When my oldest daughter was four, I told another mom about our adoption experience. It was your standard park bench & coffee playdate where you try to relate to a complete stranger.
“Wow!” she said, ” How amazing of you. I give you credit. I could never love someone else’s kid.”
“Of course you could,” I told her. “You love your husband, don’t you? You didn’t give birth to him, did you?”
She looked at me like my latte had made me foam at the mouth. We didn’t stay close but her comment has stayed with me.
How do you fall in love? How do you become a parent? I’m still not sure I know. I’m still at a loss to logically explain what forces drove me to adopt.
15 years ago today I was your standard urban hipster, with a twist. I was packing for Siberia, and a whole new life.
I had no idea what to bring with me. I’d received a lot of advice from the internet but most of it seemed ridiculous. Rabbit fur earmuffs? In June? Freeze dried camping food and an ointment for scabies?
Aside from the earnest wish that she be scabies-free, I had little idea of what to expect from the infant girl we were traveling to adopt. Would she drink from a bottle? Would she have any allergies to the dairy based formula I’d packed? I packed a back up set of bottles and soy formula just in case. Would the clothes I’d chosen even fit her?
We had one single tiny photo of our baby that was already three months dated. We also had a translated medical report that may as well have remained in Russian. The medical terms & descriptions used to describe her did not match standard US terminology. This was to be expected, we were told. We couldn’t read too much into it.
So, in order to better understand our soon-to-be daughter’s file we consulted a medical adoption expert, a hotshot doc who’d done volunteer time in the orphanages. She had the special ability to spot the real red flags. “Exudative diasthesis”? Just a common case of diaper rash. “Hypertonic”? Could be nothing. Or it might mean she has cerebral palsy. “Call me when you get there,” the doctor advised.
Our doctor gave us her home number, so we could contact her with questions at any time. She’d do her best to answer them. The question that she couldn’t help us with? What we were doing in Siberia in the first place.
I am not, nor was I ever infertile (though that would be everyone’s assumption). I’m also not particularly religious, and I don’t think of myself as a hero. We were trailblazers when it came to adoption. No-one else in my close family had adopted. I had only one adopted close friend while I was growing up, and she moved to Australia.
Yet I wrote in my first diary that I would adopt a little girl someday.
Before I married my husband, we discussed family. We both wanted kids. Then I told him “If you marry me, you’d better be ok with adoption, because I’m going to adopt.” I had no idea at the time if I ever wanted to be pregnant. But I was sure, like the sky is blue sure, that I was going to adopt. He humored me but suspected I would change my mind eventually.
When I woke up one day, turned on the computer and started researching agencies and perusing photo listings, he was surprised that I hadn’t forgotten. He pushed back. What about the money? The uncertainty? Shouldn’t we at least try for a bio kid first? This line of questioning did nothing to slow me down. I called a social worker before the week was over and dug up our birth certs. We were adopting. I knew it was time, and I walked forward, certain in that knowledge, confident it would all work out.
My certainty and self-assurance were so convincing that he really couldn’t object. My confidence carried us both through the entire process from home study process to pre travel shots. It drove us both to the state capital where we had our documents notarized and “apostilled”, a seal that notarizes your notarizations.
Doubts trickled in a steady stream but I was immune to them. I hung up on relatives who told us we should be “buying a house instead of a baby”. I slammed the door on friends who warned us in whispers about the adoption horror stories they’d heard. My assuredness was larger than all that. It blocked the flow of difficult questions and “what ifs?” like a dam. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more certain about anything.
Then we landed in Russia and I fell apart. The floodgates of fear opened wide.
On the morning I met my then 6 month old daughter, she was washed and dressed in a freshly pressed and starched pink smocked dress. Her nails were trimmed and she had on tiny, immaculate ruffled socks. She was presented to me like a precious gift. I timidly held her, under the close scrutiny of the orphanage nurses. They were fast to tell me that I was doing it wrong. They looked on with horror and spoke quickly through the translator. How could I not be aware that holding a baby upright like that could be damaging to her organs?
The internet had warned me about the Russian penchant for bundling up babies, on even the warmest days. But nowhere had it told me about the ban on holding babies upright. I spoke to my daughter, and used her Russian name. At the sound of my voice and this strange language I was speaking, she curled up in a tight ball, limbs tense to the point of spasticity. She refused to look at me.
I tried to adjust my hold as all the bad medical terms on her chart came to mind and stormed the fortress of my certainty. At that same moment, all my convictions up and abandoned me. Who was this baby in my arms? I struggled to breathe. A thousand fears, starting “Oh my G-d! What if I drop her? “, flitted through my head and I wanted to run, to flee. I missed my apartment, my mother, my cat.
What the hell I was doing here? In Siberia! It felt a little like waking up from what felt like a very strange 8 month long dream.
My husband reached out his arms for our daughter and smiled. Just smiled. She relaxed as I handed her over and the nurses lavishly praised the way he held her. He looked at me, met my panicked eye. His certainty washed over me.
After we went back to our hotel I questioned him. How could he be so sure? How could he know this was our daughter, and that this was what was meant to be? Wasn’t he worried about how she was clenching her arms to her chest? How she couldn’t make eye contact? About whether she might have scabies and not just diaper rash?
He described his own faith like this, ” I don’t know. I just knew. They could have handed me a schnauzer wrapped in a blanket and I would have been fine with it.”
If he wasn’t so reassuring and earnest I would have hated him at that moment. He was finally ready and I was a mess.
Later I called the doctor and reviewed everything I’d been told about my daughter’s medical file. I shared my daughter’s reactions to the little “tests” we’d surreptitiously performed. Yes, she could grasp a toy. Yes, she was tracking the toy and responding to the sounds of voices. She was looking toward a particular nurse frequently obviously the one she’d bonded with. All good signs.
But still I pressed on wanting more reassurance and more definitive answers. Would she walk by a year old? Would she learn to speak? Would she go to college? The doctor listened to me with near saint-like patience, especially given the time difference which put our call smack in the middle of her formerly good night of sleep.
“Actually, there are no guarantees,” she told me. “Get used to it. You’re a mom now.”
She was right, of course. I was already a mom in that moment. It happened at that precise moment when I became terrified. There was no explanation for my certainty. Karma? Fate? G-d? But that was the easy part. Parenting is what comes after.
Nothing is more terrifying than parenting. We must be crazy! All of us, the whole world over! Seriously, what are we parents doing? Looking down the barrel of endless possibility (both good and bad), responsibility and the potential for heartbreak, on a daily basis. It’s chaos.
But then they smile at you and you are certain again, if only for that instant.
I was crossing the street with my daughter, when that happened. We’d just left the orphanage and I was still feeling like an imposter, like a babysitter. She was in a front pack, facing me. She was still so tiny at 6 months, only 11 pounds. She looked up at me, made eye contact and smiled.
“Yes, I can do this,” I thought.
Casa de Chaos was created exactly 15 years ago, when my oldest daughter became a part of our lives and we ceased being a couple and became a family. I’m lucky to have a partner who’s there like a lighthouse leading me back from the darkness with his ready willingness to love what the universe is handing him, even if it is a schnauzer in a baby blanket. It’s only gotten crazier and more chaotic as each year has gone by and my other three children have joined the circus. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
(Note: I kind of feel I must tell you that my oldest daughter was in fact a very beautiful baby and still is a beautiful teenager, who does not resemble a schnauzer, at all.)
More Casa de Chaos adventures:
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