1. WHAT ARE THE “WAITING” ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN LIKE WHO ARE IN NEED OF ADOPTION?
They are like children everywhere. Those who have been loved and nurtured since birth –and cared for in decent orphanages–typically adjust very well to their new families. My husband and I have four children by birth and five adopted at older ages from orphanages in Bulgaria and Ethiopia. In general, despite seemingly insurmountable trauma in our children’s early lives, all five of them have become our wonderful, ridiculous, gorgeous, sporty, talented, messy, smart, and noisy very own children who will go to great lengths to avoid cleaning the kitchen after dinner.
But, like all children, Ethiopian children who have suffered neglect or abuse, before or during their orphanage stays, can be much more challenging. Adoption of severely traumatized or attachment-disordered children, or of children with cognitive impairments or birth defects, should be undertaken by adults who know what they are doing. Ethical agencies must alert parents to concerns about children’s behavior in the orphanage; although attachment issues are sometimes camouflaged by insitutional settings.
Like adults everywhere, Ethiopians love children. I have met scores of devoted and generous caregivers in Ethiopian orphanages. I have seen orphanages that operate like jumbo families: the big kids rush out the door to school in the morning, run home for lunch, do their homework in the afternoons, play football (soccer) endlessly in the compound, carry about the babies and toddlers. I have seen Ethiopian caregivers wearing the orphaned babies in shawls on their backs. I have seen orphaned babies and toddlers included in the life of an orphanage compound, in ways unknown to the Eastern European orphanages I have visited. All of this is good news for the Ethiopian children, and for prospective adoptive parents.
Everyone remembers the brutal Romanian orphanages exposed to the world in 1989 and 1990. Everyone recalls vividly the news footage of these child concentration camps. In particular your extended family members and close friends remember the Romanian orphanages of 1989 and they are eager, now, to tell you about them, to warn you away from adopting an older child.
You have to do your homework; you have to proceed cautiously. In general, generalities do not work: it does not make sense to say that adopted children from China are like this, adopted children from Guatemala are like that. Every child is a special case, a unique story.
Still I will make this generaliztion: Ethiopian orphanages are not the equivalent of the orphanages of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.
2. WHAT LAWS GOVERN INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTION FROM ETHIOPIA TO THE U.S.?
For the law on all intercountry adoptions, start here, with the U.S. Department of State//Intercountry Adoption/Ethiopia. There you will find the current regulations governing residency requirements; maximum and minimum age requirements for adoptive parents, marital requirements, and income requirements; and the rules for which children can be adopted and by what methods children’s eligibility for adoption will be determined.
3. HOW CAN I EDUCATE MYSELF ABOUT THE ISSUES POTENTIALLY FACING AN INTERNATIONALLY-ADOPTED CHILD?
I have heard experts in the field of international adoption medicine lament how little homework some parents do. “People spend more time researching their next car than their next child,” an international adoption doctor told me.
There is a place for love and faith, dreams and hope, horoscopes and coincidences on your adoption journey, but those magic signs should not be your guiding lights.
“Any child does best in a situation where the family’s expectations and the child’s abilities are in sync,” says Dr. Dana Johnson, one of the pioneers of the pediatric specialty of International Adoption Medicine. “A child with low potential in an environment with high expectations is a recipe for disaster.”
He continues: “Unlike adoptions from the American foster care system, which are tightly regulated, international adoption remains a free-for-all. Established agencies prepare families for the risks and urge them to seek adoption screening. But unlicensed “facilitators” abound, matching unsuspecting parents with sickly children…Compounding the inconsistent preparation are an array of vigorous marketing techniques used to find homes for children who are older or in ill health. They include photo listings on the Internet and programs that place children briefly with host families, for summer vacations or the holidays. Both can promote impulsive decisions, and experts worry that they may cloud the judgment of adoptive families who fall in love first and ask questions later.”
I suggest you read this New York Times article: “Seeking Doctors’ Advice on Adoptions from Afar” by Jane Gross.
It’s not as peppy or upbeat as many guides to international adoption; there are no cherubs, hearts, or rainbows in the illustrations as you’ll see on many adoption websites. This book does not pretend that your child is floating on a sun-kissed cloud amongst the angels while waiting for you to complete your homestudy; it’s not a guide for Dummies or for Idiots, and it doesn’t promise a baby in your arms by Christmas. It also does not specifically address Ethiopian adoption; anecdotally, it does seem that fewer adopted Ethiopian children face many of the issues described in this book, such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. BUT you should know what’s out there in the world of international adoption. This book will arm you with something more powerful than hearts, rainbows, promises, and precious photos of wide-eyed babies: facts.
There are facts here about neglect; there are facts here about sexual abuse occurring in orphanages; there are facts here about tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD.) This is not bedtime reading. But it’s essential reading. It may scare you away from inter-country adoption permanently. But if you are still standing when you’ve finished this book, you’ll be stronger.
Incorrect. Even an adorable baby girl can have suffered less-than-optimum development prior to her adoption. She may have been malnourished in utero or post-natally; she may have been born into a family in crisis., to parents who were ill, hungry, or dying. She may not have received blue-ribbon treatment on every stop along her journey from relinquishment to adoption. She may have the potential to be the most marvelous little person on the planet, but she could require major assistance to get there. Do your homework.
Meanwhile it’s possible, actually, to know a LOT about older “waiting” children in orphanages, so don’t shy away from considering them.
Five times now, I have been calmed (during the normal period of bone-rattling pre-adoption panic) by contact with and knowledge of our older waiting child. After being matched with Helen, we started getting MAIL from her. I got a glue-and-glitter-encrusted Mother’s Day card. With Fisseha (also adopted through Adoption Advocates International) , we got his report card! “He has very smiling face,” a teacher wrote. “I have very much love to him.”
Don’t rule out an older child during your search for a baby girl. Many wonderful families have been created because there were long waiting-lists for baby girls. Baby boys are also very cute.
5. HOW DO I CHOOSE AN ADOPTION AGENCY? WILL I NEED MORE THAN ONE AGENCY?
You will need two agencies (other than in the rare case that you live in the same city as your internationally-licensed agency.)
You will need a local adoption agency licensed to complete a homestudy for an international adoption. This is not the agency that will lead you to your child.
And you will need an international adoption agency licensed to practice in Ethiopia. This agency does not have to be local.
Here is a great chance for you to do thorough and ferocious research.
This may be the single most important choice of the entire process, as it will determine the shape and outcome of your adoption journey.
All adoption agencies are not equal.
The cuteness of the magazine ad, the animation features of the agency’s website, and the frequency with which the word “angel” is applied to orphaned children, does not translate directly into an ethical, transparent, affordable, and legal process for your family.
As the popularity of Ethiopian adoptions grows, so do the numbers of agencies and facilitators operating there. This means you must choose carefully.
The U.S. State Department lists licensed agencies working in Ethiopia. And you may check with the Better Business Bureau in an agency’s home city. A few more resources are listed below.
It is reasonable to peruse the agency materials and to ask for answers to questions like these:
1. Are you currently licensed to handle adoptions from Ethiopia? Since when?
2. Have you ever had your license suspended? Why?
3. How many Ethiopian adoptions have you completed?
4. Do you run an agency list-serv – a forum for pre- and post-adoptive families to converse online? If not, is there a way for your families to communicate with one another?
5. Can I have a hand in choosing my child, or will I be “matched” with a child by you?
6. What kind of information is available about children you place? Will I see medical reports, photos, videos? Will I learn about the child’s history prior to placement at the orphanage?
7. Have you, the director, met the children? Will you have met my prospective child personally? If not, on whose word are we relying about the condition of the child?
8. What is a typical time-line from the time I accept a child to completion of the process?
9. How does the timeline for baby-adoption compare to the timeline for older child adoption?
10. May I travel to meet my child before the process is complete?
11. May I travel to pick up my child or do I have the child escorted? Which do you recommend?
12. Is it possible to adopt two or more unrelated children, or do you discourage it?
13. Is it possible to meet my child’s birth-relatives? Does my child have a living parent? (Adoption is legal after the loss of one parent.)
14. What is the cost for an adoption of one or more children? Are there hidden costs? Will I be charged for foster care while my child awaits completion of the process?
15. What kind of post-adoption support does your agency offer? If we have a difficult transition, will you be able to help me through it?
Not all these questions have right or wrong answers.
You may prefer to have an agency “match” you with a child; this is also called “waiting for a referral.”
OR you may prefer to do as my family has done, which is to receive newsletters and updates from our agency with photographs of older “waiting” children, asking for more information about a specific child, then deciding to enter the adoption process for that child.
Virtually all adoptions of babies come through referral, through being “matched.”
But many older child adoptions empower you with some degree of choice: photos, medical history, a bit of video.
Some agencies may prefer that you stay home; they will deliver your child to you.
Most agencies encourage your making the journey to Ethiopia to get a glimpse of your child’s country and history.
Meeting birth-parents and birth-relatives sounds daunting, for sure; and IS daunting; and I know the laws are in flux about whether or not this is permissible; but, if you happen to arrive at a moment that this is legal, it can be one of the most powerful experiences of your life and a phenomanal gift to your child.
6. WHAT ABOUT CORRUPTION IN ETHIOPIAN ADOPTION? WHO IS TO BE TRUSTED?
It is still entirely possible to conduct an ethical adoption from Ethiopia, to create a beautiful family with the inclusion of an Ethiopian child separated from his or her birth-family by death or extreme poverty. There are hundreds of thousands of children in need of families. Perhaps because Ethiopia scaled up too quickly, corrupt middlemen entered the scene faster than the Ethiopian government officials were able to ward them off. This has happened previously in Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Nepal, Viet Nam, Ukraine — in most countries, really, where tens of thousands of dollars cross international borders in search of healthy babies, especially in search of healthy baby girls. In Ethiopia, the good intentions of many were tarnished by the greed of a few. Hearts were broken, lives were damaged: birth-parents unwittingly gave up their children forever, or adoptive parents fell in love with children not legally free for adoption. Records were falsified; ages were changed; health prospects were fictionalized; living birth-parents were portrayed as deceased; 11-year-olds were presented as 7-year-olds; young children were coached by their elders to lie, in order to facilitate unethical adoptions.
It is vital to find an agency you can trust.
It is vital to check with other parents with first-hand knowledge of any agency that interests you.
Don’t trust the websites.
Trust the record.
Here are resources where you can do fact-checking about an agency before you sign up:
—The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute; my friend, the director Adam Pertman, is the go-to guy on every adoption question.
—Adoption Agency Ratings
—Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform [PEAR]
—P.E.A.R. on Facebook
—Ethiopia Mamas on Facebook
—the Yahoo group, EthiopiaAdopt
As in every human venture, not only have some unethical middlemen entered the scene, but a few holier-than-thou warriors have made an appearance: adoption is theft! adoption is the developed world plundering the developing world! there is no such thing as a good adoption! Books have been written, Master’s degrees have been earned, articles have been published, all in the name of decrying the great evil of adoption.
I’d say: don’t trust every word you read on every adoption agency website.
But don’t trust every word of every jeremiad against international adoption either.
Because Ethiopia’s popularity is growing among American and European adoptive parents, the Ethiopian government is under pressure to standardize and manage the numbers of children in flux. The courts are growing more strict; adoption personnel are growing more rigorous. Anyone who thinks that adoption is an easier route to family-building that pregnancy and childbirth has NOT experienced these bi-country regulations.
These fast-growing numbers have begun to generate some resentment in the Ethiopian public. It used to seem like a marvelous and special thing for local citizens to see an Ethiopian child led down the street by a pair of excited European or North American parents, to see a dozing Ethiopian infant in a baby sling on the chest of a proud new mother or father. But the continued poverty of the population, and the sense that money is changing hands in the export of children, has led to some heartfelt misgivings and resentments. Ask your adoption agency what the mood on the ground is and how the agency advises new parents to handle it. None of this means that a child is better off in an orphanage than in a loving family, but it does mean that, naturally, a country is sad to see its children depart and regretful that it cannot provide for all its children.
7. I’VE HEARD THAT IT CAN BE CHEAPER AND FASTER TO DO AN ‘INDEPENDENT ADOPTION.’ IS THAT A GOOD IDEA?
Don’t do it. It’s a terrible idea.
The kind of “child-shopping” that goes on in countries where parents fly in and visit orphanages has to be damaging to children examined and then left behind, and it places parents at huge risk of getting into legal and medical situations far over their heads. Ethical agencies will tell you horror stories of the parents they’ve tried to bail out of failed ‘indepdent adoptions,’ where the facilitators turned out to be shady middlemen and the children turn out to be not exactly orphans, not exactly abandoned.
“I am not opposed to independent adoptions,” writes Dr. Jeri Jenista, a prominent pediatric infectious diseases expert specializing in adopted and immigrant children. “For certain parents – those with special medical expertise, who speak the language, who have lived in the country for many years, who have relatives or other close personal ties in the country – the independent process may provide a wonderful opportunity for an adoption meeting the family’s needs. However, most families do not have those special resources needed to accomplish an independent adoption. Indeed, even many prospective parents with those skills need help in other aspects of the adoption.”
Several years ago, I saw a bargain-hunting child-shopping couple drive up to Mrs. Haregewoin’s foster home by taxi, and I’ve not yet quite recovered from it. They selected a sibling group of three, brought them into the livingroom, gave them gifts, murmured sweet nothings to them. They are wonderful children, those three — a big brother of about nine looking after a little brother and tiny sister; they’d been the children of doting middle-class parents. “Do you like them?” the American dad asked his young teenage son, and the boy, obviously moved, nodded vigorously. The dad had tears in his eyes. “These are the ones,” he said to his wife after the 30-minute visit. She tentatively agreed, but didn’t want to commit without visiting the other orphanages on her list. They kissed the children goodbye, promised to return, and zoomed off in their taxi, leaving the three children a little bewildered. They returned the next day, ready to claim the three children, BUT a cute pair of twin boys had arrived at Atetegeb in their absence. On their way across the courtyard, the mom got distracted by the oval-faced freckled pair. “Are THEY available?” she asked. They were. Mrs. Haregewoin felt obliged to cater to the American couple, as all their paperwork was complete, including an approval from the Ministry of Children’s Affairs. This time the adults brought the twins into the livingroom and murmured sweet nothings to THEM.” “These are the ones,” said the dad. “You like them?” he asked his son. They drove off with the twins. The sibling set of three lingered in the courtyard for a long time after the parents left. They were confused. For a long time, they thought the American pair was still planning to return.
(The two brothers and sister later found a WONDERFUL home, by the way, with parents who used an adoption agency.)
The Ethiopian government already has its hands full trying to regulate international agencies setting up shop all over the country. Don’t add to the burden by peeling off on your own. There may or may not be a child for you at the end of such a risky process. There may or may not be bruised hearts left in your wake.
8. HOW WILL I KNOW I’VE FOUND THE RIGHT CHILD?
Well, you may not know this.
You may not feel anything in particular, other than a soft stirring of curiosity. You may feel – upon seeing a photo or film – “now THAT is one cute kid.”
Is he or she the “right” child for you, the one destined by heaven to be yours?
Hard to say.
You’d hate to wish that anyone’s “destiny” included becoming an orphan. The child’s history is tragic; the child’s luck is about to change in a big way, beginning with your appearance on the scene.
You will, in adopting this boy or girl, make the child your own. Your own life will swerve to meet the child’s; the two of you will begin to develop in tandem, becoming different people than you would have been without each other.
Like many adoptive parents, I chafe at the term “biological” to designate only my birth children. First because all children, of course, are the products of biology. Second because aren’t my children by adoption also mine biologically? We breathe each other’s air, prepare and share each other’s food, borrow each other’s combs and socks and pencils; Helen sometimes falls asleep on my bed twirling her fingers through my hair. Aren’t these somehow biological processes? Aren’t our cells intermixing? Haven’t the years of Berenstain Bears books I’ve inflicted on these children been immortalized as brain cells?
In parenting your new child, you will make the child the right child for you. Even if the relationship doesn’t feel perfect or magical or pre-destined for the first few weeks (or months), just pretend that all is unfolding according to plan, according to a higher intelligence than your own.
The child will simultaneously create in you the right mother or the right father, the one who knows where to tickle, what to cook, which bedtime story to read, and which flavor ice cream flavor is the best, the ice cream flavor ordained by heaven to be the one you both happen to love.
9. HOW WILL I FEEL WHEN I MEET MY NEW CHILD?
You’ve studied his or her photo for most of a year; you’ve worn out the disc replaying the nanoseconds of footage. In the film provided by the adoption agency, your child has not screamed or thrown food; he has not stomped his foot and made an angry face; the baby has not twisted away from you to avoid eye contact. In the realm of photo and film and fantasy, the child is clean and polite. The child is tall and strikingly handsome and academically gifted and developmentally on target. Regardless of age, you can tell this child is going to come straight home and begin by tidying up the kitchen and taking out the trash, before going on a bike ride wearing a helmet and observing all traffic laws and hand signals. This child is easily going to make Eagle Scout by 12.
In real life, children are sometimes not so clean and polite. They sometimes are quite short and dusty, they may have giardia or head-lice, and and it may be a few years before that academic brilliance presents itself. The child will not know how to ride a bike and, after he learns, he will zig-zag in and out of traffic while you run down the sidewalk screaming and waving your arms.
Reactions upon first meeting range from “This is the child of my heart, thank you God,” to (my typical reaction) “If I run away right now and deny everything, can they still make me bring this child to my hotel?”
Reactions vary from “That’s her! I’d know her anywhere! That’s really her!!” to “Has there been a mistake? This child is really not as cute as the photo tacked to my refrigerator.”
In my book, I describe this marvelous first contact with their daughter as experienced by Rob Cohen and Claudia Cooper:
On a morning of dazzling heat and brightness—denim sky sparkling with sunlight; dirt roads teeming with people, donkeys, goats, and sheep; flags snapping in the wind; hundreds of tin shops and wooden kiosks displaying their wares—they rode by taxi to Layla House and honked outside the steel door. A guard pulled it open. Kids spied them in the taxi’s backseat and scattered, sprinting in every direction and yelling Meskerem’s name.
Claudia hadn’t met Meskerem on her first visit to Layla House. Now she shakily got out of the taxi and tried to acknowledge greetings from children who remembered her. Rob stood beside her in an agony of thrilling overstimulation, trepidation, and excitement. It was all about to happen. It began.
Meskerem came out the doorway of a far building and turned in their direction. They both registered instantly, “She’s as beautiful as her pictures.” Thick, curly hair gathered back into a ponytail, tall, slender child, elegant face, the thick arched eyebrows and shy smile. She walked toward them sweetly, alternately looking at them and looking down at the ground; she carried herself gracefully all the way across the compound straight to them (they were paralyzed); she put her arms (she was nearly as tall as Claudia) around Claudia’s neck and delivered the great hug of Claudia’s lifetime: an unrelentingly hard, grateful, and loving hug, a hug that went on so long that Rob (towering over both of them) bent to be included. They held on to each other for a long time. The white sun edged an inch across the sky, changing the angles of silver light bending from car bumpers and wristwatches and window hardware around the compound; they hugged as classes changed and children danced around them and skipped away; they hugged for so long that, by the time they let go, they’d leapt across the oceans and continents, they’d reassured one another, they’d found one another.
10. HOW WILL WE MANAGE THE TRIP HOME FROM ETHIOPIA?
You’ll be exhausted beyond human endurance.
After months of paperwork and anxiety, you’ll have flown 20 or more hours to Addis Ababa to meet your new child; you’ll have taken charge of the child, whose language you don’t speak, whose daily habits and schedule you don’t know, and who may or may not be thrilled to spend time with you; you’ll have flown with this child back across North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, Europe, and the Atlantic Ocean; you’ll have changed planes, had layovers, and endured long lines. You’ll be dead on your feet before you enter your own foyer, lugging the suitcases filled with colorful Ethiopian baskets, ready to begin your new family life.
Behaviors that have been displayed by newly-adopted children traveling 20 hours by air have included energetic screaming and kicking and fleeing up and down the aisle, throwing up, throwing food, throwing tantrums, marathon sleeping, entering a trance-like state of sheer panic, and/or excellent dinner manners and calm movie-watching. .
Our ten-year-old son Fisseha was thrilled beyond words to be given airplane head-phones; he donned them instantly and enjoyed them greatly for three-quarters of an hour. Then I discovered that the head-phones were not plugged into anything. He was simply enjoying the new head-wear. When I plugged him in, a look of astonishment crossed his face, and the music and static distracted him for a good three hours.
Jesse, crossing the ocean by air at age four-and-a-half from Bulgaria, came to believe (we surmised) about two hours into the flight: “This is it. This is America. This is my new life. I have got to get out of here.” He was fleeing up and down the aisles in search of an exit and a fast boat back to Bulgaria. He sat down in the middle of the aisle and rocked back and forth, the orphanage self-soothing scary-looking rock; in my arms, he flailed and screamed and kicked. He kicked the seat in front of us so hard and frequently I feared we’d injure the man. Late in the flight I suddenly remembered: “Benedryl! We were supposed to have given him Benedryl to help him sleep!” As he writhed and flailed and screamed, I got a cap-full of Benedryl between his lips and waited, my arms and back aching, for it to kick in. It kicked in as we were in descent towards Atlanta. We carried his sleeping body off the plane and into immigration, where he slept on the carpet during our wait, and he slept in luggage claim and he slept on the car-ride home and straight into his new life.
The good news: you’ll likely not be the only new parents bringing home a terrified Ethiopian child on your international flight. Worst case scenario: you make rueful eye contact across the cabin. Best case scenario: the kids find each other and laugh and whisper and play the card game UNO until the movie starts.
Helen, age five, was divine; Yosef & Daniel, 10 and 12, were delighted and well-behaved.
11. WHAT IF THINGS GET REALLY DIFFICULT WITH MY NEW CHILD AFTER WE ARRIVE HOME?
Things can get really hard. The demands of a baby, young child, or older child may far outweigh your earlier estimate of what you could handle. You may find yourself blinded by fatigue, bleary-eyed with regret and confusion. You may hear the word “Mom” more often than human ears can withstand. There’s a sort of “buyer’s remorse” that can kick in, after you bring this precious and long-awaited child home. You wouldn’t be the first to wonder, “WHAT was I THINKING?”
In NO BIKING, I wrote about post-adoption panic, which hit me hard after Jesse’s adoption in 1999.
Part of what was hard about it, for me, was that I’d never heard of it. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I reached the conclusion that what was wrong with me was that I had ruined my life and the life of my family permanently, and there was no escape, and it was all my fault, and it would never get better.
It’s really hard to think rationally when you’re in this state.
In TWO LITTLE GIRLS: A Memoir of Adoption, [NY: Berkley Books, 2006], Theresa Reid writes of despair after the adoption of a second daughter, Lana, a three-year-old from Ukraine:
“I have no patience for this new child, who gets up two or three times during the night, and never sleeps past five-thirty A.M., who is hungry and desperately needs to eat, who asks for food, and then, when I hopefully, lovingly put food before her—even specially prepared food she has eaten happily before—cries and whines and angrily pushes it away. “Nyet!” she shrieks. “Nyyyyyyyeeeettt!” as she shoves it off her tray, kicking and flailing, then slumps in her seat with her head down and cries.”
Reid phones her adoption agency for help (I did the same in 1999), expecting to be offered support. Instead (as I was), she is met with confusion and bewilderment.
“I may be at my wits’ end,” Reid writes of her thoughts after ending that phone conversation, “but I think I can objectively say that this is NOT okay, to put together extremely challenging family constellations and then walk away. I hang up, abandoned, angry…”
My tips for getting through a rocky and nauseating depression after the arrival of your child:
(1) Take really good care of yourself; do whatever it takes to get enough sleep, including spending the night at a friend’s or arranging a time and place for napping. NOTHING WILL WORK OUT IF YOU ARE SLEEP DEPRIVED.
(2) Make yourself eat and shower and exercise.
(3) Get help. HIRE help if you need to, even if you think you can’t afford it. If you feel yourself spiraling into depression, you can’t get out of it alone. While a babysitter is there, sleep or exercise or read or eat or go the library or do anything refreshing and pleasant other than caring for this darn child.
(4) Put Feelings on a back-burner. This is not the time for Feelings. If you could express your feelings right now, you’d be saying things like, “Oh my God, I must have lost my mind to think that I can handle this, to think that I wanted a child like this. I’ll never manage to raise this child; I’m way way way way over my head. I’ll never spend time with my spouse or friends again; my older children are going to waste away in profound neglect; my career is finished. I am completely and utterly trapped.” You see? What’s the point of expressing all that right now? Put Feelings in the deep freeze. Live a material life instead: wake, dress, eat, walk. Let your hands and words mother the new child, don’t pause to look back, to reflect, or to experience emotions. “Shut up, Emotions,” you’ll say. “I’ll check back with you in six months to see if you’ve pulled yourselves together. But no whining meanwhile!”
(5) Pick up something to read that carries you away. I’ve found that reading about Paleolithic art engenders deep calm and a sense of remove. There’s something about studying 40,000 year old cave painting that makes you feel you can survive the sound of your new child’s voice the next morning.
(6) Let yourself off the hook. This is not your fault. You’ve done a grand thing—you’ve gone out into the world in search of a child and, despite every obstacle over tens of thousands of miles, you’ve brought the child home. It’s all going to work out in time. Meanwhile, you’re exhausted. This is all really hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. You’re doing fine. Just rest up, find something to laugh about, and give Feelings the month off.
The good news about a rocky start or even post-adoption depression is that the experience can be the disharmonious opening notes of a love story. An out-of-synch beginning is not predictive of the parent/child relationship. Jesse & Mom, 2012.
11. AREN’T THERE ANY HAPPY ADOPTION BOOKS??”
Yes! There is a wonderful adoption literature. Prospective adoptive parents have a special hunger for information and for stories, and, later, a special need to write about what they’ve been through.
My all-time favorite adoption book is THE CHILDREN by Jan de Hartog (NY: Atheneum, 1969), a Dutch Naval writer, a WWII hero. Living in the U.S., the father of grown children, he became unexpectedly the middle-aged father of two little Korean sisters. Though many recent books cover similar ground, full of modern and post-modern psychiatric jargon, there’s little missed by old Jan de Hartog, who turns a wry phrase. You can find this out-of-print book through online booksellers.
In Chapter 12 — “Clinging” — he writes of an experience with which many adoptive parents identify – the ferocious attachment to one or the other parent. Addressing you, the mother, he writes: [after clearing the hurdle of the child’s coldness to you, the mother]
“… you will suddenly find yourself confronted with a hunger on his part for physical closeness, so ravenous and insatiable that chances are you may end by being sincerely worried whether there isn’t something psychologically wrong with him. Even to the most extrovert and sensual among us there comes a point beyond which the need for being hugged, caressed, kissed and snuggled turns from an uninhibited desire for affection into a obsession that soon makes us do the opposite of what we are so breathlessly urged to do: we draw away in alarm and confusion…
“… All children from Korea or Vietnam are literally starved for affection; once they surrender themselves to you, there is no moderation or restraint until their desperate craving is satisfied…
“Those few months are likely to be trying. In the beginning you may enjoy his total and unrelenting claim on your full and constant attention. But the desperate tightness with which especially the very young child will clasp your leg, clutch your arm, cling to your neck until you have to carry him with you from morning to night may well alarm you. The thing is to try and relax. Let yourself be kissed, hugged, nuzzled, nibbled and beset by frenzied embraces like any simian mother, whom you can observe in any zoo. Your colleague among the gorillas goes about her monkey business totally oblivious of the huge-eyed, frantic young clinging to her breast, waist or even tail with all the sumptoms of utter terror.
… You will have to resign yourself to the circumstance that, for the next few months, you will be carrying a small shivering body attached like a leech to some part of your person during most of your waking hours and, once he has overcome his initial exhaustion, your sleeping hours as well. But I assure you that this is normal…”
It is normal to feel panicky after you’ve committed to a child. Here are a few books from which I took great courage and comfort, if only to find myself in a community of mothers and fathers also experiencing longing for a child.
CHILD OF MY HEART: A Celebration of Adoption, edited by Susan Alpert—tidbits & excerpts, paragraphs gleaned from here and there over a half-century of adoption writing, like a Readers Digest’s Quotable Quotes dedicated to the world of adoption. I read this book to pieces. During the waiting period, when you wonder whether you’ve lost your mind or are going to lose it, why not see what Harpo Marx and Jack Benny once said about the adoption of their children?
THE ADOPTION READER, edited by Susan Wadia-Ells (Seal Press, 1995)
THE BABY BOAT: A Memoir of Adoption by Patty Dann (NY: Hyperion, 1998) Poignant longing for and search for a baby.
WANTING A CHILD: 22 Writers on their Difficult but Mostly Successful Quests for Parenthood in a High-Tech Age, edited by Jill Bialosky & Helen Schulman (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1998) Some of these essays are the best pieces on adoption anywhere. You just don’t want to miss Tama Janowitz on “Bringing Home Baby” from China, one chapter of which reads only, “The horror. The horror.”
THE FAMILY OF ADOPTION by Joyce Maguire Pavao (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005) Not to be missed! Valuable insights into truth-telling within an adoptive family.
A LOVE LIKE NO OTHER: Stories from Adoptive Parents, edited by Pamela Kruger & Jill Smolowe (NY: Riverhead Books, 2005) I’d like this book even if it didn’t include an essay of mine.
FOREVER LILY: An Unexpected Mother’s Journey to Adoption in China by Beth Nonte Russell (NY: Touchstone, 2007) A fantastic portrait of falling in love with a baby; and one of the most real and engaging babies to appear anywhere in adoption literature. I could do without the dreams of a past life and of destiny, and I feel that the adoptive mother the author accompanied to China was deserving of greater empathy, as she was clearly in the grip of post-adoption panic. But I could not have done without this baby.
SECRET THOUGHTS OF AN ADOPTIVE MOTHER by Jana Wolff: honest misgivings about transracial adoption.
A PASSAGE TO THE HEART: Writings from Families with Children from China, edited by Amy Klatzkin (Yeong & Yeong Book Company) Wonderful medley of how-to essays (my least favorites) and idiosyncratic truthful memoirs (my favorites.)
THE RUSSIAN WORD FOR SNOW: A True Story of Adoption by Janis Cooke Newman (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), honest, lyrical, reflective, about a couple’s longing for a child and the fears that beset them in the face of many rational reasons to turn back. DISREGARD the cranky comments on Amazon about this book; I don’t know what book those people read, but it wasn’t this one.
12. DO YOU HAVE ANY ENCOURAING FINAL WORDS?
In lines that have come to be known as “Where commitment leads, providence follows,” he writes:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”