It is a cold morning, the coldest yet this season, and I throw on my long, warm coat. It’s a coat to snuggle down into: thick black plush, with lavish faux fur lapels and cuffs.
“Mama Bear!” said my 8-year-old, delighted at the appearance of the coat for the first time this fall. “Your Mama Bear coat! You look beautiful!”
“Thanks,” I say, shepherding both girls out the door. “Come on, my cubs, or we’ll be late.”
On the way to the car, my 6 1/2-year-old, a literal thinker, reminds me that I am a tiger, not a bear (Tiger is a family nickname). The two girls discuss among themselves that I am a white Siberian tiger, and whether each of them is an orange tiger or a white one. I hear one of them say, “Well, we’re adopted, so we don’t have to be white tigers like Mommy. We can be orange or white.”
My husband, Jonathan, and I like to joke that we couldn’t have made girls this good. Nine years ago, we began the process of adopting a child from China. The Chinese government matched us with Lin Shu Min. The daughter we named Katherine Mary ShuMin joined our family in October 2001, at the age of 11 months. In 2005 we adopted a 3-year-old girl from China. Hong Jiao Ping became Caroline Eugenie JiaoPing.
It seemed the perfect solution
Adopting from China seemed the perfect solution to our desire for a family. I longed for daughters, and 95 percent of the babies in Chinese orphanages were girls. While I never wanted my daughters to feel grateful for being “rescued” by us, I did feel that a family is a better place for a child than an orphanage. I still feel that way. But as I leaned my forehead against the cold glass of the plane’s window and watched China disappear, I cried a little for the giggling baby who was leaving her homeland for a new life across the world. She needs a family, and we love her. Why am I crying? I thought.
Once home, I was intoxicated by the rush of finally being a mommy and the entrancing little girl who was now my daughter. I was the forever mother. It was a while before I continued the thoughts I’d had on the plane.
More and more, I began to think about what my girls left behind when they became our daughters. My daughters’ birth mothers have never been far from my thoughts. I look at my girls often and wonder if Katherine’s birth mother is athletic and outgoing, as she is. I wonder if Carly gets her dimples and thick, gorgeous hair from hers. We talk openly and often about birth parents and about adoption in general in our home.
While I have never struggled with loving my daughters — they are the center of my life — I have begun, in the past few years, to struggle with the concept of adoption. My views were informed by reading message boards and email lists, articles and books written by adult adoptees — in particular, those from Korea, because of the large number of adult Korean adoptees.
At first, dismissal of much that was said
In the beginning I dismissed much of what they had to say. Some of the voices sounded strident and angry to me. They told stories that were hard to hear, so I preferred not to believe that my child might someday share their feelings. I patted myself on the back as I read their words. We would never raise our children in an area where they were the only children of color. We would never mythologize their birth parents. We had learned from mistakes made by an earlier generation of adoptive parents. We would immerse our daughters in their native language and provide Asian role models. We would never say, “Don’t think about that. You’re American now.” We would do it right. We, we, we. It was all about how we could do it better than parents of adult adoptees had.
And maybe in some ways we could learn from them what not to do. We maybe could do it better. But we could never be the parents who bore our children. We could never undo the biggest hurt of all. The primal one.
“Did my birth mother love me?”
I am careful as I choose my words. “Most birth parents love their children,” I say. “But we don’t know for sure because we don’t know who your birth mother is. But when I look at you I think any parents would be proud.”
I am also careful with my words when we talk about adoption. “The day you joined our family was the happiest day of our lives,” I say. “It was the best thing that ever happened to Mommy and Daddy. But it might not be that way for you. Adoption is about loss.”
“I know, Mommy.” She is silent and I know she is thinking, wondering about the woman who gave her up when she was 2 days old. And then looks up at me with eyes so different from my own. “But I love you, too.”
Michele St. Martin is the editor of the Minnesota Women’s Press. This article appears with another featured piece on adoption in the current issue.