I probably read the picture book Are You My Mother? about a zillion times before I read it to my daughter. It’s a book I remember from my own childhood, and it was in rotation with my three boys. The first time I read it to my little girl, Saskia, however, was different.
The story is pretty simple: The little bird in the book falls from the tree and goes off in search of its mother, asking every living creature – even a bulldozer – the same pleading question: “Are you my mother?” With a “snort” the bulldozer returns the bird to its nest – and its mother.
Now, obviously, a bulldozer cannot be a bird’s mother, right? Sitting with my adopted, biracial baby girl on my lap for our first reading together, the notion that the only satisfactory outcome for the bird is to be reunited with its “real” mother, the one who is an exact match, made my heart pound. While she was not thinking anything along the lines of “I’m not sitting on my real mother’s lap,” I started to wonder what other books might have a different meaning when read to her.
Once I started to notice this theme, it turned out that many books, especially stories written for the toddler set, do depict toddlers toddling away or mama leaving. The point of these stories is that mama always comes back. Take Owl Babies, in which the baby owls worry about their mama’s absence while she is off finding “mice and things that are nice.” Her return affirms the permanence of the mother-child connection.
Because we’d begun to talk about adoption while our daughter was young enough to share picture books on my lap, I searched for books that mirrored our unique story.
A Mother for Choco has been described as the adoption version of Are You My Mother? Choco, a bird with puffy cheeks and striped feet, goes searching for a mother. After being rejected by various animals for his lack of resemblance to them, Choco does not believe Mrs. Bear could be his mother, despite her welcoming, warm invitation. It’s not until he comes home with her to see her children – a hippo, pig, and alligator – that he realizes she really can be a mother to them all.
In Guji Guji a tiny crocodile is raised from an egg by Mother Duck and is happy as can be. The young crocodile’s innate crocodile-ness comes in handy when some nasty crocs want to eat its siblings and mama. Our young crocodile clearly feels at home in its adoptive family.
Another cross-species adoption tale is Widget. The lonely Westie stumbles upon Mrs. Diggs’ house and immediately longs to stay. Widget eagerly adapts to Mrs. Diggs’ cats by assuming all sorts of cat behaviors to fit in. And like the crocodile’s special innate abilities in Guji Guji, Widget’s canine instinct to bark saves Mrs. Diggs when she breaks her leg. She and her “girls” coo about how much they love having a dog.
All of these books show how easy it is to love someone. Love isn’t about “belonging” from birth – love is about enjoying one another and caring for one another. I like how adoption is portrayed as something natural.
I’m also a huge fan of some non-animal related adoption tales, such as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born and Rose Lewis’ tender I Love You Like Crazy Cakes. Both books celebrate how adopted children have an abundance of love and acknowledge the brave and selfless decision on the part of the birth mother to allow another family to raise her child.
Many times over we’ve read Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born in which a little girl recalls her parents telling the story of rushing by airplane to the hospital. The little girl wants to be reminded how they became her parents: “Tell me again how you couldn’t grow a baby in your tummy, so another woman who was too young to take care of me was growing me.” And though the story tugs at my heartstrings, the book I Love You Like Crazy Cakes is the real tearjerker. Like many great stories, this single mother’s tale of parenthood begins with once upon a time: “Once upon a time in China there was a baby girl who lived in a big room with lots of other babies.” This mama’s weaving of their love story – the single mother traveling across the entire world to fetch her tiny daughter – into a fairy tale reminds me just how far a parent’s love stretches.
Though both of these stories affirm that adoption can be a wonderful way to create a happy family, neither does more than mention the fact of the birth mother. We visit with Saskia’s birth mother, Caroline, and see grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins as part of an open adoption. She knows them and is beginning to understand who they are to her and to us. I feel extremely lucky that open adoption allows these family connections, but it’s been difficult to find a storybook that captures the complexity of our situation.
Todd Parr’s We Belong Together begins: “We belong together because : You needed a home and I had one to share.” I like the message that the child’s love makes the parents’ lives better, but it’s a bit too simplistic.
Conveying the celebratory aspect of adoption is the easy part. What about the feelings of sadness? Might an adoption story acknowledge the child and the birth mother feeling down sometimes? Is there a simple way to talk about how anger and confusion sometimes coexist alongside love and happiness?
Sheila Kelly and Shelly Rotner aspire to communicate some of this complexity in their nonfiction picture book entitled I’m Adopted! I learned about the project because the photographer, Shelly Rotner, lives in our town. In fact, our faces are among those splashed brightly across the pages. The beautiful photographs reveal that Saskia shares adoption with some of her friends. “There’s baby Sammy!” she exclaims. He is Vietnamese and in that photograph, he sits beside his very blond older sisters. “There’s Isaiah in my class, and his sister Chloe in the other class,” she points out. “And Zoe.” Saskia pores over the photographs in I’m Adopted! as if it’s a very glossy photo album of her and her friends.
Though she’s less interested in the text, it’s the only book I’ve found that even hints at the birth mother’s sadness: “Usually, adopted children want to know why their birth mothers could not keep them.” I think the concept is still above Saskia’s head (she’s only 3), so I let her enjoy the pictures and tell her whatever story she requests. And perhaps it’s for that reason I love I’m Adopted!‘s ending so much: “Most children want to hear how they came to their families: ‘Tell me about the day I came home.’ They want to hear it again : and again.”
I trust that the stories we tell – and are told – will continue to change for our family over time, especially as more difficult questions arise. A few weeks ago I overheard Saskia inform her best friend, “I was born in Caroline’s tummy, but my mom and dad were right there at the hospital and brought me home in the van.” She’s figuring out her own unique story, happiness, sadness, and all.