I. The Decision “My mommy didn’t carry me in her tummy; she carried me in her heart.”
In this section of the book you will read about the many wonderful, unique, and sometimes surprising reasons why people adopt. Many assume that most people adopt because of infertility— and indeed this is one of the great gifts of adoption, that families longing for a child who are unable to conceive may build the family they have always dreamed of. But I have also met young couples in their twenties who decide against having a child biologically simply because they want to save orphans and not overpopulate the world. Or other individuals— single or married, gay or straight— whose work or a vacation sent them to a foreign country where they fell in love with a culture and decided to adopt from that country. A newspaper story about the plight of orphans in Africa who lost their parents to AIDS can inspire parents to pick up the phone and begin the adoption process. A mother or father facing an empty nest with their children’s departure to college might suddenly think, “Wait a minute, I don’t think I’m quite done raising children.” The death of an elderly parent could move a family to adopt and then name the child for that grandparent. Spiritual or religious moments have inspired adoption plans. I have seen so many new families form for such varied reasons in my practice that, frankly, nothing surprises me. What is universal in these stories is that a child who has never, or only briefly, known permanency discovers it in the loving embrace of a family— and this is what finally makes a child happy and healthy over the long term.
I always wanted to adopt a child. When I was very young, I saw those Save the Children advertisements on TV and I felt badly for kids who were very poor. I asked my parents to adopt the kids on TV. At one point— I can’t remember the inspiration behind it— I asked them to adopt a Native American child, and they patiently explained that these children could not be adopted out of their tribe. That was a disappointing moment for me, but more about that later.
In 1975, I saw a church announcement on an Upper East Side bulletin board advertising an adoption meeting. I was the youngest person at the meeting and the only one not married. The church auditorium was filled with married couples who appeared to be mainly in their thirties and forties. The social workers running the event were probably my age, twenty- four. It was an informational meeting about adopting orphans from Vietnam. The American government was going to provide transportation for Vietnamese infants and toddlers who were being adopted by American citizens. I filled out an application and then we were given an opportunity to meet with a social worker that evening. They broke us up into groups and I was told after they reviewed my application that I was not eligible to adopt because I was single and too young.
That was called the “baby airlift” in April 1975. While I missed out on this opportunity, I put the flyer in a folder and continued to get mail from local adoption agencies in New York City throughout the years. I remember throwing the file, which had become filled with brochures about adoption from Vietnam, Colombia, and Paraguay, away years later. I was sad to give up my dream, but by then I was teaching and thinking about medical school and I told myself that there was no time for me to be a parent.
Fast- forward to me as a pediatrician specializing in adoption medicine in the 1990s. Off I went for a month’s trip to China, with my then partner in life. I was the doctor on the trip for eight families who were adopting from China. It was a very cold and challenging trip, but at the same time it was a close-up look at the process of international adoption, and I was eager to learn so that I could be more helpful to my families. We traveled to Beijing and Guangzhou, and I took care of eight children who were adopted by eight American families. At one point there was a dramatic moment for one family that turned into a dramatic moment for me as well.
A baby scheduled to be adopted by one of my families was most likely blind. The adoptive mother suspected it the moment she first held the child in her arms and she and her husband called myself and the Chinese facilitator to their motel room to discuss the situation. According to adoption procedure, when a child was thought to be sick, the child had to be evaluated and assessed by a Chinese doctor. So we marched the baby to a children’s hospital, where a vision test was performed and the child’s blindness was confirmed. With sadness, the family decided against adopting the child. They were fortunate in that the Chinese authorities agreed to place the blind child back in the orphanage and to provide the family with a new child. This was a nerve- racking moment because the papers had already been signed and the photos of the first baby were already on the visa, but the children looked enough alike, especially in their hair style, and nothing much had to be changed. The pain, suffering, and guilt the family felt were monumental, as you might imagine. The rest of the group was not informed, so that they could process on their own without judgment.
My partner and I had to keep the blind baby in our room for a day and a night to manage the transition of the arrival of the new baby. There we were in a tiny motel room without heat and lights within a small, crowded, and polluted city in China, feeding and playing with a baby. It was a dream come true for me. My partner loved babies, but she was not interested in adopting; she had two grown children and was happy with our life alone.
I fell in love with this baby and still remember her sucking sounds as she eagerly devoured her warm formula thickened with oatmeal and topped off with a teaspoon of sugar— the same recipe I had instructed so many families to use to add much- needed extra calories to their children’s diet and to help their babies sleep. I cried when I gave her back to the facilitator the next morning and spent many years grieving and pining for her. Fortunately, she was adopted by another family from the United States months later. The parents who had decided not to adopt her felt very grateful for their circumstances but also sad; it was one of those bittersweet moments in adoption. Their daughter graduated college recently. It is hard to believe this adoption occurred so long ago.
I finally came to terms with my decision to adopt and be a parent in 1999; I left an eighteen- year marriage to a woman and adopted a four- month- old infant boy from Vietnam as a single parent in August 2000. More on this wonderful period in my life later. Many of the parents you’ll hear from in the pages that follow had equally long roads to travel following their decision to adopt. Yet the joy that greeted us all when we were finally able to hold our children in our arms is, in many ways, indescribable.
Maggie is a filmmaker. She lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with her husband, David Mansfield, a composer, and their two daughters.
I decided to create my family through adoption when I was in fourth grade. It was the mid- sixties, and I ordered The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss from Scholastic Books and read it instantly. Despite the unfortunate title— Doss had originally called her memoir All God’s Children, though the publisher changed it before it was released in 1954— the book’s an inspiring memoir of Helen and Carl Doss’s adoption of eleven mixed- race children in the 1930s and 1940s. Though I lost my copy during various moves, and the book is now long out of print, I never forgot it. That was the kind of family I wanted.
At ten, the age my youngest daughter is now, I knew I wanted ten children. The number decreased as my years increased. By the time I was a young adult, I was a career- obsessed artist. I thought I’d never marry and assumed I would be a single mother. By twenty-five, one child seemed the right number. But who that child might be and where he or she might come from were both things I hadn’t thought about. The first internationally adopted child I met was a blond- haired, blue- eyed boy from Romania adopted by a film producer I knew. Though he was adorable, I knew this wasn’t my path.
At thirty- six, I’d just finished writing and directing my third feature film, and the time for motherhood seemed to be approaching. I had a friend who did work with orphanages in Cambodia, and I thought perhaps that would be my path. My heart began to pull me toward Asia, like a compass seeking true north.
And then the most unexpected thing of all happened— I met and fell in love with a man who would soon become my husband. For the first time, it occurred to me to have a biological child. I was getting older, though, and so my plan became to have a child and then adopt a child. But first, to make another movie.
When my husband and I started trying to conceive, I was forty. A year later, I still wasn’t pregnant, but I’d become very aware of the sight of little Asian girls with Caucasian parents around New York City. When I learned these were Chinese daughters, abandoned by parents who wanted sons, I knew where my path to parenthood lay. As a lifelong feminist, I’d always railed against the inequality and injustices toward women— and so now, it’d only make sense that such passions would direct me to where I found my babies. (To this day, nothing causes me greater outrage than the preference for boys and the wholesale genocide of girls in some cultures.)
By day we began a brief foray into the demoralizing world of fertility treatments, and by night we researched China adoption. The fertility process was bizarre at best, humiliating at worst. Meanwhile, the packets from adoption agencies that began to arrive in the mail thrilled me. One day, while walking through the Union Square Greenmarket with my husband, I told him that even if I did conceive, I wanted to continue our adoption process. My feet were already on the road to China. I was committed. My husband nodded sagely— he knew when to say nothing.
We began the adoption process at the same time I was giving myself injections in preparation for an IVF procedure. So I reacted with a peculiar mix of indignation and relief when my fertility specialist told me I had produced only one follicle and that my few remaining eggs were “the dregs.” Was I disappointed? Truthfully, not at the time— though now I do miss never having experienced pregnancy. I ran headlong and heart- long into the adoption process.
Where was my husband in all this? Walking beside me, though it wasn’t a path he ever imagined. He’s the father of an eleven-year-old from a previous marriage, and his daughter’s face is a unique but recognizable blend of her mother’s family’s features and his own. He couldn’t imagine what this new kind of family might look like. The adoptees we both knew when we were growing up seemed to fit nicely into their white families, often passing as their own biological children. Why was I so set on adopting a girl from China? Why not a white baby from the good ol’ U. S. A.? Because in the deepest part of my soul, I knew that the child, or children, meant for me was the unwanted girl on the other side of the world.
Conveniently, serendipitously, I ran into an old acquaintance who had a two- year- old daughter, Maya, adopted from China. My friend invited us over for a visit. Skeptically, indulgently, David agreed to go. It was a cold rainy night, and as we walked to their loft, I was so excited that I kept tripping on cracks in the sidewalk. After introductions at the door, and with no prodding at all, bright, beautiful, and haughty Maya took David’s hand and led him into her house. I stumbled happily into the loft behind them. I thought to myself, “Deal closed!”
We filed our paperwork. Over the months of waiting, I went to every meeting of the newly formed Families with Children from China (FCC). There were so many babies and toddlers there. I would weep, looking at that exquisite sea of faces. I remember hearing Dr. Jane Aronson talk for the first time to a room full of eager parents concerned about the possible health issues that face internationally adopted children. “When it comes to international adoption, all bets are off,” she said with characteristic frankness. Undaunted and defiant, I never worried. CCAA, China Center of Adoption Affairs, changed the rules and regulations from time to time. Suddenly, because David had a child, the CCAA ruled that I already had one too. Due to their own one- child policy, China decided to apply their laws to foreign adoptive families, and we were a couple who already had their allocated child. Would they take my baby away before I had her? Our social worker, Patti Gross, reassured me, “Adoption is about faith.” I sweated.
When our referral came nine months later, I couldn’t believe it. My father, the towering patriarch of my family, was born on December 7. I have a niece born on the same day. More than half the members of my family have December birthdays. And here was the picture of my daughter, Mao Xiao Biao, Maisie, who was born December 3 and had been found December 7. She was five months old. It was meant to be! I went shopping for baby clothes.
We flew to Guangzhou, China, and then to Zhanjiang. From there we took a van with six other couples along a bumpy one- lane road, passing rice paddies and wooden carts pulled by water buffalo, to provincial Maoming. I wept during the entire three- hour drive. Another parent-to-be nicknamed me “The Wreck.” Never in my life have I been so filled with expectation. Never before have I had a feeling of fulfilling my destiny. As we arrived at the small, bleak notary’s office, a group of women holding babies, our babies, rushed inside as we approached.
Martin, our cheerful facilitator, led us into the building’s entryway but no farther. Then began a beautiful ritual in which each couple was called forward to be presented with their child, while the other families stood near sharing and savoring the moment. I started out as the group videographer, extracting a promise from one father to videotape the moment when my daughter and I were united. Of course, his baby was presented first. He was so nervous that when our baby was presented, he turned the camera off instead of on. Through my tears, I only saw my daughter. I don’t know who brought her to me. She was placed in my arms and I could barely speak. In all the photos that were taken from that day, my eyes are red from crying. I wept, I smiled, and I kissed her small hand. She was awestruck, and so beautiful, her large dark eyes implacable as they took it all in. After a few moments, I handed her to David so I could see her, all of her. Here you are, my child. I have come to the ends of the earth for you. This was the journey I’d been waiting to take since I was ten years old.
I took many of the pictures that day while David held Maisie. I wanted to record everything so that when she was older, she’d have keepsakes from that day. About twenty minutes after we got our babies, we were waiting in the notary’s office to finalize the adoptions. I was holding Maisie when David took a picture of the two of us that remains my favorite. We are looking at each other, and I’m smiling through my tears, drinking her in. Her large dark eyes gaze deeply into mine. We’re soul meeting soul. Later that night, back at our hotel, Maisie slept lying on David’s chest. He said, “It’ll be good to come back in a few years and get Maisie a sister.” Deal closed!
Three years later, we returned to China and brought home our daughter Lulu. Receiving her was another incredible experience, though very different. Lulu’s foster mother, Pei Bao Hong, brought her to us. She also brought a bag of gifts: tiny mandarin oranges that Lulu loved, a large slice of angel food cake, eight eggs from her farm, and a bag of sugar for Lulu’s formula. She had been paid eight dollars a month to care for this baby whom she had grown to love. Lulu was sobbing with fear when we met. Pei Bao Hong and I passed her back and forth for half an hour as we talked through the interpreters. As Lulu grew calm, I realized her gaze was fixed on her sister, Maisie.
A few years ago, I found a copy of The Family Nobody Wanted on eBay. I bought the original edition– the same Scholastic version that I’d read in fourth grade. On the cover are sketches of half a dozen children of different ages and races. They’re surrounding the central image, a woman with short black hair holding a small baby wrapped in a blanket. It looks just like the photo of Maisie and me in the notary’s office in Maoming, China, taken thirty- one years after I opened Helen Doss’s book.