Published on April 24th, 2018 | by Cheryl Klein2
Early and Often: An Adoption Story in Circles
My son’s favorite book right now is Babies Come from Airports, a sweet, rhyming story narrated by an adopted child whose family is about to welcome a new baby sister from China. There are many things I like about the book: the way the words and illustrations collaborate to tell a deeper story, the depiction of a multiracial family that includes a nonwhite adoptive parent, and the fact that it is about humans rather than animals. I deeply love A Mother for Choco, about a bird who is adopted by a bear, but my partner and I adopted within our own species, and I want my son to be clear that our relationship to him is different from the one we have with our cats (to whom we also did not give birth).
Dash, who is three, is in it for the airplanes. Or at least that was the initial lure. His primary memory of the week we spent in Mexico City last year is the plane ride, and his favorite toy is an Airbus A380 whose wings fall off far too easily.
He wants to know about the runway and the rental car shuttle depicted in Airports, but lately his list of questions is expanding.
“I sad in Mama Erica’s* tummy?” he asked the other night.
After decades of shame and secrecy around adoption, the rule of thumb, now, is to talk about it “early and often.” Normalize it. Answer questions in an age-appropriate manner. Whatever you’ve been reading about how to talk to your kids about sex (or race) probably applies to adoption as well.
For his second Christmas, my sister made Dash a laminated photo album of the people who love him: my family and C.C.’s, his godfather, our close family friends, and—right there on page 3—his birthmother.
She found us online when she was eight months pregnant and we had been waiting to adopt for a frustrating two years and change. We loved her right away. She was a born-and-raised SoCal girl like us, with a breezy demeanor that masked her Aries determination, the kind required to place a child for adoption.
Hopeful adoptive parents almost always worry that birthparents will change their minds once the baby is born (it happens, though not a lot if given the counseling and support they need to make a real, un-coerced decision). A second, smaller worry is: What if my kid’s birthmom is all up in my family’s business? What if she tries to parent my kid? What if my kid likes her better than me? In our open adoption trainings, agency workers assured us that most adoptive parents end up wanting more contact than birthparents do.
At the time, this was hard to imagine. I genuinely wanted our then-hypothetical child to have a relationship with their birthparent(s), but when it came to my own feelings about parenthood, I was a mama bear without a cub. I was a constant ball of angry tears, fighting anyone and anything that seemed to stand between me and motherhood.
Erica signed the paperwork relinquishing her parental rights—and here I imagine photos of Vietnamese mothers lifting their children onto American helicopters as Saigon fell to the Viet Kong. Perhaps she was less desperate—knowing the specifics of her financial and family situation, I can comfort myself that she had a choice—but I doubt she was less heartbroken.
C.C. and I eased into the rhythms of parenthood. Bottles floating in soapy water filled our sink. Photos of Dash’s scrunchy face and sparse dark hair filled our phones. We texted regularly with Erica, but less so than in those early days, when she’d needed to reassure us that we were really his moms, and we’d needed to reassure her he was safe and thriving in our care.
Despite what we’d outlined in our (totally non-binding, to the frustration of many birthparents) “contact agreement,” we only saw Erica once after Dash was born, when he was ten months old. It was a low-key visit in a park; I think we were all crushed by the weight of the bittersweetness. And then Erica slowly ghosted us over the next few months. I still email her pictures and updates now and then, imagining her Yahoo inbox as a kind of storage locker she may want to open someday.
I am a person who doubts almost everything, but I have never doubted for one minute that she thinks about Dash daily, and that her lack of contact is strictly about what she needs to do to survive; to create some sort of life for herself in the present.
This reality fills the room when Dash and I talk about adoption. I’m writer and editor, paring it down into something he can digest. And like any writer or editor, I know that I don’t actually control the story; the reader takes in the narrative through the filter of his own reality. Which is to say that he may stop me in the middle and demand to read Steam Train, Dream Train instead.
He says: “I want be a baby and go in Mama Erica tummy.”
He says: “You adop-ed me? Mommy and Mama and Dash adop-ed me?”
He says: “You go in my tummy?”
He says: “I have a blanket like Baby Grace,” the little girl in the book. Suddenly the presence of a blanket becomes a crucial detail in his adoption story.
We read Llama Llama Holiday Drama. He sees Anna Dewdney’s author photo on the book flap and says: “I meet her when I a tiny baby?”
He says: “Your dad is Gramps and Mama’s dad is Papa. And Nana is mine.”
He turns these ideas over like stones in water, wearing them smooth, listening to them click as they tumble over each other.
In Sherman Alexie’s** memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, he writes about trauma—his personal losses and the collective, intergenerational trauma inflicted by white America upon indigenous America—in the form of poems, fragments, and retellings. He alternately describes his approach as a quilt like the ones his mother made and a circle, a shape that features prominently in Native rituals.
This resonated deeply for me. In 2011, I miscarried twins and had a nervous breakdown—that’s not a clinical term these days, but I was nervous all the time, and I broke down. My grief and irrational self-blame manifested as intense hypochondria. Did I have MS? Lupus? Neck cancer? I was trying to tell myself a story about why my body felt so strange, and why it had failed my babies. I felt like I must not deserve to be a mother, but I refused to go down without a fight. These dueling narratives about health and sickness, and maternal worthiness and unworthiness, played on a loop in my head so loudly that sometimes I screamed.
I don’t know if Dash experienced trauma when we took him—however lovingly—from Erica. There’s a school of thought that says yes, and another that says probably not. Trauma is deeply personal, and is more about the long-term impact of an event than its content. I can tell you—and my therapist’s notes will back me up—that I was more traumatized by my miscarriage than by breast cancer. I’m grateful that, so far, Dash has shown no real signs of trauma. But loss? That’s undeniable.
He was born into loss. He may not know it yet, but I think he has an inkling. I think it lives in his body and is working its way to the surface like the splinter he got from a wood chip at the park. Words and stories will be the equivalent of Epsom salts and tweezers. There will be a scar.
Some parents might be shaken by the idea that their child suffered such a huge loss before their eye color had even settled. I’m open to the idea that I’m deluding myself a bit here, but I actually find the idea slightly liberating. From the moment Dash wrapped his hand, a miniature version Erica’s, around my finger, I couldn’t give him everything he needed. It’s nice to get that out of the way.
I think some expectant moms and moms of infants tend to be anxious and even downright smug because they think that if they just do everything right, they’ll be able to give their kid a perfect childhood. Adoptive parents—at least those who go in with eyes fully open—have no such luxury. Thank god. I can’t shield him from loss, but I can walk the circle with him as many times as it takes.
*Name changed because I want to preserve her right to tell her own story, whenever and however. It is one of the few things I can give her.
**When I drafted this essay, Sherman Alexie had not yet been moved to the Shitty Men column by the internet shame machine. The women he hurt are brave and right to tell their stories. Their stories belong to them. But the rest of us? Maybe we shouldn’t act shocked that someone who was abused has abused others. That’s not to say bad behavior is forgivable, simply that forgiveness or lack thereof is not a card I keep in my wallet to dole out or withhold. My religion is one of stories, the more the better.