no biking in the house without a helmet

by gurumommy on August 23, 2011

in from the desk of

Melissa Fay Greene thought her family was complete. By 1994, she had four children, ranging in age from 2 to 13. She toyed with the idea of having a fifth, setting the arbitrary deadline of giving birth before she turned 43, which was 11 months away. Looking for answers, she spent some time in a therapist’s office, which she describes in this month’s Motherlode Book Club, “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet”:

“I need help deciding whether to get pregnant again,” I told her. “I have two months left to decide.” But she wanted to talk about every sort of unrelated thing! She wanted to hear about my marriage. She said, “You know, I used to be afraid of the empty nest, too, but it can be an absolutely wonderful time for you and your husband to find each other again.”

“I haven’t lost my husband,” I said. “We’re very close. Can you just tell me yes or no here?”

“Many women find that once their children are raised, they have a chance to discover their own gifts and to pursue their own career aspirations.”

“Yes or no?”  asked Donny that night.

“She’s not telling me until next week … ”

The following (session) the therapist wanted to explore my relationship with my parents. “You’re not going to give me a yes-or-no answer, are you?” Honestly, I knew that wasn’t how therapy worked; still, I’d hoped for just a slender clue about which path to take.

“The empty-nest years can be a very fulfilling time of life for a woman,” she replied.

“The answer is NO,” I told Donny that night.

I recognized her talks with the therapist from my own life. They were the ones I had with family and close friends before eventually deciding to stop at two. (We got a dog. He thinks he’s our third child.) At the time, I thought that my very ambivalence, my need to “poll the audience” was actually my answer: if I was so unsure, then didn’t that tell me all I needed to know? But the question of how many children, Ms. Greene learns, can be a fluid one, bubbling up when you thought it was settled. Four years after her decision that she was “done,” Ms. Greene unexpectedly became pregnant, then miscarried at six weeks. The question that therapy could not answer, the pregnancy loss did, and she found herself immersed in the world of adoption Web sites, once again looking for a “sign” or a “feeling” that would tell her which child was “meant to be” hers:

The photos were sweet, but the captions were terrifying. Intended to sway the hearts of browsing parents, the promotional prose made light of serious issues: words like “this little cutie” were interspersed with words like “blind.” “Liam is a special little boy in need of very special parents!” wrote agency staffers who had never met the children. “This sweetie has a cleft right hand and heart murmur. We are told that she is at high risk for developmental delays. She loves to push up from her tummy!”

To learn more about any of these children, she continues, meant filling out the agency questionnaire:

First it asked if you wanted to adopt from American foster care or from one of the top five donor countries: Russia, China, South Korea, Guatemala, Vietnam …

Then you had the fun of checking the box for Boy or Girl.

Then you had the fun of checking whether you preferred an infant or an older child. Then … the fun was over. Because now you scanned the list of what special needs you would accept, with the dawning impression — as you skipped over children with spina bifida, Down syndrome, and dwarfism without checking their boxes — that you weren’t such a nice person after all. If not those, then how did you feel about children with cleft palate or limb differences? Fetal alcohol syndrome or epilepsy? Albinism, deafness, cerebral palsy or hepatitis B?

Scarier still were the possibilities that didn’t appear on the questionnaire, that couldn’t be detected in the photos and that you knew about only if you’d done your homework: fetal alcohol effect, autism spectrum disorder, complications of extreme prematurity, drug addiction at birth, failure to thrive, and — scariest of all — the extreme forms of attachment disorder …

It is a wonder that anyone ever adopts, no? (If you have finished the book — or even read the dust-jacket — Ms. Greene went on to add five children, one from Bulgaria and four from Ethiopia, to her family.) Of course, it’s also a wonder that anyone actually has children, because nearly all the worries, and then some, that adoption agencies actually list are ones all prospective parents wrestle with.

In the time I have spent reporting on parenting, I have found that adoptive parents fall into one of two states of mind. For some, an adopted child is absolutely no different than a biological one. What makes children yours, they say, is loving them and caring for them. They are distressed at the use of adopted in the present tense. “I never say, ‘You ARE adopted,’ one mother told me, but ‘You WERE adopted.’ It’s an event, and then it’s over.”

Others, though, see adoption as a central part of a child’s identity. This is more likely to be the attitude of parents whose children were adopted older or are of a different nationality or race or both. But I’ve heard this point of view from those whose children were adopted as newborns, too. “It IS different; not less than, just different,” is how one parent explained it to me.

Deciding to adopt a child means deciding which of these world-views to adopt as well. I’m hoping adoptive parents will use the comments to discuss how they decided upon adoption, and whether they use the word in its past or ongoing tense.

 

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