Not sure you’re ready to adopt? Then don’t

I’ll never forget an encounter I had with an acquaintance, about a month before we left for Ethiopia. This woman was young, and newly married and lacked, apparently, a filter between her brain and her mouth. She told me that she was very excited for me, and that she’d always wanted to adopt. She wasn’t having much luck convincing her husband, though.

“He says he doesn’t think he could love someone else’s child as much as his own,” she explained.

I know there are plenty of people who feel this way, and it used to make me crazy.  What rarefied bloodline, exactly, did these husbands think they were preserving with a natural-born child? Why would you put your body and your marriage through emotionally crushing fertility treatments when adoption was such a wonderful option? Why wasn’t my choice good enough for them? Were they judging my family as lesser? And worse yet, were they judging my beautiful boy as lesser, because he wasn’t our biological child?

About a year ago, Bini started having nightmares. We thought, initially, they were a combo of his super-active imagination and Halloween, which kinda freaked him out. As the dreams dragged on into December, and no one was getting any sleep, Steve and I were exhausted and panicked. My dear friend Robyn, who has been a nanny for many years, called me. 

“I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” she said. “But maybe there’s something more going on here, like maybe related to his being adopted.”

It was a hit-your-head moment. I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t recognized that at the bottom of these dreams, which nothing we did could make better, was a deep-seated anxiety and grief. To be fair, all of the adoption books we read said to expect that kind of stuff a little later. It was a reminder, though, of something that we often forget: Bini is adopted.

Most of the time, parenting Bini is just like parenting a biological child. He’s hit or surpassed all of his developmental milestones just fine. He’s social and ebullient and full of energy. He’s a natural athlete and adores music. He loves reading and being read to. He loves to color. He thinks most girls are icky. He loves superheroes. But every once in awhile, Bini will act out in a way that we need to look at through our adoption “prism,” and assess whether what he’s feeling is typical of his age, or something more. That’s just what you do, when you’re an adoptive parent.

And so, I’ve changed my mind about adoption. It’s not for everyone. And if you don’t think you can do it, don’t. 

When you adopt, you’re becoming a parent to a child who already has parents, living or dead. And that separation is traumatic, no matter whether you adopt the child as a baby, as we did, or as an older child. Your adopted child will come to learn — because you must be honest, no matter how painful it is — that his birth parents gave him up. Even if the life you’re providing is wonderful and full of promise, that loss will always be there. Always.

And so, to be an adoptive parent, you must be strong. The first time your child tells you that she wants her other mommy, you cannot go to pieces. You must hold your child in your arms and tell her you understand. Later, you can go into the bathroom and cry your eyes out.  But you must never make her choose between loving you, the mommy who is parenting her, and her birth mommy, the one who relinquished her.

If, on Mother’s Day, your son sabotages the breakfast plans by acting out, you cannot, as I did, flee to Starbucks in tears. You need to remember, preferably ahead of time, that this day may be terribly confusing to him. All week long, he’s been hearing about Mother’s Day at school and making a card and thinking: “But I have TWO moms.” So next year, you resolve to do something to honor both of your child’s mothers, and you make sure to talk about his birth mom as often as he’s comfortable with.

To be an adoptive parent, you must recognize that you are part of a large extended family now, whether the adoption was open or closed. Your child will want to know his history, and he has a right to that. As I heard in a day-long adoption training this week: You are the gatekeeper of your child’s past. Take that responsibility seriously.

To be an adoptive parent, you need to trust your gut. If your parents tell you to let your brand-new adopted child “cry it out” at naptime, and it feels so, so wrong, you should ignore them. You should go to your newly adopted child if it feels right. And if your parents tell you that your newly adopted child needs to learn to soothe himself, you need to have the courage to tell them to piss off.

To be an adoptive parent, you must be patient. Your child may test you more than a biological child. Your child may act in ways that are more appropriate for a child younger than her. But because you know that she has deep hurts that she doesn’t understand, you will not send her to her room when she’s screaming, however tempting that may be. You will sit next to her for a “time in,” which attachment therapists believe are much more effective and less frightening for adopted kids.

To be an adoptive parent, you must be willing to ask for help. When we realized that Bini’s dreams might be a result of adoption grief and anxiety, we found a therapist to help us. We’ve sought advice from other parents, read books and attended support groups. These are things that bio parents do too, I know. But the stakes feel higher with an adopted child, because there is that undeniable layer of loss that you can’t erase, that you can’t love away.

You also need to be willing to get help for your own issues. When Bini came home, I had trouble attaching — something I wrote about a bit here.  I didn’t tell anyone but my closest friend and my husband, because I was so ashamed. That was a mistake — one that keeps me up at night still, some four-and-a-half years later. However, it was my son who forced me to get help for the eating disorder that had ruled my life for 26 years. Being Bini’s mom made me realize that I couldn’t simultaneously continue my destructive behavior and be a good parent. My three-year-old son got me to do what I hadn’t been able to do myself: Face down my demons, and win.

To be an adoptive parent, you need to address your infertility grief, and move on. I fell down the rabbit hole of infertility and it was dark, dark days. But once I closed the door on all that, I closed it forever. Really. I never, ever think about what it would be like to have a biological child because if I’d had one, I wouldn’t have my Bini. Why would I ever wish for anything different?

My son’s kindergarten bromance

Bini’s got a little kindergarten bromance going on with another kid in his class, a kid I’ll call Marco. To hear Bini tell it, Marco is the best football player in his class and the best runner in the whole school. All the boys like him, and all the girls have crushes on him. (Bini has learned what a crush is — “it’s more than like but not as much as love.”)

Every day, we talk about school — how it was, what he did, who he played with at recess. Inevitably, Marco is the leading man, with several other supporting players. Marco knows how to read. Marco can do s’es better than anyone in class. Marco gets to buy lunch every day. Marco gets to stay for after-school care.

Marco, Marco, Marco.

I also hear about other kids. There’s Inesh, who pulls the erasers off all the pencils. And, Angelica, who uses potty words. I envisioned, respectively, a kid who was one step away from mutilating animals and a little girl who was Ke$ha-in-training.

Last week, I volunteered at Bini’s school for an art class. I was interested to see Marco, and Inesh and Angelica, along with the aforementioned extras. I was ready to size them up, and if they were little menaces, maybe put clay down their shirts.

They all trooped in to the Art & Science room, tiny little people in pigtails and light-up sneakers and Captain America t-shirts. They sat down and started to do the art lesson, and I circled the room, looking for kids that needed assistance. Inesh was struggling to turn his clay into an egg, so I helped him. “Thank you, Bini’s mommy,” he said, with eyes as big and brown and shiny as a puppy’s.

Angelica, of the potty words, finished her clay project early and moved on to the painting portion. When I walked over, she was mixing red and white to get pink. “Nice job with the mixing,” I said. She beamed. Later, when I circled back, she pointed to a flower she’d painted. “I made that for you,” she said.

And then, Marco. He and Bini sat next to each other, making their clay creations and mixing all the paint colors to get a dull brown. He didn’t look like a football phenom or more crushable than my adorable son. He actually seemed to be … quite taken with my boy. Or, at least, the admiration was mutual.

“Bini,” I heard him say more than once. “Watch this.”

Then, two minutes later, Bini would say, “Marco, look what I can do.”

Later, when Bini was at home, I asked him if he wanted to have Marco come over to play. To my surprise, he shrugged. “Sure, I guess.” This was puzzling. Usually, Bini’s on me to set up play dates with his buddies.

It occurred to me that maybe Bini doesn’t yet want his mommy involved in this particular friendship. Marco is the first friend he’s made entirely on his own. I’m not friends with his mother. The two kids didn’t meet at a playgroup when they were 18 months old. And as much as he cherishes his pre-kindergarten friendships, this one is special. I think I get it. Kindergarten is the beginning of my son having a life completely separate from home, and from me. And that’s … OK.

Another good thing about Paris: My kid wasn’t there

This is my child, on the floor of the elevator at the Hampton Inn Vancouver. I feel OK about not taking him to Paris.
This is my child, on the floor of the elevator at the Hampton Inn Vancouver. I feel OK about not taking him to Paris.

I’m going to spare you the two-paragraph-long backpedal, where I assure you that I love my child. Of course I love my child. The first two nights in Paris, I cried myself to sleep. (True story.) But I got over it. Mostly because I realized quickly that Paris would have sucked if my kid had been with us.

This truth became glaringly obvious on our most recent adventure, to Vancouver B.C. Vancouver was Bini’s consolation prize for not coming to Paris with us. “You and Mommy go on trips sometimes and you don’t take me,” he complained to Steve.

Yes, my parents come up twice a year from California and shoo us off so Steve and I can reconnect and they can undo years of careful parenting and discipline. Usually, we do short jaunts: to Vancouver, Orcas Island, Leavenworth, and once, Las Vegas. Paris was obviously in a different class. It was for our 10th wedding anniversary. We’d been talking about it for years.

“Bini, we’re going to be going to lots of museums, and doing lots of walking,” Steve told him.

“Mommy’s going to be doing lots of shopping, too.” I added.

“I love all those things,” Bini protested. “I love walking and museums and shopping.”

None of this is true. Bini loves, in this order: 1) Star Wars; 2) superheroes; 3) riding his bike; 4) watching shows on the iPad and 5) dancing to Michael Jackson. He will hike if I bribe him. Once, when I was shopping for handbags at Nordstrom, he said, loudly, “Mommy, you DO NOT NEED another purse!”

U.S./Canada border
We waited for about 30 minutes at the border. During this period, Bini asked us why we weren’t moving approximately 10 times.

The kid wasn’t coming to Paris. So we told him that we’d take him to Vancouver, a place we’d long wanted to go as a family, when we got back. It worked out perfectly — his school had a teacher work day and it made for a nice long weekend. We found a Hampton Inn in Yaletown with a separate sleep area for the kid and the trip was a go.

We set off around 1:00 and the drive went smoothly — until the border. Bini could not fathom why we were waiting in such a long car line. “Why aren’t we moving?” he asked every 3 minutes.

Finding a restaurant in Vancouver was a markedly different experience than Paris, too. “Hey, that place looks good,” said Steve, gesturing to a white tablecloth joint. “Except there’s no kids in there,” I pointed out. We ended up at a cavernous brew pub with dozens of shrieking children and lots of beer. Rather than talking quietly in an intimate bistro, Steve and I shouted “What?” to each other and Bini colored a pilgrim drawing.

Today, though, was when any lingering guilt we had about going to Paris sans kid completely evaporated. Today, we took the kid to the Vancouver Aquarium. Bini loves aquariums. And this one is the largest in Canada, with 50,000 animals.

About 30 minutes into our visit, Bini proclaimed that he was bored.

“Look at the jellies!” I said, enthusiastically.  The Vancouver Aquarium has a new jellyfish exhibit, featuring 15 different species from all over the world. There’s big ones, tiny ones, orange ones. I could have looked at jellies all day. And the reefs! I had no idea that cold-water reefs could be so colorful. And did I mention the belugas? I was sitting, watching the belugas glide and turn, when Bini said, “Are we actually going to just sit here and watch belugas all day?”

We got on the bus and headed back to downtown. “I can’t walk anymore,” Bini whined, over and over. “My legs hurt.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t go to Paris with us, Bini,” Steve said. “This is all we did.”

That didn’t help. He harrumphed and grumped along, dragging his feet. We fed him, which helped a bit, but then decided to walk the 10 or so blocks back to the hotel.

“My legs are falling off,” Bini said, approximately every 45 seconds.

Now, we’re in the hotel and the flat-screen plasma in Bini’s sitting area does not have anything to interest him. He wants my laptop. Which I’m using. In Paris, I used my computer freely to write long, thought-out posts about the Roma in France. I read books. I talked to my husband, about lots of things. We strolled our neighborhood, and spent hours in museums. We slept, uninterrupted. We made breakfast for ourselves and were responsible solely for our own bathing and grooming. We drank wine at 4:00.

Tonight, we’re taking our son to a French bistro with some friends. The irony is not lost on us. I can only hope that he will eat beef short ribs and that the wine pours will be generous.