A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents

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9781573223164: A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents

Adoption now affects more American families than ever before-1.5 million adopted children live in the United States today, and 60 percent of Americans report some kind of personal connection to adoption. Happily, this surge has coincided with an increasing mainstream acceptance of adoption as just another way to form a family, complete with its own frustrations and joys that deserve to be discussed and celebrated.

A Love Like No Other does just that. It features twenty leading writers, all of whom are adoptive parents, discussing their personal experiences. They include adoptive parents of children of other races, like Emily Prager, who grapples with how to best keep her daughter connected to her Chinese roots; parents whose families blend biological children and adopted children, like bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard; single mothers of only children, like journalist Sheila Stainback; and same-sex adoptive parents like Jesse Green, who wonders how his sons will feel when instructed to make a Mother's Day card. They live in big cities and small towns, and have adopted domestically and overseas. Some of their stories soberingly address the potential complications of adoptive parenting, while others tell of happily enriched family lives.

Impressive for both its breadth and its quality, A Love Like No Other is a timely and heartwarming mosaic of the contemporary lives of adoptive parents and their children. In elegant prose and with refreshing honesty, these essays will introduce you to a group of families you won't soon forget.

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About the Author:

Pamela Kruger is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, Parenting, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, The International Herald Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal. She is currently a contributing editor at Child magazine. She and her husband have two daughters, Emily, seven, who is their biological child, and Annie, now two, whom they adopted from Kazakhstan when she was six months old. They live in New Jersey.

Jill Smolowe is the author of the adoption memoir An Empty Lap: One Couple's Journey to Parenthood. An award-winning journalist, she is currently on staff at People.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

Like many adoptive parents, the birth of our families was preceded by struggle. Before Pamela and her husband traveled to Kazakhstan in 2001 to adopt six-month-old Annie, they wrestled with whether they were capable of loving an adopted child as unconditionally as they did their biological daughter, Emily. Jill’s trip to China in 1995 to adopt seven-month-old Becky followed eighteen months of coaxing and badgering a husband who, already resistant to fatherhood, was adamant that he did not want to adopt.

The birth of this book, by contrast, was instantaneous and stress-free. As we were leaving a monthly meeting of New York–area women writers and editors, Pamela asked Jill, “Would you be interested in coediting a book on parenting adopted kids?” Without hesitating, Jill answered, “What a great idea! Absolutely.” Though much of the evening’s discussion had centered on weighing the pros and cons of particular projects, neither of us felt a need to deliberate further. Instinctively, we both knew that this was an idea whose time had not only come but was long overdue.

If you are an adoptive parent, or are considering adoption, you probably understand what we mean. While the adoption literature is thick with answers to questions about the adoption process, it is stunningly thin on matters that touch on the actual raising of our kids. Standard parenting books, meanwhile, measure children’s developmental and behavioral milestones against a yardstick that may not apply to children who were adopted from orphanages or the foster care system, or at older ages. In those rare instances where adoption is mentioned, it tends to be in passing, with the same jarring follow-these-10-easy-steps brightness as that applied to potty training or normalizing sleep routines.

But as we all know, adoption issues are complex, nuanced, and ongoing. No matter how competently we address a child’s concern at a given moment, it refuses to wind down tidily and disappear along with cribs, crayons, or curfews. Instead, these are issues that take root early on, then burrow deeper as our children grow older. Over time, they tend to evolve, not resolve; mature, not melt away.

Such questions ?rst began to gnaw at Pamela when her daughter Annie turned two. The fears she and her husband David had entertained about their capacity to love an adopted child had vanished within hours of ?rst holding Annie. But now, as they prepared to enroll Annie in Jewish preschool, with plans for her to follow seven-year-old Emily into a Jewish Sunday school, Pamela began to worry. How could she honor Annie’s ethnic heritage—an intriguing, rich mix of Russian, German, and Kazakh—without making Annie feel “different” within the context of the family? Should the whole family sign on to Russian lessons? Take trips to Kazakhstan? Would such activities alienate Annie, or Emily, or both?

For Jill, the most frequent questions sprang from her growing awareness that she would never be able to gauge, let alone grasp, the signi?cance of an unidenti?ed birth mother’s claim on Becky’s imagination and heart. The ?rst time it hit her, Becky was barely eighteen months old, long after Jill’s reluctant spouse, Joe, had become a smitten, involved father. Jill was holding a friend’s infant on her lap when Becky suddenly charged across the room and plowed her hands into the child, shouting, “My mommy!” In a confused moment, Jill found herself doing the calculus familiar to so many adoptive parents. Was Becky simply exhibiting the behavior of an only child unaccustomed to sharing? Was she giving voice to a rudimentary awareness of her adopted status, and signaling that she felt a need to assert or defend her claim on Jill? Was the appropriate response to provide a quick lesson in the merits of sharing and the demerits of hitting? Or might it be better to set the infant down and wrap Becky in a hug that reassured, “Yes, you are mine.” Since then, such moments—and questions—have only multiplied.

If such dilemmas resonate with you, then this may sound familiar, too. Although neither of us feels inclined to seek out families that “look like ours,” we both ?nd that when we encounter other adoptive parents, we tend to become engaged in intimate, candid conversations that have a language, sensibility, and awareness all their own. Often, these dialogues help to clarify issues that are nagging at us or hovering at the back of our minds. Moreover, though neither of us regards adoption as the de?ning characteristic of her mother-daughter relationship—indeed, we both bristle when people refer, without cause, to our children as “adopted”—we ?nd such discussions with other adoptive parents fascinating, edifying, and, frankly, a relief. Why? Perhaps because through such dialogue, we affirm that we are not alone in training a special ear and eye on the words, habits, and behaviors of our adopted children. We discover that we are not overthinking or underthinking, being hypersensitive or overly zealous when we probe for subtext beneath our children’s embraces and exclamations, tears and taunts. We realize that we are not crazy in thinking we possess a peculiar radar that searches for meaning where people with biological children—even those of us with our own biological children—look for none.

If you are already a parent to one of this country’s more than 1.6 million adopted children under eighteen years of age (the total number of those who are older is impossible to estimate), or hope to be among the estimated 120,000 Americans who will adopt in the year ahead, you know how this special radar has a way of kicking in at the seemingly most innocent moments and raising unsettling questions that tend to linger. Take, for instance, when you bring your newly adopted son to a family gathering and notice that your usually effusive relatives seem to be steering clear of your child. Is this simply the reserve some people feel around a new member of the family? Is it an indication that your relatives will always regard your son as the “adopted” one? More disturbing, could they be picking up on your own slowness to bond? Are you perhaps still harboring preadoption reservations? Has the adoption itself given rise to fresh doubts?

Now fast-forward a few years. As you plan a family trip to this same son’s country of origin, he balks. “I don’t want to go. I’m an American.” Does this merely re?ect his fear of ?ying or discomfort with unfamiliar places? Is it a refusal to acknowledge his roots? Or is it the ?rst hint of a deep-seated fear that you plan to drop him off, then return home without him? Is he nursing dark fantasies that—like his birth parents somewhere out there in the universe—you might “abandon” him? Should you plunge ahead with your travel plans anyway? Or should you postpone the trip?

What about the day your once-cheerful little girl becomes a brooding and angry preteen? “You’re not my real mother!” she yells with a look to kill. Is she simply (okay, maybe not so simply) going through a predictable adolescent identity crisis? Is her struggle compounded by adoption issues that she is unwilling to acknowledge to you, and perhaps even to herself? What if she asks uncomfortable questions about the actual adoption? If you acknowledge there were rumors of corruption in her country of origin’s adoption pipeline, will she conclude she was “stolen” from her birth parents?

And what about that birth mother, whom, in moments of distress, your daughter has imagined as the perfect parent? Do you upset her soothing fantasy by sharing that the woman was a homeless street kid? What if your child was abandoned, and the details supplied by a lawyer, orphanage, or adoption agency were speculative at best? Or perhaps you do know the identity and location of the birth mother. Is this the moment to make contact? To build upon an extant, but distant, relationship? If you reach out, what obligations— moral, emotional, ?nancial—might you incur? Most important, should you be the one to introduce this woman into your child’s life? Or is that a decision for your daughter to make when she is older?

Such moments can leave a parent yearning for input, insight, or inspiration, preferably from somebody attuned to the often unaddressed issues surrounding adoptive family life. Ask anyone else and you risk either an uninformed dose of you’re-reading-too-much-into-this, or the sort of worried frown that blows your concern way out of proportion. Mostly what you want is to bounce your observations and re?ections off someone who is able to discern when your adoption-related musings are little more than a sideshow to the drama of daily life—and when they are the drama. You crave the ear of someone who understands that while adoption is not who your child is, it is an integral piece of who he or she will become. Or perhaps you’re thinking of adopting and want to know what may lie in store.

Either way, you’ve come to the right place. The twenty gifted writers in this anthology understand. Their concerns traverse the wide spectrum special to the roughly 2.5 percent of American families that have come together, in whole or in part, through adoption. As a group, these writers’ families represent the diverse nature of the adoptive nuclear unit as it looks today in America. Scattered among ten states, the families are headed by different-sex couples and same-sex couples, single mothers and single fathers, divorced parents and parents who were themselves adopted. The children, who range from toddlers to teenagers, were adopted at a variety of ages, and come from overseas and over state lines, from orphanages, the foster care system, and the homes of blood relatives. The households represented here enlarge the meaning of the term “blended family.” Some have a biracial or multiracial complexion; some involve both biological and adopted kids; some mix children born abroad with those made in the U.S.A.

Each of these original essays offers a vivid snapshot of a different aspect of the adoptive parenting experience. They are, by turns, painful and joyous, humorous and sober, provocative and poignant. While the subject matter roams broadly, all these writers share a desire to explore and probe their uncertainties, ambivalences, and passions honestly. They do not seek to offer advice. They do not intend to offer resolution. Each of them appreciates that adoption issues are far too complicated for sentimental or pat answers.

As you read, you may at times ?nd yourself nodding in recognition or agreement. At other moments, you may ?nd yourself arguing back at the writer, seeking to articulate a different truth born of your own experience. We say, Wonderful! Let the dialogue begin. Primarily, we hope you will ?nd what we discovered as we edited these pieces: through the sharing comes reassurance, re?ection, and reaffirmation. All of this, we believe, strengthens our ability to parent our kids with greater intelligence, insight, and love. Of this much we are certain: when it comes to the all-important task of raising our children, the adoptive parent-to-parent grapevine has been silent too long. p.k. j.s.

Living with a Very Open Adoption

by Dan Savage

There was no guarantee that doing an open adoption would get us a baby any faster than doing a closed or foreign adoption. In fact, our agency warned us that as a gay male couple, we might be in for a long wait. That point was driven home when both birth mothers who spoke at the two-day open adoption seminar we were required to attend said that ?nding “good, Christian homes” for their babies was their ?rst concern. But we decided to go ahead and do—or try to do—an open adoption anyway. If we became parents, we wanted our child’s biological parents to be a part of his life.

As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait long. A few weeks after our paperwork was done, we got a call from the agency. A nineteen-year-old homeless street kid named Melissa— homeless by choice and seven months pregnant by accident—had selected us from the agency’s pool of pre-screened parent wannabes. The day we met Melissa the agency suggested all three of us go out for lunch—well, all four of us if you count Wish, Melissa’s German shepherd; all ?ve if you count the baby she was carrying. We were bursting with touchy-feely questions—which we soon realized was a problem. Stoic and wary, Melissa was only interested in the facts: She was pregnant, didn’t want to have an abortion, and couldn’t bring up her baby on the streets. That left adoption. Even though she hated talking about her feelings, Melissa was willing to jump through the agency’s hoops—which included weekly counseling sessions and a few meetings with us—because she wanted to do an open adoption, too. She wanted, she said, to be a part of her kid’s life.

We were with Melissa when DJ was born. And we were in her hospital room two days later when it was time for her to give him up. Before we could take DJ home, before we could become a family, we literally had to take him from his mother’s arms as she sat sobbing in her bed. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was thirty-three years old when we adopted DJ, and I thought I knew what a broken heart was, how it felt, what it looked like. I didn’t know anything. You know what a broken heart looks like? Like a sobbing teenager in a hospital bed giving a two-day-old infant she knows she can’t take care of to a couple she hopes can.

Ask a couple hoping to adopt what they want most in the world and they’ll tell you there’s only one thing on earth they want: a baby, a healthy baby. But many couples want something more: They want their child’s biological parents to disappear. They want their child’s biological mother and father to be forever absent so there will never be any question about who their child’s “real” parents are. The biological parents showing up on their doorstep, lawyers in tow, demanding their kid back, is the collective nightmare of all adoptive parents, endlessly discussed in adoption chat rooms and during adoption seminars.

But we didn’t want Melissa to disappear. All adopted kids eventually want to know why they were adopted, and sooner or later they start asking questions. “Why didn’t my biological parents keep me?” “Didn’t they love me?” “Why did they throw me away?” When kids who were adopted in closed adoptions start asking those questions, there’s not a lot the adoptive parents can say. Fact is, they don’t know the answers. We would. Having those answers was part of what made doing an open adoption in 1998 seem like the right choice for us.

Like most homeless street kids, Melissa works a national circuit. Portland or Seattle in the summer; Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York in the late summer and early fall; New Orleans, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles in the winter and spring. Then she hitchhikes or rides the rails back up to Portland, where she’s from, and starts all over again. For the ?rst few years after we adopted DJ, Melissa made a point of coming up to Seattle during the summer so we could get together. When she wasn’t in Seattle, she kept in touch by phone. Her calls were usually short. She would ask how we’re doing, we would ask how she’s doing, then we’d put DJ on the phone for a few minutes. She didn’t gush, he didn’t know what to say. But it was important to DJ that his mother called.

When DJ was three years old, Melissa stopped calling regularly and stopped making a point of coming to town. When she did call, it was usually with disturbing news. One time she called the day after her boyfriend died of alcohol poisoning. They were sleeping on a sidewalk in New Orleans, he was lying beside her, and when she woke up—he was dead. Another time she called after ...

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