Sunday, June 14, 2009

When I Told My Parents I Planned To Adopt

Broad beams of sunlight streamed in through the front windows of the house washing over the living room, creating a sense of light, airy openness. It was a Sunday afternoon in the summer of ‘99. I was wandering about my living room running my hand over the familiar, well-loved contents and contours of my home while, phone pressed to my ear, I chatted with my parents. They live on the East coast. I’m on the West coast. I don’t remember the range of subjects we covered, but as the conversation wound down, it occurred to me it might be wise to let my parents in on the recent drift in my thinking.

Hey Mom, Dad,… you know I’ve talked about adopting a little girl from China. I stopped, sat down on the couch, leaned forward, and rested my elbows onto my knees. Well... I probably should tell you… I think I’m ready. I’m going to do it.

They knew I’d been thinking about it, but up to this point, it had only been an idea. One of many vague possibilities out in the ether.

The line was quiet for a moment. My father spoke first, slowly and thoughtfully. Well, this is your decision. Whatever you decide, you know we love you. We’re proud of you. And we support you.

I was forty and this was my father’s answer to most things. Love, acceptance, support. He saw my sister, brother, and me as adults. He expected us to make morally sound, responsible choices, but our lives were our own.

My mother was a little different, a little more vested in our decisions, a little more outspoken. This could be a double-edged sword. I waited for her to speak now, and when she did, it was with uncharacteristic restraint. Her voice sounded deeper, as if her throat had gone tight. Her words came in short, measured increments. Which is a little like imagining Niagra Falls slowing. To a drip.

Yes. Well. That sounds… Good. Sweetheart. It’s your life.

The women in my family are a boisterous, opinionated tribe and no one is more so than my mother. We’re all fully capable of shooting first, thinking second, and apologizing – on occasion -- third. I knew she was trying hard to be respectful and careful, and not say something she’d regret. That alone told me how seriously she took this.

I’d opened myself up to my parents, precisely because I wanted to see what their reaction would be. And, more importantly, what my reaction to their reaction would be. I was testing myself. If I was going to run into a cold, granite wall of resistance, I needed to know sooner rather than later. Would they support me? And, if they didn’t or couldn’t, Could I handle it?

My mother’s response wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. But, she also hadn’t slammed the door in my face either. I’d been spared one of her many classic, flip put-downs or comebacks, the kind she’d launched in years past, often after a man had crossed the threshold and stood in her crosshairs.

What d' you think of him, Mom?

It’s your life … to ruin if you want to.

She was my biggest fan -- and toughest critic, a master at the cavalier question or back-handed compliment. (You’re wearing THAT to dinner?) She was fiercely proud of me. She just had a funny way of showing it sometimes, as if she were fatally allergic to showing the slightest shred of sentimentality. If I called and caught her in one of her more exuberant moments, she’d greet me with one of her many, favorite terms of endearment: What’s on your small mind, Peabrain?

To know my mother is to love her – but her particular brand of love is not for the faint of heart. Which is why I needed to test the waters. If she was really against the idea: single motherhood, adoption, etc., I needed to be like a general preparing for battle, sizing up the opposition, assessing how many fronts I’d be fighting.

I took her response in now and could tell she was trying but also that she was withholding. My mother can only withhold for so long. So I decided to wait, not to push. To give her the time to absorb the news. I hung up the phone and thought, We’re not finished. We’ve only begun.

The next morning, the phone rang. Early.


Are you up?


It’s Mom.

I gathered.

I had a thought!


Listen. Don’t say anything. I have a question for you. Just hear me out. Will you?


What about a sperm bank? Have you considered a sperm bank?! (She asked the question with the kind of enthusiasm a friend might exude on discovering you’d been to their favorite restaurant: Have you tried the chocolate cake?!)

Uh…. That’s an interesting question… I said, surprised, hesitating. It was, to be frank, not a proposal I’d expected from my mother. But again, this wasn’t anyone’s mother. She was different.

Did you.. would you.. consider it? I could hear the eagerness in her voice.

Well… I have a friend who did it.

You wouldn’t consider it? I could swear, she was ready to bargain.

Well… I guess I always figured if I carried and bore a child, the child would be a product of me and a man I knew and loved. Not some stranger. That feels weird to me.

I didn’t mind exploring the question. Yes, I was surprised she’d raised it. But I was glad she had. Better to explore all the possibilities now and be sure, rather than look back and wonder.

The idea of going through a pregnancy and labor alone felt lonely to me. And I couldn’t imagine trying to recover from giving birth while also managing a newborn. Then too, I thought about all those girls in China, girls who needed families, love, and a home. And me? I’d always wanted a girl. It all made sense. I also knew if I went to a sperm bank, I could just as easily end up with a boy. And while, to me, two, happy, healthy, parents was, or is, the ideal, I felt, at a minimum, if I had the choice, providing a child with a same sex role model was important. I couldn't be a dad to a boy.

The more I pondered my mother’s question, the more it confirmed my thinking. She was quiet again while I explained how I felt. Finally, I realized I should explore the root of her question. What made you think of a sperm bank?

She hesitated. I heard her suck in her breath. Then she blurted it out: It’s just you have such good genes!

I burst out laughing. Even now, as I think back on this moment, it makes me smile.

We are, at the root of it, despite our rough edges, a loving, loyal family whose worst sin perhaps is we’re rather fond of ourselves. We have our strengths. If you go back far enough or search broadly enough, we have our share of achievements… leaders, lawyers, politicians, academics, engineers, writers, business executives, even philanthropists. But we have, in equal measure, our imperfections, physical failings, as well as some blind spots. If you study the family tree with a cold, clear eye, we have our challenges: high blood pressure, heart disease, ALS, Aspergers, asthma, addiction, Parkinsons, divorce, diabetes, dyslexia, depression, and suicide.

My mother has lived a charmed life and she knows it. She was, and is, deep down to her boots, a risk averse soul. In that moment, in that call, as she shared her thoughts and I processed mine, I realized she was afraid. In her gut, on this first pass, she clung to the familiar.

There were no guarantees with adoption but I had some sense of my limits. I wasn’t planning to apply for a special needs child. My hope was to work with an agency to find a healthy child who might be a good match for me, who had the potential to thrive in my care. It was a leap of faith but I knew, I’d seen, that bearing a biological child was no less of a leap of faith. I’d run into a high school friend only two years earlier. Neither he, nor his wife, had any history of cancer in their families. Yet, his seven year old daughter battled a deadly brain tumor.

My mother wasn't quite there with me. But, God bless her, she wasn’t running flat out in the other direction either. And, turning back to that same family tree, we both knew adoption was happily threaded through it.

I saw if I wanted to do this badly enough, if I was really ready, I’d have to step out in front, take the lead, and show her the way. I had my fears and there were many unknowns. But our call only confirmed my decision.


patti said...

Too funny. I think my mom said the same thing to me. She's rather more fond of my genes than I am. I just wanted a baby - the fact that she (they) turned out to be fantastically smart AND more beautiful than my sad genes could have made was just gravy!
I'm a single mom to two from China - they're almost 9 and just turned 6. Love your blog - your experiences parallel mine a lot of times. But I have TWO kids and TWO dogs - everything has to be even, you see. A dog for each kid's bed.


Mama Dog said...


Thank you so much for writing. I apologize for the delay in responding. My daughter too, puts my gene pool to shame. My mother sees it and (bless her heart) sees the cosmic joke is on us. So, life is full of blessings as well as much irony.

Hats off to you for managing two daughters and two dogs. I'm envious. I wish I'd found the stamina and emotional reserves for two. We had a tough beginning and that, followed by hormonal surges and insomnia, forced me to recognize my own limitations. But, those are stories for another day...!

Lisa (Mama Dog)