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Like many adoptive parents, the birth of our families was preceded by struggle. Before Pamela and her husband traveled to Kazakhstan in 2001 to adopt six-month-old Annie, they wrestled with whether they were capable of loving an adopted child as unconditionally as they did their biological daughter, Emily. Jill’s trip to China in 1995 to adopt seven-month-old Becky followed eighteen months of coaxing and badgering a husband who, already resistant to fatherhood, was adamant that he did not want to adopt.
The birth of this book, by contrast, was instantaneous and stress-free. As we were leaving a monthly meeting of New York–area women writers and editors, Pamela asked Jill, “Would you be interested in coediting a book on parenting adopted kids?” Without hesitating, Jill answered, “What a great idea! Absolutely.” Though much of the evening’s discussion had centered on weighing the pros and cons of particular projects, neither of us felt a need to deliberate further. Instinctively, we both knew that this was an idea whose time had not only come but was long overdue.
If you are an adoptive parent, or are considering adoption, you probably understand what we mean. While the adoption literature is thick with answers to questions about the adoption process, it is stunningly thin on matters that touch on the actual raising of our kids. Standard parenting books, meanwhile, measure children’s developmental and behavioral milestones against a yardstick that may not apply to children who were adopted from orphanages or the foster care system, or at older ages. In those rare instances where adoption is mentioned, it tends to be in passing, with the same jarring follow-these-10-easy-steps brightness as that applied to potty training or normalizing sleep routines.
But as we all know, adoption issues are complex, nuanced, and ongoing. No matter how competently we address a child’s concern at a given moment, it refuses to wind down tidily and disappear along with cribs, crayons, or curfews. Instead, these are issues that take root early on, then burrow deeper as our children grow older. Over time, they tend to evolve, not resolve; mature, not melt away.
Such questions ﬁrst began to gnaw at Pamela when her daughter Annie turned two. The fears she and her husband David had entertained about their capacity to love an adopted child had vanished within hours of ﬁrst holding Annie. But now, as they prepared to enroll Annie in Jewish preschool, with plans for her to follow seven-year-old Emily into a Jewish Sunday school, Pamela began to worry. How could she honor Annie’s ethnic heritage—an intriguing, rich mix of Russian, German, and Kazakh—without making Annie feel “different” within the context of the family? Should the whole family sign on to Russian lessons? Take trips to Kazakhstan? Would such activities alienate Annie, or Emily, or both?
For Jill, the most frequent questions sprang from her growing awareness that she would never be able to gauge, let alone grasp, the signiﬁcance of an unidentiﬁed birth mother’s claim on Becky’s imagination and heart. The ﬁrst time it hit her, Becky was barely eighteen months old, long after Jill’s reluctant spouse, Joe, had become a smitten, involved father. Jill was holding a friend’s infant on her lap when Becky suddenly charged across the room and plowed her hands into the child, shouting, “My mommy!” In a confused moment, Jill found herself doing the calculus familiar to so many adoptive parents. Was Becky simply exhibiting the behavior of an only child unaccustomed to sharing? Was she giving voice to a rudimentary awareness of her adopted status, and signaling that she felt a need to assert or defend her claim on Jill? Was the appropriate response to provide a quick lesson in the merits of sharing and the demerits of hitting? Or might it be better to set the infant down and wrap Becky in a hug that reassured, “Yes, you are mine.” Since then, such moments—and questions—have only multiplied.
If such dilemmas resonate with you, then this may sound familiar, too. Although neither of us feels inclined to seek out families that “look like ours,” we both ﬁnd that when we encounter other adoptive parents, we tend to become engaged in intimate, candid conversations that have a language, sensibility, and awareness all their own. Often, these dialogues help to clarify issues that are nagging at us or hovering at the back of our minds. Moreover, though neither of us regards adoption as the deﬁning characteristic of her mother-daughter relationship—indeed, we both bristle when people refer, without cause, to our children as “adopted”—we ﬁnd such discussions with other adoptive parents fascinating, edifying, and, frankly, a relief. Why? Perhaps because through such dialogue, we affirm that we are not alone in training a special ear and eye on the words, habits, and behaviors of our adopted children. We discover that we are not overthinking or underthinking, being hypersensitive or overly zealous when we probe for subtext beneath our children’s embraces and exclamations, tears and taunts. We realize that we are not crazy in thinking we possess a peculiar radar that searches for meaning where people with biological children—even those of us with our own biological children—look for none.
If you are already a parent to one of this country’s more than 1.6 million adopted children under eighteen years of age (the total number of those who are older is impossible to estimate), or hope to be among the estimated 120,000 Americans who will adopt in the year ahead, you know how this special radar has a way of kicking in at the seemingly most innocent moments and raising unsettling questions that tend to linger. Take, for instance, when you bring your newly adopted son to a family gathering and notice that your usually effusive relatives seem to be steering clear of your child. Is this simply the reserve some people feel around a new member of the family? Is it an indication that your relatives will always regard your son as the “adopted” one? More disturbing, could they be picking up on your own slowness to bond? Are you perhaps still harboring preadoption reservations? Has the adoption itself given rise to fresh doubts?
Now fast-forward a few years. As you plan a family trip to this same son’s country of origin, he balks. “I don’t want to go. I’m an American.” Does this merely reﬂect his fear of ﬂying or discomfort with unfamiliar places? Is it a refusal to acknowledge his roots? Or is it the ﬁrst hint of a deep-seated fear that you plan to drop him off, then return home without him? Is he nursing dark fantasies that—like his birth parents somewhere out there in the universe—you might “abandon” him? Should you plunge ahead with your travel plans anyway? Or should you postpone the trip?
What about the day your once-cheerful little girl becomes a brooding and angry preteen? “You’re not my real mother!” she yells with a look to kill. Is she simply (okay, maybe not so simply) going through a predictable adolescent identity crisis? Is her struggle compounded by adoption issues that she is unwilling to acknowledge to you, and perhaps even to herself? What if she asks uncomfortable questions about the actual adoption? If you acknowledge there were rumors of corruption in her country of origin’s adoption pipeline, will she conclude she was “stolen” from her birth parents?
And what about that birth mother, whom, in moments of distress, your daughter has imagined as the perfect parent? Do you upset her soothing fantasy by sharing that the woman was a homeless street kid? What if your child was abandoned, and the details supplied by a lawyer, orphanage, or adoption agency were speculative at best? Or perhaps you do know the identity and location of the birth mother. Is this the moment to make contact? To build upon an extant, but distant, relationship? If you reach out, what obligations— moral, emotional, ﬁnancial—might you incur? Most important, should you be the one to introduce this woman into your child’s life? Or is that a decision for your daughter to make when she is older?
Such moments can leave a parent yearning for input, insight, or inspiration, preferably from somebody attuned to the often unaddressed issues surrounding adoptive family life. Ask anyone else and you risk either an uninformed dose of you’re-reading-too-much-into-this, or the sort of worried frown that blows your concern way out of proportion. Mostly what you want is to bounce your observations and reﬂections off someone who is able to discern when your adoption-related musings are little more than a sideshow to the drama of daily life—and when they are the drama. You crave the ear of someone who understands that while adoption is not who your child is, it is an integral piece of who he or she will become. Or perhaps you’re thinking of adopting and want to know what may lie in store.
Either way, you’ve come to the right place. The twenty gifted writers in this anthology understand. Their concerns traverse the wide spectrum special to the roughly 2.5 percent of American families that have come together, in whole or in part, through adoption. As a group, these writers’ families represent the diverse nature of the adoptive nuclear unit as it looks today in America. Scattered among ten states, the families are headed by different-sex couples and same-sex couples, single mothers and single fathers, divorced parents and parents who were themselves adopted. The children, who range from toddlers to teenagers, were adopted at a variety of ages, and come from overseas and over state lines, from orphanages, the foster care system, and the homes of blood relatives. The households represented here enlarge the meaning of the term “blended family.” Some have a biracial or multiracial complexion; some involve both biological and adopted kids; some mix children born abroad with those made in the U.S.A.
Each of these original essays offers a vivid snapshot of a different aspect of the adoptive parenting experience. They are, by turns, painful and joyous, humorous and sober, provocative and poignant. While the subject matter roams broadly, all these writers share a desire to explore and probe their uncertainties, ambivalences, and passions honestly. They do not seek to offer advice. They do not intend to offer resolution. Each of them appreciates that adoption issues are far too complicated for sentimental or pat answers.
As you read, you may at times ﬁnd yourself nodding in recognition or agreement. At other moments, you may ﬁnd yourself arguing back at the writer, seeking to articulate a different truth born of your own experience. We say, Wonderful! Let the dialogue begin. Primarily, we hope you will ﬁnd what we discovered as we edited these pieces: through the sharing comes reassurance, reﬂection, and reaffirmation. All of this, we believe, strengthens our ability to parent our kids with greater intelligence, insight, and love. Of this much we are certain: when it comes to the all-important task of raising our children, the adoptive parent-to-parent grapevine has been silent too long. p.k. j.s.
Living with a Very Open Adoption
by Dan Savage
There was no guarantee that doing an open adoption would get us a baby any faster than doing a closed or foreign adoption. In fact, our agency warned us that as a gay male couple, we might be in for a long wait. That point was driven home when both birth mothers who spoke at the two-day open adoption seminar we were required to attend said that ﬁnding “good, Christian homes” for their babies was their ﬁrst concern. But we decided to go ahead and do—or try to do—an open adoption anyway. If we became parents, we wanted our child’s biological parents to be a part of his life.
As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait long. A few weeks after our paperwork was done, we got a call from the agency. A nineteen-year-old homeless street kid named Melissa— homeless by choice and seven months pregnant by accident—had selected us from the agency’s pool of pre-screened parent wannabes. The day we met Melissa the agency suggested all three of us go out for lunch—well, all four of us if you count Wish, Melissa’s German shepherd; all ﬁve if you count the baby she was carrying. We were bursting with touchy-feely questions—which we soon realized was a problem. Stoic and wary, Melissa was only interested in the facts: She was pregnant, didn’t want to have an abortion, and couldn’t bring up her baby on the streets. That left adoption. Even though she hated talking about her feelings, Melissa was willing to jump through the agency’s hoops—which included weekly counseling sessions and a few meetings with us—because she wanted to do an open adoption, too. She wanted, she said, to be a part of her kid’s life.
We were with Melissa when DJ was born. And we were in her hospital room two days later when it was time for her to give him up. Before we could take DJ home, before we could become a family, we literally had to take him from his mother’s arms as she sat sobbing in her bed. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was thirty-three years old when we adopted DJ, and I thought I knew what a broken heart was, how it felt, what it looked like. I didn’t know anything. You know what a broken heart looks like? Like a sobbing teenager in a hospital bed giving a two-day-old infant she knows she can’t take care of to a couple she hopes can.
Ask a couple hoping to adopt what they want most in the world and they’ll tell you there’s only one thing on earth they want: a baby, a healthy baby. But many couples want something more: They want their child’s biological parents to disappear. They want their child’s biological mother and father to be forever absent so there will never be any question about who their child’s “real” parents are. The biological parents showing up on their doorstep, lawyers in tow, demanding their kid back, is the collective nightmare of all adoptive parents, endlessly discussed in adoption chat rooms and during adoption seminars.
But we didn’t want Melissa to disappear. All adopted kids eventually want to know why they were adopted, and sooner or later they start asking questions. “Why didn’t my biological parents keep me?” “Didn’t they love me?” “Why did they throw me away?” When kids who were adopted in closed adoptions start asking those questions, there’s not a lot the adoptive parents can say. Fact is, they don’t know the answers. We would. Having those answers was part of what made doing an open adoption in 1998 seem like the right choice for us.
Like most homeless street kids, Melissa works a national circuit. Portland or Seattle in the summer; Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York in the late summer and early fall; New Orleans, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles in the winter and spring. Then she hitchhikes or rides the rails back up to Portland, where she’s from, and starts all over again. For the ﬁrst few years after we adopted DJ, Melissa made a point of coming up to Seattle during the summer so we could get together. When she wasn’t in Seattle, she kept in touch by phone. Her calls were usually short. She would ask how we’re doing, we would ask how she’s doing, then we’d put DJ on the phone for a few minutes. She didn’t gush, he didn’t know what to say. But it was important to DJ that his mother called.
When DJ was three years old, Melissa stopped calling regularly and stopped making a point of coming to town. When she did call, it was usually with disturbing news. One time she called the day after her boyfriend died of alcohol poisoning. They were sleeping on a sidewalk in New Orleans, he was lying beside her, and when she woke up—he was dead. Another time she called after her next boyfriend started using heroin again. Soon the calls stopped, and we began to worry about whether Melissa was alive or dead. After six months with no contact, I started calling hospitals. Then morgues. When the clerk at the county morgue in New Orleans asked me to describe Melissa, without thinking I started to say, “Well, she’s kinda quiet . . .” The morgue attendant laughed and told me that all his Jane Does ﬁt that description. When DJ’s fourth birthday came and went without a call, I was convinced that something had happened to Melissa on the road or in a train yard somewhere. She had to be dead.
I was tearing down the wallpaper in an extra bedroom at home one night shortly after DJ turned four. His best friend, a little boy named Haven, had spent the night, and after Haven’s mother picked him up, DJ dragged a chair into the room and sat down and watched as I pulled wallpaper down in strips. “Haven has a mommy,” he suddenly said, “and I have a mommy.” DJ was going through a phase where he would make statements of fact and ask us to conﬁrm them for him. It was as if he was testing himself, making sure his take on reality jibed with our own. “That’s right,” I responded. “You have a mommy, too, just like Haven.” He went on. “My mommy’s name is Melissa. I came out of my Melissa’s tummy. I play with my mommy in the park.” Then he looked at me and asked, “When will I see my mommy again?”
“This summer,” I said, hoping it wasn’t a lie. It was April, and we hadn’t heard from Melissa since September of the previous year. “We’ll see Melissa in the park, just like last summer.”
We didn’t see her in the summer. Or the fall or the spring. For a while I wasn’t sure what to tell DJ. Suddenly we didn’t have the answers anymore. We’d seen her at the hospital, the day she gave him up, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever seen anyone do. We knew that she didn’t throw him away, we knew that she loved him. We also knew, though, that Melissa wasn’t calling, and for all we knew she was dead. In fact, I was convinced she was dead. But whether she was dead or alive, we weren’t sure how to handle the issue of DJ’s missing mother. Which two-by-four to hit him with? That his mother was in all likelihood dead? Or that she was out there somewhere but didn’t care enough to come by or call? And while we would always be able to tell him how much his mother loved him—we had seen how painful it was for her to give him up—soon he would be asking more complicated questions. What if he wanted to know why his mother didn’t love him enough to take care of herself? So she could live long enough to be there for him? So she could tell him herself how much she loved him when he was old enough to remember her and old enough to know what love means?
My partner and I discussed these issues late at night, when DJ was in bed, thankful for each day that passed without the issue of his missing mom coming up. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to avoid or ﬁnesse the issue of his missing mother after summer arrived in Seattle, something that usually happens in mid-July. As the weeks ticked away, we admitted to each other that those closed adoptions we’d looked down our noses on were starting to look pretty good to us. Instead of being a mystery, DJ’s mother was a mass of sometimes very distressing speciﬁcs. And instead of dealing with his birth parent’s speciﬁcs at, say, eighteen or twenty-one, as many adopted children do, he would have to deal with them at four or ﬁve.
He was already beginning to deal with them: The last time she visited, when DJ was only three, he wanted to know why his mother smelled so terrible; thankfully, he didn’t ask in front of Melissa. We were taken aback by the question and answered it without thinking it through. We explained that since she’s homeless, she isn’t able to bathe often or wash her clothes ever. We realized we screwed up even before DJ started to freak. What, after all, could be more terrifying to a child than the idea of not having a home? Telling him that his mother chooses to live on the streets, that for her the streets were home, didn’t cut it. For months DJ insisted that his mother was just going to have to come and live with us. We had a bathroom, we had a washing machine. She could sleep in the guest bedroom.
When Grandma came to visit, she could sleep in his bed and he would sleep on the ﬂoor.
I don’t recommend that anyone trying to talk a reluctant partner into doing an open adoption let them read the rest of this essay.
We did hear from Melissa again, fourteen months later, when she called from Portland, Oregon. She wasn’t dead, only thoughtless. She had just kind of lost track of time, she explained, and didn’t make it up to Seattle before it got too cold and wet, and whenever she thought about calling it was either too late or she was too drunk. When she told me that she’d reached the point where she got sick when she didn’t drink, I gently suggested that maybe it was time to get off the streets, stop drinking and using drugs, and think about her future. I could hear her rolling her eyes. The reason she’d chosen us over all the straight couples she could’ve chosen was that we didn’t look old enough to be her parents. We looked like we could be her peers. She didn’t want us to start acting like her parents, she said. She didn’t want to be lectured. She would get off the streets when she was ready. She wasn’t angry, she didn’t raise her voice. She just wanted to make sure we understood each other.
During this conversation, the ﬁrst one in which we ever broached the subject of her, for lack of a better word, “lifestyle,” Melissa was calm, cool, and rational. Despite the fact that she continues to make the same choices, all the while expecting a different outcome—one popular deﬁnition of insanity—I don’t think Melissa is mentally ill. She’s built a life for herself that allows her to avoid taking responsibility or confronting the pain of what I gather was a pretty shitty childhood. Why should she get off the streets? She’s proud, she tells us, that she lives on the streets so successfully, deceased boyfriends notwithstanding. It’s something she does well, she says. It’s her thing.
DJ was happy to hear from his mother, and the fourteen months without a call or a visit were forgotten. We went down to Portland to see her, she apologized to DJ in person, we took some pictures, and she promised not to disappear again.
We didn’t hear from her for a year. This time she wasn’t drunk. She was in prison, charged with assault. She’d been in prison before, for short stretches, picked up on vagrancy and trespassing charges. But this time was different. This time she needed our help. Or her dog did. Suddenly she wanted us to start acting like her parents.
Not much had changed in the six years between our ﬁrst meeting and that phone call from prison. Melissa had lost a few boyfriends to drugs and alcohol; she’d made the awkward transition from street kid to homeless person. But besides aging—and living on the streets ages you pretty fast—very little about Melissa’s life had changed. Wake up, beg for change, buy food for her dog and alcohol for herself and her friends, hang out, talk, avoid the cops, move on. But while her life hadn’t changed, the people in her life had. The other homeless kids she traveled around with were constantly disappearing, her boyfriends had a bad habit of dying, vanishing, or getting put away. Her dog Wish, however, was the one constant presence in her life. She lived for Wish and Wish lived for her. Having a large dog complicates hitchhiking and hopping trains, of course, but Melissa is a petite woman and her dog offers her some protection. And love. And constancy.
Late one night in New Orleans, she told us from a noisy common room, she got into an argument with another homeless person. He lunged at her in a threatening way, Melissa said, and Wish bit him. New Orleans is a city where the police are under orders to treat as roughly as possible the homeless kids who pester the drunk tourists for their spare change. Melissa had once been ticketed for being drunk in public in New Orleans—on Bourbon Street, of all places, where absolutely everyone is drunk and the sidewalks reek of vomit no matter how many times they hose them down. She was calling, she said, because it didn’t look as though she was going to get out of prison before the pound would put Wish down. She was distraught. We had to help her, she begged, we had to save Wish. She was crying, the ﬁrst time I’d heard her cry since that day in the hospital six years ago. Five weeks and $1,600 later, we had managed not only to save Wish but also to get Melissa out and the charges dropped. When we talked on the phone, I urged her to get out of New Orleans. I found out three months later that she’d taken my advice—she was calling from a jail in Virginia, where she’d been arrested for trespassing at a train yard. Wish was okay, he was with friends, she was only calling to say hello to DJ.
I’ve heard people say that choosing to live on the streets is a kind of slow-motion suicide. Having known Melissa for six years now, I’d say that’s accurate. Everywhere she goes, everything she does, she seems to court danger. I’ve lost track of the number of friends and boyfriends she’s told me about who have died of overdoses, alcohol poisoning, and hypothermia. As he gets older, DJ is getting a more accurate picture of his mother, but so far it doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. He loves her. A photo of a family reunion we attended isn’t complete, he insists, because his mother isn’t in it. He wants to see her this summer, “even if she smells,” he says. We’re looking forward to seeing her, too. But I’m tired.
Now for the may-God-rip-off-my-ﬁngers-before-I-typethis part of the essay: I’m starting to get anxious for Melissa’s slow-mo suicide to end, whatever that end looks like. I’d prefer that it end with Melissa off the streets, in an apartment somewhere, pulling her life together, but as she gets older that resolution is getting harder and harder to picture.
A lot of people who self-destruct don’t think twice about destroying their children in the process. Maybe Melissa knew she was going to self-destruct and loved DJ so much that she wanted to make sure he wouldn’t get hurt. She left him somewhere safe, with parents she chose for him, even though it broke her heart to give him away, because she knew that if he was close she would hurt him, too. Sometimes I wonder if this answer will be good enough for DJ when he asks us why his mother couldn’t hold it together just enough to stay in the world for him. I kind of doubt it.