The 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)
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