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.