Once again I am incredibly honored to be able to lend my voice to this publication.
Please click here to visit “Two Degrees of August’s Birth Mother” in the latest issue of Adoptive Families and let me know what you think.
Once again I am incredibly honored to be able to lend my voice to this publication.
Please click here to visit “Two Degrees of August’s Birth Mother” in the latest issue of Adoptive Families and let me know what you think.
The scene: Oscar, age 9, in the top bunk, very, very tired after a long night of football and Minecraft but still remarkably lucid; Edgar, age 8, on the bottom bunk packed with two dozen stuffed animals, four pillows, two blankets, and a beleaguered mother nestled in temporarily to say goodnight. Edgar is characteristically chatty and full of nighttime questions.
EDGAR: “Mom, do you think I’ll get married some day?”
ME: “If you meet the right person, you’ll know it. And if you both want to get married, then you will.”
EDGAR: “How about kids? Do you think I’ll have kids?”
ME: “If you and the person you marry want to have children, then you will.”
EDGAR: “I think I want to adopt one boy and one girl and name them Steve and Elizabeth.”
ME: “Well, if you get married, it’s not just up to you, you know. Your spouse would have to agree.”
ME: “Yes, really.”
EDGAR: “Well, we’re adopting no matter what.”
OSCAR: “Me, too. But I’m adopting just one child, a girl.”
ME: “You know, there are lots of ways to form a family. Adoption is one, but there are others.”
OSCAR: “Yeah, but adoption is cool.”
EDGAR: “Yeah, I love adoption.”
ME: Pause. “Yes, it is. And so do I.” Another pause. “Goodnight, boys. I love you.”
OSCAR: “I love you, Mom.”
EDGAR: “I love you, too, Mom.”
And the mother, renewed and a little less beleaguered, nestles in further and decides to linger because, really, where else would she want to be?
I have checked my email two dozen times this morning hoping each time I click on “Inbox” there will be a note, a sentence even, telling me she has changed her mind, that she made a mistake in what she wrote last night—that she wrote it in anger, frustration, or sadness and that the light of day has made her realize this is not a relationship she would ever want to sever.
August’s birth mother, when his adoption plan was created, initially requested six visits per year. We settled on four and have been steadfast in adhering to our agreement. Even when she was not able to come to a visit, we continuously endeavored, sometimes amidst our own frustrations, to find a work-around that would make sense, understanding that our son’s positive contact with his birthmother is a gift unparalleled.
It hasn’t always been smooth—far from it. The most recent attempt at a visit ended up heart-wrenchingly sad: a four-year-old boy, eager to see his birth mother, understanding precisely who she is and why it’s important that he see her, deliberately and thoughtfully garbed in a Christmas sweater and dress pants and armed with a handmade gift, wandering through the food court of a nearby mall, hand-in-hand with his mother who was watching the minutes tick by far too fast with his birth mother nowhere to be found.
When the only reasonable option was to leave, lest we prolong the inevitable result, August cried. I lifted his forty-five pound body in my arms, and between heaves and tears he said, with the full force of his four-year-old sense of injustice, not to mention cause-and-effect, “She lied to me. I don’t ever want to see her again.”
I brought him to the car, gave him kisses and some water, and then we talked. I told him she didn’t really lie, though it may seem that way to him. Something happened and she couldn’t come. I asked him to please consider seeing her because not seeing her would hurt her feelings. He said she hurt his feelings, so we paused.
By the time the ride was over, August consented to seeing her again. I allowed him to dictate the terms: the zoo in the summer. I proposed the plan when we got home and in return received an email in which his birth mother–in two mere sentences–declared she was not going to see August anymore.
I read her words too many times, thinking it was quite possible I was misreading them, that they were an illusion. When it became apparent that they weren’t and that her mind had been made up, I had to tell my son.
From the outside looking in, especially for those who know and understand the inevitable bumps with which such relationships are often strewn, this may seem as though it will ultimately be in our son’s best interest: If someone no longer wants to or can’t participate in a relationship with another, forcing it can only lead to disappointment and heartache.
But as an adoptive mother, August’s mother, I know the benefits and the potential benefits this relationship has—had–for him, for us, and for August’s brothers, both of whom never had an opportunity to even meet their birth parents. I know and understand the loss.
But at this moment August feels the loss, and for him my heart hurts. My wish then can only be that the love he feels from his family, his friends, indeed the world, will help to ease that loss, understanding full well that when we’ve had something—someone–in our life and then suddenly we don’t, that easing is the best we can hope for. Filing is not an option.
August is a light in and to this world, a gift; and his birth mother gave him a selfless and tremendous gift in not only making an adoption plan but spending the time she could with him afterward. I cannot presume to know the battles she faces, the pain in her life. My hope, though, is that one day his presence will bring her comfort and that she will seek him out.
He will be here, and we will walk with him, toward her—when she is ready.
You were roughly three months old. It was a chilly November day now nine years ago, and I can only just write about this. You were napping as was your wont every afternoon. I had put you down around noon after one of your now-legendary feeding frenzies, not realizing at the time that this would be one of your marathon naps—five hours to be exact. I always joked that I wished parents knew the length of their children’s naps prior to putting them down. It’s hard to plan what to do with your break in the day when it could be anywhere between forty-five minutes and half the day.
But this was a long nap day. I kept checking on you. You were sleeping blissfully, your arms bent and up near your ears, your “touchdown position,” as we called it. I was so in love with you. You were everything we had waited for, everything we ever wanted.
So while you slept I decided to destroy the evidence that there was ever anyone before you.
I’m not sure why I thought I had to do it while you slept—as if at three months old you were even remotely cognizant of much of what I was doing. Perhaps it was the devastation of the act that was about to unfold or the raw emotions I knew it was going to incite. No matter. I knew I wanted to do it when you weren’t around; and since you were never far from my sight in those early days, it had to be while you slept.
The light was waning, and I opened the closet. I knew the photo albums I needed to grab. The one with the tan and green tapestry design, the red leather one. There were hundreds and hundreds of pictures because he was with us for eight months, and I photographed him nearly every day.
He was just two when he arrived. His belongings accompanied him in a garbage bag. He didn’t have much—a few pilled and mismatched outfits, a smattering of well-worn toys, and he was carrying a Diet Coke in his tiny hands. A social worker asked us if we smoked as she handed us his emergency asthma equipment, and then she left.
He walked through the dining room, the same dining room where you do your homework, make your puzzles, tell me your stories. He flipped the light switches on and off. He meandered through the kitchen looking at the food. He was hungry. I made him dinner.
He was our foster son. Your father and I—years before you were born—made the decision to become foster parents. We weren’t sure if we wanted to be parents but we knew we wanted to make a difference in the life of a child, knew that we could. So we did. We trained and understood our charge. The goal in foster care—unlike adoption—is reunification with birthparents. We knew this little boy’s story when he walked into our lives but were committed to making difference in his life while he was with us.
And then another social worker walked through our front door three weeks after his arrival. She sat in our kitchen—your kitchen—and watched this little boy sleep. He ate so much at every meal that he would often fall asleep immediately after—if not during. The social worker smiled, saw how healthy he was looking, how content. Then she uttered the words that would change the course of our lives: “So, would you and your husband be interested in adopting him?”
Until that moment we hadn’t even entertained the notion. We were busy trying to mitigate his fear of the bathtub, negotiating his night terrors, and getting into him all the nutrients his small body had missed out on. We saw our roles as pivotal but temporary.
Until she asked us if we wanted to adopt him.
We agreed, of course. Who wouldn’t? But what happened next broke our hearts not just in two but in pieces. He left our care five months after this kitchen conversation with his social worker. He went back to his biological family only to come back two days later. And just when we were starting to heal, starting to see his leaving as just a temporary—albeit heart-wrenching—blip, he left again. Another relative had stepped in and offered to take care of him. We fought this, advocated for him. We asked for some transition time, knowing the havoc these disruptions wreaked on his young life, on his ability to trust. We lost the fight, and he walked out of our lives forever.
What came next you can only imagine. After such a loss, grief and all that ensues takes over. Questions punctuate every tear, pain envelops every experience—both the pleasant and the mundane. If you’re lucky, you emerge. If you’re very lucky, you emerge stronger.
We came out stronger though no wiser—that is, until you came into our lives. It was then we knew why this had to unfold the way it did. You see, if we had wound up adopting this little boy, this boy we loved, he would have been our one and only. He would have had to be. His needs were so great, so encompassing, his early losses so palpable that we would have felt it our duty to dedicate our lives to him. If that had been the case, we never would have pursued another adoption. We never would have known you, our son, or your brothers.
On that cold November day as I sat in your playroom tearing up every photo of this little boy one by one, I cried more tears than I can possibly explain—tears for the act, tears for the loss, and tears for the fact that this little boy had to leave this life here with us so that you and your brothers could have it instead.
I sat on the couch with the detritus of torn photographs around me, and I grieved for him.
And then you woke up.
And I ran.
Navigating the divide between your personal goals and what is in the best interest of your children is a constant work in progress. It’s never complete; and each new turn brings up previously unforeseen complications.
That I love to write is no secret. What may be “the secret,” however, is why I do it. While occasionally what I have written has garnered the attention and interest of others, the reason I am compelled to sit down at the keyboard every night is simple: I write for my children. Every letter I type, every sentence I string together is with the thought that I am in some small way making their lives easier.
We are an adoptive family; and because of that fact we face challenges different from those faced by biological families. Our son has epilepsy and ADHD; and because of those facts we face challenges different from those who are not contending with those conditions. I write about the life we live because I want to share a reality that would otherwise be shrouded from others and by doing so hope to dispel misconceptions. I write to remove some of the brambles and stones that line our family’s path so that when my children walk it, it can be with a higher head and a firmer step.
The fact that this work has led to other opportunities has been largely positive. Reaching a larger audience means the actualization of my goal is enhanced. The more people who read or hear my meager words, the more who will potentially understand the beauty of adoption, the trials and tribulations and tremendous victories that exist when your child is battling serious health conditions and learning differences.
What is not always positive, however, are people’s comments. While I am always interested in what people think and appreciate the boundless support and camaraderie I have experienced through my writing, I don’t write about my family to hear other people’s criticism or, worse, diagnoses from afar. Our twenty-first-century world has allowed the great mass of the anonymous to pontificate immediately and readily from behind a keyboard, brandishing whatever vitriol suits their fancy and never even having to sign their name.
The issue, indeed the problem, though, is exacerbated when you are writing for your children, when your writing is the legacy you are choosing to leave to those you love most. My sons, in reading the words I have written for them, to them, won’t be able to escape the accompanying comments—the comments that occasionally question their mother’s parenting, the attempts to analyze anonymously and from afar their complex circumstances.
My skin is not so thin that I seek to avoid criticism at all costs. I understand if you put something out there, you open yourself up to commentary. I understand that when people are permitted to respond immediately and namelessly, the potential for ill-informed if not malicious commentary is very real. And I understand that it’s in any writer’s best interest to ignore most comments and to persevere. I understand that if you walk away, the denigrators win.
And as I sit here tonight listening to my sons playing in the other room, I think that though this is their world, they did not ask for my participation in it. This isn’t just my story; it’s ours.
I will continue to write because I have to. My blog will exist because it belongs to my children. But beyond that—the world where it’s all about how many “Likes” you have, how many visitors have clicked on your page—is no longer for me. Today comments that would never have been published in the past because they did nothing to advance any conversation, intelligent or otherwise, are allowed to subsist online for all to see—all in the name of acquiring and hanging onto followers. And if you want to write, it seems as though you have to live in this world.
That is, of course, unless you refuse.
And I refuse.
Maybe we all should.
Today was scheduled to be a visit with August’s birthmother.
These happen four times a year; and to say August is at an age where he not only understands the purpose of the visits but looks very much forward to them is an understatement. Tell him we’re going to see his birthmother and he beams. His growing four-year-old feet do a little tap, and his upper body wiggles in a way that is nothing short of infectious.
His comfort with all of this, his doubtless affection for her . . . all of this makes me so happy because it so obviously makes him happy.
So when she can’t make it due to work or other family obligations, he is disappointed; I am disappointed. And, I suspect, he is also sad. And it’s not just his parents who know this but also his brothers, who do not share the same opportunity for contact with their birth families.
“Why can’t she make it, Mom?”
I explained she had to work, that this was a new job and she wasn’t in a position to ask for time off or to say what days she could and could not work.
In my mind I was already looking ahead to the next scheduled visit, figuring I would focus on what we have to look forward to rather than what we had lost.
Then Oscar said, “Why don’t you see if you can bring August in to her work so he can at least see her for a few minutes?”
I looked at him, flabbergasted and amazed at the depths of his magnanimity not to mention problem-solving skills.
I explained that I didn’t know where she was working, whether it would be appropriate or not to bring him in, that employers often frown on employees having visitors. But I quickly added it would be worth finding out . . .
And though it appears it probably won’t work out, I learned something about my oldest son–something I think I already knew but now can see unequivocally: Though the chances of Oscar having the same connection with his birth family as August are incredibly slim and, more accurately, probably nonexistent, he does not harbor any resentment. At nine years old he is not jealous, doesn’t want anything but to encourage his brother’s relationship, to see his brother happy.
With loyalty and love like that by his side, I suspect August will be able to weather any disappointment. And, quite frankly, so will I.
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“I don’t like you anymore, and I don’t want you to be my mom anymore either!”
A foot then stomps, a heavy sigh is audibly exhaled, and an angry little boy walks away from me.
It’s a scenario that has been played out before this moment and will be again—in my house and, I’m sure, yours, too.
Someone once asked me that. And, for me, the short answer is no. It stings me just as it would a biological parent or a stepparent or any other caregiver who has poured his or her heart and soul into a child. It doesn’t hurt any more or any less because our children came to us through adoption.
Of course, I don’t have a firsthand source of comparison. All three of my sons were adopted; so I can’t readily evaluate the differences between how things feel for biological parents versus adoptive. But I don’t think it’s such a stretch to say there really aren’t any. How could there be? In fact, think of all the people in your world who mean the world to you. To how many of them are you actually biologically related? If you’re like most people, the answer is some but most assuredly not all. The love you have for a friend who shares no genetic connection to you is often just as rich as the love you feel for a biological sibling—and sometimes, depending on your circumstances, even moreso. Love is not defined or limited by biology.
But the fact that the question gets posed in the first place is what causes me concern–because at the root of it is the still-lingering societal belief that the bond between an adoptive parent and his or her child is somehow tenuous, not nearly anywhere as secure as that between a biological parent and child–as if all a child has to do is somehow, in a fit of anger and frustration, say some variation of “I don’t want you to be my parent anymore,” and—poof!—all the legal if not emotional ties that bind you are somehow gone.
Which is, of course, nonsense.
Most parents understand that the utterances of frustrated children, while needing to be addressed, are not adequate reflections of how they truly feel; and at the root of most hurtful comments is actually the need for affirmation, the quest for the promise of unconditional love.
So, when we set limits and one of my sweet sons is angry and says something cutting, my first thoughts have nothing to do with adoption, with how our family came to be, or with the idea that he may be wishing he were with his biological family simply because he happens to have a biological family. After the initial sting, what I think is “I’m doing my job.”
Occasionally (or maybe sometimes more often than not) my children and I are going to butt heads, and we all certainly have the capacity to say things we regret. But I know anchoring us through any storm on the horizon is love–the love a mother has for a son, the love a son has for his mother.
And that, to me, sounds just like any other family—no difference at all.
He’s known the word “uterus” since he was probably three years old–not because he was particularly precocious, though he is that, but because of a book about adoption he loved to hear again and again that featured a birthmother who had “a baby growing in her uterus.” He always seemed to be as intrigued by the language of the book as he was by the concepts. And for the last five years, this is where Oscar’s questions hovered–about what happens in said uterus, how the baby comes out, and what happens next. I answered each question without embarrassment as it came up and simply waited for the next.
However, recently the question I knew was coming but caught me off-guard nonetheless arrived: How does the baby get in there in the first place?
Every parent has to field this one, and every parent does it differently. However, when your family is formed through adoption, these questions require, beyond the science, a different approach. In adoptive families, biology is not even in the background–it’s nonexistent. We don’t talk about how Edgar looks just like his paternal aunt or how August must have inherited a particular propensity from his maternal uncle. We don’t have stories about pregnancy cravings and corresponding food preferences in our children. The phrase “mini-me” is not ours. Adoptive families have their own stories and their own phrases–just not the same ones as biological families.
And all of this is okay–more than okay, in fact. It’s just that when it’s time for this talk, there are added complexities that reside in questions that render the biological ones simple: How did my birthparents meet? Did they decide to have me? Did they love each other?
I have always believed that if children are able to articulate a question, it deserves an honest albeit age-appropriate response. And I’ve never been uncomfortable with telling my children I don’t know something.
What does trouble me is when I do . . .
Do you ever stop to think about the sequence of events that had to happen to bring you to your loved ones, what had to occur so that you would and could find one another?
Probably most of us do–for a short time but then our heads start to hurt: This person needed to meet this person, who needed to move to this place at the exact same time as this person . . . and on it goes.
As a mother who formed her family through adoption, I am regularly struck, when I look at my three sons, what had to happen to bring them together. It’s not just that their father and I had to find one another first, then choose to pursue adoption, but everything else . . . from the agency we chose, to our social worker, to timing for and choices made by each of their birth parents.
Three boys who otherwise would be strangers in this world are brothers. Three boys who might never have had the opportunity even to lay eyes on one another are the best of friends.
If you think my head hurts thinking about this, imagine my heart . . .
From the outside looking in, the particulars of our open adoption agreement for our youngest son August can seem complex if not completely intimidating and confounding.
It has inspired questions, many questions: Isn’t it confusing for your son? Isn’t it unnerving for you? Don’t you worry that it will undermine, even threaten the bond you have?
The answer is a very polite no to all of the above. When an open adoption is in a child’s best interest, it is indeed one of the most important relationships in his or her life; and it is one that needs and deserves a most careful cultivation.
Because she is in his life, my son’s birthmother can answer his questions as they arise. He is not relegated to the position of having to file away his queries for decades and be sated temporarily with “maybes” and “I-don’t-knows.” He will never have to wonder why because he can ask her, and she can tell him. And of all the gifts a parent can give to a child, peace and security are among the most profound.
As August’s mother, I have received my share of pats on the back for embarking on this path and maintaining this connection for him. And as appreciative as I ever am for the kind words of others, I don’t know that I deserve a single accolade. At the end of every visit, I get to go home with this beautiful boy. His birthmother does not.
August has two mothers—one who would sacrifice anything in the world for him and one who already has.