from school mid-morning. “We’re a charter school,” he says. “We’re not set up for behavioral disorders. Think about moving her to a special education class at the public school.”

I grit my teeth. I’ve been a special ed teacher, know first-hand the challenges of wrangling a class full of kids—each with specific needs and none getting optimum attention. I’ve stepped over plenty of squalling children myself to attend to the one toppling computers from desks and punching holes in the walls. “She is not,” I tell the principal, “switching schools.”

In the dank patchouli corridor, when my daughter actually does manage to make it to 2:45, I meet no parent’s eyes. The other second-graders line up in the doorway and shake the teacher’s hand and grasp their hand-woven lunch baskets, heading off in pairs for afternoon play dates and Friday night slumber parties. My child’s the last to leave. She huddles at the Peace Table while the teacher gently reprimands her for the latest shrieking/hitting/spitting incident. At home, she shuts herself up in her room and slumps on the bed.

“I feel like a broken light bulb,” she tells me, surrounded by piles of schoolwork she hasn’t completed.

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

“I’m different from everyone,” she mutters. “I shouldn’t be here.” And then, “I want to be dead.”

I stare at her—my suicidal eight-year old in her blue Frozen t-shirt. The words under a smirking blond Elsa read “My castle, my rules.”

For the second time in a month, I experience an epiphany. What other choice did Elsa have, I think, after 18 years of loss and neglect? Her parents were dead. A propensity for frigid temper tantrums kept her locked in her room. Why wouldn’t she retreat to the top of a mountain, build a fortress of solitude, and take charge of her environment?

Maybe if she’d just swallowed a little mood stabilizer once a day, she wouldn’t have iced an entire kingdom.

I call my husband. He phones a developmental pediatrician and makes an appointment for diagnosis and a prescription. I call the principal and withdraw our daughter from her second-grade classroom. “We’re going to homeschool her,” I say, the sentence absolving me of IEP meetings and outrage and shame. Elsa’s words ring through my head, full of triumph.

My castle, my rules.

*     *     *

It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. My child, a third-grader now, runs to meet a bus full of friends outside the building that houses their afternoon program. They race into a classroom full of art supplies and sewing machines and games and books and beanbags. She has time for a quick hug, a swift, “I love you, Mama,” before melting into a group of giggling girls.

At home, I open my laptop beside her colorful math and literature textbooks, the flash cards, the globe, the Borax crystals and the paper-and-string robotic finger she’s created. We’ve been homeschooling for six months now. We laugh a lot. Sometimes, we argue. On our worst days, when I resent having to wake up too early and stay up too late to attend to my own work, or my daughter fumes at having to study when she wants to lounge on the couch reading Garfield comics, we cry. But mostly, we relish small daily revelations and the one big one—she’s finally happy.

She takes mood stabilizers for six months. They chill her out, but give her a Winnie the Pooh physique and a slowness not conducive to gymnastics and hip-hop classes. With the pediatrician’s permission, we cut the dosage in half and wait for the return of our demon child.

She doesn’t resurface.

Instead, she wakes up smiling, singing, even—excited about her day.

We quarter the pills, then abandon them altogether for a low dose of Ritalin which allows her to learn multiplication and fractions and spelling without chewing her pencil in half.

Several mornings a week, we walk up the hill to a forested park, on a quests for newts in the stream and Cooper’s hawks in the Doug firs. We discuss planets and poetry and how baby chickens can breathe inside the egg.

One day, on a sunny morning on which we’ve discovered four types of lichen on a fallen branch and spent 20 minutes identifying a colossal mound of gleaming black opossum dung, she slips her hand into mine.

“Remember when I was so bad at school?” she asks me.

“You weren’t bad,” I respond automatically. “You were scared and angry.”

We walk past a patch of sunny daffodils. I point out a deer path winding through the tall grass, but she persists.

“I was mad at you for leaving,” she says. “Every day, I missed you.”

I squeeze her little shoulders and stare into her big brown affectionate eyes, remembering what it felt like to be torn from my own mother 10 days at a time.

“I know,” I tell her, and we walk hand in hand toward home.

Author’s Note: It’s been almost a year since I completed the final draft of Rabbit Breaths–a year of homeschooling, of meetings with developmental pediatricians and counselors who diagnosed my daughter with severe ADHD. We’re still looking for the right medication that allows her to function calmly and happily in the world. Not medicating isn’t an option, but my husband and I have greatly stepped up our attention to nutrition and sleep and exercise and outdoor exploration and the arts. As well, we discovered Russell Barkley’s excellent Taking Charge of ADHD and a local parent/child support group. We take each day an hour at a time, practicing (and sometimes failing) our patience and creativity. Most days, we remember to laugh.  

Melissa Hart is the author of the YA novel Avenging the Owl (SkyPony, 2016) and the memoirs Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2015) and Gringa (2009). She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine.




By Stephanie Andersen

womanhood“It’s still snowing out there,” she said.

Mom and I were tucked under her blue comforter on her bed late one afternoon, staring out the window into the backyard. The snow had settled on the pine branches, and the windows shook a little in the November wind. I pushed my head into the space between her arm and breast, tracing the hardness of the catheter buried under her skin. She was holding a tiny portrait of a young Victorian woman with big brown eyes, soft curly hair, and pursed lips.

“This is how I imagine you’ll look when you grow up,” she told me.

I stared at the face of the woman and tried to imagine myself as her. She seemed gentle, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes shy and hopeful, her breasts round and high. I was only nine years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever seriously considered the possibility of becoming something other than the child I was.

Mom had found the lump in her breast five years earlier, and the doctors had told her she had only three months to live. She told the doctors, “Go to hell,” then started her treatment. She’d changed her diet, exercised, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, lost her hair, burnt her skin with radiation, and begged God to save her life. She had a little girl to take care of.

She had lived six years longer than the doctors expected, but when they told her they would have to remove her breast, my mother refused. She told my father that she was sure losing a breast would take something from her that she wasn’t prepared to lose.

I had not yet developed breasts. All I knew of womanhood was the shape of my mother’s body, the way she fit around me in her bed, the way she smelled of St. Ives lotion, of baby powder, and of ginger. I had no interest in attaining any of this for myself. I loved the simplicity of my own body, my ability to run barefoot and shirtless in my own backyard. I was thankful that I did not bleed from my private parts and have to leave diapers drenched with blood in the bathroom garbage. My father and I were free, untangled by the chains of what kept my mother from throwing off her shirt and jumping into the lake at the park with us.

I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want my mother’s body. Strength was freedom, and a woman’s body was weak and stifling.

One morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. I ran to my mother.

“I have a bump on my chest,” I told her. “And it hurts.”

She smiled. “You’re getting your breasts,” she said, rubbing her fingers gently over the tiny bump. “You’re becoming a woman.”

I backed away from her. “It’s breast cancer, isn’t it?” I asked. “It must be.”

For several weeks, my mother argued with me, explaining that I was not dying, just growing up. But I could not be convinced until she took me to a doctor for a thorough examination.

“I don’t want breasts,” I told my mother. “My life is over.”

“No, Stephanie. Your life is just beginning. You’re going to be a woman. And that is a magical, wonderful thing. You’ll see.”

“Breasts stink,” I told my mother after school a week later. “And so does womanhood.” Then I stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Two months before my twelfth birthday, I stood over her, studying her lifeless body. She lay stiffly on a hospital bed in our den. I raised her cold hand and tried to memorize how her fingers felt between mine. Above her on the wall hung a picture of us, me as an infant in her lap, my two sisters flanking us, Mom’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist. It was only then that I realized why my mother stared so intently at the picture of that Victorian woman. It was the only image of me as a woman that she would ever see. And as this realization crept through my thoughts, I suddenly felt a new desire that I had never known before. I wanted to find out what it was about a woman’s body that my mother sacrificed her life for. I wanted to understand what I had been missing.

*   *   *

I was finishing my junior year of high school when I made that happen.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon, watching my boyfriend’s white ejaculate drip from my abdomen. I was supposed to be studying for the history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom. As I studied how the sperm appeared against my tan, summer skin, I imagined what it looked like under a microscope. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong: I was too young, and I was certainly not considering the other party involved. But I wondered if I were capable of growing and swelling like other girls I had seen at school.

In the late nineties, in upstate New York, teenage pregnancy was no longer a surprise. My hometown, a small suburb just outside of Binghamton, was home to at least five pregnant adolescents in 1997, and they were not the first of their kind. These girls came late to school, flaunting growing bellies and exciting plans for their very own apartments. Two-bedroom, two-bath. They let us all touch their stretching skin. They said things like, “Only two more months,” “We think it’s a boy,” and “I don’t have to take gym anymore.” They were separate from the rest of us, more grown up, more in touch with the future, more interesting, and far more sexual. I watched them as they waddled down our high school hallways with heavy book bags, heavy bodies, and severe looks of determination. I found myself eager to know what it felt like to be watched and touched, to be mysterious, and to have such unavoidable purpose. These girls were at once scorned and cherished. They were our future and our failure. They were not ready but going ahead with it. They were dismal and exciting statistics. They were pregnant.

The longer I stood in front of the mirror, the more honest it all seemed. I was built for it. I needed it. I told myself that in the end nothing I did would matter to anyone else. It was my body, my choice, my wish.

*   *   *

Ten years and six hundred miles later, I hold a cell phone to my ear and listen to a fourth-grader tell her sixth knock-knock joke in three minutes.

“Knock, knock,” she says.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

She giggles. “Egg.”

“Egg who?” I say.

“Egg knock’s my favorite drink, too.” Then she laughs uncontrollably, squealing and hiccupping into the phone.

It’s difficult to fake a laugh. But I giggle nervously, tell her it was “a good one,” knowing that she had made it up on her own and is proud.

“What did the picture say to the wall?” she says, not ready to quit yet.

I pause for a moment as if to think about it. Then I admit, “I don’t know.”

“I’ve got you covered.” She squeals again with delight, hiccups twice, sighs, and continues laughing.

Elianna lives in upstate New York, just outside my hometown. She hiccups if she laughs too hard. She likes to read; she loves to draw. She takes gymnastics but accidentally kicked her instructor last week at practice. She’s tall for her age, almost five feet now, and embarrassed by it. She always has a good report card and likes to impress her teachers. She enjoys jumping on the trampoline in her backyard, swimming at the YMCA, shopping for clothes at The Limited and Old Navy, and listening to music, mostly Hilary Duff; she loves going to yard sales and has been begging her parents to let her start taking piano lessons.

When she heard there were people in the world without hair, she grew hers out, cut it off, and donated it. Her favorite color is blue. She watches Survivor every Thursday night at eight o’clock. She loves having her nails done, being an older sister, and staying up past her bedtime. She doesn’t like bras or mean people. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist.

This is the first time we have ever spoken directly to one another on the phone, but she has a picture of me in her bedroom she stares at, brings to school for show-and-tell, and sleeps with. She has never met me, but Elianna, the girl on the other end of the phone, is my daughter.

What I want to say to her: None of this is your fault. It was never you. I want to smell you, your head, your hands, your toes. I want to know what your hair feels like between my fingers. I want to see the way your thighs turn into your calves and your calves into your ankles. I want to find out, for myself, if your big toe is shorter than your second toe. I want to know the direction in which your arm hair grows.

I dream about you, wake up in the middle of the night worried that you are sick, sad, angry, or afraid. I want to crawl in bed next to you, wrap myself around you, finally feeling the shape our bodies make together. I want to feed you, cook the food myself, make you strong and healthy. I want to help you learn how to read, write, paint. I want to read you my favorite stories, the ones my mother read me. I want to walk through a mall with you, help you try on clothes, tell you how beautiful you look in blue.

I want to know the people you know. I want the pain in my breasts and abdomen to go away when I hear your voice and see your picture. Forgive me. Let me kiss your face, your arms, your ears, your fingers. Your jokes, as much as I love you, are really not that funny.

What comes out: “Very clever, Eli. Very clever.”

Before we hang up, she tells me good-night and that she loves me.

I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”

I’m back in my apartment in North Carolina, under this blue comforter. I cannot complain about much here. I have just earned a master’s degree. I work at a community college, teaching freshman English. I rent a nice little apartment outside the city on the third floor of a brand new building, behind an almost-finished Wal-Mart. I have a large friendly group whom I am lucky to call my friends. There’s no boyfriend, but this doesn’t bother me. I run through the routine, wake up every morning early, walk my dog.

Life is normal enough. I am free and strong, a product of my father’s firm encouragement to be an independent woman. “Women are no different than men,” he always said. “Women can do everything a man can do. Don’t ever sell yourself short.”

The only signs of weakness are the colorful stretch marks on my breasts, the grip I still have on the phone long after she’s hung up, and the picture of my daughter hung on the wall over my bed.

*   *   *

A baby. I would make it work. “No,” my father said. “It will ruin your life.”

“I can do it,” I begged.

“Not in my house.” He ran his fingers through his beard and flipped through his mail. “I won’t be a part of it. If you have this child, you will never know what it means to be independent, to be successful, to accomplish all that you’re capable of. If you choose this path, you choose a life I can’t support. Find another place to live.”

No problem. I would find a place to live. A charity organization. A family who would give me a home, tell me it was okay to be a mother.

At first, inventing myself as a teenaged mother-to-be was exciting. I collected baby clothes, pacifiers, bottles, and bonnets. My charity family gave me a tiny room in their basement. At night, as I lay alone in the dark staring up through the windows into the flower bed outside, I had no doubt that I was becoming who I was meant to become.

As my breasts and abdomen grew, I became thrilled with the changes, finally feeling like I was being given the opportunity to be a real woman. School no longer seemed important. Homework seemed petty. College seemed like a fantasy. In the waking hours of the morning, I would get up out of bed, my bladder full again, tip-toe up the stairs, and stare in the mirror. In my reflection, I searched for a change in my face, something familiar, any sign of the mother I planned to become. But my face never seemed to change. My growing breasts and the bulge in my abdomen grew on their own, separate from my eyes. I’d crawl back into bed and run my fingers over my stomach, feeling my daughter kick my hands through my skin, and ask her to have patience with me.

I wanted to keep that baby just as naturally and vehemently as I wanted my mother to live. And I tried for seven long months to find a way to do it. But 1997 was a difficult year. Clinton reformed welfare, making it impossible for anyone under the age of eighteen to receive aid, and I couldn’t find a way to keep a stable job, finish high school, and care for a baby all at once without at least a little help from the father, who was unwilling to admit to his parents that he even had a girlfriend.

At seven months pregnant, it became clear to me that there was no hope. I couldn’t do it. It had all been a fantasy I couldn’t live up to. I was no mother. In fact, I was little more than an irresponsible teenager with a penchant for the dramatic. I had no job and no future.

Worse, I found myself desperate for reprieve. I wanted out of the martyrdom. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night for anyone, much less for a child I had nothing to offer.

And one night, as I collapsed in the corner of my borrowed basement room, I knew in the most horrible sincerity that I was unwilling to give up my freedom and security for my womanhood. I didn’t want it badly enough. And when the realization came, I wanted to empty myself of my miracle as quickly as possible, renewing myself to the state of freedom, loneliness, and asexuality to which I’d become accustomed.

I would do what my father had told me and do everything my mother hadn’t. I would graduate high school. I would go to college, pay my own bills, travel, and live a long, successful life.

“I’m so proud of you,” Dad said, his eyes red with weepy gratitude.

“This was a hard decision to make but a very strong one.” I was still living in my basement room, but when the pregnancy was over, Dad promised, when life was back to normal, he said, I could return home.

“I want to be strong,” I told him. “And successful.”

“I know you will be,” he said. And I believed him.

*   *   *

Angel and her husband, Matt, had been trying to have a baby for eleven years. Every month, for all of those years, she had hoped she was pregnant, picked out a name, constructed themes for the nursery, and imagined the baby’s face. And every month, when the blood came, another imaginary child died. She had long since lost count of all the faces that might have been.

A friend of hers mentioned a pregnant teenager with whom her daughter went to school. She tried not to get her hopes up. It took me a while to work up the courage to dial her phone number.

“I can’t do this,” I told Angel over the phone. “I’ve decided to go to college. I just can’t do this alone.” I listened to her cry, in what I would later find out was relief, for several moments. Part of me hoped she would tell me she would adopt both of us, the baby and me. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to keep my baby, but I just needed her to help me. I wanted to explain what it was like to feel a human being growing inside me for so many months, to learn what sounds made her sleep, to learn exactly the way I needed to walk in order to lull her. I wanted her to know that what I was saying was dangerous for me.

“Can I meet you somewhere?” she finally asked.


We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.

Angel became a mother there, when I nodded my head across the table from her, licking the ice cream cone she and her husband bought for me. I said they could have my baby.

It would be Angel who held Elianna minutes after she was born. It was Angel who held her when she first cried and learned the motions of her body and the difference between hungry and wet. It was this other woman—whom I met by accident when I doubted my ability to be faithful to my own instincts—who watched my child grow from a seven-pound, eight-ounce infant into this nine-year-old girl who tells knock-knock jokes and giggles until she hiccups. It was never me.

Because of this, I cannot complain now if Angel, this other mother, chooses to explain the adoption in such simple terms as, “You grew in Stephanie’s belly but in Mommy’s heart.” I can’t blame this woman for waiting so long to let my daughter communicate with me. I can’t tell my daughter that her jokes are not funny or that it is the hope of one day meeting her that keeps me waking up in the morning and trying to be successful, impressive, and strong.

Friends ask, “How do you talk to your daughter on the phone so casually?”

And I respond. “How do I not?”

Since they brought my daughter to their home for the first time, this couple has repeated my name in her ear like a mantra, wanting to “do the right thing.” They want for her to be aware of her heritage and proud to be adopted. My daughter’s only questions have been whether or not I love her and why I gave her away. “Of course she loves you,” her parents tell her. “Stephanie was just so young.” But Eli repeats the same questions, seemingly waiting for a truth she’s sure she has not yet heard.

When her parents first told her she could speak with me, she decided it wasn’t time. Instead, she listened over the speakerphone while her mother spoke to me. When she did this, I tried to adjust my voice and attempted to comfort her with my words, even if I was only telling Angel about the weather in North Carolina. Sometimes I would hear her giggle in the background or whisper something to her mother. But she wasn’t going to talk directly to me, not for six more months.

“Eli’s doing really well in school,” Angel would say.

“Oh, wow,” I responded, trying to express a pride recognizable in my voice. “That is so wonderful.”

I heard a tiny giggle in the background.

“Stephanie’s proud of me,” she told her mother later.

“Yes,” Angel said. “She’d be proud of you no matter what you did.”

Angel always calls and tells me the whole conversation later, all the questions Eli asks about me. She reports that my daughter, her daughter, is making me a glazed plate for Christmas with my name and my dog’s name printed across the front in child’s handwriting and swirls of purple and blue along the edges.

It was my sister’s idea to create a website for Elianna. It may have been illegal for a nine-year-old to have her own MySpace profile, but it wasn’t illegal for a birth family to create a profile titled “We Love Elianna.” With a few keystrokes, my sister made a profile that displayed several pictures of all of us, even my mother. There were pictures of me as a baby, of my sister and me carving a pumpkin when we were children, of my father, of Elianna on her first day of fourth grade, of Elianna when she was a baby, of Elianna when she was still inside me. I e-mailed Angel the password, and we waited.


“At Olive Garden,” Angel told me later. Apparently Eli imagined a girls’ lunch with the three of us at the same restaurant where I had celebrated her first birthday, one candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream, my father and I wondering how to celebrate without the birthday girl.

“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

“Why now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I asked her, and she said she wanted to know what your favorite color was. And she really wants to meet Daisy.”

Daisy is my Jack Russell terrier. Eli refers to her as the “birth dog.” I paused. “Will she ask me why I did it? Why I gave her…”

“I don’t think so.”

“What will I say to her?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Tell her what your favorite color is.”

“When?” I asked.

“Are you coming home for the holidays?”

I haven’t been home for Christmas in three years. In fact, I rarely go back to New York for any reason. I opt for distraction—grad school, affairs with married men, short-term love affairs with strangers, menial social melodrama, heavy drinking, various jobs I latch onto and pour myself into, my writing. Now I dial my sister’s number and tell her I’ll be home in a month for the holiday.

She says, “Okay,” but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.

“Elianna said she wants to meet me,” I say.

She’s silent for a minute.

I think about the last time I went home. I can’t remember whose idea it was to spy on my daughter. We had never driven by Elianna’s house before. We hadn’t expected her to be climbing out of a minivan in her driveway, her face so much like mine, with moving legs, with a real mouth, a living, breathing little girl. I slammed on my brakes and fumbled for my sunglasses. My sister slid down in her seat, thinking, like me, that Eli would look up and somehow recognize our car, maybe from the North Carolina plates. We pulled our car behind the tree across the street and watched her for a minute while she waited for her mother to unload the van. I held my sister’s hand, surprised at how much we were shaking.

“That’s your baby,” my sister said, shaking her head. “That’s her.”

I knew she was waiting for me to do something remarkable, to become the lioness confronted with her stolen cub. She stared at me, watching the way my face trembled. Maybe she hoped these long years had been enough to awaken the mother inside me. But after Eli disappeared into her house, I shifted the car into reverse and drove away up the hill.

My sister has often tried to stir my maternal instincts. There have been days I cry in her arms and tell her how much I regret it all. And she’ll call an attorney, tell me to get creative, get angry, claim duress, anything. Just get my daughter back. But I’ve never tried. And I know I never will.

“Are you ready for that?” she asks now.

“I don’t know,” I say.

*   *   *

“You’re not ready for this,” my boyfriend, Elianna’s father, told me ten years ago, the night before I would promise my child to another couple. “You’re not ready to be a mother.” And then I was hitting him. I punched him for all the decisions in the world I felt I had no control over. I clawed at his chest for my dead mother and the baby I couldn’t find the will to keep. I screamed because I couldn’t remember my mother’s face, I would never see my daughter’s, and I couldn’t find my own. He let me go on like that for several minutes as the snow fell against the windshield and melted into water.

There wasn’t anybody who wanted to help me be a mother. But there was a world of people who wanted to help me go to college. And slowly, this became my answer. I constructed a new truth out of what I decided the rest of the world expected of me. I learned that most everyone would respond delightfully to my change of heart. Teachers gave me extra time on my assignments; my father bragged about me in church; my boyfriend thanked me with wet eyes, told me he loved me, and that he would marry me one day.

Over and over, for years to come, all I had to say was that I gave a daughter up for adoption, and people would do everything but bow at my feet, chanting the popular “what a selfless, brave decision to make.” This gave me identity. I was the teenager who gave her daughter up for adoption. But the only image I had of the life I was choosing was the word my father repeated to me over and over throughout my childhood: college. And now that I had no choice, it sounded so good.

I waited, but no matter how many times I recited my mantra—”I’m going to college. I can’t be a mother”—my hand still found its way to her and I still spoke to her. I knew then that my instincts to care for the baby would not disappear when she did.

*   *   *

It’s been three days since Eli wrote to tell me she wants to meet. I tell myself that nothing—no lunch at Olive Garden, no knock-knock jokes—will ever make me her mother.

In the small box in the corner of my bedroom, I keep two ultrasound photos secretly tucked away, the two I once hid from myself just in case one day I needed to remind myself the pregnancy actually happened, that Eli was not a dream. I take them out occasionally and stare at them. I keep her second-grade picture sitting on the antique end table my mother left me in her will.

A year ago, Eli sent me a box for my birthday, a collection of her things she thought I needed to have. Inside, there are leopard print pillows, blue sandals, necklaces, pictures she drew in school, photographs of her swimming, lotions, Beanie Babies, and a letter that she wrote, explaining the little details of her life. I keep the box in another corner, sit next to it some- times. I smell the little pillows, hold the earrings in my hands, study the letter. Once I took out the sandals and tried them on. They fit perfectly.

Eli’s need to show me who she is doesn’t surprise me. These years with- out my mother and daughter have brought me no happy endings or clear answers, but I have realized that my inability to become the Victorian woman in the portrait is not tragic. My mother did not show me that picture to assign me an identity to live up to. That picture was for her. She would never know how my face would evolve as I grew older. This woman I have become, nothing like that portrait, with all of my regrets, with my two diplomas hung on my wall, with an absent daughter, is a woman my mother will never know.

My daughter and are I left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I answer honestly. Yes. Going to college has never made up for the nagging regret. I can still smell the milk that leaked from my breasts for a week after she was born. The smell of those leopard pillows is still more comforting than any freedom or success I have earned. But what I’m left with is not a gift I take for granted. I have my daughter’s face next to me as I sleep. It changes in every new photo, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine, but with their own nuances, unexpected, miraculous.

*   *   *

Elianna was born on March 7, 1997, at seven o’clock. She was seven pounds, eight ounces. Lucky seven baby. As I pushed her out, I begged the doctor to not let anyone take her from me, but my words were dismissed as nothing more than the emotional roller coaster of a seventeen-year-old girl in labor. My father stood over me and covered my eyes as she slipped from between my legs. I heard her gurgle for a second, and then she was gone.

I saw her only once before I left the hospital for good. Angel’s husband passed her off to Angel who brought her into the hall for me.

“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.

I looked down at the baby. I waited for something in my mind to click. I waited for whatever it was inside me that might have become a mother to react, but nothing happened as I clung to the IV stand I had wheeled along with me. It was over.

“No,” I whispered.

“Is there anything you want to say to her?” Angel asked.

I thought about it for a second. But only one thing came to mind.

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess there is.” I reached into the blanket and found Eli’s hand. She wrapped her finger around one of mine as I cleared my throat. “Go to college,” I said. Then I pulled my finger from her grip, turned around, and walked away.

*   *   *

I won’t meet my daughter this Christmas. She’ll change her mind, lose the courage, send her mother in her place. I’ll have lunch with her mother alone. I’ll offer Angel a picture of Daisy and me along with a wrapped gift to give to Elianna. It will be a necklace that splits into two halves. Angel will sit across the table from me, run her fingers over my hand, and tell me Eli has my fingers.

“Are you okay?” I’ll ask her, watching the way her eyes well up at the sight of me. I understand that I am a reminder that Eli will never have her eyes, her fingers, or her lips. She will never be able to know what it felt like to carry her daughter to term in her own uterus. And she will watch me remove the necklace from the box myself. I will keep one half, and Eli will keep the other. I’ll never take off my half. I’ll run my fingers over the charm while I am at work, driving in the car, grocery shopping, or staring out my apartment window into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“I’m dealing with it,” she’ll say. She will return home to my daughter, maybe brush the hair off her forehead, feed her dinner, and tell her what it was like to have lunch with Stephanie, the birth mother.

Back in North Carolina, I will continue to occasionally stand in front of the mirror naked, staring at the scars on my breasts and at the ever changing slope of my abdomen (which has never shrunk back to its original size). It reminds me that there’s a part of me that’s missing.

One night, to my surprise, my nine-year-old daughter will call with an unusual question. “Do you have big boobs?” she’ll ask.

“Elianna’s getting her breasts,” Angel will say in the background. “And she’s not happy. She has to wear a bra.”

I’ll laugh and tell Eli that mine aren’t so big, that there’s nothing to worry about.

“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.

“I know how you feel,” I’ll tell her, picturing her standing there, staring hopelessly down at her swelling chest. “I didn’t want to get boobs, either.”

And after a small silence, she’ll clear her throat. “Well,” she’ll say. “Your boobs look big in your picture.”

We’ll laugh, and she’ll hiccup, both of us remaining somewhat damaged and slightly delighted.

“I don’t think she’ll ever take this necklace off,” Angel giggles in the background.

And I’ll be thankful, with the phone held tight to my ear, for my own breasts, for the shape of my body, and even for this regret.

Author’s Note: Birthmotherhood has followed me like a grinning ghost into an existence I thought would be empty of my daughter. I am a mother who is both without her daughter and full of her. I have both abandoned her and taken her with me. This essay was a grueling process of discovery and redemption.

Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

The Zoo

The Zoo

Hispanic girl sleeping in bed surrounded by stuffed animals

By Reva Blau

Siena, our three-year daughter, adopted the year before, had been asking about the zoo. I assumed that she knew about the zoo from books like some of our favorites: Sammy the Seal, Goodnight Gorilla, and the comic book styled Psst in which the animals plot their erstwhile escapes. In November, Joe, my husband and, Dashiell, our ten-year-old son, had been invited along to an early-season Bruins day game at the Garden. So I decided to take Siena to the Franklin Park Zoo, famous for its Western lowland gorillas, on a dusky day. The sky looked like it had lowered over New England but we set forth cheerfully in our Pilot. Little did we know that it would be the end of what the adoption world calls “the honeymoon phase” and we would be entering into murkier territory.

A year and a half earlier, I had first met our daughter in a small, sanguine DCF office set up with sagging sofas and plastic play houses and toys. Her child’s social worker, Muriel introduced her as the “the famous Siena!” as she toddled into the red brick building clutching a puppy purse. I was introduced simply as “Miss Reva.” Siena looked up at me passingly. I was just another adult of a long string that she would have met over the last year in foster care — social workers, advocates, and lawyers. She wasn’t told that I might be her mommy one day. The introduction was honest. I was Reva to her. Today, I am fully Siena’s mom and she is our daughter as our son Dashiell is our son. Yet, every day Siena reminds me that it isn’t only me who remembers the time before we were her parents. Siena remembers not being my daughter. If I say no to her 3 year old wishes, say, wanting to eat candy for breakfast, she’ll retort, “You Reva!” in a rugged punch and I’ll be brought back to the first day we met.

In the room at DCF, Siena sat poised on her foster mother’s lap straight and with head held high as if knowing that confidence, no matter the circumstance, is queen. I had read that L had gone through three foster homes, two of which had been neglectful, even after her removal from her biological mother. At one point, during foster care, a visiting Social worker visited her in her foster mother’s home and was surprised to see a bump on her head. She brought her immediately to the ER. It turned out that Siena had skeletal injuries. She turned one in the hospital. The doctors never determined whether accident or abuse caused these injuries. No one was allowed to visit her except for a newly appointed social worker because she associated the first one not only to the trip to the hospital but with prior visits to federal prison to see her biological mother.

The foster mother I was meeting on this day had ended this murky chain of events. Gabriela, a grandmother of six, is a veteran bilingual foster parent and has fostered over fifty children over the years in her home. She rehabilitates children who have been tossed around the system. Siena, as all Gabriela’s kids do, called her Meeta – diminutive for Grandma in Spanish – and sat on her lap most of the visit.

But Siena ventured over to me on the opposite side of the room when I offered the presents I had brought. She scooted herself into a small seat and uttered words like “baby” and “milk” as she hunched over the doll in the tiny crook of her arm. She answered me in words I could not decipher when I spoke with her. Gabriela translated the syllables for me, “She says she wants you to put the baby in the stroller.” When Siena bumped her head on the play table, she folded right back into Gabriela’s arms for her booboo to be kissed. My heart pounded in my chest as I realized that she might be the child we would adopt.

For the next scheduled visit, in a park, I brought Dashiell along to see how they might relate. We had been discussing adoption for so long, I figured we would continue the conversation if the adoption did not go through. From May to early June, summer had bloomed. Children were playing in the playground. Soon after she arrived, Siena leapt on my lap face front nuzzling her head in my neck. When she turned some minutes later, back to the outside world, Dashiell acted nonchalantly, pretending interest in the square of grass between them. He allowed Siena to initiate contact. Gently, he taught her to twist the blades of grass and pat the grass rather than keep pulling the grass up. She looked up at him like he held the key to the universe.

A week later, I had convinced my husband that he needed to meet Siena. Adoption blogs are filled with complaints from would-be moms that they coaxed or convinced their husbands into having a first or second child with as much wrangling it might take to sign a peace treaty. We had been on a list of waiting families for more than three years and, maybe because we lived on a peninsula sticking out sixty miles into the ocean, we had received only two handfuls of calls followed by emails with confidential files attached for us to consider. In each case, my husband found a reason to not pursue the match. Often it was because the child seemed to have suffered experiences severe enough that he didn’t think we could handle raising him or her. DCF adoption is often called “special needs adoption” if the child has an official diagnosis or not. The Department wants future parents to understand fully that neglect and abuse has serious consequences on development. As they flatly told us: these adoptions are not for the faint of heart. I was quick to fall in love with the children I saw in these grainy pictures sent to us. In truth I was grateful to Joe for being cautious.

But like many women pursuing motherhood, I was persistent. I convinced Joe to take a day off, holding up his favorite lunch spot as bait. We drove back to the South end where we had arranged that Muriel would drop Siena off with us at our favorite gastro pub. It would be the first time Muriel would leave for the visit. I felt a surge of fear. I had forgotten what it was like to care for an almost two year old. How often would she need to use the potty? Would she cry? After Muriel waved goodbye, I wiggled Siena into a high chair and pushed it up to one end of the table so she could sit between the adults and see all of us. Her hair had grown in a bit and Gabriela had woven it into tiny, immaculate braids. We decided to get plates to share. Joe ordered the most toddler-proof thing on the menu — a bowl of gnocchi and when it came it was festooned with bright orange and yellow nasturtiums. Who would know that the next time we came here, Siena would be sampling pig’s tail and oxtail rillette. But over this lunch, the 23 month old admonished her future father not to eat the nasturtiums. “Flowers, no eat,” she warned him waggling her finger. He popped the tiny blooms in his mouth, his eyes sparkling and she squealed. I knew at that moment we would be a family.

The court had not yet terminated parental rights although the social workers believed it would. Social workers must balance many juggling balls at once as they act for the security of the child, honor birth parent’s rights, fulfill the legal obligations to the court, ensure the good will of the foster parent and prepare the child for a permanent family. To give the birth parents – who might need rehabilitation from drugs or the penal system or domestic violence – enough time to prove their ability to parent can be unfair to any child, who should not have to wait for parents to get their acts together. On the other hand, to terminate parental rights after a misstep in a society buckling under massive poverty and the inadequacy of social services for the poor, the addicted, and the abandoned would be unethical. Social workers and the court system are forced to balance these two outcomes to create some kind of compromise. It is a serious thing to remove a child from a mother. Yet it is just as gravely serious that a child be left to live in danger or limbo.

I was in a juggling act on par with that of DCF, albeit on a domestic scale. Dashiell was at camp. Joe was in his busiest season ever at the restaurant. He agreed he wanted to adopt her; but said, “let’s just wait till the summer is behind us and I can focus full-time on our family.” I had read enough about adoption to know how crazy that sounded. We were in no position to stall. This was the first time that a child’s Social worker chose us as the potential adoptive parents for a child. We had already had three visits. Not only would we lose the opportunity to adopt this particular little girl but also our own Social Worker could very well question our commitment. They might stop sending us referrals and remove us from the lists.

Over the next few days, I sensed Joe’s resolve to wait soften. We were already three weeks from my first visit with her. Social Workers employ an equation to estimate the ideal length of time from a first visit to placement: one week plus the age of the child. I knew that any minute we would get the call to finalize when I would pick her up to move into our home. Already, I called Gabriela every evening to wish Siena goodnight. I had graduated from “Miss Reva” to “Mama Reva.”

On Thursday, late morning, the phone rang. The Social worker informed me that she had set a date for transition at the following week. “Are you and Joe ready?” she asked. I looked at him, felt that pull of his equanimity and deep loyalty. When I got off the phone, he asked “so when are we picking her up?”

We picked Siena up at the same DCF office where I had first played with her on the square institutional sofa in June. The transfer took place quickly. Muriel loaded Siena’s trash bags full of clothes and toys from her Prius to mine, while Siena sat expectantly looking around from Muriel’s backs-seat. Muriel took her out, handed her to us. We buckled Siena into the car seat a friend had given me the day before, and off we went. At an intersection, I glanced back, half-expecting it to be empty. There was someone else’s toddler in our backseat!

We first stopped at a Jamaica Plains coffee shop where I had planned we would meet my sister so she could meet her niece. Ruth sat at a small table eagerly looking at the window looking like she would pop out of her skin with excitement. Too excited to be hungry, we ordered only one sandwich, opening the bread so Siena could grab at the turkey and cucumber slices inside. Siena reached for my sister’s face and felt her eyelids while my sister closed her eyes, inhaling her small child scent, and re-lived when her own kids – 12 and 10 — were small.

Time with toddlers is warped. Meet any grandmother on the playground and they will utter wistfully, “It flies by!” and meet any parent on the playground and they will gripe that they just had the most endless afternoon of their life. Both are true. Two and three year olds demand almost as much as a baby to scaffold early skills while allowing them the opportunity to practice. But emotionally, they demand almost as much as a teenager, needing flexibility, empathy, equilibrium, and structure. An afternoon can feel like an eternity for the number of times you have been required to find a potty or fill a sippy cup and also respond cheerfully and wisely to another human endlessly curious about the world around them. Thanks to this full engagement, endless afternoons fly by like a cartoon rendering of a calendar pages flying off it.

With a child who just transitioned into your home this truth becomes truer. Without trying, I made it my job to show up for her, gaze at her, respond to her needs not only every minute but also every second. Especially, in my case, because I worked, I spent every waking second not at work with her, playing baby and dollhouse on the floor of the living room, bundling her into the car seat for early morning trips to the hockey rink to watch her brother play and stomping my feet in cold playgrounds.

The first year from when we brought her home to the trip to the zoo flew off the pages with a memorable pause when we drove to Boston to sign her adoption papers at City Court. I barely remember any of it except in almost slide-show form of her delight and ease. A friend said around the holidays, six months after joining our family, “she slipped into your family like she was sliding on a slide of olive oil.”

Most of Siena’s language developed drawing the lines of the constellation of our family. She learned new words in order to rehearse our relationships. With jubilation, she sang the names mommy, daddy, and brother. At drop-off at her daycare, she would announce, “I have a daddy!” as a morning newsflash to her teachers. Or if a classmate mentioned a sibling, she would gush ‘I have a big, big, BIG brother.” The way she said “Hi Mom,” had the upward tilt of a teenager’s boast. It made sense: she had never spoken the word “mama,” although she had had one.

The milestone of forming sentences is exciting for any new parent. At our house these early sentences were like an incanted blessing. Her most repeated early dialogue were variations on the Dr. Seuss book: “Are you my mommy? You mommy! I Siena!” On my end, I practiced Buddhist detachment. Not that I wasn’t completely attached. But having longed to adopt a child for so long, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t too delighted in the way you would when you win the lottery and you try to not to gloat. I was aware that we had defied the odds. I tried to feel humble in my gratitude.

The first year, she was like a dream child, rarely crying, saying please and thank you and showing us endless amounts of what could only be described as gratitude. At night, I’d give her warm milk; she would sort of brush her teeth, then I’d read two books. I’d say “night night” and she’d jump into her toddler bed, fold over herself into a Paschimottanasana pose, face between feet and go to sleep. Not all children sleep as if they are under the desks in a lockdown drill. Yet, in these few signs of distress, if a shadow crossed my consciousness, it was mostly in noticing how easily she had slipped into our family, on a slide of olive oil, as my friend had said.

I searched the map of the zoo for the animals which had appeared in the books – lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants – the kind that always makes me feel sad seeing them as they pace behind urban walls. We somewhat over-optimistically bought the full family membership at the hut painted a forest green. Putting up an umbrella over the stroller, I tramped through the drizzle to marvel at the glory of Noah’s ark displayed in the faded light. One hundred yards from the gorilla house, I heard a blood-curdling sustained scream. It was no hyena—it was coming from the stroller at my feet. Siena curled into a ball facing backwards in her stroller. I cut away from the path away from the safari animals and headed to the farm animals. I stalwartly lifted our little girl from the stroller, pulling the raincoat hood over her head. Her scream did not subside but only heightened as we approached the petting zoo. In my arms, she was thrashing about. I tried to do what one does in the face of a new experience with a small child, “Oh look at that friendly goat! Is that a mommy goat?” She was screaming, “No! no animals! No animals!” I headed back to the car.

Later I told my friends about the experience. They said, “welcome to the threes. Or, maybe she is scared of gorillas.” I knew differently.

For the next week, she would fall to sleep exhausted at midnight and then fitfully sleep until five until she’d finally sleep fitfully on my chest on the couch downstairs. Of course, days became incredibly difficult. Getting dressed to go to school was like climbing Everest. I learned that to get to work on time, I needed to just stand up from the couch, with her half-asleep in a ball in my arms, and unfold her limbs into clothes. I would carry her to the car, filling a sippy cup with apple juice with my left hand along the way. She’d slowly unfold herself exhaustedly into her car seat, and I’d run into the house and get myself dressed.

Joe and I fretted that the girl we knew was gone, the honeymoon, long and sweet but obviously over (“but it lasted a whole year!”) and I quickly went to work finding a therapist. Remarkably, a group of respected child play therapists had recently started a practice in our small town. I left two messages on each of their five answering machines that day. One called back and said she would be very happy to work with us.

The same day that we were scheduled to meet Tonya at our house, a package arrived at the house. Inside was a photo book, the kind that a photo store might print, with a mysterious note “For Siena’s parents. We were her foster parents.” The return mail indicated a DCF office in Western Massachusetts.

The book was filled with pictures a very chubby baby Siena and two beaming adults. There were pictures of her in a crib, playing with a puppy, playing with blocks, pictures of her in a stroller in a park. In all the pictures the nice-looking man and woman are holding her or playing on the floor with giant grins. The pictures have captions ending in exclamation points, like “At the park! or “In the crib.” We showed some of the pictures to Siena in the living room and then put the book down on the coffee table. An hour later, Tonya knocked at the door. We ushered Dashiell upstairs to do his homework.

Wedged into little seats at Siena’s art table in the playroom, Joe and I described Siena’s recent behavior. Tonya, meanwhile, started engaging Siena by looking at the toys on the shelves. But quite suddenly Siena jumped up and ran through the kitchen into some other part of the house. She came back with her recently photo book and proceeded to show Tonya. She flipped the pages quickly, “there’s me. There’s my doggy.” She didn’t have any words for the adults in the picture. She arrived to pictures at the end of the book that I hadn’t yet seen and I bent forward to get a better look.

A man holds a baby Siena underneath a string of home-made cards that spell Happy Birthday! The photo is of a cake and one candle at the center. And then appears the Franklin Park Zoo—pictures of Siena gazing at the giraffes and the zebras in their muddy field. The next is a picture of the very same goat that we tried to visit that day a fortnight earlier. I don’t think I will never know if the injury that was discovered at the hospital happened from an incident of violence that happened the same day at the zoo after the photos were taken or if she associates the zoo with losing another set of caregivers.

A few months later, Siena has not had another PTSD episode. But she does have one or two days a month when she is anxious and needy. When she plays on any day, her stories are dark and twisty, and veer more towards “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” plots than the more sanitized endings we have given them. In an afternoon of playing, play-mobile figures sometimes do terrible things to one another. We try to let her play these things out and then react appropriately, like, “Oh no, the prince was hurt? Let’s help him get across the moat.” While three year olds can be bossy, she can be pushy and domineering and sometimes seeks to control tiny details, like which hand I use to eat or when I take my glasses on or off. On those days, it’s hard to remember what one should expect of a typical three year-old. Should I pick her up every time she wants to be carried? Put her in a carrier at the hockey rink since she feels the most secure when she is next to me? These questions are sometimes hard to answer.

People versed in adoption will say, “just go in with your eyes open” and that is wise. Yet, if we all had our eyes open 24/7, we would never conceive a child, let alone adopt one. We often make love (and conceive our children) with our eyes closed literally and it makes sense that we would enter adoption with our eyes closed metaphorically. We close our eyes to quell our minds, so that our other senses can be open. Since our trip to the zoo, I have re-read the assessment I had already read blindly around the time of meeting her. I saw there all the details that I hadn’t seen before. Details that make me understand that she sometimes doesn’t cry like other children but instead bleats raspingly. It makes me understand why she tries to have control over details that other children would not feel the need to control. I have empathy for her and know that I will try to set limits even while holding her in the pain of what happened.

When people from stable families do research into their ancestries, they often find immigration documents, marriage and death certificates, summa cum laude and Kingsmen of the year newspaper clippings. But an adopted child’s assessment pries into the crevices of the failure of the American dream and scrapes the surface of our society’s shallow veneer. In an adoption assessment you will find some of the following: vagrancy, violence, drug abuse, mental illness, assault, murder, and rape. In hers, there were all of these.

For an adopted parent, it little matters whose fault was any of it: it’s that a certain set of tragedies, crimes, or random catastrophes, impacted someone living under your roof. I have friends who marvel at our family and are inspired to adopt because of what they see in us. A happy, balanced quad with smiles plastered on our faces as we go about our lives juggling jobs and raising two kids with an eight-year age gap. They ask me how they should first begin the process of adopting. I tell them to go into it with eyes not shut but not completely open either — maybe squinty-eyed.

People often distinguish between infant and older child adoption. Yet, not enough is said about the particular way a child and parent experiences the adoption at ages two or three, whose birth of Self as separate from their mothers becomes complicated by transitioning from one mother to another. Siena is developing much like other children but in profound ways her early childhood experience leaves a trace, like everybody’s wounds do. We haven’t been back to the zoo but we will go one day soon.




Rage, Shame, and My Daughter’s African Hair

Rage, Shame, and My Daughter’s African Hair

By Cindy Reed

Akeyla climbing

Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.

My seven-year-old bounces out of the bathroom, eager to show me her hair. She has declared today to be a natural hair day, a break between braidings.

“Look Mommy! I’m African!” she squeals. Her hair points in every direction, weaving in and out upon itself and springing up behind one ear. Mine, unwashed, hangs limp at my shoulders, gray encroaching on the commonplace brown.

She’s told me that she loves wearing her hair free like this, without braids or twists. There are no plastic bands tugging at her scalp, no sharp parts to attend to. Worn down, the tendrils are long enough to tickle her neck. This is the way nature intended it to grow out of her head. It’s perfect.

I slip on a glittery headband to keep it out of her eyes.

“I can’t wait to show my friends at school!” she says, hopping out of the minivan at the elementary school drop-off line.

My daughter’s hair is the color of the dark coffee I drank at the traditional ceremony held when her birthmother first entrusted her to me over seven years ago on a cloudy day in Hosanna, Ethiopia, when the sky couldn’t make up its mind whether to storm. In a brief meeting that crossed chasms of age and race and class, two translators helped me ask questions of this shy teenage mother, words handed off from English to Amharic to her tribal language like batons. To say things were lost in translation is an understatement, but the fierce hug she gave me left no room for misunderstanding. I would now be carrying her heart around with me. I promised that we would love her daughter always, would teach her of her birth family, would make her proud to be Ethiopian.

The bus ride back to Addis Ababa was somber. Our travel group of adoptive parents had witnessed families broken apart. Tucking our joy at being new parents into a side pocket of our hearts, we found room to pour in the oceans of tragedy and loss we’d just left behind.

My promises to my daughter’s birthmother come flooding back as I make my way to the school pick line, on this day when my daughter chose to showcase her natural hair. I am hoping to hear stories about how the other kids loved the style. But instead I retrieve from school a little girl transformed, her free, naturally-styled hair from that morning now stuffed unceremoniously into an unfamiliar scrunchie. Everything is tamped down, a far cry from the near-Afro she sported just hours ago. “Where’s your African hair?” I ask. She looks down. “I don’t want to wear it like that anymore.”

She is quiet on the drive home, refusing to answer my gentle questions about the day. Inside, I prepare myself for a first conversation about racism, about difference, about pride and standing strong.  

At bedtime, she relents. “A second grader grabbed my hand and pulled me around before school to show people my crazy hair. Kids laughed at it.” She gathers her pink blankie close, a first gift from her aunt that has rarely left her side since she arrived in America. She sucks on the corner. “I don’t like my African hair,” she says.

She begs me not to say anything to anyone at school, which is, of course, the first thing I want to do. But she has now been the subject of unwanted attention and the last thing she would want is a brighter spotlight to shine down on her differences. It’s hard to argue with her. Who wants to be the human embodiment of a teachable moment, the object of a lesson on tolerating racial differences? I want her to just be a kid, one whose kinky hair happens to tumble out of her head more width than length.

I smooth her hair back into a tight ballerina bun for bedtime, catching up the strays, rubbing almond oil into her scalp.

Our town is not diverse, but we take progressive stands on social issues. We provide a southern haven for an eclectic mix of the eccentric, the misfits, and the hippies, both neo- and original. Still, this is primarily a white town. Black and white neighborhoods stand largely side by side, the result of the south’s dark history of segregation.

We knew the charter school we chose was especially lily white, nestled up a mountain and away from downtown, offering no public transportation and no school lunch. The race-blind admissions process is governed by the unbending rules of the state lottery system, numbers on post-its standing in for children and futures. The result? My two adopted daughters can tick off on their hands all the students of color in the entire K-8 school, many, like them, the transracial adoptees of white parents.

But despite its lack of diversity, the school prides itself on inclusiveness and tolerance. The school, like the town, is a bastion of white liberalism, with all the good intentions and challenges of privilege such a world outlook raises.

Surely my daughter’s differences—her kinky hair, her chocolate skin, her African birth—would be embraced here, we had thought.

My heart aches. My mind rages. I struggle to formulate a response to the schoolyard taunts. I want to find those kids and—

And what? Scream at them? Punch them? Berate their parents?

Maybe I’m overreacting. I mean, kids point at people who look different. My own kids stare and ask uncomfortable questions: “Why is that lady fat?” or “What’s wrong with that boy’s legs?” Kids latch onto any difference and pull. Hard.

So I don’t write a ranting email and copy it up and down the chain of command. Instead, I start small, mentioning it to the classroom teacher. “Maybe just be on the lookout,” I ask.

Saturday is braiding day. My daughter tends to hold forth in the salon, a big personality with a flair for the dramatic. The ladies under the dryers laugh and coo at her sass and sunshine.

As she entertains, I make myself small in my chair, trying not to intrude in this sacred space of African-American women. I never mastered the art of styling black hair. No matter how many YouTube videos I watched or Carol’s Daughter products I bought, my twists uncoiled before I could snap a hair band on the bottom and my parts ended up hopelessly crooked. My failure feels like a breach of the promises I made to my daughter’s birthmother over coffee and tears all those years ago.

“Make styling a special time with your daughter,” an African-American friend urged. But hair time for my daughter and me continued to be the opposite of special.

So here we are, at the salon.

It’s embarrassing, this failure. Styling the hair of African-American girls is a point of cultural pride and black women have on occasion let me know when I have missed the mark. A woman once followed me into the grocery store bathroom, staring while I shepherded my daughters through the chaotic process of peeing, wiping, washing, drying, and otherwise not rolling on the floor.

“You’re not combing her hair, then?” the woman asked, running her fingers through my daughter’s tangles. I pressed the girls to dry their hands faster, but they were mesmerized by the automatic paper towel dispenser, waving their hands like maniacs and sending reams of brown recycled towels onto the soapy floor. I was unsure how to respond and so I didn’t. The woman pretended to wash her hands. “I’d do it for you, but I’m headed back to Atlanta,” she said, turning to leave. As if we were friends. As if next time she came to visit she’d have time to style my daughter’s hair. Maybe we’d sit together and I’d learn, watching her fingers fly through two-strand twists and expertly patterned cornrows. My face burned.

At the salon, I flip through old copies of Essence. My daughter sits on her booster in the big styling chair, insistent. “I want straight hair today,” she demands of her regular stylist, a big-hearted woman of unnatural patience. I am usually hesitant about the blowou—which tends to knot the instant we reach the car and collects our Saint Bernard’s shed hair like a lint brush. But on this day I have no energy left for a pep talk about embracing her curly locks. I concede.

As the flat iron crackles, my daughter’s African hair disappears in a haze of steam. She easily slides her fingers through what is typically a dense thicket, delighted at the finished product. It is long and sleek and smooth and looks just like her “ethnic” Barbie’s hair now, ready to brush or sweep back in a breezy ponytail.

Back at home, I hear the neighborhood girls gushing. “I love your hair like this!” and “You should wear your hair like this all the time!” My daughter, at last, feels included. As I watch from the porch, I brush aside a nagging thought that this inclusion comes at the expense of her true self—that she has been taken in and validated because her hair now conforms to their expectations.

But there will be time later for conversations about African pride and self-esteem. For the moment my daughter is laughing and happy, and my heart is full.

Cindy Reed is an award-winning freelance writer and speaker who teaches writing at and blogs at She lives with her family, created by international adoption, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Reviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

Modern Families coverWhere do I come from? Who am I? These are some of the most fundamental questions humans ask themselves. In many cases, the answers have to do with family. But, what, then exactly is a family?

Joshua Gamson tackles these complicated issues in Modern Families, a book about contemporary tales of family creation including adoption, in vitro, surrogacy, and more. Gamson is a sociologist who has previously written books on fame, tabloid talk shows, and sexuality, but this book is far more personal. This is also the story of the creation of his family.

Unlike Mitchell and Cameron on “Modern Family,” the ABC sitcom that inspired the name of the book, Gamson and his husband don’t go through international adoption (though other couples in Modern Families use both domestic and international adoption to create their own modern families). His first daughter, Reba, was conceived using the egg of a friend and the uterus of another friend, what is known as “collaborative reproduction.” His second daughter, Madeleine, was carried by a paid surrogate who liked to refer to herself as a “fetus sitter.” It’s no wonder then that when describing Modern Families Gamson explains, “More broadly, you might read it as an intimate view of the much-remarked-on transformation of family structures, as seen through the experiences of people who have been, out of necessity as much as anything else, making their families up.”

Gamson successfully weaves together the personal and the academic throughout the book. He takes personal stories and situates them in more complicated institutions and social structures. In the Introduction (titled “Impertinent Questions” about the probing questions strangers sometimes ask about how their daughters were “got”) he usefully describes the book as the “love child” of two different types of writing on reproduction.

The first type of writing is what he calls Repro Lit. These personal stories, usually memoirs, double as how-to books and are ultimately celebratory about the process—think Peggy Orenstein’s Waiting for Daisy. Repro Crit on the other hand is more of a buzzkill focusing mainly on institutional structures and the circulation of power within them and how this literally reproduces inequality. Though less well known, a book by the name of Outsourcing the Womb, suggests the tone of this category.

Like Repro Crit Gamson points out forces of inequality throughout (mainly to do with financial issues, but also sometimes social class and cultural knowledge that impacts legal processes), but the narratives are often emotional and triumphant, with some how-to advice thrown in. Gamson details the legal workarounds they used with their surrogates in Kentucky and Massachusetts, and one of the best lines in the book is when he writes that Kentucky had out-liberaled California (where Gamson and his husband live) when they listed “parent” and “parent” on their daughter Madeline’s birth certificate, and not “mother” and “father” like California.

In the end it is the stories we are left with, mainly because there is a little serious research on families like Gamson’s, partly because they are so new. The various stories of family creation told in Modern Families—the struggles and the successes—are quite moving. On multiple occasions while reading I was moved to tears, usually tears of joy. One caution is that while this is a book you can dip into and out of, it can be hard at times to keep all the families and the people who make them up straight (no pun intended) given the multiple families featured.

A lasting theme of Modern Families is: “How extraordinary you are, and yet how ordinary.” While the families profiled here were brought together thanks to various types of technology, often in extraordinary ways, in the end the children and their parents are ordinary. Gamson insightfully writes, “It’s one of the things these family origin stories share with more typical ones: every family story has silences and secrets. More to the point, the farther away you get from the conventional, the less you can fit your story into a familiar script of family creation and the more you’re likely to face disapproval. For those of us who grew up in a culture of disclosure—in which, for instance, coming out is an act of empowerment and Facebook is a verb—becoming parents has posed the jarring challenge of figuring out what not to tell.”

As the extraordinary, yet ordinary, children whose creation stories are relayed here age, they will have the lasting evidence of just how much they were wanted, just how much their parents were willing to tell on social media and beyond to create their own modern families.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She loves all modern families, including her own.

A Q & A with Modern Families author Joshua Gamson

Buy Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

By Melissa Hart


My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth.


At nine, I read a novel in which a boy’s beloved hound dog got mauled by a cougar—ripped open from breastbone to pelvis so that her entrails spilled out and festooned a nearby bush like Christmas tinsel as she attempted to follow her master home. That’s how I felt when my mother and her girlfriend left me on my father’s front porch Sunday nights, and I watched their VW bus disappear down the street for 10 days—like my entrails were cascading from my gashed abdomen, pooling in a pile around my white Keds.

And that’s how I felt 35 years later, watching my nine-year-old daughter say goodbye to her older sisters on our front porch after 24 hours of let’s pretend and coloring books and hiking trails while I wished their adoptive mother a safe journey two and a half hours back down the highway.

My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth. She didn’t miss the parent she’d hardly met. But her sisters with their identical timbre and diction, their shared love for dollhouses and hip hop, their shared trauma—these girls, she missed.

My husband and I adopted her from Oregon’s foster care system. Another family had adopted her sisters—one of them developmentally delayed—and couldn’t parent a third infant with significant medical needs. We agreed to an open adoption, to visits with them when time and schedules permitted. For several years, our meetings consisted of tentative hours at shopping mall playgrounds and children’s museums as we got to know each other, gradually lengthening into daylong playdates and this season, a sleepover.

They tell you that as a parent, you’ll experience all the ages and stages of childhood again vicariously through your kid. I never found this to be true until the moment my daughter stood out on our winter porch with the kitchen vent emanating smells of her favorite macaroni and cheese, and she told her sisters goodbye.

All at once, memory walloped me. The girls clung to each other with goosebumps raised on their skinny arms, called “I love you, Sissy!” with their breath creating smoke flowers in the crisp air. Then, two of them walked to their car and one of them stayed behind, and my insides spilled out.

 *   *   *

Every other Sunday in the eighties, when I stepped through my father’s door, I paused for a moment to take the temperature of the house. Almost always, he sat in his bedroom upstairs paying bills and listening to Vin Scully recap Dodger games on the radio. My stepmother stood in the kitchen describing for my younger siblings the new dessert she’d concocted from crushed Oreos and vanilla pudding or fresh Meyer lemons and cream cheese or bottles of stout poured into chocolate cake batter.

Alone, I sat on the carpet in my room and pillowed my head on the bed. No one came in. If I missed dinner those Sunday nights, if I shook my head at my stepmother, mute with sorrow, she returned to the dining room explaining my absence as “hormones.” I listened to my father’s overloud laughter and pressed my hands against my sternum, wondering how on earth to hold myself together for ten days before I could see my mother again.

Losing a family member over and over becomes a Sisyphean series of cruel small deaths. It would have been easier not to visit my mother every other weekend all the years of my adolescence. It would be easier not to see my daughter’s sisters, to let the girls get on with their lives 100 miles apart. But easy isn’t always optimal.

*   *   *

This winter on our porch, I left my daughter waving goodbye to her sisters in the car disappearing down the road. I went into the house and sat at one end of our big green couch, legs splayed inelegantly across the cushions, and reached for the warmest, softest blanket I could find. Then, I waited.

How do you help a child through grief and loss? The first few years, I met the moment of the sisters’ parting with a barrage of what I believed to be comforting distractions.

“Let’s go see a movie!” I told my daughter. “Let’s go to the trampoline park! Get ice cream! Go roller skating!”

She took my suggestions, mute, eyes wide and glittering as an animal’s when it’s in pain, and I congratulated myself for avoiding the chilly disregard of my father and stepmother. But last summer, after a playground visit with the sisters ended much too quickly, she hurled these words in my face: “Mommy, I don’t want to do anything!”

I heard her, and thought with a spinning head, what now?

The Buddhists tell us to sit with our pain, to make friends with it. Three decades ago, I sat with the loss of my mother surrounding me until I fell into bed exhausted. I think about what I wanted from the two parents with whom I lived—not space to process the transition as some obtuse child psychologist had counseled my father. Not even the whimsical desserts that my stepmother presented on her silver cake tray and I failed to recognize as reparation. I would have said no to a trip at the cinema or a game of Monopoly. I longed only for someone to say, “You hurt,” so that I could nod and push my insides back in and soldier on.

So this winter, I sat on the couch with a soft plaid blanket on my lap, and I waited. My daughter walked into the living room without looking at me. She closed the door against the 34-degree wind rattling our front yard cedar and wandered into her room.

I’ve failed, I thought. But she returned. Eyes downcast, she walked over to me and sat on the couch, straddling one of my outstretched legs. Then she crawled between them and lay against my chest. I covered her with the blanket and put my arms around her.

I couldn’t tell her it would be okay. Because it isn’t okay.

But if we can acknowledge that, not okay becomes more bearable.

My daughter and I sat there together on the couch for an hour and just breathed. She dozed a little in the warmth from the baseboard heater. I closed my eyes, as well.

For once, maybe I got it right. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there with her, the slippery tangle of our entrails surrounding us, and held on.

Sky Pony Press will publish Melissa Hart’s debut middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in April. She teaches for Whidbey Island’s MFA program in Creative Writing.

Photo: Andrew Pons/

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

Is My Three-Year-Old Colorblind?

By Sara Ackerman


When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors. 


The night before the first day of school I lean over the curl of my three-year-old daughter’s sleeping body. She’s pulled off her sleep cap and one of her braids is bent backwards and wrapped around her finger. For as long as she has been able to grasp a chunk in her tiny fingers, she has fallen asleep twirling her hair. I unwind the braid from her index finger, press it in the right direction, and pull the cherry printed cap back on her head.

In the dark I lay out clothes for the next morning and right the sideways tumble of containers on her dresser. This includes what must amount to hundreds of dollars of hair and skin products tossed into an online shopping cart in triplicate in an attempt to compensate for styling skills I don’t have with money that I also don’t have. With tubes of styling pudding, bottles of olive oil lotion and vanilla conditioning spray, and tubs of coconut oil and curling butter, it is not always obvious whether I am about to groom my child or make a dessert.

As an amateur baker I once made a nine-layer, thirty five-pound wedding cake. You know what is harder to construct than that? A cornrow. At the end of the third page of the “cornrowing made easy” tutorial were the words “you now have completed one braided stitch.” Of one cornrow. The tutorial does not mention placing your child in an approximation of a headlock. It has to be implied. I cross my fingers and squeeze about eleven bucks worth of product onto my daughter’s hair.

“We talk about adoption everyday,” one blogger, also an adoptive parent, brags. I panic because there isn’t a single thing I manage to do every day other than lose my keys. “Talk with your child about race; Don’t be colorblind,” experts say. I know all this, but knowledge does not equal a competent execution, as I wade through a shelf of Beverly Daniel Tatum, a thousand Ta-Nehesi Coates articles, and a case of shea butter. Note: wading in shea butter is messy. Also not tidy: the following conversation. When she puts her small hand on top of mine I tell my daughter that it’s so interesting people can be all different colors. She stares blankly. “My hand is peach, and yours is brown.”

Yours is brown,” she answers. “Hmmm,” I reply, “It’s ok that we have different color hands. Your hand looks brown to me. My hand looks different. Like a peach color.”

“I want peach,” she says. “Also blueberry. I have banana now please?”

A year and a half earlier, my daughter and I were walking down a tiny street in Rome. A drunk man lurched out of a doorway and turned toward us. “What’s your name?” he slurred, and when my daughter, then a month shy of 2 doesn’t answer, he continued “That’s ok, I’ll just call you chocolate.” “That’s ok,” I answered, “I’ll just call you asshole.” “Hey,” he mumbled, “it’s just a joke.”

I did-I-do-the-right-thing-myself? for days. If I say he is an asshole for referencing my daughter’s skin color, then what am I saying about her brownness? Chocolate can be a compliment, right? But then, I reason, he was drunk. A stranger. White. Also, it was apparently a joke?

“Asshole,” my daughter repeated to the Colosseum and to Trevi Fountain. “Asshole,” she said to strawberry gelato, cobblestone, and Fiumicino airport.

A few months later in Penn Station, we climbed down an almost deserted staircase. My daughter stepped slowly, holding carefully to the railing. A woman walked down behind us. “You have to lift her up,” our fellow stairgoer insisted, and when I didn’t, she hissed at me, “bitch, whore, bitch, whore,” all the way down. At the bottom of the stairs she added, “You wouldn’t make her walk if she was the same color as you.” That night I googled, “making black children walk down the stairs.” It didn’t seem to be a thing. “Is it a thing?” I asked my friend Jackie. “No. That is not a thing. That is a crazy person.” Jackie is black but so was the stair lady. But Jackie is definitely not crazy and the stair lady might have been. I sided with Jackie. Then I googled “black children; stairs; racism.”

I read that by age three a child should know at least one color. Mine is nearly three and a half and can’t name one. Oh my god. What if my child is actually, literally colorblind? I search, “is my child colorblind?” The first hit tells me that color blindness is rare, but something conclusion-jumping parents regularly ponder when their three year old can’t identify colors. Guilty.

I point and name the colors of everything we see. “Red,” I touch her sheets, “blue,” I touch her plate, “brown,” I touch her skin. “Blue,” she shrieks pointing to her arm. “Orange,” she screams about nothing in particular.

I get a book about how all people have different skin colors. Most colors are described with food analogies, and the rhyme scheme requires more oral agility than Dr. Seuss. “You’re brown, like the cinnamon,” I say mid-page. “And I’m peach, like, wait, there are no peaches in this book. I’ll be here. The cookie dough page.”

“I’m blue,” my daughter says, “and” pointing at the illustrated ice cream sundae, “I want that.” She calls it the ice cream book. She demands the ice cream book nightly and then claims she’s blue. I imagine she plans it like this: ask for ice cream book, insist I’m blue, repeat.

After her first day of school I take my daughter to my work for lunch. I carry her down the corridor to the cafeteria, my long, straight ponytail swinging from side to side. “Your hair is shaking, mama. My hair is not shaking.”

“You’re right. My hair is shaking and yours isn’t.”

“My hair is pwetty?” she asks. “You got it,” I tell her. “Plus,” I add inhaling her braids, “you smell like a cupcake.”

That night, we snuggle in the gray armchair to read. I wanted to hide the ice cream book but it turns out I don’t have to because after ripping the end papers to shreds my daughter hides it herself. Reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? instead, my daughter places her hand over the bear’s body. “I’m brown, mama” she says. “That’s right,” I say, “brown and so beautiful.” She puts a finger on my arm, “You’re peach mama.”

“That’s right,” I reply. She turns her hand over to reveal her palm, light and pink and chubby. “I’m peach, also.”

Sara Ackerman writes and teaches kindergarten in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


It Takes an Indian Village

It Takes an Indian Village

By Sharon Van Epps

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 5.09.56 PM

The day I left Delhi with my new 5 year-old-daughter, Didi, an Indian “auntie” I’d only just met issued a warning: Take good care of our child.

We’d been invited to attend a friend’s birthday luncheon mere hours before our departure for the US. The unexpected admonishment came from another party guest, a woman who’d never even seen Didi before but nevertheless felt the right to claim her. The woman’s message was clear: You are not an Indian, and this Indian girl will never truly be yours.

“Of course she will take good care!” my friend snapped in my defense. “You think this lady would go to such trouble to adopt an Indian child for some other purpose!”

I’d spent enough time in India to know that offering unwanted advice is a national sport, but still, the stranger’s words pricked. The truth is, in that moment I scarcely knew this little girl who stood beside me, bravely holding my hand. She was an Indian. I was an American. As soon as we boarded the plane bound for San Francisco, everything she understood about the world would disintegrate. We didn’t even speak the same language.

Adopting a child from another culture demands that you incorporate her culture into the identity of your family as a whole. My husband and I felt as prepared for this task as any two non-Indians could be. John had visited India multiple times, and I’d briefly lived in the southern city of Hyderabad. I had Indian relatives-by-marriage eager to be role models for our daughter. I’d even perfected my aunt’s recipe for yellow dal. Still, the list of things I didn’t know was long: Hindi, for starters. The Ramayana. Or how to make roti, or butter chicken, or gulab jamun. Most importantly, I had no idea how to tie a sari, a skill that I was certain that my new daughter would one day want to learn.

By the time Didi reached fifth grade, I’d mastered butter chicken but still couldn’t speak Hindi. Thankfully Didi had learned English, as international adoptees are forced by circumstance to do. With her elementary school graduation looming, she made an announcement: “I want to wear a sari to the grade graduation dance.”

I offered a million reasons why this was a bad idea. Saris are hard to move in. She didn’t own a sari. I wasn’t sure where to buy one. A salwar kameez (a long tunic with pants) or a lehanga choli (a skirt, blouse and scarf set) might be more practical. Most importantly, I couldn’t tie the sari for her, and I suspected I didn’t have the aptitude to learn. I can’t even tie a scarf more than one way.

“Get me a sari,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”

And so I bought my then 11-year-old her first sari, a dress traditionally reserved for adult women in her birthland. Didi chose electric blue with silver embroidery, plus matching bangles, a necklace, electric blue heels, and a package of stick-on bindhis. Finding somewhere to shop in Silicon Valley wasn’t hard at all – I’d fibbed about that. A quick trip down El Camino Real in Sunnyvale put dozens of saree palaces at our disposal. We picked one at random, where the shopkeeper kindly explained how to wrap and drape while I filmed the tutorial on my phone, hoping her advice would be enough.

Once home, we consulted YouTube videos, but of course there’s more than one way to wrap a sari, and we both ended up confused. I asked my cousin’s wife, Priya, if she could help tie Didi’s dress the night of the dance, but she confessed that she wasn’t adept at wrapping herself — my cousin Gabe or her mom usually tied her sari for her, and besides, both she and Gabe would get home from work too late to help.

“Why don’t we ask Reya’s mom?” Didi suggested.

Reya, the only other Indian girl in the fifth grade, was a friend, but the girls weren’t especially close, though when they’d played in the basketball league together, Reya’s grandmother had once brought Didi a bag of sweet ladoo. Remembering that thoughtful gesture gave me the courage to approach Purvee, Reya’s mom, for some assistance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Saris are really hard to wear. She may not be able to walk in it. I don’t even like wearing them.”

I agreed with her completely, and then I begged. Donning a sari meant something to Didi that she couldn’t fully articulate. Purvee relented, inviting us over to her house for a trial run, expecting that once she’d wrapped my daughter up, Didi would come to her senses. That didn’t happen, of course. Once draped in several feet of satiny blue material, Didi grinned and gleamed like a sapphire.

“This girl was born to wear a sari,” Purvee admitted. “Some people just have a knack for it.”

On the night of the dance, the girls got ready together at Reya’s house. Thanks to Purvee, Didi’s vision for the night came true.

A couple of years later, another occasion arose that Didi deemed sari worthy: my cousin Mike’s wedding. There would be plenty of Indians at this wedding, including Gabe and Priya, but they were in the wedding party and too busy to help Didi dress. My Aunt Allison volunteered her sister, who recruited her daughter, which is how Didi ended up getting wrapped by the cousin of my cousin, a confusing turn of events that felt culturally authentic. Cousin Robyn turned out to be the ideal teacher, patient and perfectionistic in terms of folding and refolding the pleats in the skirt. Once again, Didi looked beautiful and confident and the sari didn’t even unravel when she danced to Michael Jackson at the reception.

Last month, when an invitation to a Bat Mitzvah arrived, Didi again announced that she’d be wearing a sari, but not the blue. She wanted to go swathed in gold, wearing a dress she’d picked up on her first return visit to India, but getting her wrapped was more complicated now. We’d left California for Seattle, where we had no Indian contacts at all.

“I can do it myself,” Didi said.

This time, with more hands-on experience, the YouTube tutorials made sense, at least to her if not me. In the end, the golden fabric proved too slick to wrangle, but the old blue sari came through, and when Didi descended the stairs to depart for her friend’s celebration, she looked perfect – the beautiful and self-assured Indian American I’d hoped to raise. I’d been afraid that day we left India together that I would never be enough. Now I know. I’m not enough — what mother is? — but I’m also not alone.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said.

“The pleats aren’t quite right,” she replied, “but I’m okay with it.”


Sharon Van Epps is a writer, wife, and mother of three teenagers whose work has appeared in Redbook, McSweeney’s,  DailyWorth, Motherlode and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter @sharonvanepps

Found in Translation

Found in Translation


By Annika Paradise

Slowly, small clusters of adults anxiously enter the room: one or two Caucasians with one Chinese translator. They hold teddy bears, dolls, backpacks full of presents, cameras, sugared rice crackers and the required gift, wrapped in red paper, for the government official. The room is decorated in red, black and white…symbolically. Some translate from Chinese to Swedish, Chinese to Spanish, or Chinese to English making stilted small talk to bridge the tenuous silence. Beyond language there is a palpable bond between the adults. This is it. This is the moment we have been waiting for three to five years. There are four doors separating the waiting room from the children and their nannies behind. Each door is closed with a red, blue and black curtain, so that as we walk by, we can catch glimpses of the children. Is that her? No, that one is definitely her! My husband Will soon stands by one curtain and is making silly faces to the children behind. An official quickly comes to tell him that he must sit with the others waiting. Within the hour, each person will leave this room forever changed.

I grew up in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. Palo Alto was still a funky college town. Moms in my world stayed home with their kids, made their own granola and Ken Kesey was our famous neighbor. There was the bookmobile, picnics under oak trees, trips to Tahoe and fights with my sister, but always there was an impending call from Dr. Goodkind, my mother’s oncologist. Unlike other kids in my world, I don’t remember a childhood that was separate from sickness. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was three, went through chemo, remission, chemo, surgery, more surgery and eventually died from a brain tumor when I was eight. We did hospice in 1978 (before the hospice movement made it common) and she never slept away from our home with the final tumor. My well-meaning brownie troop leaders and my mom’s friends looked at me with pity, referred to our family as a “tragedy” and didn’t let my friends come to her funeral because their children weren’t ready for something so sad.  When you grow up with that mantle, the upside is you’re ready for anything, especially when it comes thirty years later in the form of a beautiful Chinese 3-year-old.


As the first children emerge in the arms of their caregivers, an official takes the paperwork and says the child’s name in a loud declaration to the room as if announcing the next debutante into high society. Many of us have only seen photos that were taken six or more months before. Some wonder if they will recognize their child from the photos. As the proclamations begin, there are the sounds of great screams as the children clutch onto all they have known, a sudden cacophony of life’s abrupt shift. It’s like we are all in the delivery room together witnessing one another’s very private birth. Some are physically pulled from their Chinese nannies as they reach and scramble toward their old life, not making eye contact with this new big white lady. They whimper, eyes wide. The babies are soon silenced with a toy, a sugar cookie or by exhaustion. The older ones – some as old as five or six -who more fully understand, train their eyes on the door from which they came. They come around more slowly but are also soon entranced with their gifts and sweets. We wait and wait for our daughter’s name to be announced but there is a discrepancy with the spelling of her name on one of the forms. It needs to be corrected before we can meet, as if spelling can derail the seismic changes that are happening in our lives.

How much does a child understand in these moments? There is the one level of understanding but there is another magical level that can soften the blow. I knew my mother was dying on one level but on another I thought that the scientists at Stanford were monitoring how a girl responds to so much sadness. I steeled myself thinking that I was being watched. In my magical world there was no way my mother could actually die. So I was surprised when she actually did die one Saturday during cartoons. I ran to her bed, saw my beautiful mother turned greenish with white lips. I cried, then remembered the scientists and felt surprised that they would really take it this far. I wouldn’t give them what they wanted. I hid to cry, then made up some massive fantasy of my mother being kept in Eastern Europe while I was still being studied. If I could create such fantasies, what was my new daughter thinking and feeling? What was her fantasy world creating to soften her reality?

Mao Xin Feng, at almost 3, is the last child to emerge from the curtained waiting room. Each hair is meticulously arranged. Her lips parted, eyes wide as she looks out into the room of screaming children and parents. The crying room is slowly reaching its crescendo. Her expression is “speechless” and would literally remain speechless for most of the next 72 hours. She is accompanied by her nanny and a proud representative from the orphanage. I don’t remember walking toward her but I do remember reaching out for her. As she is lifted into my arms, she does not cling to her escorts but her body stiffly remains in the gesture of hugging her nanny, unsure of her next gesture.

Her body was stiff in my arms, her rapidly beating heart, her breath on my neck, and I feel surprised that she weighs obviously less than my son who is exactly one year younger than she. Slowly, as our translator made small talk between the 5 adults, Xin Feng’s body starts to relax in quick jolts; her heart slows. After ten minutes of hugging and slow rocking, her small hands begin to hold on to me. Her nannies are beaming and telling her that she is so lucky to have her own mommy and daddy; that she needs to listen to us and be good; and come back to visit one day. How many times have these women delivered away these children they have raised? Are they conflicted inside? Unlike the diligent nurses who inspect the car seat before we left the hospital with our biological newborns, we brought Lucy Xinfeng Paradise home from the Guangdong Welfare Office in a hailed cab, without a working seat belt, and held her on our laps through the Guangzhou traffic.

The entirety of our two weeks in China is taken up with the required half days of government office visits and the other half is free time. When we walk around the area by our hotel, our son Kai and Lucy in a double-wide stroller, they start to bond. Kai’s white-blonde curls contrast with Lucy’s black bob. Chinese people want to pose with the stroller and take photos, saying “very good!” and giving me two thumbs up. Do they like the blonde boy, the siblings, or the fact that we are obviously adopting? I’ll never know. Kai and Lucy clink sippy cups as if to say “cheers”, share cookies and play peek-a-boo. Lucy has never owned more than one lovie and one change of clothes. She is enamored with this sippy cup, sleeps with the sippy cup, wants Kai’s sippy cup and seems to understand, if not verbally, the concept of “mine!”

Two doors down from the hotel is “Lucy’s Restaurant” with both American and Chinese food. On the menu is a special section for Chinese kids’ menu – most tables have one or more Chinese children with nervously doting Western parents. The waiter tells me that Chinese girls like “egg flower soup” and he’s right. On our second night together, Lucy wants a toy from Kai as we wait for our food. Kai is reluctant and Lucy gives him a strong right hook to the eye. Will grabs Kai and says loudly to Lucy, “Hey, you can’t hit my kid!” All 20 pounds of her looks blankly back to him. After a few minutes, I remind Will, “Lucy’s your kid now too.”

I used to lie with my newborns on my chest; let them sleep so I could stare and bond; hearts finding their synch. Instinctively, I did this with Lucy too. Her feet would do a kind of running motion which pushed her into a nuzzle on my neck. She was so intuitive about finding a way to bond. Her first words were “mommy,” “water,” “potty,” “ladybug,” and “where’s mommy?”

In the days and weeks after my own mother died, I would sleepwalk down into the study and fall asleep on the floor, lying as if her hospital bed were still there. My father would wake me, pick me up and hold me before taking me back up to my own room. My subconscious mind has been, for years, also asking, “where’s Mommy?” Now the adult in me has the privilege of weaving the answer.

Somewhere over the Pacific, we cuddle, trying to get comfortable laying across our seats. We point back and forth smiling and saying together, “Xin Feng”, then, “Mommy”. I used the colloquial with her nickname, “Ai Feng” to which she decidedly says, “may-o, Ai Feng!” She instead points to herself and says, “LUCY!” and from that day onward, I call her Lucy.

When Lucy is home for just a few days, jetlag still intense, language still being learned, we start to realize that the honeymoon is over. Lucy sits and sits with her cheeks stuffed with food at the counter. She is obviously full so we try to take her plate away and urge her to come play. She screams with terror. We read that this is common with children who always had limited food. So up she stays with squirrel cheeks bunkered against my encouraging smiles. Finally I realize that if I gave her crackers in a baggie, if she can hold some food, then she will leave her plate to do something else. Her one hand white-knuckles the zip-lock while she draws with the other.

Her tantrums are extreme. If I could give them a voice, they would say, where am I? Where are all my old friends? I want white rice and sugar cookies. I want you to understand my Cantonese dialect…now! What the fuck is going on here!? Has her magical thinking hit a roadblock? The tantrums are thrashing, banging objects and screaming. I physically restrain her a few times so that she won’t hurt herself or others. I am yelled at. I am yelled at again. And then yelled at some more. As much as I am her anchor, I am also being held responsible for the extreme change in her life. How do you tell a child that this new life will be better for them in the long run, that she will come to love us, that we can provide a nice life for her, and that our food and dogs won’t be so scary once some time passes. And that I already love her.

The screaming and anger are relentless; I want to help her, but I also want to scream back at her. Hands shaking, rage rising I need to walk out the door. I am ashamed at my lack of patience and the fire that is stirred within me. I am the nice one; I’ve never had anger issues. Where has this rage been buried? I had no idea the extent of my limitations until those moments. I close the door and leave my daughter alone to scream it out. After her intense loss and pain in her short life, what kind of person am I, to walk away from her? I am walking away both to protect myself and because I’m surprised to meet a girl in me who wants to yell too.

Summer has come to Boulder, Colorado when we return home from China in June 2010. My two biological children are in the garden, barefoot finding the irises, peonies and helping weed the vegetable garden. Lucy screams from the doorway. She will not step down onto the dirt without being carried or wearing shoes. She cries when the tall grass touches her arms, cries when any dirt gets onto her clothes. As we look through the photos from the orphanage, we realize that her world had been paved.   The playground was cement, the courtyard tiled and as we know she had never left the orphanage, we conclude that she has probably never touched grass in her life. Not only is she tormented by lack of control in her life, in culture shock and learning a new language, she is also meeting the natural world for the first time.

In the months of yelling, screaming and PTSD in the house, Lorna and Kai spend more time with a babysitter than ever before or since. I feel guilty for how little emotional reserves are left for them and how insignificant their needs are on my day-to-day triage. It’s only when five year-old Lorna cries that she misses her mommy that I doubt this crazy path we have chosen. But when I overhear Lorna telling a friend that she is now part-Chinese, I wonder what her trip to China and the integration of her sister into her life has imprinted onto her own identity. I hope that maybe all this chaos has shown her that messy is OK and families are more about love and commitment than biology.

Back before we left for China, I read volumes about the possible issues with toddler adoption and my anxiety went through the roof. As Melanie, our 22 year-old baby sitter, said to me in the spring of 2010, “don’t we all have attachment issues, Annika?” She was so right: if you put either Will or myself into the literature’s matrix of whose history would cause attachment issues, we’d both be off the charts. Perhaps saying yes to Lucy was saying yes to all of us who have had rough start. And really, I’ve learned of myself that I had something to prove: that none of us is broken by our early circumstances. Even me.

In June of 2011, back from China a year, we visit my mother in law in the Boston area when we decide to do the typical tourist Duck Boat tour. In these tours, WWII amphibious vehicles give a historical tour of both downtown Boston and Boston Harbor. The historical facts bore the kids, but the crazy vehicle is exciting for all, especially after 45 minutes when we finally drive right into the Charles River and start the boat part of the tour. The driver then stands up and turns to face the hundred or so passengers. He asks if there are any volunteers who want to drive the boat. Lucy’s hand shoots up and, before being chosen, starts marching up the aisle. This is the Lucy who has shown up in our family ever since: jump in with two feet, even before knowing all the details, especially if it means steering your own ship.

Days pass without obvious change but only as the years pass do I look back and see that we are all new people. Lucy tantrums over the first day that is cold enough to warrant long underwear; instead of being irritated over the tantrum and being late for school, I smile that this is a really normal thing to scream about. I hate long underwear too. Instantly, I’m aware it’s been a really long time since she screamed about something. I wonder if the summer of screaming ever really happened or was it just some kind of weird dream.

Today, in March 2015, Will and I come to Lucy’s 1st grade parent – teacher conference. The teacher has mostly glowing reports. Lucy is a favorite playmate of her peers: enthusiastic, attentive and confident. Lucy is one of her brightest students and she lays out all the ways that she will give her extra challenges so that our gifted and talented girl will not be bored. I want to cry thinking how far Lucy has come, but try to remain composed. I want to tell her that she learned English equal to her peers after being with us for just three months – of course she is smart. Her teacher does mention, as “an opportunity for growth”, that Lucy lashed out to another student who touched her things. I remember the right hook she gave to her younger brother, how she clutched the zip-lock of crackers in her early days, her obsession with her first sippy cup. In this moment, I see that the scars, although faint, are still fading.

Author’s Note: This essay is the honest answer to the oft-repeated question, “what was it like to adopt a three year-old?” Usually I just give a one word answer, like “great”, but this is what I would really say if I were being honest. Lucy is my hero.

Annika Powell Paradise lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, three children, 5 chickens, 2 ducks and a pug. When she is not mothering, she writes poetry, essays and is currently working on a YA historical fiction novel.







A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

A Mother, a Child & the Dog: An Adoption Story

By Alison Seevak


I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog?


Just before I turned 35, I made an appointment to meet a pregnant golden retriever named Angel. Everyone I knew was having babies and I was plain miserable. I wanted a family of my own, but had yet to find lasting love. I didn’t think I could handle a baby by myself. However, I did think I might be able to handle a dog. It would take my mind off of things.

Angel’s owner, a woman named Rosalie, told me over the phone that she would need to size me up in person before she’d let me take one of her puppies. So I drove down from Berkeley to Mountain View and spent a few hours drinking iced tea with Rosalie, a large 50ish woman with cat eye glasses, while she questioned me about my work schedule and whether or not I had a fenced in backyard. I tossed a green tennis ball to Angel, who had plenty of energy, even though she was about to whelp eight puppies. I told Rosalie about the park in back of my house and feigned interest when she told me that a former San Francisco 49er, Joe Montana lived down the street. I knew nothing about football, but when Angel lay down and panted by my feet, I knew I wanted one of her puppies.

At my birthday party that year, two of my exceptionally pregnant friends lowered themselves onto my sofa with slight groans. Their attentive husbands hovered nearby, ready to hand them slices of birthday cake. One still had enough of a sense of humor to note “Alison, it’s like you are trapped in a Wendy Wasserstein play.”

But by now I had Sophie, one of Angel’s puppies, and she had become my grand distraction. We took long walks in the hills at dusk, looking for owls. She ran ahead of me, a flash of gold fur in tall grass, chasing after things I couldn’t see. Every morning, I took her to the park with a bunch of neighborhood dog owners, people I’d only said a passing hello to before. Now we stood around drinking coffee and gossiping while the dogs ran. I brought Sophie to the afterschool program where I taught. My students wrote her letters or drew pictures of her wearing wings and a crown. Sophie brought me onto the sidewalks, into the hills, into the world.

She was the constant while I dated in those nerve wracking years leading up to my 40th birthday. One of my dog training bibles at the time, a book written by a group of monks who raised German Shepherds, recommended that dogs sleep in their owner’s rooms. It was the one recommendation I actually followed. So, the first time I brought one boyfriend home, I had to explain the enormous crate containing the excited puppy in my bedroom. Together, we carried the crate into the kitchen. I tried hard to ignore Sophie’s howling that night.

Another boyfriend insisted that I board Sophie when I came to visit him, two hours away, in Santa Cruz. He lived with a skinny 18-year-old cat named Sallie.

“Sophie has too much energy,” he said, explaining why I couldn’t bring her with me. Not too long after that, I had a session with a pet psychic who told me that Sophie felt Howard could not open his heart to me.

“She’s right,” he said when confronted. We broke up shortly after that.

In between teaching and unsuccessful dating, my life was a series of long dog walks. Sophie’s leash tethered me to her, but it also tethered me to something solid, to the here and now. When I was with her, I had some respite from the “what if” and “what if not” that threatened to carry me away, as if I were a balloon from a child’s birthday party that escaped and floated high into the blue sky.

And then one night I dreamt that Sophie turned into a tall languorous teen aged girl in a red baseball cap who drove away from me in a convertible. I couldn’t wait any longer. I realized that if I was going to have a child, I’d have to do it by myself. By now, I was 41. I decided to adopt a baby girl from China.

While I did piles of paperwork and waited to fly to China to meet my daughter, I worried. I worried about attachment disorder, sleep deprivation, being a white woman raising an Asian child. I worried about getting time alone in the bathroom. But mostly, I worried about Sophie, my baby for the past six years. How would I push a stroller while walking alongside a sometimes unruly 75 pound dog? What if Sophie’s barking woke the baby up from her nap? What if they hated each other? I had never followed the monks’ advice too closely. I’d spent years letting Sophie do all the wrong things — sleep on my bed, pull on the leash, run in the opposite direction when I called her name. In a fit of desperation, I sent Sophie off to doggie boot camp. But after a week, the trainer called me and said I should just come get her. It was too late.

A few months later, I stood in a gray civil affairs office in Wuhan, China and was handed the most beautiful, angry one-year-old I had ever met. Red-faced and screaming, she arched away from me the first time I held her. I had prepared a list of questions for Mr Cheng, the orphanage director. I knew she had lived with a foster family in the countryside. Right after a question about favorite foods I asked, “Did her foster family have a dog?”

Mr Cheng shook his head no while the translator explained. “They only had chickens.”

After that auspicious meeting, we both came down with something. I lay feverish and nauseous in a fancy hotel room with a limp, grieving Anna plastered to my chest. My friend, Grace who had come along with me to help, looked at the two of us on the bed. “Maybe you’re going to have to find another home for Sophie. I don’t know how you’re going to manage,” she said.

But we both got better. By the time we’d arrived back in California and Sophie came home from where she’d boarded, things looked brighter. When Sophie walked into the house for the first time, she bounded right over to Anna, who grabbed her fur and pulled herself up. At night, when I walked the rooms of my house with a jet-lagged baby, the only thing that consoled her was when I let her rest on Sophie’s back. Sophie sat under Anna’s high chair waiting for bits of food. Anna’s first word in English was “sit.”

Sophie and I both finally grew up. My dog became less of a child, more of a collaborator. She was actually like a concerned canine aunt. When two-year-old Anna threw bedtime tantrums in her room, screaming “I don’t want to sleep in this crib! I want a book! I don’t want to wear these pajamas!” I’d watch the clock thinking if this goes on for ten more minutes, I’ll go in. But Sophie looked at me with serious brown eyes. Aren’t you going to do anything, it seemed like she was saying. Are you going to just let that kid scream?

Every night after dinner, we took a walk around the neighborhood, Anna in her stroller and Sophie trotting obediently alongside us. Once Anna got old enough, she’d walk too, my hand in one of hers, and Sophie’s leash gripped tightly in the other.

In preschool, when other kids pasted pictures of mothers, fathers and siblings onto posterboard for show and tell, Anna glued on photos of Sophie and me. When she was about to turn six, she described the birthday cake she wanted for her planetarium themed party. Anna, Sophie and I, wearing astronaut suits would float in a dark sky of chocolate frosting. There’d be a big vanilla moon and in the distance, a green and blue frosted earth. We’d be adrift in space, but love and our linked hands (and paws) would hold us together.

I knew I could not attempt this cake myself. I found a neighborhood mom with a baking business. “I have curly brown hair and glasses, my daughter is Chinese and we want the golden retriever’s fluffy tail sticking out of the astronaut suit,” I explained over the phone.

“No problem,” she said, calmly as if this request was an everyday kind of event. And in our world, of course, it was.

Alison Seevak‘s writing has appeared in The Sun, Literary Mama and Adoptive Families magazine. She lives in Northern California with her twelve-year-old daughter and their new dog, Buddy.

Sibling Resemblances

Sibling Resemblances

By Heather Cole


Although my youngest has been in our family for less than half his life—he walks and talks like we do. He holds his head like my husband; he rolls his eyes just like me.


“All I want is for my children to resemble each other.”

I was having a conversation with a dear friend who, after years of secondary infertility, was embarking on the journey of egg donation to complete her family. Lisa and her husband had already selected the donor from an online database, matching the donor’s ethnicity, physical features and interests to their own. They were in the midst of the paperwork and psychological exams that were required before they could proceed.

My husband and I had also suffered years of infertility but eventually adopted two boys out of our state’s foster care system. That, too, had been a long, stressful journey which included having a child returned to his birthparents after nine months living in our home. Lisa had witnessed this and had been one of the many shoulders I had cried on over the past five years. Although initially interested in adopting their second child, our rocky journey had scared Lisa and her husband away.

“I don’t think I could survive what you’ve been through,” she said on several occasions.

I smiled, shook my head and responded to my friend who had suffered multiple miscarriages, “We all do what we have to do. Your hell just looks a little different than mine.”

Loss and grief are at the heart of the journey for those of us for whom family-building is not as simple as an unmediated romp in the sack. There is the initial grief at the loss of the ease of parenthood, followed by the loss of privacy via invasive tests and medical interventions. In many cases, there are multiple losses of pregnancies—and of all the hopes and dreams that grow exponentially faster than the cells in one’s womb.

Adoption is no easy solution, either. It took three long years of court hearings and legal paperwork before we were able to finalize the adoption of our youngest son. During that time we grappled daily with the fear that the bonds we were forming could be ripped apart with no recourse. Although we celebrated mightily once both our boys were permanent members of our family, we also know that our joy comes at a cost. Our sons have lost siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles from their biological families. They mourned the former foster parents who cared for them in their early months. We don’t yet know how these losses will affect our family in the years to come.

The matter under discussion this morning was yet another place of loss: the loss of having children who look like each other. The particular concern was the issue of dimples. Specifically, that Lisa and her biological son both have dimples but the egg donor did not.

“I just want my kids to resemble each other,” she sighed.

On this, I was able to offer Lisa some reassurance: “They will.”

People tell me all the time that my two boys, adopted from unrelated biological families, look just like each other. They are just nine months apart in age, but one is a slim, pale, blue-eyed child of French-Canadian descent and one is a stocky, hazel-eyed kid with the darker skin of his Portuguese biological grandparents. Until my eldest’s recent growth spurt, strangers would often ask me if they were twins. I shook my head and laughed as I reminded Lisa of this.

Lisa said, “Oh, but they do…” and pointed out their matching smiles in the first-day-of-school photograph on my phone.

“That’s just it—they don’t,” I said. “They look nothing like each other.”

I know this because I have a point of comparison: I have met the biological family members that my children resemble. My youngest has his birthmother’s deep-set eyes and sculpted eyebrows. It was the first thing I noticed the one time I met her: in court during the trial to terminate her parental rights. And my eldest is the spitting image of his 10-year-old biological brother. The brother I saw just once, along with my eldest’s three other biological siblings, at their birthmother’s wake.

Back when we bathed them together, it was such a wonder to discover how different their little bodies were: long fingers on one, stubby toes on the other; slender hips next to chunky thighs; tan and pink bellies against the white ceramic tub.

Despite the differences, my kids resemble each other in the ways that people notice: they do have matching smiles and in snapshots, twist their bodies together with their arms around the other’s neck. They both laugh big, open-mouthed laughs and drive their father and I crazy with their incessant nonsense chatter to each other. Although my youngest has been in our family for less than half his life—he walks and talks like we do. He holds his head like my husband; he rolls his eyes just like me.

I reassured Lisa: her family will shape the person her baby will become.

“Your baby will learn to smile by mirroring your smile. Your son will teach his little sister to dance and laugh. Your husband will show her how to stand when she throws a baseball. Genetics or not, she will be part of your family and you will become like each other.”

Heather S. Cole is a writer and mom who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In previous lives she managed a state-wide oral history project, ran study abroad programs and produced a public access TV show. She is currently working on a memoir about being a foster parent.

I Had A Boy

I Had A Boy

By Carrie Goldman


I figured it would stop in about five years, when I no longer looked young enough to be adding to my family. It had started a decade ago, during my second pregnancy. First, a quick appraisal of my protruding stomach—taking in the small girl with pigtails already chattering by my side—and then the Question.

“Hoping for a boy this time?” asked the sales clerk, the customer, the grocer, the person in line, the passenger on the plane, the nurse in the doctor’s office.

“We’re not finding out,” was the standard answer I gave, which tossed the ball back into the other person’s court and usually fulfilled my conversation obligations.

The Question, I have learned, is built on automatic assumptions that society holds about a woman’s life, her path to parenthood, and her values, but rarely do those assumptions reflect my truth.

Our second baby was born, and she was another wonderful girl. The Question slightly shifted. People would see me with my two little girls, and ask, “Will you try for a boy next?”

“We are thrilled with our girls,” I would respond. I know The Question is born of curiosity, not malice, and that most people are simply trying to be friendly and make conversation.

But I began to notice the cultural bias behind the curiosity. I grew weary of the gender-based marketing that divides stores into seas of pink and blue and made a point of crossing into the boys’ section to buy superhero shirts and Star Wars toys for my daughters. I stacked little footballs and toy trains alongside princesses and jewelry kits. There are all different ways to be a girl and raise a girl.

When my girls were six and three, I became pregnant again. The Question came at me as soon as I began to show, sometimes in the form of a comment. “I hope your poor husband gets a boy this time!”

I would turn to my attentive little girls and tell them, “You girls are my world, and Daddy’s too. When people say things like that, it shows us how they think, but it is NOT how Daddy and I think.”

Our third baby was born, and we were overjoyed with another little girl. It has been almost five years since she arrived, and our family is complete.

Not a month goes by that a smiling stranger doesn’t comment on how I have three, count ’em, THREE little girls, asking if I will try for a boy next.

For years, I focused my responses on pushing back against the subtle stereotypes behind The Question. It was easier to channel my inner tumult on an external issue than on the additional reason why the question wrenched my heart, the silent response in my head. I had a boy. But something went horribly wrong when his kidneys formed, and he died before he got a chance to live his life.

That silent response erupted unexpectedly into conversation last week, when I was at Trader Joe’s with the trio, and a fellow customer watched my two youngest girls loading up a mini shopping cart with a crazy collection of foods.

She smiled at me and said, “Looks like you have some great helpers. Will you try for a boy next?”

Before I could reply, my oldest daughter said, “She had a baby boy that died and then she adopted me.”

There. There it was. I had a boy. The woman, poor thing, turned pink and beat a hasty retreat. My oldest daughter resumed grabbing cartons of berries. She piled them in the cart that her younger sisters were fighting over.

I tried to make reassuring eye contact with the woman, seeking to let her know that it was okay, that we are okay, but she had fled.

I wondered what led my daughter to speak up with that answer. Perhaps it was nothing more than the blunt honesty—a refreshing quality, really—that we find in children. Or perhaps she was seeking to validate her own place in the family, letting the other woman know that we do not need a boy anymore because we adopted her. Adoption and identity are complicated issues, and our oldest needs frequent affirmation that she belongs.

As we walked through the store, I thought about how simple and freeing my daughter’s answer was. In one sentence, she managed to dispose of the question that always stumps me. It felt good not to have to go through my internal dialogue before coming up with the right response.

It is difficult to reconcile the benign attempts of a stranger to make small talk with the intense thoughts that rush through my head. Do I commit a lie of omission in my response and deny the existence of that baby boy? It feels like a betrayal. Do I breach the unspoken rules of appropriate disclosure by responding as bluntly as my daughter did, thus forcing the other person into an awkward position?

I am not alone in this experience. I have two good friends who lost their first daughters and are now raising little boys. My sweet friends puzzle over how to answer the simplest of questions such as, “How many kids do you have? Think you’ll go for a girl next?” I have two more friends who, like I, lost baby boys and are now raising all-girl families.

The zigzagging of thoughts, the rapid internal dialogue, plays out again and again. I usually make a game-time decision to give a response that opens the door to new thoughts about the value of girls in society, because it does address one of my issues with the Question, while preserving my private pain. But every single time, a voice in my head says, I had a boy. But life is strange, sad and wonderful, and now I am the blessed mother of three phenomenal girls. This is my path.

Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. You can see her work at, including her new children’s chapter book, Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing! co-authored with Juliet Bond.

Photo: gettyimages

The Foster Mother Lupe Garza

The Foster Mother Lupe Garza

By Jessica O’Dwyer


We were 15 months into adopting my now 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, when I quit my job and rented a house to live with her in Antigua, Guatemala. The Guatemalan town was flooded with people like my husband and me, who got to know our hoped-for children over long weekends, eating brunch in hotel dining rooms and playing peek-a-boo on hotel pool decks.

The process wasn’t easy for anyone, most of all Olivia. She’d been placed in a foster home at four months old, so until my husband and I showed up to visit, the Garzas were her family. The first time I held her in my arms, she looked at me with brown eyes filled with fear and puzzlement. And no wonder. My hair was blonde, my skin white, and my basic Spanish incomprehensible. I wasn’t Lupe Garza, the mother Olivia knew. I was a stranger. When Lupe tried to hand her to me, Olivia stiffened her spine. When I gave Olivia her bottle, she turned away her face. By the end of our long weekends, when Olivia finally let me feed her, it was time to return her to the Garza family and fly back to California.

Adoption experts claim a child can transfer attachment from one primary caregiver to another, but as the months passed, Olivia’s attachment to Lupe Garza seemed deep and permanent. How could I ever tear her away? Which is why, fifteen months into it, I quit my job and rented the house in Antigua where we lived together. Olivia was cautious at first, watching me with her intense eyes and screaming with fear if I moved from her sight. But after a few weeks, she let me nuzzle her cheek and hold her hand. She snuggled into me when I read her a book, and smiled when I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” We began to feel like mother and daughter.

We stayed in touch with the Garzas, who lived an hour away. Foster mother Lupe Garza was a fantastic cook, and during our hotel visits, had often shared with us her country’s specialties—tamales around Christmas, black beans, and the dish most associated with Guatemala, pepian. I loved pepian so much that Lupe insisted on teaching me how to make it. We set a date and the entire Garza family arrived at our house in Antigua mid-morning—Lupe and her husband, the kids and their significant others; this was a big crowd—carrying bags of rice and peppers and onions and chiles, a large sack of pumpkin seeds, and two whole chickens, freshly plucked.

After we said our hellos, the men and boys settled in front of the TV in the living room, while the women and girls commandeered the kitchen. On an old videotape in a closet somewhere I have footage of Lupe Garza carrying Olivia in a sling across her back, wielding a wooden spoon to sauté the onions and roast the pumpkin seeds as she explained to the camera in Spanish the steps for creating the dish. Beside her, Olivia’s foster sisters and the brothers’ girlfriends chopped and sliced and minced and pummeled. They laughed and spoke fast, again in Spanish, words I couldn’t understand.

I hadn’t thought about this particular day for years, until I recently came across a pepian recipe. As I read through the ingredients, the memories of our hours together returned. The morning that became afternoon that became evening. The sharp smell of chiles, and garlic, and oregano. The sizzling of the browning chicken. The scent of pumpkin seeds, toasted. The way Lupe tied Olivia into the sling and carried her across her back. Olivia’s foster brother running out at the last minute to buy tortillas from the seller in front of Pollo Campero. The Garzas seated at my table eating pepian. Olivia sitting on her foster sister’s lap. Everybody hugging at the front door. Olivia waving bye-bye, with a backwards wave, the way Lupe Garza taught her.

Jessica O’Dwyer is the author of Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir (Seal Press) and the adoptive mother to two children born in Guatemala. Her essays have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, and in the San Francisco Chronicle magazine, Adoptive Families, Marin Independent Journal, and the West Marin Review.

My Heart Knows a Difference

My Heart Knows a Difference

By Jennifer Palmer


Does a parent’s heart make a distinction between adopted kids and biological kids? Is the attachment, the bond, the connection the same?


“How does this experience compare to, well, to before?”

She asked the question cautiously, not wanting to offend, her gaze moving from my face to my husband’s to baby Katie huddled against my chest. I was recovering from an emergency C-section and was grateful for her company, for the meal she brought with her, for honest questions about love, about the nature of family.

She’s a good friend, one who knew our story—that we had tried to adopt a baby girl, Cara*, a year earlier, that Cara’s birth father had contested the adoption, that he had succeeded and we had lost. Cara had lived with us five months before the judge’s ruling came, and this friend had been there by our side, praying and crying and hoping through it all.

I knew exactly what she meant by her question and I was not bothered that she asked it. After all, it’s a natural question, one I ask myself on a regular basis. I wrestle with it, mull it over, wonder—does a parent’s heart make a distinction between adopted kids and biological kids? Is the attachment, the bond, the connection the same? Ultimately, the big question is this: was the love I felt for Cara the same as the love I feel for Katie?

The obvious answer—the one people expect, the one adoptive parents long to give, the one adopted kids are desperate to hear—is yes. Yes. Yes. The love is the same. The bond is the same. The daughter I chose, who grew in my heart but not in my womb, is the same to me as the daughter who shares my genetics. My heart knows no difference.

The obvious answer is yes, but I don’t believe it is an honest answer, at least not for me, for my experience. Other adoptive moms may feel differently, but for me, the truth is more complicated than that. The truth is harder than that.

The truth is that my heart does know a difference. Not a difference in genetics, not one in biology, but a difference all the same, a difference that can only be attributed to adoption, to the way each daughter came to be a part of my family.

My heart knew all along that there was another who could and did call Cara her daughter, that this sweet girl had another family, one not my own, who had some claim on her. It knew she came to me through loss, that such loss can and often does pose an obstacle to a strong mother-daughter bond, that there are those in the world who would never see me as her “real” mom, no matter what happened. My heart knew that there was risk here, in this relationship. It recognized the terrible, awful risk that they would take her from me, that a judge would rule she wasn’t really mine and I would be forced to say goodbye. It could not ignore the tremendous stress, the horrible fear, the drama and the tension and the heartache of that interminable summer of court dates and visitation and lawyer’s fees. And so it was guarded, careful in its love for Cara. The bond, while very real, was tenuous, only as strong as my feeble courage would allow.

The early months of Katie’s life were an entirely different experience, marked as they were by peace and calm and joy. No drama, no stress. No fear that they might take her from me. My heart was free to love without inhibition, without the instinctual reserve that was present previously, and I forged bonds with her that were strong and unafraid.

And so my heart knows the difference. The love is not the same. Not because of any differences in biology, not because of genetics, not because of anything specific about the girls themselves, but because of anxiety, because of stress, because of circumstance.

I wish this were not the case. I wish that I had the capacity to love without fear, no matter the risk, that I could give an unreserved and exuberant “yes” when asked if I loved Cara in the same way that I love Katie. I wish my heart did not know a difference. I wish I were strong enough for that.

And yet, I know this, know it as surely as I know my own mother loves me: I loved Cara. I loved her. I loved that baby girl with a fierce, protective, mother’s love. A love that washed over me, filled me, swept me up in its currents the moment I first held her in my arms, though I selfishly tried to resist it. A love unlike anything I had ever felt. I loved that baby girl. I loved her. I loved her.

How does one measure love? It isn’t as though you can put it on a scale, ladle it into a measuring cup, stack it against a ruler. I do not know how to quantify love, how to compare one love to another, but if one possible measure is what you’d be willing to endure on another’s behalf, then my love for Cara knew no bounds, just as my love for Katie knows no bounds. Though the experience of loving these two girls differs greatly, the expression of that love does not.

And so, if the question is whether there’s a difference, whether my heart makes a distinction between my two daughters, the answer is yes. Much as I might wish otherwise, my heart knows a difference.

But if the question is whether I love my biological daughter more than I loved the one I tried to adopt, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic no. No. No. I would have laid down my life in a heartbeat for Cara, just as I would lay it down for Katie if necessary. And as somebody who is much wiser than I am observed: greater love has no one than that.

*Name changed

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

It Flew

It Flew

By Marilyn A. Gelman

WO It Flew ART

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

So many years ago that it seems like another lifetime, my older son, Mark, asked his father about the birds and the bees.

They were sitting on my then-husband’s side of our rumpled bed. Daddy was bent over tying a shoe when Mark asked how the part from the man got to the part from the woman so that a baby came.

Daddy paused and looked at me over his shoulder. I shook my head. Luck had sent the question to him, not to me. I was not getting involved.

Daddy ducked.

“It flew,” he said.

Divorce happened; children grew into adults. Mark and I often joked about his sex education at home. At least Daddy had told him something; as far as we knew, his brother married without even the benefit of “It flew” to guide him in wedded bliss.

Mark went to college and graduate school. He married his college sweetheart, Lisa, and they began to build a life together. They bought a house, got a dog, put up a fence and, in 2006, some thirty-five years after he had been told “It flew,” they flew to China to adopt Rebecca. She was thought to be about two years old.

I knew from the get-go that I would not be a daily fixture in Rebecca’s life. Although I live a mere twenty miles away, it might as well be hundreds of miles because I did not have a car. In addition, I live with disabilities that would make it difficult for me to be as involved as Rebecca’s other grandmother, who lived only ten minutes away. Any jealousy you can conjure up would be right on the mark.

As Mark and Lisa prepared for their trip to China, I prepared myself to be cold. I would look upon the child with scientific interest. I would not become emotionally involved. My absence from the minutiae of the child’s life, and from my son’s life as a father, surely would hurt less if I steeled myself to be only the old lady she had to kiss a few times a year.

Mark called me periodically from China to update me on Rebecca. Like the other children in her adoption group on “gotcha-day,” Rebecca was not in great health. She had bronchitis; she was very thin and weak. Neither Mark nor Lisa spoke Chinese and were confused by the doctor’s explanation of her illness and treatment.

I was happy that they called me from their hotel so I could give them advice like “Don’t pass a sick baby around in the hotel dining room; I don’t care how cute she is,” and “Give me the name of your doctor at home, and I’ll call for advice.” It was so exciting to place my cell phone, with Mark on speakerphone from China, next to my landline phone, with the pediatrician on speakerphone from New Jersey, and listen in on an unexpected medical conference at 11 o’clock at night.

I felt like a mama again. My son needed me. I was involved with my granddaughter’s well-being. And his, too.

But of course I would remain stoic and aloof. Once they got home.

Mark is a veteran of family politics, having kept divorced parents separated at most major life events. He’s learned to weigh and balance honors and create complex algorithms to determine which of four single parents will see him and his wife on holidays. Of course I always figure I get the raw deal.

He needed the wisdom of Solomon to decide who would meet the new family at the airport, who would wait at their home and who would visit the next day. Everyone agreed that Rebecca needed to come home to a calm landing, free of the disruption of multiple strangers making bizarre noises and poking at her with unfamiliar fingers.

I was delighted to be the one chosen to meet them at the airport. Mark hired a car service so I would be the first to see the child and to see him in his new role as father.

I only can imagine the force of the new parents’ emotions when they first saw their child. I was overwhelmed with love, pride and a sense of history when I saw my son as a new daddy for the first time.

How quickly he had learned his role in his infant family structure. He appeared in an archway, directly behind Lisa who was carrying a small bundle. He looked exhausted, yet his calm face shone joy. It seemed he did not notice he was managing a mountain of luggage teetering on a cart. He beamed as his wife spotted me and ran, with Rebecca, down the aisle to greet me.

Our driver snapped a photograph of us, just as Rebecca leaned over and kissed me. I tell people that the airport kiss was my first sign that Rebecca was an extremely sensitive and intelligent little girl. I wonder if Rebecca knew then, even before I knew, that there was something special between us.
We loaded up the car on a parking garage roof deck; artificial lights had turned night into day. Then we began the drive home.

This little country girl was strapped in an unfamiliar car seat in an unfamiliar vehicle, with strangers, and immersed in highway traffic at night, white lights coming and red lights going. She began to wail.

“Li! Li! Li!” she cried.

“I think she’s afraid,” I said. “I think she wants a light turned on.”

Lisa shook her head. “She doesn’t like the car seat.”

“She’s tired,” said Mark, between munches of the first bagel he had had in weeks.

“Li! Li! Li!” Rebecca continued.

“OK,” I said. I feared I was being an interfering grandmother. Mark and Lisa had been with Rebecca for almost two weeks. They had taken care of her in a strange land where they did not speak the language. They had managed her diet, her bronchitis and her diapers. How could I insist to this brave couple that they were wrong, that their daughter—my granddaughter—was expressing her needs to them in English?

“Are you sure she never heard you say to one another, ‘Turn on the light’?” In unison, Mark and Lisa said, “No.”

Just then, the driver switched on the interior car lights, and Rebecca stopped crying and went to sleep. We have understood one another ever since.

I do not speak Chinese, and we don’t know if my darling was verbal before she came to us. Yet, from our first meeting, Rebecca and I could communicate with a glance, touch each other’s sense of humor, and speak to and understand one another. People around us could not figure out how.

By the time the new family had returned from China, Rebecca was an old hand at eating in good hotel restaurants. The Jewish delicatessen, Chinese restaurant and American grill soon became pieces of cake for her.

It was in the deli, during her first week home, that this child, with a lumberjack’s appetite, broke a French fry in half and gave me a piece. She understood there would be more food if she was hungry.

And it was here that I asked Mark not to wipe Rebecca’s face because she could wipe her own, and his, when I asked her to. She touched us all when she removed imaginary crumbs from his chin.

It was in the grill during her second month home that I realized she was calling Mark “Da Da” before he did. And, during a threesome for dinner, the first time mommy stayed home for a long shower and a nap, Mark realized that he couldn’t use the men’s room without my babysitting cooperation.

We were all still unsure how much English Rebecca understood.

A few years earlier, I had attended doggie school with my dog, Buffy. There I was trained to set up the dog for success and to reward desired conduct. Soon after Rebecca’s arrival, I used the same method with her that I had used with Buffy.  I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

“Sit,” I taught the child, using Cheerios as reinforcement. I kept Buffy’s Cheerios in my right pocket and Rebecca’s in my left. Doggie and granddaughter would sit, stay, run, come. The three of us—Buffy, Rebecca and I—had a wonderful time. Lisa was concerned that I was treating Rebecca like a dog, but Mark was tickled that doggie school training worked on his child.

When Rebecca was three, she wanted to be just like me—to wear a coat or not, like me. If you saw us settling down in a Chinese restaurant, it might have looked like a choreographed routine to you. Without words, I would hand her the folded napkins and she would distribute the utensils that were wrapped inside. Then I would pass her the noodles and sauce. We worked as a team: two bodies, one brain.

According to people, in addition to me, Rebecca is beautiful, brilliant, multi-talented, generous and fun. She can own the world. But family and strangers alike are mystified that we appear to have a physical resemblance. Despite small differences in skin tone and around the eyes, Rebecca looked like a photograph of me taken at the same age. People still tell me they see a resemblance between us, although they know it is impossible.

Now 10 years old, Rebecca’s busy schedule—dance class, baseball, Girl Scouts, music lessons—makes it difficult for me to see her as often as I once did. She tells her dad that she wants to visit me every weekend. Clearly, that is impossible. She said she wants a two-week sleepover. That would be exhausting. She wants me at family holidays and vacations. How lovely. I keep asking her if she has her driver’s license yet so she can come visit whenever she wants. I’m still waiting.

Mark regrets that Rebecca and I cannot be together more often. When he sees her kiss my hand and say, “I love you Grandma, I miss you so much,” I know his heart breaks. He says that sometimes it seems criminal that we are kept apart so much. She cups my face in her hands and I cup hers.

Rebecca is extremely smart, sensitive, considerate, capable and kind, always beyond her years. Her joy in life is infectious. If she tells me she is going somewhere and I say, “Have a good time,” she responds that she always does. She moves through life with grace.

If I could, I would put all the health, wealth, happiness and fun that exists in the world on a silver platter for her. I know she would love it and then share it.

So the question remains. How is it that Rebecca and I seem to be from the same gene pool, the one for grandmas and granddaughters, that excludes the man in the middle?

Was my son’s father right, those many years ago, when he described how a baby comes?

We still wonder at the magic that matched Mark and Lisa with Rebecca. And I, in a closer relationship with my granddaughter than I ever thought possible, am very grateful that she flew home to me.

Author’s Note: Rebecca’s life is filled with friends and activities; she is healthy and strong, the best any grandmother could wish for her grandchild. On her Valentine’s Day card to me this year, she wrote, “I will have fun with you every day in my heart when you aren’t around and when you are. Love, your one and only granddaughter.” I expect her to have her driver’s license in about seven years.

Marilyn A. Gelman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, A Cup of Comfort, and The Paterson Literary Review, among other publications.

Neither Did I

Neither Did I

By Jennifer Palmer

Neither DidI

Those of us who have walked through dark times, through pain, through sorrow. Those of us who are still walking through such things today. We have no special power, no innate ability to survive such things. We are not stronger than you. We are not braver than you. We are not anything more than you.


When hearing of our failed adoption, people often express their dismay. “I could never adopt,” they tell me. “My heart couldn’t take it. I don’t know how you survived; I don’t have the strength to make it through something like that.”

Before I lost my daughter, I’m sure I voiced a similar sentiment when confronted with tragedy. It’s a common enough response, one we clutch like a talisman, a ward against pain. Surely only those who are strong enough to survive the heartache of unthinkable situations are forced to do so. Surely those who bear the death of a child or a spouse, who navigate the brokenness of the foster care system, who journey through terminal illness or disability or any number of terrible circumstances have some secret reserve which gives them the ability to stand when anyone else would fall. Or so we hope, for if pain only comes to those who can withstand it and we know our hearts would not survive such sorrow, this must mean we will never be forced to endure the worst. Our weakness is our own protection.

If you haven’t experienced deep loss yourself, you may question your ability to endure in the face of trauma. You might think you just aren’t strong enough to go through serious pain, and you may very well be right. There’s a good chance that right now, you don’t have what it takes to walk through such heartache on your own. But then, neither did I.

Neither did I. Had I known what lay ahead, I doubt I’d have had the courage to say yes when she came to me and asked me to adopt her baby. For four months, as we waited for the courts, as we waited for the judge, as we waited, waited, waited to know whether we would be allowed to keep our girl or not, I was weak. I was scared. I was exhausted. I had no capacity to think of the future. Doing so brought pain, and so I refused to let my mind dwell on anything but what had to be done in any given moment. Prepare a bottle. Change a diaper. Cuddle my baby. I had only the strength for one moment at a time, and even that strength was not my own.

We received the judge’s decision thirteen days before the transfer of custody was to take place. I did not have the courage to walk through those two weeks, caring for the girl who had captured my love, knowing I was about to lose her. Somehow, I managed. My heart couldn’t take it; on the day I said goodbye to her, it shattered, broke into a million tiny shards that still have the power to draw blood all these months later. And yet, here I stand.

My aim is not to invoke sympathy, for though there is deep pain in my past, my life is full and I am grateful for the many blessings I have been given. Instead, my hope is that you will hear this: those of us who have walked through dark times, through pain, through sorrow? Those of us who are still walking through such things today? We have no special power, no innate ability to survive such things. We are not stronger than you. We are not braver than you. We are not anything more than you.

I did not have the strength to survive that interminable summer, did not have the strength to walk through the loss of my daughter, and yet, somehow, I survived. Battle-scarred, perhaps, a bit worse for wear, but whole and alive. I have no explanation for this, except that we are more resilient than we believe ourselves to be, that the hard times themselves sharpen us, build us, give us what we need to continue forward. When tragedy strikes, most of us find the inner fortitude to persevere. To wake up. To put one foot in front of another. To take care of what must be done today. Different people find this strength in different places—in friends, perhaps, or family, in stubborn tenacity, in the desire to be there for a child or a spouse or a parent. I drew on my faith, on belief in a good and loving and present God, though I must admit that on those darkest days, when my own weakness could not find solace in the intangible divine, I relied on friends and family and loved ones whose arms held me up when I could not hold myself, who showed me hope when I could not see it on my own.

I suspect that you too have a strength you do not know, that you too have the resiliency to survive more than you believe possible. I suspect that, should the worst happen, you, like me and so many others, would do what needed to be done, relying on God or friends or family or some as-yet untested inner iron to make it through one moment at a time. I suspect that you would find a way through the pain, that perhaps the tragedy itself would build in you the courage you need. You don’t believe me now; I don’t blame you. Your heart is fragile, your will is weak. You don’t have the strength to survive such trauma. But then, neither did I. Neither did I.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Photo Credit: Diana Poulos-Lutz

Those Eyes

Those Eyes

By Kelly Jeske

WO BMP Performing MotherhoodThis is an excerpt from Performing Motherhood: Artistic, Activist and Everyday Enactments, edited by Amber Kinser, Kryn Freehling-Burton, and Terri Hawkes (Demeter Press, December 2014)

“Does she have an ethnicity?” Standing near the door of our apartment, the neighbor looks at my sleeping newborn. I am stunned silent. Later, my partner and I grunt out bursts of incredulous laughter as we try on retorts: “Do you have an ethnicity?” “We’re not sure yet? Can you usually tell by now?” “Well, of course she does! And so do you!” My neighbor noted difference and asked me to quantify it. This tiny creature, just becoming, must belong to some discrete category. Same or different? Like you or not?

On the street, black men comment on the likeness they see between my daughter and me. “Aw, she looks just like her mama!” they say, usually smiling big. Our brown eyes and full lips, her light skin, build the possibility of our relation by blood. In those moments, I find myself at once flattered by the comparison of myself to this child, and uncomfortable with the erasure of her first mother. I scramble for footing, trying to figure out if I can insert her into the space between myself and my daughter, into the conversation with this stranger. I have the keen sense that I owe it to my daughter to make her first mom real in this moment—that accepting credit for our likeness communicates disregard for their kinship. But some days, I also just want to be recognized as her mama.

Because she has very light skin, I often fear that my daughter won’t be read as a person of color. I ache with the knowledge that, as a white person, I cannot give my daughter racial identity. There’s so much that she won’t get from her white parents. We won’t pass on a cadence of speech that might be recognized as black; we can’t give her the ease of shared history and generations of family experience; we can’t build our own family culture of blackness; we can’t offer an embodied sense of what it means to be a person of color.

When she was smaller and had little hair, we adorned it with colorful barrettes, and styled it into puffs and nubs of braids. We used her first and middle name in tandem—her middle name more identifiably African American. We moved to a neighborhood with more black folks and a racially diverse childcare center. We learned to braid and bead her hair. I felt the tug of dissonance as I created visual contrast between myself and my child, while working at the same time to foster our emotional connection.

During our most recent visit with our daughter’s first mom, we had professional photos taken together. I looked on, through tears, as we captured images of mother and daughter together. Huddled around a computer screen, picking photos from proofs, the three of us exclaimed over expressions they share and features that are mirrored on their faces. We joked about the little girl with her three mothers and chose the shots that flatter all of us the most. I was eager to adorn our home with pictures of our daughter and her mother, pulling in another way to make their relationship more tangible to our four-year-old. I was excited to show the photos to friends and family, concretizing my daughter’s connection to her first mom in a way my words can’t manage. Their deep brown eyes, their widow’s peaks at the top of their foreheads, the kiss of toast that colors our daughter’s skin—to me, their likeness is obvious, irrefutable, beautiful. My favorite pose is with our daughter in her mother’s lap, my partner and me kneeling behind them. Our group is centered by our daughter’s mother, with all of us connected to and surrounding her—just as our smaller family has been brought to life through her body and choices.

When I share the photos from our visit, I’m astounded by a repeated refrain: “Now, do you see a likeness? I don’t really see it.” Several times over, individuals profess that my daughter doesn’t look like her first mother. They don’t say so with disdain or contempt, the people who utter sentiments like this. But they say it with a resolute certainty that makes me think they’re saying something different altogether. Something more like: She doesn’t really look black. Or something like: She looks like she’s really yours, so don’t be worried that she’s not. Or maybe even: I can almost pretend this weird open adoption thing doesn’t exist if I see how much this kid looks like you. Families claim members by discussing physical likeness; they keep departed beloved close by seeing their characteristics in subsequent generations. When newfangled families come along—mixing up race and gender and blood and circumstance—this comfort in appearance gets shaken. When we keep our daughter’s first mother in the picture, we’re demanding that a new lens be used—one the recreates possibilities for familial relationship.

I recently watched a video clip of our one-year-old daughter being held by her first mom. They’re gazing at each other and she’s saying: “Where’d you get those eyes, baby, huh? Who gave you those eyes?” Their eyes are locked as she asks again: “Who gave you those eyes?” My own eyes fill at her tenderness, at this claiming of their connection. As our daughter grows—even primarily apart from her first mom—I watch as her face takes on expressions I’ve seen cross her first mother’s face. I hear tones in her voice, ways that she expresses her thoughts, rhythms in her sentences that remind me of her mother.

When her three mothers talk about this beautiful child, we refer to her as “our daughter.” She is my ex-partner’s and mine, as we move through our days, navigating parenthood, love, and family. She is her first mom’s, once part of her body and living in skin, heart, brain, and cells that are informed by this lineage. As she walks through this world, crafts her own identities, and refines her allegiances, she’ll exist in the borderlands—the overlapping places where relationship is complex and origins aren’t obvious. My daughter’s brown eyes may be similar to my own, but it isn’t me who gave them to her. Pushing her into the world, placing her into my arms, holding onto her after she said goodbye, our daughter’s first mother shifted tides and created a harbor. By blood and by soul, we navigate in love.

Terri Hawkes HeadshotRead An Interview with Terri Hawkes, Co-Editor of Performing Motherhood.

Don’t You Need a Daughter?

Don’t You Need a Daughter?

By Jenna Hatfield


I could have been an integral part of the club that I am supposedly missing out on. I had access. I had the key, the invitation, the secret handshake, the password. I was invited.


The woman looks at my two sons as they run up to me where I sit on a bench at the playground. They gulp down some water while trying to talk over one another about the fun they are having. Before I can respond, their feet run in the opposite direction. I smile at the whirlwind of their affection, their joy.

“Two boys?” She doesn’t need to say more. I understand the question being posed. “Yes. They’re five and seven. They keep us busy.”


Her daughter meanders over, much younger and clad in pink. Their exchange is gentler, a whisper compared to the cacophony of my small but boisterous brood. I return to my book, the happy place where I force myself to go so as not to hover at the playground. I read the same sentence twice as I peek over the top edge, making sure they are safe, secure, not tackling strangers’ children.

She speaks again.

“Are you having any more?”

My vision blurs. I am thankful for the book in front of my face as it blocks my furrowed brow — and my rolling eyes. I think of all the inappropriate questions I could ask this strange woman — a woman I’ve never before laid eyes on — about her fertility, her health, her emotional well­being, her finances, her ability to mother more than one, more than two, more than none. I come up empty handed, because I know how it feels to be asked those questions.

Like now.


It’s all I say. No. No, we are not having any more children. On the one hand, the answer is so simple. No. However and but and beyond there are legions of words behind that solitary syllable. Mountains of reasons and hurt and pain and, yes, even happiness and gratefulness and thankfulness for all we have been given, entrusted with, blessed to be consumed by. The single word with which I reply does not even begin to encapsulate the painstaking decision making process that went into being able to say that word — that “no” — without crying on a park bench in front of this stranger.

I do not move the book from in front of my face, hoping that my semi­cold and solitary word response will discourage her from moving forward, from asking more questions, from going where I know in my heart, in my soul, she is already going to go.

“Don’t you need a girl?”

I physically force myself from throwing the book at her. My stomach rolls. My heart drops. My eyes close. My teeth clench. My body recoils and simultaneously pitches forward. I hurt, physically and emotionally. I sigh. “And here we are again,” I think to myself. “Forever here, in this space.”

If I have learned anything by being the everyday mother of two boys, other than a wealth of fart and poop jokes, it is that our culture is beyond obsessed with girls. With having girls. With wanting to have girls. With pink bows and frills and princesses. With women being required to want those things. When women don’t verbalize wanting those things or when they dare to admit that, no, they don’t really want a girl, they are brandished as some oddity, some heartless woman who obviously has no femininity, no real attachment to the womanly ways of the world. A mother of just boys is to be pitied! She never got to do hair in pigtails or buy fancy Easter dresses. She is obviously missing out on the joys of motherhood, of womanhood at its central and epitomized core. She is less than.

And then there’s me — and others like me — everyday mothers of boys who relinquished their only daughter.

I could have been an integral part of the club that I am supposedly missing out on. I had access. I had the key, the invitation, the secret handshake, the password. I was invited.

I grew a little girl in my womb. I cared for her even when my own health was put to the test, when my life was on the line. I loved her more than my own life, more than I will ever be able to convey with letters and words and punctuation. And I handed her over — to another woman, another mother — thus transferring the invitation.

I didn’t know at the time I would never get another invitation, that it was a one time deal. I didn’t know I would be shut out from all that moms of girls get to do and experience. I didn’t know.

I watch as my daughter’s mom goes through some of the early tween stuff and I am perplexed. It feels odd to know that my daughter is now this old and experiencing things that girls her age experience, and I don’t know the slightest bit about any of it, other than vague memories of what I went through at similar ages and phases. I haven’t read books on how to mother girls, on what to expect as girls age. I don’t shop in stores for girls. I don’t know what girls her age like; though I know she loves music.

I suppose that’s one good thing, that while I don’t understand girls as a whole, I know about my daughter; I know what she likes, what she doesn’t like, what she’s going through, what she is doing. I try not to get hung up on what I do not have and try to focus more on what I do know, what I do have with and through her, with and through her mom.

I return to the park bench, lost in thought for what probably equated to a few seconds but felt like a decade of memories and missed milestones. I think of how to answer this intrusive, sexist, ridiculous question. I wonder how my grandmother, a mother of three boys, might have answered it without the additional weight of adoption loss. I begin to smile because I know that my grandmother would have given this nosy woman the what­for; I am thankful for her light in my life.

The woman seemingly assumes the smile is for her.

“It’s just girls are so fun. You can dress them up. And they’re less of a hassle than boys.”

I think of my boys. I think of my daughter. I smile some more.

I do not need more. I do not want for more. I occasionally get a rash of baby fever, overwhelmed by the cute and the soft and the tenderness of newborns. In those moments, I have a flash of irrational anger that my decision making hand was forced by my health, but it passes quickly, and I embrace the present, the reality and beauty of the life we are living — together.

This is my family. Some are here. Some are there. This is who we are; this is what our family looks like. I breathe in before I answer, the cool, not­quite­spring air pushing down any heated bits of anger and frustration. I exhale.

“No. My family is just fine.”

And we are. And we are.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo: Jenna Hatfield

Worth the Risk

Worth the Risk

By Jennifer Palmer

Worth the risk

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” – CS Lewis

We tried to adopt once, my husband and I brought a baby girl home from the hospital a few days after she was born in the hopes that we might be given the privilege of raising her. Those early days of new parenthood were so very sweet, even fraught as they were with the constant fear that they might take her from us. From the first moment we held her, we loved her, and we could not imagine our lives without her.

Our worst fears were realized, however, and that which we could not imagine was forced upon us. Though we had done all we knew to do, though we had followed the advice of our lawyer who was experienced in such matters, though the odds of such things happening were vanishingly small, our daughter’s biological father contested the adoption and won. Five months—five months!—after we brought her home from the hospital, we kissed her for the last time and walked away, leaving our shattered hearts on the floor of the ugly courthouse room where we said goodbye.

One month later, two pink lines made a surprise appearance on a stick in my bathroom, and for weeks, I alternated between anger and excitement, between fear and hope. My second daughter, who will almost certainly never know her older sister, was born in the spring of this year. She is a joy and a delight, a happy and affectionate baby, and, while she could never take the place of the girl we lost, she has brought some measure of healing to our lives.

We hope to give this little girl siblings some day, brothers or sisters as companions and playmates and friends. And despite the pain we suffered, despite our ability to conceive without medical intervention, we hope that one or more of those siblings might come through adoption.

Many people don’t understand how this can be the case; they hear our story and cringe, weep tears on our behalf. “How good that you are able to have children of your own,” they say, as if this child I carried inside of me is any more “my own” than the one who first made me a mother. As is the case for so many of the decisions that change our lives, we have myriad reasons for adoption, many of them inexplicable even to ourselves, but the one underlying them all is the same reason most parents choose to bring children into their lives: love.

This isn’t to say that growing a family through adoption and growing a family through pregnancy are identical experiences; even the best adoptions begin with profound loss, and everyone involved requires support and resources and knowledge to handle that loss in healthy ways. But there is room in our home and in our hearts for another, and there are children out there in desperate need of parents to love them. This seems a match made in heaven.

There are risks involved, to be sure, and there will almost certainly be pain along the way. But then, this is true no matter how we come to be parents, is true whenever we choose to love someone or something other than ourselves. Loving another, be it a child or a spouse or a friend, is a risky business. It invites suffering and hurt and sorrow. But it also invites growth and meaning and joy—joy beyond measure. The deeper the risk, I believe, the greater the potential reward, and the hope and love and healing adoption can bring to all involved is worth chancing the heartache.

Had you asked me before all this happened if I could withstand losing a child, if I could make it through such heartbreak, I would have said no. Had I known what was coming, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to walk the path I did. And yet, while I would never wish such sorrow on anyone, while I wish with everything in me that things had turned out differently, that I was living the crazy, hectic life of a mom with two under the age of two, I did survive. More than that, I grew and I learned and I tapped depths of my faith and of my friendships and of my marriage that I did not know were there. Somehow, through grace and love and the support of those who matter most to me, I was given the strength to weather the storm.

And so, if you’re considering adoption, considering making yourself vulnerable in that way, I pray that my story does not scare you away. I pray that you would heed that voice compelling you forward. I pray that you would be willing to risk the pain and the sorrow, trusting you will find the strength for what comes, and in so doing, that you would be rewarded with a joy that knows no bounds. I pray these things for you as well as for myself; though the need for foster and adoptive parents is great, though the faces of children who have no stability in their lives tug at my heartstrings, the pain is still fresh and I, too, am afraid to open myself up again in such a way.

To you on the other side of this journey, wondering if you should take that first halting step forward, to the face I see in the mirror each morning, I pray you hear me when I say adoption is worth the risk. Parenthood is worth the risk.

Love is worth the risk.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Sweet Sand

Sweet Sand

By Anne Sawan


I went to the beach last week with my kids for a final run before fall rolled in. My older boys dropped their towels onto the sand and ran off to find a group of kids to play Wiffle Ball with. I set up the umbrella, unfolded the chairs and took out my book, while my five-year-old, Eliza, wandered down to the edge of the water and plopped herself down, her shovel and pail by her side. Soon a stout little girl, about the same age, sidled up next to her.

“Whatcha ya doing?” She asked.

“Building a mermaid castle.” My daughter said matter-of-factly. “Wanna help?”

“Sure. I’m Ava.”

(Amazing: a bat and ball, or a bucket of wet sand, apparently that’s all you need to spark a friendship. We adults have a lot to learn.)

The two little girls planted themselves not far from my chair and began to dig, chatting as they worked side by side asking each other important relationship building questions such as: How old are you? Do you have a cat? How many teeth have you lost?

“My mom had a baby,” I heard Ava say as she flung a shovel full of sand high in the air.

“Oh,” said my daughter, pouring a bucket of seawater into a deep hole.

“She’s my sister, her name is Sophie. See her?”

Ava pointed a few seats down to a woman sitting under an umbrella with a baby sling wrapped protectively around her body, the top of a fuzzy head just barely poking out. The woman smiled gratefully at me and I nodded in return. Silent mommy talk for “They’re okay. Don’t worry.”

“Do you remember being a baby?” Ava asked Eliza, as she placed a crab into the moat surrounding the castle.

Eliza shook her head.

“Me neither,” said Ava, diligently digging on. “But my mom said I was a sweetie.” Then she giggled. “She said that she ate a lot of sweets when I was growing in her tummy that’s why I came out so sweet. She’s so silly! What did your mom eat when you were in her tummy?”

I glanced up.

Eliza shrugged, “I don’t know…Maybe mac and cheese.”

Both girls began to laugh.

They worked on, gathering up some more unsuspecting hermit crabs (excuse me, I mean “mermaids”) but soon the tide began to creep in and the water began to splash away little by little at the tiny bits of sand until at last, unable to defy the mighty sea, the mermaid castle finally crumbled. The girls shrieked and the relieved crabs all scurried quickly away. After a quick break of lemonade and pretzels, the girls recovered from their loss and skipped off to splash together in the ocean.

After a while the boys returned. We folded up the chairs, gathered the shovels and took down the umbrella.

“Make sure you shake out those towels,” I said. “I don’t want any sand in the house.”

It was a good day.

Later that night, back at the cottage, after a dinner of charred hamburgers, and ice cream from the local dairy, I laid down in bed next to Eliza. I was exhausted but small bits of sand on the sheets scratched at my legs and my back making it impossible to sleep.

I sighed; I loved the beach but the sand was my nemesis. Always sneaking in no matter how much I tried to keep it out. I tried to make sure the kids rinsed their feet with the hose and left their flip-flops at the door, but still tiny pieces of the beach always found a way to sneak into the house.

Eliza rolled over, flung her arm across my neck and pushed her nose against mine.

“Mom,” she breathed. “What did you eat when I was in your tummy?

My heart dropped.

“Remember on the beach,” Eliza forged on. “Ava said her mom ate a lot sweets when she was her tummy that’s why she’s so sweet. What did you eat when I was in your tummy?”

“Well…” I took a deep breath, and gave a few futile swipes, at the grainy sheets trying to brush away the relentless sand that poked at me. “You were never in my tummy remember? You grew in someone else’s tummy.”

“Oh yeah…”

“But I bet,” I took a deep breath and continued. “I bet, she ate a lot of sweets.”

There was a long silence, the invisible specks of sand scratching persistently at our skin as we lay there together in the dark listening to the soft whir of the overhead fan.



“I think you ate a lot of sweets too.”

I held her close, no longer minding the sand. “Me too sweetie. Me too.”

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s books published by MeeGenuis. 

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Trying on a Different Birth Order, and Imagining a Life Not Adopted

Trying on a Different Birth Order, and Imagining a Life Not Adopted

By Carrie Goldman


An adopted child’s insecurities in a family that includes children who were not adopted. 


My oldest daughter, K, was born at a healthy 8 lbs. 2 ounces. She outgrows her clothes at dutiful six-month intervals. She gains inches steadily, and at eleven years old, she is already taller than I am. When we adopted K out of foster care, she was already bigger than the baby clothes we had accumulated in anticipation of her homecoming.

An easy and well-adjusted toddler, K accompanied us everywhere—Germany, England, Mexico. She adapted better than most adults would, and met each new experience with joy. I still remember her at twenty months, gazing up at an enormous statue in Berlin of Marx and Lenin and calling, “Hi, boys!” as she waved cheerfully from her stroller.

When K was nearly four, I gave birth to a little girl, and then three years later, we had another baby girl. Our two younger daughters are tiny—fragile, even—next to their hearty big sister. K adores her little sisters, but she also insists I ruined her life by having them. “Everyone fusses over the babies. They’re so smart; they’re so cute. Nobody cares about me.” Her perspective as a resentful oldest sibling mirrors that of millions of other agonized oldest children, with one important exception—she also feels the sting of being the only adopted child.

Every argument of “you love them more” takes on heightened meaning. In an age of parental over-analysis, those words settle with a thud in my stomach and create a terrifying doubt. Do I love the younger girls more? No, the answer comes back. Do I relate to them differently? Yes, but it’s because they are younger, not because they are more loved. This is where it gets confusing for K.

As a function of birth order, K is in a different life phase than our younger daughters. She is much less interested in snuggling and affection, whereas the smaller girls still yearn to be held and carried and coddled. K bats me away laughing if I try to pull her into my lap, behavior that is normal for an 11-year-old.. Even so, it seems she misses the days of being our only baby, and has trouble sorting out how much of it is because she’s adopted and how much of it is birth order.

Determined to find other ways to be physically close with K, I have started climbing into bed to chat with her for a short time at night. Under the comforting cloak of darkness, she lets me in. She tells me about the trivial details of her day. There are rare times when she unburdens the weighty matters of her heart, such as her fears and insecurities about not being good enough to belong. I swallow against the tightness in my throat during these conversations, and I tell her, “You do not have to be good enough. That is an unachievable standard. You just have to be yourself. We love you in all your ways of being. We will never stop loving you, and we will never leave you, even when you have struggles.” She says nothing but squeezes my hand. I wrap my arms around her and she pats me on the arm, then buries her face in my neck for a fleeting moment.

Each summer, I take K to visit her birth family for a weekend. My husband stays home with our younger girls. K is the baby in her birth family. She has a sister who is eighteen and a brother who is fifteen. K slips into the role of the youngest with relish. She sandwiches herself between her older siblings and clings to their hands as we walk around museums and parks, her body looking like that of a small child next to the teenagers. When K roughhouses with her brother, her birthmother scolds him, “Watch out for K!  She’s littler than you!”  If we all go to see a movie, it is K’s age that determines what is appropriate, and her older siblings accommodate her taste. At home, our family movie night choices default to the lowest common denominator of our preschooler.

At night, after we bid her birth family farewell and we go back to our hotel room, K climbs into the bed next to me. “I like being the baby,” she says softly. “Everyone pays the most attention to me and does whatever I want to do.” I tell her, “Very few people get such a concrete glimpse into an alternate life that they could be living. But you do, and I’m sure that it makes you have many different feelings. Sometimes you probably wish you could live here.”

She nods her head. “But I also know that it probably wouldn’t be like this if I were with them all the time. And I love you and Daddy and my little sisters so much.”

“Do you think your birthmother loves you more because you are the youngest?” She guffaws and shakes her head no. “Nah, she loves us all. But right now, I get fussed over the most.”

She pauses and looks at me. “I know what you’re trying to do!  You’re trying to prove to me that just because you fuss over my sisters doesn’t mean you love them more. Fine, fine, I believe you. For tonight anyway.” True, it lasted about twelve hours. At the next perceived injustice, she threw out the protest “you love them more!” rather than accepting the fact that an eleven-year-old has to spend more time on homework than a seven-year-old or a four-year old. Every time I think our love and assurances have filled her cup, something happens, and a little bit sloshes out. Sometimes the whole cup dumps over, and we have to start the process of refilling the cup, drop by drop, hoping that the evaporation rate is slower than the flow of the tap.

And so it goes, the never-ending calibration of love, the imagining of a life not adopted, the yearning to belong and be accepted, the conflation of fair and equal, the need for parental love above all.

Carrie Goldman is the award winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear, and she writes at Portrait of an Adoption 

Thirteen Years – An Adoptive Mother and Her Baby Son

Thirteen Years – An Adoptive Mother and Her Baby Son

By Colleen Wells

Back to School-4th grade

As a baby you are found abandoned in a crowded marketplace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

You in a picture at about age two. Soulful, sad eyes, distended belly, shaved head to keep off the lice. Every time I look at it I feel my heart squeeze.

At two and a half you’re home, see snow for the first time, and shovel handfuls of it into your mouth until your new Dad stops you.

You pick up the language quickly, but still use your native Amharic for certain words like “Shente bet” meaning “toilet.” In a busy restaurant, you run between the tables yelling, “I gotta go shente. Shent! Shint!” while clutching yourself. It sounds like something else.

9/11 happens and you understand more than we’d like. You refer to military men as “army pants.” At a steakhouse you see a table of men in army fatigues and ask them if they’re going to get the bad guys. Later you whisper to your older brother, “Army pants can’t die.”

At three you are so happy to see your grandpa, that you grab him in the balls. Big laughs all around.

At four we are driving down highway 37 jamming to the Beastie Boys so hard I worry what passersby think.

Around six or seven you start winning character awards at your elementary school. My favorite is the “patience” award.

When you’re eight you get a piece of a geode embedded in a growth plate in your hand. It requires full anesthesia to dig it out. I know it’s a small procedure, but find myself pacing in the waiting area, having to go outside to breathe in the air and bargain with God. When you wake up I stare into the pools of your eyes as if it’s the first time. On the way home you want to stop at school to show the kids the shrapnel from your hand.

At ten you’re no longer the scrawniest one on the soccer team, but I still scream from the sidelines when an opponent gets too rough with you, especially if I’ve had too much caffeine.

By twelve you’ve discovered a passion for fishing. You’ve had hooks cut out of your finger and ear to prove it.

We tell you we’re bringing an eight-year-old sister into the fold. You’re naturally jealous, asking, “Are we really getting that Crapper?”

At thirteen we’re driving with the windows down, wind in our hair, listening to Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen so loud the car is vibrating.

At fourteen you can read my face as well as you could when you were five. Only you don’t ask if I’m sad or scared. You just ask me what’s wrong. And I tell you.

You argue with your sister all the time, but you’d take a bullet for her.

Now that you are fifteen, you’re itching to take driver’s ed. You’re off with your buddies, all of the time, but you still curl up on the edge of your parents’ bed.

Colleen Wells writes from Bloomington, Indiana, where she lives with her husband and three children, three dogs, and three cats. Her favorite number is 333. Colleen’s first book, Dinner With Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness & Recovery is forthcoming from Wordpool Press. You can read more about her work at or

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Excerpt: Who Knows Tomorrow

Excerpt: Who Knows Tomorrow

By Lisa Lovatt-Smith



The complicated thing about living in the African bush is water—or rather the lack of it. Sure there was a stream, but it was in a snake-prone bamboo grove and the local fetish priest had bewitched the water so that it killed dogs (or so everybody in the village believed), and I wasn’t about to chance it. Fortunately we actually had piped, honest-to-goodness government of Ghana water, which was bloody unbelievable considering we lived three miles from the nearest settlement

on the main road. So somehow we got our own tap at home. You turned it on and piped water came out. Sometimes. In the capital city of Accra, three hours’ drive and a whole different lifestyle away, the water flowed once or twice a week. Here it arrived maybe once a week and for some unfathomable reason, usually at midnight. “Because you are up a hill,” the bespectacled water guy confidently informed me. Anyway, you filled your bucket and took it into the outdoor bathhouse, on your head gracefully and as if you were wearing a particularly odd hat if you were my daughters, or huffing and puffing and poking your arm out lopsidedly if you were me. Still, we had never thought it was even a remote possibility to have water coming out the tap in our forest home, however intermittently, so whenever it did flow it was a big deal. Which was why

I came to be standing in the middle of the tropical night holding a hosepipe thinking about my foster father’s death . . . and the flight back from the funeral the day before yesterday… and how the flight attendant wouldn’t let me sleep on the floor of the airplane, which was the only thing I felt like doing after he was gone. I was filling the water tank under the tropical night sky, which because we lived so far from any form of electricity was full of the shiniest stars. I was doing all this in the complete darkness and with no shoes on, wrapped in a scrap of African cloth, because that is how we lived. Tanks were assiduously filled up, no matter what time of day or night the water started to flow. Our tank took a long time to fi ll. My eyes were itching and the dried sweat on my forehead was irritating. So after a while I jammed the hosepipe into the top of the tank and held it down with a biggish rock, checked on my two children, and snuggled down beside my husband, Kweku, for a rest. I fully expected to get up again to turn the tap off, since after many years of water shortages our ears had become finely attuned to the different water gurgles, especially the tank is full and precious water is splashing over the top type of gurgles. Except that night. Worn out from the week and my daughter’s thirteenth birthday party the day before, and the funeral and the flight, I fell sound asleep. With the bedroom door unlocked.

?w? foro ad?b?.

—Akan proverb of the Ashanti people, Ghana

A snake climbs the raffi a palm tree.

(You can achieve the apparently impossible.)


My story starts with Italian tomatoes; apparently they were directly responsible for my conception. My curvy, tiny English mother, who had dyed her blond pixie cut brown to downplay her gorgeousness, was having trouble getting pregnant. The market women in Lerici made her success their own personal quest. “Pomodori, signora, deve mangiare gli pomodori . . . di piu, di piu.” The village of Lerici’s claim to fame is that the British Romantic poet Percy Shelley drowned there in the blue Mediterranean while returning from a visit to Lord Byron. Sunny, beautiful, Italian, and romantic. And it had tomatoes. So that’s where I was conceived while my mum and dad—English like Shelley and his wife Mary, who wrote Frankenstein—lived in a rented house. My parents were temporary visitors, just like they were.

Mum and Dad were both from the North of England, and had married in London, where the bride wore a dark-purple mini (it was the sixties, after all). My father’s family disapproved, since my mum was a grocer’s daughter from Scunthorpe, and thus was considered common. My dad was a lanky blond art student of no fixed ambition who excelled at the Royal College of Art. He was raffish and apparently not common at all.

My mother was determined to see the back of Scunthorpe as soon as she could escape its dreary confines. One can hardly blame her: this was the lackluster industrial North of England. As a child, for six months of the year she had to break the ice in the pail before bathing. She dropped out of school at sixteen and apprenticed to a hairdresser, where she practiced on poodles dying them pink and blue, kick-starting what was to be an illustrious career as a colorist. Not, mind you, before she’d carried off the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” title from the local US Marines. My mum loved dancing—she was really good at it—and rockin’ and rollin’ in the center of an admiring crowd was when she felt most alive.

She bought herself a two-week package tour to Italy, where every good thing she had ever suspected about the south became a certainty. Her tiny waist and lively looks attracted trails of adoring Italian boys. From the day the joyful recipes of Elizabeth David had crossed my mother’s path, the notion of the Mediterranean with its sunlight, fresh figs, dark wine, and bare legs descended upon her like a religious experience. When the tour ended, she promised herself she would live there one day.

In the meantime London would have to do and so she moved there, staying at the YMCA. By 1964, the year that Swinging London was invented, my mother had turned twenty-six, rented a flat, changed her name from Margaret-Ann to Margot, and dyed her hair as blond as could be. She had reached the pinnacle of her profession as celebrity colorist at the famous House of Leonard. The salon was a tiny, bright star in the world’s hippest city, because in the early 1960s, hairdressers and makeup artists changed the world, and London was the epicenter of the funky new universe. My mum could pull off any shade of blond from Twiggy to Bardot. She gloried in her talent, partied, and surrounded herself with a lot of nice gay boys. She was hot, sociable, and fun. London was about to become the swinging belly button of the world, but Mum still aspired to the Mediterranean. Then she met my dad and they made a pact; my mum wanted to get as far away as possible from England, and my dad would tag along for the ride.

So my young soon-to-be parents drove to the South of France in a rented “yogurt pot” of blessed memory, a quintessentially sixties vehicle with three wheels and no balance. Once on the coast, itimmediately overturned (with no damage to my parents) and expired on the spot. My parents wafted around by train until the holiday was over.

The following year my father neglected to come home one night and sent a dozen red roses in his stead. My mother shredded them and danced on the ruins of her marriage in the living room, while downing a bottle of red wine. To cap it all, her husband had run away to Italy (“Italy, my country”) with a girl named Dorothy (“Dorothy, what a common name”). Chain smoking and with only twenty-five British pounds in her pocket, my mum threw in her brilliant career and finally moved, as she had always wanted, to Italy—by bus, and broken-hearted. Soon, Dorothy exited the picture and my father courted my mum all over again, until she relented and they settled in the Bay of Lerici on the Italian Riviera, where pale-pink and yellow houses tumbled into the sea like pastel baby blocks. My mother remembers two main things about their crumbling apricot house: the plumbing (lack of) and the wall geckos (abundance of). It was perched on terraces cut into the steep rugged landscape near the top of a cliff and had a wonderful view of the sea. It was the most impractical choice of location, as it was inaccessible by road. In a gray flannel suit, my father commuted weekly to his job at a top-notch, ultra-trendy advertising agency in Milan. Secretaries in heavy black eyeliner and shiny vinyl miniskirts tripped across the white shag carpet in their platform shoes. Knowing my father’s roving eye, my mum hated every one of them. During this time she stayed home and lived in a bikini, theoretically nesting but in reality dedicating herself to her lifelong religion: sun worship that involved lashings of tanning oil. The one time she was called upon to entertain, the chic Milanese guests had to kill and pluck the chicken themselves, as my “Made in England” mum hadn’t realized it would be delivered from the market alive.

* * *

 By New Year’s Day 1967, with bright hopes for what turned out to be a seriously turbulent year, all those tomatoes my mum had ingested had paid off: they were about to have me. It was the year of the Summer of Love, and in a bout of early onset spring fever, my parents, then six months pregnant, blithely decided to leave their pleasant Italian life by the sea and transport themselves to a repressive military dictatorship: Generalissimo Franco’s fascist Spain. I still fail to understand the logic; compared to other cities, Barcelona had very little going for it. London was booming, Milan’s golden age of design was about to climax, the United States was one big hippie love-in—but Barcelona? Apparently, my parents were once again in search of a blank canvas. This time, though, they were about to get more than they bargained for.

Under dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, the capital of Catalonia had been for decades an oppressed and angry city where the people were barely even allowed to speak their own language. Nothing was happening in Barcelona beyond a few strikes and a lot of resentment. And even if the subtleties of political repression escaped them, my father was soon to discover there was scarcely any advertising industry to speak of.

They leisurely crossed the Mediterranean from Genoa to Barcelona by boat, my mum with her elegant white coat flying in the wind and her big belly peeking out. Boy, she must have trusted him, to prepare to give birth somewhere in a new place where she didn’t even speak a word of the language. Characteristically she hit the ground dancing; so much so that after a particularly energetic night on the tiles and a midnight snack of strawberries and cream, I

popped out a month early. It was the fifteenth of April, the day huge demonstrations were held against the Vietnam War in New York City and San Francisco. I was a worryingly tiny two kilogram, or four-and-a-half-pound, baby. They had been in Spain barely eight weeks.

My parents took the usual vastly impractical decision and moved to Sitges, a tiny quiet coastal village forty minutes drive south of Barcelona. Picturesque scenery, white-washed cobbled alleys ending in sea views, steeples and churches, women dressed completely in black . . . That apartment was on the top floor in an old fisherman’s house beside a café called Gustavo’s, ten feet from the sand. My parents had several cages of singing birds. And they had me, who swam before I could walk. It was the Mediterranean dream incarnate. By the time I was two, my young brilliant father with the easy infectious laugh had become the toast of the elite who dreamed of a newer, more groovy Barcelona. His ad campaigns were light-hearted and airy. At the end of the sixties wave, they spoke of a freer era.

He and my mother threw parties on the beach attended by men with goatees and women whose fringes brushed their eyelashes. These yé-yé boys and girls (the Spanish version of “yeah, yeah!”) were the Gauche Divine, the Catalan intelligentsia who looked to France for inspiration and were waiting for the old dictator to die. They smuggled porn, rock music, and champagne from France, along with magazines that revealed the latest fashions. The foreign sheen still on him, my dad was their darling. He was a breath of fresh air, and Barcelona loved him.

Our family fortunes picked up. We moved to a splendid art deco apartment overlooking Turó Park in uptown Barcelona. A Portuguese contessa lived next door, and she fed me perunilla cookies flavored with cinnamon and lemon, and weak milky tea. Afterward, a governess wheeled me through the park in a navy-blue pushchair. I had white-blond hair and blue, blue eyes. I posed for tons of bonnie-baby commercials that my dad made.

My father was the darling of the incipient advertising and magazine industry, and therefore was never home. My mum was not having as good a time. Also, in the endless Spanish summer, the streets of Barcelona were dusty and gray, and the light was harsh. The city had turned its back on the sea, despite being a port. It was also profoundly conventional; the small freedoms my mum had previously taken for granted were absent. Censorship was everywhere in the form of black squares in every newspaper and magazine. Sex did not exist, and neither did bare breasts or legs. Foreign radio services were blocked. In the butchered movies shown on TV at night, clumsily cut by a censor, the protagonists invariably went straight to breakfast after the firstkiss, as empty film slithered across the screen. On Sundays only brass bands and religious services were on TV, and the dictator endlessly pontificated in a language my mother could not understand. If someone invited you to come to their apartment for dinner, you had to stand outside the building and clap, which was the signal for the sereno, the night watchman, to open the door. You could not just turn up. The codes of society were strict and hard to crack. Everyone over thirty wore black; married women never wore trousers, and they stayed indoors. On Sundays they wore lace veils to church.

This dark bitter Catalan city was not Mum’s idealized southern world. She wore bright-colored mini-shorts and clickity-clackety wooden sandals until November. She was like the Coppertone girl, tan all year round, smelling of coconut and carrot oil. She loved the sun, long white beaches, and the juicy pleasures of eating and cooking.

At this point, with her simple zest for life, the stay-at-home wife with peasant tastes might have slightly embarrassed my father, who was now playing a bigger game. One day she returned from the market to our expensive apartment, only to find that all my father’s clothes were gone. He had taken off with a woman named Debbie. There and then, when I was four, he disappeared off the face of my earth. He left behind:

  1. Piles of thick, peculiar-smelling storyboard paper, which for the next ten years I would use to draw on. These were a very exotic and inky black, with six white squares that represented TV screens with the space to write the scripts below each screen.
  2. One big box of Caran d’Ache colored pencils, arranged by tone like a rainbow.
  3. One box of pastels; square ones that left clouds of powdery tint on your fingers.
  4.  Four postcards from Paris, all identical, all saying the same thing: “I love you, Daddy.” The snapshots from before I was four show a tall slim man; a sharp dresser. I can’t remember him at all, not even his smell or his eyes. I can, however, recall the myth of him with outstanding clarity.

My mum was devastated, although she would never show it. Without my dad, my mum felt like a nobody. Instead of damning him for leaving her stranded, she immediately started weaving the fairy tale of him. This was the myth that sustained us both for twenty years. Unbelievably, she never spoke a word against him. She felt they’d had ten good years together and she’d been blissfully happy, which was more than most women got out of marriage, she said. That they never fought. That until it was off, it was always passionately on. His friends were divided into two opposing camps. The men wanted to sleep with her. The women wanted her to return to England and get welfare and legal aid.

* * *

She had absolutely no money. She had never finished school, had few marketable skills, and could not drive. She could not speak a word of Catalan; only a little Spanish mixed with Italian. And yet my mother didn’t leave fascist Spain, where she had no one, for an easier life in England. In this solitary fact lies coiled the essence of my profoundly unconventional childhood. She didn’t go back to Swinging London, which by 1971 had seen the breakup of the Beatles, the exodus of the Rolling Stones, and the rise of hard drugs, glam rock, and a haircut called the shag. She was plucky and stubborn, and determined not to drop her Mediterranean delusion.

She moved us to a small apartment in Castelldefels on the long beach south of Barcelona. From then on, our apartments would only get tinier and more dismal, and there would be a long succession of them, sometimes two or three a year. These were rundown rooms in buildings slapped together for seasonal holiday makers on the long streets that ran between the pine forest and the endless dunes. My mum decided not to look for a hairdressing job because it would mean too many long hours away from me. She found a summer job teaching swimming for a few pesetas, but by the time autumn rolled around again we were both very lost. I vaguely remember a boyfriend with a Doberman. That is, I remember long hours playing with a Doberman. And another who bought me a dress that was too small, but I could not tell him so because I was supposed to be nice to him. Within a few months, when I was five, Paul and Barbara, a very affluent couple also from the North of England who had two children and who had socialized with my parents in better days, offered to take me in.

Read an interview with Lisa Lovatt-Smith

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Author Q&A: Lisa Lovatt-Smith

Author Q&A: Lisa Lovatt-Smith

Headshot Lisa Lovatt Smith

Lisa Lovatt-Smith is the author of Who Knows Tomorrow. She began her career at the age of 18 as an intern for Bristish Vogue. In 2002, after a long career in fashion, Lisa left everything behind and founded OAfrica. Today she lives in Ghana with her family.

What led up to the moment where you quit your former life?

It was a combination of things. In the summer of 2002 I travelled to Ghana with my adopted daughter Sabrina to volunteer at an orphanage. The experience transformed me. The orphanage was so bad, the children were beaten and without food, and the place was filthy. The sheer awfulness of the whole thing moved me and I knew I had the resources to do something. I thought I could make a difference.

What was your inspiration for writing Who Knows Tomorrow?

I met a woman, Bonnie Lieberman, who broke the glass ceiling, she blazed her way to the top. She told me this was a story that had to be told.

What is the message you would like the reader to take away after reading Who Knows Tomorrow?

There are two messages. First the fact that anyone can make a difference. With a willingness to listen and learn, and ability to put a team together, one person can change things. The second is that if you give a child love they can’t fail and that the words we say are so powerful. Using encouraging words is so important.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

I was distraught an upset during much of the time I wrote, the writing brought back all the horror I had witnessed.

What “advice” would you give other mother writers?

I sat down with my kids and explained I was writing a book, and I was going to be very busy, and it would impact their lives because they were going to be in it. I wanted them to feel a part of it, which they are. Then I made a timetable and in the morning I wrote, then again after dinner – for six months there was no after dinner play. Also, writers have to realize that there will be unexpected interruptions to the process. My daughter gave birth and I took a week off, it happens.

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Thirty percent of author proceeds are being donated to support OAfrica.



Finding Family

Finding Family

By Suzanne Perryman


“My feeling of wanting, and separateness—that I was different from the family that raised me—and the connection of sameness I craved, led me to search for my birthparents.”


On the day I was born she must have said something final to me, some sort of goodbye, or wish or promise. Did she place me on her chest where the comforting sound of her heartbeat would have soothed me? And after wiping away her tears, with the slightest touch of her finger did she trace the outline of my face, the way I did with my first baby? Did she try to memorize the color of my eyes?

My birth mother didn’t honor that first goodbye. It was written in the adoption file I received at the start of my search, that she came again and again to visit me in the Catholic charities orphanage. I don’t know if she touched me, or held me when she visited the orphanage, but I know that for nine months after my birth she was unable to finalize our goodbye.

I was adopted at the age of one by a family I will always call my own. They taught me what it meant to be adopted, and that I was chosen. We share the same coloring and similar ethnic backgrounds, and we are all above average in height. We look enough alike that strangers don’t notice our underlying differences.

When I was a child, I searched new and unfamiliar faces for my own specific sameness. The shape of my face, the line of my nose, the color of my eyes, knowing that somewhere there must exist someone that looked like me.

I felt unsettled, not knowing anything about my birth parents or where I came from, and if I would ever see someone that looked like me—until I gave birth to my first child. My feeling of wanting, and separateness—that I was different from the family that raised me—and the connection of sameness I craved, led me to search for my birthparents.

*   *   *

I was 25 the first time I spoke to my birth mother.

Holding the phone tight against my ear, I paced back and forth, bare feet on cool white tile. Waiting, holding my breath, counting each ring, counting each tile, waiting for her to answer—until finally, a brisk hello.

I closed my eyes and released the rush of my rehearsed words. “Hi, I am looking for Pamela.”

“This is she,” came the quick reply. I began with my birth date, then my name and ended with…”I believe you may be my birth mother.”

I was in Arizona and she was in New York City, and even with her city street noises filling in the background, it was as if she were across the room from me.

I could hear confirmation in the soft sound of her tears. When she spoke, her words scattered around her steady cries.

“Were you okay? Are you okay?” She wanted to know.

Unprepared for her concern, I searched for an answer that would succinctly explain my twenty-five years. “Yes,” I told her. And then she told me she too, had been waiting many years—hoping to learn something. All of this I understood.

Our conversation found it’s own emotional rhythm. There were peaks of joy, even laughter scattered with crashes of sadness and more guilt, and from it flowed a subtle trickle of unspoken hope.

Finally, we ran out of our words. I hung up the phone and moved out onto the patio. With the warmth of the summer desert heat, her guilt and grief was heavy all around me, as I started to find the answers to fill in the empty spaces in my life.

Not long after our first phone conversation, Pamela sent a letter and with it her photograph. In detail, she wrote of the garden she had spent the summer shaping and there were pictures of the flowers too. But it was the details of her face that consumed me.

And when we finally met, I could see the same color brown—deep and dark in her eyes. My reddish brown colored hair matched hers that fell in loose curls. There was a familiar roundness to her cheek as she lightly brushed hers against mine. My own heart shaped lips kissed me goodbye. She was soft and kind, and was gentle in ways.

When we parted, she gave me a heavy brown book, it’s glossy well-worn pages filled with paintings by Renoir. She explained hesitantly that she had received this book more than 25 years before. I could see the way she cherished it as she placed it in my hands. Inside my birthfather had written a note: “In the interest of love” and she continued to lead me to him.

I was 30 years old when I met my biological father. First there was a letter, then a phone call, and then a plan to meet at his home.

That spring day, as I turned to face his house, I saw a line of dark windows; I knew he was looking out. I was curious and interested but didn’t know what else. I was there.

Before I could reach the front door, he opened it. “Daughter,” he called out in his gruff voice, and welcomed me inside. Somewhere in the words we strung together, his voice softened and the words filled the space between us.

The hours passed until it was time to say goodbye. That’s when my eyes found the photograph; it stood out from the gallery wall of artistic, crisp black and white photos. Faded and coffee colored with age, the photo was of a woman, and although her hair was different, she looked like me. I stared at the photo of my birth father’s mother and turned to face him again. The Pacific Ocean filled the window behind him.

All I could see was endless blue water, and at first I thought the calm that had come over me, was the ocean, yet when I closed my eyes, the calm was still there, and then I knew I had found what I had been looking for.

Suzanne Perryman is a writer, reader, wife and mother. She writes at Huffington Post Parents, Blogher and celebrates the simple every day one story at a time at Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.


Sunny on the Inside

Sunny on the Inside

By Erin Ruggaber Howard

WO Sunny on the Inside ArtAt six-weeks-old, JD was a strikingly attractive baby boy with long, curling eyelashes emphasizing startlingly black eyes. When the nurses woke him so that I could pick him up, he lifted his head up and peered out from under a blanket with an endearing, tear-wet face. For one precious moment, we could see the sweet, calm, charming, little baby he was on the inside.

And then the withdrawal took over.

The sweating started first. Big beads of sweat, like those of a stylized athlete in a Gatorade commercial, stood out on his baby face. Then came the crying, a high-pitched cry that ended with a squeal like a dolphin whistle. Then he began to shake, his little hands clenched and his arms shaking convulsively as I held him for the first time, tightly, tightly, trying to help him calm down with the stability of my body.

I was no withdrawal expert, but I knew the basics. In the single day since we’d been contacted about adopting JD, I’d been on an information bender. I consulted social workers, pediatricians, friends with medical experience and, of course, the trusty internet to find out all I could about the long and short term effects of JD’s pre-natal opiate exposure.  It wasn’t exactly comforting, as the best thing anyone could say about methadone addiction was, “At least it’s better than heroin.”

I knew that JD had been born addicted to methadone, a tightly-controlled, legal prescription drug used to help people, like his birth mom, kick a destructive addiction to illicit opiates. I knew that JD’s withdrawal symptoms had been so severe that he’d been heavily sedated with morphine in the six weeks since his birth. I knew that as the methadone passed through his body, the withdrawal effects would dissipate and eventually disappear altogether. It may not have looked like it the first time I met him, but JD was on the upswing. At long last, his birth mom—who had known for months that she intended to place JD with an adoptive family—could finally complete her adoption plan.

Far from being scared by our abrupt exposure to the intense world of drug withdrawal, my husband, Phil, and I were filled with compassion for this little guy. I was immediately stung by the fact that little JD had been doing this alone. I understood, as had our social workers, why his birth mom couldn’t be with him day after day. She was in a difficult position. I also understood why Phil and I hadn’t been contacted until JD was almost ready to be discharged: there were extreme emotional and legal risks to bringing the adoptive family into the picture too soon. And yet, my son—for he became my son the moment I saw him—had been going through this horrible experience without his Mommy.

After an exhausting four days during which Phil and I tag-teamed sixteen-hour stretches as the hospital, JD was stable enough to be discharged. JD had his first “episode” as our official son on the four-mile car ride home from the hospital. When we got home, we found that his carseat was soaked through from his panic-driven sweating. It took two hours in a darkened room to calm him.

At the nurses’ suggestion, we did what we could to mimic the dark, quiet hospital environment at home, but we couldn’t recreate everything. I found myself giggling with over-tired hysteria as the discharge nurse explained to me that JD had always slept on his tummy with a blanket over his head, and that they had used a washcloth to tie a pacifier to his face. There was no way we could help JD through the transition if that’s what he was used to! It was ludicrous! It was one thing to tie something to your baby’s face while he was attached to heart and oxygen monitors. It would be foolhardy—possibly even illegal—to attempt such a thing in our home.

The days weren’t so bad. Our two toddlers loved JD and, although we feared that his new siblings’ noisy play might trigger episodes, JD responded well to interaction with the “big kids.” Phil and I quickly learned to read JD.  At times, I felt like Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, who used to say he could feel aggression rising in a captured croc. I could feel the tension rising in JD when his environment was about to trigger an episode. Once an episode began, JD would need dedicated attention in a quiet room for a couple of hours and, as the stay-at-home parent to three kids under three, I didn’t have a couple of hours to give. Whenever possible, we needed to get in front of the episodes. We walked out of restaurants, family gatherings, even JD’s own baby shower whenever JD showed signs of tension. Often, JD was what we termed “sleeping in self-defense”—that is, forcing himself into a non-restful sleep to escape the disturbing stimuli—so family and friends often couldn’t figure out why we were leaving.  To the untrained eye JD appeared to be napping.  In our knowing, parental eye, he was barely coping.

We could have handled the days better if the nights hadn’t been so bad. Phil and I found ourselves reluctantly called upon to be the washcloth that had held the pacifier to JD’s face in the hospital. He couldn’t calm without it. Many nights, we found ourselves half-asleep on the floor, one hand by JD’s face to keep the pacifier in his mouth as he whimpered..

I don’t know how many episodes JD had in the six weeks before his withdrawal symptoms ended. I do remember being gripped with fear about two weeks after JD came home, panicking in the middle of the night with the horrible what-ifs.  What if the episodes didn’t go away at three months like we’d been told? What if it was going to stay this way for months and months, or longer?

In my semi-lucid daytime moments, I didn’t have that fear because I knew at that the episodes were a surface issue.  From the very beginning, Phil and I could see that JD was actually a sunny, easy-going guy. The withdrawal was something that was placed on top of him.  It wasn’t who he was on the inside.

At three months old, just as predicted, JD became that sunny kid full-time. We began to get compliments from strangers about JD’s calm demeanor. It was hard not to laugh or, worse still, launch into a description of his wild early days. “Thanks,” I would try to make myself say, “he’s been that way since he was a tiny baby.”  After a year or so of physical therapy to get his muscles stronger and more coordinated, JD emerged strong in heart, mind and body with nothing to hold him back.

When JD was almost two years old, Phil and I returned to our adoption agency to begin the adoption process for our fourth child.  During one of the classes we were required to take, we were encouraged to think about what kinds of prenatal conditions and special needs we would be able to handle as parents. Our social worker passed out a handout to everyone in the group listing the dozens of children who had been placed through the agency in the past two years. The chart listed all the risk factors for each child, so that prospective parents could start thinking through the realities of these issues. Some babies had no risk factors at all, but one had entries in every category. The risks looked stark and horrible on paper: Methadone. Morphine. Withdrawal. Hospitalization. In half a second I realized that this, the most dire of all the babies placed that year, was my son JD.

“He’s so much more than that!” I wanted to cry out.  “This has never defined him!  It has never held him back!  You don’t need to be afraid of a kid like JD!”

Sometimes I want to shout those words not just to an adoption class, but to the world.  On the inside, JD was never the person that the drugs caused him (at times) to be.  All he needed was a little help to get through the first three months. Now six , JD is the same sunny, affectionate, easy-going guy that Phil and I loved from that hospital bed. The only difference is, now the whole world can see it.

Erin Ruggaber Howard is a full-time mom and part-time museum curator. She loves to share her experiences in parenting and adoption and has been published in Chicago Parent, Adoptive Families, Adoption Today.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Adoption the African Way

Adoption the African Way

By M. Sophia Newman


In this village, Ghanaians wanted an African adoption, which they said meant temporarily placing a child with people they knew.


It is a sunny day, and I am in Kolkata searching for a person I would lay down in front of train for. I’m on my way to an orphanage to make a decision about my future as a mother.

When I arrive at the orphanage, I see a sparkling clean, bustling place. The sound of children singing floats into the courtyard. A nun walks in and out of her office, meeting with couples—women in silk saris, men in Western suits—one by one.

When it is my turn, she does not invite me in, but rather stands in the doorway. “What do you want?” she asks in a warm but blunt tone.

*   *   *

It wasn’t an idea I came up with myself.

The suggestions began in the Middle East when I was nineteen. People would point to their children, saying, “Take him with you.” Take this boy or girl before violence strikes. Take them to America.

I thought an armed conflict motivated the request. But later, in rural Ghana, I met a mother who was dizzily in love with her month-old baby—who nonetheless asked me to take him to live in the US. “This is better,” her mother insisted. In South Asia, too, strangers occasionally offered me their children.

For eleven years, I made polite refusals. But I wondered: if all these people believed international adoption was best, did that mean it was?

In 2010, I looked at my nephew—then half the age and twice the size of a boy I knew in Africa—and considered that he had safe playgrounds, good healthcare, and plentiful nutrition. The African boy had none of that.

I sketched a manifesto. I’d adopt a girl, the gender more often unwanted. I’d speak her mother tongue, circumventing the troubling lack of a common language some families face during adoptions, and adopt in a region where I’ve worked, so I could understand my child’s background.

That is, if I ever decided to adopt.

Deciding depended on what adoption means.

Closed adoptions make it harder to understand who the biological parents are. But my Googling turned up a single characteristic shared by most: they are alive. Four of every five adoption-eligible, orphanage-dwelling children have at least one living parent. It was a far cry from the motherless infants I’d envisioned.

Perhaps that’s unsurprising. The people who had offered their children weren’t dead, either.

Why were they eager to give their children away? When I was unable to understand Ghanaians’ requests, I started asking them questions. What they said was not what I expected.

Adoption is a word with two definitions. Western-style adoption—severing a parent-child bond and permanently placing the child with new parents who the natal family doesn’t know—was unfamiliar in this village. Ghanaians wanted an African adoption, which they said meant temporarily placing a child with people they knew. The idea was to allow parents to manage difficulties by getting help from wealthier community members—not to sever family ties. In fact, they assumed parents and children would eventually reunite. (In India, too, leaving a child in an orphanage is often a temporary method of coping with poverty or crisis, not a way of relinquishing parental rights.)

What they were requesting made sense. In the Ghanaian village, a single mother of three kids befriended me. J.’s* family lived in a single room with no running water or kitchen. When I took the eldest girl (aged 12) to the capital, she marveled at the flush toilet in a restaurant we visited.

J.’s salary was a dollar a day. “When you come back,” she told me, “I will build a concrete house with two rooms, so we all can live together.”

Her other ambition was her children’s education. She was frank about wanting my help. In local custom, aunts, neighbors and others helped raise children together. In local parlance, the word “mother” often indicated any woman of a particular generation in a given social group who took responsibility for young lives. “You are their mother too,” she once said, not cajoling me, but stating things as she saw them.

*   *   *

In the orphanage courtyard, I tell the nun I’m curious about adoption.

Sister doesn’t pull her punches. Kolkata was once synonymous with poverty, she explained in a mix of Bengali and English words. But with the Indian middle class growing, adoptions are more frequent and systematic. Most are now domestic.

She doesn’t mention my race, but I know national adoption laws favor people of Indian origin. I’m at the back of a line—and it sometimes grows so long the government stops accepting new applications.

Since I’m alone, the nun does emphasize that her Catholic order condemns single parenting.

“Thank you,” I say.

Outside the orphanage, I revise my manifesto. The orphanage had girls from a region where I’ve lived, who speak a language I know. But there are other criteria, too. India’s shift to a formalized system would disconnect my child from her natal family. I’d never know if her parents’ motivations or their understanding of adoption. And if they did not understand the arrangement they were making—well, what then?

Walking away, I sigh with resignation.

*   *   *

This ending, it turns out, is typical. One in three American women has considered adoption, per a US government report. Just two percent follow through.

Then again, adoption is a word with two definitions.

There is a certain family in an African village with whom I’m still in touch. Their situation fits my criteria: two of the children are girls; I’ve stayed in their region (and their house); and we share a language (English). There’ll be no bureaucracy, no corruption, and we can reunite whenever we want.

The $40,000 cost of an international adoption equals the wages J. could earn herself in a full century. That money would end the family’s penury, provide them education, and even permit the eldest girl to immigrate to America with me. It also means I can provide her son—who was once twice as old and half as large as my nephew—nutrition and a suitcase of toys.

Instead of lying down in front of a train, maybe we can play with a model one together.

After all, I am their mother too.

M. Sophia Newman is a freelance writer working with Pacific Standard Magazine and Beacon Reader to return to West Africa to cover stories on disease, food insecurity, and the family she knows. Subscribe here:

Eyes, Nose, Mouth

Eyes, Nose, Mouth

By Katie Shea Britton


Identifying with our children’s strong family resemblances and shared genetic traits.


It had been years since I’d thought about it. Decades, really. Those tic-tac-toe-type charts in eighth-grade biology class that Mr. Mendel said would predict hereditary traits. We were assigned the task of creating our own genetic diagrams, and were taught that in observing the eye colors of our parents, we could calculate the odds of the eye color we ourselves ended up with. But with that assignment, I suddenly felt vulnerable. Exposed. 25 years ago there was more of an emphasis on the nuclear family and, while I had one of those, I didn’t come by it honestly. My parents had adopted me, so their eye colors were simply not a predictor of my own. I don’t remember doing it, but I must have had the conversation with my teacher saying, “I can’t do this because I just don’t know.”

Oddly enough, I grew up in a family where I looked like my dad’s side. There was a resemblance, and that made it easy to forget I was a genetic outlier. With time and maturity, adoption became just one part of my identity, along with my hazel eyes and my brunette hair. My stocky build and my round face were just … mine. And then I started having children.

At my first prenatal doctor’s appointment, I was handed the requisite questionnaire and could only answer a portion of the family history questions. By this time, though, I had met my birth mother, met her family and was able to fill in a bit more of the genetic picture. My belly grew rounder and we indulged in a 3D ultrasound, which allowed us to see our daughter’s cherubic little face, still months away from greeting the outside world. And with that first glimpse, every confidence I had built up around my genetic identity shattered. I could not wait for this child to be born. To kiss her lips, nuzzle her nose, gaze into her eyes. In truth, I was borderline obsessed with seeing myself in her features.

When my oldest daughter arrived, I was not disappointed. Everyone commented on how she was a mirror of me as an infant. Although my own mother didn’t meet me until I was six weeks old, she affirmed that my daughter had my eyes, my nose, my mouth. And while that satisfied my yearning to see myself in this gorgeous creature, about whom I’d spent the last nine months daydreaming, I was blindsided with sadness for my own mother, who never once got to glimpse herself in me. And then my second child was born. And I understood.

It seems to be so ingrained in our psyches to identify shared familial traits in young children. I, myself, have been guilty of exclaiming, “Oh, she looks JUST like you!” after scooping up a little baby bundle from a friend’s arms. Or wondering whom along the line had those sparkling blue eyes when meeting a child whose parents do not.

Even through the fuzzy ripples of the 3D ultrasound photographs, I could see that my second did not share any features of her older sister. She had big, round eyes, a slightly turned-up nose, and thinner, more austere lips. I saw glimpses of my husband’s family in her and, for some shameful reason, I felt cheated. I truly expected this baby to be a carbon copy of her sister. When she was born, even her wiggling eight-pound body felt different. More compact, leaner than her sister’s. I had a hard time believing that this child drew from my gene pool at all.

Yet my heart exploded with the most primal, purest love for this human of mine. When I saw her eyes, I was not looking into my own. When I nuzzled my nose into hers, they didn’t both squish down. When I kissed her perfect lips, the fullness of my own mouth enveloped the tiny lines of hers. In her differentness, I found my peace.

Earlier this summer, I saw their heads huddled together over the kitchen counter—my husband explaining to our two oldest girls that the avocado pit hadn’t managed to sprout and that they would try another experiment. When he mentioned splitting a stalk of celery in half and putting each half into colored water to see what would happen, I thought right back to that eighth-grade biology class. To Mendel and his chart. And I smiled—perfectly content—as I bent over and kissed the soft head of our youngest daughter, the one who often brings remarks because she so strongly resembles her family.

Katie Shea Britton is transitioning from a career in corporate Washington, D.C. to a life at home with her three young girls. She writes occasionally to keep record of her attempts to remain serene in the chaos.

Mother in the Middle

Mother in the Middle

By Rachel Beanland


Dear Eve,

We’re updating our will. For the second time in nine years, I’ll tell an attorney I barely know that—should something happen to Kevin and me—we want my little sister to raise our children.

It’s such a big thing to ask of you, especially since there are now three children who, overnight, would lose everything if we were gone. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, to love someone else’s kids. As an adoptive mother, I’ve been raising other people’s children since the day I became a parent. So I know it can be done.

Before I became a mother, I assumed it would be easy to choose another set of parents for our children. I have three siblings, Kevin has two—between us there is an army of people who would cherish our kids. What I failed to understand was how inferior any situation seems that doesn’t place us squarely in the middle of all our children’s most important moments.

Surely, there is no man who will place Clementine’s pajamas on his head and say in a very silly tone, “Clementine, I don’t know why you’ve been wearing my hat to bed!” After Gabriel finishes a practice spelling test, putting his pencil down with an achingly sweet glance around for reassurance, will anyone remember to marvel at the fact that he remembered the u in l-a-u-g-h? What if no one understands that when Florence stands beside the dishwasher and grunts, what she really wants is the pacifier we keep in the small bowl beside the sink?

Sometimes I worry I haven’t been transparent enough about our decision. I wonder whether I could have done more to prepare you. I know that, in the aftermath of whatever tragedy befalls us, in between balancing your own grief with the children’s, you’ll figure out Florence’s bedtime routine, that Clementine needs a new pair of ballet tights, that Gabriel’s lacrosse practices are on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

But will you know what I wanted for them? Would it matter if I had told you?

Pretty please, try to raise the kids to be Democrats. At the very least, teach them to be liberal on the social issues—the issues that require compassion for their fellow man and an understanding that people come into the world with different privileges that, sometimes, no amount of hard work can overcome.

Don’t ever sever the threads that connect them to the places they were born or the people who loved them first. Help them understand the choices their first mothers made, and help them see that people don’t fit neatly into boxes. We’re all just doing the best that we possibly can.

Don’t teach them to blindly believe. Doubt means they’re thinking, and I would rather raise thinkers than believers. If they find faith, great. In fact, I hope they do. Just give them the background to question the universe without sounding like idiots.

Don’t talk about dieting in front of the girls. The world will be tough enough on their bodies without them hearing it at home.

When they start learning to drive, teach the kids to drive stick shift, even if it means learning it yourself. You never know where life will take you, and who wants to be the person who can’t drive the getaway car?

Buy a house without a basement. No good can come of teenagers in basements. When the girls have their periods, put them on the pill. I don’t care if you have to tell them it’s to clear up their skin or to regulate their cycle. You can tell them it’s the elixir of life. Just insist upon it. Teach them that sex is a normal part of a healthy life. It’s not something to be ashamed of, just something to be considered carefully. As tempting as it will be to advocate abstinence, have the trickier conversation—advocate good judgment.

Should the girls ever face an unwanted pregnancy, help them understand that being adopted doesn’t mean they owe the world anything. Their mothers made the best decisions within the framework of their own set of circumstances and they must too. Their bodies are theirs and theirs alone.

Take the kids out for ethnic food. Let them eat green curry that burns their nose and injera with wat that stains their fingers. Let there be no sushi roll they won’t devour.

Raise the girls to believe they can be mathematicians like their father. Raise Gabriel to know his way around the kitchen.

When the mean girls in middle school get to be too much, tell Clementine and Florence all the things Mom told us—that they’re jealous, that they’re insecure, that the girls’ words can’t hurt them. Then take them shopping. Although it doesn’t cure much, it is the antidote to middle school melodrama.

Take trips. And not just to the beach, which will be easy. Take trips to the places that are difficult to get to but that show the kids life is different the further they go from their doorstep. Their lives turned out differently because they were adopted but remind them that everyone has a story to tell. Never let their passports expire. Raise them to believe that the next adventure is always around the corner.

If one of them is gay, be the parent who embarrasses them at the LGBT gala in your rainbow-colored tulle. Plaster your car in gay pride bumper stickers if you have to but make sure they know that nothing could ever change the way you feel about them. Support equality for all people before you know whether our three people will ever need your advocacy.

Limit screen time but not to the point where the kids grow up under a rock. When you’re young, pop culture knowledge is a form of currency and they should recognize the difference between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Clementine likes it when, in the car, we sing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” at the top of our lungs.

Let the kids dress themselves. Watch Gabriel though—he’ll try to wear the same outfit three days in a row. Teach them to eschew name brands, except for those early years of high school, when a label can elevate a kid’s spirit and go a little way towards making up for feeling misunderstood.

Don’t let Clementine look around one day and realize she’s the only black person in her homeroom, in her dance class, in her Girl Scout troop. Show Florence there is beauty in being ethnically and racially indefinable. Make Gabriel stick with Spanish in high school, so that one day—if he wants to—he can say “Estoy de vuelta” in the language of his country of origin.

Teach the kids to play a sport that wakes up their body and to practice a form of artistic expression that wakes up their soul. Don’t let them be quitters but teach them to recognize the times in life when it’s better to quit than to press forward without passion.

Tell the kids their mother never smoked a single cigarette, and that they shouldn’t either. When they’re much, much older, tell them that their mother wishes she’d smoked a little more weed.

Tell them to call their grandmother. She’s been through a lot. Tell them stories about their grandfather. He would have loved watching them grow up. Don’t let them lose touch with Kevin’s family despite the distance and the degrees of separation.

The life insurance will mean that money’s never tight. But make the kids work during the summers anyway. It makes them scrappy. Plus, summer romances that blossom behind the ice cream counter, at the ticket booth, or in the lifeguard shack are the best kind.

Kevin wants to dance to Lincoln Durham’s “Clementine” at Clementine’s wedding. It’s a song they both know the words to by heart. When the song gets to the part where Durham sings, “Clementine, don’t you cry for me,” tell Garret to whisper in her ear that her father wishes he could be there. For Florence, who’s younger, tell Garret to make his own memories, to pick their own song.

Tell the girls to keep their guard up—that despite what the movies will tell them, they can’t really have it all. They can be wicked smart, driven, beautiful and maternal, but life will always be about recognizing their priorities and making choices. Some years, their careers will soar. Other years, they’ll be covered in spit-up and drool. Rarely will they feel like they’re doing everything well. At least, I never do.

Here’s my big request. When you and Garret have children one day, you have to promise to love everyone the same. I’m not talking about a deep down kind of love. I’m talking about the love that shows. I’m asking you to tally everything. To track the money you spend on Chanukah presents, the days you spend visiting each child after they leave home, the parents’ weekends, the father-daughter dances, the birthday parties, the wedding budgets, the baby gifts—the thousands of ways we show our children throughout their lives that they are loved.

I’m not a perfect mother. I regularly forget to send the kids to school with a snack, I return library books late, I let the laundry pile up so high that the children wander out of their rooms, half naked, asking where all their pants are. There are days when I yell, days when I deafly listen to the retelling of schoolyard woes, days when I let the television substitute for my engagement.

My children already have two mothers. You’ll be their third. If something should happen to me, and you become the mother who sees them through puberty and orthodontics and their first date, the person who mothers them into adulthood, then I will become the mother in the middle. Not the mother who gave them life, and not the mother who propelled them out into the world.

Rachel Beanland is a writer who lives in Lexington, Virginia with her husband and three children.

Photo by: Tamara Hattersley Photography

Bringing Him Home

Bringing Him Home

By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky


Adoption is opening your heart to a baby, then waiting six months to meet him. Adoption is worrying about who rocks him at night, then hoping someone just comes when he cries.


“We could call him Riley,” my husband, Brett, said, referring to the Chihuahua mix playing on the Humane Society floor with our son, Ryan. Snuggled close, Ryan and Riley touched noses.

Ryan looked up at me. “Can we bring him home, Mom?”

The papers we signed that night were labeled “Adoption Papers.” But bringing home a new animal, as much as our pets are members of our families, is not adoption.

Adoption is opening your heart to a baby, then waiting six months to meet him. Adoption is worrying about who rocks him at night, then hoping someone just comes when he cries. Adoption is squeezing your eyes and ears shut when people tell you what happens in Eastern European institutions. It’s filling out forms with questions so personal you wonder how having a biological child, no forms required, is even legal. It’s inviting a social worker into your home to review all those questions and ask even more.

Seventeen years ago, Brett and I flew to Moscow, then took a train 14 hours east to meet our 18-month-old adoptive son. The medical report, proclaiming him healthy, had allayed our concerns. But not until our visit to Filotav Hospital in Moscow did we learn how wrong that report would be.

“See his big forehead? Water on the brain,” the doctor said in a thick Russian accent.

I felt dizzy. The exam room was sweltering in the 95-degree heat. Ryan’s fine, short bangs were plastered to that big forehead. Sweat rolled down my back, my short-sleeved top glued to my skin.

The doctor had quickly reviewed Ryan’s medical records, then turned his attention to the eerily quiet toddler on the exam table.

“Boy wasn’t breathing when he was born. Hospital gave oxygen,” he added.

I felt like I was fifty yards away. “How long?” I mumbled from that far away place, looking at the limp toddler on the table.

“Not so long.” The doctor moved our son’s legs. “Boy’s legs are weak.”

The doctor scooped Ryan up off the table, then set him on the floor, where he stood looking at the wall. He spoke in Russian to our son, who glanced at him for a split second, then quickly away before he took slow steps in his odd, Frankenstein-like gait. I looked over at Brett. His face was ashen, eyebrows furrowed.

“Pyramid insufficiency,” the doctor pointed to Ryan’s legs. “This is problem.”

What was he saying? His words conjured medieval charlatans.

“Will he get better? Maybe he needs more practice walking,” I said in a small voice. Why wasn’t Brett saying anything? A knot of anger formed in my chest. I looked at Ryan, so eerily still.

What were we doing here? What about the medical report they’d faxed that said Ryan could “speak in full sentences”?

Just then, Brett, a strong, 6’5″ man whose height regularly brought stares, crumpled onto the bench in a fainting heap.

The doctor slipped quickly out of the room while I used a diaper to fan Brett. Ryan stood there, eyes wide, meeting mine occasionally with furtive, sideways glances. I reached out to our boy, but he looked away, unmoving. Brett sat up slowly but still looked pale.

Returning with a can of soda pop, the doctor handed it to Brett. “Drink this. I need to see next patient.”

“But, but—we have more questions,” I insisted. “How can we help our son? His leg strength?”

“Get ultrasound of brain.”

“Can we get that here?”

“Ultrasound office closed,” he answered, handing us Ryan’s records.

“When does it open?” we asked in unison.


We stared, open-mouthed. This was July.

“On waycation,” the doctor added, arms wide in an expansive gesture as if to say everyone took long holidays. “Get ultrasound in States. He is good boy. Only 25, mebbe 30% chance of real problem. Doctor will tell you in America.”

Was Ryan okay, or wasn’t he? He’d gone to sleep in my arms. We knew that institutionalization could cause developmental delays, but we hadn’t prepared ourselves for other issues. Now, without understanding the extent of his needs, how could we help him?

Back in our hotel room, Brett called our pediatrician. Ryan stood stiffly near the edge of the bed, eyes averted. Even the toy I offered didn’t interest him.

“Does he what? Walk on tiptoe?” Brett was saying. “No. He hardly walks at all. Stands and stares.”

I looked at our son, remembering all the warnings from well-meaning friends and family. News of children adopted from Eastern European orphanages had generated a flurry of concerned phone calls and emails.

“What’s that?” Brett put his hand over the receiver. “He says to offer him something, get him to walk to you, Sue.”

I reached into my bag, fished out some crackers, and held them out to Ryan. He took some goose-steps my way, reaching tentatively for the crackers, pushing three of them into his mouth at once.

“Yes, he walks stiffly, but not too wobbly,” Brett was saying. “What do you think?” he asked this doctor, whom we trusted. Then he was silent, listening. How I wished for a speakerphone! More listening, then Brett’s eyes welled up with tears as he put down the receiver.

“What? What is it?” I reached up to hug him.

“He says—” he choked up for a minute. “He says, ‘I think he’s your son, and you need to bring him home.'”

As I watched our son playing on the floor with the dog that night at the Humane Society, I’d thought about that day in Moscow 17 years ago. Ryan. Our born athlete, our prankster, our tall, lanky, typical teen. Our son.

“I want a dog, Mom,” he’d said, “but will he get along with the cats? Will he be okay? Can we bring him home?”

“Of course, honey,” I’d said, tears in my eyes. “Trust me. He’ll be okay.”


Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother, teacher, and writer who lives with her family of five in Portland. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Huffington Post, The Oregonian, and Seattle’s Child.

Photo: ThinkStock

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Supporting Permanency in Post-Adoptive Families

Supporting Permanency in Post-Adoptive Families

Nutshell logoIt’s been nearly five years since Brain, Child published The Myth of the Forever Family but I regularly receive email from readers who are struggling with their children and are wondering what to do.

Because of this, I thought I’d go back to the topic of post-adoption support in the hopes that it would help both those families who are currently parenting as well as hopeful adoptive parents—those still considering whether or not to add to their families via adoption—create adoption plans that would promote success for their children and their families.

To that end, I enlisted the help of Paula Andree, LISW-S, a therapist here in Central Ohio who has been working with children and families for more than two decades. In her private practice, Andree works exclusively with adoptive families around issues of attachment and trauma. She is also mom to three children who came to her family via adoption.

Andree says in order to be successful, potential adoptive families need to understand how damaging early abuse and neglect are to children in order to create more realistic expectations.

“Children who come out of these experiences can be profoundly affected in ways that are complicated and long lasting,” she says. “Parents often are not prepared for this and become overwhelmed and frustrated.”

Paula points to the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a child neuropsychiatrist and founder of The Child Trauma Academy in Houston. Dr. Perry’s research shows that children who have been emotionally neglected do not have the neural capacity to overcome early deprivation and trauma without specialized support. Abuse and neglect can cause actual brain damage; therefore to expect children from deprived environments to function in the same way that typical children do is unrealistic.

“The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development and abnormal development, the more you will be able to develop useful behavioral and social interventions,” writes Perry in the report “Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood.” “Information about these problems can prevent you from misunderstanding the child’s behaviors. When these children hoard food, for example, it should not be viewed as “stealing” but as a common and predictable result of being food deprived during early childhood. A punitive approach to this problem (and many others) will not help the child mature. Indeed, punishment may actually increase the child’s sense of insecurity, distress and need to hoard food.”

Traumatized children may also struggle educationally. Many of them have learning disorders or anxiety that negatively impacts their ability to learn. Parents who dream of attending their child’s high school graduations or have high hopes to witness their advancement in a professional career may need to adjust their expectations to be more realistic.

“I’ve worked with families who diligently put money into their child’s college fund, but over time realize that the real need is to access services so their child can live and function semi independently as an adult,” says Andree. “That’s a very difficult shift to make.”

Andree points out that adjusting goals doesn’t mean lowering expectations as much as changing them.

“Then this carries over to how the whole family identifies themselves and how that changes over time,” she says, adding that when she’s working to help a child heal she’s also helping parents learn to see growth in smaller steps and triumphs.

The Coalition of Adoptive Families, a support group in Central Ohio, also hopes to make a difference by educating and supporting families. Deborah Gnann, one of the co-founders of the group, feels that parents need to connect to each other and to adult adoptees, whose experiences are an invaluable source of information. COAF meets monthly, hosting a speaker each session and then leaving room for discussion. Their goals for the future include a directory of support services vetted and screened by families who have actually used the services as well as opportunities for parents to connect individually. Gnann understands the value of online community but feels parents who can talk to each other face-to-face can be better served, particularly since it allows them to uncover local resources.

For families and potential families who aren’t sure where to start creating their own adoption support resources, I offer the following list as a starting point:

1. The placing agency: Those who are thinking of adopting should choose an agency with post-placement needs in mind. A bulletin board or Skype sessions aren’t enough for families who may need a real life connection and support. What does your agency offer for families in your area? Can they help you connect with adoption-competent professionals? If you’ve already adopted and your agency does not offer much in the way of help, contact other agencies that have done placements in your county or state. Many of them are willing to help families who have not used their services or can at least give them information.

2. Your nearest children’s hospital: Many children’s hospitals have international adoption clinics and are well aware of the specific needs of children coming from other countries. If they don’t, they may still have clinics and services that address the needs of children who are struggling with behavioral issues. Talk to the intake coordinator and find out what’s available for you. (Note: Parents who have children who are struggling need to get good at coordinating care. Create a dedicated notebook to keep track of whom you talked to and when since getting services is usually a complicated process.)

3. Your state or county Department of Children & Family Services office. Start with the Child Welfare and Information Gateway. There is a lot of good general information and links to your own state’s resources. Here in Ohio we have the Post-Adoption Special Services Subsidy (PASSS) program, which is administered through the county offices. Andree, who accepts these funds when working with families, explains, “PASSS will cover the cost of services that are not covered by Medicaid, insurance or other adoption subsidies. It will cover the cost of respite services and when residential treatment is needed, PASSS can be used to cover that expense. Each adopted child is eligible for $10,000 per fiscal year, $15,000 in special circumstances. It really is a program that goes a long way in maintaining permanence for children.” Not every state has a program as all encompassing as PASSS but it’s worth exploring.

4. If the services aren’t there, connect with other adoptive parents. Ask the agencies, ask the children’s hospital, connect with foster-to-adopt support services and see if you can do what Gnann and her friends have done and create your own group.

5. Further, as Gnann points out, adult adoptees who have been through the struggle can also be a tremendous untapped resource. If your community has programs for adult foster youth, see if you can reach out to find mentors for yourself and your children. Programs like Big Brothers, Big Sisters may also be able to connect your child to an adult who has had their own traumatic beginnings and thrived in spite of them. For a child—and a family—who is feeling scared or hopeless, connecting with a role model can be a game changer.

For those of you who have lived or are living the struggle, what have you found to be most helpful?


To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Snowfall, and the Silence of Pregnancy

Snowfall, and the Silence of Pregnancy

By Jenna Hatfield


I frequently found myself on the defensive while pregnant, afraid of what people might say and how they might judge me. I felt judged enough, being single and pregnant.


She lived in the apartment above my basement level one. She walked heavy and possessed an even heavier case of insomnia. Pregnant and on bed rest, unable to sleep at night myself, I’d hear her feet hit the floor at one o’clock in the morning. She’d stomp into the bathroom and run herself a hot bath. For a while, the sounds would cease as she likely attempted to relax herself back to sleep. Later, she’d stomp back to bed, waking me yet again. I’d roll to my other side, hand gently touching my belly as the Munchkin kicked me. My precious daughter was a night owl as well.

Late in my pregnancy, we talked for the first time. I finally looked visibly pregnant, though I never seemed very large due to the health problems I experienced during that tumultuous pregnancy. As I carried some clothes to the laundry room, she stopped to ask me some questions. Munchkin’s parents and I already matched at that point; my kidney disorder left me unable to work, and I felt relief in finding a family to care for my child. I didn’t share anything about the adoption with the woman who lived upstairs. I knew her sleeping habits but not her last name. I didn’t know how she felt about adoption, how she might react. I frequently found myself on the defensive while pregnant, afraid of what people might say and how they might judge me. I felt judged enough, being single and pregnant. Giving away my baby felt like more fuel for the judgmental fire of society. I answered her questions politely but with vague, open-ended answers. I felt like lies kept slipping from my mouth, but I didn’t know this woman from Eve. I walked back downstairs, heart heavier than her late night footsteps on my ceiling.

The time came, and the Munchkin arrived in this world. I left the hospital without my beautiful baby, briefly returning to my parents’ house to gather some things and head back to my apartment. Four days later, my father, grandfather, and my (now) husband arrived to help me load my belongings into a U-Haul. Many reasons backed the decision to move so soon after giving birth, but not wanting to spend another second in the small apartment in which I worked so hard to bring my baby girl to life topped the list. My heart hurt as I looked at every inch of our space, back when we qualified enough as mother and daughter to have any space referred to as “ours.”

The snowflakes waited to fall until later that night as I made the trek to Ohio, but the wind whipped, cold and menacing. As the adult males in my life trudged boxes and bags and furniture to the truck, their effort showed in white puffs of visible air, every exhaled breath hanging above their heads. The woman upstairs came down to see what the fuss was about, making sure someone wasn’t stealing all of my stuff. I’ll be honest when I say that I don’t remember much of what she asked me. I was likely still in some form of shock from the labor and delivery of my firstborn child just six days earlier. Combine that with the shock of grief and loss that comes from leaving the hospital alone and subsequently signing my name to a piece of paper that basically claimed the labor and delivery never took place and, well, I’d venture to guess the details of the conversation were blurry for many a reason.

But I remember her speaking to my father, asking him questions anyone would ask a new and proud grandfather. I remember the look on his face, a deer caught in the headlights for a moment before he released eye contact, mumbled an answer, and went back to the physical action of letting his daughter go just days after he let his first and only granddaughter go. I remember wanting to save him from the moment, to change the subject, to do just about anything to put a smile back on his face. My own deep sadness silenced me; I could not provide the heroic verbal effort that cold afternoon.

The woman made her way back into the building, walking heavily up the stairs. Long after we pulled out of the parking lot with all of my belongings, she probably woke up and stomped her way into the bathroom, her footsteps echoing through my empty, dark apartment. Little did she know that I would wake, two-and-a-half hours west of her, and shuffle into my new bathroom. I’d turn on the hot water and cry until the water ran cold, milk spilling from my rock hard breasts. I’d shuffle back to my new bed and stare at the ceiling until the sun came up. I’d do this for weeks after my arrival in Ohio. I’d think of the woman who lived upstairs. I’d wonder what her story was, why she couldn’t fall asleep. I’d pray it wasn’t because she had placed a baby for adoption, given away her only baby girl… like I did.

Why she crossed my mind recently, I don’t know. I sometimes still shower in the middle of the night, though the tears don’t come as often. The nights are the loneliest, I think, for anyone who has experienced any form of loss, no matter the amount of love still present in our lives. I hope the woman upstairs was able to find sleep eventually.

I hope we all do.


Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo by Scott Boruchov

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Brave Enough

Brave Enough

By Jennifer Palmer


She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.


“Do you think you’ll try to adopt again?” they ask, and the question settles on my shoulders like a shroud. My heart begins to race and my palms begin to sweat and my first instinct is to shake my head violently, to run fast and hard from the very idea lest it lodge itself in my brain and take root. The mere thought of walking that path again makes me want to lash out, to cry, to curl up in a ball in the corner of my room and hide from the world.

This reaction is all beneath the surface; somehow, I try to remain calm. I shrug my shoulders and give a half-smile. “I don’t know,” I answer. “We’ll have to see what comes.”

*   *   *

I was there on the day my daughter was born. My husband and I arrived at the hospital early, having been startled awake by the jangle of my cell phone in the wee hours of the morning, and so I was there to see it all.

I was there with her maternal birth family—her mom of course, but also her grandmother and great-grandmother and multiple great-aunts. We made quite the crowd, there in the delivery room, laughing and crying and praying together, all waiting for her to come.

I was there for the early stages of labor, when the contractions were few and far between. I was there when the pain began in earnest, when my daughter’s oh-so-very-young-and-scared teenage mom was given her epidural. I was there for transition. I was there as her mom pushed, and I counted and I encouraged and I held my breath along with everyone else. I was there when my daughter crowned, when the long hours of waiting were finally over and she slipped, alive and healthy, into the doctor’s competent hands. I was there.

I was the first to hold her after the doctor and the nurses, the first after the cord had been cut and she had been cleaned and weighed and warmly swaddled. They brought her to me, and I reached for her amazed that I might be entrusted with this small, sweet bundle. I looked into her tiny face and her eyes met mine and all doubt fell away. In that moment, I was her mom. In that moment, my heart claimed her as my own.

When I finally tore my gaze away from her face, her grandmother’s eyes were on me, the pain stark in the set of her jaw. She was mine, this sweet baby girl, but she belonged to others, too.

*   *   *

A few days later, we nestled her into her car seat, so small amid the soft, pastel fabric, and we left the hospital. We just walked out, with this precious baby between us, and they let us go. I sat in the backseat with her for the long drive home, watching her face, watching her sleep. We pulled into our driveway changed forever. We had left it a young couple with no kids; we returned a family of three.

What to say of all that came after that moment? The story is long, far too long for a simple blog post, and I do not know that I have the words to tell of those first sleepless and anxious and incredible and wonderful weeks, of her one-month birthday, when her mom’s consent was final and I breathed a sigh of relief, of the call from our attorney two days later saying my little girl’s birth father was contesting the adoption. How can I tell you of that summer, one of worry and fear mixed with love and joy, of one court date after another, of the support of her mom’s family and the venom of her dad’s? What can I say of the love that carried us through those days, of the night before the final hearing when friends and family gathered to pray for justice, for truth, for wisdom? No matter how I try, I cannot express what I felt as my daughter’s biological father took the stand and lied, looked straight into the eyes of the judge and said words I knew to be false.

I took the stand, too, on that day, recounted the events that led to all of us being there together in that courtroom, hoping that my words would have weight. I knew, all too well, that what our lawyer said in her closing argument was true: “No matter the judge’s decision, somebody’s heart would be broken.” I just prayed it wouldn’t be mine.

What words are there to explain all of this, to tell you of the moment when we got the decision and I collapsed on my living room floor, unbelieving? How do I help you know what it was like to place the girl who had been my daughter for five full months in the arms of the one who had conceived her? How can I convey to you what it was like to allow my legs to carry me down the unfeeling tiled halls of the courthouse, leaving her behind, when everything in me wanted to turn and snatch her back into my embrace? And then, the helplessness as we heard of drama and court battles and teenagers who would rather party than care for a child, the deep grief mingled with love and a need to know as the texts and pictures came in those early days before fizzling away to silence, months and months and months of silence.

*   *   *

It’s been more than a year since I said goodbye to my sweet baby girl, a year with its own sorrows and joys, its own defeats and triumphs. Time marches forward and life slowly returns to normal and grief begins to fade.

And this is the amazing thing after it all, after all the tears and pain and loss: I still believe in the idea of adoption, in the beautiful (though painful) gift it can be to all involved. I still know it can be so very good. And deep down, beneath the fear and the hurt, I still hope it can be a part of the story of my family someday.

*   *   *

And so, they ask, “Do you think you’ll adopt again?” and I am afraid, so very afraid, and a large part of me wants to run in the other direction. But I smile, say, “I don’t know,” and my heart whispers the unspoken completion: “but I hope one day I might be brave enough to try.”


Jennifer Palmer is an electrical engineer turned stay-at-home-mom who lives in Northern California with her husband and five-month old daughter. She shares her thoughts about everyday life at

Photo by Scott Boruchov

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Heritable Traits

Heritable Traits



“Like rings on a tree, these questions about where we came from and what that might mean to us at present, reveal themselves, but not in a linear fashion.” 


There’s a wicker chair in the corner of the dentist’s treatment room. It’s the parent’s chair. I sat there while my five-and-a-half-year old daughter, Saskia, lay back on the magical chaise. First, she pushed the button to recline it, per Dr.’s instructions and then she was stretched out long with her mouth wide open. The dentist and his assistant labored to pull decay and infection and whatever else from inside her tiny tooth and medicate it and save it. “Saskia should keep this tooth till she’s eleven,” he explained. “We need those teeth to stay there in place to help her entire mouth grow correctly.” That’s how a baby tooth gets a root canal, in case anyone was wondering. “The good news is that I think we can save it.”

“That’s great,” I offered. I wanted rather desperately not to be in the room. More than that, though, I wanted to be in the room and appear calm, so she’d stay calm. Amazingly, she was wholly compliant and funny and signaled when it hurt.

I sat there and felt guilty about the bottles of milk Saskia still drinks at night before she brushes her teeth (almost every night) and about the fact that she refuses most healthy food and has a wicked sweet tooth. Saskia’s our fourth child. Battles we fought hard—two chocolate chips counts as a treat—are long behind us. So often with her, it seemed that getting through the day mattered more than exactly what she ate. Overall, she is healthy, engaged, smart, and strong. I watched her do a chin-up at gymnastics just last weekend, thanks to her summer of daily monkey bar practice.

Whether Saskia’s weak teeth are inherited, I have no idea. This was the second emergent visit to the dentist in as many months. It sounded as if her teeth weren’t very strong, and so when a cavity hit, the stress was greater than it would be on a more constitutionally robust tooth. I never asked her birth mother about her teeth. Her teeth—and her birth mother’s sister’s—look really great, though. We never met her birth father, so I can’t vouch for his.

Adoption, from the start, took any sense of control away. Her birth mom smokes cigarettes. She smoked during the pregnancy (less than usual; she tried to smoke as few as possible, and felt guilty about the ones she smoked). Obviously, the smoking bothered me; I knew it was less than ideal behavior and I knew I wouldn’t have ever done the same. What I focused on though was her birth mom’s concern over the baby’s well-being. Love trumped smoke, I reasoned.

During my pregnancies, I didn’t feel fully in control, either, between the nausea and vomiting and the aches and pains, the aversions and the few things I could eat for long stretches. One morning at the market, I emptied the contents of my shopping basket onto the checkout conveyor: white grape juice, jellybeans, and a doughnut. It was the only doughnut I ate during any of my pregnancies, and it stayed down. I felt simultaneously disgusted and triumphant. Someone sent me a copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, a book that should have a subtitle like “Or How to Feel Like a Failure at Parenting Well Before Your Child Arrives.” All your actions are terrible: caffeine, white flour, white sugar, not sleeping, you name it. When we first met our daughter’s birth mom, she didn’t have any prenatal vitamins. I sent her some. The gesture was just that. I wanted to contribute to my future baby’s health. I wanted to ward off my anxiety. When I worried about behaviors beyond my control, I tried to focus upon my diet of jellybeans and goldfish crackers and the fact that I’d birthed three healthy boys despite what I ate and what I didn’t eat.

Every family has heritable traits, some wonderful, some difficult. There is no way to avoid gene pools’ inconsistencies. The golden American family, the Kennedys have great teeth and alcoholism. The Windsors have homeliness and corgis and fabulous wealth. The wealth seems to be encoded in their genes by now. William did well to marry the beautiful and capable Kate.

“There’s depression in the family,” I declare. I want to bring those shadowy story shards into the open for my teens. As soon as one teen asks whether I was ever depressed, I realize most of the people in the stories I cannot recount anyway are practically strangers to them. Me, I can tell them about much more easily. “My parents weren’t all that happy. Their divorce wasn’t all that easy,” I offer, to speak a hazy enough and honest enough non-blaming truth. As I say this, I fill in details for myself so clear I can’t believe I still remember them this way: the flower print on the suitcase I carried between their houses, the smell of Stouffer’s baked apples, and the dry, nearly-dead plants I’d return to after five days away from my permanent childhood bedroom. “I went into therapy more than once,” I say. “If not for all the help I had throughout my twenties, I don’t think I’d be married to your papa now, or be your mom. It’s good to ask for help. It’s good to let the help actually help you. To get help is a wise thing to do.” I want them to feel supported enough to ask for help if—I assume when, really—they need it.

The work that lies ahead of our children—anyone’s children—isn’t so much about what they’ve been handed; it’s about how they take whatever complicated and contradictory gifts family provides and make peace with them so they move forward.

Or, I’m scared and I’m in over my head and I don’t know how, exactly, I went from miserable to happy—and so, kids, I can’t tell you how to do it. I want to, though.

The dentist told my girl she’s awesome about fifteen times during the course of her appointment. “My boy’s so silly,” he said, while he wielded his instruments. “He wants to be a dinosaur or a hermit crab for Halloween.” Saskia kept her mouth open when he asked her to and in return he said, “You can have three prizes.” She got that, and the promise she could keep her tooth. I felt fortunate—and very relieved.

I’ve had these worries, the ones about what was passed Saskia’s way by people I know and people I don’t—her family members by birth—and I know it’s likely that if I fast-forward another decade, I’ll have them again. Like rings on a tree, these questions about where we came from and what that might mean to us at present, reveal themselves, but not in a linear fashion. There are things that lurk around corners, things that we have to round a corner in order to glimpse.

In this way, I realize that the children I gave birth to and the one I didn’t share something I couldn’t have named before they came to me: they aren’t entirely “ours” or at least aren’t at all within some control we imagine when we envision childbirth or sleep schedules or systems to keep them neat and polite and earnest and well. It really is more like Sweet Honey in the Rock sings: “Your children are not your children… they pass through you, but they are not of you.” Or from you, they aren’t within your grasp, even though you hold so tightly and even though as you let go you still want to cling sometimes. You cannot.

I had to take a deep breath before I stood up from the parent’s chair. I followed Saskia, my intrepid girl, so she could pick out her treasures. Then, I took my own advice and I let go of why and how and who caused what and hugged her. “You are amazing,” I said. “You are so brave and so cooperative. Good job!” And I took her home.

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Brain, Child by Theme: Adoption

Brain, Child by Theme: Adoption

A collection of four back issues packaged with a gift bow and gift card, that explore the questions, difficulties, and joys of adoption, and other topics. Save $5 [US Only]

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An12-11-cover essay on fighting to adopt a foster child; finding a resolution with infertility; babies and body mass; researching an egg donor on Facebook. Plus Catherine Newman’s essay on children bonding with their stuffed animals, and Tracy Mayor’s investigative feature on whether or not kids need religion.



archivesFA11Sarah Werthan Buttenweiser’s feature essay on open adoption; what we talk about when we talk about motherhood (do we complain too much?); thoughts on the family tree; nine months pregnant – with chicken pox. Plus are toy guns okay? And book reviews about family traveling – and coming home.



archivesWI06International adoption stories; what happens when a stepparent leaves; how to answer the question “how many kids do you have?” after losing a child; what happens to family ties when a stepparent leaves? a lesbian mom on her role as a mother. Plus Kate Haas on the vasectomy question.



archivesFA07Dawn Friedman’s essay on styling her adopted African American daughter’s hair; finding serenity in parenting; a lesbian couple decides whether to circumcise their son; a mom tries to cope with the death of the little girl next door; and Kate Haas ruminates on loving her son, the jock. Plus book reviews on assisted reproductive technologies.

Rock Rock Boom

Rock Rock Boom

keith-galick_0001By Deborah L. Blicher

The little blond boy sits too still on the playroom carpet, his feet out in front of him like a doll’s. He stares vaguely at his sister, his cousins, and me. He should be crying. A minute ago I was in the kitchen, scrubbing peanut butter off the lunch dishes, when the cousins surged in yelling, “Misha hit his head! He’s bleeding!” So I dropped the sponge and ran.

Now, in the playroom, I ask Misha’s four-year-old sister,Stoh etta? (“What is it?”) because I don’t know the Russian for, “What happened?” Katja and Misha spent their early lives in a Russian orphanage. My language study hasn’t prepared me for a head injury.

Before Katja can answer, three-year-old Misha focuses his eyes, sees me, and begins to cry.

I think, He recognizes I’m his caregiverhis mother, I correct myself. Then I think, What would a mother do now?

Peter and I had both felt ambivalent about having kids during our courtship, but our feelings polarized when we bought a house together 15 months before our wedding. I loved children, but I didn’t want the sacrifices that come with being a mother. I expected to be laid off from my software job any day, and I hoped to use the time and our new, quiet home to revive my long-dormant writing career, the work I’d wanted to do all my life. Peter, just coming into his medical career, needed to work long hours.  He envisioned a house noisy with children, and me raising them full time.

We shouted at each other, stopped speaking, and finally cancelled the wedding.

I scoop up Misha from the carpet and ask him, “G‘dye balit?” (“Where does it hurt?”). He can’t hear me over his screams. Then I see blood welling from a two-inch gash just behind the top of his head, where his close-cropped hair springs up like a rooster’s comb.

One of the cousins says, “Misha was standing on the rocking toy, and it wobbled, and he fell and hit his head on the wall. Will he be okay?” His eyes plead with me to say yes.

Why does he think I’m in charge?  I wonder. “I’ll see what I can do,” I say. With Misha in my arms, I trot towards the kitchen. Four pairs of small feet follow me.

Terrified of losing Peter, I convinced him to join me for counseling with our rabbi. We laid everything out for her, bristling. She told us, “You guys actually aren’t that far apart. Debbie, you like kids but you don’t want to lose the creative life finally within your reach. Peter, you want to parent as much as you can, but you’re at an inflexible point in your career. I know you’re a compatible couple with good negotiating skills. I think you can work this out.”  She recommended marriage counseling.

We booked an appointment.

While Katja and the cousins observe, I sit Misha on the counter, page Peter and the pediatrician, and call my mother.

My mother sounds calm. “Remember your brother got whacked in the head with a screen door when he was that age? And both your nephews?”

Of course I remember. They all have identical scars.

“It was scary, but they’re fine,” my mother says. “Check the size of his pupils.”

I check. “They’re different sizes,” I report.

“That’s a concussion,” my mother says calmly. “The pediatrician will tell you to go to the hospital. Can Peter meet you there?”

I tell her he has not yet returned my page, which means he’s seeing patients.

“Do you want me to come?” she asks. “Yes!” I reply, thinking, A mother ought to be there.

After five months of marriage counseling, Peter and I agreed to raise a family. He finally understood my desire for a creative life and that I’d need autonomy in order to achieve it. He agreed to put money towards day care so I would not be overburdened. As for me, I understood that he honestly did not know he wanted kids until the moment he told me. He was the genuine, steady, insightful partner I still wanted, and he would be a genuine, steady, and insightful father.

We rescheduled the wedding.

My sister-in-law will take Katja home with her while I rush Misha to the hospital. I worry that Katja might feel abandoned after living with us only three months, but I have to tend to Misha. I explain everything to her in my best Russian. She nods sagely, hugs me, and goes upstairs with her oldest cousin to pack a bag. She’s lived half her life in a group of children, so leaving our home with three kids must make sense to her. It makes more sense, I think, than staying with me.

Peter and I chose adoption so we would not be limited by my fertility’s ticking time bomb. We applied after being married two years, when I turned 42. We chose Russia because we’re of eastern European descent, and we agreed on one child because the happiest writer-moms we knew had only one. The odds favored our being matched with a baby boy about nine months old. I felt a little happy. Maybe I could handle raising one boy. Maybe it would even be fun.

Usually talkative, Misha rides silently in his car seat. In the rearview mirror, I see his eyelids droop, then his entire head. I know enough about brain injuries to fear he will not wake up if he falls asleep. Every so often, I say in Russian and English, “Ni spat! Don’t sleep!” He raises his head but does not reply.

As the traffic crawls, I feel concern, but nothing more, for this child in my care. I ask myself, How I would feel if I were his mother?

I keep reminding myself, I am.

The adoption match came six months earlier than Peter and I expected. Our caseworker called me at home to ask whether we might consider two Russian siblings, aged three and two. Of course not, I thought. I cant raise TWO kids.  But I thanked her and said I would talk to Peter. I paged him right away.

Peter cannot get to the ER for three hours. “There’s nobody to cover for me,” he explains. As we hang up, Misha’s eyes close. I keep shouting, “Ni spat!” to jolt him awake. When that stops working, I set the car radio on “scan” and turn up the volume. Finally, I roll down the windows for the cold air. Misha keeps dozing. I think, I‘ll be in big trouble with his mother if he lapses into a coma.

The Russian siblings were blessed with perfect health and unusually good care. In the photos, Katja had auburn hair and a pout that showed she resented posing on the couch when she could be playing. Beside her, blond Misha grinned into the camera, his chubby hands clasped in his lap.

So cute! I thought. But I felt nothing beyond what I’d feel for, say, a photo of two bear cubs.

As our car inches under the last overpass before the hospital, Misha suddenly exclaims, “SCHOOL BUS!” And indeed, one is passing us in the next lane. Looking out the window, he begins narrating in Russian and English as if nothing has happened.

For the first time in an hour, I exhale.

For the first time in my life, I recognize my son.

Peter and I decided to meet the Russian siblings, so I put my book project away and started reading about adoption. The literature discussed the attachment of children to parents. My questions concerned parents’ attachment to children. How long would it take? What if the mother would rather write books than wipe noses? Was there hope for her?

I swerve into the first parking space I can and gather Misha into my arms. I don’t stop running until I see my mother in the doorway of the pediatric ER.

“Why didn’t you take the elevator?” she asks.

I ask, “What elevator?”

“Where did you come in?”

“The entrance by the big doors?” I say. Inside me, something begins to growl, Must fix boy. 

“By Oncology? Why did you park all the way over there?”

Then it hits me: I’ve sprinted through the entire hospital and up several flights of stairs. Like my great-grandmother running through the shtetl carrying my toddler grandfather when he upended a soup kettle. Like my mother speeding my brother to this very hospital when the screen door smashed him in the head.  I am the mother of an injured child. Must fix boy! comes the bear growl. Get help! Help now!

My mother leads us to the triage nurse.

Peter and I first set eyes on our children in the vestibule of their apartment. Their caregiver Anna, solid and warm, opened the door. Katja stood behind her looking sidelong at us, as if not sure we could be trusted. Misha smiled up at us from between Anna’s legs. I gasped, covering my mouth in astonishment, which did not subside, and probably never has.

When Peter arrives at the hospital, Misha has been diagnosed with a concussion. He’s now playing Legos with three boys wearing gauze patches on their heads saturated with anesthetic. Their mothers didn’t laugh when I called them “the head injury play group.” When the triage nurse asked Misha how he’d hit his head, he’d spread his little hands wide like starfish and said, “Rock rock rock rock rock BOOM.”

Peter tells me that, once the anesthetic takes effect, a surgeon will probably put sutures or staples in Misha’s head. I immediately volunteer to go pick up Katja. I feel I will kill anyone who approaches our son with a sharp object in his hand.

“Mama pupka!” Katja shouts into the phone. (“Mama’s butt!”)

Katja and I are in the bathroom at home. I left the hospital an hour ago. Peter and I thought the kids might want to talk to each other, so we arranged this phone call.

Through the receiver at Katja’s ear, I hear Misha respond, “Mama piska!” (“Mama’s pisser!”)

Both children scream with laughter. I take back the phone.

“Sounds like everything’s normal,” Peter chuckles. “Misha did fine with the surgeon. We’ll be home soon, love.”

Toilet jokes in Russian, I think. A head-injury play group. He’s right: for our family, this is ‘normal.

I tell Peter I love him and hang up. Then I ask Katja, in Russian and English, please to find her toothbrush.

Deborah L. Blicher’s essays have appeared most recently in The Boston Globe Magazine and Lilith.  She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two children, and two redfoot tortoises.  Find her at and on Twitter at @dblicher.

Photo by Keith Galick

The Humility of Fatherhood

The Humility of Fatherhood

HumilityofFatherhoodI wasn’t nervous because I was worried he might show up to contest the adoption proceedings. I knew he wouldn’t. He had his own thing and his own reasons and I don’t pretend to understand him or judge him. We have made peace. Nonetheless I was still nervous—for reasons that circled around identity and fate and a few other big things that matter in the grand scheme of big things that matter. This was one of those days in your life, few and far between, when who you are is about to change in every imaginable way. Sure, we change a little bit every single day as each moment chisels away at who we will become, but on this day I woke up a particular man and would go to bed a completely someone else. The bailiff, as the law requires, called his name once, and then twice, and finally—much louder—a third time. Silence. Silence. Silence. And it was done. I was a father and I had a 3-year-old son. But I didn’t feel very different. And neither did my son. He asked for some juice.

Was that Father’s Day? Or had Father’s Day already come and gone? Maybe I became a father the first time he called me Dada, a year earlier, or the first time I changed a diaper. I had been around since the day he was born, doing stuff that looked suspiciously father-like and yet I still identified as a guy who merely lived with his girlfriend and her son. This is very much like walking in the rain and not being wet, but this is often the way stories unfold in my life. I am usually the last one to know the truth about me. The day is done. It’s time for bed. But I never check my watch and jabber with the moon.

I suppose I always thought that I would one day feel like a father, which implied to me that I would one day have it all figured out and, having accomplished the noble end of all that industrious figuring, I would be ready to pass the torch and transmit the substance of all my hard won it. How could I have possibly known that, just behind the thin screen of my own parents seeming to have it all together, the center faced the constant threat of not holding and everything always lingered on the verge of coming apart—indeed, even coming apart a little and often in ways I was too young to notice and coming back together just before I did. How little we all know about just about everything. I thought it would get better. I believed the prerequisite for fatherhood was feeling and being more confident about my place in the world.

However, I discovered the truth about where fathering begins—180 degrees away from confidence—at the birth of my daughter. Birth is one of those events where the concept is in no way equipped to remotely represent what actually happens. What I mean is, yeah, you can understand that, of course, women give birth to children but knowing this is actually a barrier against what really happens when you witness a woman giving birth to your child. What I mean is that what you think you know about what’s going to happen gets completely exploded by what happens. Scratch that. What I mean is that everything you think you know about everything gets completely exploded when you see your child being born. Like, imagine that everything you think you know is a warehouse full of hand grenades and dynamite and the birth of your child is a lit match tossed in…

What am I talking about? Well, there’s before—and that includes all things before, including the whole delivery process—and then there’s after—and “after” means after that point when you actually see a baby—your baby—who is, like, 2 or 3 seconds old.

So I was this person, right? It’s super hard to explain. There’s this kind of naïve consciousness that has, like, the basics of how the world works down and takes it for granted, you know? Lots of times, people like this call themselves “Realists,” because they consider themselves down to earth, in the know, and/or real. So I’m kind of like that, this person in the world who’s doing okay or whatever—okay, that is, until I saw my daughter just after she was nothing.

So she wasn’t here and then she was and, for me, the world kind of quivered, got wavy, and went voop voop voop, which is the sound the world makes when there’s a rip in its fabric and all the necessary assumptions for a world to be a world turn into hand grenades and dynamite and explode. Because, really, what the hell? If a baby—your baby—can just, for forever, not be here, and then, KABOOM, be here, isn’t that essentially an expression of the quirky little fact that ANYTHING might HAPPEN maybe ALL THE TIME?!? And how you can be the same after that? How can you take anything for granted after that? How can you be sure of anything after that? And now you’re supposed to raise a baby?

My genuine emergence into fatherhood occurred when a baby gave birth to my ignorance. This ignorance is the mirror of a more genuine humble confidence. It had always been raining.

First Born

First Born

By Patty Speakman Hamsher

Gabriella's first dayI met my first blood relative in the middle of the night. The summer heat of the Caribbean dripped down my face as all seven pounds of her came tumbling out of me, blue and wet, her eyes wide and scared. The doctor and her dad pestered her for a few cries, and then I had her in my arms. Flesh of my flesh, dark hair and dozing eyes aching to stay awake and make sense of the confusion and sounds, but at peace to nuzzle into my breast and sleep off the adventure of coming to life.

My story begins a lifetime before that. I had been somebody’s new baby, wrapped in a pink blanket and howling in the arms of my mother who was standing next to my brother and father, all of them beaming in our first family photo. I was adopted and therefore had not only a birthday to celebrate every year but also a “special day” that honored the date I officially became part of my family, my first day of life in our family’s recorded history.

It wasn’t until my teen years that I found myself feeling around for missing pieces. I needed information about where I came from, my origin. I felt conflicted why I couldn’t appreciate my post-adoption life, the easy childhood of beach vacations, Brownie meetings, a room mother, family road trips, and skinned knees from playing with the neighborhood kids. But I was fumbling with the desire to lay eyes on someone who had my nose or my uniquely blue and hazel eyes, someone whose identity was concealed in the politics that dominated closed adoptions of the late 1970s. I was sure I would bump into my birth parents someday. I even let myself believe my parents were waiting for the right time to tell me they had known my birth parents all along. In this fantasy, everyone was waiting for me to arrive at the surprise party that would be our reunion.

Five months ago and several years after the self-absorption of my youth had faded into adult reality, I became serious about the search. The intimacy of pregnancy, and the birth of my own two daughters had given me the chance to experience the tenderness of growing life; I couldn’t imagine not knowing the little limbs that nudged me from within. An intense admiration for the woman who gave me up grew as strong as my own babies’ kicks. I imagined the tales I would tell my kids one day, of the two college students who fell in love, went on adventures, and spent a few years traveling the Caribbean, events that put into motion their conception and presence years after the thrill of late-night partying and a two-person tent had faded.

I made an official query to the agency that had handled my case 34 years ago. It was a request for contact with the fairytale characters with my wavy hair and slight build that I had imagined and searched for in random store aisles and crowded bus stops everywhere. My parents, anxiously supportive, offered protective warnings not unlike those they gave on my first drive down the driveway with a shiny new license in my pocket:

“Be careful, Patty, we don’t want you to get hurt.”

Like my brother, they were nervous first, excited second, and somewhere in each of them I sensed admiration and saw the dawning of a private curiosity they hadn’t let themselves realize before. My closest friends encouraged me by way of emails and lengthy voice mails, familiar with my desire to uncover what I felt for so long had been missing. Their encouragement soothed my conflicting loyalties to my family who loved me unconditionally and to my convictions that I would only ever feel fulfilled by taking this leap.

Sooner than I expected, my birth parents were real people on the social worker’s computer screen. These imagined people with the goodness and strength to give their baby a steady life suddenly had breath, and in their realness they shared their apprehensions with the social worker about direct contact with me. And I was again the howling baby, confused about my origin, angry about my helplessness, and frustrated by my limitations. Their faces were no longer everywhere, they were somewhere I couldn’t get to. Their identities were protected and carefully concealed to guard the hurt they had felt and the larger biological family that didn’t know about me. I began to mourn that I would never meet them, and angrily chipped away at the pedestal I had placed them on, the one I had created during late-night feedings with my own babies, when I rocked and realized the fortitude it would have taken me to give my babies to someone else.

It was only when I allowed myself the space to grieve that I gained the clarity to see the big picture of my life coming together. I have no control over or legal rights to my conception or my genes. The people that did only promised to write a letter, hoping that would be enough for me. They asked our mediary, the talkative social worker with years of experience, for permission to address it to me personally, and without hesitation I gave up my first name to them. I thought about how angry and raw I felt about their still-secret identity, and I wondered if they flinched at the sound of my realness.

I found my consolation prize a few weeks later, in between home security offers and credit card bills. Intuition had told me to expect the letter to arrive soon, and reason told me to prepare for a sterile run-down of my medical history and family data. What I found instead was five poignant pages long, typed in a font that was perhaps chosen for its dramatic slant. I read it alone in the back yard of a summer evening, letting the emotions have their way with me while my husband peeked out the window every so often. In those twenty minutes I watched myself reading a letter that was my taproot. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I smiled at the way things work out, even though walking through them can feel so heartbreaking and discouraging. I read the letter twice, both times finding myself slightly hung up on the lack of symmetry between the intimate details they disclosed and the sterile conclusion: they never signed their names. A week later, I would get angrier about this inequity and the legality of disclosure, but that night I was too drunk on the facts, more detailed than I could have dreamed about, to notice.

I tottered around in the awkward newness before I was able to reveal myself to my family, the ones who had cautiously given me their support to push the rewind button on the events that existed before the Kodak flash of my first special day. I got used to knowing my medical history and the circumstances surrounding my conception. It was a story as old as time, she wrote, where two careless teens found summer love and later faced the disappointment and embarrassment of families. Only in my story, the teens didn’t rush into marriage and play house with a real baby like their families wanted; they signed papers in the room at the end of the hall where the nurses spoke in whispers because the birth mother couldn’t bear to hold the baby she had signed over to an adoption agency.  I devoured the personal words describing their physical traits that mirror my own and allowed myself the validation that came with the pain she felt for months after my birth.

Years later, my birth parents married and eventually had a son who knows nothing about this full-blood sister who looks for pieces of herself in men about his age without realizing it.

But the letter is enough for now. I have memorized the tender lines that make me physically ache—how she never saw me or held me for fear she wouldn’t have the strength to follow through on what they knew was the best decision, how she would cry for me months later, wondering how any woman could give her child away.  I catch myself mentally crafting pieces of a reply letter to them before the final waves of sleep wash over me at night. But I often awaken without putting anything on paper, leaving my reply hanging in a place of peace where it can’t be rejected.

Last week I answered a phone call while sitting at a red light, and just as casually as the light turned green, the social worker informed me my search case would now be closed. I could tell from her voice and the words she chose when offering her mildly apologetic indifference that this had not been a successful case to her. She had hoped there would be further contact from them after the letter, perhaps they would have been moved to have direct contact after the shock wore off, she said, but it didn’t look like they would follow up after all. And while my kids clamored from the back seat for snacks and my interest in the latest handwriting assignment, I felt the familiar zing of helplessness once again. I was reminded that there is so much that is out of my hands even if it was my own fingers that made the first call.

Like the social worker whose expectations were that of a reunion, supportive friends often ask when I will write a response letter to my birth parents, a question I ask myself every so often and can’t yet answer. For now, I am learning how to find my way to what feels like enough. For now, there is a comfortable feeling of peace about it all that needs no follow-up.

I will always be a chosen baby. But I am armed with the truth that I began in the womb of a young girl who still loves the same young boy she made a mistake with, the woman who has found a place to tuck me into her heart and visit with me from time to time while we both charge on to make lives the other would be proud of, knowing that our paths may never physically intersect. From one family I was given breath, but from the other I was given life.

Patty Speakman Hamsher is a freelance writer and a dreamer living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with her husband, two daughters, and six chickens. When she’s not fantasizing about traveling or overanalyzing parenthood, she is an editor at Eastern Shore Savvy and blogs at Salinity Press

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Paying My Respects to My Son’s Birth Mother

Paying My Respects to My Son’s Birth Mother

By Heather Cole

COLEI had never crashed a wake before.

I was so nervous driving to the funeral home that I accidentally drove the wrong direction, down a one-way street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. An oncoming car honked loudly, and I managed to swerve into a nearby driveway before being hit.

How ironic would it be, I thought, if I was killed on the way to my son’s birthmother’s wake.

We adopted our son out of foster care when he was 15 months old. Charlie was placed in foster care at birth. His biological parents never completed the rehab and parenting classes that could have gotten Charlie returned to their custody and didn’t contest the termination of their parental rights just over a year later.

At the time we were relieved. Like many children in foster care, Charlie’s biological roots were mired in multiple generations of poverty, substance abuse and mental illness. And several members of his birth family were apparently still struggling with those issues. Charlie’s adoption was finalized as a closed adoption with no birth family contact.

But current research on adoption and identity tells us that pretending Charlie had no previous ties wasn’t healthy for any of us. The experts say it is best to have regular, age-appropriate conversations with adopted children about their biological family and heritage so that they grow up understanding their story and feeling comfortable asking questions.

I took that to heart and, as we were going through the process to adopt Charlie, I gathered every piece of paper and snippet of information about his birth family. His medical card had his original last name. Social workers provided first names and general social history information on his birth family. Legal paperwork provided some more clues. With that information, I scoured newspaper archives, online police logs and various social media sources. Every few months I’d plug all the names I had into Google to see what came up. And, gradually, I accumulated a binder of clippings, photographs and notes on a family that I believed to be Charlie’s birth family. I felt like I had done my job: I had names and photographs to share with my son when he asked questions about his biological origins. And when he turned 18 he could search for them, if he wanted.

But then one winter evening I was surfing on Facebook and noticed that various members of Charlie’s birth family had recently changed their profile photograph to one of his birthmother. Not just one person, but three, four, five people. I had never seen that before, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out what it meant.

And in that moment, the reality of my son’s loss finally hit me. A pile of newspaper clippings and low-resolution photographs might not be good enough. They didn’t answer the questions he might have for his birthmother. What else might Charlie be losing by keeping his adoption closed?

When I found the obituary online and told my husband I wanted to go, he tried to talk me out of it. “Who are we to this family? Don’t they deserve privacy in their grief?”

But I kept coming back to Charlie, and what we would some day tell him. “One day Charlie will ask what we did when his birthmother died,” I argued. “And do we want to say ‘nothing’? This is a chance to find out for sure if this is his birth family. To meet them. To pay our respects. To maybe begin to forge a connection.”

So that’s how I found myself walking through the doors of a dark funeral home on a Tuesday night in February, preparing to introduce myself to my son’s other family.

At the entry to the waking room was a poster board with a few dozen family snapshots. My concern that perhaps I had the wrong family vanished when I recognized a pair of blue eyes looking back at me from one of the photographs. There he was—my son, at that moment being tucked into bed by my husband—and here a baby surrounded by the members of his other family. I thought I recognized the setting as his foster parents’ home.

As I stood scrutinizing the faces in the photographs, I heard, “How did you know Charlotte?” The man next to me was in his mid-40s. I didn’t recognize him from my Internet research, so I wasn’t sure how to respond. “I didn’t. I mean, not well,” I stammered. “I know her family.”

He offered his hand. “I’m her brother. Thanks for coming.” As I shook his hand and offered my condolences I wracked my brain to remember what I knew about him. Was he the brother who had been jailed for a violent crime?

For a moment I thought maybe my husband had been right—I had no business being here. But as I looked around the room, amongst the baggy pants, wool hats and heavy makeup, I saw faces that had become familiar. These were the people who knew and loved Charlie first. The people who shared his history, his genealogy, his DNA.

These people weren’t just a binder of information to be doled out in age-appropriate pieces to my son. They were real, live, human members of his family. Of our family.

There is some comfort in the familiar ritual of a Catholic wake. I approached the open casket, kneeled and blessed myself.  I noted the funeral home-supplied flower arrangements with sashes proclaiming “mother,” “sister,” and “daughter” and the framed poem propped on the casket. I was relieved that they’d been able to provide this for her.

I then, at last, looked upon the woman who gave birth to my son. She wore a long-sleeved black blouse and her dark hair was arranged over her shoulders.  Her hands were folded on her chest, a rosary entwined in her long fingers. I wish I could say I felt some connection to my son’s other mother. But I just felt sad. She was the same age as me, but looked so much older. Her life had been hard.

There was a row of chairs along the wall opposite the casket. I guessed that the older woman in the center was Charlie’s maternal grandmother. It was to her that I directed my attention.

“Are you Charlotte’s mother?” I had heard that she’d had a stroke shortly before Charlie was born— we were told that was the reason he was placed in foster care, rather than with her and his biological siblings. So I spoke slowly and as gently as I could manage.

“I am so sorry for your loss. I apologize for the timing, but I wanted to come and pay our respects. I wanted to let you know that my husband and I adopted Charlie. He is five years old now. He is doing great. We love him. And I just wanted to let you know that.”

My eyes filled with tears as I waited for her response. It was tough to read her expressionless face if she understood me, but a woman to her left grabbed my arm and whispered, “What did you just say?”

I had a moment of panic. But I offered her my cell phone, with a photo of Charlie on the home screen.

“I’m Charlie’s adoptive mom. I wanted to come pay our respects and let you know he’s ok.”

In a moment, I was surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings, all crying and all clamoring to hug me. I passed around my cell phone with photographs of Charlie and apologized over and over again for my timing.

After a few long minutes, Charlie’s maternal grandfather rescued me and escorted me to a corner so we could speak privately. He thanked me for coming. He thanked me for caring for Charlie. He confirmed the details of some of the stories we had been told. He apologized that the family was not able to be there for Charlie when he was born. He said they had wondered and worried and wished that things were different, but had faith that Charlie was being loved and cared for. We compared notes on the children and I was given a few snippets of medical information on the family. We exchanged email addresses.

At one point, the funeral director interrupted our conversation to ask him to pick out music to be played at Charlotte’s funeral the next morning. He asked my advice, we laughed, and he selected a hymn. It was one of my favorites from my childhood days at Mass.

A few days later, we received an email from one of Charlie’s biological siblings with some family photos. That evening, my husband and I sat down to talk to Charlie. And together we drafted a reply.

Heather Cole lives outside of Boston with her family. Her writing has appeared in Transitions Abroad magazine, The Boston Herald, The Star-Ledger (NJ) and several local history books.

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Meeting Mr. Li

Meeting Mr. Li

By Avra Wing china2Seventeen years, ago, my husband and I adopted a baby girl from China. That sweet, smart baby is starting to get college acceptance letters. About to embark on yet another new life. And it makes me think, more consciously than I have for a while, about how she began her life with us. Our first glimpse of her was a small photo of a five-month-old propped up in a chair. The accompanying letter from our adoption agency dutifully asked, “Do you want this child?” This adorable girl? This baby we’d longed for? Uh, yeah. Two months later we were in Hunan Province on our way to her orphanage—a bare-bones operation with nary a toy in sight. The back of our child’s head was flat from lying in a crib all day. She couldn’t sit up. She didn’t know how to reach for or hold anything. She kept herself stimulated by staring at her hands as she ran her fingers over each other. She was unnervingly quiet our first day together. By the second day she smiled. The day after that she was laughing. By the end of the week she was grabbing for the toys we’d brought. We felt like geniuses. After all, we had raised two children already. But we weren’t giving her enough credit—for the remarkable resiliency she displayed in making this second major transition in her very young life. We weren’t considering what she had lost. A demonstration of how much she had left behind came on our way home. My husband’s cousin, fluent in Mandarin, met us at the San Francisco airport during our wait to change planes. He picked up our daughter and began speaking to her in the only language she had known until the day she became ours, and I literally could see her glowing. When she was 11, we took her and her big brothers to China. Against all advice: “Don’t go until she’s ready. Don’t force her.” Well, she wasn’t going to be ready. She had dropped out of Chinese culture classes. The girl loved ballet, but no way she was going to ribbon dance. She didn’t like hanging out with her “sisters”—other adopted Chinese girls. Any mention of her birth family, however oblique, brought instant tears and a refusal to talk. Yet we had an instinct that it was important for her to go back. Our trip began on the wrong foot when the tour guide in Beijing greeted our daughter with an over-hearty “Welcome home!” She wasn’t at home. She was uncomfortable with the Chinese people who stared at us, who tried to talk to her and were surprised—or angry—when she didn’t understand them. During our visit to the orphanage she broke down when one of the nannies pointed out the room in which our girl had stayed. We were sure we had made a disastrous mistake. We didn’t feel like such geniuses. But then something happened. My husband and I went to our child’s “finding spot”—the accepted euphemism for the place where she’d been abandoned. She had been deposited in front of a local government bureau and then brought to a police station. The bureau was deserted so we moved on to the station. It had been more than 10 years—no one knew anything about her. But one policeman got on the phone and contacted the person, Mr.Li, who had been the station chief at that time. And then Mr. Li invited us to his new office. He was thrilled to see the little girl whom, he said, he had never forgotten. He remembered he was off duty when he got the call about a baby being found. Nervous about caring for an infant, he had asked his wife to come along. He recalled how people had stood around our child murmuring that she was hao piaoliang, so pretty. That her legs were long and he thought her height would be above average. He smiled when he saw his prediction coming true. And, in return, she glowed. A while after our trip, our daughter began studying Mandarin. She started mentoring younger adopted girls from China. She still expresses no desire to find her birth family—which might be impossible, at any rate. For now, meeting Mr. Li, her pictures taken with him, suffice. When he put his hand on her head it was the closest she’d ever been to reconnecting to her earliest days. The closest she may ever be. It is the moment she wrote about in her college essay. We worry about our little girl going away from home next fall. How will she manage among strangers in a strange place? How will she succeed? And then we remember what she’s already been through and how she’s aced it so far.

Avra Wing is the author of the new young adult novel, After Isaac. Her first novel, Angie, I Says, was made into the film Angie. She is the mother of two grown sons and a teenage daughter.

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With A Little Luck

With A Little Luck

By Anne Sawan

IMG_0326I have just finished reading a very beautiful commentary about an adoptive parent responding to the comment, “Your daughter (son) is so lucky that you adopted her/him!”  The piece highlighted the response all adoptive parents give when faced with this comment, “Oh no, it is we that are lucky” and went on to give examples of all the ways in which this child has blessed this family with his special love.  It was a good article, very tender and touching. It’s not that I disagree with the premise, but every time I read about anything about the “lucky” comment, I am left with a niggling voice in my head that says, “Hey, wait a minute, this family is lucky, but isn’t it also true that yes, in fact this child of adoption is lucky?”

Now it’s not that I am full of myself and think that my daughter is lucky because I am some sort of super fabulous mom. Seriously, I know those “fab” moms and believe me, that is not me; I can’t DIY to save my soul (I have never held a glue gun in my hand), I have very little patience (trust me, you don’t want to be sitting next to me in a traffic jam, it’s not pretty), I have been known to let a dip in the pool suffice for a shower (actually this is pretty much my children’s daily hygiene routine all summer long) and I occasionally allow my children to eat Frosted Flakes (What? C’mon, admit it, they are tasty! It’s just once in awhile…), but if not me, in all my imperfections, then who? Then what? Then where?

Sometimes, in the evenings when my daughter is nestled beside me, I stare at her dreamy, drooly face and watch her sleep; I count her shallow breaths, I touch her soft cheek, I close my eyes and try to envision where she would be if she weren’t here.  Perhaps, I think with a shudder, she would be in a family with a super fab-glue gun, and a toting-patience-of-a-saint, health-food-eating, daily-bath kind of mom or maybe it would be much worse; perhaps hers would be a life lost to child trafficking or spent toiling in a dusty, crowded sweatshop, or maybe she would be living in an ill funded orphanage in a war torn country where orphans are sadly low down on the list of social priorities.  Who’s to say really what her fate and the fate of many others would be if they were not adopted into the families they were.  So, are they lucky?

My sister has also adopted two children; unlike me her children are from the foster care system here in the U.S. and I often think how fortunate they are to have my sister as their mother. She is kind, patient and very invested in making sure these kids get the love and support they need to succeed.  I sometimes wonder, what would have happened to her children if she hadn’t opened her heart and her life? Would they have lived out their too short childhoods in the foster care system, moving from house to house, only to age out and be on their own at the tender age of eighteen?  Are they lucky to have her?  Yes, you bet they are, and she is equally as lucky to have them. They have brought tiny, constantly-under-your-feet Lego pieces and Friday-on-the-crowded-couch family movie nights into what was once a routine and quiet life.

And isn’t much of any life based on luck anyway?  I often think it was by some lucky, wondrous roll of the biological cosmic dice that I ended up in the large, loving family that I did with two wonderful, strong parents. But, what if the dice had landed differently, would I have had a less pleasant existence?  And I often think how very lucky for me that I agreed to go with my friend to church that one Sunday back in high school, where I was suppose to be finding God but instead found a handsome young man in the back pew, who would later became my husband.  And how lucky I am to have all my children, regardless of how they came into my life. How fortunate they are to have siblings to tease, and Frosted Flakes to eat. And they are in a family where they are loved to the ends of the earth and back.

And you know what else I think; I think there is nothing wrong with a little luck, because really, where we would any of us be without it?

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s books published by MeeGenuis. 

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An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

An Unexpected Birthday Surprise

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IMG_0548Last week, my youngest child turned one-two-three-four-five-SIX. Six. Six requires two hands, after all, as Saskia’s godfather pointed out when I emailed the photograph of her with the count displayed across her fingers.

She’s wonderfully set for six. This girl is rocking kindergarten. Although I feel no pressure to have her read or write, she’s begun to do those things and of course, these new skills excite her and the rest of us, too. Her ability to hurl through air—gymnastics, not flight—amazes me. She’s got awesome, patient friends she loves, hugs too hard, cries out “Not Fair!” to all too often but then hugs again. Her One Direction-loving, screen-loving, chocolate-loving, sassy little self tickles me most of the time and proves a bit hard to calm down at night.

What was different about this year for me was this: I didn’t feel sad. The sadness I’ve experienced other years wasn’t connected to my baby, our caboose’s advancement from infant to toddler or toddler to preschooler; my sadness had more to do with her mother—and I guess, with her. On her birthday, I’m forced (this is a fine thing) to remember her birth and to remember that her arrival into our family is defined by a gift and a loss rolled into one. It’s not about a value—adoption is good or bad; sadness even is positive or negative—it’s about how complex it is to make families. I almost added the word “sometimes” here and then hesitated, because families always embody complexity along with simplicity. Our complexity as a family includes this. My memories of that original birth day, the day Saskia was born include this happy-sad truth that our family grew by more than one and that her first mother’s family grew by more than one, too.

Apparently, Eskimos have something like fifty words for snow. Our family constellation could use something like that to describe our roles, and our connections. Even mother doesn’t get a good divvying up. Every qualification of mother serves up room for judgment, words like biological, birth or adoptive. And what of cousins that are, technically, Saskia’s but not her siblings’—why aren’t there words to describe those relationships with more clarity, rather than somewhat convoluted, breathless explanations? Open adoption is relatively new territory and there aren’t so many descriptors or rules or customs or blueprints. There’s some good amount of winging it.

Every single year it’s amazed me that we’re a year further into Saskia’s life. Every single year the same thing amazes Caroline, her first/birth mom (her other mom). Somehow, this year, for reasons I can’t pinpoint, that amazement felt softer all around. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Is it simply about the passage of time? Is it that over time, we’ve gotten to know each other better? We’ve enjoyed recent visits with Caroline, with a couple of Saskia’s grandparents, her aunt, and two cousins. Since the visit with the fourteen-year-old-cousin Saskia recalls fondly what they played and things they both liked at the toy store. I think it’s one of those older, cool cousin crushes you get (I did, at least), the kind that makes you wish to grow your hair exactly that long and to wear makeup because she did.

I think that as Saskia gets bigger, she understands adoption and she’s pretty matter-of-fact about it. She isn’t more confused by cousins or grandparents from this family of birth than the rest of her labyrinthine family; she is accepting of everyone pretty equally at this point. She knows this tummy fact and remembers it more often than not. She knows she’s loved. She feels entirely loved.

This is this year—and other years may well feel different. There’s only been one time when Saskia asked why she’s here and not somewhere else and the answer was that this worked well for everyone was met with a nod. Either she’ll want to know more or she won’t want to know so much more than that. The fact is she doesn’t have to ask me whether other family members love her, because she can do so directly. And because I know, for a fact, with my own eyes, that they do. Reassurance is a concrete offering.

Maybe we all understand—and trust—our adoption better over time. I didn’t have to wonder whether to call Caroline on Saskia’s birthday, because she called. Saskia was at her friend’s house so we called back. Sure, mostly Saskia said, “Hi Auntie Cece,” and “Uh-huh,” during the phone call with Caroline. That’s because she was busy with her brand-new coloring book.

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Family is Now

Family is Now

100_1669A picture came across my Facebook feed this Thanksgiving. It’s a snapshot of my daughter’s birth mom standing with her 4-year-old son and her younger sister. The three of them are standing in the family kitchen ready to start cooking the holiday meal. My daughter’s mom is wearing her chef’s apron and she’s loaned her little sister her chef’s hat. They are beautiful and they are happy.

My daughter looks like a replica of her birth mom, Pennie, and Pennie’s little sister looks just like her, too. They are like a triple carbon copy of each other and when I saw the photo I could picture my daughter standing there with them and it made me happy and it made me sad. Happy because I am always happy to see my daughter reflected in a family that may be far away but still loves her, and sad because they are so far away.

Parenting means getting comfortable with the understanding that family—any family—is ever changing.

I didn’t get that parenting the first time around. When I gave birth to my son I felt like this was our family eternally. His adulthood seemed so far away as to be nearly a fantasy. I bought much too expensive wooden toys in part because I couldn’t fathom him ever growing out of them; I felt like they needed to last forever because we would be forever. Even when we began trying for a second child it felt like we were planning to build onto a house; an addition that would seamlessly expand our home. But then the second baby didn’t come and so we sat down, considered our options and moved onto adoption.

Enter our daughter. Or rather enter her mother because more than gaining a child, we gained a whole other extended family. Even then I thought our family was constant. I couldn’t imagine Pennie ever moving and even though I knew she wanted more children, it seemed as impossible and fantastical as my son’s adulthood seemed when he was small. But she did have another baby, a wonderful son with his big sister’s sense of mischief, and because she wanted to raise him near her mom, she moved away and out of our everyday lives.

But before Pennie moved, she graduated from chef school here in town and her mother came out to go to the graduation. The five of us—Pennie’s mom, my son, Pennie’s son, our daughter—sat together in the auditorium and cheered as Pennie walked across the stage to collect her diploma. I cried because graduations always make me cry and because Pennie worked so hard to finish school and also because I knew she was moving. I knew that in a few weeks she and her mom would pack up her things and drive away, much too far for casual visits.

After the ceremony we all went out into the lobby to meet up with Pennie. The foyer was packed with happy graduates and proud parents and the crowd pressed us in. As we were worming our way through the people to get out to the parking lot I kept worrying about losing my daughter. Her grandmother was trying to break a path and Pennie was following, holding her son and then I was herding my daughter and my son in front of me. I put my hand on my daughter’s arm a couple of times and the second or third time she spun around to glare at me.

It was because she was aligning herself with her birth family and I was messing it up by claiming her with my attention. This was her birth mama’s glory day and by god, she was going along with it as her mama’s daughter. I knew it. I knew that’s what she was doing. I could see it in the way she leaned into her grandmother and in the way she kept her distance from me.

So I quit trying to touch her as we got through the crowd and I let her claim her family and let them claim her.

That claim, that’s what I saw in the picture on Thanksgiving, although my daughter is not in it. I saw her right to keep her distance someday, to step away from us in order to give herself the space to claim them. It was so clear in the reflection of her smile in the smiles of her mother and her aunt.

I imagine sometimes, what if my daughter grows up and doesn’t choose me? What if she moves to live near her other mom? What if I lose her to her birth family? And I think about that and I get scared. Then I think, so what if she does? I can’t worry about that; I can only parent now how I see fit and I can’t parent from a place of fear and insecurity.

Also I think about how things change. There was a period in my early twenties where I wasn’t speaking to my dad. Once he showed up at the restaurant where I was working so I just went out the back door and went home.

At the time I thought I’d never speak to him again. I thought I’d never like him again let alone love him. But now I love him. Things change. Life changes you. Life will change my kids in ways I can’t expect.

What I do know is that my family is now, here around me. My family is now, far away loving our shared daughter. Someday both my children will grow up and likely they will move away (certainly they will eventually leave my house!) and it will be hard because change is hard and I’m sure that I will miss them both. Someday they may not be speaking to me and they will not be able to imagine in a time where they will want to speak to me. Someday they may make excuses not to come home for the holidays.

Or maybe not. I can’t know.

I can only know now. My family is now.

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Family Motto: More Love is More Love

Family Motto: More Love is More Love

This is the first in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

coraThe photo arrived the way many photos do these days; I was tagged on Facebook in order to see it. The dress eighteen-month-old Cora wore was one my daughter, Saskia, had worn and loved and I carefully chose it for Cora, because she’s family—and because the dress had family provenance. Let me explain: Saskia’s aunt Laura made the dress. Laura is married to my husband’s brother (son from their dad’s first marriage). Cora is Saskia’s cousin, because Margery is her birth mom’s sister (from their dad’s second marriage). Following me?

In my family many relationships come without exact names. Our five-year-old-daughter is adopted—and it’s an open adoption, so there are many family members that “belong” to her, Cora and Margery as examples, and obviously her birth mom, Caroline, whom Saskia calls Auntie Cece. While adoption highlighted this truth, it was already a given in my family—and maybe in yours, too. Families tend to be complicated, rich entities. Over time, through experience, they can transform from neat and tidy to somewhat overgrown—and interesting.

My parents divorced when I was in elementary school. They remarried. While I never knew my stepparents’ families well, I knew some of them. I also got a stepsister out of the deal. During one visit to New York, where none of us lived, my stepsister’s dad came to our hotel to see his daughter. My stepfather’s dad declared to my children that as Emily’s dad he was “kind of another grandpa.” A tall, wiry, energetic and somewhat hammy guy, my kids were more than game for a fun grandparent-like addition. Had we spent more time together, this could have become more tangible, I bet. A few years after that, my stepsister’s sister (technically, her half-sister, if you want to be technical) stayed at our house the night before our shared sister’s wedding, for convenience’s sake. It felt easy, though, and natural; after all, we were both sisters of the bride. If not sisters, by then ourselves, I think it’s fair to say we felt sisterly, especially in our shared love for Em.

Whenever people used to ask me whether I felt sad that my parents divorced, I’d say I wasn’t. “Without their divorce I wouldn’t have Emily,” was my answer (still is).

Is my cousin’s wife’s sister my cousin? I adore her, so surely, in a way, she is—or can be. Is my cousin’s ex-wife my cousin still? We think so. I don’t mean this in a flip and offhanded way; I guess that I think family is complicated enough that you might as well hold those you want to love alongside those you’ve been handed without a choice. Maybe this is part of why adoption didn’t seem entirely foreign to me. Some aspect of that choice felt expansive, as if we’d only embraced a different (admittedly complex) spin on that notion that you can reach towards family, and think outside the most simple definition about who belongs and who doesn’t.

While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love. And knowing so much of her family, the ones brought via her mom—even without neat words to describe all of our relationships—feels very warm. I feel like we all have Saskia’s back. So last week when she informed me I am not her mom, I asked what she meant. “Auntie Cece is my mom,” she said.

I heard a little hint of challenge. I took a deep breath. “Well, I’m your mom,” I said as directly and without revealing that she’d stolen my breath as I possibly could manage. “And Auntie Cece is your mom, too.”

“I have two moms!” she exclaimed.

“That’s right,” I agreed. More love may be more love; it’s also a lot to wrap your mind around—for her and for me. I gave her a hug and she hugged me back. I could feel her relief that she could say this and it was fine to say and that I know I’m her mom—and want her to know that, too.

“And one dad,” she added.

That’s another story for way later (we’ve never met her birth father) and so I nodded.

Adoptees As Mothers: A Roundtable Discussion

Adoptees As Mothers: A Roundtable Discussion

Nutshell logoSince 1995 November has been National Adoption Month. In honor of the month I wanted to use the roundtable to talk about the experiences of adoptees as mothers. Participating in the roundtable are:

Rebecca Hawkes who was adopted as an infant and is a mom both by birth and by open foster-adoption. She writes at and is co-founder of

Gina Kohn, also adopted as an infant and mom to two daughters by birth who are now adults. (In the interest of full disclosure, Gina is also my cousin by birth. We are forever grateful to the internet, which has allowed us to have a relationship although we have never met. Gina reunited with her mother – my aunt – as an adult.)

Catie Mehl, adopted in a private closed adoption and now in reunion with both her birth parents. Catie has two stepdaughters and also has two children by birth. She is a Certified Birth Doula, birth doula trainer, certified childbirth educator and a certified lactation counselor. Catie also co-facilitates the All Adoption Group here in Columbus, Ohio with Kate Livingston and me. Catie’s web site is

Rebecca: For me, the biggest adoption trigger connected to my daughter’s birth happened when she was three weeks old, the age at which I joined my adoptive family. I looked down at her sleeping and thought of all the changes she had gone through already in those few weeks as well as how completely I had transformed into a mother in that same time period. It felt like a lifetime, and I was suddenly struck by the fact that these three weeks, so rich in my daughter’s life, were the missing weeks of my life. I have no idea who fed or held me during that time. I think it was the first time I ever processed that as a loss. I recognized that I had a pre-adoption history though the adoption institution was set up in such a way that no record of it was passed along to me. The period between birth and placement had been treated as trivial but I suddenly recognized that it wasn’t. And neither were the nine months prior to my birth.

Gina: Currently, as a mom, I am dealing with empty nest symptoms. My older daughter is attending college far away from home and my youngest is attending a local college so she still lives at home. I think my adoption issues are surfacing due to the separation that is occurring. Although it’s such a natural process and I know that, sadness wells up from a cellular level within me and I’m having some grief over it.

Rebecca: “Sadness wells up from a cellular level.” Yes, absolutely. That’s it exactly.

Gina: I feel bad that my adoption has affected my children (and it will for future generations) forever; I call it the trickledown effect of adoption. We have a small extended family but we did form many positive, loving friendships that gave us that familial feeling. I was determined to let my daughters blossom into their own unique, authentic selves. As a child I didn’t have that opportunity. (I’m still trying!!) I encouraged their individuality and talents to emerge naturally. Seeing them develop and become who they are has helped me on my continuing lifelong search for authenticity. I truly feel that my daughters have taught me more about life, than I have taught them. They are so dear to my heart and soul.

Rebecca: The one other thing I might add is that my entry into motherhood also affected my relationship with my adoptive mother. I’ve only just recently come to understand that our different styles are largely rooted in our distinct personalities. We are just very different people. I think it can be hard for adoptive parents of my parents’ generation to accept and embrace the ways that their adoptive children are different from them because they were led to believe that we were blank slates, which we weren’t—at all.

Catie: I second Rebecca. I found the exact same thing to be true for my adoptive mom and myself.

Rebecca: As an adoptee parenting an adoptee I need to remember that her experience of adoption is her own and will not necessarily be exactly like mine; nevertheless there are certainly times when I am aware that we understand things about each other, specifically because of the adoptee connection.

Gina: I felt guilty for being so happy about my pregnancy. I had to carefully navigate the eggshells I tiptoed on around my adoptive mom. The issues they each had with the loss of never having their own biological children were never dealt with an adoptive mom had a competitive and jealous spirit.

Catie: I spent my whole life not looking like anyone in my family. Even after reunion, my husband and other friends would say I don’t look that much like my birth family (but pictures of my mom when she was younger say otherwise). I remember when my son was born and he looked just like my husband, Jim, I felt so disappointed. And the same when my daughter Lydia was born. She looked like him, too, and I was sad all over again. All of my life I’ve wanted to look like someone and I gave birth to two great kids and still can’t say I have anyone who looks like me. I know that’s probably silly and little, but it hurts.

Gina: I think as adoptees, we have always been looking for that familiar face. I can understand how that would be hurtful and disappointing. I don’t think it’s silly at all.

Rebecca: For me, the grief began rising up in my twenties, overwhelming me on a couple of occasions, but I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know other adoptees, hadn’t read anything about adoptee grief, and didn’t have the Internet yet, so I didn’t understand what was happening to me. It was a very lonely time. These days I derive a lot of benefit from the online adoptee community. It’s a tremendous relief to interact with people who understand what I have experienced because they’ve lived it too.

Author’s Note: As an adoptive parent, hearing the voices, thoughts, experiences and opinions of adult adoptees has made me a better, more responsive parent. I am grateful to the participants for sharing their stories with me. I hope other adult adoptees as well as other adoption constellation members—birth family members, adoptive family members—will feel free to comment with their thoughts.

Art by Michael Lombardo

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Adoption Day

Adoption Day

By Ellyn Gelman

Adoption Day ArtThis is a happy day, adoption day. Kenton is dressed in a navy blue jacket and tie.  A solid, average size ten-year old boy, his light brown hair is cut short.  A small cowlick forms a circle in the center of his forehead.  My father, his new Pappaw, has spent the morning teaching Kenton to tie the knot in his new plaid tie. Kenton seems itchy with excitement, ready to be adopted.  I hug my soon-to-be nephew and breathe him in.  He smells like boy, a mixture of fresh grass and dirt, like the earth, if the earth used hair gel.

“Are you excited?” I say.

“Yeah, I wanna go now.”

“It’s almost time.”

Kenton came to live with my brother John, his wife Leslie and their two daughters, 19-year old Casey and 16-year old Emily, nine months ago.  He was a pre-adoptive child.   His birth mother’s parental rights were in the process of being severed by the court.  He carried all ten years of his life in two small laundry baskets.  His most treasured possessions: a four-leaf clover, a small dried up starfish and a piece of white quartz all secured safely in a zip-lock sandwich bag.  He asked my brother John and my-sister-in-law Leslie two questions when he arrived.

“Do I still have to be called a foster kid and can I play on a football team?”

I am sitting next to Kenton in the waiting room designated for family court.  I feel nervous, courtroom nervous.  It is the same feeling I get when a police car is behind me and I haven’t done anything wrong. Kenton holds a multi-colored Mylar balloon tied to a small gift bag.

“Who gave you the balloon?” I ask.

He points to a pretty young Asian woman in a beige dress with black high heels, standing by the door.


“Her name is DSS?”

“No” he says pushing me with his shoulder “DSS is a company, that’s my case worker.  She gave me a VISA gift card too.”


“Do you wanna know how much.”


“Fifty-three dollars and sixty-seven cents, weird right? It’s money left over from foster care, weird right?” he says, looking confused.

“Well, I guess they could have rounded it to an even fifty-four dollars but hey, it’s ‘found money’ right?  You get to spend it however you want.” I say.

“Yep.”  He shrugs and walks away toward my mom, his new Grammy.

I am struck by the casualness of this conversation.  Case-workers, DSS, foster care.  Kenton talks about these things like my children talk about a coach or a teacher.  My children think visitation means grandparents are coming, not supervised weekly visits with mom.   Kenton’s words make me sad but this is what he knows. He has been in the foster care system for most of his life.  He is a study of innocence lost, detoured by sharp turns, rough surfaces and shadowy tunnels.  Yet he is resilient, eager to trust this newly paved road of love and permanence.

I am one of seventeen family and friends present to witness the adoption of Kenton.  My mom and dad have traveled from Florida to be here.  We sit together in a large waiting room.    It is divided down the middle; forty plastic brown seats face forty more plastic brown seats.  We are early, a bit fidgety and in our attempt to be quiet, we are whispery loud.

I think about Kenton’s birth mother.  How she sat in this same room waiting to sign the papers that would end her parental rights to her only child. The ache in her mother heart must have been unbearable.  Did she feel guilty, hopeless, sad, afraid?  She is an addict.  The system has given her years to get clean.  It has given Kenton at least four foster homes.  This last thought makes me angry.  I don’t know how long it should take, but ten years is a lot of childhood.

Kenton’s case is called. “This has to be a record,” the judge notes as all seventeen of us file into family courtroom number nine.  The judge wears a casual beige suite and looks a little like Mel Brooks.  We sit on two long pews in the back of the room.  Kenton sits between my brother and sister-in-law at a long table. The judge sits facing them on their right, the adoption caseworker and attorney for the state on their left.  Kenton looks a little smaller now; his shoulders rise just above the table.   His hands are folded neatly.   From the back he is a mini replica of my brother, both hunched forward in matching navy blue blazers.  John and Leslie are sworn in.

The proceedings take an hour.  All the paper work has been signed in advance but must be reviewed. The case-worker and the attorney for the state stand and recommend the adoption.  The judge addresses my sister-in-law, Leslie.

“Has Kenton done anything in the past nine months to make you change your mind about this adoption today?”

“No” she says with quiet confidence.

He addresses my brother John.

“Tell me how the past nine months have been for you.”

“Well, it has been a fun journey so far,” John pauses, “and, I’m looking forward to the rest of it.” he laughs and smiles at Kenton.

“Do you both swear to raise Kenton for all intents and purposes as your natural born child?”

“We do.”

“Kenton, tell me, what have the last nine months been like for you?”

“Um,” he repeats John’s words, ” Well, it’s been a fun journey.”

The courtroom erupts in laughter.

“You not only look like your Dad, now you talk like him.”   The judge smiled.

More laughter.

“Kenton, mom and dad have made some promises and they can’t take them back.  Do you promise at all times to obey your parents?’


“Do you promise to always love and honor your parents?”


“And” -it seems the judge is winging it now-“do you promise to always make them proud?”

“Uh huh.” Kenton says.

“Your parents will be proud of you no matter what, but you should always work hard to make them even prouder.  Do you want me to grant this adoption Kenton?”


“Well, I do believe this is a match made in heaven,” the judge says. He pauses and stares at the inscription In God We Trust on the wood paneled wall in front of him.  Then he signs a few more papers and the adoption is complete.  The details of Kenton’s first ten years – the years between the hoping and the coming true – are in a file that will be sealed by the court today.

“I wish I was born in your belly,” Kenton says to his mom on the way out of the courthouse.  She stops and pulls him close.

“Even better, you were born in my heart.”

Satisfied with the answer, he turns and jumps up on his new big sister Casey.  She piggybacks him to the car.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.

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Barren in the Andes

Barren in the Andes

By Laura Resau
Art Barren in the Andes 3Breathless, I hurry along narrow trails between Quichua family farms, past squawking chickens and curly-tailed piglets. My destination is a shaman who lives in this village on the outskirts of Otavalo, Ecuador. I’m going as a last-ditch hope he can heal me. Back in Colorado, I tried everything—Eastern and Western medicine, herbs and tinctures, weird diets. And now I’m teetering on the edge of bitter despair.

I emerge from the foliage to a vista of fifteen-thousand-foot peaks rising above emerald fields, dotted with red-tiled roofs and grazing sheep. Two of these mountains are said to be ancient Incan gods: the male, Imbabura, and his lover, Cotacachi. When she’s covered with light frost at dawn, locals claim it’s semen from a night of passion. Their offspring— smaller, baby mountains—lie scattered between them. Then there’s the ubiquitous Andean deity, Pacha Mama, the World Mother, whose fertile body spills out in swirling folds, patchworks of velvet fields, silken pastures.

Fertility is a deep and ancient craving, at once visceral and mythical, elemental and universal. This, at least, is my impression as an anthropologist, or, more to the point, as a woman who cannot seem to have a baby.

If my first pregnancy hadn’t ended in miscarriage, my child would be five. And if any of the next years of fertility treatments had worked, I’d have a preschooler, or toddler, or baby. I’d be holding his pudgy hand, or idly tousling his hair, or, what I crave most, kissing his tiny feet.

A few months ago, after years of heart-breaking negatives, a miracle occurred: I got pregnant again, naturally. But anxiety eclipsed the joy; my body felt fragile and broken. Terrified I’d lose the baby, I ate only hyper-hygienically-prepared organic food, let no synthetic chemicals touch my skin. Despite my vigilance, after eleven weeks, I lost the baby.

Now, one month later, my heart still feels as raw and broken as my belly. If my body had functioned, a baby bump would just be showing. I place my hand over the plane of my abdomen, flat except for a smattering of recent bug bites.

After this second miscarriage, I mustered up my scant energy and planned a trip to Ecuador, ostensibly to visit my friend, María. At the heart of it, I needed to get out of my house, with its heavy, empty, childless silence.

The shaman’s curing room is large and high-ceilinged, yet cave-like, with soot-blackened adobe walls holding the scent of candle wax and wood smoke and incense. He positions me smack in the center of the room and gives an instruction in Quichua, translated by María with a suppressed snicker. “Strip to your underwear, Laurita.”

I stand, blinking, taking stock of my body, which frankly, I’ve come to hate more with every month of infertility. Encased in my unflattering beige sports bra are my ever-milkless breasts, six pounds of useless meat, serving only to remind me of what I don’t have. My gaze drops lower, to the faint surgical scar at my navel—evidence of a fruitless effort to restore fertility.

The shaman picks up a green glass bottle shaped like a woman in large skirts—reminiscent of the old Aunt Jemima syrup bottles—filled with alcohol. He chants and whistles a meandering tune as he circles the bottle in a blessing. From the altar, he grabs a pinch of rose petals, sticks them between his lips, takes a mouthful of liquor, and spits it all over me.

I shut my eyes, try not to wince. As the shaman spits wave after wave, I try to imagine myself as a goddess, solid and fertile as the semen-coated mountain Cotacachi. I envision Pacha Mama herself, rising through the earthen floor, filling me. I visualize the gusts blowing away the dark energy clinging to me.

It does require effort, however, to ignore the germ-laden saliva of a strange man covering my body, and I’m relieved when he stops spitting and begins beating me instead. Gently, I should add, with a bundle of healing chilca leaves. It’s actually a nice sensation, my body turned into a drum. He pounds the leaves on my chest, as if giving it a new rhythm, a passionate, strong heartbeat. But now my thoughts are creeping to the distinct lack of heartbeat on the ultrasound last month. That night, I’d lain in bed, staring at the overhead fan in the blue half-light, tear-soaked and sob-wracked. Near dawn, when I was cried out, I found myself repeating, fuck, fuck, fuck, a beating like a heart, a rhythm like a drum. It went on for a long, long time. Hours, maybe. By the time morning light came, I knew I couldn’t bear another month of hope and heartbreak. A few days later, in my bathrobe, with damp tissues spilling from the pockets, I searched online for adoption information. Maybe, I thought, heavy with desperation and shame, if I adopt, then I’ll get pregnant.

*   *   *

My gloomy ruminations continue as the shaman beats me with shell-intact raw eggs (to absorb negative energy), and then (for reasons that remain unclear) blows cheap local cigarette smoke all over me, punctuated with a kind of smoky kiss on the top of my head. He then picks up the Aunt Jemima-style bottle, which he raises to his lips, presumably, to spit on me some more. Still half-lost in mournful memories, and vaguely aware that I already reek of a seedy, late-night bar, I take a deep breath and brace myself for the next round.

But this time is different. This time the shaman, standing about six paces away, extends a lighter at arm’s length before he spits the liquor.

A mist of alcohol blasts through the flame and catches fire. Catches fire!

And oh my God there’s a fireball heading toward me and holy crap I’m covered in flammable liquid.

Fear explodes through me. There is no time to dive out of the way. There is only time to squeeze my eyes shut and pray.

A wave of heat rolls over me.

María gasps on the sidelines.

I open my eyes, look down at my body. I am not on fire. Thank God, I’m not on fire! Chest pounding, I peer closer, at the light hairs on my arms. Unsinged. The fireball must have burned up just before reaching me. I let out a breath. Oh, thank God, my bug-bitten flesh is intact. Thank God my broken body remains whole.

The shaman is already taking another mouthful. I steel myself, shut my eyes, and pray. Another wave of heat. A flash of fear. Afterward, a mental scan of my flesh. Still not on fire. Thank you. And on and on they go, these fire- balls that tug me right into this place, this moment.

By the time they stop, my body is quivering like a plucked string, but now thoroughly warmed. Pulse racing, sweat pouring from my armpits, I wonder what comes next.

The shaman picks up a large, smooth, black stone from his altar. Andean shamans’ stones have personalities, talents, lives of their own. The shaman places his helper stone over my belly, and then, in a powerful voice, as if he’s channeling the wind, shouts, “Shunguuu!” it’s a whoosh, this word, and it whooshes right into me.

“Shunguuu!” he shouts again, with the force of a storm, and any silly thoughts that were not burned up by the fireballs are now blown away. Shunguuu! A perfect word for this focused power aimed straight into my center.

He murmurs something to María, who translates, “Think about what you want, Laurita.”

I am very practiced at wishing. For every birthday and shooting star sighting and heads-side-up penny over the past five years, I have wished for increasingly detailed versions of the same thing: that I get pregnant with a baby in my own womb with my own egg and Ian’s sperm and give birth to my healthy and beautiful and happy full- term baby. There is no room for nasty surprises from the universe with that degree of specificity.

I now prepare to carefully whisper my wish, but then, I stop.

I surprise myself by asking, Laura, what do you really, truly want?

In response, something happens inside my chest. A kind of whoosh of sunlight into my heart. It’s as if a doorway has opened, a passage I never knew existed. And on the other side, in the light, are tiny, tender feet. A baby who nestles into my body, his world. A baby who is not inside my belly, but inside my heart, in this light-filled space that was here all along. This baby, these feet, they are my joy.

This is what I want. This is the wish I whisper.

*   *   *

After the ceremony, I stand, soaking wet in my sports bra, plastered with bits of rose petals, my heart still hurting, but stronger now, encased in this flawed but loved body. I bask inside my own hidden patch of light as the shaman explains that to complete the ceremony, I may not indulge in the following items for three days: chocolate, pork, fish, avocado, milk, chili, and (regrettably) showers.

For the next three days, I’ll be living with a thin coating of alcohol and saliva and smoke and rose petals on my skin. But none of that matters because I’m not thinking so much about my body now, but my heart, and its surprise doorway, and the baby feet, and the glimpse of joy.

Nodding confidently, the shaman tells María one more thing. She beams as she translates, “this mujercita—this little woman—will have a baby very soon!”

Yes, I think, my heart freshly full and newly light, this mujercita will.

*   *   *

Back home, as my bug-bite welts fade, as springtime blooms in Colorado, I embark on a nine-month-long adoption process, not as means to a pregnancy, but as a pathway to this baby inside my heart, my baby. My husband is supportive, but, as is typical in adoptions (and pregnancies), it is the woman who labors, the woman who, one way or another, delivers her child. My life quickly fills with reams of paperwork, long waits in government buildings, and multiple trips to Guatemala.

I deal with these tasks the way a pregnant woman deals with morning sickness and swollen feet and other annoyances that pale beside the monumental and sparkling anticipation of the baby coming. At the three-month mark, instead of an ultrasound, I’m rewarded with photos of the newborn whose spirit is growing inside me. As his arrival nears, something inside me thrums, something stronger than kicks or hiccups—something inside my chest, the beating of thousands of shimmering wings.

*   *   *

Three years later, when he’s old enough to begin to understand, I tell my son I wish my belly hadn’t been broken so that he could have been in it. I wish my breasts could have given him milk. I tell him it made me sad, but that even though he couldn’t grow in my belly, he grew in my heart.

He nuzzles in my lap like a baby animal and tells me my breasts are soft pillows for his head. He tells me, in our whispered conversations, “I always wanted a mommy like you. Out of all the mommies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

And I tell him, my voice breaking, “I always wanted a little boy like you. Out of all the babies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

Then, for the ten thousandth time, I kiss his feet.

Author’s Note: During the process of adopting my son, I wrote the novel The Indigo Notebook, about a teenage boy searching for his birth parents in the Andes. This book gave me the chance to explore the idea of looking beyond what I think I want, to discover what I truly want. (It also gave me the chance to include a shaman-spitting-fireballs scene).

Laura Resau has lived and traveled in Latin America and Europe. Her experiences inspired her novels for young people—What the Moon Saw, Red Glass, The Indigo Notebook, Star in the Forest, and The Queen of Water. She lives with her family in Colorado (

Informed Adoption for National Adoption Month

Informed Adoption for National Adoption Month

Nutshell logoThree years ago I wrote a feature for Brain, Child called “The Myth of the Forever Family,” which examined adoption disruption—when adoptive parents decide they are unable to parent their adoptive children. Part of the article discussed the underground re-homing movement, specifically quoting two posts from adoptive parents asking people to take their children from the group Christian Homes and Special Kids (CHASK). Movement from family to family like this often happens underground via yahoo group or online message board, out of reach of agency homestudies or social work visits.

Recently a series of articles published by Reuters, The Child Exchange: Inside America’s Market for Adopted Children, looked at the phenomena of re-homing in terrific detail, highlighting the risks for these vulnerable children as well as the lack of post-adoption support, which could make these disruptions less common. Children who are sent to through these underground networks are sexually, physically and emotionally abused.

Now, just in time for November’s Adoption Awareness Month, the Evan B. Donaldson Institute (America’s adoption think tank) has released a 176-page white paper, A Changing World: Shaping Best Practices through Understanding Of the New Realities of Intercountry Adoption, which addresses concerns about international adoption, disruption, illegal re-homing, and the needs of the children in question.

The report highlights the importance of helping countries keep children in their countries of origin whenever possible and when that cannot happen, internationally adopting families should have a great deal of pre-adoption education and post-adoption support. Currently, many agencies pay lip service to educating prospective parents on the special needs of adoptive kids but do very little in the way of real training and do even less when it comes to supporting families post-placement. As the report states, nearly half of all adoptive parents who adopt overseas end up parenting a child with special needs although only a quarter of them realize this pre-adoption.

Many families go overseas to adopt with the understanding that they will be able to avoid some of the challenges of domestic adoption. They hope that there will be fewer birth family complications, a clearer timeline and more control over their choices (a boy or a girl, a child with a physical disability or not, etc.). But as the report states, international adoption has its own unique challenges including the possibility of adopting a child who was trafficked and who was not legally free to adopt, a child whose health history is unknown or deliberately hidden, or a child who was abused while in care. Too, children who spend time in orphanages have institutional behaviors that require a different kind of parenting. They may be developmentally delayed, have feeding challenges or have problems with attachment.

Domestic agencies who serve hopeful families here in the states to adopt internationally may collude with unscrupulous brokers overseas or they may know as little as the adoptive parents they serve. Some downplay the problems that most internationally adopted children have or do little more than recommend books for families to read beforehand. Once the children are home, most agencies offer nothing in the way of support.

Potential adoptive parents need to be smart consumers, researching the agency, the state of adoption in the country of origin, and identifying the support in their community before they adopt. For example, a family lives in a rural community where there is little in the way of special needs services; they may need to reconsider their adoption plans given the likelihood that they will adopt a child who will need those services.

These are difficult conversations to have and potential adoptive parents are sometimes so enamored with the idea of adoption that they have a hard time hearing the potential pitfalls. The responsibility then falls to the agencies who are placing the children.

Social workers who do homestudies and therapists who help families make adoption decisions need to be firm and direct in order to best serve those families as well as the children who may arrive. Families need to be screened more carefully and a safety plan should be in place, addressing what the family will do if they begin to feel overwhelmed, where they can ask for help, and to identify their local community supports.

Hopeful parents also need to understand that children who have faced tremendous loss and trauma usually have challenging behaviors. This does not make them damaged goods; it makes them children who need more loving support and parents with the skills to parent them. We must understand that the children are ultimately innocent parties to a complex, sometimes corrupt and always difficult system. Children who act out or struggle post-placement have the right to have their challenges understood and appropriately treated.

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The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart

The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart

(The names of the adoptive parents and their children have been changed as have some identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of the families.)

Su 2010 FeatureWhen we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—”a forever family.”

That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.

In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.

But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.

The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.

 *   *   *

Like many adoptive parents, Carol fell in love with a picture first. Henry was a chubby-cheeked, brown-skinned boy with a crooked grin and closely cropped hair. In the photo he is sitting on some sort of a wooden bench wearing a striped polo shirt and khaki pants. He is undeniably adorable. While Carol knew very little about him, there was nothing in his orphanage record that made her feel concerned. She knew that he lived at the orphanage with both an older and younger biological sibling and she knew that for some reason he was the target of teasing by the other orphans. Her heart went out to him.

Carol and her husband, already parents to a six-year-old biological child, knew what conditions in his Caribbean orphanage were like because they were already in the process of adopting a special-needs child from the same program, a toddler girl named Lily. Gazing at Henry’s picture online in the photo listings for the orphanage, Carol felt led. Despite their small house, modest lifestyle, and single income, she felt like God was calling her to be Henry’s mother, too.

“The orphanage was so overcrowded,” Carol says, recalling her visit to complete the adoption of Lily. “The children there are so starved for affection and you think, my house is so big! I could afford to take care of more children.”

That’s how she found herself back in less than two years, bringing home five-year-old Henry and his siblings, Isobel and Matthew.

Carol told me that all of her adopted children have histories of trauma. Her newest children raged and fought and struggled to learn how to live in a family. Henry was easier. He was a good kid, anxious for approval and able to show affection. She wasn’t worried about him. Not when her time was taken up in helping the other children who were having a much more difficult time adjusting. Then, one month into their new family configuration, things changed.

“We caught him sexually acting out,” Carol says simply. She and her husband reacted by establishing house rules. Supervision got tighter. No child could be in the bathroom with another child. They talked good touch and bad touch in the children’s native language and stopped having sleepovers. They looked into getting Henry counseling. He didn’t speak English yet, however, so they did their best to create a safe environment for all of the kids. They thought it was working until one of the older children caught Henry in another child’s room and his story didn’t quite add up. Carol sat him down and asked, “Hey buddy, do you have a secret?”

Henry had lots of secrets. He told her that he had been molesting his siblings for the past year. He described his behavior in detail and then told her about the orphanage, about the way he and his crib mate used to play this way. He told her about incidents that happened when she was in the room, when her back was turned. He told her how he got the other children to give in.

“It was extensive,” Carol says. “It was stuff I didn’t even know that a six-year-old was capable of.”

Carol called her state’s child protective services (CPS) department. They told her that unless the children were more than two years apart, it wasn’t considered abuse. At first she was relieved because she had been afraid that CPS would take her children away. She and her husband put the house on lockdown and kept Henry in their line of sight at all times. That is when he became “the angriest boy alive,” Carol says. Without the psychological outlet of the sexual abuse, her son became increasingly violent, raging two to four hours a day and threatening to kill the other children. They hid the knives and bought locks for all the doors. The behavior continued to escalate. Henry would threaten to force Carol to crash the car. He said he would bash her head in with a rock. The other children were terrified. Henry was scared, too. He knew he was out of control but didn’t know how to stop.

Carol looked for services to help Henry stay in their home and took him to experts in adoption and attachment across the state. Her days were taken up with phone calls, paperwork, and more phone calls. She worked their insurance for referrals, begged the school for resources and read up online. She took Henry to see a leading child neuropsychologist specializing in treating adopted children with severe issues. The consensus was that in order to get the long-term treatment he needed, Henry would have to leave.

Carol went back to working the phones until she found a residential treatment center with the ability to work with a six-year-old sex offender. A year and a half ago, Henry went to live at the facility, two thousand miles away. He will likely be there for at least another nine months. No one has told Henry this yet (his therapists say it’s not the right time to explain), but when he’s ready to leave the center, he won’t get to come home. Instead Carol has found another family who will take him, who will adopt him. He will become their son. “He can’t come home again,” Carol says.

 *   *   *

As a mom both biologically and by adoption, I know that adoption is different. It isn’t less than, it isn’t second best, but it’s different. Although we brought our daughter home when she was just three days old, falling in love with her was not the same as falling in love with our son. When the doctor handed my son to me for the first time, there was an immediate recognition that he was of me and that I was of him. With Madison, on the other hand, I felt like a fraud for her first month of life. It took more time to get to know her, and it took more time to trust myself to know how to be her mother.

It’s not something I like to admit; I am still a little ashamed of our challenged beginning. Part of the adoption myth is that you see your baby and you fall in love. Other adoptive mothers tell this story; it led me to wonder what was wrong with me. I went through the motions, staring at her face while I fed her, carrying her everywhere in the sling. Then one day I woke up and she felt like a part of me. It had taken longer but eventually it clicked, just the way it did with my son.

Jean Mercer is a psychologist and president of the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health, as well as an author of several books on attachment. Healthy infants are hard-wired to encourage their parents to attach to them, she said in an e-mail interview. This is why falling in love with Madison was nearly inevitable. A healthy mother and a healthy child are primed to bond to each other.

“When babies show obvious responses—crying or not crying, taking the nipple enthusiastically, calming when soothed—parents feel that personal communications and responses have been made,” she says. “This encourages the parents to do more caregiving and playing.”

But many children raised in orphanages stop responding to adult attention because they learn that their efforts don’t work. Overwhelmed caregivers may not have time to make eye contact or talk to their charges. Locked into survival mode, the children do not always know how to connect with their new adoptive parents. “We like people who like us,” explains Mercer. “If children don’t look at us much we figure they don’t like us so maybe we don’t like them.”

This is why it can be harder to build attachment with children who are adopted past early infancy. It’s certainly not impossible, of course; most parents are able to get past the bumpy beginnings and forge bonds with their children.

Sometimes things go horribly awry, however. Children who have experienced very difficult beginnings—drug or alcohol exposure in utero, abuse or neglect, a multitude of caregivers—sometimes develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD), which is a daunting diagnosis. Kids with RAD seem to have no conscience and are unable to appreciate the consequences of their harmful behavior. Because they struggle to trust that other people will care for them, they live in a permanent state of fight or flight. Many of these children constantly lash out at caregivers and rage violently at perceived threats. Their deprived beginnings and need for control can cause them to gorge on food until they vomit, go on campaigns of destruction where they destroy entire rooms, and physically attack other members of the family.

Kids with RAD can be hard to like, let alone love. Caring for them is exhausting and demoralizing. Parents tell me that their children with RAD have more energy than the rest of the family combined and need very little sleep. Raising them is counterintuitive; open affection can feel terrifying for such children and can set off a large-scale tantrum. Most of the parents I spoke with have a story that involves waking up and finding their child standing over them, sometimes with a knife. This is one reason many of them install locks on all the doors and alarms on all of the windows.

Paradoxically, sometimes the safer they feel, the more the children act out. Parents sometimes have a honeymoon period during the first trial visit or at the beginning of a placement. These quiet times can last a day or a year, but if the child has underlying issues, the behavior problems will eventually surface.

Patty, who recently adopted an eight-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl from Columbia with her husband, Wyatt, met her children through an agency that sponsors summer foster-care programs. Children come to the United States and are placed in potential adoptive homes for five weeks. Patty and Wyatt’s experience with the kids was such a good one that Patty went to their country to start the adoption process. The children came home right around Christmas; in hindsight, Patty says, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“We thought they wouldn’t be here until January or February,” she says. “We were totally unprepared, but our friends set up their rooms and there were tons of presents. In retrospect it was not ideal because it was just too much for the kids to handle.”

The children spiraled out of control, and the house felt under siege. The children were too angry, too violent. After one attack, Patty had a black eye and scratches on her throat. The police had to be called when one of the children came at her with a belt. Desperate, Patty called the agency that had done their home study to tell them they had to end the placement, meaning that she wanted to legally disrupt the adoption (disruption is the term for ending an adoption before it is finalized; dissolution is the term for an adoption that is terminated after finalization). They would need to send the children back to their orphanage. During the call, however, Patty learned that the program had an adoption preservation counselor on staff. The counselor came over the next day and set them up with a “family preservation team.”

“They said these kids might not have it in them [to be adopted] because they were just that crazy,” Patty said. To qualify for services, Patty and Wyatt had to check off a list of problem behaviors such as lighting fires in the home and wielding knives. “We could check off every single one with our kids.”

The family preservation team spent every waking moment for the first week with Patty, Wyatt, and the children, watching their interactions and interviewing the parents and the kids. In order to help the children be successful in the family, Patty and Wyatt needed to radically change their parenting plans and expectations, the team leader said. Patty used to picture cozy family reading times and romps in the park, but the kids aren’t ready for that level of intimacy. Even a recent quick game of soccer between Patty and her son had to be cut short since the children desperately need her to be the authority figure. They are unable to handle her presence as a playmate.

“I had to grieve—I’m still grieving—the family that I pictured three months ago [when the children first arrived],” she says. “I mean, you think you’re supposed to attach to these people and they have real feelings and real personalities and some parts you’re going to love and some parts you’re not going to love so much. But the objective thing is that I committed to do this, and I wouldn’t give up until I’ve tried everything because that wouldn’t be fair to them. It wouldn’t be right.”

Patty is clear that without the family preservation team’s guidance, she would not be able to parent her kids. Their support is what allowed her children to stay home.

 *   *   *

Adoption termination is the industry’s dirty little secret. It’s especially secretive in international adoption. Studies of adoption termination, as reported by the Child Welfare Information Gateway report, “Adoption Disruption and Dissolution” (2004), usually focus on foster-care cases. This research, done by child welfare academics and advocates, estimates that ten to twenty-five percent of all adoptions terminate either before finalization (disruption) or after (dissolution). It’s hard to say whether or not the numbers in international adoptions are similar, but the kinds of challenges that terminate domestic adoptions are certainly present in many international ones. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, in their 2004 research review, “Adoption Stability & Termination,” adoptions fall apart when kids have behavioral and emotional problems that overwhelm parents and when appropriate supports and services are not accessible. There are specific indicators of an adoption that runs a higher risk of failure, such as those in which children have been in foster care for more than three years, have experienced sexual abuse, arrive in a sibling group or have had prenatal drug or alcohol exposure.

Katie Valentino, a licensed professional clinical counselor, worked as an adoption preservation specialist for a federally sponsored program until it lost funding. She is now in private practice in Bloomingdale, Illinois.

“People think it can’t be the child’s fault; it has to be the parent’s fault,” Valentino said. “But I think the commonalities [in adoption terminations] are more the lack of support and the extreme nature of the child’s background. Social workers have to really identify and speak the truth about how difficult these kids might be. If we have the supports in place, these families and these kids could do so much better.”

The other challenge is fitting the right kids to the right parents. Matching families is an elusive art, and hard-pressed social workers in the foster-care system don’t always have the time or the ability to focus on choosing the best placements.

In international adoptions, the matching process varies. Parents may get placed with the child at the top of a list. Other programs match kids to parents who orphanage program administrators think resemble them. Then, too, parents often fall in love with photo listings, like Carol did with Henry’s. It’s one reason agencies use such photos. In many international adoptions, there is little to no history on any given child, yet parents are expected to commit to a specific boy or girl based on a picture (one that’s sometimes months or even years old) and scanty records that are often poorly translated.

“With a lot of kids, especially the foreign adoptions, parents fall in love with a videotape,” says Valentino. “They don’t know they’re falling in love with a child who has been horribly sexually abused.”

Carol says the agency she worked with is a typical “do-gooder” agency whose best intentions for the child sometimes run roughshod over the families who adopt them.  She understands their imperative to get families for needy kids.

“[The agency] thinks it’s better to get the child out of the country and then you can deal with whatever the child’s problems are. But they are so unrealistic,” she says. “You get the child, but you can’t get services for the child. I know of at least five disruptions that have happened from this agency in a three-year time span because the kids are traumatized and the orphanage is crap. But the agency doesn’t care. Their intention is good, but they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.”

In many international adoptions, the legal adoption happens in the child’s country of origin. By the time the new family gets on the plane, they are irrevocably tied to each other. Valentino said many parents who wind up in trouble have doubts in the orphanage, but they don’t speak up because they have already come so far. They have already been through the home study, written the checks, waited for their referral, and now they are here. They are told this is their child. How could they back out now?

Troll online adoption support groups, and you’ll find the stories. Alongside more benign message boards where adoptive parents chat about creating “lifebooks” (adoption-centric baby books) and answering their kids’ questions, there are websites of home-study-ready families willing to take in children who have already failed with one family. The website (Christian Homes and Special Kids) has a page on their site with photo listings and short descriptions of children whose parents no longer feel they can care for them. On the day I checked, there were two children listed, both with severe issues. One was a foster-to-adopt placement whose parents had split up, and the other was an international adoption from an Eastern European country. The text of that one reads, in part:

The main reason we have decided to find a new home for Nick is that he is an expert liar and manipulator, and he acts out. He tells lies about us to others (hurtful) and is very convincing. He is also hostile toward me (Mom). His therapists believe he has RAD, and maybe ADHD.  He needs constant supervision when he is around young children. This has been traumatic to us and combined with his acting out, is more then we can handle.

When I read that paragraph, I wondered about the details the mother is not sharing. I wondered about her frustration and disappointment. I wondered what dreams she had about motherhood that this child could not fulfill. Valentino notes that in families struggling with attachment issues, mothers are usually the targets of their children’s anger and abuse. They are also usually the ones to give up their jobs and social lives to make parenting their troubled children their full-time occupation.

 *   *   *

Laura (not her real name) is a licensed professional counselor in the Midwest working with a legal practice that specializes in adoption. The practice gets a lot of criticism, Laura says, because their services include helping parents terminate adoptions and supervise “re-placements”; she asked that I not use her real name or identify the practice.

While Laura and her husband make their living in part because some adoptive families fall apart, she is sharply critical of the parents who use their services. Laura told me in an e-mail interview, “There should be nothing a child does that would cause a parent to ‘get rid of them.’ There are millions of biological kids out there making bad choices and their parents never get rid of them.”

Laura is making the same assumptions that most of us laypeople make. In fact, some parents do “get rid of” their biological children and for the same reasons that they send their adopted kids away. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (the GAO is the investigative arm of Congress), in 2001, more than 12,700 children were deliberately placed in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Most of them have a diagnosed mental illness. While the GAO report didn’t differentiate between adopted kids and kids living with their biological parents, it’s clear that parents who can’t help their children sometimes give them away to someone that they hope will. Addressing the report, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a grass-roots advocacy organization based in Arlington, Virginia, wrote that families are forced to give up custody of their children when they cannot handle their behavior and when they have run out of resources.

While Laura is critical of families who seek her practice’s services, she does agree that support and education is vital for success. “Sadly, love and commitment can be conditional with adoptive parents,” she says. “Many of the families were not prepared properly, or did not receive accurate information about the child to make an educated decision to adopt. Also, they may not have had the right motivations to adopt or they do not have realistic expectations of the child.”

Arleta James, a professional clinical counselor, is on staff at the Attachment and Bonding Center, a therapy center in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of Brothers and Sisters in Adoption (2009) and has done research about disruption.

“Expectations seem to be endless in adoption,” she says. “And psychological fit plays a role in disruption and dissolution. The parents just can’t seem to connect to the child in any way.”

James describes one family who planned to adopt a little girl from an Eastern European country. “They had all girl’s clothing, decorated the bedroom for a girl,” but after arriving at the orphanage discovered they had been matched with a boy.

“They never seemed to recover from their expectation of a girl,” she says. Within two years the family split. The parents divorced, and the family discovered that their son had many sexual and aggressive behaviors. James helped the family through the dissolution process. Eventually, the family placed the child in an open adoption, where his behavior is improving. “The mom now views herself as the vehicle through which the child arrived in this country,” James notes. “So as time goes on, you can see the healing.”

James said that having one parent who feels more committed to the adoption than the other is not uncommon, but in already challenging adoptions, this difference in dedication can be too much.

“I had a case in which the child was adopted ten years ago,” she recalls. “One of the first things the dad said at the assessment was that he never wanted his daughter in the first place but his wife wanted to adopt. The wife has taken this child to more therapy and evaluations than can be counted. She was so tired that she also wanted the child out of the home. The assessment at our office was the first time this dad had gone to any of his child’s services and he was very angry at our office that his presence was required. Ultimately he left the room to talk on his cell phone.”

It’s easy to condemn this man. But then I think about how many women I know who wanted a baby more than their partners did. My own husband let me lead the way when it came to our family planning, both for our biological son and our adoptive daughter. I’m sure that this woman had the same faith I did—that her spouse would fall in love eventually. That worked for us, but whose fault is it when that doesn’t happen? And how do we best serve the kids when it all falls apart?

“From one point of view, I’d say that if a parent has seriously considered disrupting the adoption of a young child, perhaps she ought to go ahead and do it,” says Mercer, the psychologist who specializes in infant attachment. “A disengaged adoptive parent is probably not giving the child what he or she needs. I don’t mean to suggest rushing out to disrupt the minute you feel things are going badly.”

Mercer goes on to say that families considering disruption need to be sure that they have exhausted all of their resources and sought professional help.

She admits that help can be hard to find. “Most parenting coaches and LMFTs [Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists] working with families have had little or no useful training in this area and although they may want very much to help they may not have the skills to do so,” she says. “The mere fact that a practitioner has a professional license does not necessarily mean that they have the right training.”

 *   *   *

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway website—a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—some of the same factors that put a family at risk for adoption termination also put children at risk for abuse, such as the presence of physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities in a child. In their report “A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice” the HHS Office on Child Abuse and Neglect says that  “parents who maltreat their children report experiencing greater isolation, more loneliness, and less social support.”

“Is it really realistic to think that every adoption will work out?” asks James, of the Attachment and Bonding Center. “People go to a foreign country and come home with a virtual stranger. And, on the child’s part, they are moved so abruptly from one country to another. There are going to be cases in which the parents or the adoptee simply cannot adjust.”

In April of this year, Torry Hansen, of Shelbyville, Tennessee, put her unaccompanied seven-year old son, Artyem Savelyev, on a plane back to his native country of Russia. She sent him with a note saying she was returning him because he was mentally unstable and she was not prepared to parent him any longer. Russian officials cited the incident as just the latest in a series of adoption tragedies for Russian children. They put the United States’ adoption program on hold.

This is not the first time an official has proposed ceasing American adoptions. After Nanette and Michael Craver killed their adopted seven-year-old, Nathaniel, in 2003, a senator in Russia argued for a ban on foreign adoptions. Speaking to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Patriot-News, Andrei Sitov, bureau chief for Russia’s ITAR-TASS wire service said, “Obviously, the biggest concern here is that it keeps happening. The latest figures we’ve seen is fifteen or sixteen [children killed] in the last several years.”

Artyem’s plight brought disruption to the forefront of the media. While officials pointed fingers, Hansen was alternately vilified and celebrated in comments on blogs and news reports. While her decision to put Artyem on the plane alone is inarguably indefensible, adoption activists debate who is ultimately responsible. Is it the Russian government for failing to provide adequate care in the orphanages? American agencies for doing a poor job of screening prospective families and supervising them once the children are home? Is it the adoptive parents who expect things to be easy? Or are the children themselves too damaged to parent? Most importantly, how can we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

Jae Ran Kim is a social worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was born in Taegu, South Korea, and was adopted by her family in 1971. She has worked in child welfare for several years and is working toward a doctoral degree in social work with a focus on adoption at the University of Minnesota. Her blog, Harlow’s Monkey, takes a critical look at adoption practices and adoptee rights. She says that Artymem’s case highlights the weaknesses in the adoption process, particularly the subjectivity of home studies and the dearth of services.

“I am in no way at all condoning what [Torry Hansen] did,” says Kim. “There were a million better options, but I think that she felt that she was desperate.”

The agency Hansen worked with, World Association of Children and Parents (WACAP), based in Renton, Washington, has posted a document on their website answering some of the questions they’re fielding from the media and worried waiting families.

According to the document, only one percent of adoptions managed by the agency end in dissolution. According to the document “Child Returned to Russia FAQ’s” on the WACAP the agency does provide “older child training opportunities” for families waiting to adopt, maintains an online chat board monitored for a social worker; facilitates post-placement visits (as required by Russia); and is willing to come out for additional visits if requested.

In the case of out-of-state adoptions like Artyem’s, these visits, training opportunities and follow-up may be subcontracted through a partnering agency.

“They [WACAP] weren’t at her home doing the interview; the agency was entrusting another local agency to do the legwork for them,” says Kim. “My guess was that there was miscommunication, missteps and mistakes. Standards among different agencies can be very different.”

I asked Karen Valentino if she thought of her at-risk families when she read stories about abusive parents who abandon or kill their adoptive children.

“Oh yes, of course,” she says. “We had one case where the adoptive parents actually locked two of their children in a shed outside. No food, no water, no bathroom. They had no idea what to do with the kids. This family had something like nineteen adopted children and they needed help. But they never called DCFS to come in because they were so afraid the other children would be removed. Those siblings had such severe trauma [before the adoption], the worst trauma I’ve ever heard about, and they had no idea how to function in a family, and the family had no idea to handle them.”

In other words, sometimes disruption is better than the alternative. The more I talked to the families and the counselors that work with families at risk, the more I began to see disruption as a parenting decision rather than an abdication. Sometimes, perhaps, being a good parent means knowing that you can no longer be this particular child’s parent.

*   *   *

Tiruba and her family are a success story. The pseudonymous blogger at Tubaville, Tiruba, is mom to three children who have all been through disrupted adoptions. Her oldest daughter’s blog name is TTops. TTops, who just turned fifteen, was born drug- and alcohol-affected, and was placed in the foster-care system at birth. She is developmentally delayed and has been diagnosed with RAD.

Tiruba and her husband fell in love with TTops at her therapeutic foster home when the girl was ten years old. They were at the home to visit another child, but TTops charmed them. Like many children with attachment disorders, she was indiscriminately affectionate, climbing into Tiruba’s lap and offering hugs right away. When the adoption of the other child fell through, Tiruba and her husband started the paperwork to adopt TTops.

“We were head over heels in love with her from the second we saw her. It was like love at first sight,” Tiruba tells me. “She’s got this spark in her personality that just sucks you in. You couldn’t see that shining light in her paperwork. If anyone had read it before meeting her, she wouldn’t have had a chance really.”

For six months, Tiruba and her husband visited TTops in the foster home. Before they brought her home, they knew about her rages and her inability to understand the consequences of her behavior. But living with her was different. Six months into their lives together, Tiruba found TTops trying to strangle one of their dogs.

“We went into this with no parenting experience and so we had no expectations. We were completely enamored with our daughter and we just rolled with it,” Tiruba says. “We were really nice to her at first and she would scream for four to five hours at a time. At mealtime she would swallow her food halfway and then vomit it up because family food time was too stressful.

“I thought I’d be all hung up on education and sending my kids to college and doing all that fun stuff that you see on TV,” she says. “I’ve had to readjust my own expectations on a daily basis, and I’ve had to deal with a lot of guilt and feelings that I’m a failure as a parent. I have to remind myself that I didn’t cause this. I didn’t make her what she is. It’s maternal alcohol consumption and brain damage and cognitive disability.”

The family celebrates TTops’s progress even though change sometimes seems glacially slow.

“She has come so far in the last four years that we’ve had her, and for me that’s so satisfying,” says Tiruba. “She’ll never been completely there and it’s been a journey for us to learn how to accept that she’ll never be completely attached to us. But she actually says she misses us when she’s away, and there’s a glimmer. That’s what’s satisfying.”

James, from the Attachment and Bonding Center, sees this ability to find joy in small steps in other successful families, too. “These parents are able to see the ‘good child’ behind all the behavior. They strive to bring that ‘good child,’ as they say, out more often. They enjoy small positive moments and appreciate small gains. They can reflect backwards and see the progress they have made, rather than always looking at how far they have to go.”

Tiruba says she does not condemn the people who tried to parent her daughter and two sons first, who brought them home and then gave them back to the system. For one thing, she says, if she didn’t have the health benefits they do, then they wouldn’t be able to afford to parent them in part because of the medications the children need.

TTop’s first parents had no support and quickly became overwhelmed by her behavior. Three months into the placement, they were already done. They disrupted the placement the day the social worker arrived at their house to start the adoption paperwork.

Tiruba, on the other hand, quickly worked to put together a team of people to help her parent TTops and TTops’s younger adoptive brothers. The team consists of a disability worker, who helps them connect with community resources; a school support team, including a full-time aide and school psychologist who helps with TTops’s individualized education plan; and in-home family services workers, who give them respite care and everyday parenting support. In addition, one or two weekends a month, TTops goes to a therapeutic foster home so that her parents can focus on the boys.

“If you haven’t lived with an attachment disordered kid, how can you judge anyone who can’t do it?” she says. “I don’t judge the people who couldn’t take care of my kids before me. I honestly believe that they didn’t get what they needed for the kids. It’s not always there and it would be impossible to do this without it.”

I asked Tiruba if she grieves for the people her children might have been if their histories had been different.

“Of course I do,” she says. “TTops grieves, too, for the person she could have been. She wonders what her brain would have been like if her mom hadn’t been drinking when she was pregnant. It’s a lifelong struggle for her.”

TTops will never be able to live independently. Tiruba’s goal had been to keep TTops at home until she turned sixteen, when she would need to find a group home. As she’s gotten older and stronger, however, it has become harder to keep her younger brothers protected from her violent outbursts so she will likely move earlier than her mother would like. Tiruba and her husband found a group home that’s nearby, close to their weekly routines so they can visit often and pick up TTops to join them when they’re running errands.

 *   *   *

It’s easy to pathologize children who have experienced trauma and loss, to focus on the stories of Russian children gone bad and foster-care kids who become violent. Social worker Kim, however, says it’s vital to understand that a deprived environment shapes children. Like Tiruba, the parents who are able to successfully parent challenging kids can see the person behind the behaviors and are able to adjust their expectations.

“We do have to recognize that for most kids who have had multiple placements there is tremendous loss and there are tremendous survival skills that these children have developed. They wouldn’t have survived without these,” she says. “Unfortunately when we try to place them in an adoptive home and their parents have this expectation that they can relax and be normal, well, we need to reconceptualize this idea of what a normal child is.”

Citing her work with parents adopting from foster care, Kim says that parents need to be given a “safety plan” before their children come home detailing who they will call if they need help and what services exist in their area. She also recommends that parents connect with a knowledgeable therapist ahead of time so they aren’t searching for an appropriate counselor post-placement when they may already be overwhelmed.

Astrid Dabbeni is the executive director of Adoption Mosaic, an adoption education organization in Portland, Oregon. She is also an adult adoptee who came to her family from Columbia along with her biological sister when she was four years old. She agrees with Kim about the need for parents to let go of their fantasies about what their families “ought” to look like.

We need to be looking at adoption through the lens of the child. It is a normal human reaction to have some serious attachment issues when you are taken from your birth mother and placed in an orphanage,” says Dabbeni. “We need to honor and recognize that adoption is different and not a replacement for birth children we never had. Not until then can we really embrace how adoption really is different and how we need to go about parenting differently. Social workers have to speak the truth about that.”

 *   *   *

Through her networks, Henry’s mother, Carol, found a family who has experience working with boys with histories and behaviors that mirror his. He will be the youngest in the family by several years so there are not other children to prey on. Carol said they will have an open adoption. They will continue contact with Henry, in part because his biological siblings remain in Carol’s home and also because they love him and remain committed to him.

“It sucks, it really does,” Carol says. “There is no other way around it. I don’t see one; I really do not. Nobody worked harder for their kid than we did. But in some ways bringing him home would be like asking an alcoholic to live in a bar. It would not be healthy to ask him to live here.”

Her husband did not want to disrupt the adoption. The experience has been hard on their marriage but they—and their other kids—are healing. Carol told me that recently she pulled out video from the couple’s visit to Henry’s orphanage and this time she saw the scene differently.

“We walked into this room, and there were ten cribs with two babies in each crib. It was mealtime, and about half of the babies were screaming and the other half were totally silent,” she recalls. “The babies that were screaming, they were also rocking, self-soothing and you could see that they were kind of tuning out, you know, dissociating. My husband, he was running the video camera and you see him caressing one baby’s head, a baby that was not crying, and the baby didn’t react. I remember thinking, oh the nannies must be in the back room getting the food ready. What was I thinking? There was no back room. Those babies were hungry. They were hungry every single day.”

Carol is silent a moment.

“How did I not see it? I didn’t see that it was a disaster waiting to happen, a whole brewing ground for attachment disorder waiting to happen.”

Author’s Note: As I worked on this piece I became increasingly frustrated and saddened by the lack of information and support both for pre-adoptive and post-adoptive families. Adoption agency websites usually have glowing stories of new families and pictures of adorable children cradled in their new parents’ arms, but very few have concrete information about preparing for children who have suffered the tremendous loss and trauma that most of these kids suffer. I feel like we’re setting families up. Adoption can be a wonderful thing but unless prospective parents go into it with their eyes open and post-adoption services at the ready, how can we blame those families that fall apart?

Finally I want to thank the mothers who trusted me enough to speak with me. Their stories are difficult, and they are used to condemnation. Trust me, no one is harder on Carol than she is on herself. While I was editing this piece, I discovered that Carol is known for sending gift baskets to other RAD families who she knows are having a hard time. She’s a pretty amazing person.

Brain, Child (Summer 2010)

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Baby Questions and Later Questions

Baby Questions and Later Questions

IMG_1246There’s a twelve-year span and two more kids between our oldest child and our youngest, the original and last babies. When they are tiny, the babies, they are wonder and mystery and vexingly sleepless at times you want them to sleep. As parents, especially the first time round, you imbue so much upon these tiny creatures. Who is this? Who will this become?

At the same time, there’s all the baby minutiae, the sleeplessness and the poopfulness and the questions about whether the smile is gas and the tears are teething. Recall how many times when you care for babies you ask yourself how it’s possible that an intelligent person such as yourself could give away so much brainpower to excrement. You, or speaking for myself, I shook my head many times over at the absurdity of the enterprise, equal parts grateful and bemused and horrified and exhausted. Maybe, if I’m honest and let myself remember how grinding the sleep deprivation was, exhaustion edged out the rest.

My eldest recently turned eighteen. I remember during my own adolescence, maybe a bit earlier than eighteen, that I spent a lot of time on some swings near my dad’s house wondering whatever happened to childhood. I felt a little sad about growing up, I recall, even though I cannot say I was so very happy as a child. This fall, between one turning eighteen and another starting kindergarten and some question about the future of a neighborhood playground that has swings, I’ve thought of those swings a lot. I’ve remembered that sensation of time passing and the awe and the melancholy and the fear that accompany it. Three pregnancies later, swings make me nauseous. Yet, I’m on the swings in my mind: wondering how one child’s childhood evaporated and another is fifteen, another eleven and the baby girl, the last baby, is five-and-a-half and in kindergarten.

During her infancy, I was pulled in two directions. I thought I knew what there was to know about babies, as in how to smush her into a ball for comfort and improved digestion and how critical it was to set her on her tummy. At the same time, I thought a lot about all that I couldn’t know. I couldn’t know how early her teeth would come in or whether there was a genetic disposition toward or away from happiness.

Did she cry more than the others? Was she fussier? Did she nap less? Did she laugh more? Maybe, I’m not sure. Babies fuss. Some babies sleep more. Some sleep less. What I didn’t realize as I worried and wondered about stuff I wouldn’t know—her father’s family medical history, for one thing—I neglected what I already knew: for all the things we think biology can tell us, there’s still so much we can’t know. Biology is a piece of a larger puzzle. It’s not as simple as nature versus nurture or nurture over nature or any one element against another. And it’s not as if the happiest kid becomes the happiest adult or the one who sleeps most feels the most rested. It’s all just so much more complicated, and so-not-straightforward.

I had an inkling of that as the bigger problems began, as in small children small problems big ones big ones—mostly the ones that awareness of the larger world bring. One of the first glimmers of this happened while we waited for this last baby to be born. My eldest boy was in sixth grade at the time and wanted, rather desperately for a few weeks, for the baby’s pregnant birth mother Caroline to move to the apartment on our third floor to raise the baby because he couldn’t fathom how she’d let the baby go and how we could let that happen to her.

“It’s so complicated,” I remember saying over and over, as I tried to convince him that as heartbreaking as this seemed and felt and was, it was also okay. Caroline would be okay and the baby would be okay and we’d all be family in a way that helped it become okay. Had I known I’d have such a sensitive and stellar person emerge? I was so blown away by his ability to feel for everyone at that moment. I didn’t feel responsible for his smarts or his compassion. I just felt awed. And I felt humbled. That sensation, the awed and humbled one, it’s endured, about all four of them.

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Portrait in Nature and Nurture

Portrait in Nature and Nurture

By Christine Koubek

0-31Ann Mary Roberts was an uptown girl in the ’60s, a pretty, 16-year-old pianist attending an all-girls Catholic school in upstate New York. Her parents had seven children and her father had Hodgkin’s disease. They caught her sitting on a bench one day in a shaded park with the boy they had just learned got her pregnant. She was on a bus the next day, destined for her older sister’s house in Maryland, with a phony wedding ring and an alibi—”tell anyone who asks that your husband is in Vietnam.”

Her last trimester was spent at a home for unwed mothers in Massachusetts. She was eating a forbidden stash of chocolate on Halloween when the stomach pains struck. She thought it was indigestion. I was born the next day.

I knew none of this, not even the correct state of my birth, until the letter arrived.

“Honey, a young man dropped this off for you,” my mother said, handing me a sealed brown-linen envelope labeled “Christine.” It was Mother’s Day, 1987. I had just transferred to a college in upstate New York, and was living at home in Albany until I found campus housing.

I took the letter and headed for the family room couch, thinking it was from a friend until the pictures started falling out: a cute little girl with painted fingernails, a dark-eyed woman feeding wedding cake to a man who looked like a mob boss and that same woman with an older lady who looked just like her, both smartly dressed in crisp black-and-white suits, sipping drinks on a balcony. I was breathless as I stared at the photos of a girl, and a woman, with my own dark brown eyes and auburn-streaked hair.

Dear Christine, The time has finally arrived. I don’t know if you even know you are adopted. I was 17 when you were born. I remember holding you on my lap; your eyes seemed to look right into my soul. I knew I couldn’t keep you and my heart was broken and still is. Words cannot express how I have felt for 19½ years, not knowing anything about you. I visited you at the infant home but I couldn’t hold you or kiss you because you were behind a glass window. You are a five to ten minute drive from my house. I named you Ann Marie. We are good people, nothing to be afraid of. Love, Ann”

While I knew I was adopted, I also understood that adoption agencies brokered two things in the sixties—babies and secrecy, but somehow she had found me.

“Honey, who’s that letter from?” Mom asked from the kitchen.

My cheeks felt hot, as if I’d been caught reading someone’s diary. My mother, had suffered miscarriages; the deaths of a baby, her father and brother; and my father’s affair—the affair that left her with three young children to raise, with me the oldest at 7. If there was one thing I vowed as a girl, it was to make my mother’s life easier in whatever way I could. She had devoted her life to us, and unlike other adoptees I’ve known, I never felt loved any less than my younger brother and sister whom she’d given birth to.

*   *   *

I was 13 and playing the board game Sorry with a girl down the street when she got mad and spat: “I don’t care if you win, YOU’RE adopted!”

I ran home in tears to our babysitter, Vivian, who put her claw-like nails to work dialing my mother at the restaurant as I cried at the kitchen table. I was overwhelmed to think that this woman who had always been my mom might not fully belong to me.

She rushed home from the double-shift she was waitressing. We went to her room. I sat on the edge of her waterbed, across from a photo of us kids dressed in matching green-and-beige plaid. Our clothes matched, but in my family of lights, I looked darker than ever. My mother had always said I looked like my grandmother, her mom, and that I took after her too because I loved music and making things.

“Honey, I’ve got something to show you,” she said. “Wait here a minute.” I listened to her rummage through the deep part of her closet, behind her clothes, where the ceiling sloped down. My sister once told me our mother hid our Christmas presents back there, but I never peeked—I always wanted to be surprised.

My mother emerged from the closet, her hair a little askew. She held a large beige envelope and opened the tiny metal prongs that had clamped the envelope shut. I’m not sure how I knew, or what I knew, but when she pried those prongs apart, something clicked in my head, that noise, the way a padlock clicks before it opens.

She pulled out notes from my first visits to the pediatrician, and a letter, typed on white parchment paper from a caseworker at Catholic Family Services.

We sat together on the bed’s black cushioned edge. My arms goose-pimpled as I read the letter. It told me I was Irish, German and Welsh, that my birth mother was 5 feet 5, intelligent and sensitive, had taken piano lessons for years and hoped to major in music; and that my birth father was 17 when I was born, athletic and enjoyed team sports and the drums.

I’m no longer French or Dutch, I thought, as I looked at the framed picture of me and my grandmother atop the lace on my mother’s dresser. My grandma, with her chestnut hair and large brown eyes, had always been the person I thought I looked like in a family of blue-eyed blonds. In a single afternoon I had traded one ancestry for another. I felt betrayed; yet I couldn’t be mad at my mother. My father had been gone for over four years and she was the only parent I had.

“Chrissie,” my mother said, “when you’re older, I’ll help you search for your birth parents if you want to find them.” I tucked that offer away, thinking I might dig it out sometime after college.

*   *   *

“Who’s the letter from, Honey?” she asked again from the kitchen.

I walked into the room, eyes cast down at our red and cream linoleum floor, and said, “Mom … it’s from my birth mother.”

“What! Who the hell does that woman think she is sending you a letter? What if you hadn’t known you were adopted? I can’t believe she didn’t contact me first!” my mother ranted. I didn’t disagree, but I didn’t know what to say. It was all shocking to me too.

My mother didn’t bring the letter up the next day, or the next, and I took that to mean she didn’t want to talk about it, or maybe I didn’t want to either. Adoption had always seemed like something you don’t discuss.

Yet a craving for answers got the better of me a few weeks later after I finished my last final exam. I called the number Ann had written down and arranged with her husband to meet the following night after I got off work from the local department store.

I scanned faces that entire evening wondering if one might be hers. I straightened and re-straightened the tie displays and paid frequent visits to the ladies’ room.

After work, I stood outside on the moonlit sidewalk in front of the store, waiting for a woman as foreign to me as the person who had just sauntered past on her way to her car. Yet the stranger I was about to meet shared a shrouded part of me. I pulled my cardigan closer to fight the spring night’s chill.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair walked toward me. She was dressed in navy linen pants and a beautiful white blouse that was billowing in the breeze. She looked like the woman in the pictures, and she was studying me.

When she was only a few feet away, I whispered, “Ann?”

Before I could say anything more, she wrapped her arms around me and cried, “Oh, my baby.”

I put my hands lightly on her back. I felt cold. I’m hugging a stranger. I have a mother; I’m her baby, I thought.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said and pulled back. I don’t recall tearing up, or saying anything more in that moment. I felt as if someone had shot me with Novocain—nothing but numb.

She introduced me to her husband and then I followed them to an Italian restaurant down the street, where Ann and I filled each other in on 19 years of personal history. It was the first time I’d heard a true story about the night I was born. If an adoptee grows up believing one history to be true, what happens when you learn part of it was fiction? Does it change who you are? Should it change who you are? I didn’t know it that night, but it would take more than a decade to answer those questions.

What I remember most from that night were her arms. She had the exact same lightly freckled skin tone as me. And she kept saying, “I always thought you would have blue eyes, like your father.”

A few weeks later, I met my birth father, Gregg. Ann had contacted him in a neighboring town to tell him she’d found me. My initial lunches with Ann and evening get-togethers with Gregg were electrically charged; we had an instant rapport. I learned that Ann had a master’s in music, taught piano and was trying to have a baby after almost dying during a recent tubal pregnancy. And that Gregg was an English teacher, a poet, a music aficionado and father of a 13-year-old boy.

As the months passed, though, that initial excitement ebbed as we each struggled with the fact that I was not Ann Marie. I was Christine, a complicated composite of everyone involved. And it seemed like our reunion made them mourn the loss of Ann Marie again, or at least the Ann Marie they’d imagined all those years.

Gregg put it into words in a letter a few months after our first meeting: “I think there is such a gap between reality and the dream in this situation. Do you know what I mean? I guess I’m trying to say that I want to be everything you want me to be, but, realistically, I’m not sure I have the foggiest idea what that is—do you? I say to myself I hope we can get close—but how close?”

I didn’t have any idea. But those words and a mailbag’s worth of beautiful letters those first few years fostered a kinship and a second chance to have a father. We’d meet for coffee, go to concerts and talk frequently on the phone. But I felt guilty every time I did the same with Ann.

Though our reunion certainly answered those central questions—”Where did I come from?” for me, and “Whatever happened to Ann Marie?” for them—for every detail, every question answered, more unanswerable questions arose, such as: How do I introduce these people whose genetic makeup I share? How often should I see Ann or Gregg? Do I invite them to my graduation? Will knowing Ann and Gregg jeopardize my relationship with my mother? My siblings? My cousins?

 *   *   *

At the time I met Ann, adoptions were still whispered about, and reunions like ours occurred mostly as a result of a private investigator. It was seen as disloyal and ungrateful for an adoptee to want to know his or her birth parents. Somehow a primal desire for ancestry had been construed as a statement about adoptive parenting.

For all those reasons, I grappled with my need to know Ann and Gregg. And I found it easiest to offer people a practical excuse, such as: I’d like to know what medical conditions I could inherit. 

But the truth is, knowing them made it profoundly easier for me to feel at home in my own skin. I discovered Gregg and I both tried to figure out life through writing, and that Ann and I shared many of the same spiritual philosophies. And I realized why I was so damned introspective and curious: I got a double dose from them.

Given all that, I didn’t want to say: Thanks for answering my questions, for letting me know where I came from. Now can you please go away and we’ll catch up again in another 19 years. 

So I fumbled on, even as it became complicated having them in my life, especially around the holidays. “I haven’t seen you in a long while,” Gregg’s mother would say. Or Ann would ask, “A bunch of us will be at my brother’s house on Christmas Eve. Would you like to come?” Though it was wonderful to be included, I was trying not to lose my place in my own family gatherings.

One weekend visit home, a few years after I had moved to Boston, I divided 48 hours among my mother and beloved grandmother (my mom’s mother), who had just suffered a stroke; my brother and his new baby; my sister, who was enduring a trial; Ann, who was going through a divorce; and high school friends who just wanted to catch up over a beer.

No matter how I allocated my time, there was never enough. I was always letting someone down, and always struggling with this sense that I was being ungrateful to my mother.

Through all of this, my mother remained fairly silent, which I interpreted to mean she was stepping back to let me figure it all out. I was immensely thankful for that on my wedding day. My mother looked beautiful in her floral-pink dress as we rode in the limousine to the church. She sat in her place of honor, the front row of the church, like all mothers of the bride. Except this mom shared the day with her daughter’s birth parents as Ann played Christine’s songs from Phantom of the Opera on the piano and Gregg waited at the church entrance to escort me down the aisle.

I know my mother’s stomach was in knots that day as she endured endless questions from relatives who hadn’t met Ann and Gregg, but she handled it with grace. She gave me a gift perhaps not many parents could: She let go and loved me unconditionally, wanting nothing more than for me to be happy. And that is what makes her my mother in every sense of that word.

 *   *   *

For that brief time surrounding my wedding, all my relationships converged, but it didn’t last. I could quietly be a part of each individual family, but not one whole. A few months later, Gregg and I hit a reunion rough patch and took a break from one another. After that, I wasn’t sure I was capable of traversing this rocky terrain anymore, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother and Ann might have felt the same.

A few years later, when my son was born, something shifted. I now understood the anticipation my mother must have felt before picking me up from the infant home. And I began to realize the despair Ann spoke of as I breast-fed my newborn son and stroked his pudgy legs in the middle of the night. I couldn’t imagine having to relinquish him, never to touch his baby-soft skin again, or know the person he would become.

As my son grew, Gregg and I grew close, and Ann and I settled into a sisterly relationship of sorts supporting one another through the ups and downs of our lives: for me, the birth of my second son, and postpartum depression; for her, artistic endeavors as a painter, and a first bout with breast cancer. We’d meet for lunch, then stroll a park when my first son was young. She called him “a wise old soul.” He called her “Grannie Annie.”

  *   *   *

A week before Mother’s Day in 2009, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee before crossing the boulevard to the card store. I had learned that this annual greeting card ritual could take a while, and I needed cards for my mother, mother-in-law, a couple of grandmothers and, toughest of all, for Ann.

That particular Mother’s Day marked our 22nd anniversary. More than two decades of knowing each other, after a childhood apart. It also marked the year Ann’s cancer had spread.

I opened the door and meandered down the card aisle, hands warmed by the cardboard cup as I perused the racks of cards for mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, godmothers and women who were “like a mother to me.”

I stopped at “grandmothers” and selected a few, then moved on to “mothers” for my husband’s mom and my own. I found one for my mom that thanked her for always being there, for teaching me to take care of myself, to persevere and be strong.

Every year I tried to find a card for Ann, but they invariably said: “the one constant in my life,” “being there when no one else could,” or “since I was a child”—none of which applied. There was no card that said: “I’m sorry for all you went through back then.” “I can’t thank you enough for giving me life and for the gift of my family and for the opportunity to know you, as well as that part of me that is Ann Marie.” Or “in a world where we all could use a parent who truly knows and loves each of us—thank you for being one of mine.”

I tossed the cards aside, and rounded the corner to the blank card aisle. I figured I’d just keep writing it myself.

 *   *   *

Four months after that Mother’s Day, Ann lost her battle with cancer.

A few days before her death, Ann’s younger sister, Lisa, asked how to refer to me in the obituary. “I don’t want to offend your mother by calling you Ann’s daughter,” she said. I thought: God, how that question sums up our 22-year journey.

I told Lisa I needed to think about it. I asked my mother, who said, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I know you’re my daughter.”

And then I had an idea. I wrote to Lisa:

After all these years with Ann (and Gregg), one thing I’ve learned is that none of the labels (nor their associated roles and obligations) have been sufficient, and I am so happy that Ann and I were able to create our own meaningful relationship despite them. 

But an obituary needs a label, and you’re right: “Daughter” is true but confusing in the sense that I’m my mother’s daughter. And yet, I’m not a stepdaughter nor a goddaughter, and “birth daughter” sounds ridiculous…. I think using the name she gave me at my birth is the truest way for me to honor her and our relationship. Therefore, please use:

“Survived by a daughter, Ann Marie Roberts.”

Christine Koubek’s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Coastal Living, Washingtonian and many other publications. “Portrait in Nature and Nurture” is adapted from an essay she had published in Bethesda magazine shortly after Ann passed away. An adoption-related short story she wrote earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s 2012 Family Matters contest.  Christine is the Cofounder and Editor of Secret Sons & Daughters: Adoptee Tales from the Sealed Records Era — A digital publication and community based on the power of shared stories to inspire hope, healing, and change.

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The Bedtime Routine

The Bedtime Routine

By Kelly Hirt
0-13Yesterday, I sent the following tweet:  When I look at my son lying in his bed, it is as if I have forgotten all the rough parts of the day.  That is some Mama Amnesia!  It’s true, isn’t it?!

We could have a challenging morning filled with, “not fair” and “I DON’T want to” and an afternoon of, “you ALWAYS make me…” but somehow at bedtime, my boy looks angelic.  Just hours earlier, the eye-rolling and the “whatever” made it seem as though he had skipped his childhood and entered the land of teenagers!

When my precious boy is getting ready for bed, he begins to get softer around the edges. Once his glasses come off and he’s in his pajamas, he seems to go backwards in years.  For the first time all day, he wants to hug and get close and if I’m lucky … he invites me to lie next to him and talk about whatever is on his inquisitive mind.

Why does it stay lighter in the summer?

Who is God?

For some reason, his questions flow once the lights are turned off and while others can quiet their mind, his is just getting started!

One of our bedtime games that he loves is to remind me how quickly he is growing up.  “In just a few months, I’m going to be 8 years old!”  I play along as if I am truly surprised by the news. “That’s impossible!”

“Do you know what else?”  He leans in close, holds my face in his soft hands and looks directly at my eyes, “In no time at all, I am going to be ten!”

“Are you trying to break my heart?!”

“Oh, Mama!” He smiles.  We laugh and he loves it.  What he doesn’t know is that secretly, my heart really does break a little at how fast this is all racing by.

There was a long time, when I wasn’t sure I would have these bedtime routines.  The homework, the hugs, the unstoppable questions, all the things that come with being a parent just didn’t seem to be in the cards for me.  I was happy being a positive influence to many children as a teacher and then returning home to a tidy house and quiet evenings.

My partner and I were both established in our careers and secure in our relationship when we finally began to wonder if we wanted a family … a larger family than just ourselves and our beloved terrier. After a few years of talking and listening to each other, we decided it was time and we reached out to a local adoption agency.

Our journey was unexpectedly challenging and there were times of true uncertainty.  However, we are so very thankful for the process because we now have a precious boy of our own.  He is quirky, sensitive and intense and his favorite place to be is at home.  He is most comfortable in front of his computer or sitting between us on the couch during family movie nights.

Because I wasn’t sure that any of this was going to be mine, I remind myself of the joy as I do even the most mundane things like visiting a park, shampooing his hair, and the bedtime routine.

Out of the blue, he has recently started playing Pat-a-Cake again.  Strange, I know; but his favorite part is to say, “…mark it with a BB and put it in the oven for Big Boy and me!”  I visibly grimace at the sound of those words and he wants to do it again.  “You know, I’m really a Big Boy!”  One thing that I’m quite confident about is that as long as he calls himself a “big boy,” he really isn’t one yet.

When the talking and reading is complete, the lights turn off and the calm music begins.  He tries to delay the inevitable with more questions, but I say in a slow whisper, “My boy, it is time for bed.”  Most nights, just before he falls asleep, I get one more “Mama, I love you!”

I sit in the darkness and I think about being his mother … all that it means and all that I have experienced because of him.  I am forced to be more intentional with my words and actions since I have this boy watching my every move.  I censor my speech and I try to model the healthiest ways to express frustration and stress.  I must be my own best friend now … instead of my own worst enemy because he should see how to forgive yourself for mistakes and to learn how to celebrate your own strengths.

On this night, after the talking has stopped, I have a new appreciation for how hard it must be for MY parents to see me grown up and independent … making my own choices.  Choices that maybe they didn’t understand, but have grown to accept.

Kelly Hirt is a mother, teacher & writer.  She started her blog as a way to support and connect people parenting twice-exceptional children.  Kelly’s work has been seen in Macaroni Kids, Huffington Post, and many other sites.  Kelly’s blog was Parent Map’s 2013 Golden Teddy Award finalist for parenting blogs.

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What They’ll Talk About When They Talk about Love and Family

What They’ll Talk About When They Talk about Love and Family

IMG_8146One of the things that Saskia’s kindergarten-first grade classroom does this year is to study families. This Family Study curriculum has me nervous.

I’ve heard that it’s hard to talk about your “different” family structure sometimes and have it seem anything other than “different” in this study unit. Note: we live in a very lesbian-friendly little city and while it’s not the most diverse place in the world, it’s not the least diverse place in the world, either. It is a place that loves its own quirkiness and believes in difference. Even the radio station touts itself with this phrase: “Different is Good.”

In her class, there is at least one other adopted friend. There are at least a couple of blended families or two-household situations. Saskia’s teacher is divorced and has one child, now in college. She won’t be anomalous when she talks about her family’s structure.

Cut to last year when the preschool version of a venue for family sharing arose through the Star of the Week. Each kid is, yes, Star of the Week during the course of the school year. Special things happen, like you fill out a book about yourself and your family can come in for sharing. If you had a pet, you could bring your pet, too. You have photographs from home on a bulletin board and tell about them when your parents come in to class. Each time something like this happens—Star of the Week or the fifth grade Lifeline or the graduation slideshow—I realize I don’t have well-organized photos and now that I have a digital camera, I have hardly any printed photos at all. I had to print some for Star of the Week. And actually, then I realize I should be printing photos so much more often—for Caroline and the grandparents. It’s like a If You Give a Mouse a Cookie scenario, these projects that require photographs. Down the rabbit hole of what you haven’t done right you go.

Anyway, the point of the Star of the Week here isn’t my failing as a photograph provider, it’s that Saskia wasn’t all that into the book project. I didn’t worry about that since years earlier her next biggest brother Remy refused to engage much with the book part. I didn’t feel at all surprised when the big occasion of both parents coming to class with her rendered her a silent clingster on the couch between us. We don’t go to school events the three of us all that often (remember, she’s the fourth of four; we rarely carve out that kind of time, because we really can’t). Was I a little surprised that she didn’t bring up or want to bring up anything about adoption? At that moment, I wasn’t surprised since she had recently told me she wished she’d been inside my tummy. Was I surprised that we kept our talk in front of the class time brief and didn’t really bring up adoption? I was a little surprised, yes. On the photographic array, there was a picture of Saskia and her Auntie Cece, though. Saskia named her. And on we went.

So, that’s to say I felt accommodating in the moment and comfortable enough last year—in part because I knew adoption came up during other people’s Star of the Week presentations. However, this year, with families as the focus (as opposed to shower the preschooler with love and attention) I want to do our part better and I want to be sure that the class study goes better. During the initial parent-teacher night, the teacher didn’t delve into difference, except to acknowledge that he wants to study all kinds of family structures. At the parent night, he mentioned interest in videos or books.

I could write a bunch about how there are picture books about adoption and yet so far none about open adoption. Those mothers are just … invisible. It’s not our story and I wish our story splashed across some thick and colorful and happy pages. There are books about adoption, from Jamie Lee Curtis’ Tell Me Again about the Night I was Born to Chih Yuan-Chen’s Guji Guji. I haven’t actively looked for new picture books about adoption for a while, so I will do that before the family study and ask around. In anticipation (anxiety-tinged, I’ll admit it) of this unit, I’ll probably go in and ask the teacher about how he will talk about things like lesbian and gay parents and divorce and adoption. Done right, the family study unit is of course a fantastic opportunity for all.

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Bedtime Talks With My Adopted Daughter

Bedtime Talks With My Adopted Daughter

IMG_0519She brings stuff up at bedtime. Most five year-olds do; they don’t want to be left alone to sleep. She likes when I tell her stories in the dark. I rub her back. Who wouldn’t like all that?

Aside: bedtime can—if I let it—take forever.

Anyway, here’s one from this past week or so: “Tell me about when I was in your tummy.” As I’ve written about before, sometimes she has mentioned this idea that she was in my tummy and I’ve let it go, when I realized that not every wish has to be hit on the head with a reminder that you weren’t in my tummy. Once, this happened when we visited a former babysitter in the hospital with her one-day old baby boy, and all the grandparents. They didn’t know she is adopted, and it didn’t seem like the moment to tell the whole story. Other times, we’ve been alone and I’ve kind of let the moment slide by. Mostly, though, I say something along the lines of, “Remember that you weren’t in my tummy? Whose tummy were you in?” and she does remember and then I remind her—again and again and again—how we were waiting for her and she came into my arms and all that stuff.

This past week when she posed the question about time in my tummy, I realized what she wanted was a story about herself when she was teeny-tiny. The tummies weren’t the subject; she was the hoped-for subject. “Do you remember that you weren’t in my tummy?” I asked. “Whose tummy?” She told me Auntie Cece, her voice inflecting to a question. “Yes,” I replied, “but do you want to know about when you were just born?” She nodded.

And so I told her everything about how tiny she was, a feather in my arms, and how she was quite red—as most babies are—and it took a little while to get more pink, the way babies get. I talked about her long fingers and the way you could see light right through her fingernails, which were translucent. I described how her eyes were dark and big and round and glassy and how her lips were so pink. “You had so much dark hair, a whole headful,” I said. “Most babies don’t.” I added, “I loved you instantly so very much the very second I first held you. I’d been waiting for you and there you were, finally.”

She loved every detail. My a-ha moment was so obvious I couldn’t believe how long it took me to really “get” it: sometimes, when she asks about those in your tummy memories what she’s looking for isn’t a big explanation about whose tummy and whose arms, she’s really looking for details like you fit in my arms and you had ten little toesies. Of course she wants to know about when she was a baby. That’s fascinating. She wants to know about when she was a goopy, messy toddler learning to eat pasta with tomato sauce, too—and how she figured out fashionable ways to wear all that redness.

In the midst of a tummy and baby conversation a few weeks ago (another aside: they really don’t happen all the time), she asked why she didn’t go to Auntie Cece since she’d been in her tummy. I felt a swift kick to stomach sensation. Rather than responding from that feeling, I remembered that however loaded this might feel for me; I feared her feeling rejected, there was always a possibility that one day the question would elicit a wish she’d gone there not here. My job wasn’t to race ahead, though. I kept it very simple. I decided in that moment it wasn’t a big existential query. It was just why? “Auntie Cece felt like she wasn’t really able to raise a baby the way she wanted for you to grow up, with another parent and some brothers,” I said. “She thought this was your family and plus you get Auntie Cece and your grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, too.”

“I want to be here, with my mommy,” she declared and hugged me very tightly.

“I want you to be here. I love being your mommy,” I replied and met her hug with an equally big squeeze.

Together, we seem to discover the story. We note the details. As we bumble through, I see two important components to my narrative: she was the cutest little thing and she’s as loved as she could possibly be loved. Less is more, but more love is more love and there we have it. Will it get more complicated? Sure. But not all at once—by the time she delves into harder questions—if she does—she will feel secure about her own preciousness and about how loved she is, by us all.

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Choosing Gloria

Choosing Gloria

By Claire DeBerg

Art Choosing Gloria 1-1I have heard it called liquid gold. I would call it liquid love. Or perhaps liquid life. Life juice, maybe. Holy juice? Juice of the Divine? Certainly the small yellow swirl tipping out of the bottle was worth more to me than a rare metal. That liquid, now flowing in a water treatment plant somewhere in the middle of Iowa, was my first expressed breast milk.

The nurse, her rough hands dry from over-washing, had come slowly to my hospital bedside—suspect of me, a new, able mother placing her baby for adoption. She picked up the bottle from my side table, pretended to hold it to the light of the window (though it was an overcast midmorning) and frowned. She continued her judgment of my situation by theatrically holding the bottle high above the sink and pouring down my achingly expressed milk, giving the bottle a one-two tap to make sure it was empty. I physically shook as she spoke the next words to me without catching my disbelieving eyes: “That wasn’t enough.”

It wasn’t enough? It wasn’t enough that I would, in the next day, be giving my child, a child I carried and cared for, to other people to raise? The nurses had been warned about my choice—our hospital room and situation was on high alert. Staff had been told to keep their comments on my child’s beauty and goodness, about the miracle of birth, at a minimum, if at all. Not only had I endured nine months of being a young, poor, single pregnant woman, but I was being set apart yet again. So why not let me give all I had—even if it seemed not enough? What would have been enough for this woman? What is enough for any of us?

My request for a breast pump to be immediately available after birth was questioned, but it arrived, and for 45 painful and strangely alien minutes I watched my red and scarred nipples being sucked and pulled by this machine on wheels standing at attention next to my bed. At the time I was confused about the lack of streaming milk, thinking I’d done such good work during my pregnancy that the milk would all but gush out. Instead, my breasts were weighted and taut. For all the suction and mechanical coaxing, only a few heavy yellow drops emerged and gathered at the base of the bottle. The two breasts together perhaps made a tablespoon of colostrum which I carefully closed up in the bottle, certain not to spill a drop.

I hadn’t been inundated with baby books while pregnant, knowing this new life was not part of my plan of marriage, home, babies, dog. So I wasn’t preparing for the ins and outs of what it would be like once the baby arrived and breathed on her own. The pregnancy side of birth I knew—it was the baby part I knew nothing about and invested little energy with those details, as my plan to finally be baby-free was what I looked forward to. The few pregnancy and birth items I checked out from my local small town library were passable, charting for me the stages of a fetus’s growth from conception. Like huge flipbooks, the pencil-drawn babies grew and grew and grew until the super gives her eviction notice. One item I clung to—my last loving act for my child before I said goodbye to her—was the importance of this first milk: colostrum.

Colostrum, the strange word, one I still think must be describing an Indian banjo, was a holy juice. This yellow, creamy milk is available for only the first few days of a baby’s life. The wonder of our bodies makes this then and only then until the “milk comes in,” and then the body changes again and gives a different sort of milk—basically whatever the child needs. So, with the nurse’s turn of her wrist, into the swirl of the sink went a dose of antibodies; a daily immunization; vital proteins that help babies pass that first dark, sticky, tar-like excrement; vitamins; calcium—and my heart.

I had found that there are breast milk collection centers where a woman can donate her precious and valuable breast milk. Milk banks. Perhaps Milk Investment Centers. Milk City. I called the nearest breast milk bank and explained my situation—I was due to give birth to a child whom I would place for adoption, could I please give my milk away, too? The desire to purge myself of all memory of being a heaving woman with child was overwhelming. I wanted to give my baby and my milk. So I acted and found the parents and found the bank. The woman I spoke with was kind, trained to speak with mothers in difficult situations since some donors to milk banks would be those women having lost a child to death. She gave me detailed instructions on sanitation and expressing and transporting the milk at certain temperatures. I asked twice to be sure that my milk would help a child live. The woman assured me that this life-giving substance, unlike anything else on earth, this creamy, light drink of nectar was like liquid gold. Premature babies, babies who’d lost their mothers, twins and triplets and multiples, all of these babies would get milk from this bank.

I had planned, though, to be with my baby two days before saying goodbye. I wanted to give her this warm part of me, my antibodies, my last protection before I placed her in the giving basket I had prepared. Bringing her tiny head to my chest made me ache. She rooted all over my gaudy pink and flowery hospital gown, desperate for my breasts. In the womb, my child had sucked so hard on her hands she had caused red, angry blisters to form, which turned into scabs and then open wounds as she continued to suck over the blisters. I was alarmed when at the last hard push she emerged milky and wet and bleeding from the hands. Her primitive impulse to suck was abundantly apparent.

How could this be happening, I wondered. Though now, as I write and revisit this moment, perhaps it isn’t as devastating as it then seemed. So some breast milk went down the drain. So what? It wasn’t like my baby was born with three arms or no earlobes. At the time, however, with the revolving door of my hospital room ushering in the social security secretary asking what this baby’s name would be or whether she should contact the adoptive parents, the hospital social worker who let me know she was available anytime if needed to discuss this most loving and difficult of decisions, my lawyer with updates on relinquishing my parental rights, the baby’s nurse telling me my baby wants to be held all the time in the nursery, my nurse explaining how she placed a baby when she was 16, the baby’s doctor handing me his card in case I changed my mind, my midwife crying with me as we talked through the labor, my family bringing me flowers and supporting my wishes, my church friends passing around the baby not sure what to say, food service, cleaning staff—with chaos in my environment, and all the pictures I kept taking to remember my child, with uncertainty in my head and longing in my heart for something different, I think it is okay that the pouring out of my first breast milk hit me especially hard.

Colostrum doesn’t last forever and no matter what I did, I wouldn’t get it back. The thoughtlessly wasted breast milk, the judgment of my supposed bad job of pumping—this is how I finally looked at my choice of adoption. Adoption is forever and I would sign on the dotted line, and wouldn’t get my baby back.

My focus on keeping this baby healthy was of utmost importance— though at times I was overtaxed with guilt and let tremors of grief wrack my body. I wanted, ultimately, for this child to be an impeccable gift to the new parents—a package so amazing and pure you’d want it for your own. If I were planning on being my baby’s mother, I would have brought her to the light of my breast as soon as I eased her out of me. But I knew the bond that could be formed; I knew the love line that would grow from watching my baby nurse at my breast. So, instead, after the bright arc of pain from contractions ceased with one gentle push, my midwife bundled my daughter, handed her to me, and I cuddled her on my chest. I wasn’t sweaty or wincing—just confused and floored with the insane and gorgeous idea of humans growing in other humans.

The months of waiting gave me time to prepare for saying goodbye in the healthiest way I knew how. Finding my baby’s parents was a task unlike any other. I felt the rush of consumerism and comparison-shopping and weighing risks and benefits. Folders of potential parents began piling into a luminous tower beside my computer. At first I meticulously read each profile, looked deep into their pictures, tried to get a sense of a family from eight scrapbooking pages. And then the skimming began since I’d grown cold to the idea of investing all my mind’s energy on who would best parent my child. i opted out of the family whose traditions centered on making over 500 cookies for every national holiday or birthday. I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about the extremely conservative religious family with two children of their own already. I felt terrible, of course. Here these people desperately wanted to love and raise a child and I desperately didn’t want the life I’d created, so it would seem any of the profiles were perfect. But I had high standards and wanted a family that fit my mold. Only two weeks before I gave birth did I find my baby’s family. I hadn’t known I would have a girl—the answer to the gender question was quietly slid and sealed in an envelope after an ultrasound.

While I pumped that first morning of being a birth mother, I called the eager and overjoyed family I’d chosen and said, “I gave birth to your daughter this morning, but I don’t know her name.” Sophia Grace was the name given to her. Sophia was angry. She was not interested in the bottles of formula offered to her and spit angry, staining liquid from her mouth. I caught her twice sucking her arm, drawing blood, but finding no colostrum. What Sophia doesn’t know and what I hadn’t shared with anyone until a year after I gave birth to her was that on the morning planned for the Giving Ceremony, the early morning, the 4:00 a.m. morning when darkness is hinting at lifting, I sat her down for a serious talk.

Sophia didn’t sit well, actually, so I propped her up with a pillow on my bed so she could face me. She slept through most of our conversation—a private conversation just between us. Twice Sophia winked open one of her slate-blue eyes and watched me crying and talking to her—her brow pensive. A nurse had come to check on us, wondering if I wanted a break from being awake (I hadn’t slept at all since I only had 48 hours with my baby). I told Sophia all I had needed to say, and then I got up and put the “Do not disturb” sign on my door and got busy setting up my tripod and camera. The morning light was perfect— golden, awash on the plain gray walls of my hospital room. I looked in the mirror for the first time since labor and brushed my hair, tried out a smile. Complications of the birth made standing longer than two minutes a dance with faintness, so I sat in the rocking chair I had positioned in the light and breathed. Once calm and sure of my choice, I picked up my baby and started the timer on my camera. There are less than 10 seconds before the shutter exposes the film and takes the shot, and in that short time I sat in the rocking chair with my daughter, renamed her Gloria, and gave her my breast.

Author’s Note: Choosing to be my daughter’s mama was a singular moment of my transformation into my new, powerful self. I wrote this soon after the experience, though I’ve kept this story close for 10 years. I was reminded of it when I gave birth to my son, Harold, at home last year and he nursed like an old pro at 7 minutes this side of the womb. As he nursed that first, deliciously thick colostrum, my grip on this essay loosened and here it is, offered now with open palms. Since Gloria and I first met those 10 years ago, we’ve been creating a beautiful, hilarious, good life as mother and daughter. While pregnant with Harold, I shared some of this story with her. We had tears during the sharing, but now she quips to me, “Mom, I’m so glad you kept me.” Agreed, agreed, agreed.

When Claire DeBerg isn’t writing snappy copy for her commercial writing business or managing content and timelines as editor of the magazine, Timbrel, for Mennonite Women USA, she is eating an ungodly amount of peanut butter right off the spoon, prepping for a modeling shoot, unschooling her pre-teen, playing a Chopin piano prelude, or nursing her baby. She’s put over 3,200 miles on her legs after training for and running seven marathons but now she needs to pit some miles on her fingers and finish writing her novel. She always adores her littles and her darling husband, Darren, and occasionally adores her hairy Airedale, Velvet.

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Does Grey Hair Matter?

Does Grey Hair Matter?

IMG_0020There are all kinds of stereotypes about women who opt for adoption. The main two are likely that they’re very young and that they’re poor. There are similarly stereotypes about adoptive parents (read, mothers) like they’ve grappled with infertility and they are rich. Of course, none of these things are across the board true. Amongst the random things I learned about first or birth mothers is that the “average” age is twenties, not teens.

Amongst the things I worried about during the process of seeking a “match” with a birth mother was this: if I let my hair turn grey, would I appear too old to a birth mother? Would I be as old or older than a birth mother’s mother? That was absolutely a possibility.

The back-story on my hair: I had a few silver strands before I turned thirty. I colored it, first just a little over the glittering hairs and then my whole head of mottled dark and grey. As the area I had to cover grew so did the strength of the dye. By my early forties, I felt trapped: to color my hair was expensive, chemical-heavy, time consuming and an environmental faux pas. By my early forties, Al Gore lived on my shoulder, the economy was on a precipice, and I had three children, soon, I hoped, four. And I’m not much into primping or preening. I had no idea how I’d ended up in a salon on such a regular basis. I didn’t like the fact that I no longer really knew what my hair color actually was, mine, the one that wasn’t bottled up and squirted on my already colored hair.

Call this a moment of emotional and practical dissonance, which, I guess you could also make into a larger statement, since to have three children and want a fourth represents a meeting place of heart’s desire and practicality creating nothing short of a cacophony. Add to this the fact that when the hairdresser told me the smart idea was to create highlights to wean me from the color, think, fake salt and pepper, I balked; I thought it was a ploy to keep me in fake salt and pepper forevermore. Anyway, reason—and the colorist—lost that bid and off I went to spend many, many months in an awkward slide down of a silver line from the top of my scalp to the ends of my soon to be unprofessionally cut (by friends and babysitters and myself and now my husband) hair.

Take into consideration that the matching process is, by nature, stressful for everyone. Adoption, however positive it tends to be for the adoptive family, exists because there’s a crisis—a woman is pregnant and about to have a baby that for whatever reason or reasons, she will not raise. You can’t ignore that and you can’t, therefore, turn adoption into a stress-free experience. Every situation is just too loaded for absolute certainty or joy.

The decision about which family a birth mother chooses I’ve been told tends to be made in the gut. One friend told me that the birth mother to her first son said what cinched her wanting them was a photo of my friend and her husband taken in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. The birth mom had been to San Francisco and had fond feelings about the trip. She imagined her baby getting to go there, too.

I wondered what would click about us for “our” birth mother. The grey hair was a perfect flash point for all my anxieties about the process. So I worried about hints of grey or lots of grey, along with all the other stuff, like what if I were old enough to be my baby’s mother’s mother and what if no one wanted us?

The social worker in our agency met a birth mother she liked—for us. The social worker liked us—for her. It was kind of an arranged marriage scenario. Her instincts were right. In the end, the birth mother who chose us turned out to be in her forties. She wasn’t young enough to be my daughter nor was she unfamiliar with the process of accumulating grey hair. So, filed under unexpected good fortune, I add this: we are fortunate to be able to talk hair color and hot flashes and to kvell over our daughter.

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My Girl

My Girl

By Gale Renee Walden

Flag artWhen my daughter Zella was two, she stuck a small American flag with a shiny gold point up through the palate of her mouth and into her nose.

It was a summer evening. We were home alone, in the basement. I was doing laundry; she was right next to me playing. And then suddenly she was screaming; there was a lot of blood coming out of her nostrils and mouth and that flag was hanging. Then the screaming stopped and there was a moment of silent and shocked surprise in which we both looked at each other, eyes wide—she, as it turned out, surprised at the outcome of what had been meant to impress me in the same way her eleven-year-old cousin had impressed her the day before, saying, “Look, no hands.” On my end, I was trying to put together what had happened. I’d always thought there were contexts in which the American flag could be dangerous, but my laundry room wasn’t one of them.

My daughter was wearing only diapers at the time, and I don’t remember which one of us removed the flag, but the next thing I remember was running with her out on the street. My instinct was to run to the calmest neighbor I had, a mother with two toddlers, and she didn’t let me down. She answered the door, took in the situation, and reappeared with a red washcloth, saying, “My mother told me when you have children, you need a supply of red washcloths.”

By the time we got to the emergency room, the blood had stopped and somehow I thought that might be the end of that. A young doctor came in with a flashlight, looked up in my daughter’s mouth and said, “Oh my.”

“I bet you see things like this all the time,” I said, seeking reassurance. Things swallowed and stuck into various openings; this is a part of childhood.

He whistled and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this,” and then, as if quoting from a Denis Johnson short story, “I’m not going to touch this. I’m calling the eye, ear, and nose specialist.”

When he returned he said, “She is scheduled for surgery at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. Take her home, and don’t let her drink anything.”

Before he left, he asked, “It was an American flag?”

Even in this, I thought, we are going to have nationality questions. Did he really think an American flag wouldn’t do that much damage to a child? Or did he expect her to be waving a Chinese flag?

My daughter is Chinese. I am not. This is something that surprises me over and over, even though it’s obviously a fact I know. Sometimes I look at her and I don’t notice anything other than her: she, presence, other. Sometimes I look at her and she looks like Mao. It’s one of her faces; she has a Mona Lisa face, a Buddy Hackett face, a Madonna face and the Mao face. I am always searching for things my daughter and I share—we don’t come close in hair or eye color—and it’s probably an outcome of this quest that I read my daughter’s Mao face as a physical similarity. I, too, have a malleable face, and one of my faces unfortunately resembles Richard Nixon. All children have a Buddy Hackett face, just like all babies, when they cry, sound a little like Neil Young, but this morphing into less-than-ideal political leaders, surely that is unique to our family.

At home that night, I yelled at the flag, which for some odd reasons wasn’t bloody. “I don’t want to see you ever again,” I said, and I went to throw it away and then remembered there was something about needing the National Guard and a whole ceremony in order to get rid of a flag and I ended up sticking it in some high far away cupboard.

“Ow,” Zella said in her sleep: “Ow. Ow. Ow.” The next morning the eye, ear, and nose specialist informed me that the only way he would be able to see the extent of the damage and what needed to be repaired was to put her under anesthesia and go in. He also informed me that the only possible side effect of the surgery was sudden death. “It’s a slight risk,” he said. “At her age, about one in a thousand.”

This didn’t seem like great odds to me. I could envision one thousand people, could envision the eenie, meenie, miney moe of chance.

“There are substantial risks if we don’t do the surgery, of brain infection, of lifelong sinus problems,” the surgeon said, “and we can’t wait. Scar tissue is already forming.”

I signed the consent forms.

My mother, a nurse, was in the waiting room with me. “This is why I got out of Peds,” she said.

“Boy did you make the right decision,” the surgeon said when he came out of the operating room to assure me she was waking up. “She pushed that thing in deep. But we have it stitched up now.”

When, the day after the flag incident, worried neighbors came to the door wondering what happened the night before, I tried to imagine what I must have looked like, running, mouth opened in a silent scream, carrying a half-naked bleeding child, and the image I got is an image I grew up with—of Vietnamese women running from war with their babies. What doesn’t fit in the image is not my daughter, but me with my blond hair.

Zella and I live in Urbana, Illinois, where many of the sidewalks and some of the streets are still made of brick, where globed lights shine out at night, and where huge trees that have survived tornadoes, ice storms, and disease drape themselves like a canopy over wide streets in summer.

Because Urbana is a Midwestern town and privacy is as essential as a front porch is in some neighborhoods, it’s possible to pass the same people year after year, on the street, or at the gas station, and ignore them in the same way you always do, while simultaneously noting the different hairdo, the slight aging of the faces. Sometimes without any formal acknowledgment strollers appear, sometimes double strollers, and you say, “Oh, you had a baby” or “Oh my gosh, twins!” to people you don’t even know, and they realize you knew something about them and now know something more about them.

All these rules of privacy change in the grocery store. I’ve seen people crying in the grocery store, people making out, people screaming at their children, and people getting arrested, things that aren’t usually visible on the street. It’s a type of theatre amidst rows of the mundane, of Whisk and Dawn and toilet paper.

The grocery store was also the place I first noted that the community at large was not going to automatically connect me to Zella. It was in the grocery store that I realized, like all parents who put their children in day care, that Zella had a life apart from me. I’d be wheeling her around in the grocery store, and in aisle two someone I’d never seen before would say, “Hi Zella,” and then a different someone would say, “Hi Zella,” in aisle four, while ignoring me. Zella never responded, just rode along in the little basket like she was in a parade.

As Zella began elementary school, both her secret life and my knowledge of it became more pronounced. “Did you see Zella interviewed on the five o’clock news?” my aunt once called to ask.

“Zella? Where was she? Why were they interviewing her?”

“She supports the troops,” my aunt informed me. “She was welcoming them home. She had on a USA headband that she made. It was very nice.”

This was the second time Zella had been interviewed on television without my knowledge. Before someone told me about the fine print in the camp and school documents we are always signing, giving them permission to use our children’s images, I started to get worried that no one was checking with me because she was a kid who didn’t seem like she had parents. Of course that’s not really it. Everybody with a second grader at that elementary was surprised to see her child on television. But someone told me once that adoptive children belong to the village that Hilary Clinton is always talking about, and, I have to say, when I saw Zella’s portrait on the front page of the newspaper while walking by the newsstand, I thought, well, maybe she’s the town kid.

I named my daughter Zella after my grandmother. She was not my biological grandmother, having married my widowed grandfather when she was forty. Never having had children herself and having stepchildren too old to parent, she took on the role with more ardor than my other grandmother. She made me call her Grandmother rather than Grandma, a title that fit her formal sense of order. “My girl,” she would call me, after we had finished setting a china table or embroidering a quilt, and I liked being claimed in that way. No one else called me “my girl,” though, in retrospect, no one else had to. Their relations were a given.

This is what I want my relationship to my daughter to be: a given. And what it will never be. There will always be people in grocery stores when we travel; who will say in front of her, “Where did you get her?” There have been people in grocery stores who, when she was really young, asked in front of her, “How much did she cost?” as if she couldn’t understand English. When Zella was three, she was walking in front of me at a large store when an employee with a name badge tried to steer her to an Asian couple at the check-out line, saying, “There are you parents, honey.” I managed to intervene, but not before three people were perplexed. This public attempt either to separate child from parent, or reunite family units is really about race and not adoption. My friend Bev, whose adopted children are from Russia, is never questioned about their origin, and my Irish friend Bill, whose son’s mother is Chinese, is continually asked where he “got” his biological son.

When I go places with my niece Claire, who has light curly hair like mine, I see the difference in the response; people assume she’s my daughter. Once, when I informed someone she wasn’t, the person argued with me: “But she looks exactly like you.” Once when I had both of them out together, a man pointed at Claire (who was doing nothing but being blond) and said to me, “Good job,” while ignoring Zella completely.

I can’t stay away from these people because I don’t know where they are going to pop up. I learn to smile through them or to educate them, or, if it looks like they might say something insensitive, to pre-empt them.

Zella too, learns this. When, at six, she introduced me to one of her little cohorts as “my adoptive mom,” I was a little surprised, and kidded with her: “Your adoptive mom?” But when I went to have lunch with her at school the next day, a seven-year-old boy came up to me, and, as if Zellla weren’t there, said: “Are you her mom?” Zella was silent. I said yes. “Well, you are white,” he said, and then squinted his eyes toward Zella, “and she seems to be Spanish or Chinese.” He walked a little closer to her and considered some more: “I guess Chinese,” he confirmed, and then shrugged and held out his hands as if to say: “Explain that.”

I did, and the little boy nodded seriously, but all the while Zella remained silent, looking ahead, and I thought, for the first time really, about how she, in her life away from me, is probably required to explain our relationship constantly. She was being efficient when she introduced me as her adoptive mother.

By the time Zella was four, we had become firmly connected to one another, at least in the local grocery store community eye. I lost my real name and became known as “Zella’s mom.” I had to develop an expression which showed slight embarrassment and wry amusement along with great fondness (something like the expression everyone on 60 Minutes is required to wear after one of Andy Rooney’s commentaries) when Zella would stop at the “aquarium” to talk to the lobsters before moving onto the meat section (the farm), where she would sing two different refrains of “Old MacDonald,” moving from the beef to the pork when she came to their respective counterparts in the song and arriving finally at the muton chops, where she would conclude her serenade with “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Pretty much everyone except for the butcher was charmed, although I admit I once saw a couple waiting for rump roast turn away. My daughter is no vegetarian, and I thought what she was doing in her ritual was similar to some Native American proverb I once heard, the gist of which was you don’t get off the earth without doing harm, so you should bless the harm you are going to do.

Make no mistake. My daughter is an American girl. A girl who not only waves flags, but impales herself with them. But she is also a girl whose ancestors are buried in another country. Many of mine are buried down the road. Both sets of my grandparents were from this area, and I’m always running into relatives I’ve never met, many of whom, especially the ones who fought in the Korean War, seem surprised to find themselves attached in any way to an Asian Child.

Once, when Zella was a baby and I was out of town, my parents put her between them to sleep, just as they did with me when I was young. My mother said she woke up and looked at the scene and had a thought that prompted her to start laughing and wake my father up. “Don,” she said, “if a psychic had said when we were young, ‘I see you at sixty-five sleeping with a Chinese baby’ we wouldn’t have believed her.” Although Zella is pleased to have an extended family here, consisting of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, as she’s gotten older she also feels fairly free to remove herself from that family if their beliefs don’t match hers, switching pronouns from “ours” to “yours” at will, a freedom I myself have never experienced. “Why is everyone in your family against dragons?” she asked me on her seventh birthday, referring to a fundamentalist, iconoclastic member to whom everyone else acquiesces to avoid fights.

“It’s not that they’re against dragons,” I said. “I think they just don’t understand them.”

“Well I do,” she said.

She understands dragons; she understands animal symbols; by the time she was four, she knew she wanted to study Chinese. A part of her imagination resides in historical China. A part of mine resides on Route 66 and with the JFK administration—both idealized memories preferable to our real current countries. China, it can’t be denied, values boys over girls, and America, well, we’ve got some basic problems here too. I try to teach her about the country of my imagination, but I’ve been too embarrassed to tell her about my first imagining of hers.

Like many children in my generation, I was under the impression that it was possible to dig to China, and I would spend hours trying to make a hole big enough to see the golf conical hats I was sure would be on the heads of the family I would find down there, sitting around the table eating rice. It was heartbreaking and frustrating never to actually meet them, because in my imagination, they were there, just under the next scoop of dirt and sand.

Looking back on this I am amazed, not only by the collective gullibility of all the children who participated in this venture, but also by the parents who exploited this gullibility. And I’m kind of jealous. Obviously, I can’t just tell Zella to go dig to China because it would be cruel and politically incorrect, but also because we as contemporary parents just don’t have the freedom to stick a kid and a shovel out into a yard for hours. We have playdates.

My daughter was not even an American citizen when she stuck that flag up her nose. She had a green card and a tiny red Chinese passport, because, even though I had adopted her as a baby two years before, she was required to go through a naturalization process, which, can take years in some states.

On his way out of office, President Clinton signed a bill giving immediate citizenship to foreign-born adopted children, and I was surprised at how happy it made me to formally share a country with my daughter, how happy it made me that Zella was able at last to become an American citizen. On the day she became an American citizen, shortly after her third birthday, we had a cake with several little flags sticking out of it. “Remember the hole?” she said. And later that year, after 9/11, when flags proliferated up and down our street, it became almost a mantra: “Remember the hole? Remember the hole?” Of course I remembered the hole, and there was new emptiness at the World Trade Center site I was thinking of almost constantly in those days, but there was another hole I also remembered, a more metaphorical one that had to do with a missing child. I was someone who had always wanted children and—through relationship infertility rather that physical infertility—was giving a hard time getting to them. For years, during my thirties, there was a child or children I was searching for, but figuring out a way to call them to me was as frustrating and seemingly as futile as digging to China.

That night, after the party, after the cake, after the flags, I sat down to write my memories of the day. Zella sat next to me coloring. I wrote about how I was glad to have something else to share with her, another reinforcement of the permanent and legal commitment we made when she was six moths old, at the U.S. embassy in China. When the officer had ordered me to raise my right hand, Zella, who couldn’t really sit upright, somehow had managed to raise her right hand while I took the oath, and the promise we made transcends a lot.

After I printed out what I’d written, Zella stopped coloring and asked me to read it to her, and I did. Even at three, her perceptions were acute. Ever since Bush II came into office, she has insisted on calling him “The Magistrate” after the ruler in Amy Tan’s cartoon, Sagwa of China. At first I corrected her, but she was adamant, and after enough time went by, I agreed that we needed a new title for our forty-third president. She had also been practicing “reading” New Yorker cartoons to me, making up her own captions for the cartoons, which often times were funnier and made more sense than the real captions.

So when, after I had read the pages aloud to her, she reached for them, saying, “I’ll read it now,” I handed them to her. I was curious to see what she would make up for this story, this child who hadn’t started to worry things in her head yet, and who doesn’t yet know all the narratives and images of race, biology, nationality, and loss we are going to have to negotiate. Here is what she, my daughter, my girl, told me it said:

“And then she became a Momma. The End.”

Author’s Note: Zella is eight now, and as the dialogue about adoption, both international and domestic, becomes more open, we don’t face as many questions as we used to. Still, we live in a culture that almost fetishizes biological ties (watch any soap opera and see how one DNA test automatically a family makes). I wanted to consider the topic of adoption in writing, partially because in our day-to-day life it’s a minor or negligible issue. My major experience of parenthood: stepping into what you couldn’t have imagined, and being delighted to find out your imagination didn’t have the largeness, or the vision, or vocabulary to define what has become the goodness of your life.

Brain, Child (Winter 2007)

Gale Renee Walden lives in Urbana, Illinois, with her 15-year old daughter, Zella, and their dog, Junebug, and is currently writing a memoir.

The First Day of Kindergarten—and the Photograph

The First Day of Kindergarten—and the Photograph

IMG_8955This week we marked a big first—the first day of kindergarten for the small gal. She set off ready, with her brand-new lunchbox—just like two of her preschool pals had—and her ladybug backpack and her pigtails. I said no to flip-flops; she insisted upon wearing them. Like the seasoned parent I am, I consented, because I knew the teachers would let her know the rules—no flip-flops—and then we’d return to the sensible summery appropriate-for-school footwear. She wore a headband and her hair was sprayed with the rosemary lice repellent.

Many people said things to me along the lines of this being our last first day of kindergarten. That’s true. I certainly thought about how much easier this fourth first day of kindergarten drop-off was than the first one, as I left her amongst nervous peers and a more nervous thicket of camera-wielding parents in the midst of first-time kindergarten starts. She was fortunate that her first grade partner, Max, was so easygoing and warm and directive. They took off from the sign-in board to the rug. Just before she left me after signing in and before she walked to the rug, she grabbed an extra hug, one she made super-strong. Fortified with enough mama love, she was on her way.

After I said goodbye, I went from drop-off to meeting to another meeting. It wasn’t until later that I had a chance to look at the photographs I’d snapped at school. There she was, signing in with all the seriousness a starting-kindergartner musters for this most big-kid event. I sent out an email of those initial moments—to all the grandparents and to her birth mama, and a few others. As I hit send, I had a tug I sometimes feel when I share these milestones. I felt guilty that I got to be the one to experience this prideful, somewhat shaky, completely exciting moment firsthand.

The photograph allowed me both to feel this and to share the milestone. It’s funny how it did two things. Certainly, in the ragtag mess of kids and parents and teachers eager for the extraneous adults to leave, I didn’t think about her birth mama, my dear husband or anyone else. I was focused upon one thing above all others and that was to make as hasty and uncomplicated a retreat from the classroom as possible. I left the tears to other kids and other parents. The fact that I’d documented the moment allowed for reflection.

When I did stare at her serious little hand grasping that marker to circle her name on the sign-in board, I was able to feel my sense of amazing fortune. I’ve spoken to enough adoptive parents about this to know that I’m not alone in feeling fortunate this way, not just during babyhood. I know others have told me this goes on for years and years. It’s one of the things about adoptive parenthood I hadn’t really anticipated, the strong and ongoing waves of gratitude. I hadn’t anticipated that when you talk about the sensation with other adoptive parents, it’s as if you’ve joined a club, a little subset of the parents’ club. I don’t expect to stop feeling grateful.

I also allowed myself to acknowledge that I felt a momentary wave of guilt wash over me. I felt it right alongside the sense of fortune, and I don’t feel it nearly so often as I feel grateful. But, that morning I did. Maybe, along with the gratitude and the guilt was vulnerability, the not-knowing what the best move would be just then. I wondered whether the secondhand moment I’d just sent along would be a happy gift or whether it would be melancholy, in the way big markers or holidays might be more fraught than regular ones.

This is not mine to know, necessarily. There might not be one single answer for her mama. These seem the way birthdays do, like moments to share. If we can share the picture, maybe the moment becomes all of ours? I wanted to share the moment, and the pride. I didn’t want to intrude. Not all of the extended family—birth family and my own—are on Facebook, where I could simply post the photos and leave to chance whether they see them. I didn’t want to do that, anyway. I did want to reach out, intentionally. I do that routinely enough for lesser reasons. The bigger-ticket ones I capture on the camera, I do like to share, even if sometimes, I have these flashes of insecurity around them. I imagine these images and feelings to fall into the muddled and confused and generously loving pile that we could characterize as what makes open adoption open.

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Something To Think About: In Adoption, Fathers Have Few Rights

040456be40b65c65439284ca4ab4f3f4Mother places child for adoption. Parents try to adopt child. But where’s the father?

Here is how it works in Ohio, the state where I live. Hopeful adoptive parents take the baby home once mother has signed surrenders. Most agencies will not let you take the baby home sooner but the surrenders can be signed at 72-hours post-partum so it’s not that long a wait. This is not adoption, not yet. In Ohio, the baby is not actually adopted until at least six months have gone by. Theoretically the mother has 30 days after surrender to contest the adoption. This is very nearly impossible to win since there must be indisputable coercion present (say, for example, the mother signed the surrenders at gun point). It is very hard to prove anything as nebulous as emotional coercion (such as a woman who will lose her housing if she brings the baby home).

Theoretically the father also has 30 days to contest the adoption.

A man who believes he may be the father of the child of an unmarried mother may preserve his right to contest to the child’s adoption by registering with the Ohio Putative Father Registry. Even fathers under the age of 18 may register with the Ohio Putative Father Registry.

A putative father is a man who may be the father of a child, but is not married to the child’s mother when she becomes pregnant or when the child is born, AND he has not adopted the child, AND a court or child support enforcement agency has not decided he is the child’s legal father. Registration can occur at any time during pregnancy, but no later than 30 days after the birth of the child. Registration with the Ohio Putative Father Registry does not make a man the legal father of a child and does not establish paternity, but it preserves the right to be notified if the child’s mother places the child for adoption. For more information, call the Ohio Putative Father Registry at 1-888-313-3100. (

Putative father registries exist in 33 states although each state may handle their registry differently. Some states demand putative fathers register within five days after birth; some allow them to register anytime after. This affects birth father rights but also the rights of hopeful adoptive parents and, of course, the babies who are living in limbo.

To contest an adoption (or to be told that an adoption is imminent), putative fathers must register in the state where they live, in the state where the mother lives (if different) and any state where she might visit. For example, some adoption agencies will fly an expectant mother from the state where she lives to the state where the agency operates and if the putative father is not registered in that state, he will forfeit his rights. Some states are less committed to protecting birth father rights (Utah is notorious for railroading fathers into adoption) and unscrupulous agencies will send expectant mothers there with the intention of keeping fathers from learning about the adoption. (See the story:

I’ve been thinking about this because of the very convoluted, very complicated case of Baby Veronica. Baby Veronica is a preschooler whose mother placed her for adoption without clear consent of her father, Dusten Brown. A South Carolina couple assumed physical custody of Veronica with the assumption that they were free to adopt her. The couple was present when Veronica was born and took her home from the hospital after her birth mother relinquished her parental rights. When Veronica was four months old, Dusten Brown was served with notification from the couple stating their intention to adopt her. Brown immediately initiated court proceedings to stop the adoption and gain custody of his daughter. At age two, Brown was given custody but the couple went back to court to fight the decision.

The case is further complicated by the differences in state adoption laws (Brown lives in Oklahoma and the couple live in South Carolina) and, notably, that Brown is a member of the Cherokee nation. If Brown were not Cherokee, it’s unlikely this case would have gone as far as it has. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) states that Native American children may not be adopted into the homes of non-native people without the consent of tribe, regardless of the biological parents intentions. In this case, the ICWA became involved because they did not give consent.

In other words, it’s Brown’s rights as a Native American man and not as a father that have given him a fighting chance to parent his daughter.

We need to talk to our sons about this. We talk to daughters about pregnancy and choices and options but we need to talk to our sons specifically about their rights and lack thereof. I had no idea that putative father registries existed until we began the process to adopt our daughter. Most men I’ve talked to also have no idea that they exist.

Personally, as a pro-choice feminist, I unequivocally support a woman’s right to choose when it comes to abortion. However, when it comes to decisions about adoption, fathers should be able to participate in the decision-making. Putative father registries only work when men know about them, are able to access them easily and without confusion, and when the fathers who try to stay involved are given the space and support to do so.

Author’s Note: Readers interested in the court decisions around the Baby Veronica case can look to the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys site, which includes a pdf of the US Supreme Court Decision in Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl (

Art by Michael Lombardo

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She’s Lucky

She’s Lucky

IMG_8861Most well meaning lines that don’t come across the way people wish they would, have to do with an innate misunderstanding of what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. So many times, we want to help or mean to flatter, but our attempts are clunky or just wrong or only partially on the mark. Note: I believe the attempt counts.

These days the thing people say that doesn’t come across correctly is this: “Your daughter is so lucky you adopted her,” or some iteration of that sentiment. Although it’s happened many times in the last five years, there’s always a beat of silence before I respond, as if I have to recover from the surprise and perhaps tame my own complicated response. After that split second, I say what’s true: “I’m the lucky one.”

I’m lucky because she’s awesome. I’m lucky because she’s adorable and feisty and sincere and sassy and smart and silly. I’m lucky because she’s got more energy than nearly any five year-old I’ve ever met. I’m lucky because she has brought verve into our family. I’m lucky because she’s made all the brothers into bigger brothers and brothers of a sister. I’m lucky because there are two girls in the family, now.

I’m lucky because she’s brought lots more family into our family. I remember a friend who adopted a baby from China telling me that she felt the world got smaller once she met her daughter halfway across the world and they became a family. Their family of two spanned the world—and therefore their family included the world and they were part of the world. It seemed to make her perception of family fall into a larger context. I concur. I’m lucky because she’s our family and we’re hers.

What trips me up about the she’s lucky idea is really not the ways we’re lucky. It’s the notion that adoption is altruistic. It’s not, not like that. I didn’t think to myself (and I’d be curious if anyone out there did), “Wow, I’d like to help others. I think I’ll have children.” I wanted to become a parent. That was, ultimately, selfish. Once they’re here, a great deal of what feels like altruism is required, sure. The ones I gave birth to made me throw up countless times between them, expand to near-bursting, and experience all sorts of other discomforts and emotions even before they arrived as tiny, completely helpless humans. And then of course, they were all tiny, helpless humans.

Sacrifice is required to raise children. Loss of control occurs, regardless of how much you can’t imagine this before you are in the position of losing it so profoundly. The fifteen-second thing the flight attendant says before the plane takes off about how you need to put your oxygen mask on first suddenly becomes a philosophical quandary, one that like a Möbius strip can seem one thing then another and then another still, unendingly so. “Parenting is relentless,” my dear and very patient husband says sometimes late at night or early in the morning or when one calls us upset about dinner during the one overnight away we took this summer.

But if it were completely cut-and-dried I probably wouldn’t feel so churned up by this notion of my daughter’s good fortune. I love her first mother. I understand now that I’ve been more intimate with the process of adoption the kind of obvious truth that any woman contemplating an adoption decision is in crisis. Whether it’s acute or not, and every single story is different; every woman, every family, has a unique situation, so while that sounds like a blanket statement, it’s more like a very broad statement. So, then the lucky question becomes different again. Yes, I guess, she is. Lucky is a complicated term when such huge loss is mixed up in the fate that she is where she is, right? Lucky feels like a breezy term, like winning a raffle is lucky. It feels too breezy. What word would work better? Is there an idea to convey the complicated roil of circumstances and emotions that do make a certain sense, if what we’re trying to say is that given the fates, which made this girl “ours,” we’re collectively fortunate? I can’t go, as some do, to some notion of karma. Rather than nodding when someone says this was meant to be, I settle more upon this is. Without any over-thinking, I’m comfortable with the notion that this is our family and we’re so lucky to be a family.

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One in 1.3 Billion

One in 1.3 Billion

By Chris Huntington

summer2011_huntingtonOur family endures a weird celebrity. It doesn’t come from being unusually good-looking or accomplished, but just from being odd to look at. My wife, Shasta, has eyes the color of faded denim. She’s four foot ten and only weighs about a hundred pounds. Her tiny hands are pale as eggshells; sunlight is something she likes to read about. On the other hand, because my maternal grandparents emigrated from Guangzhou and my paternal grandparents were Hoosiers, I have a thin, vaguely mongrel appearance one might associate with the Tajik people or the Uzbeks. Shasta’s grandmother, a true New Englander, once asked her why I was so swarthy. Our son, on the other hand, is the color of milk chocolate. He was born outside Addis Ababa and is one member of a new generation of Ethiopians raised abroad. Together, we are an odd trio.

Dagim is a happy human cannonball, a three-year-old lion with a tiny Afro. He spins like a dervish with his fingers fluttering to music only he hears. Some days, he says he’s going to stay little like his mommy. Some days he wants to get big like me. A month ago, we were walking to a hill we could see in the distance, and he wanted to know if I could carry it home for him. He seemed surprised when I said no. He climbs me like a tree; this morning he declared he was cold and tunneled his forehead into my neck. He let me carry him to our back door. His eyes were closed against my chest, and I felt fragile with happiness.

Yesterday, one of my new co-workers came by the apartment. His wife, who is expecting, rubbed her waist and told Dag she had a baby inside. “We’re going to give our son a baby sister,” she said.

Dag repeated this story five times after the couple and their boy left. He also told one of his stuffed animals, “I don’t have sisters. I just have friends.” I could see Dag’s brain considering the new possibilities. He wanted to know if he had ever been behind his mommy’s belly button. He was wondering if he was going to get a baby sister. The words for the questions were lining up to come out, though they never quite made it. I could see Shasta doing calculations of her own. She was preparing her voice, her sad eyes rehearsing; she doesn’t want to sound sad when she answers. I want to interrupt them both, stop the conversation. I want to tell a different story of our family. One that doesn’t start with the word “No.”

One time in the airport, we passed a husband and wife and their four kids, all of whom had beautiful teeth and golden Viking hair. Shasta said, “That family looks like a chess set designed by Abercrombie and Fitch.”

“What are we?” I said.

“We’re not a chess set,” she said. “We’re action figures.”

I was forty years old when I became a father. Shasta was thirty-two. We had tried for years to make a baby the old-fashioned way. High school guidance counselors always warn that it’s horribly easy to get pregnant. But it wasn’t easy for us. We discovered that, unlike the rest of our species, our particular DNA was completely uninterested in preserving itself. We applied to adopt from China. Half my family came from there; I felt a kind of invisible connection—a red thread around the world—but then, that didn’t work, either. We were put on a list that was at least five years long. I borrowed money from my parents, and we saw a fertility expert, a skinny man who once walked past me without a glance as if I were an empty armchair in his waiting room. And then we found this little boy living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa. He didn’t have anyone. He needed us. We needed him.

Until recently, we lived in Indianapolis, and we stood out a bit there. We now live four hundred miles north of Hong Kong where we stand out even more. I took a job teaching in Xiamen, one of the fifty or so Chinese cities with more than two million people. (A friend of mine is fond of saying, “You know that guy who’s one in a million? Well, there are a thousand guys like him in China.”) We moved to Xiamen for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I was suddenly unemployed in a recession. My wife and I also thought that maybe it would be good for Dag if he weren’t the only one who felt different when we walked down the street. If all three of us were equally unlike our neighbors, our three-year-old wouldn’t have to bear the weight of it all by himself. In retrospect, we might have misjudged what it would mean to stand out in a place where the buses are filled window to window with shiny, straight black hair.

We’ve had strangers here step forward to ask if Dagim is our son. If Shasta’s alone, the stranger will ask, “But his father is black, right?”

Shasta always smiles, “No, not really,” or, “Well, he likes Sade.” Then she continues grocery shopping or whatever she’s doing.

I hesitate when I’m asked if Dagim’s mother is black, not wanting to disrespect either my wife or Dagim’s birth parents. But I usually say no, his mother is white. After all, we’re a family, and Shasta is his mother. But sometimes people follow up with the comment, “But his face is not like yours” and wait for an explanation.

I’m not sure what kind of explanation they expect. Do they expect me to act surprised? To say my wife has cheated on me? To announce that Dagim is an experiment? I stare back, and people smile and blink. Without guile. They’re not trying to hurt my feelings. These are old women who sweep the street with tree branch brooms. Or they’re young people who have no idea that their T-shirts are nonsense (“Bad Groundwater” or “Big Onion Boy”). Or they’re men who lived through the Cultural Revolution only to turn fifty and find the NBA logo on their Tsingtao beer. I think we get asked questions because people are honestly perplexed. One person told me that because many Chinese have heard that Barack Obama had a white mother, the idea has spread that black people can be born to white people. From their perspective, they are suddenly standing on the bus next to a thirty-five-pound Kobe Bryant. Can I explain it?

We hardly know how to explain it to ourselves. We’ve told Dagim the simplest version of the story. Adoption experts have told us that when Dagim asks about his birth family, we should tell him how his birth mother loved him so much, she gave him up. She wanted to keep him, but she was too poor, in one of the poorest countries on earth. There just wasn’t enough money or food to go around. But it seems to us that someday Dag is going to say, “People don’t give up things they love. You love me, and you’re not giving me up,” or he’s going to look at Time magazine and see pictures of poor people clutching babies in floods or wars and instead of feeling compassion, he’ll feel hurt that someone who looks like him let him go.

We’ve been told that if he ever wishes he could have been a baby inside my wife or wishes he was the same color as us, we should say something along the lines of, “We don’t wish that because then you wouldn’t be you, and we love you the way you are—which is perfect.” But the fact is, sometimes I look at him sleeping and I wish my skin were the same beautiful brown. I don’t like being different from him. I wish he could look up and see his face in mine. I wish that we could walk into an Indiana Denny’s together and he would not be the only person of color outside of the kitchen. Sometimes I feel as if this hurt, this longing, is something we need to share. Other times, I think I should just keep it to myself. But why do Chinese people on the bus think I want to talk to them about it?

When we were preparing to move to China, family and friends constantly joked about how we were sure to come home with a little girl, as if Chinese babies were stacked like bags of rice in giant warehouses. Americans associate China with adoption, but Chinese people themselves don’t. In a country of 1.3 billion people, the loss of some six thousand orphans a year is not immediately visible. My Chinese teacher, who has worked in the expat community for years, was ready to argue when I said that a lot of Chinese girls were adopted into American families. When I opened a website, she pulled the laptop from my hands. “Lucky girls,” she said finally, handing it back. It was a ridiculous thing to say about abandoned children, but to be fair: My teacher was taken by surprise. In China, grandparents may raise grandkids while parents work in factories, but adoption, especially from Africa, is not something normal people do. They’re not allowed. There wasn’t even a legal statute for domestic adoption until 1992, and this required that the adopting parents be over thirty-five years old and have no other children. The common observation is that the Chinese government has suppressed its domestic adoption because it believes if couples are allowed to give up girls for adoption (in order to try again for a boy), this will undermine the population control policy. My wife and I struggled to expand our family, but for over a billion people living around us, it’s apparently so easy that the government made one child the legal limit for each couple. Childless families here struggle in their own ways, but they do not turn to adoption the way Americans do.

Adoption here is essentially impossible except perhaps in a paperless way by extended family. Our Chinese neighbors must know or suspect Dagim is adopted, but the knowledge is uncertain and mysterious because a Chinese version of our family could not exist. I don’t think there is a single Chinese family who has adopted from Ethiopia. We’re treated at times as though we came from another world, but I suppose we did.

After moving from our house in Indiana to an apartment in Xiamen, Dagim struck up a friendship with the neighbor’s blackbird. The bird greets anyone on our porch with either dead-on mimicry of the neighbor clearing his throat or the words “Ni Hao!” That’s about all the Chinese Dagim knows; it means “hello.” Dagim thinks of China as “where pandas live” and “the Great Wall.” He sees China as endless bowls of noodles and busy chopsticks and rice. Some days, Dagim likes kung pao chicken.  Some days, he doesn’t. For Dagim, China is also a place where strangers approach him on the bus to pinch his kinky hair. Ever since we got here, Shasta and I have promised ourselves that we would show Dagim a China that he can love.?A colleague told me that he was going to take some people to see panda bears. “Take us,” I said.

I’m not a naturalist at heart. I love the world, but I haven’t slept outdoors much since I became an adult. I knew, however, that there were fewer than a thousand panda bears left in the world. I wanted to show Dagim some pandas from a few feet away. A part of me felt that if I could do that, then maybe someday Dagim’s children would look at him like he’d touched a dinosaur. I wanted to give him that, just in case everything else about moving to China turned out to have been a mistake.

When we arrived at the preserve, the Chinese officials in charge insisted we watch a documentary about the animals we were about to see. We learned that pandas are solitary, spending most of the year without even seeing another panda, and when they come together to mate, they are spectacularly unsuccessful, even in the wild. The documentary went into great detail about the artificial insemination that scientists used to keep the species alive in captivity. “Hmm,” my wife said. “I like pandas. They’re a lot like us. They’re ridiculous.”


“Well, they make easy things hard for themselves, but they don’t bother anybody.”

“The easy way,” I said, and I rolled my eyes. “Who would want to do things the easy way?”

“Right,” my wife said. We watched some more of the video. The pandas, unlike every other bear, limit their diet to bamboo, which means they need to eat about forty-five pounds of the plant every day. Shasta laughed. “Oh, come on. They’re impossible!”

“They’re beautiful. They’re black and white and live in China,” I said. “They’re absolutely us.”

This is what I want to tell Dagim when he asks about a pregnant woman’s waist. “Anyone can make a family that way,” I want to tell him. “Anybody. Except us. And panda bears. And stars. Stars just appear. Sometimes they fall to earth. That’s our family, Dagim. That’s absolutely us.”

Author’s Note: After I wrote this essay, my family, by chance, shared a Chinese taxi with a woman of color from South Africa. She asked Dagim about himself, and he spontaneously told her he was born in Ethiopia and that we’d adopted him when he was little. I’d never heard him tell the story before; he was leaning off his seat, overflowing with happiness. As we said goodbye, Dagim raised his fist and said, “AMANDLA!” just like Nelson Mandela, and the woman rushed forward to kiss him. “How did you learn that?” she repeated, and I was blind with pride.  

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

Chris Huntington taught in the American prison system for ten years before moving to China with his family. His is the author of the novel, Mike Tyson Slept Here. His essays about family and adoption have been anthologized in Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting and This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. His website is

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Childlessness at the Crossroads

Childlessness at the Crossroads

By Katy Horan

Child and Young CoupleThree months after our third and final in vitro fertilization cycle had failed, Dan and I had returned to the fertility clinic, its Seattle Zen decor designed to pacify our sorrows and forget the fortune we had spent trying to quench our baby lust. A medical assistant with a sweet smile ushered us into a consultation room with faux shoji doors that whooshed with relief as we were closed in. Dan looked as if he might bolt if the doors weren’t closed.

Four weeks prior during a tickling, teasing bedtime conversation, I had convinced Dan that we should pursue egg donation as our final effort to get pregnant. My forty-year-old eggs were too old; they had been shoved to the back of my ovarian refrigerator, passing their “best by” date as I buried myself in medical residency, pulmonary fellowship, and serial dating. When I met Dan, we were both on the north side of thirty-five and had no luck getting pregnant the old fashioned way. A willing participant in the “natural” approach to babymaking, Dan had struggled with the “unnaturalness” of every step that we had taken so far: reversing his vasectomy, intrauterine insemination, and the three in vitro fertilizations. He had wanted to pursue adoption from the very start. But, each step along the way, I had convinced him that we should try one more technique to have a child. Weeks before, I was stunned when he consented to try egg donation, but on the morning of the appointment, whatever charm I had cast to change his mind had unraveled. When the alarm startled us from sleep, we were camped on opposite sides of our bed—in retreat to our strongholds.

In the consultation room, I stared out the picture window at the grey clouds that obscured Mt. Rainier. Early on in our infertility treatments, I had seen the volcano as a good omen and would stare out the window at her, willing her to help us. She is the “mother of waters” and on her eastern flank, she carries “Little Tahoma” on her hip. Despite my prayers, neither she nor any god had interceded on our childlessness. Warm tears slid down my cheeks. I glanced at Dan with his jacket zipped up to his Adam’s apple and his brow furrowed. His eyes met mine and he winced at my tears.

“I’m sorry, this room always makes me cry,” I said, my voice flat without a tinge of sincerity. A little insincerity seemed better than screaming, “I’m crying because you are acting like a big jerk, like you don’t want to be here, like this is some chore, or torture that I’m putting you through, and it’s so unfair that I have to carry this weight all by myself.”  I wanted to stomp my feet and rattle the shoji door until the assistant came running, panic fading her sweet smile. Instead, I took his left hand, which was cold and clammy, and traced the groove in his wedding ring.

The coordinator entered. She was friendly and spoke in a kind, modulated voice, intentionally oblivious to the crackling tension between Dan and me. She explained the process and the success rates while writing out notes in her loopy, fat handwriting. She described the egg donors as altruistic, graduate students who wanted to make a little money while helping the childless. Dan scowled with distrust. I sniffled and asked about a documentary that I had watched that sensationalized the egg donation process as an “Eggsploitation.”  The coordinator nodded and explained that those things happened in California and New York where egg donation had created a capitalist mayhem with the scarce “best” eggs fetching $100,000. Not here in Washington, she explained.

Yes, I thought, we of the Subaru and Seattle Nice, we would never exploit innocent young women for our own gain. She slid the notes across the table to Dan. The shoji doors swooshed closed again.

I watched a fat tear splatter on the coordinator’s notes and tracked its journey back to Dan’s red eyes. This was new. Whereas I always cried in the consultation room, Dan never broke his tense stoicism.

Unable to speak, he slid the tear stained notes toward me. We could use frozen donor eggs and fertilize them with Dan’s sperm until we created a single embryo (70% success). We could pay for a donor to go through an IVF cycle then use Dan’s sperm to create related embryos (80% success). Or, we could use another couple’s unused embryos (75% success). Dan had scratched notes next to each option. His notes were spartan: D + ? vs. D + ? vs. ? + ?.  He had come full circle from not wanting children, to not caring if they were genetically related to us, and now to wanting our child to reflect both of us genetically, or nothing at all.

After a two hundred and sixty dollar consultation about egg donation, 3 IVFs, 2 IUIs, and 3 years of trying, we were no closer to having a child.

People ask us, “Why don’t you just adopt?”  I’ve noticed two important points about the “just adopters.”  First, they have never adopted because if so, they would understand that you can’t “just adopt,” because adopting isn’t like going to the SPCA and picking out a dog and filing an application with a $210 check. Second, the “just adopters” often have their own biologic child perched on their hip. While the “just adopters” are well meaning in their question, they did not grow their family through an arduous process by which strangers dissect their finances, their pasts, and their current life choices. The “just adopters” didn’t pay $4,000-$45,000 for said drooler on their hip.

Maybe they are aware of the expense of adoption. Maybe they know that in addition to the adoption application fees and costs, in the foster to adopt program, prospective adoptive parents have to childproof their home for all ages and complete >30 hours of training. Last time I checked, no training was required of fertile couples. No applications, no courses, no home visits. Hence the chip on my shoulder—the infertile have battled childlessness for years, paid tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, but still we have to prove that we deserve to be parents? Yes, why not just adopt? That way, I can wait years to adopt a child and then have it happen all of a sudden, have to leave work without the usual 9 1/2 months notice, and not qualify for paid maternity leave because the infant that is finally wiggling in my arms didn’t get there by way of my vagina or an incision in my abdominal wall.

These are all very minor inconveniences when at the end, you have a child and you are a parent. And that is what we want. We want to be parents. But, why? This is another question that fertile couples never have to answer, but prospective adoptive parents do.

Why do I want to have children? I would argue that I want a child for the same reasons that we all want children. They smell bad in a good way.

I can’t speak for Dan. I worry that his drive to be a father is more out of empathy for my unquenched desires. But, I have never doubted that he would be a great dad. He has a blanket approach to love, consistent and meticulous, whether he is loving me, a handmade bike, or our dog. I’ve watched him get down on his hands and knees with our friends’ kids and zoom, zoom, zoom a fire truck along the floor. But, when he stands back up, he isn’t intoxicated by the nearness of their toddler chub like I am. Baby lust overwhelms me. I want to satisfy that desire.

I want to spy trillium on a forest hike, with my child leaning into me to share my gaze. I want to puree food that Dan and I make only to find it cemented to the under side of the kitchen counter weeks later. I want to hear a whiney, “Up, up,” and know that it is only me, my hip, my arm that is wanted. I want to wrap myself selfishly around my child, and then have Dan layer on, a second coat of snuggle. I want to kiss the stitches on a tiny forehead and watch the sweet scar fade as that face matures. I want to discover the patience I have never had while ferrying a surly teen to soccer games. I want to complete the triangle: Dan, me, and the kid. I want to see Dan zoom, zoom, zooming with our own child.

When I think about what being a parent means, I crave parenting in its totality: the mundane, the grotesque, the wonder.  Although I would love to watch a pair of violet eyes flicker and then slam shut against the first light outside my womb, the act of carrying our baby within me isn’t that important to me.  I’ve read books and articles by women torn apart by their desire to give birth and I’m turned off by their single-mindedness. I stand back, cross my arms, and smirk, “I’m not like those crazy women—giving birth it not what it important to me—I just want to be a parent.”  Then I catch myself in my lie.  If I really didn’t care about giving birth, why didn’t we adopt three years ago?

I’ll admit it, I am not completely over the idea of being pregnant, giving birth to a baby made of us, and nourishing her with my breasts. An empty womb is a vacuum, and like any vacuum it demands to be filled. At times, my baby lust beats as if a second heartbeat. If I could isolate the parenting rhythm from the giving birth tha-thump, I’d be ready to adopt. But, the rhythm in my head is far more complex and keeps me dancing between the options.

In the nine-month lull between our 2nd and 3rd IVF, Dan and I went to an informational session at a local adoption agency. We brought our friend, Jessie, who was thinking of adopting as a single woman, and the three of us got lost in the narrow streets of the aging suburb.  When we finally found the adoption agency in its dingy forgotten strip mall, there was a single anonymous door open. It felt like an AA meeting. We were late and as one of the counselors rounded up 3 extra chairs, I sized up the competition:  a young pierced and tattooed lesbian couple, an obese heterosexual team whose smiles gleamed in every direction, and a well-preserved 65-year-old grandmother whose leather mini dress gave her a Tina Turner-esque appeal.

“We want you to open up your minds and hearts to the children who are desperately waiting for families,” the young social worker sang out from the front of the room. The slides clicked past with children of every color and age, occasionally in wheelchairs and leg braces. “We feel that it is our mission to place every child and to encourage you to be open to adopting children with special needs as well as older children who might never find a family without you.” She beamed at each one of us.

I squirmed in the plastic chair. “Why do I get the sense that I’m a horrible person for wanting a healthy infant?” I whispered to Jessie.

The social worker asked us to take out the grid out of our packets that compared their overseas programs. Although we had RSVP’d for the informational meeting, they were out of packets when we arrived so the same harried counselor who had found us chairs handed a copy of the grid to us to share. With a pencil, I marked out the programs that we didn’t qualify for: Korea (Dan would be too old by the time of the adoption), China (Dan and I hadn’t been married long enough following his divorce seven years ago), India (we needed 5 years of marriage), Cambodia (Whoops, sorry that one is closed).  “Finally,” I checked the 2nd to last column and showed it to Jessie and Dan, “Bulgaria wants us to have their babies.”

Our giggles earned us an unexpected glare from the earnest social worker. She continued with the next slide of a five-year-old Ethiopian girl in a wheelchair. “Now, many countries will overlook some of the requirements if you are willing to take a child with serious health or developmental difficulties.”

My heart sank. I am a sucker for the underdog. I tear up at stories of perseverance and bittersweet victories. But this felt wrong. Adopting a child should be joyous, not a preparation in lowered expectations and guilt. After more than two years of infertility treatments, I didn’t need this grid to tell me that I was unworthy; my unworthiness was tattooed to my soul. After stumbling down the cobblestoned road of infertility, the earnest social worker was asking us to walk barefoot across the molten coals of an international, special needs adoption.

She cleared her throat, and smiled her practiced smile. “Let’s talk next about the travel requirements. If you are adopting from Russia or the former Soviet Republics, you will need to travel for two separate two week trips that will be scheduled with very little notice.”

I grimaced at Dan. Enough!   Neither of us had jobs that allowed us the freedom to fly off Russia for two weeks without advanced notice to our employers.

Following the informational meeting that night in bed, guilt and doubt ricocheted through my brain and kept me awake. Why wasn’t I a better wanna-be mother?  Why was my heart so small that I couldn’t give up work for one month to pick up my fetal-alcohol-syndromed-22-month-old child in Moscow?  I grabbed my Kindle, and downloaded The Idiot’s Guide to Adoption. “Adopt the kind of child that you want, not the child that is pressed upon you…” recommended the author.

I know myself and I know Dan. If we had a biologic child or an adoptive child that fell ill, we would care and love the child just the same. But, fertile couples don’t wish and pray for a toddler with health concerns, and we agreed that it was okay to want a healthy baby.

So here we are parked at the crossroads of adoption vs. egg donation unwilling to commit to either. Egg donation takes us further down the road that we have been on, tweaking the biology that predicts that we are too old to be parents. Dan is stalled on the idea that a child from donor egg would not have my DNA, but the DNA of a woman who gave up her eggs for a mix of altruism and cash. I’m stuck on the unknowns of adoption: how long will it take for a birth mother to select us, can I wait four years, will our child be healthy and whole?

I think of a truism that my friend Kate learned from her Czech grandmother—if the church collection basket allowed you to unload your greatest sorrow, then asked you to pluck a sorrow from the same basket, you would search out your own worried stone nestled amongst the others. Our childlessness is our sorrow. Ours. Dan and I have gone through this together. And we are still together. I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else. And the story isn’t over yet, so for now, I think we’ll hold onto our sorrow and explore how many question marks we can handle in our quest for parenthood.

When not working as a pulmonary physician, Katy Horan blogs about infertility at www.fruitfulearth.word  She also shares stories and recipes about discovering vegetables at

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Remembering And Forgetting About Adoption: From An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

Remembering And Forgetting About Adoption: From An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

IMG_8466A few days ago, I stood outside a friend’s house, hand-me-down leotards from the friend in hand. My friend’s daughter is a couple of years older than mine. Her girl is wiry, fierce, rarely tuckered out without a great deal of physical activity—and into gymnastics. Her girl, when frustrated, sometimes growls. Mine is the same. Both moms imagine the discipline and physicality of gymnastics to be, for these particular girls, a very good, possibly necessary thing.

Both girls are very small. Neither mom is tall.

“Well, she’ll never be big. I mean, I’m not so that makes sense,” I remarked and almost instantly, clapped hand to mouth. My daughter is adopted. My being short has nothing to do with her stature. In that moment, though, I simply forgot. We share everything—practically everything—except a gene pool. It’s surprisingly easy to forget this at times.

I’ve slipped in similar ways about her love of chocolate or the soundtrack to Nashville. My daughter; she’s just like me? More often, it’s less a slip than that I don’t consider why she is the way she is, likes what she likes, or acts how she acts. Another mom with three boys (no girls) at a wedding yesterday mused about how nice it would have been to have tea parties. Her reasoning went like this: if you have a girl, she’d like to have a tea party, because, obviously, all girls like tea parties. My girl’s yet to suggest a tea party—and in a way, I can’t see her doing so. One of my boys had a Mad Hatter’s Tea birthday party years ago. The analogy: girls don’t mean automatic tea parties; adoption doesn’t mean automatic difference.

There are times though when my girl flashes a particular expression—usually it’s a half-smile that involves a tiny crumple of her mouth and is meant to be somewhat sarcastically silly—and I see her birth mom right in front of me. Other times, still, my little girl’s frustration pops like a firecracker with a series of slaps or kicks. Although I know I sometimes hit or kicked (or pulled hair or pulled on arms) as a child, the intensity of her bottled-up fury popping out feels… unfamiliar. Her brothers certainly hit, pinched, kicked or bit. My expectations aren’t for extraordinary calm or peaceful pacifism at all times. However, the sum total of the boys’ small child aggressions didn’t put them nearly in her league. I can’t really say exactly why. Theories: she’s youngest by far. She’s fiery. She’s a girl. She’s adopted. I’ll admit that sometimes as I try to find the calm, firm, safe patience to hold her through a tantrum (very most often in the evening when she’s overtired and her last sparks of energy blow every which way like some wayward robot toy in a cartoon before the final sputter), my mind flashes to this question: might her roiling response to frustration be somehow genetically wired?

A friend with an adopted daughter said to me recently that to raise a child she’s not genetically connected to causes her to think about biology anew. She envisions it as more important as she imagined before raising her daughter. Her remark made me think of something another friend of mine said. This friend is an adult adoptee, who once described to me how she’d always been fascinated by rocks and when, as an adult, she learned that her birth father had been a geologist, it was as if she’d put a puzzle piece into place.

Obviously, in the day-to-day, my momentary lapse that has her short just like me differs not at all from my questions about whether her anger is somehow about hardwiring. When we live so closely in relation to others—as do parents and children—we are deeply connected. And sometimes we’re deeply confused by those connections. I remain somewhat stunned that I gave birth to three boy children, for example. I’m only half-joking to say I find it unfathomable that a penis was created inside of female me. The whole thing is somewhat surreal. More importantly, families challenge assumptions. We learn when we are so close it’s hard sometimes to grasp that we aren’t the exact same person and we are so close it’s obvious that we cannot possibly be the exact same person. This push and pull—sometimes broken into the notion of nature and nurture—it’s ultimately, every family’s to experience.

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The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day

The Pediatrician Switch, the Family Medical History Form—and How the Grandmothers Saved the Day


grandparents' dog -- on a surprise visit to preschool

 Grandparents’ dog — on a surprise visit to preschool

Recently, we decided to switch pediatricians.  Predictably, this meant I was bequeathed a ream of paperwork to fill out. This included family medical history forms, one for each of my four children. I pretty much know about our parents’ health histories; to fill out the histories for the three I gave birth to required only memory. This isn’t true for my daughter, though. During the flurry of those early days of my daughter’s infancy, I don’t think our old pediatrician pressed for complete medical history. We were focused upon the present—and the quite small baby and her health and the rest of it, the three bigger children. It might have been difficult or felt difficult to ask, had the pediatrician pushed, as everything was so new and felt so fragile. Whatever the set of reasons, I didn’t have comprehensive knowledge of my daughter’s health history. Five years later I stared somewhat blankly at the paper that I must have filled out once before.

This time, though, I scanned the list for the most pressing heritable conditions, such as heart disease or cancers, arthritis and on, and I emailed both grandmothers: my daughter’s mother’s mother and her mother’s stepmother. I asked the stepmother about my daughter’s grandfather and the mother about herself and her daughters. Within hours, I had all the information I needed.

I found myself teary as I read the emails. It wasn’t because there was shocking information—much of it I already knew. I got teary because a small gift open adoption gives was made real right then. To know one’s family medical history is one of the things people put squarely on the plus side of open adoption: that questions like the ones on the family medical history form are answerable. Rather than wonder in adulthood whether the condition you have ran in your family, you could know that answer. I’ve heard people describe medical histories as puzzle pieces. I guess I got to have it on my daughter’s behalf that day. I got to know she’d have this information. I almost felt a little “a-ha” about open adoption just then.

But it was more than the history and more than some theoretical positive about adoption or wholeness or anything that made me teary—I felt the willingness and love from the grandmothers in those emails just to be her grandmothers.

Unlike my mother or stepmother or mother-in-law—yes, keep count, there are five grandmothers all told—I didn’t meet these two grandmothers until our daughter, their granddaughter, was born. Those are two of the many brand-new relationships formed around this little girl, which were intimate—family—and entirely unfamiliar at the very same time.

I am sure I could have asked for information from the grandmothers five years ago or at any time in between then and now. It might have felt much more loaded, even a little scary to ask right away. I felt comfortable when I asked. By now, we really do feel like family.

The family we gained on our daughter’s mother’s side includes four grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To our daughter, it’s a wash of people she knows but doesn’t entirely always know. Somewhere inside her, the way the medical history answers meant a lot to me, my daughter responds similarly: she loves, for example, the toy horse her birth mom gave her and calls the horse Taco, the name of her birth mom’s horse. She sleeps with a blanket her aunt made for her when she was an infant. It’s as if there’s conscious knowledge and knowledge that isn’t conscious. Both have to work to try to wrap a heart around what adoption means, and what it feels like. Both are required to integrate something this huge, and this full of specifics.

Meantime, we’ve never met the one other grandmother we know about, the birth dad’s mom. We haven’t met him or seen a photograph. So as I scribbled all over the medical history form with asterisks to explain why the daughter’s family medical history is different than the brothers’ histories, I wrote that we don’t know anything about the dad’s family. I have an appointment set up to meet the new pediatrician without my kids in order to discuss concerns. I want to have a chance to feel the doctor out about adoption and make sure I’ve answered any questions before he meets my daughter. I can file this under a thing I hadn’t considered before becoming an adoptive parent: how to talk to the pediatrician about adoption and family medical history.

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No One Tells You

No One Tells You

By Karen Skalitzky

SU 13 No One Knows ArtNo one tells you that you might have to say no. No one says a word. Looking back, I don’t remember even entertaining the notion. The matching seemed like the easiest part of the whole adoption process. Easier than the rounds of paperwork, the notary seals, and the authentications required by the Haitian consulate and the state of Illinois. Easier than police clearances and letters of recommenda- tion and financial disclosures. I always figured the moment I saw the picture would be magical.

The call from the agency came when I wasn’t home. I’d been traveling for work and was just arriving back to the windy city. It was late on a cold, rainy November morning. I was weary and going on a few winks of sleep. I dropped my bags inside my front door and headed straight to my bedroom, shedding trench coat and gloves along the way. The light on my answering machine blinked red. I sat on my bed and pressed play, more out of habit than desire, and, without giving it too much thought, I dialed the number to return my social worker’s call. She had a question for me.

“Do I have all of my paperwork done?” I asked, repeating her words. “Do I … Do I have my … I’m sorry …” I heard myself interrupting my own thought. “What did you just say? Did you just say you have a referral for me?”

Heather paused. “Yes,” she explained. “They’re working on the paperwork on their end. He needs to have some standard medical testing and then an official referral can be made.”

I walked into my kitchen and grabbed a pen. Her words were disappearing rapidly. I ripped a corner off an envelope from the pile of mail that had accumulated for two weeks, and scribbled down as many of her words as I could catch.

“I just wanted to check in,” she continued, “to see if you were almost done with the paperwork for your dossier. It will probably be just another two weeks.”

“My dossier … paperwork.” I sputtered. “Yes, I … ah … think so. I’m waiting for a letter of recommendation to be authenticated by the state of Mississippi. My employment letter is in the mail. Once I get both, I’ll take everything to the Haitian consulate and then … but wait, did you just say a little boy … a little boy for me?”

“Yes,” she said. I could feel her smile broaden.

I hung up and stared down at that ripped piece of paper: Little boy. Medical reports. Two weeks. There it was in my own handwriting. A little boy. Waiting for me. Waiting for me to be his mom. Joy slid right past my shock and burst through every synapse in my brain and throughout my body. Jumping up and down in my kitchen, I shouted “Yes!” loud enough for my neighbors two doors down to hear. Followed by, “Thank you, God.” Tears of amazement and delight spilled down my cheeks.

And then panic hit.

“Is this what it feels like when you first find out you’re pregnant?” I would later ask my friends who’d given birth. Yes, they concurred: sheer joy followed by utter terror. My friend Karin told me that after the ultrasound when she and her husband heard the heartbeat for the first time, she found herself unable to speak. Stunned, on their drive home, her husband asked if she was doing okay, and, instead of her usual thoughtful response, she started yelling, “There’s something alive inside of me and it has to come out!

Well, I reminded myself, at least I don’t have to do that part. My body no longer works that way. My ovaries shut down at the age of 37 for reasons the medical community does not readily understand, other than the possibility of genetics, as the same thing happened to my paternal grandmother after her children were born. But why it happens in the first place is still a mystery. And there is no way to undo the damage. It took me a long time to walk with that grief, and when I was through, I knew I would adopt. I knew I was a mom. I started working on the paperwork not long after my fortieth birthday, and a year later, it was happening. I mean, really happening.

I walked into my second bedroom. My eyes danced from the rocking chair in the corner to the basket of children’s books on the floor to the tiny stuffed lion perched on the twin bed. His room, I thought. And before I could take another breath, the weight—and responsibility—of those two words fell upon me. I could no more lift up my shoulders than I could pick up the phone and call my mom to tell her the good news. The terror was mine. All mine. The task of becoming a single mother seemed monumental. Who will go with me to emergency room when he accidentally punches through a pane of glass thinking he is Superman? Who will teach him how to aim a baseball out over left field?

Or relieve me after a sleepless night of vomit or croup?

“I can’t do this, God,” I cried out. “I can’t do this on my own. I can’t.” I took to my bed, curling up in a ball and burying myself under the covers. By the time Karin returned my desperate text, I was exhausted from the torrent of my thoughts. What you’re doing, she explained, after expressing joy and excitement for me, is called snowballing.

And I was.


After she told me about her screaming on the car ride home, I giggled. Then we both howled into the phone. My shoulders softened. My mind came back to me. I was not alone. I had the whole of motherhood at my back, rubbing it gently, telling me it’s okay. Terror comes with the job. Get used to it.

I pulled myself out from underneath my comforter and decided that considering the three hours of sleep I’d gotten the night before, I owed myself a good nap. I washed my face. I took another look at his room. And then I sat down on my bed to pray. Dear God, Please help me. Please help me see this journey through. Within moments, the most distinct image came to me: three week-old baby chicks sitting in a nest, beaks open, squawking toward the sky. The bird’s nest was rough-looking, held together with mud and twigs and slender branches sticking out at different angles. The more I prayed, the more the nest turned into hands. Thick, strong, interwoven hands. Hands like my grandfather’s, the kind that come from a lifetime of farm work and manual labor, the kind that held mine ever so gently as a child and made me feel safe, the kind that told me I am loved. Sitting on my bed, in the silence of my home, I knew those hands were God’s.

I woke up several hours later feeling more balanced. Still afraid, but in even measure with my excitement. I called more friends, my parents, my brothers, and my cousin. Until the idea of first-trimester miscarriages swept into my brain. I knew how undeniably common they were. I knew plenty of women and men who had wept over them. Similarly, I knew how much could go wrong in an adoption. My friends Susan and Pete were on their fifth year of waiting. Kathy and Dillon had been denied for financial reasons. Sandra and Ray had been just two days away from traveling to Uganda to bring their son home when a missed bus and a false document led to the unraveling of his adoption story and an abrupt halt to their plans. I felt intensely protective of this little life, this piece of torn paper that bound us together.

Little boy. Medical reports. Two weeks.

I put the phone down. I didn’t want to tempt fate.

I slept soundly that first night, the roller coaster of emotions behind me, or so I thought. I woke the next morning amazed at how my life had already changed. I was bound to a little boy I knew nothing about. In the weeks that followed, cholera began to erupt in Haiti.

National elections were rescheduled. Crowds demonstrated in the capitol city. I scanned the internet daily for news and slowly came to realize that none of it was in my control. I stopped talking about the adoption altogether. I waited, in silence and in hope and in solidarity.

The actual official referral came three months later, late on a Saturday afternoon. I was sitting on my chaise in the middle room when I decided to check my email. I had a pot of soup started on the stove. I’d peeled the carrots, the parsnips, the onions. I’d added in the celery, the garlic and cloves, the parsley and dill. The smell of broth filled my apartment with warmth and texture. It had been simmering for an hour and had another hour to go. The outside air was brisk and cold. February hit Chicago hard that winter.

I clicked on my inbox and was surprised to find three emails from the adoption agency. The first introduced me to a little boy, eight months old, with bright, hazel-brown eyes. He seemed to have so much spirit in him, even just sitting in a high chair, smiling broadly into the camera, his pudgy little toes sticking out underneath. I wanted to touch his face, feel the warmth of his breath against my neck, taste the sweetness of his fingers. The next two emails offered a paragraph about his background and included pictures of his legs and feet as well as a psychologist’s report.

The report cited “serious developmental delays.” He couldn’t sit up without screaming. He couldn’t grasp things, like Cheerios, and put them in his mouth. He couldn’t rake a toy closer to himself with his hands. I read everything twice, trying to digest meaning. Then I turned to Google. What happened at four months, at six, at ten and twelve, was suddenly very important. I wanted to know. I needed to understand.

While I was devouring infant and toddler developmental charts, my timer went off in the kitchen. The next step in the soup-making process was critical. I stood over my stove staring down at the broth and the colander and the tray I had set out for the cooked chicken. It suddenly seemed so foreign to me. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do next. I turned off the burner and went back to my computer.

At six months, you’re supposed to be able to grasp and roll and sit up straight. You’re supposed to be able to put things in your mouth and move toys from hand to hand. By ten months, you’re supposed to develop a “pincer” grasp, the combination of thumb and forefinger, to pick up objects like a spoon or a fork.

It seemed daunting to think about what was beyond this little boy. I wondered why the report had not listed the things he could do.

But it was his physical development that was the real challenge. I clicked back through the countless photos of his feet: his legs bent in, his legs straightened out, his right foot, his left foot, his two feet pushed together. I had agreed to accept “minor and correctable” delays and physical issues. The social worker told me that they encourage everyone to do that. There is no perfect child, she’d added. I understood.

I wasn’t looking for perfection. But the pictures of his legs and feet all blurred together. I didn’t know what was normal—and if normal was what I wanted in a child. The sweetness of his smile seemed just as important.

The only thing I knew was that something was wrong with this little guy. His legs couldn’t go straight, is how I initially remembered it, only to read the report more carefully the next morning and discover it was his feet that didn’t work right. Normally I would have chuckled at my mistake. But this just made me feel like a bad mom—and I wasn’t even a mom yet. Who mixes up their child’s ailments? Who goes to the hospital and says operate on my son’s legs— oh, I mean feet? Who doesn’t know where their child hurts?

Up until that moment I never imagined that a prospective adoptive parent could say no to a child. I had agreed on paper to “minor and correctable,” but had never once considered the wide array of interpretations of those three words or what they could entail. What life circumstances might impede my ability to care for a child. My business was dying. I was in the middle of a job search. Every resume I sent got lost in the tangle of 850 other applications. The recession was booming and I had landed on the wrong side of it, quite unintentionally. Saying no to a child had always been out of the question, until suddenly, I was in that question. Living that question. Realizing there was more than one right answer.

The next morning I decided to go to church. I don’t always go on Sundays, but the thought of it felt familiar and known, and I needed that more than ever. I pulled open the heavy wooden doors and stood in the back among the other latecomers. The altar was bathed in a white cloth with willow branches lying at its base, reaching upward. I watched heads nod in unison, everyone standing and sitting on cue.

I was hoping for a good sermon. A good sermon, I told myself, could change everything. But I left feeling uninspired. Nothing the priest had said hit me and nothing seemed to shed light on what I most needed to understand. The music didn’t even lift my spirits. I lowered my head and slipped out the back.

Walking to my car, I knew I needed to change tactics. So I said the prayer I always pray when I know I need to do something but I don’t know what. Find me, God. Please find me.

I decided I would call my friend Sandra when I got home. We hadn’t spoken in months. I knew her life was in upheaval—having just brought their adopted son home from Uganda and moving to a new state—but I left a message asking if I could reach down in the middle of that chaos and request a favor. I explained the situation, hung up, and waited. Sitting at my kitchen table, I stared out the window. A dusting of frozen snow lay on the ground. An empty bird feeder hung from the neighbor’s tree. The wind stood still.

Five minutes later the phone rang.

Sandra explained that they’d just been outside in the front yard taking a family picture for me—her daughter, in the annual Christmas dress I send, holding her new baby brother. Sandra instantly understood the roller coaster I was riding and promised me that her husband would look at the referral report that afternoon and offer me his best opinion, both as a medical doctor and as a friend. I emailed it to them at once.

Then I called my sister-in-law, Liz, the mother of six and someone I trust infinitely, especially in matters of children. I wanted her, and my brother, to look at the referral. I wanted to know what they thought.

“You know, Karen,” she said, without me saying anything more, “You can say no.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because there are people who feel drawn to special needs children and if you’re not one of those, if you don’t possess that gift, that’s okay.”

“I know,” I explained. “I didn’t put myself on the special needs list.” I told her what the social worker had said about minor and correctable.

“But you can still say no.”

“I know,” I said, pausing. “I know that in my head, but not in my heart.” My voice trailed off. “Why do you keep saying that?” I finally whispered.

“Because you don’t have to let go of everything,” she offered. “You had to let of having biological children. Then you had to let go of having a family with someone. You don’t have to let go of this too.”

Tears trickled down my face.

Within another five minutes, my friend Ann called. We were supposed to meet up for a movie later that night. I told her what was going on.

“Ellen and Danni said no twice.”

“They did?”

“Yes,” she said definitively. “And now they have James. They can’t imagine having any other son. Trust yourself. It all works out.”

Alone at my kitchen table, I felt deeply found.

I canceled on the movie, deciding to keep right on calling people.

I talked to Tamara, whose daughter is my goddaughter. Angela, who was pregnant with her third. My friend Karin, who had called the day before and whose 5-year-old son was diagnosed with epilepsy. Karin and I have known each other since college. She’s an amazing single mom. But she didn’t get to say no to grand mal seizures. One of my nephews is autistic and my brother and his wife, they didn’t get to decide.

Why did I?

“I would never judge you,” Karin said without hesitation. “It’s hard enough being a parent. I didn’t get to choose. But you do. And that’s okay. You do what feels right to you. You do what’s in your heart.”

A sense of peace washed over me. I wrapped my favorite childhood blanket around my shoulders, feeling loved and protected. I was still worried and unresolved about what to do, but I felt less alone, less like a single mom. I imagined flying to Haiti and meeting my son for the first time, pulling him into my arms, feeling his hesitation at first and then his surrender, his head falling onto my shoulder, the beating of his heart resonating with my own. I pictured us eating dinner together, and reading books in bed, and running around my backyard with a new puppy. I imagined my nieces and nephews scooping him up and celebrating his every step.

Sandra called later that evening with Ray’s prognosis. I read everything I could find. Growth plates. Multiple surgeries. Leg braces and custom-designed shoes. After two hours, I fell into bed, exhausted.

The next morning I called the adoption agency, and talked at length with my social worker, asking what it meant for the boy if I said no. Heather told me they’d take into consideration all of my reservations and work twice as hard to find him a family that could handle them. I asked what it meant for me. She said they’d work twice as hard to find a child that was right for me. She went on to say that they actually prefer people to say no.

“If it doesn’t feel right for any reason,” she counseled, “it’s better to decline than to say yes. It’s not fair to the child. And it’s not fair to you.”

“Has anyone ever done that before?” I asked, trying to mask my insecurity.


“Oh,” I exhaled slowly. “I really want to say yes. I really do. Can you walk me through the whole process,” I asked, “from the moment I say yes to the moment I bring him home?” I’d read about it plenty of times in their brochures and the adoption books stacked high by my bedside. But I wanted to make sure I really got it. A little boy was waiting at the end of it all.

She did. Step by step by step. I scribbled it all down in my notebook, listing the hurdles yet to come: more paperwork, more government agencies, an application for a U.S. visa to bring him into the country, two visits to Haiti—the first to meet him and make sure we bonded and the second to bring him home. “Given his background,” Heather added, “the timing will be expedited.” Neither he nor I, she predicted, would be affected by the aftermath of the earthquake, the cholera epidemic, or the new president. All the other things I’d been concerned about.

“Ten months,” she said. “Possibly even less.”

“Less than ten months?” I asked, stunned.

“Yes. It’s happening really fast right now.”

“But I’ve always read sixteen to twenty-four months.”

“That’s what we publicize,” she explained. “We’ve learned to publish longer wait times because people get so upset when the shorter ones don’t work out.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. The thought of it possibly taking as long as 16 or 24 months had always been my safety net. Surely by then, I’d have a new job and my work and financial life would be back to normal.

“Let’s talk again in a few days,” she suggested.

I hung up and sat on my chaise staring out into my middle room, the room I planned to turn into a playroom with a brightly colored circular rug and beanbag chairs and a wooden easel. The room that one day would be littered with books and Lego pieces and plastic Happy Meal figurines. The room I imagined I’d fuss about keeping clean, but never really care one way or the other, because it would finally be filled with the undeniable proof of what I longed for most in this world: a family.

I shut my notebook. My body slid down onto the floor. In a matter of minutes, I knew. I knew he wasn’t my son. He did not belong to me. I could not say yes to him without an income stream, without health insurance that didn’t cherry-pick what it would—or would not—cover, as individual policies do. I did not have the financial resources to provide him the ongoing medical treatment he needed to ensure he would walk, and learn to cope with his other delays. It was so abundantly clear to me in that moment that I cried out in both grief and gratitude. Then, lying on the hardwood floor, my arms outstretched in either direction, I wept.

When I was done, I still knew. The feeling did not leave me.

He was not my son.

That afternoon, my phone did not ring. I remember standing in my kitchen talking out loud to myself. “No one is calling,” I said. “Yesterday everybody called and today, not one.” I put on my coat and my gloves and went for a walk. An hour later it hit me: I didn’t need anyone to call. I didn’t need to discuss my options or hear their opinions. I already knew. I just needed to tell my decision.

And so it went, like the interlaced hands of the nest. My friend Delia called first that evening. I told her everything, and she told me I was doing the right thing. My sister-in-law Liz called next. She listened intently and then said, “Karen, parenting is a series of tough calls. And you just made your first tough call.” Sandra called after that and said I sounded like a mom.

I sounded like a mom.

Later that week, after I’d driven to the adoption agency to tell them no, I shared my story with a women’s group I attend. One of the women approached, smiling broadly. She wrapped her arms around me and said, “On behalf of all adopted children, I want you to know that you did the most loving thing you could do. You let him go.”

Author’s Note: The journey to motherhood— adoptive or biological—is often filled with unexpected twists and turns. I am happy to share that the little boy has been adopted by his forever family. And that my journey toward adoption is moving forward.

Karen Skalitzky is the author of A Recipe for Hope: Stories of Transformation by People Struggling with Homelessness. In addition to a career in education, Karen serves as a spiritual director and speaks publicly to issues of infertility and personal transformation. She is currently awaiting the joy of becoming an adoptive mom.

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Two Days To Adoption

Two Days To Adoption

By Erin Howard

Ode to a Comfy Chair Art 2It had been a very uncomfortable two weeks.

For ten days I had lived out of a pop-up camper with my hubby, Phil, and our five-, four-, and two-year-old kids.  A pleasant family reunion went downhill as the temperature went uphill, topping off at 100 degrees for two days straight before we finally packed it in and left a day early.   The seven hour drive home turned into nine hours, then ten, then twelve, as the extreme heat broiled the camper tires until one popped.

At 10:00 p.m. we pulled into our driveway.  The kids were as charming as expected after twelve hours in the car and Phil and I wanted nothing more than to pry the necessities loose from the camper and ignore the rest until morning.  Wearily, I turned my key in the lock and slumped into the kitchen.

I have since used this precise moment to explain the definition of the word “ominous” to my children.  The cord to our Wii was lying across the kitchen floor.  A gaming cord in the kitchen? We hadn’t left a gaming cord in the kitchen.  It felt… ominous.  Had someone been in the house?

The answer to that, of course, on this day of the Murphiest of Laws, was yes.  11:00 p.m. and my preschoolers were watching TV at the neighbors’ house while my husband and I examined the damage with the police.  The robbers had broken down a kitchen door, stolen my husband’s laptop, pried our new flat-screen TV off the wall, and trashed our bedroom—even throwing over our mattresses.  I still take a fiendish delight in knowing that those robbers must have been sorely disappointed by our lack of valuables.  All they got was a roll of Chuck-E-Cheese tokens.

We spent the night at my parents.  The next day, sans kids for the most part, Phil and I contained the damage and finagled with the insurance.   Saturday passed—first night at home since the robbery.  Our five-year-old daughter had us check under her bed for “feefs” four times.  Sunday passed; the kitchen was full of power tools and loose drywall.  Phil’s Dad, a jack-of-all-trades/African-missionary (really!) would arrive early Monday to replace the kitchen door and patch the walls.  I craved Monday.  I craved the comfort of a familiar routine.

Monday came.  Work begun.  Routine established.  Relief sighed.  Four hours later, I got a call.  The insurance?  The police?  Of course not.  That would be too normal.  It was Sharon, our adoption social worker.

“So, all I need to know from you is, can you be ready in two days?”

It was noon on Monday.   Sharon, wanted us in Indiana, ready to parent a 10-day-old baby girl, on Wednesday.  Forty-eight hours!  But—Vacation!  Robbery!  Traumatized Preschoolers!

And, beyond all that, we weren’t technically finished with our adoption home study.  Sure, we’d finished our classes and passed our background checks, but we still needed to have our home visit and our one-on-one counseling session with our social worker.  I needed to track down at least one more reference and recreate our adoption profile because the original—an encapsulation of our family’s life and times that I painstakingly designed for our prospective birth mom—had been stolen when those pesky robbers nabbed my husband’s laptop.

How were we going to cram all of this in to 48 hours?  And prepare for a baby when we had thought it would take months to get a placement.  And move our family from Illinois to Indiana for a stay of unknown duration so that the two states could finalize their interstate paperwork?

I gripped the phone. I hadn’t made a sound.  Those words “can you be ready in two days?” hung in the air, awaiting my reply.

“We’ll be ready.”

That was it.  I didn’t know how we would do it, but we would do it.  After two adoptions and an unexpected biological child in less than five years, our social workers knew us well.  I’m an organizer.  My husband, Phil, is an improviser.  We were made for this challenge.  With our first adoption, we’d had seven days notice.  With our second, only four.  Now, just two.  It was as if we’d been training for this moment—like how you steadily decrease your times when training for a race.  We were at peak performance.  We could handle it, even if the circumstances were, well, let’s be euphemistic and say “less than ideal.”

Phil, who had been back at work for a whole four hours drove back home and by 5:00, we had rewritten the adoption profile, emailed references to our agency, verified our insurance for the new baby, notified our pediatrician, and arranged for housing in Indiana.  By 6:00, we were sitting calmly in our social worker’s office answering mundane questions about our parenting style and our philosophy on discipline.

Phil and I can be very efficient when we want to be.

The next morning was marked by periodic shrieks of “don’t touch that right now, we need to hurry to get ready for Miss Sharon.”  Oh heavens, I hoped Miss Sharon wouldn’t be early!  I was losing my cool, and it was the last thing I wanted our social worker to see.  Even though I knew by this point—it being the third time around and all–that our social worker was on our team and that she was absolutely not going to judge us on dust bunnies and dirty dishes, I so wanted to have it all together.  I wanted to be Super Mom.

For our two previous home visits, the house had been painfully clean, the children scrubbed and smiling.  It was a thin, artificial veneer over the chaos that surrounds every young family, but it made me feel good. This time, I couldn’t even fake it.  The house was full of that lovely post-vacation scrum of suitcases and dirty clothes.  There were power tools on my kitchen table and dry-wall dust stuck to the dirty dishes in my sink.  I draped sheets over the debris-filled sink and counter, piled suitcases in my walk-in closet, explained the situation to Sharon, and tried to forget about it.

Sharon, of course, had known us for over five years and wouldn’t have been fooled by any of that Super Mom nonsense anyway.  She checked the location of our cleaning supplies and medications, made sure we weren’t hiding any firearms, and mercifully did not look in the closets.  By 2:00, we were officially qualified to be adoptive parents.  Again.

That left us 22 hours to prepare for our new baby. I threw a load of baby toys and blankets in the wash and rifled bins of my older daughter’s outgrown clothes looking for the smallest newborn sizes I could find.  The new baby, whom we named Mia, was only 3 pounds 15 ounces at birth, and a lot of this hurry stemmed from the fact that no one expected her to be released from the hospital after only 10 days.  But Mia was a feisty one and, now weighing in at a whopping 4 pounds 5 ounces, she was ready to go home.  We had to have a home ready for her.

Wednesday, just after lunch, we set off—our minivan a jumble of kids, clothes, and camping gear. My brother had closed on a house in Indiana a couple of weeks before, but we would need to furnish the empty rooms with camp beds and folding chairs while we stayed for a week or more.  Since we hadn’t actually got around to unpacking the camping stuff from our vacation three days before, we were all set.  At least that part was easy.

Meeting Mia, and having all four of our children together for the first time, remains a shining, perfect moment in my life.   It was as if I had been holding my breath for two days, or even more, since the robbery maybe.  I didn’t even know one of us was missing, but now all six of us were together, just as it should be.   My whole family, safe and calm together.  I could breathe.

The three older children adored Mia and showered the terrifyingly clumsy affections of preschoolers down on her.  They looked like Great Danes hovering around a toy poodle.  They wouldn’t leave her alone, but she was so unbelievably tiny I was afraid they would squash her.  “Leave Mia Be” became such a frequent warning that that the new baby was nicknamed “Mia-B” before she had been with us a week.

We’d made it this far, it was now time to take stock of our resources.  I had made exactly one trip to the store since we found out about Mia, and I had apparently bought all the wrong things.  The words “4lbs 5oz” that I had read on the medical background forms didn’t translate to the reality of “4lbs 5oz” in my mind.  4lbs pounds is small.  Really, really small.  The Size-NB clothes and diapers I had hurriedly thrown into the back of the minivan weren’t going to work.  We would have to make do with the freebies from the hospital and adoption agency.  Two pairs of tiny footie pajamas.  A onezie proudly proclaiming “NICU Graduate”.  Half a package of preemie diapers.  It wasn’t much of a layette.

We weren’t doing that well on the “Baby Must-Haves” checklist that you find on all of those “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” websites.  It was pretty pathetic, really.  Still, after two days of continuous movement just to get to Indiana to pick up the baby, not to mention the two days of burglary clean-up, we were ready to ignore the inconveniences and finally focus on Mia. At least we had what we needed for Day One; we would worry about Day Two when it came.  On Day Two we realized that Indiana has Babies-R-Us, just like Illinois does. Imagine that!  It was a make-do or do-without kind of situation, and Mia didn’t seem to mind, so none of the rest of us did either.

My brother’s house had exactly one piece of real furniture in it—a 30-year-old tan recliner tucked away in the room what would be my niece and nephew’s playroom.  It had once belonged to my grandmother before winding it’s way through the family and ending up in my brother’s dorm room.

That one comfy chair, a much-abused former dorm chair, became the focus of our days.  Whoever was holding the baby got priority access.  My husband and I playfully sparred over feeding Mia, relishing the time with our newborn–and the accompanying benefit of sitting in that one comfy chair.  We would evict our older children (they were not immune to the chair’s attractions), then snuggle in with our tiny, skinny, nearly-naked baby.

In the evening, after getting our three older kids settled down to sleep on their improvised beds, the “winner” would hold the baby in that comfy chair.  The “loser” would pull up a folding chair and hold the laptop so we could watch Arrested Development on Netflix.  We slept on camp mattresses on the floor.  We cooked in borrowed pots and ate off paper dishes.  And, whenever we could, we snuck some cuddles in that one comfortable chair.

Of course, parenting a newborn and three preschoolers in a nearly-empty house is not exactly easy, but even at the time those days seemed very cozy.  We couldn’t go home.  We couldn’t go to work.  We couldn’t stress about the burglary and the repairs and the insurance.  We were stuck.  We were stuck in a place and a time where there was nothing to do but sit and hold the baby.  Maybe it was nothing but “dorm furniture,” but that one comfy chair, which periodically overflowed as all six of us tried to sit in it at once, was all that we needed.  After a few days, the older kids left to stay with their Grandparents for the duration, and it was even cozier with just the three of us.  Phil and me, bonding with little Mia…and the comfy chair.

Eventually, we were able to return home.  I decorated Mia’s nursery, moved in a gliding rocker, and folded a dresser full of preemie clothes.  I conquered that “Must-Haves” list in the end.  But from experience, I know you don’t really need all of those “Must-Haves” in order to have a good start with a baby.  You don’t need nine months to prepare.  You don’t even need to have a fully-furnished house.  It does, however, help to have a comfy chair.

Erin Howard is a stay-at-home-mom to four children from a combination of pregnancies and adoption. Her essays have been published in several adoption and parenting magazines.

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My Five-Year-Old Daughter Still Has A Bottle

My Five-Year-Old Daughter Still Has A Bottle

IMG_1037My five-year-old-daughter has a bottle of milk every night. Should I say my five-year-old-daughter still has a bottle of milk every night? Many people would add the modifier—and I can’t fault them for this. I haven’t made even one attempt to wean her from that ritual. No surprise, our shared attachment to her bottle stems back to her babyhood.

One of the biggest adjustments I had to make as a fourth-time mom but first-time adoptive mom was to become comfortable with the bottle’s primacy.

I’d breastfed the three children I gave birth to and while I hoped to encourage some comfort nursing that didn’t work out. I had considered the possibility of a concerted attempt to breastfeed the fourth child. Yet, I decided against that effort. It was unlikely I’d ever produce enough milk to sustain and I didn’t want to take hormones to feed a baby I might not take home. I pumped in anticipation of her arrival a handful of times, but with three older children to care for–ages five, nine and 12–I couldn’t put the effort in that would be required to maybe just maybe encourage the milk along for real.

My firstborn had a tight frenulum—that’s the little flap of skin under the tongue—and so his suck action didn’t bring the milk in very well, which meant I had to pump in order to keep production up. I’d pumped eight times a day for ten months. I knew from pumping. A fourth child isn’t a first child and I understood what that sacrifice looked like and felt like and how little room it would leave for the other children. Even a lesser commitment would take from all the rest that needed to happen to adjust to our family of six, so within a few days of our daughter’s homecoming when she was just two days old, I let go of the Supplemental Nursing System and the pump. With some ambivalence, I sought to embrace the bottle.

The bottle offered unexpected gifts. My husband and the big brothers could feed daughter and sister. I found emancipation from the minute-to-minute responsibility that a breastfeeding mother of a newborn has, which allowed me to remain much more present to the active, older kids than would have been the case. Adoption presents a more sudden and jarring adjustment to parenting a newborn than parenting a newborn post-pregnancy. Not only was my body unprepared to feed her, my sleep wasn’t interrupted beforehand in the same way—although anxiety performed that sleepless duty quite well. Without the belly, there aren’t kicks. Without the belly, there aren’t a million and one conversations with strangers about what’s to come. Without the belly, the mom is not pulled by gravity to a slower mode. Without the belly, there isn’t a sense of getting to know one another. And so, the baby is a shock. The bottle cushioned that transition in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, especially for the five year-old unseated from baby status; he’d hold her and feed her and reckon with all that had just shifted. He was tender and ponderous and loving.

This was all well and good until she turned one. Then, the pediatrician encouraged a cup. I refused her suggestion. “The brothers nursed at least two years,” I told her. “She had a huge disruption right after her birth. I like the snuggling with a bottle and so does she.” The pediatrician demurred. Over time, I’m sure she assumed we’d stopped and I certainly didn’t bring up the fact that while the many bottles have dwindled to one at night, except sometimes she has an extra when she requests one, that nightly ritual ensues, albeit not in our arms.

In so many ways, she’s mature beyond her five years. Her three big brothers’ influence mean all kinds of bigger kid and teen ways waft into her consciousness and result in nuggets like “people wear bras to kiss,” as seen on television or “Beyoncé starts with ‘B.'” At the same time, she’s small, our baby. Although she doesn’t remember her birth and although adoption seems to remain a little fuzzy and confused and even fleeting in her consciousness, I know it’s all there, the confusion, the loss, the sense of wanting to feel anchored—and comforted. For all the time I may have wondered whether bottle was somehow less than breast, I’ve come around to view comfort as comfort. Comfort doesn’t have to come in one specific way to count. I’m glad she can have a bottle at five to help her unwind from the day. I don’t think I have to fix or change that. In fact, I’m reassured by it, too, not the milk, but the appreciation for her ease.

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Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms

Clicking the Biracial Box on My Daughter’s Preschool Forms


Biracial ArtBy the time our daughter was ready for preschool (well, the toddler room), I’d had three kids in school for a good long time. So, all those applications and the thick ream of required school forms were nothing new. Checking the box that delineates our daughter as “Biracial” rather than the “Caucasian” box I’m accustomed to marking with my pen—that was strange.

Strange because while I don’t forget she’s adopted, in another way, I do. She’s a family member, ours, mine, whatever you will—and I don’t think about how adoption might distinguish her from her siblings or us as we go about our lives. That fact doesn’t really matter in our daily lives, but then of course, on the page, in that little box, there it is, the reminder of this complicated difference.

I say complicated because I don’t know quite what it all means—or will mean to her. Her birth father, a man we’ve never met and aren’t all that likely to meet is Jamaican. He’s the reason I check the box. As she gets older you can “see” her ethnicity a little more, but you can also “see” her as a white girl with a somewhat darker complexion. In this way, her status as an adopted child is less obvious than some of her friends, the ones who are African American with blue-eyed white mom or Vietnamese with blond white moms. But at whatever remove the Jamaican family members are, she still has rights to this heritage.

And what do I know about Jamaican culture? The short answer is not all that much. It has to be more than what I have at the ready: some Jamaican friends and some reggae CD’s.

I’m still trying to figure out how to introduce all of this to her. She knows her birth mom and family; they are her white family. And at five, the notion of birth or first mom remains pretty emotionally confusing. She grapples with it by intermittently remembering that she came from another tummy and thinking (hoping?) she came from mine. This is complicated by the fact that I grew up mistaken as Mexican, Eskimo, Asian and even Italian. She’s grown up with many people certain she resembles me more than the sons to whom I gave birth. It would all be confusing no matter what, but the particular way we blend together takes away one obvious reason to discuss how we landed together. In any case, we have a steep learning and feeling curve ahead. I don’t exactly know how we ensure that adoption and ethnicity are concepts she really “gets.” I am confident we’ve already laid the groundwork on the adoption front at least and on the basic notion that all skin colors are good (the basic preschool lines). I trust we will be able to help her have room and support to feel her feelings about all of it and explore as she wants and needs to do.

Identity will be an issue in all kinds of ways over time. For example, the role of race in college admissions is not static (and thus, with a going-into-kindergartner I have no idea where it’ll be 13 years from now). I read somewhere I can’t find (I’ve Googled, unsuccessfully, a bunch) an article that said some colleges measure race in different ways and an adopted person of color with white parents might not be considered the same way someone else’s minority status might be. There are articles that mention how Asian can be a disadvantage at some schools and some applicants choose to leave that off their college applications if they are biracial, just as some biracial people will mark black versus biracial or Caucasian. All that lies far ahead, though.

The thing about the forms right now is that my response has more to do with me than with her. To check the minority status box—the one that put her higher on the preschool’s priority list—again speaks to our privilege, collectively, the adoptive parents’ privilege. As white people (if the adoptive parents are, as is mostly the case in our preschool) we have enough advantages—economic and social—to place ourselves into the position to adopt—and so it’s from privilege that we adopt children of color. That could complicate how you see yourself, right?

Certainly, at our preschool, where minority status does give you an advantage in terms of admission, it feels like a double-dip (at least) of privilege to receive that nudge closer to admission. Our preschool is, it turns out, quite diverse (just about 50%). Its admission policies support the diversity it enjoys. I guess that when I step back from any hint of guilt I might harbor about this I can see another truth, which is the school’s diversity is good for the school. It’s good for the children of color, sure; it’s good for the white children; it’s good for the families, too. We are not the only ones: not the only ones with a biracial child; not the only ones with children via adoption or a combination of routes how our children joined the family; we’re not even the only ones with a child in high school. So, when I check that form, what I have to remember is the simple mark is really just one line; the story is much more interesting and complex. And that’s okay.

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Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity

Adopted Children’s Cultural Identity


IMG_7339_3When you adopt a baby, do you take on responsibility for fostering the child’s connection to the culture or cultures of origin your baby leaves behind to join your family? That’s often an issue upon which people take an emphatic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ stance. On the ‘yes’ side you may see white parents at Saturday Chinese schools (or in our case, the local public charter Chinese immersion school). On the ‘no’ side you have parents who plead colorblindness in their households.

In a thoughtful article written by an Asian adoptee is this analysis: “Some people maintain that any cultural loss is unimportant compared to what children gain through adoption. But in both mainstream media and personal conversations about adoption, cultural and racial identity need not be pitted against a child’s right to love, safety, and security.”

In other words, to make race and adoption either/or is to oversimplify (and place burden on the child). How to foster those ties is, arguably, a better question.

It’s one I’ve been asking myself recently.

In this article, the adoptee—photo of her and her white mother circa 1983 is included—looks different than her parent. She begins the piece describing a moment when an Asian child stared at her in a restaurant and how she remembered that exact experience: the intensity identification brought, because she was isolated as a lone Asian in a very white community.

If you read about transracial adoption, how to cope with this kind of isolation is an issue that extends far past 1983. The author mentions a parent of a six-year-old wondering whether the switch from a more white to a more diverse school in Louisville, Kentucky is adaption enough for her daughter or whether a move to a more diverse town is necessary. The mother, Amy Cubbage, describes her daughter’s response to a trip to China: “We have never seen [our daughter] so at ease with herself … we underestimated her need to see where she’s from and see a place where everyone looks like her.”

Not everyone can respond by moving a family (nor would every family argue that a necessity). And not every family can travel to Asia or Africa or wherever else for a “roots” trip. And not every child wants that. What interests me about that mother’s observation of her daughter’s travels is that she (the mom) not only made the effort to expose her daughter to her cultural roots but that she noted her child’s response to that experience. Whatever the family does next happens because the parents believe they are supporting their particular child. Racial identity or exposure to diversity isn’t theoretically motivated in this case.

To move from theory into action isn’t easy. To maintain openness rather than an either/or stance, now that seems to me a delicate and complex endeavor. For my white family, the biracial daughter in our midst has her own list of particulars (and obviously, one reason either/or doesn’t work is that adoption is an entire category of particulars).

Her particulars include that she’s light (light enough to manage to look in some ways more like me than the children I gave birth to, although that, too, is a complicated notion). Her particulars include an open adoption—with her mother’s side of the family (which is to say, the white side). Her particulars include a community that’s predominantly white, but a friend cohort that is diverse and does include adopted children (African American, African, biracial, Vietnamese and Caucasian in her class or various other activities). And while we have some Jamaican friends, they are not in our daily lives. She’s never met her Jamaican family and there’s little chance she will anytime in the foreseeable future.

I don’t want to err on the “colorblind” end of the spectrum. I don’t want to hurdle into “culture” for the sake of exposure in a way that’s intrusive. The detail I return to in my mind is this one: I’ve known many families with daughters adopted from Asian countries. Of those families that offered trips or language classes and cultural immersion of some sort or another, some of the girls liked those experiences and others protested. Regardless of their responses, I’m struck by the fact that some of those girls took their Asian names. I don’t think you can erase identity. More so, I don’t think you should try. That’s my working principle. How we translate that idea into action is the interesting part.

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Family History

Family History

By Julie Corby

DSC_0272In the ten years between my wedding day and the day I met my children, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about the traditions we would celebrate once I finally became a mother. The celebrations I imagined looked a lot like those from my own childhood. There would be Christmas stockings stuffed full of Clementine oranges, chocolate coins, and Bonnie Bell lip smackers; dyed Easter eggs hidden in an obvious way around the living room; piñatas and paper donkey tails poised in the backyard for a birthday party. I pictured my Jewish husband showing the children how to light the menorah. I saw cookie baking and hot cider drinking, Halloween costumes, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. They were all joyful celebrations—I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the rituals and expressions that come along with loss and grief.

Ever since I have known him, my husband has lit a candle on the anniversary of his father’s death. He likes it to burn all day, (fear of starting a fire usually causes one of us to blow it out every time we have to leave the house). For many years, it was really the only sad day that we marked with some sort of symbol. There have been many sad days in our years together, and many losses, but this was the only day a single candle was lit to commemorate a loss.

I always know when my daughter wants to talk about the people she lost in Ethiopia. It happens right as I am putting her down for an afternoon nap or right after her last bedtime story. “Mommy,” she says, “How did Lummi die?” Lummi was our dog that died in 2007. I tell her the story again, and she asks more questions. She becomes silent for a moment, taking it all in. Then she looks at me again with her huge almond-shaped eyes and asks, “Mommy, how did Grandma Chris die?” Chris, my mother-in-law died on August 30, 2008, right in the middle of our adoption process. We now light a candle on that day as well.

Meazi and her little brother Melese, home with us since August of 2009, would have been Chris and George’s first grandchildren. Meazi knows of my in-laws and our pup through the pictures we have shown her and the stories we have shared. There are always the questions about the dog first, and then the questions about Chris’s death. Hearing me repeat these stories, Meazi relaxes. She begins to feel safe. The details of her life spill out as she talks and talks. She is calm, relaxed, and surprisingly articulate. She is emotionally astute. She tells me her story, and like every adoption story, it is about loss. Lying in our family bed, her head on my shoulder, I steel myself and try not to fall apart as she tells me what happened. When she finishes we talk a bit more and she crawls onto my chest. Her brother has fallen asleep by now, Meazi doesn’t begin the story until he has. Her head is on my shoulder, her chest is on my chest. Her tiny body suddenly feels remarkably heavy on mine. I take three deep breaths and by the third one she is sound asleep. For months this was the only way she could fall asleep, her whole body on top of mine, my body acting as a sort of makeshift anchor.

Our children had been home for only five months when Meazi started telling me their story. I was shocked at how quickly we had come to this point. Once she mastered the words in a language I could understand, she began to talk. I had read several adoption books that described how revelations and memories come out slowly, over time. I found myself a little ill-prepared for these intense dialogues so early on in our relationship. I guess I didn’t think she would remember so many details. Loss is always mentioned in adoption literature too, but clearly I understood it only on an esoteric level.

Last February 19th, after I read her two bedtime stories, Meazi turned to me and said, “Mommy, I think my Daddy is sad about his Mom today.” I asked if my husband had said something to her about Chris. She said, “No, I just think so.” Remarkably, this date was Chris’s birthday. Her eyes got wide and she yelled, “Mommy! Why we did not celebrate? We didn’t even get a cake!” I told her that since Grandma Chris wasn’t here to enjoy it, we didn’t feel like celebrating. She was quiet for a moment and then said sternly, “Mommy, next time we are going to celebrate for her. We are going to get a cake. We will get a candle. I can make her wish for her. It is her birthday.”

Adoption professionals recommend that families mark dates specific to their adoption processes to celebrate coming together as a family. This might mean the day you met your child or the day you took formal custody of your child, a day many refer to as a “Gotcha Day.” (I always hated the term “Gotcha Day,” sounds like you are successfully swatting a fly not beginning your life together as parent and child). The day we took custody of our children in Ethiopia is a day we will never celebrate. That day the orphanage threw a farewell party for the children. There was singing and cheering. My daughter, the oldest girl leaving that day, got to cut the cake. We drank orange soda, and wiped powdered sugar from each other’s faces. I believe it was one of the worst days of my children’s lives. They were terrified. Their world was turning upside down again as they said goodbye to caretakers and friends they had known for months. We will add a day in August, the day of our re-adoption last summer. It was a day simple in its splendor. A half-an-hour in the judge’s chambers, where we once again swore that we would always care for them, followed by pancakes at a fancy restaurant, and a short walk on the beach.

Like other newly formed Ethiopian-American families we add Ganna (Ethiopian Christmas) and Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year) to our calendar. We also add birthdays, deaths, and the birthdays of those who have died. March 23rd, has become one of these days. Last year, on the Tuesday afternoon of March 23rd, my daughter lit a candle, commemorating the event that propelled her and her baby brother into my life. She called her brother over to see it, “Melese,” she said, “Come here, this is for you too.” She put her thin arm around his shoulders and together they watched it burn. Meazi and Melese’s story is now familiar to me. I know the sequence of events. I know the names and the places. Our stories are beginning to merge. Their grief is now my grief. Their losses have become my losses.

Our children are teaching us new rituals, new ways to celebrate, and new ways to commemorate. We will light candles on joyful days and on sad days. The dead will get new birthday wishes. There will be cake. Our histories will continue to meld as we attempt to move forward as a family.

About the Author: Julie Corby lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 13 years and their two children, Meazi and Melese, adopted in August of 2009 from Ethiopia.  She has written for several publications including Adoptive Families and The Adoption Constellation. She also blogs about her experiences at: and writes a column about adoption at

This essay originally appeared in In Culture Parent –

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Eight Months Later

Eight Months Later


0Sugar Biscuit’s birth mom, Starla*, has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m not really sure why, as we have slipped into a pattern of days that leaves our new son’s origins an afterthought, something that flutters across the back of my mind every so often. I no longer think of Sugar Biscuit as anything but my own child. He fit into our family like the final piece of a complicated puzzle that took weeks to assemble, with a sense of relief and accomplishment. Now, we are able to sit back and see the whole picture, complete, and with everything in its rightful place.

Still, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that, two weeks before the trial that would completely terminate her parental rights, we offered Starla a shot at shared custody. CASA, the baby’s volunteer law guardian, was beginning to waver on terminating her rights, based on the fact that while she hadn’t completed her service plan, she did have housing and a job (even though that job didn’t pay her bills and we never could figure out what she was doing for money). In addition, our CASA worker was completely without boundaries and good judgment at this point in the case, allowing her sympathy for Starla to overwhelm her professionalism. With those facts in front of us, we knew that there was a greater possibility Sugar Biscuit might be returned to his birth mother. Also knowing that parental termination trials are brutal, emotionally as well as financially draining, we offered a deal: Joint custody, with us having conservatorship and being able to make all decisions regarding his education, healthcare, and living arrangements. Starla would be allowed once a month all-day Saturday visits, supervised at a foster home, for which we would split the cost. The flip side of this was that she would still retain parental rights and would always be able to come back and sue us for more visitation, assuming she could raise the money to hire a lawyer. It was, according to all parties and not just our biased selves, a very fair deal.

The offer was made. Terrified, we tried to let it go and put it in the hands of God. Starla refused. She stated she wanted all or nothing. She was determined to go to trial as she planned, at some point in the future, to tell Sugar Biscuit that she had fought for him. Hearing this, CASA, along with Sugar Biscuit’s official law guardian, officially filed a recommendation to terminate her parental rights.

So, we wrote a big fat check out of our retirement, and headed to the courthouse. It was a devastating week. It was the worst thing that my husband and I have ever lived through. We sat through six days of testimony and legal wrangling, keeping a tenuous hold on our emotions. I know there are other foster adoptive parents out there who judge what we did, intervening in the case and fighting for Sugar Biscuit. To that I say, you don’t know what I know, and I hope you never have to hear of such things with your own ears, watch them live and in color. To have to listen to the acts Starla committed, even while 9 months pregnant, how sick our boy was the first two months of his life, the bottomless pit of sorrow that was Starla’s childhood, the mud being slung at us, dirtying everything we’d try to do for our boy.

However, during that trial, an important thing happened. It was there we heard everything that we needed to know to make our decision regarding what type of relationship Sugar Biscuit could have with his first mom. As awful as it was, we were given the gift of the Big Picture, more piece of the puzzle. It was trial by fire. We were cleansed by this fire, able to walk across the coals with new eyes, clear vision. As sad as it is, we now know she just isn’t safe for him to be around. Someday, a long time from now, she might be. Honestly, I doubt it. Something in her is so broken, so fractured at the very root of her core, that although it pains me to say it, she will probably never be truly okay. At any rate, I certainly can’t fix her, but I did I try my damnedest for the better part of a year. All I can do now is hope for the best and try to move forward with grace.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time processing what happened in the many long days it took us from placement of our son to finalizing his adoption. I wonder what the process has been like for her. I wonder if she thinks of us as often as we think of her, if she hates me. Has her pain lessened? Is she still in recovery, on her way to wellness? Has all of this, the court battle and the worst pain a mother can endure, having her child taken, being found unfit, finally given her the impetus for real change? Or has she begun to backslide, give up, go back to her old familiar ways?

When I think of Starla, I hope that she is well. I offer a quick prayer, asking for peace for her, for joy. Perhaps she has forgiven my trespasses, as I have forgiven hers. I never in a million years thought it would end this way. Never dreamed I’d have to close and lock the door on her, turn my back. I truly thought together we could watch him grow, united in our dreams for his future. But I’ve accepted what is my new reality. It is one in which I honor the people who gave life to my son, and I sorrow for their many, many losses, but keep them tucked away in a corner of my mind, no longer at the forefront of my thoughts. It is one in which I know better, and try to do better. It is one in which my boy, my beautiful, precious boy, grows strong and brave and whole. For after all, he is our missing piece.

*Not her real name

About the Author: Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus.  She is currently working on a book about the realities of foster care. As an advocate for foster youth, Sarah devotes her spare time to educating others about the system. Read more about her daily life at

Also by Sarah Green for Brain, Child:

Signing the Adoption Papers


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Art GuardiansI’m headed out I-30 into the nothingness that is East Texas. Antique malls, hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants, truck stops. Several hawks circle overhead, taking their time to survey what’s beneath. I take note of them, never having seen this many hawks on one stretch of road before. They are glorious with their wingspans silhouetted against the sky, but they do nothing to abate my sadness. It’s late January 2012, and a weak sun shines upon my journey. In the car with me is Sugar Biscuit. He’s my foster son, and he’s been with our family since we brought him home from the NICU almost a year ago. He is a fat cherub of a baby with an angelic demeanor and a quick temper. The type of baby that everyone takes notice of when we are out in public. He’s all blue eyes, blond curls, and dimples, with a gap between his front teeth. I nicknamed him Sugar Biscuit when I’d had him about two days. In those first few weeks Sugar Biscuit lived with us, I had no idea of the mountainous journey of faith, miracles, and sorrow upon which I was about to embark. Today, I’m traveling though one of the dark valleys on this path. In the wake of legal motions that will likely terminate the parental rights of the woman who gave birth to the boy that I’ve come to see as my own, I’ve been instructed yet again to deliver him to his maternal aunt. So, with hawks circling above me, I drive and tamp down the grief that weighs so heavily upon me that it becomes its own entity, making it impossible to get air deep into my lungs.

The call to become a foster mother had been with me since I was fifteen years old, and my travels around the world, seeing the suffering of so many third world children, cemented that desire. Seeing children in Tanzania who were at risk of death from dirty drinking water or a simple mosquito bite, spurred me into action. As I got older, I knew I could make a real difference right in my own home, and I set out to do so. My husband and I decided we would be a new breed of foster parents. We wanted to support the family of origin and be mentors to the birth mothers and fathers that had lost their way. We wanted to work with them and help them get their children back. So, with the blessing of our older children, ages 15, 11, and 8, my husband and I started classes in September 2010. We were licensed as a foster only home that December, and placed with Sugar Biscuit two months later.

There is no way class facilitators can fully prepare you in foster parent training for what it’s like to bring home someone else’s child from the hospital, to bring that child into your home, to meld him into the framework of your life. Though we were called last February to pick up an eight-week-old infant, what I brought home was a sunken, depressed old man of a baby who had to be given phenobarbital every four hours to ease his withdrawal and cut down on muscle tremors caused by being born addicted to methadone and pain pills. What I brought home was a baby who wasn’t present in his own body, who refused to make eye contact even at two months old, and who screamed and refused to sleep for the first six months we had him. We started calling the baby Sugar Biscuit after a sweet treat my Grammy used to make for us kids on Sunday mornings. But he was anything but a sweet treat at the time he came to me. He was grumpy and miserable. I instinctively knew this baby needed to spend as much time as possible strapped to my body and in my arms. He needed to learn that the world could be safe, he was loved, and he was going to be okay.

In the beginning, the caseworkers had asked us if we wanted to adopt, as it appeared that the birth parents weren’t going to be able to complete their service plan, get sober, get well, be able to parent. We had planned only to foster, going back to our old lives as world travelers and food connoisseurs in between placements. But it took a mere two and a half months for Sugar Biscuit to weave his way into the fabric of our lives, for us to decide that yes, we wanted to make a family that included this fitful, frustrating, wondrous child after all. My husband was the one who spoke it out loud first. He said he’d dreamt about Sugar Biscuit being carried out of our home, and the baby looking into my husband’s blue eyes with his own, wondering where we were sending him. My husband knew after this he would never be okay sending this baby away with strangers. Sugar Biscuit was part of us, and we of him. We then changed our license to be a foster/adoptive home.

About that time was when Sugar Biscuit’s aunt decided she wanted him. We waited months for the homestudy on his aunt to be completed, then packed him up to be sent away. Then picked him back up to come home again when she decided that caring for him and her own new baby was simply too much.

Then we discovered there is not only a legal father who signed the birth certificate, but also a biological father. The legal father committed murder, ensuring his lifetime would be spent in prison with no possibility of parole. The biological father came forward, then disappeared, then came back. The trial for the termination of parental rights in early February 2012 was delayed, the birth mother still did not have her life together. The judge gave her extra time, along with time for the biological father to work his required service plan and get custody. The biological father then relinquished his rights. Concerned for Sugar Biscuit’s future, and for his safety, we hired an attorney.

There were times since then when I found myself collapsed in a heap on the leopard print rug in front of my door, making deals with God, the Virgin Mary, begging for an end, for release. I was glad my older children were not at home, and my husband at work. My husband became lost in his own world of worry and despair, for he came to love this boy as his own, just as our children had. The fury of my grief scared me, and I did not want them to bear witness. I learned how soothing a good cry can be and became a master of quick storms of tears as an outlet for my anguish. More than a year of soul crushing blows mixed with glimmers of hope made me a master of putting one foot in front of the other. No matter what they teach you in training class, you cannot soothe, diaper, snuggle, feed, and lullaby a child without becoming, in whole or part, his mother. I became what I said I would never be: a foster mother who wanted to keep the child who was placed with her. Sugar Biscuit fit into the curve of my hip as I carried him, just as my birth children did. He smelled of me, and I of him. We had our own fragrance, Byredo’s Gypsy Water mixed with powder and baby hair lotion. I dreamt the same dreams for him, sang the same songs as I did for each of my daughters and my son. Each piece of news that came to tell me he may not be mine forever made my heart pound, my hands shake. I lost twenty pounds. I remember sitting in the parking lot at Chik-Fil-A, desperately trying to make a Chik’n Biscuit go down my throat, knowing I must sustain myself, but unable to do so.

At times like those, I thought often of Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother, of her own pain. I marveled at addiction, the power of the opiates that ruled her life, and damaged childhoods. These things can be so powerful that they can render a woman unable to do what she needs to make a life for her child. Years of watching her own mother struggle with addiction, her abusive father in and out of jail, saved from CPS herself by a grandmother who raised her as well as she could, did not prepare her for motherhood. I wondered if her pain at losing her child was greater than my own, and if the bonds of blood were greater than the bonds forged over hundreds of ounces of formula, and bedtime stories, and endless rounds of lullabies. I searched for compassion and begged for grace.

Over the course of that first year, in an effort to reunite Sugar Biscuit with his birth family, I reached out to Sugar Biscuit’s mother. In case he was returned to her, I wanted her to have a mentor, someone to show her how to be the best mom possible to this child. I offered her encouragement and talked her into going to rehab. I visited her in jail. I felt it was my duty to try to heal Sugar Biscuit’s mother so that no matter what happened, even if she lost him, I could tell him I tried to help her. Tell him what she looked like and how she spoke and how much she loved him, despite her illness and limitations. There was a brief period early on in which we all thought she might make it. She might pull it out and be able to hold a job, find housing, surround herself with healthier people. But the cycle of poverty, and her unmet hierarchy of needs were stronger than her desire to parent her son. She offered to relinquish and we made an open adoption plan.

And then she changed her mind.

This happened four times in December 2011 alone.

From February through May 2012 I would enter the most difficult part of this journey yet. Sugar Biscuit’s mother would get angry that we’d hired a lawyer and we would have a falling out; she only saw that we, along with the state, were trying to take her son. At the same time, I would realize that we could not lose sight of doing what was best for the child simply because we felt sorry for the mother. This boy needed stability, a home, a family.

Through the process of trial preparation, I would learn horrible things about Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother. I would be told about the thefts, the threats, the choking of her own grand- mother. During one particular meeting at our lawyer’s office, I would have to hold onto the table. Bile would rise in my throat as I read the case notes and found out what my aunt calls “the bad truth,” the history of the family of origin, the acts committed, the sins of the fathers and the mothers. It became even clearer that the circle needed to be broken, that Sugar Biscuit needed a chance at a clean slate. Though this type of no-holds barred battle would shame me to some degree, the new knowledge we held would free us from guilt while imbuing us with sadness for Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother.

Today though, with the hawks circling above me in the January sky, I don’t yet know this. All I know is for now, I drive Sugar Biscuit east to strangers, away from me yet again, honoring the request of the court to return him once again to his aunt.

As I drive, I cry. I am already disheveled, having left the house late, not willing to strap him into his car seat and make this journey. I spent too long in our blue rocking chair, singing him songs of mercy, and hope, and strength. I sing his favorite, “This Little Light of Mine.” I sing as much for me as I do for him. My face in my rearview is oily, my eyes swollen and wet. I beg again for mercy. Just like Sugar Biscuit’s mother, I am powerless in the face of this challenge, and I must admit my weakness. This is my own First Step.

My family has spent so much time putting one foot in front of the other on this journey. We are tired. We cannot do this for another second. It has simply become too hard. The pain too much and too constant. The rollercoaster takes the life from me, one dip at a time. It is stealing me away, bit-by-bit, from my other children, my husband, who need me more and more.

But as I drive and cry I notice again a hawk. He is majestic with wings spread, almost spectral. His indomitable size and lazy shadow is hovering over my car. He swoops down and lands on the median, watching me pass. And then there is another landing. And another. Red-tailed hawks, one after the other, are lining the road. They circle overhead, land gracefully, and line the median, paving my way. Somehow, I know at once they are there for me. They are playing sentry, paying respect. In amazement, I stop for lunch and call a friend who tells me that hawks are symbols of our guardian angels. They are protecting me. We both begin to sob. I know at this moment how loved my family and this baby are. There is no more room for worry. We are safe. We are shielded. He will legally be our son someday soon. I do not know where this knowledge comes from, but it fills me, pushing out the worry and fear and allowing in hope and light. I now know that this time with Sugar Biscuit has been a testing of faith, and of strength, and of the limitless bonds of love. This painful process has made all of us stronger people. I realize our family is now impenetrable, our circle of friends woven tighter. The ability to find joy in simple things is amplified. We’ve learned to persevere, to do the right thing. We have experienced grace in its truest forms. These are the things I will tell people when they ask me how I do this, how I go on. However, I have a secret. I know the truth, pure and simple.

The truth is that the very first moment I laid eyes on this child, a voice whispered in my ear. I dismissed it, but now I know it was true. Perhaps it was a guardian angel, perhaps it was God, perhaps I am crazy. But perhaps I am more sane than I have ever been. Still, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what this voice said.

“This is your son.”

And he is.

Author’s Note: I wrote Guardians in an effort to share with people an honest portrayal of foster care. Many foster care stories focus on the roses and sunshine, and neglect to show the dark days and nights that being involved in the system can bring. I hope to portray that while it stretches your limits to unimaginable borders, mothering our foster youth is extremely worthwhile and rewarding.

About the Author: Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus.  She is currently working on a book about the realities of foster care. As an advocate for foster youth, Sarah devotes her spare time to educating others about the system. Read more about her daily life at

Also by Sarah Green for Brain, Child:

Signing the Adoption Papers

Eight Months Later

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Wedding Guests


fall2011_buttenwieserThe wedding was about to begin. My not-quite-two-year-old daughter, Saskia, wriggled on my lap and I glanced again toward the doorway in the back of the room.

Caroline was late. We’d been invited to this wedding—my husband, daughter, and sons—essentially as Caroline’s “plus five.” I held Saskia’s warm hands and she clenched my fingers. She knew me as her mama. I was her mama, and I was waiting for her other mama to arrive.

Caroline, who’d asked Saskia call to her Auntie Cece, was the one who gave birth to her, and Caroline was the bride’s sister. There were no formal terms, exactly, for the rest of us.

The room quieted and I glanced over to my husband. We smiled at each other, sharing one of those here-we-are looks that couples in unlikely places exchange. We’d met the bride only twice. The processional music started up. Saskia got still watching the tiny parade in front of her. The flower girl and ring bearer—both Saskia’s cousins—walked through the doorway. Just behind them the bride held onto her father’s arm.

The afternoon was strangely balmy for late October. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day, and everything felt filmy, a little opaque. Throughout the ceremony, I kept turning toward the back of the New England barn-turned-reception-hall—still no Caroline. I didn’t want to worry—or even care—that she was late. And yet, I did care; I wanted her to show up. I wanted our smaller grouping within her larger family constellation to be complete. I wanted to feel she was comfortable with our being there—and I wasn’t sure.

Caroline finally showed up at the reception, dressed in dark pants, a button-down shirt, a chunky necklace, and lots of make-up. In one long tumble of excuses she explained that she’d had to work early, she was tired, she took a nap, she overslept, and then she got lost. “I need a glass of wine,” she announced. She set off toward the bar.

“I’m always late,” she said a few minutes later, wine in one hand, the other hand fiddling with her long, auburn hair. “I don’t mean to be.” At the family gatherings we’d attended before, Caroline had always arrived late or left early. She always walked out in the middle of visits to smoke cigarettes. It was understood that she couldn’t tolerate an event start to finish. I felt disappointed for her. And maybe, reluctantly, I had to admit to myself that I felt a little disappointed in her, too.

“Well, you’re here now,” said Margaret, another of Caroline’s sisters. Although her tone was half-hearted, the affirmation brought huge relief across Caroline’s face.

“I’m here now,” Caroline echoed.

Caroline gave Saskia a big hello and made a silly face. “Hi Saskia!” She called out. “Do you remember your Auntie Cece?” Saskia buried her face in my husband’s shoulder. Although Saskia remembered Caroline, she wouldn’t go to her. Saskia tended to be shy and clingy around people she didn’t know well, and for a toddler, the word “auntie” mattered little. However open our adoption was, we couldn’t force Saskia to do more than view her family members from our arms until she was ready to engage.

I said, “She gets shy.” Caroline looked a little disappointed. But she smiled broadly, almost forcibly. I tried to imagine only seeing Saskia occasionally. I tried to imagine wanting to be known, to be loved.

Watching Caroline try to engage Saskia, I remembered again that the adoption was harder on Caroline than anyone else. Sometimes, when she and I spoke on the phone, she brought it up: I know it was the right thing to do and she’s in the best place and still at times I wonder…Then she’d trail off. Those conversations tended to take place around certain holidays, like Christmas or Mother’s Day, when she went back over the decision, like fingering a scar. It was as if she could feel each change in the skin even when what’s apparent to the eye has become so faint as to be barely visible any longer.

More than once, I’d wished that this was a loss a person got over or past or through, that there would be an eventual sense of completion. As time went on, I appreciated it wasn’t like that: You could let go, you could feel you made the right decision, yet you couldn’t help but wonder. You couldn’t help but mourn. Even if you were happy about how things turned out, that scar remained, however it might fade.

Although I’d always, from childhood, wanted to adopt, that dream came into focus after having three boys, and three nauseated pregnancies. Adoption was my route to a girl. Nothing about the process resembled the simplistic stuff of a girlhood fantasy. A shared social worker put Caroline together with us; she believed we’d all “click,” and she trusted that we’d keep the door to the adoption open—to Caroline and her family, all of whom wanted in. That’s how we wanted it, too.

During our first conversation, over the phone, Caroline declared, “I prefer animals, especially horses, to people. I’m just not that comfortable with people.” She sounded apologetic about this admission. She worked in her mother’s horse barn and herself had two horses, two cats, and a dog. She’d added, “I really don’t want to put a totally dependent baby first.”

When we met, Caroline explained to us why open adoption appealed to her: “I like the idea that I can see her growing up, that she can know me.”

I’d replied, “That’s what we hope, too, that she never feels there’s a big secret, and that her family is just…very big.”

Throughout the pregnancy and the first months of Saskia’s life, we saw Caroline with regularity and spoke on the phone even more often. She was, because of the baby, becoming part of our family, too. It wasn’t exactly a sisterly relationship, although perhaps that was the closest approximation. In some way, we were adopting—and being adopted by—her.

Before we met Caroline, one social worker explained that any pregnant woman considering adoption was in crisis by definition. “No one would choose adoption if she felt she didn’t have another, better choice,” the social worker said. That seemed true for Caroline. She was in her early forties without much money; she lacked any help from the ex-boyfriend (although he was very demanding), and the hours she worked weren’t compatible with traditional daycare. While her family was helpful, she knew they couldn’t serve as her sole support.

Unintended pregnancy aside, Caroline sometimes reminded me of a cat with some yarn, quick to wind up all entangled. She’d had more trouble with cars than anyone I’d ever met, from speeding tickets to failed inspections. I thought of this as I watched Margaret shepherd Caroline over to make peace with their father. Even from across the room, I could see that he was annoyed by Caroline’s late appearance. His arms were crossed and he didn’t smile immediately.

I wanted things to be easier for Caroline, to go more smoothly. I wanted her to be happier than she seemed. Because her little girl was, in some way, a gift—she’d been entrusted to us—I found that I felt a little bit responsible for Caroline. It wasn’t like mother responsible. It was not even sister responsible. But I couldn’t help feeling that our great fortune—raising Saskia—came with the price tag of being a contributing factor in Caroline’s sadness, another tenacious knot in her challenging life. And to make things that much more convoluted, I believed that Caroline’s happiness, if it eventually took hold, stood to benefit Saskia as she grew more aware of this first mother of hers. I imagined that to see Caroline thrive would make the decisions surrounding Saskia’s birth easier for Saskia to understand if she was grappling with feeling her own sense of loss or displacement.

Outside, while a passel of kids ran around the misty, dusky evening, we chatted with their grownups. We were amazed that extended family we’d never heard of and family friends immediately accepted how we fit into the larger assemblage gathered around bride and groom. More than once, Caroline’s stepmother pulled us inside to meet someone. When she introduced me, she said, “This is Caroline’s daughter, Saskia and Saskia’s mother, Sarah.” She made the whole thing seem easy and I loved her for her gracious, enveloping heart. This relatively new definition of family felt almost comfortable and slightly awkward at once. These people I’d known for a relatively short period managed to be family, for real, and almost but not quite family. The air was cooling off.

Just before dark, burnished leaves stood out against the grey skies, the colors mirroring us. Because for all that was beautiful and amazing about open adoption—including our being part of a wonderful wedding celebration with Saskia’s beaming aunt—it wasn’t bright and shiny, not golden yellow or triumphant orange. It was a little more somber, a deeper hue. Along with all that joyfulness, something had been lost, not today, but there was still a sense of loss. That’s why the afternoon’s rain and then the rain having stopped just before the ceremony—the clouds’ overlay curtain pulling the sky up, leaving their viscosity in plain view—felt so right.

Saskia, unlike Caroline, hadn’t arrived late. She was, in her sturdy toddlerhood, so very much here, a tiny dark-haired girl racing around in orange clogs, grinning wildly. She had arrived into this world to be part of two families, and while she was growing up in one family primarily, she wasn’t marginal.

Back at our table, Saskia took the “chocolate ice cream” that was actually vanilla frosting and put a little onto Caroline’s lips. Caroline tasted the icing. “Mmm,” she said. “Thank you, Saskia.” Saskia did it again and again, a little game. Caroline loved being fed by Saskia. I took photographs, keepsakes from these moments, these small affirmations of the open part of open adoption.

Driving along dark, winding roads toward the highway, we felt happy that Saskia had been welcomed with such open arms and hearts, and relieved and grateful. Exhausted, too, because in order to bring all that love in, with all its intricacy, a softening of boundaries was required, a willingness to root for each person, not just your child. You had to love them all.

You had to love them, but love could be disappointing. I couldn’t help but imagine the school plays missed, the visit canceled very last minute, or the graduation skipped. I could feel how hard it would be to remain both of their champions. I imagined myself in the middle of this scenario while at the same time trying to steer clear and let them work out whatever disappointments might ensue. I felt the impossibility of my role. And I understood that even if it were excruciating, it was nowhere near as hard as being Caroline or Saskia might be.

There was, at least, all that family—those aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents—to love Saskia with more ease. Even with all those people to call hers, though, I imagined she might feel overwhelmed sometimes by how many of them there were, how she might have them all—but not entirely. I hope that with our help—and this extended family’s—a time may come when she’s the one embracing what seems so complicated now. I hope she also will be able to feel comfortable saying to her Auntie Cece mama, “Well, you’re here now.”

Author’s Note: There’s no question that my fantasy of adoption and the reality are really different. To write honestly and fairly about open adoption—something filled with love and loss—has required me to fight for the truest words. In the end, I can only really chronicle my own experience. This essay took eleven drafts, nearly two years, and numerous eyes to reach actual conclusion. At the moment, Saskia is “getting” (kind of?) that she was in this other tummy and has categorized Caroline as a “grandmother.” I’m pretty sure “grandmother” means “a loving adult who is not immediate family.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2011)

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.


Signing the Adoption Papers

Signing the Adoption Papers


Art TrenchesIt’s a Tuesday, and I’m driving past the Child Protective Services (CPS) office a few towns over. Getting close to this place always makes my heart beat a little faster, and I will myself to feel calm. Today, I am not stopping. I am not dropping the child in my backseat with a person wearing a badge, trying not to cling to him as he holds fast to me when taken from my arms.

 This Tuesday is a good Tuesday. I’m on my way to sign the last of the forms needed to finalize the adoption of my son. The day we finalize, he will have been in our care 635 days. It’s been a long road, and there’s years of healing left to do.

The first struggle was keeping this baby safe, giving him a hope and a future. We’ve accomplished that goal with the help of lawyers and the legal system. We’ve removed as many landmines from the road he will travel as possible.

The next battle is my own. I must, for the sake of my son, come to peace with his story. The story he had before he came to me. His time in the womb was not a time of shelter. It was a time of danger, and of poison, and of violence. I know that, for my son’s sake, I must come to some as-of-yet nameless place with the person who carried him into this world. I must be able to speak of her and feel no anger, only compassion, if not love.

I also have to find the balancing point in my son’s relationship with his birth father. How much is too much? How often is reasonable to send pictures? For phone calls? I’m not able to be objective about this. We are not angry with this young man. He too, was a victim of a terrible storm, sucked into a vacuum. But there are answers I just don’t have.

I joke that I have foster care PTSD, but there is some truth to this. Every time my son’s birth father calls, every time an unknown number comes up on my phone, my heart beats faster. I go immediately into fight or flight mode. It makes no sense, my son is my own, I call the shots now. I pray for the fear to fall away.

I feel, that since my son’s birth father is still having daily contact with the woman who gave birth to my son, that he should be removed from our lives. It is as if this woman carries a fatal disease, and I want to protect my family from any possible contagion. My husband disagrees. He finds him harmless. We argue.

I was the one who carried our boy into all those weekly meetings at CPS, who felt him hold so tightly to me, and heard him wail, as I handed him to a person who was a mother in name only. I was the one who prepared for trial, who was in the front lines. I am still tainted by the dust from the fight. I am just now able to stand, shaken and wobbly, and walk into the future with some measure of confidence.

Since there is no manual for foster parents on how to grieve the things your child lost before you even met him, before he was born, I am stumbling along. I don’t know how long it takes, but maybe it will take a lifetime to come to terms with what we’ve been through, all of us.

For now, I am hoping that my intent to continue doing the best I can with what I have is enough. I am blindly feeling my way, wanting to make each step the right one for my new son. I know from past experiences that time does indeed make everything better. I trust I will be shown the way. I might falter. However, I know now that I will get back up, and keep moving.

As I pull up to my lawyer’s office, and see the gap-toothed grin in my backseat, I am reminded of all that is good in life. Throughout our battle, we’ve been given so many blessings. The greatest of which is the reminder to take each small moment and cherish the miracle within it. The miracle of a good Tuesday is one I will never, ever take for granted again.

Author’s Note: We adopted our son, who we call “Sugar Biscuit” on National Adoption Day in November 2012.

About the Author: Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus.  She is currently working on a book about the realities of foster care. As an advocate for foster youth, Sarah devotes her spare time to educating others about the system. Read more about her daily life at

Also by Sarah Green for Brain, Child:


Eight Months Later

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.


By Dawn Friedman

fall2007_friedmanEvery morning I turn on Max & Ruby and sit down in the blue chair with the red cushion. My three-year old daughter grabs a little chair for herself and places it between my feet. I have a wide-toothed comb, a rat-tail comb, and spray-on conditioner. I also have a box of barrettes, cloth-covered rubber bands and little plastic snaps.

First I separate Madison’s hair into sections and spray it liberally with the conditioner. Then I use the wide-toothed comb to smooth the tangles from her curls. Next I use the rat-tail comb to make parts. Sometimes I divide her hair into a dozen little squares to braid. Sometimes I give her two fat pigtails down low behind her ears to leave room for her bike helmet. Other times I pull back the top and braid it to keep the hair out of her eyes and leave the rest down to froth around her shoulders. Depending on the style, our morning ritual can be as short as twenty minutes or as long as an hour.

My daughter’s hair is rich, chestnut brown touched with auburn. It bounces around her ears in silky corkscrew curls. It is the kind of hair that captures attention in the grocery checkout line.

“Look at that gorgeous hair!” the observer exclaims. “Wherever did she get it?”

They don’t really need to ask. Underneath that mop of glistening curls is a café au lait face. It’s obvious that she got her beautiful hair from her African American ancestors. But people ask this because I am white, and clearly there is some story to our daughter’s arrival to our family. “Where did she get that hair?” is a question that comes from white people. Black people simply say, “She has good hair.”

It’s what her birth mother said at one of her visits. “I hoped she’d have hair like this,” Jessica said, twisting a curl around her fingers. Our daughter’s first mom, with whom we have a fully open adoption, has kinky hair that gave her fits when she was a child and that she now wears in a soft afro. “She has good hair.”

“But isn’t it all good hair?” I said, quoting the title of a book on African American hair care (It’s All Good Hair) that’s widely recommended in transracial adoption circles.

Jessica snorted. The snort said, “Spoken like a white person.”

Madison is not tender-headed–she never yips in pain when my comb hits a snarl–but getting her to sit (mostly) still has been a matter of training. I started having her sit for hair time before she had much hair at all. We both needed the practice.

“Do you want braids today?” I ask Madison. “Do you want your dragonfly clips?”

“I want to wear it foofy,” she might say. She means in two fluffy ponytails. If her hair was in braids before we sit down to style, her ponytails will be soft ripples. If we mist them with water, the curls will bounce right back. Sometimes she wants twists, two strands of hair twisted around each other to make a sort of looser version of a braid.

“Like Rudy,” she says, because she admires Rudy’s hair on old Cosby Show reruns. For twists we might use tiny clasps called snaps at the end of her hair. We have flowers and jeweled hearts and little opalescent butterflies. Madison fiddles with them and by the end of the day her hair is still in twists but empty at the ends. I find the clips scattered around the house and I pick them up to put back in our barrette box. Replacing snaps can get expensive.

Our babysitter Jaime is a young African American woman with inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm who wears her hair in natural short twists, which she usually covers with a pretty scarf. Every morning she greets Madison by commenting on her hair. A neutral, “Look at your hair today!” means I could have done better. An enthusiastic, “Look at your pretty-pretty braids!” and I can tell I’ve done a good job.

I knew that this was her ever-polite way of guiding me while I tried to figure out the social mores around my daughter’s halo of curls. One morning I asked her outright how I was doing on Madison’s hair.

Jaime seemed relieved I had asked. She mentioned the products that would work best on Madison. She checked out my comb and cautioned me against over-conditioning.

“What about this?” I asked. My daughter has little flyaway wisps that escape around her face. “Do I need to do something to keep them down?”

“No, but if her hair was really nappy, that would look like a mess,” Jaime answered. She paused to cup Madison’s chin in her hand and tilted her head up to see her eyes. “But we know our children’s hair comes in all grades. We know that her hair just does that and it looks just fine.”

There are other words for nappy. There is “textured” or “kinky” or “coarse.” My black friends have instructed me not to say nappy because this is a word that in the mouth of a white person has the dim, lurid overtones of hatred.

“I can call a child’s hair nappy,” explained one of my former co-workers. “But you can’t. Don’t even go there.”

After we adopted Madison, one of my white friends asked, “Can you say it now?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. To make sure I asked a black friend. That’s when I learned the word “textured.”

When I took my daughter across the country to meet her extended birth family, I was nervous about her hair. She didn’t have much then, being only about fifteen months old, but what she had was a soft blur of curls. Left alone it was cute but messy and there was barely enough to style.

“Just get the parts straight,” said a black friend. “It’s all about having a good part.”

Now I practice parts the way I used to practice my tennis serve. I try to put style, grace, and accuracy into my daughter’s parts. If the line wavers at all, I comb her hair out and start again. I’m finally getting the hang of it and now I can make complicated parts at an angle to each other. I’m proud of my parts.

I’ll admit it, I was scared to adopt a daughter. Once we knew we would be adopting a black child, I read books about hair care and felt worried. I’ve never been good with my hands. I hate to sew and crochet; even writing a letter by hand makes me groan. How would I manage her hair?

Most of my white friends don’t understand the fuss. They have daughters with long hair or with short hair and sometimes they send them out looking like they’re wearing a bird’s nest on top of their heads.

“Well, she won’t let me get a comb through it,” they shrug.

One day I was talking to a white friend about Madison’s hair and about trying to figure out how to keep my daughter walking between two worlds with her head held high.

“I just want her to look right,” I said.

“She’ll look right because she’s your daughter,” my friend said.

I found her assurance well intentioned but frustrating. When my white friends argue that I shouldn’t “have” to adhere to black standards in styling Madison’s hair, they are refusing to acknowledge that this is a response driven by white expectations, created by a culture where the texture of black hair is considered a problem, an anomaly. When they say, “Would you do this for your biological child?” they ignore the fact that my bio son is white.

When my white friends’ daughters leave the house with uncombed hair they subvert ideas about shiny neatness and little girls. My feminist friends smile easily at their tangled-headed daughters playing princess. But this is not a privilege extended to children with brown skin. I know that my daughter–like any child of African descent, boy or girl–carries the weight of racism on her curls. The cultural image of the unkempt black child–of Buckwheat and wide-eyed pickaninnies–is part of a racist legacy used to argue that African American parents didn’t care for their children and that their children weren’t worth the care.

White people, like my friend, usually assume that my whiteness protects my child. It’s a dangerous assumption. My daughter cannot escape racism just because she is my child. I don’t want to send my daughter out into the fray without the visible respect of her mother. I do her hair to send the message that her curls are worth the trouble because she is worth the trouble. I’m telling the world that she is valuable and loved and protected.

None of this is a burden to me. I look forward to styling Madison’s hair every morning. I enjoy the closeness, the quiet focus of my mind while I sift through the barrettes. I mist my daughter’s hair with water and prepare to unknot the tender place at the base of her skull, the place that my black friends tell me is called “the kitchen.”

At the end of our styling sessions I always say the same thing.

“You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, hairdressing lady,” my daughter says formally. “Thank you for doing my hair.”

Then she’s off to go look in the mirror and I put the comb away.

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

About the Author:  Dawn Friedman lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, son, Noah, and daughter, Madison. Her work has appeared in, Yoga Journal, and Greater Good. She was an editor at Literary Mama and blogs at


The Doll

The Doll


Art The DollI wrested the Cabbage Patch doll from the insistent packaging before the pizza came. Saskia’s birth mother—grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins—sat around the table. We see each other a few times a year. It was just after Christmas and we met at a restaurant midway between her birth mother’s house and ours.

Saskia’s a preschooler, a bundle of pure wonderfulness, a sassy gal with crazy-long dark hair tangling all the way down her back and so many words and an abundance of energy and joy. That Saskia’s birth mother entrusted her to us means that raising her is an enormous, sacred responsibility. I feel grateful every single day.

Cabbage Patch dolls are soft and scented and have dimpled, somewhat troll-like faces and sewed-on bonnets. They are curious looking, as if human but not quite. Once I pulled her up by her pink bonnet, I discovered the adoption papers. What? I hadn’t recalled that Cabbage Patch dolls come complete with adoption “papers.” I must have known this, though, because in that one moment I felt both reminded and as if my breath had been taken away from me. As I freed the doll from the box, I ignored the papers. The small, brown plastic face stared at me. Seemingly unfazed by my inner turmoil, the doll was wide-eyed, seemingly neither happy nor sad.

I handed the doll to Saskia and set the box under the table. I took a large sip of water with ice cubes to keep my mouth busy for a moment. I crunched the ice in my mouth.


Holding those faux adoption papers in the restaurant—doll as Rorschach blot—I knew the doll had nothing to do with my reaction. Maybe Saskia’s cousin—now a doll-shunning tween—had herself loved a Cabbage Patch doll way back when she was small… Regardless of whether Saskia’s aunt forgot about the adoption shtick or whether she remembered and saw it as normalizing and positive, what I saw in the doll—the ink across my psyche’s page—had everything to do with how unresolved the gift of adoption feels to me. That this daughter, who brings such happiness to my life simultaneous to other people’s loss, especially her mom’s, that is indelible sadness. I wish, as time goes on, that the bittersweet could change to all sweet and it doesn’t necessarily. Because of it, I worry sometimes that for my daughter adoption will, inevitably, be a source of sadness almost without regard to how happy her life is.

It’s been a year now. Each time I glimpse the doll I remember that moment when Saskia received the soft baby with papers, and I feel queasy all over again. The suggestion that she—like the doll—might have been plucked from a field of cabbages, like a character in a fairy tale continues to make me feel sad and mad and knotted inside.

Other things inspire this same discomfort: those ads to take in an older child in Saturday’s newspaper or the pairing of these words, adoption and pet or the question about where her “real” mother is. I stumbled the first time I read her the picture book Are You My Mother? At any suggestion that she was at some point close to having been discarded, I become a bristled and fierce mama bear; I will put myself between her and any inkling of not being absolutely cherished.

Earlier this week, a girl I was driving home from school—she’s just nine—was asking how old Saskia was when we adopted her. I told her, “Saskia came home with us from the hospital.”

As I said this, I could conjure the sensation of Saskia in my arms at two days old, weighing next to nothing. She was so tiny that when we put her in the bucket carseat in the hospital’s parking garage, we had to wedge blankets all around her. We lay more blankets on top of her. The seat seemed enormous. It was terribly cold and our breath clouded up the car windows and my husband blasted the heat and the defroster to no immediate avail. We sat inside the cold, steamy car, at once suspended and desperate to drive away.

Sitting beside her in the back, I remember being dizzied by the maze of ramps in the large parking garage. Once we started moving, we had to weave around the semi-lit ramps to reach the exit. When we finally pulled onto the road, we laughed shakily. The car seemed a getaway vehicle, like we’d pulled off a heist. We said aloud that we felt like thieves. We could not believe we were leaving the hospital with the hotel décor and the petulant nurses and the nearly-bury-us-in-red=tape-hospital-social-worker with the baby in tow.

The little girl I was driving home interrupted my remembering: “That’s good that she was so small,” the girl reasoned. “Even now, my brother’s two and he’s nursing and he’d miss our mom and dad if someone put him in another home. She’s lucky.” I couldn’t decide whether she was worried about her brother being taken away or wanted him to go sometimes or pitied my daughter or was simply trying to make sense of something so dramatic as not keeping a child.

My response—to feel bruised, defensive—had absolutely nothing to do with her questions. I told myself to remain gentle, to be patient, that questions like these were going to be commonplace from kids for years to come. Her questions functioned as another Rorschach blot, revealing more about me than her. I worried the story would evoke pity or that my daughter would interpret the questions that way. I worried that she’d be sad or incredulous about not being wanted. I worried that she’d see adoption as being about her—worthiness.


I haven’t done so often but in the past when my kids have received gifts that I couldn’t abide by, I simply ditched them, yet I wouldn’t dump anything given to Saskia by her birth family. Once she’s learned which things her aunt gave her, like the pink bunny and soft pink blankets blankets, the Angelina Ballerina book and now the Cabbage Patch doll, she remembers. There’s the photo book of cousins, aunts, uncle, grandparents and birth mama her “grandmother” (aunt, actually) put together for her, which she pores over. I wouldn’t want to take any of those physical objects from her. I wouldn’t want to take any (more) connection to her birth mother’s family from her than the immoveable one we took up front on that frigid February afternoon as we drove from the middle of the state West feeling like fugitives while they traveled East.

For now, for Saskia’s birth family, there’s definite relief that Saskia’s a happy girl—and that’s she’s safe and loved and cherished, and thriving. They tell me this. There’s also longing and sadness and regret. They tell me this, too. Even though the longing and sadness and regret are not mine—I’m the exhausted, besotted, ragged, ever present mom—I do believe my task is to hold open the space that connects Saskia’s birth mother and family with her and her with them and to do this I have to honor both their relief and their regret. I have to grasp their sadness.

The gift of the doll stirs up how much feels unresolved and possibly irresolvable. Sometimes, I wish all complexity could vanish. Sometimes, it’s hard to share being family with people I hadn’t met before the birth of the child who connects us. It’s awkward. It’s complicated. It’s a learning process and there aren’t many handbooks for open adoption. We did not sign a formal agreement about how we’d proceed.

But without the wash of it—complexity and love—there’d be no Saskia. I can’t wish any of it away. Instead, I remind myself that these relationships need time to unfold. They aren’t to be determined instantly. Tread gingerly. I cling to the idea that Saskia’s got more—family, love—not less. I hope abundance prevails over what’s bittersweet or sad or twisty. In some idealized version of things, I want this family to be all about her. It’s not; family never is about just one person. It’s about all of us figuring out how our ways towards each another. When I find the doll tossed on the floor by her bed, I set her back on the shelf with the other soft things.

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