On Adoption

This post is a long time in the making, and, as such, it’s long, but I hope you will find it worth it. Becky is a long-time and extremely important volunteer at that-non-profit-writing-center-for-kids I work at. In February, she wrote me about her plans to adopt a child. 

Dear Amy,

About a year ago (or was it already two years ago? Jeez . . .) I planned to write you a letter asking how you knew when you were ready to become a mom. Although I had the vague notion that I wanted kids someday, I was very afraid that I would never actually feel ready, that there would always be a reason to put it off, that proceeding would always feel more terrifying and nauseating than just staying put.

I realize that this feeling is hardly unique. Probably every person on earth who has thoughtfully contemplated parenthood has felt this way. But I think I was more anxious about it than most, for a couple of reasons. One being that I am just an anxious person. (But who isn’t?)

The other reason is that I knew — and have known, for years — that we would not be able to have kids biologically. There would never be a sort of gray area of “not not trying” or “letting nature take its course” or “seeing what happens.” We would have to be deliberate, proactive, and ready to invest major time and resources into whatever path to a family we decided to pursue. And at the same time we knew that our timeline would probably be long. Maybe years. So probably we should actually get started before we really wanted to, counting on the fact that we might have to wait and watch and want for a very long time.

As it turned out, the problem of feeling ready ultimately solved itself. In my experience this is nearly always what happens. When the time is right for something, you just know. You’re still scared and you’re still unsure, but the desire to move forward finally starts to work against the inertia of sitting still. Proceeding might still be difficult, overwhelming, and terrifying, but it starts to feel natural and right and exciting, too. If it doesn’t feel that way, if counteracting inertia makes you feel seasick, that’s probably a good sign that it’s not time yet.

We were lucky in that we got to this place at more or less the same time, and were ready to move ahead together. It’s really hard when that’s not the case. And so we’re doing this: we are trying to adopt our first child. We’ve jumped through the hoops and filled out the forms and been inspected. Our cat has helped us out by creeping up over the shoulder of our social worker and licking all of our home study papers. We are approved.

And now we wait.

We have been waiting since the first week of October, which is both a long time and no time at all. A lot of people in the blogosphere refer to this limbo as being “paper pregnant.” I guess this is to help the prospective parents, as well as their family and friends, feel hopeful and expectant and to familiarize and normalize an unfamiliar process. But it doesn’t feel right to me.

I’ve never been pregnant, but I will tell you that I don’t think this is what it’s like. It’s very strange to think that we could get a call tomorrow saying a baby has been born and we need to pick it (it?) up immediately from the hospital. Or we could be invited to meet with a woman thinking of placing her baby for adoption, spend weeks getting to know her, see the baby born, and she might decide to parent after all (as she absolutely should, if she’s able to). Or we could take that baby home, and this little stranger will join our family forever. I know that pregnancy comes with its own set of uncertainties but there’s a concrete reality and physicality to it that is just not in line with what we’re experiencing right now.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying this from a place of grief or bitterness. There is grief, sure, in realizing that you will never carry a child yourself, and never see the unique product of your genes and your partner’s. I’ve been coming to terms with this, on and off, for years, and I probably will continue to deal with it, on and off, for the rest of my life. At the same time, I am excited about and preparing for the kind of family that we will have, which I hope will be a rich blend of surprises, comprised of people old and young who choose to love each other for their shared experiences, history, and mutual affection, if not their DNA. (Although indeed, I have heard rumors that raising kids that *did* come out of your body is also prone to surprises and requires you to choose love even when it doesn’t feel natural or easy. Can this be true!?!?).
I resist comparing adopting to pregnancy not because one is more valid or more special, but because they are different, they just are, and I think they should be understood and celebrated on their own terms.

But there’s another reason why I feel its dangerous to pretend that going through the adoption process is the same as or analogous to being pregnant: this sweeps under the rug the fact that when you’re trying to to adopt, somebody else actually *is* pregnant, and wrestling with a heartbreaking decision.The more I read and learn about adoption, the more I am horrified at the way this institution/industry has manipulated and exploited vulnerable women to secure cute babies for infertile middle class families. (Google “baby scoop” if, like 12-months-ago-me, this is something you’ve never thought much about. Or see Philomena, I guess.) I do feel that our agency is very ethical — this is something we looked into closely. There’s no doubt that in *some* cases adoption really is the best path for all of the parties involved. And we as a couple are deeply committed to maintaining open, honest lines of communication with the biological family of the child we adopt. No secrets, no shame. But there is so much historical baggage (and present day baggage) related to adoption practices that I wonder sometimes if any of this is okay.

I’m afraid both that we’ll never be chosen, and also that we will be and I’ll, like, convince the mom not to place her child with us. Or that everything will go through smoothly, but I’ll somehow fail to hold up my end of the deal to protect, preserve, and do right every day by this baby.

It’s weird to try to prepare. How do you do it in the abstract, with no timeline? We have a crib at home just in case. It’s been shoved into the middle of our second bedroom, between the ancient laptop that no one uses and my bed frame from when I was in grad school. It’s a very charming look. I’m sure the baby will love it in there. We have a carseat in a box in our basement. Our cats think the box makes an excellent scratching gym. We want to be ready, but not obnoxiously overzealous.

Amy, I have nothing to compare this experience to. I know that pregnancy is also overwhelming and stressful and full of uncertainty and fear. And, you know, joy and excitement, which we are also feeling, when we let ourselves feel it.

I guess I don’t have a real question for you except this: as a mom, do you have any advice for me as we wade through this wintry mix of a new kind of not-knowing?

Your friend,
Becky

Dear Becky,

Let’s start with the good news, which you already know. NO ONE is ready or prepared for parenthood. Truly, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a new mom lament that “no one ever told [her]” the first few months would be so hard (and — in at least two cases, I HAD TOLD HER), I don’t know, I’d have probably $2. Which is a lot of nickels!

I am convinced there IS no way of preparing. As a pregnant lady, I fooled myself into thinking I could be prepared by becoming VERY focused on the birth. I read, I watched, I took classes. This is, I see now, the parenthood equivalent of spending lots of time planning a wedding but none really thinking about a marriage. (That said, and this is an important distinction, when you get married, you KNOW the person, to some degree. ANY degree is more than you know the baby, who, yes, is full of surprises, I am coming to realize, FOREVER.)

While pregnant, I remember Jason telling me about friends who adopted, and how they had to buy a car seat on the way to the airport TO PICK UP THE BABY. This struck me, at the time, as insane. And scary. We had a car seat, a crib, a high-chair, an exersaucer, a bouncy seat, a play gym, MONTHS before the baby was due. This is, I see now, one of the ways I convinced myself I was prepared. We had stuff! PILES of it! All over our apartment! We were PREPARED.

But having two different kinds of infant bathtubs and a crib does not mean you’re prepared (or that the baby is going to be easy to bathe; ours wasn’t, still isn’t). Truth be told, we didn’t even put the baby IN the crib until she was about three months old.

Pregnancy takes forever. I started out “I want to savor every moment of being pregnant” and ended with “MY GOD I NEVER REALIZED HOW LONG NINE MONTHS IS.” I think this is nature’s way of “preparing” you. Basically just making you FEEL done with pregnancy, thereby, by default, ready for parenthood. (Perhaps “paper pregnancy” is a similar phenomenon?)

And now, we are trying to make another baby. So you and I are sort of in the same boat. Trying to conceive is, in its own weird way, similar (to a point), because we have no idea how long that will take. If it happens, then we have a reasonable idea of a countdown, which is where our paths diverge. (We started in January. So far, one person in our family is not sad it hasn’t happened yet.)

I don’t know where this fits in here, but it seems worth mentioning. The hardest part of parenthood, for me, has been how much of my life has been taken over by it. I think that everyone likes time alone. But there are people who “like” time alone, and then there are people who “need a lot of” time alone. I fit into the second category, and I’d wager that this second category is the one where you find the most people who have a hard time adjusting to parenthood.

There are other things too. And I know — from experience — that there is NO convincing a woman who feels “ready” to have a baby to rethink it (AND I AM NOT TELLING YOU TO RETHINK IT). But. What everyone says about not sleeping anymore? IT IS SO TRUE. I miss sleep so much. I miss having ANY SEMBLANCE OF CONTROL over how much sleep I get. It is totally out of my hands now.

And I really respect how empathetic you are being about the situation. I, for one, cried through most of Philomena and then came home and wept openly as I described the plot to Jason. I like to think those days are behind us. I’m not going to Google “baby scoop” because I don’t want to know. Here’s what I DO know: You are doing an altruistic, kind thing for good and loving reasons. You are, as you say, going to do right by this baby. And THAT is what matters, no matter how you got there.

My advice, I suppose, is to dig into whatever you feel like digging into. What is your mind fixating on? Indulge it. While, ultimately, all my research on giving birth didn’t make the baby spring joyfully from my uterus while I visualized a beach, it was the very thing that helped me deal with that wintry mix, that not-knowing you asked about. What aspects of your new adventure are you obsessed with?

Love, Amy

Hi Amy,

Oh man. I love sleep. And alone time. And personal space. And eating and not eating whenever I want to. And sleep. And silence. And not being touched all the time. And . . . whatever the opposite of yucky smells and textures is. And sleep. That won’t be a problem, right? Ha! Hahahahaha.

No, really, I hate when people compare pets to kids — they aren’t, they aren’t — but I do have a cat who cries in the middle of the night and proudly poops wherever she wants and a dog who wakes up startled and has to be soothed and then kicks over her water bowl when she wants more (What’s the magic word, Daisy?), so EVEN THOUGH IT’S NOT THE SAME I do have some practice with the neediness, the noise, the mess, and how it’s all totally and completely worth it.

Not gonna lie, I’ve been sleeping with wild abandon and no regrets since we started this journey. I feel like we’ve been embracing life in other ways, too — on my own and together we’ve made several trips and visits to far away friends in the last 10 months that we’d been talking about for years and not taking. In between compulsively refreshing the website for the adoption agency and reverse-looking-up every unknown phone number that calls my phone, I feel like we’re doing a pretty decent job of living our lives fully while we wait.

By the way, that automated message from a correctional facility that I thoughtlessly hung up on last weekend did turn out to be a scam, and not the moment shit got really real. It’s weird to no longer have any trustworthy filter on what’s legit and what’s not. Apparent call from prison? This could be it, although admittedly I had never thought about this scenario until I thought it was happening to me. Cryptic, unintelligible text message obviously written by a teenage girl? This could be it. I am texting and calling back every freaking wrong number, reverse-looking-up every missed call. It’s exhausting and disheartening. And leads to counterproductive, if sometimes hilarious, text message exchanges with teenage girls who don’t believe I’m not the guy they’re looking for.

So what else? That changes from week to week. Back in the fall I was reading everything I could get my hands on, from Dan Savage’s The Kid to Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish their Adoptive Parents Knew to Chocolate Hair / Vanilla Care (it’s possible that our child will be a different race from us — we don’t know — and I’ve been focusing a lot on the political, social, cultural and, well, cosmetic implications of this).

You will see that in all this research on adoption, I have not read anything at all about, you know, babies. Like you said, a class or a book can’t prepare you fully to be a parent. But it seems like maybe I should have a clue about how much they should eat. Or something. I’d like to take an infant parenting class, but it would be nice if it were one geared toward adoptive parents. There’s so much I could learn about taking care of a little baby, but honestly I’m not sure I care to sit through, like, four weeks of Lamaze (do people even do Lamaze anymore?). Any suggestions on how to find such a thing? So far Googling has been remarkably unhelpful.

For a long time I actively resisted buying any stuff at all, convinced I would somehow jinx us or that, worse, we’d look desperate and pathetic and lame, with our empty nursery. Then it started to sink in that I was making this choice based on anxiety and fear — fear of being judged, fear that this will never happen. That’s not the kind of atmosphere we want to welcome a child into — nor is it the one we want to immerse ourselves in for however long this takes. So, with hope, faith, and expectation, we are slowly starting to gather things as the opportunity arises. We bought a carseat/stroller combo when it was on clearance at Target. We found a crib + changing table on craigslist. Although superstitiously, I have not bought and will not buy a single piece of clothing. Which is dumb because that’s literally the first thing we’ll need, except maybe diapers. But I just can’t do it.

This weekend, we are clearing out our guest bed, which is really the bed I bought for myself when I moved to Ann Arbor for grad school. It’s a little bittersweet to let it go — this is the only big piece of furniture I’ve ever bought myself, only for myself. It also feels like an act of faith. We only have the one spare bedroom, the one spare bed. So we’re saying, we believe that this room will need to be a nursery sooner, and more, than we need to rely on the guest bed. Or at least before next year’s yard sale.

My mom is also coming this weekend to paint a mural on the wall of what is now like almost halfway a nursery. I’m so excited about this. We’ve had plenty of long talks with our parents about this whole process, but this is our first real opportunity to include them in any concrete way. This is also the first gift my mom will give her future grandchild. That makes me excited, and warms my heart.

I first wrote to you back in February. It’s June now, and with summer I remember so many of the reasons I want to be parent. Sidewalk chalk. French braids (Ha! I bet you could school me on toddlers’ tolerance for *that* kind of nonsense). Ice cream. Swimming. I don’t think it’s an accident that we started the application process to adopt in July last year. In the summertime I feel like the world has so much to offer a child, and we want to be a part of it all. Amy, you called me altruistic in your response, and that was really kind of you, but I’m not sure it’s right. We’re doing this because we *want* babies. Because we *want* to be parents.  If and when this happens, we will be the lucky ones.

Speaking of that, we don’t have any real news on the adoption. Nothing has changed, really, except that we know our agency ran out of copies of our profile, which means it’s getting handed out. So that’s good news. An abbreviated version is also on the agency’s website. But still, we wait, and hope, and keep our eyes and ears open for possibilities because, we have learned, a match can come from anywhere. Most of the time, this constant, slightly elevated adrenaline level feels like the new norm. I guess that’s just one more step toward preparing for parenthood.

I turn 29 tomorrow. Suddenly everyone I know is pregnant (I knew this was coming. Everyone talks about it. But I didn’t anticipate that it would happen so obviously and abruptly!). I am hopeful that 2014 will turn out to be a big year for us, and for you, too!

What is your little family up to this summer, Amy? Do you also find that your June self almost doesn’t recognize your February self?

Becky

Dear Becky,

I think the URGE for wanting a child is almost inherently selfish. And I guess that’s the ironic part, because the ACT of parenthood doesn’t allow room for selfishness. But I think — you mentioned you haven’t thought about BABIES that much because you’ve been thinking about the PROCESS — you’re already proving your unselfishness. I honestly can’t imagine going through this sort of . . . waiting to get chosen? Texting with teens? It shows an amazing amount of STRENGTH and unselfishness. We are just, you know, having a lot of sex, and while I can’t say it’s ALWAYS “fun,” it is undeniably more selfish than what you’re doing.

My June self barely recognizes my February one, you’re right. For starters, my June self has been sleeping (oh, I am so terrified of jinxing something by typing that, but last week, Violet slept through the night — 9ish to 7 or 8ish — SIX NIGHTS). Also, this weather? Amazing. I DID manage to French braid her hair, by the way. It happened “on the move” and lasted about 25 minutes:

Only known photo of Violet's French braid, April  12, 2014, 9:35am-10am.

Only known photo of Violet’s French braid, April 12, 2014, 9:35am-10am.

And then, as you know, I cut what felt like about a foot of hair off Vi’s head. (I had to come to grips with the fact that 2.5 year olds are not SUPPOSED to have that much hair. It was just always full of yogurt, and she hated having it washed or combed.)

ANYWAY. Keep me posted. I’m thinking about you and all the TRULY EXCITING (and terrifying) stuff you have ahead of you, and I’ll be sending good thoughts your way as you struggle through the hard parts of this process. (Also? Mural with your mom?!  So great. And ahead of you? Ice cream. Swimming. And that indescribable feeling of your child hugging you with those strong, skinny arms.) And I’d be delighted to talk more with you about any of it, here or elsewhere.

Love, Amy

PS Happy birthday!

Becky is a not-mom librarian who has one dog, two cats, and many, many pairs of earrings. This month she enjoys swimming, spicy hot V8, and not cooking on Thursdays. She sometimes (but not lately) writes about movies, clothes, and other things at http://chameleoninboots.wordpress.com/.

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