Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Fairies, Feathers, and Magic

My daughter had stepped away with the nurse. The dentist sat on her cushioned, steel, roll-about stool, pointed to the X-ray and took me on a tour of my daughter’s mouth.

Her lower jaw was crowded, her teeth so tightly packed, nothing could move. She’d just turned nine but only her two, top teeth had come out willingly, of their own accord. Her four middle, bottom, baby teeth had been pulled last summer to ease the crowding. Two adult teeth had come in, taking the place of the four. A third squeezed in sideways. The fourth, with no place to go, grew in behind the other three, creating a second row. My daughter’s reaction?

Look mom! Shark teeth!

Yeah… I mumbled. Great...

Six months after the first set were pulled, we were back to see the dentist. My daughter and I were both wary. The dentist had used a local anesthetic last summer. But the roots proved so long, so deep, the anesthetic so… local, my daughter had felt a great deal more than she should have. It shook me, my daughter, and even the dentist. Since then, no other baby teeth had loosened or budged. We were guessing – dreading – the news.

Looking at the X-rays, the dentist confirmed it. More teeth would have to be pulled.

Four? I guessed, wincing.

Uhh… no, she replied. Six. She looked pained.

Six? I repeated, incredulous.

She was as concerned as I. She looked back at the X-ray again, then leaned in close.

Oh… look here! The dentist exclaimed. She has a little extra tooth.. right up here.. in the gum… behind her two front teeth. See?

Huh? I leaned in to look and thought, Oh my God… what’s that? A fang?

My daughter walked up and the dentist turned to show her. Look! So sweet! The woman was practically cooing. It’s the cutest thing. You’ve got a little fairy tooth!

My daughter looked unsure, but took her cue from the dentist. Whoa… cool…

I said nothing but thought, A what? A FAIRY tooth? This woman is a genius. A pure genius.

After consultations with the orthodontist and oral surgeon, I was thanking the gods for that magical, little fairy tooth. Removing it required general anesthesia. The surgeon could extract the fairy tooth along with six other baby teeth -- all while my daughter slept.

This past Monday was D-Day. Surgery day.

My friend Cathy arrived early in the morning to help. The instructions in the pre-op pamphlet suggested two adults, one to drive, one to hold the patient.

My daughter was calm, even cheerful. Except for the occasional protest: I’m hungry! And: Seven teeth. Can you believe it, Cathy? Seven! Sheesh! -- slapping her forehead for added effect. She was a little nervous, but she also knew she’d be asleep, she wouldn’t feel or remember a thing, and there was ice cream -- lots of it -- in her future.

On the drive over, Cathy, focusing on the positive, suggested brightly: You’ll probably get a great, big bonus from the tooth fairy.

I froze. Gack! I had ice cream, jello, pudding, yoghurt, blankets, pillows, and meds at the ready. Crap! I’d forgotten about the tooth fairy.

My daughter came to the rescue. Oh, Cathy, she said almost disdainfully. There’s no tooth fairy. It’s my mom. I know that. There’s no Santa either. It’s all my mom.

I felt a touch of relief. But, she sounded so jaded, it took me aback. I grew nostalgic. Oh honey... Do you remember the feather fairy?

Oh yeah! That was so great. But -- that was you too Mom.

Yeah… I know…

The feather fairy? Cathy asked.

I relayed the story…

My daughter was four when she and her best buddy Ben were playing at his house in the yard and they found two bird feathers. When I came to pick up my daughter, she greeted me, jumping up and down, waving her feather.

Mommy! Look! I found a bird feather. It’s so pretty. Look!

It’s lovely honey.

Ben says if you stick it under your pillow, the feather fairy will come. And bring you a present! I’m going to stick it under my pillow. Do you think the feather fairy will really come?

Oh… I don’t know about that honey…

I was swearing under my breath: Damn! I loved Ben’s mom but she was a cross between June Cleaver and Martha Stewart. She always had some craft project, a creative gift, or toy for the kids. I really didn’t want to get sucked in this time.

Oh I hope the feather fairy comes, Mom! I really hope she comes.

My daughter talked of nothing else the rest of the evening and I realized this was one of those times I had to deliver. So I tucked her in bed after she oh-so-carefully laid her little brown, frayed feather flat under her pillow. I kissed her goodnight, pulled the door closed, and raced downstairs. Rummaging and digging about the storage closet, I found a small, chocolate brown dog with a red, plaid ribbon. I’d bought it and buried it for a special occasion. Score! But… how to make clear this was a special, one-time treat? I didn’t want my child collecting these filthy things, de-nuding every dead bird in our neighborhood.

I pulled out a blank piece of paper and picked up a fuschia colored marker. I drew swirly shapes and dotted the page with pink fairy dust. In big looping, curlicue script, I wrote:

Dear _______,

Congratulations on finding your very first feather! You are a clever girl. Your first feather is magical and special. Always remember it. And, the next time you find a feather, make a wish, think of the feather fairy -- and release it to the wind.

With love,
The Feather Fairy

The next morning my daughter burst into my room. She showed me the note and the little brown dog, hugging him tight. Mom! The feather fairy came! She came!

We read the note together.

She knows my name! How did she know my name?! And she signed it “with love!” She paused, filled with wonder. Mom! The feather fairy loves me.

Yes, she does honey. She sure does.

Turned out, the feather fairy was all Ben’s idea. Ben’s mother asked me, How could you? So the joke was on me. But, seeing my daughter’s joy made it all worth it.

The anesthesiologist came out to the waiting area to greet us and my daughter rose from her chair to take the doctor’s hand. She smiled, gave a wave, and followed the woman into the back. Cathy and I sat and chatted.

When the nurse came to take me back to the recovery area, I saw my daughter lying on her side on a soft vinyl mat and pillow. Her legs stretched out beyond the flannel baby blue blanket I’d brought. Her head was cocked strangely back while her mouth was stuffed with bloodied rolls of gauze. She looked so big and yet -- she reminded me of a baby bird, the kind you find on the ground that’s fallen too soon from the nest.

She was so grown-up, the nurse offered.
Thanks, I said. Why is her head cocked so far back?

It’s to keep her airways open, the nurse replied.

I sat down beside my daughter and touched her arm lightly. She woke slowly, limp, confused, completely disoriented. Cathy and the nurse helped me wheel her out to the car. She lay in my arms in a stupor while Cathy drove us home. I struggled to lift my daughter up and out of the car and realized I was nearing my limit. She’s 64 pounds now, and three quarters my height. But I managed to carry her into the house and lay her down in bed.

The rest of the day was calm and peaceful. She slept off the drugs, watched movies, ate bowl after bowl of ice cream, and checked out her new jack-o-lantern grin. Her two front teeth seemed to float out alone in the empty space of her mouth.

Look mom! she smiled. I’m a bucky-toothed beaver! We laughed.

After dinner, she went upstairs to get ready for bed. As I cleaned up the last of the dishes and wiped down the counters, I spotted the little white plastic case I’d thrown on the sill that morning. I peeked inside.

Her teeth lay like fallen soldiers. The surgeon had washed and saved all seven and I noticed the roots: long and intact. I found the little fairy tooth. It was clean, round, and pearly, almost pretty.

I closed up the case and went to join my daughter. Bathed, scrubbed, and brushed, she was reading quietly in bed. I flopped down on my belly to join her.

How’re the gums?

They’re okay. I’m okay.

Good. Pause. Hey… did it bother you I told Cathy about the feather fairy?

Oh no, Mom. It’s fine.

Okay. But… do me a favor?

What’s that Mom?

Well, I know you don’t believe in fairies, or Santa, any more. But …promise me something.

What, Mom?

Don’t give up on the magic. Not just yet. There’s still lots of magic to come.

Okay, Mom. Pause. Is that it?


She turned and went back to her book.

Friday, April 24, 2009

One Small Step After Another

She brought home an assignment from school and it read: My Family’s Journey West.

My daughter’s social studies teacher had been teaching the class about the hardships families endured on the Oregon trail: about rutted roads and rusty wagons, about couger, coyote, snake, bear, wolves, withering desert, disease, frigid mountains, frostbite, and of course hostile natives.

It's now your turn, the teacher wrote. She wanted to know how each of their families came to live in the West. It was time, to tell your family story … and to share a family heirloom or treasure… Bring in your essay and heirloom to share with the class. It will be fun.

Fun? I thought. Fun?! Was the Oregon trail .. fun? Is root canal .. fun?

Okay, so perhaps I was feeling just a wee-bit cranky. And a tad worn out. Worn out from the upset and worry of the past few weeks. Worn out from fighting a phantom birth mother. Worn out from fighting a horrible cold or flu I was still trying to shake.

I adore history. But now I see I love history, in part, because I didn’t have to live through it.

Of course, the teacher couldn’t have known what had been happening at home these past few weeks. So I told my daughter she had lots of choices. She could draw from any number of family stories. But she was decided. She wanted to share her story. She liked the idea of flipping the assignment on its head. She crossed out the words Family’s and West and wrote East so it read: My Journey East.

But that’s as far as she got. The notepad lay on the dining room table with its glorious title and empty page, waiting. Days passed. The weekend came and I asked her to take some time and focus. I suggested again she could write about something else, but she remained firm. I suggested she use her homecoming book (i.e. her life book) as a guide. She liked this idea and asked to sit and review it together. We sat on the couch and revisited each page, each photo, and reveled in happy moments. But when it came time to write, she fell apart and the question poured forth once more: Why did they leave me?

We set the notepad aside. I thought maybe more context would help. I tried to explain that people in China aren’t free in the way we are here. We talked about what freedom meant. We talked about the terrible penalties imposed on those exceeding the one-child quota. I told her a little of the Cultural Revolution. Of Tiananman Square. Of how dangerous it was and is to speak out against the government. We talked. We cuddled. The notepad page remained blank but I let the essay go.

The next morning, the pad sat there waiting for her on the dining room table right where she’d left it. I asked yet again if she wanted to write about something else. No, she wanted to tell her story. So I suggested she write a short, single sentence about how she came to the orphanage and leave it at that. She could focus on the journey, our becoming a family and finally -- the essay unfolded. She wrote a page and a half. All that was left was the heirloom. But she looked tired and I suggested she finish later that day.

She played long, hard, and happily with a buddy. It was good to hear laughter.

That night, as I started on dinner, she sat down again with the essay. Of all the mementoes I’d saved from our trip, she liked best the little yellow cloth sandals she’d worn the day I met her. She studied them now. They were frayed and soiled with delicate yellow leaves on the instep and tiny doll faces smiling sweetly. A pale pink rosebud clung tenaciously by a thread to the left shoe while its mate had long since vanished. The sandals had squeakers embedded in their soles to encourage one small step after another.

I don’t know what to write Mom.

She says this a lot with her homework. Mostly it means: I’m not in the mood to deal with this, Mom. Can’t you tell me what to write? We’ve joked about this. She is highly capable. (This is your homework, honey. You’re supposed to take it home, sit with it, and give it some thought. Your teacher didn’t say -- Here, take this home! Give it to your mom!)

This was no time to joke.

Think about what the shoes mean to you, honey. What do they make you think about?

Nothing. I don’t know. She was tired, resistant.

I searched for ideas and thought, Maybe its time to emphasize the happy part of her story -- as Jonna suggested.

Well… maybe you could think of the shoes as a memento of the day you started a whole new chapter of your life… with me.

She dissolved. Why did you have to say that...?

We were back again in the primordial swamp of her grief.

That’s not happy..?

No! The tears poured out. I wish you’d left me there Mom. I wish you’d never taken me from China. I wish I was back there now.

Back in the orphanage? Really..?


I wanted to argue with her, to remind her how lovely our life is, how much we have, how much I love her, how there was no future for her in the orphanage. That she couldn’t have stayed with her foster mom. But I saw she was genuinely distraught and realized I was wrestling with a demon thing, raw inconsolable pain. It defied expectations or any known form of logic. I rubbed her back, squeezed her arm weakly, and told her I was sorry. And suddenly, I was too wounded, too tired, to argue. I removed myself to the bathroom.

I was talked out. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe there’s a point where talking is no longer helpful.

We got through dinner -- I don't know how -- and spent a quiet evening. I read. She bathed. I tucked her in bed, kissed her good night, and told her I loved her.

She left for school the next morning. Alone at last, I lost it. But then, I wiped my tears, and sat down at my desk to work. I had the whole day before me. Quiet. Peaceful. Healing. I went for a long walk. Soaked in the warmth of the sun.

My brother called and offered to pick her up from after-school sewing. They’d been planning this special night for a while. Wednesday was my birthday and my daughter was dying to surprise me, to bake me a cake. Did I care about the cake? Did I need a cake? No, not really. Did I love the thought? Absolutely. And, a free day that stretched into the evening? It was rare, very rare. It hit me I needed to take more breaks. I decided, if friends asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I’d come clean: Take my child for an afternoon. Or an evening. I needed a little more breathing room. We both needed it. It was healthy.

Her uncle picked her up. They went and bought ingredients. Then he watched while she baked the cake on her own. Me? I took myself out for a simple, blissfully quiet dinner. By the time I arrived home, the two were sitting on the living room couch, waiting. My daughter was smiling broadly, bursting with excitement, with joy.

Happy Birthday Mom!

The cake was gorgeous and we served up three huge portions.

Two days later, again with the aid of her uncle, my daughter surprised me with breakfast in bed, a bagel, coffee, and fresh squeezed juice.

Happy Birthday Mom!

So now, it’s official. I’ve left an entire decade behind and started in on a new one. I turned 50 this week. Good friends with kind hearts (and poor vision?) say, No! Can’t be possible? You can’t be 50. No Way!

In my head, I think: Way. Oh, way, way, way, way, way, way….

Monday, April 20, 2009

Half a World Away

I was thinking we were through the worst of it. Silly.

Less than a week after my daughter admitted her fears I stole her from China, a story from the New York Times online edition appeared April 5th on the first page of the site, above the fold, announcing itself with a heavy black headline: Chinese Hunger for Sons Fuels Boys' Abductions, by Andrew Jacobs.

I wait till late at night, when I hear long, deep in and exhalations emanating from my daughter’s room, when she’s deep asleep, when it’s safe to click on a story without fearing two small eyes peering over my shoulder. Idle worry? Not when your daughter’s in third grade. Not when she was reading at a 6th grade level in the fall of 1st grade. She misses nothing.

The bulk of the story revolves around China’s demand for sons. Lacking any form of social security, Chinese families, especially poorer, rural families, yearn for a son, for someone who won’t marry and leave, for someone who will care for them in old age, for someone to continue the family bloodline. But the one-child-one family policy has frustrated this yearning. So now, more than ever, boys are in demand, in danger of abduction. Heartrending stuff in its own right. But then, a quote stops me cold:

A grieving father of a four year old boy, Peng Gaofeng, started an ad hoc group for parents of stolen children. His claim? Girls are abducted as well -- and some of these girls are sold to orphanages. They are the lucky ones Peng says. These girls often end up in the United States or Europe after adoptive parents pay fees to orphanages that average $5,000.

It feels like a punch to the gut.

The claim makes no sense. To even entertain the possibility, that I could have been an unwitting accomplice, that I could have taken a child from her family, sickens me.

I finish the article but there is no further mention, evidence, or explanation regarding these supposedly abducted girls. The focus returns to the issue of boys and China’s desire for sons.

I write Jacobs to ask (politely) what this claim is founded on. If it makes any sense for China’s orphanages to pay for girls when the orphanages are flooded with more girls than they can handle. Does he have any idea how this claim might hit adoptive families in this country? Can he substantiate the claim with hard data? Answers would be helpful.

I have yet to hear from Jacobs.

Adopting a child from this country, as a single parent, was never an option for me. I’d never thought about adopting, much less looked to China, till a friend graciously served up the idea. I’m not one to move into big decisions lightly (an understatement... I can hear friends chortling.) I weighed my decision carefully, asked the hard questions, gathered the data over months, in truth, years.

Was it right to pull a child from her country, her culture?

My understanding was that there were hundreds of thousands of girls in China, that domestic adoption was uncommon in a country where families held an overwhelming bias and preference for blood ties. Hundreds of girls needed families, loving care. Orphanages were underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed.

It all made so much sense: me, wanting to love and raise a daughter. All those girls in China needing a home.

I adopted my daughter in 2001 and these larger existential, philosophical, moral questions were instantly relegated to the furthest recesses of my mind as everyday demands overwhelmed me: bottles, diapers, Desitan, formula, feeding schedules, nap schedules, bath routines, bedtime routines, books, teddy bears, dolls, nursery rhymes, nonsensical rhymes, hand games, finger games, food games, numbers, colors, letters. Such joyful days. An innocent interlude.

Eight years later we’ve come full circle. But now it’s my daughter asking these questions.

How could I have been born to one family, … and ended up with another, half a world away? How could my parents have given me up?

Knowing her as I do, loving her as I do, I hear these questions in a new light. They have new meaning, new urgency. Worse, a harder question confronts me:

Could I somehow be …culpable?

Its insane to consider. But I don’t like avoiding hard questions. In the face of bad news, I want to know the worst, confront the truths, then deal with them.

I dig out Kay Ann Johnson’s book, Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son. Johnson, a professor of Hampshire College with her own daughter from China, spent ten years researching the elusive story of abandonment, adoption, and orphanage care in China. She published her book in 2004. A friend recommended it. I’d promptly bought it – and shelved it.

Johnson’s book is full of hard data. I’m a former MBA. Hard data is my friend.

China’s one-child policy was initiated under Deng Xiaoping in 1979 in an effort to control China’s population. Resistance to the one-child policy was most widespread in the countryside – where 75-80% of the population then resided, scraping a difficult existence off of the land.

In the 80’s, desperate families developed private work-arounds. Yes, some aborted. Yes, some left their daughters out in a field or on the roadside to die. But many others hid their girls or quietly, informally, adopted their girls out to family, neighbors, or friends. In the early 90’s, authorities responded to this subterfuge with what appeared to be greater leniency, offering a “one-son or two-child” policy for the countryside. But they matched this leniency with stricter laws going beyond a narrow focus on births to address the loophole: informal adoption.

Cadres of birth planning workers blanketed the countryside to monitor household head counts and reproductive behaviors. Penalties for violating birth planning laws were as harsh for adoptive families as birth families and included stiff fines (anywhere from one, to five, to even ten years’ worth of wages,) lost promotions, lost jobs, forced abortions, sterilizations, as well as public humiliation via tv and radio. (How easily we forget what it means to be free...)

Still, babies were born.

Thousands of brave families continued to adopt abandoned girls in the face of great personal cost and risk -- and another problem emerged. None of these girls could be registered at birth or beyond. They weren’t supposed to exist. But lacking formal registration, they also lacked basic civil, legal, and medical benefits: the right to go to school, the right to basic medical care, innoculations, or the right to reside in a given region or district. Those girls who made it to school were targets of derision – as if in fact they had no right to exist.

With fewer options to hide or care for the children, the number of abandonments soared.

State orphanages maintained a low profile to obscure their purpose. Signs suggested a preschool, or kindergarten, or children’s dance institute. Or there were no signs. Or the entrance was hidden. The fear was that if these places were discovered, their purpose known, they’d be flooded with babies.

They were flooded anyway. And flooded with healthy children. In the years preceding the one-child policy, Johnson estimates roughly 90% of abandoned children in orphanages were disabled. But by the 1990’s Johnson found that, for example, in her daughter’s state-run orphanage, fewer than 20% of the children had any known disability.

Overwhelmed with children, China's state-run orphanages grappled with mortality rates as high as 40%. In smaller, more remote areas, mortality rates approached 80%.

Foreign adoption was viewed as a way for the government to release some of the pressure, to provide some of the children with homes, to bring in much needed funds -- while still masking the problem.

Conditions in China’s orphanages have since improved. The government has slowly owned up to the problem and turned to the public for funds while also easing some of the restrictions on domestic adoption. Foreign money has helped. Over the last decade, Johnson estimates international adoption fees brought in more than $100 million. (Part of the cost of my daughter’s adoption was a required donation of $3,000 in support of her orphanage.) But, in her book, Johnson also raises a troubling possibility. Would China become dependent on foreign adoption? Was it too lucrative?

I wrote Johnson to thank her for her book and ask about recent developments. Had she seen Jacobs’ New York Times article? She is currently working on a grant to pursue further research in China. With a scholar’s caution, she was reluctant to be quoted. She generously shared her sense that the situation in China hadn’t yet changed in the time I adopted my daughter (2001.) But she also senses things have changed in the past four or five years. Domestic adoptions have increased. And now, there are far fewer healthy girls in orphanages. She is wary.

I confide my worries to a friend, a mother of two. What kinds of things will my daughter read as she grows older? What will she think? Did I contribute to something, in some small way, that’s beyond my wildest imagining?

She’s not an adoptive parent. She tells me we can’t control what happens in the world or what our kids hear. I know she is right. I can’t change what happened or what’s currently happening in China. And I can’t protect my daughter (protect myself?) forever. I can only hold her and love her.

Still, I never truly understood the extent of my vulnerability as an adoptive parent. Till now.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Car Pool

I know it sounds crazy but I love our commute to school.

It’s the time my daughter and I have our best conversations. Or, just as great, it’s a time I get to disappear into the background while she and her buddies get lost in their own chatter, spilling all the delicious candor, creativity, and outrageous wisdom that comes with being a kid -- the same candor, creativity, and wisdom that’s typically snuffed out by the time we’re grown. By then, we’re so well socialized, so neatly packaged and edited, that frankly, we’re boring.

This morning’s conversation went like this:

Mom, all the teachers’ aides and assistants have boy friends.


Well, like Bethany. She has a boyfriend.

Well, that makes sense. People in their 20’s and 30’s tend to date a lot so they can see who they want to settle down with. Dating is nice.

When do I start dating? High school?

That sounds about right.

But not right now. Kids my age don’t date. Right..?

Noooo… you don’t date. But you can be friends with boys. That’s a good place to start.

Yeah… but right now a lot of the girls get all giggly and silly around the boys.

Well that’s silly, isn’t it? Boys are nice. Boys are people too. But if you start getting all silly and giggly around them, it probably makes them feel strange. It probably makes them feel like aliens.

Yeah! And then YOU look like the alien!

Well… uh, yes. My point exactly.

My favorite carpool moment of all though happened two years ago, when my daughter was in first grade. Her school was one big construction site. It was a major renovation and the plans included a whole new middle school building. For much of the year, we watched as bulldozers and trucks excavated giant holes in the ground. We watched again as steel wires and poles and framing rose up and out of the ground. After an extended spring break, we were driving back to school and, as I turned down the hill, the new middle school building appeared, complete with siding and windows.

Hey girls! Look at the new middle school!

Whoa! Look at that. Wow…

I allowed myself a sentimental moment:

Can you imagine it, girls? Someday you’ll be in middle school.

Yeah… my daughter sighed with wonder. Then she leaned over to her buddy to share an exciting thought,

Guess what we get then!

Her buddy’s eyes grew wide with expectation,



My daughter was beaming. I nearly drove off the road.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Two Mothers

It’s close to midnight and, as I get ready for bed, my mind returns to the start of the day with my daughter.

I'd woken her that morning and rubbed her back and she’d mumbled something about a bad dream. In the rush to get ready for school, I said I was sorry and urged her to tell me more -- once she was downstairs, dressed, and ready for breakfast. But breakfast came and went in a blur. We finished our morning routine and I sat on the stairs to wait with her for her carpool. She tossed her lumpy, blue book bag -- bulging with books and a snack -- down by the door, then jumped and danced about the living room with her usual light-hearted spirit.

She was dressed in a boy’s blue and white, striped t-shirt, baggy, bright red, athletic shorts that hung over navy leggings with a giant hole in one knee (she likes the hole there,) and running shoes. She prefers the “boyish” look even while she often complements these outfits with a ponytail tied with a large, lavendar, sequined scrunchie.

She is lucky her mother doesn’t give a rip about fashion.

She was silly, almost slapstick, striking funny poses. One minute, the sultry mystery woman, the next, a ninja spy, a karate master, a fierce warrior woman, then a swash buckling feminine sword fighter. (Oh… to be nine again!)

We'd had a great week together the previous week, over break. She spent a day skiing with her beloved uncle – and arrived home exuberant, full of tales schussing down the slopes. (And I got to sit in the front seat on the way home, Mom!) We picked out a new bike -– her first with gears -- and spent sunny days pedaling around town. When the rain returned, we spent lazy mornings reading books, playing piano and card games, and watching movies cuddled on the couch (including a wonderful old Danny Kaye movie: The Court Jester. Hilarious. Run, don’t walk to your local video store.) She enjoyed play dates, sleepovers, and a special evening performance of HMS Pinafore. She loves Gilbert & Sullivan, the language, music, rhythm, poetry, and patter song. She's memorized the lyrics to most of their productions.

As I sat on the stairs and watched her happy, high energy dance I thought, It's been a good week.

Then I realized: I never checked back in about that bad dream.

Did you want to tell me about your dream? We have time now.

She came and sat down beside me.

This was a strange one Mom! We were cuddling in my bed like we always do. But when I looked around, it wasn’t you! The hair was frizzier than yours, (sorry -- hard to imagine) and the eyes weren’t green. I jumped up and found you in the closet -- tied to a stake. When I untied you, the woman in the bed sat up and said, (pointing with dramatic flair) “You have betrayed me!”

Then, my daughter, imitating the woman from her dream, made the motion of someone slitting their throat.

Wow! I said. Was that your birth mother?

Yeah. she said. I think so.

She didn't seem the least bit upset. She seemed more surprised by the strangeness of the dream.

Do you feel torn between two mothers? I asked.

No. It was just weird, Mom. Really weird!

Did you wake with your heart pounding?


That’s intense…


Well… I paused. (What to say?) Thanks for untying me.

Sure. No problem.

She shared this all in a completely matter of fact way. Her ride came and she hugged me with enthusiasm before running down the steps to greet her friends and take on the day.

I checked in with her once more when I picked her up from school that afternoon. We chatted about lots of things, then I referenced the dream, reassuring her she didn't need to pick sides. She could love two mothers -- and even love them in different ways if she chose. She knew this. She was cool about it. The dream was already, so... yesterday.

That night, I flash on an image of myself tied to a stake, stuffed in my daughter’s closet.

I guess it was my turn this time.

Part of me wonders if I need to call Jonna again. Or, if I’ll need to lock my door when my daughter reaches her teens and hormones kick in.

I remember Jonna's words:

This will come up again and again.... the first time is usually the hardest.

Then I can’t help but smile as a voice in my head whispers,

It's the battle of the mothers...

Or… is it the mother of all battles?

I give silent thanks again for my daughter’s honest, open heart, and climb into bed.

Monday, April 13, 2009


We could be in someone’s living room. There are two big armchairs in the corner and the coffee table and walls are decorated with brightly colored Latin American dolls, textiles, and totems. There are plants, a lamp, and a nice spread of magazines. But there’s also a large desk in the corner piled with papers and the lights are turned down awfully low for 4:00 in the afternoon. A large box of tissues sits conveniently within reach on a low table to my right.

Thankfully, I don’t need the tissues today.

I am sitting in a large cushioned armchair talking with Jonna, a child therapist I tracked down and met with last spring. (My daughter met her back then too.) She’s a petite, brown haired woman probably in her mid to late fifties with a lean, angular body. She sits in the other oversized armchair facing me. Just like our visit last spring, she’s slipped off her shoes and tucked stocking feet up snug under her thighs. She leans to one side, balancing a small notebook in her lap. Her arm lies casually draped over her thigh and a pen dangles loosely between two fingers. She listens intently, focusing round, birdlike eyes on me. Her face is lined with wrinkles -- as if she’s taken on the cumulative cares of her clients. I like this woman for her compassion, for her work with children, but even more -- for her direct, no-nonsense feedback.

I tell her about the events of the past week. About my daughter’s fears and worries. About confronting the truths of her story. Then too, I tell her of the night my girl asked to re-read her Homecoming story, outloud, together. How it felt like coming full circle, a joyful celebration.

Jonna tells me it’s common for adopted children to have these fantasies and fears. What’s more unusual is for grade school children to share their concerns so openly with their adoptive parents. Many are afraid to air their feelings. They stuff them and hold them inside, then wrestle with their confusion, or anger, in their teen years. (I’m afraid of the teen years.)

Jonna reaffirms what she told me last spring. That my daughter is perceptive, and emotionally solid. That abandonment is the most profound, fundamental fear we face as humans. That she needs to be able to grieve, and that grieving is a process. That these issues will come up for her again, in different ways, but that the first time is usually the hardest. And, that it’s a testament to her courage, our relationship, she can be so honest with me.

So… how are you doing in all this? Jonna asks.

I concede it hasn’t been easy but, with each passing day, I am grateful – indeed immensely grateful -- for my daughter’s courage, her willingness to trust in me. It tears me up to witness her pain and yet, I stand in awe of her strength.

I admit, with trepidation, I’ve been writing about our journey, sharing our story -- anonymously – in a blog I started. I’m scared Jonna will tell me I am betraying my daughter’s trust. Which is the reason why I know I should tell her about the blog. To get her candid assessment. Do I kill the blog? I don’t want to kill the blog. Writing about all the ups and downs of this journey helps me make sense of it all.

Jonna’s answer is not what I expect.

This is your story too. You’re entitled to a life as well.

I pause, and swallow an unexpected lump.

Damn. I do need one of those tissues today.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Spring Breaks

I step out the door each morning now and the air is full of bird song. I smell moist earth and fresh cut grass. The sun rises up and shines down on us, warming and waking our winterbound souls. On daily walks, I see indigo waters and great granite peaks laced with snow. The sky shimmers brilliant blue and, here in the neighborhood, cherry trees blossom along with the daffodils, hyacinth, honeysuckle, and camellias. It feels like a celebration.

It's been a week of little, everyday joys. Given the events of the past week, each of those little joys feels huge. I take nothing for granted.

Yesterday, at the end of another happy day, my daughter discovered:

Hey Mom! When I smile, I can see the tops of my cheeks!

To which I replied:

Cool! When I close one eye, I get a great view of my nose.

It's spring break this week and there's lots of happy news and other stuff to share but little time to share it. I should be able to post something Sunday or, if not then, by Monday. Please do check back. And thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Of Loss and Joy and Desiring

She takes distinct delight in reviewing my criminal record. Fortunately, the record is clear.

She sits up high and proud in my big swivel desk chair in my office. I am seated below her, on a footstool by my files (okay, a bank of files,) and have pulled out our adoption paperwork. It’s been three days since the night she asked me about secrets. When she shared her fear I might not be who I say I am. That maybe I locked her birthmother away. I’d offered, when we had the time, to show her these papers.

Now, it’s Sunday morning and we have no plans. We can take what time we need. My goal is to be open with her, to show her I’ve nothing to hide, that I am who I say I am, that my intentions were and have always come from the heart. How else can she trust me?

She gets a kick imagining me as supplicant. Now I am the one reviewed and graded by the authorities, social workers, government bodies. She reads my application essay and references aloud. She raises her eyebrows discerningly at my medical report and giggles over my financial statement. But it’s the criminal check she really enjoys.

I share excerpts from random notes and letters, then discover the fax I wrote from the hotel to family on the day she became my daughter. I read it aloud.

... She has the sweetest little moonface!

Moonface?! she sputters, indignant.

Well.. sorry. I thought it was sweet at the time.

I go through file after file of our US paperwork, then remember a separate place I stored all our Chinese documents. She is fascinated by her passport.

Can I keep this?

Of course. I say. I kept it for you.
Later, she will store it in a special keepsake box in her closet and show me what she has done.

I find our Chinese certificates. There is one for the actual adoption, one that identifies me as the person I say I am. And one that certifies who she is. We read each in turn, silently together, including the last:

This is to certify that ___________, female, was born on January 17th, 2000 and was found to be abandoned at the No. 13 of Huangzhoudadao, Huanggang City, Hubei Province on January 25th, 2000. So far, her innate parents and other relatives could not be found.
I look up. She is crestfallen. It’s as if the light has left her face. She spins the chair round and starts playing frantic tug of war with Max and one of his fluffy toys. But there’s no joy in her play. Only nervous, upset energy.
That had to hurt, I say. Pause. You know… Its okay to be sad.


Are you sad?

A nod, yes. Tears.

Are you mad?
Why didn’t they come back for me?!

I hesitate.

I don’t know honey. I’d guess the government penalties were too severe. They were afraid. Or they couldn’t care for an infant. What if they couldn’t feed you, or clothe you, or bathe you? What if... this was a way to keep you safe?

She is silent.

I don’t know.

She lets me hold her for a bit, but then pulls away and wanders up to her room. The rest of the day is subdued. She does homework. We watch a movie. “I’m just not myself today” she offers. She seems older suddenly. I reach out reflexively, to touch her shoulder, to stroke her hair, to rub the nape of her neck.

She goes to the piano and sits. For her, this is usually play and her fingers literally fly up and down over the keys. She’s learning Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, a favorite. I love the piece too, but today, she plays it so slowly I think,

Even the piano sounds sad.

I realize how foolish it is for adoptive parents to think we can make all the pain go away by showing our children they’re not alone, that there are thousands of girls like them, that this has been happening in China for decades, and continues even today. Everyone loses a parent. Does it make it less painful when it happens to you? When our girls discover this loss for themselves… that loss is loaded down with something more crushing: abandonment. It’s the most profound rejection there is… that of a parent, when you are new to the world, when, body and soul, you’re as naked as you’ll ever be.

I look at my daughter’s face, the sag of her shoulders, and wonder when, if, how, she will recover. I find it hard to eat.

I am not religious but I do have great faith in the power of love, in the power and resilience of the human soul. My life as a parent has taught me that much. So why do I feel like I’m walking on eggshells, watching, waiting. That night, I fall into bed exhausted, unable to sleep.

She wakes the next morning, well rested. There’s a hint of the old bounce as she heads out the door to catch her ride to school. I need the day to breathe, to run errands, to catch up on the mountain of work at my desk. But I take time to search the web for books and resources that might help us on this journey. And I place a call to a counselor.

She returns home that night the exuberant child I remember. She dances and babbles on about the day, sharing fun word puzzles and math problems, hoping to stump me. It’s a relief to see her lighthearted again. But I am slow this time to trust it.

I stand fixing dinner and she marches into the kitchen with her old, well-loved, well thumbed Homecoming book. It's both photo album and story. Our story, drafted by yours truly, of how we became a family.

Come on Mom! she announces. Let’s read this aloud. Together.
I shove dishes, half chopped vegetables, a bottle of oil, a tray of butter, a container of cheese and a large cutting board off to one side -- and sit down beside her. We take turns reading the text (Sassy lass! She corrects my grammar!) and we pour over the photos. She is full of happy questions, curious questions, probing questions, some old and some new. We laugh and crack jokes. As we get to those first shots from the morning we met, she laughs at her mom’s face, red with emotion, then points to the healthy, pink-cheeked cherub held and fussed over by two adoring Ayis:

Look at that little moonface, Mom!

We bust up -- and never get to the end of the book. It doesn’t matter. We know the story by heart. We end up sporting giant red oven mitts, fencing, sparring, and slapping at each other, dancing, dodging, and bopping about the kitchen till suddenly my girl dissolves in a fit of giggles onto the floor.