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.