Friday, December 28, 2012

Becoming our baby

Even before Hopper and I were engaged, I told him I wanted to adopt a child. Becoming a parent was important to me, even essential to my identity, but I never felt that biological relationship was an important part of the equation. He needed to know that if we were going to get serious.

Really, I had decided on adoption when I was fourteen. A storyline on a soap opera I enjoyed featured a couple who went to the ends of the earth to conceive a child. Even at that age, I couldn't relate to their decision. Even at that age, I knew I'd be a mother.

So after we were married long enough, when Hopper finally said he was ready too, our adoption journey began.

Being me, I researched. I read about every country on the State Department database. (I just tried to count the countries on the State Department database. I stopped at 40. I was still in the C's.) I joined an online support group. I tried (and failed) to create an in-person support group. I spoke to relatives who had adopted. I went to a conference. I researched.

We narrowed it down. Only countries where we have ancestry or relatives. (That limits us to the northern hemisphere.) Only countries with more than 1000 adoptions per year. (China, or Russia?) I don't want adoption to be the center of our family. We don't want that to be the first thing other people see when they meet us. We would adopt from Russia.

When the time came to make the first thoroughly-researched phone call to start the process, I crumpled in terror. The reality that my dream could finally come true--that after all these years of assuming I'd be a mother someday, I could just pick up a phone and make it happen--scared me. It was the beginning of a journey that would change my life forever.

But I did it. I made that call, and the next one. I got the letters of recommendation we needed and processed the paperwork. We got fingerprinted, interviewed, home studied, background checked and examined. We had shots and answered questions about our pasts, present and future. We analyzed our capacity for love, our style of discipline, and how we would raise a child in an ethical framework.

Every one of these steps cost money. It was a lot like buying a house, really. Just keep signing checks and don't think about it too much. I never added it up, because I don't want to know. We had the money. That's all that matters.

I am not a romantic. I knew that any adoption process would be out of my control, so I protected myself. I never imagined that this far-away baby was the love of my life. I always called her by her Russian name. I reminded myself at every step that she was not mine and would not be mine until the Russian judge said so.

The day we met her, all I could think about was a woman who I knew from my online chat group. She said that when she received her first referral, she and her husband spent 45 minutes trying to make eye contact with the baby. There was no response. They had to refuse the referral.

So my one goal for the day was to make eye contact with this baby. That was all that mattered.

Now, usually, I'm pretty good with babies. Boo was seven months old that day, and the best way to make "friends" with a seven-month-old is to carry her around a room and talk about whatever catches her eye. Eventually, that seven-month-old will become interested in the sound of your voice and follow the sound to your face.

I knew this from good instinct and a lifetime of being the person who held other people's babies at parties. From at least the time my cousin was born, when I was twelve, I had received compliments on my ability to amuse a baby in stressful circumstances for long periods of time.

But all that mattered was eye contact. And someone put us in a room with a mirror.

Anyone who knows Boo knows about her little mirror problem. She can't pass one. There are a lot more mirrors in the world than you think. I know. I live with Boo. If there is a mirror, she will find it and get stuck in front of it. A trip to Ikea is fraught with moments where one second Boo is walking beside me, and the next second: gone. I look back, and there she is. There was a mirror. She got stuck. I grab her by the hand, and we move on together. Until the next mirror.

The day we met, I cared only about eye contact. And Boo cared only about the mirror. It took up an entire wall. It might have been the first time she saw her whole body at once.

Finally, I got the idea of making her fly. I actually remember my mother flying me. She would lie on her back with her knees tucked to her chest, and I would lie with my belly on her shins. She'd hold my hands and I'd fly above her.

You have to modify it a bit for a seven-month-old, but only a bit. She loved the flying. She laughed, she smiled--and there was nowhere to look but into my eyes. At last, we made eye contact. My baby was okay.

But she wasn't my baby yet. We signed a form, played with her a few more times, and had to return to New Jersey to wait for court. They told me not to cry in front of the baby when we left. It makes it harder for the babies if they see their parents cry, they said. So I had to run out of the room before the translator was done conveying my thanks for the excellent care not-yet-Boo was receiving.

At work a few days later a woman came to visit. She was on Maternity Leave and had brought her baby for a visit. Everyone surrounded the baby, cooing and asking questions. "My baby is doing that already," I thought. (Not my baby--not yet. Not until the Judge says so. But she is--she's doing that. Even in the Baby Home she's big, and she's fat, and she's developing just fine.)

When we got back to Russia I couldn't believe that Boo recognized me. A big smile came over her face when we walked into the room. (Not my baby. Not yet my baby. She isn't my baby until the Judge says she is.) We went to Court and presented our case to the Judge. Then we waited.

It takes about 20 minutes for the Judge to render her decision. She has to type it before she comes back and announces it. So we waited in the small courtroom with our Translator, the Director of Boo's Baby Home, the Social Worker, and the Prosecutor, who was there to speak for the interests of the State. Finally, the Judge returned and said that Boo was ours. Finally and forever Boo.

When we arrived at the Baby Home that afternoon, a caregiver asked me in stilted English, "What is her name?" She had obviously practiced this phrase for use with new parents. It would be my first act as Boo's mother: to introduce her by her newly given name to the women who had cared for her all her life.

I balked. Could I answer such a question? Did I have the audacity to tell them that her name was no longer what it had been for all her eight months of life?

I looked back at our Translator, who looked back at me, baffled. The question had been asked in English: there was nothing to translate.

Finally, I blurted it out, "Boo," I said. The Caregiver beamed, and immediately Russified the name. "Boolashka," she cooed. Babies in Russia are never called by their given names. There must be a diminutive added. And there she was: my baby, but not-yet-my-baby. We left her again, for the last time. For us, the Mandatory Waiting Period had been waived. That was common in those days. We would be able to pick Boo up the very next day and bring her first to Moscow, then home.

I remember feeling as if I were floating down the street. Nothing seemed real. Still, sometimes, I wonder that we went to Russia and they gave us a baby. Also, the 8-hour time difference and the things we had to do--get her re-issued birth certificate, get permission from the Police for Boo to leave the district where she was born--made it impossible to call my mother until 6PM local time. If my mother didn't know I had a baby, then I didn't have a baby.

We shopped and bought formula and diapers and baby food and spoons and cake and tea for Boo's caregivers. I carefully packed the outfit I had purchased a few days before with my mother and Hopper: an adorable overalls set. I also grabbed a fleecy romper in case it was cold.

Friends of mine who gave birth to their babies are always shocked about what happened next. They handed me a naked baby, and then watched to see what I would do. There were no lessons in diapering or feeding or how to hold the baby. But that was okay. I was, after all, the person who held everyone's babies at parties. My aunt had taught me to change a diaper when I was twelve. I had friends who would hand me their crying babies. I deftly put on Boo's diaper, the adorable little shirt, and then tragedy struck. The overalls were shorts!

There is no greater sin for a Russian mother than underdressing her baby. Boo had been dressed in three layers and a hat to go from one room in the Baby Home to another. And here I was preparing to take her outside. OUTSIDE--where it was only seventy degrees! In shorts. I was horrified. The Caregivers were unsure what to do. So I dutifully took out the fleece romper and stuffed her into it. Everyone relaxed. (Except Boo, who had to ride home in the car in her fleece romper, sweating mightily.) We stepped out into the sunshine, and Hopper took a picture. Boo leaving the Baby Home forever.

Becoming our baby.


  1. I saw your link on Slate and came over. I loved reading your story - it's funny, I found myself feeling anxious for you awaiting the judge's decision even though it was already clear that the answer was yes! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Tara! That's quite a compliment. I've never shared this story before but I feel it's important right now for people to understand what adoptive parents go through. It's the only way to understand the pain of the families who are stuck right now because of this ridiculous law.

    So thanks to you--and everyone--for reading.

  3. I just found your blog from FB..... I love reminiscing with you!