By Karen Skalitzky
No 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.”
“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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