Category Archives: Adoption

It’s Not Just You

I just sent this text to a friend.


It helps to know we’re not the only ones. This is the greatest gift we can give one another, the gift of it’s not just you. I feel like I say this all the time (feel free to roll your eyes at me), but I really only write about it when I have to be reminded myself. If it happens a lot, it is because I am a slow learner.

We had a rough day yesterday here at the Circus. This morning wasn’t great either. I watched the boys clamber onto the bus with guilt-riddled relief. Some of what’s been happening is, I am certain, because of our recent changes in routine. Soccer is over. Paul and I were gone over the weekend. I want to be careful about sharing too much about my children’s demons in an effort to exorcise my own, but a quick Google about “adoption” and “routine” will turn up article after article about the way this can affect adoptive families.

When we have days like this, I am tempted to crawl into my metaphorical cave and pick at my wounds all by myself. Obviously, if I were a better parent (a better Christian, a harder worker, more physically fit … what, you wanted logic?), we wouldn’t have these kinds of days. If only I were perfect in every way, everything would be fine. It all makes sense in my head, and it feels safest to stay there, flaying myself, because at least then no one else will know about my spectacular failures.

The best antidote that I know is talking to other people. People who aren’t in your situation, who can say, gosh, that stinks, and hey, as someone who isn’t down in the trenches right now can I tell you you’re maybe being a teensy bit hard on yourself? People who are in your situation, who can say, yeah, I don’t really know what to do either, but here are some things I’ve tried, and we have that too, and it’s not just you. People who, no matter their situation, can say, whether they use these specific words or not, I love you. I’m with you. Solidarity, sister.

It isn’t always easy to reach out. It isn’t always convenient to stop and listen. But I am convinced that we need to. Really, really need to. One of the best things we have is each other.


Seven years ago, in the evening, I was leaving a board meeting for a chorus I was singing with, and my cell phone rang. It was our caseworker. “Baby was born,” she said.

She’d called the house a couple of times, finally rousing Paul from sleep for a confused conversation. He’d managed to wake up enough to convey the information that I was at a meeting just a few miles from the hospital. She’d caught me in time, and I could go and see the baby, if I wanted to.

I did.

So off I went, entering through the ER department because it was after hours. A busy nurse pointed me vaguely in the direction of the OB wing, and I explained who I was to the nurse guarding the door there. There was a side room in the hall stuffed with unused-at-the-moment equipment and some chairs. I settled into one, the plastic creaking as I shifted during the wait.

And then there you were. The scrawniest little brown boy you’ve ever seen, all huge dark eyes and wild black hair and chicken legs. I could not have imagined at that moment that at five, you’d nearly be able to knock me over with an enthusiastic hug around the legs.

Scrawny or sturdy, I fussed over you from that moment. Were you eating? Were the nurses holding you enough? Most of all, would you truly be mine forever? Would all the right papers be signed, the Is dotted, the Ts crossed?

I fuss over you still, over your health and your heart and your sweet little soul. You are almost never sick, and I wonder whether we brush you aside too often because we’re worrying over your brother. You are stubborn as sin, and I wonder how to help you learn to channel it into persistence instead of petulance. You are the most curious combination of temper and tenderness.

You are seven. You love your family and your duckling and you hate not being able to do everything Levi does. I cannot freeze you here in this moment, when you are reaching and stretching and learning to do without me, but still need sleepy cuddles in the morning. And I wouldn’t if I could. Not really.

But I will write you down, and I will take your picture. And I will answer the question you ask me the same every time. Every day, every year, every decade, whenever you ask me, and whenever you don’t. Yes. You will always be my baby.

Happy birthday, Elias. Thank you for being part of Us.

Backpack Treasures

Yesterday and today, all the stuff from school came home in backpacks. Besides random Pokemon cards (the boys were thrilled), I found such delightful things.

You guys. From the beginning of the year until sometime in February, Levi apparently kept a journal at school. I cannot even handle it.

my least favrit seasn is summer because there is no snow. We also haft to swim more and I Don’t like to swim. We also haft to do more farm work.

my saddest molmen was wen my drother punched me right in the fase.

He had some problems with Bs and Ds. These aren’t even the best entries, I don’t think. Just the ones I found right away. It’s fantastic. I almost threw it away without looking, but I thought maybe there would be blog fodder in it somewhere. Thank you, readers, for existing, so that I looked in this notebook. I would never have known that his dad is his role model because he lets him play the computer for 30-45 minutes every day.

I am dead. Also, I am never throwing it away. I’m going to bring it out at his graduation. And his wedding. And I want to read all the other second grade journals.

Elias showed me his special treasure himself. Everyone signed his notebook, including his teacher. (I’m not sure if this was his idea or the teacher’s. His narrative is unclear.)

Levi had the same teacher for kindergarten, and we will forever get her name wrong, because she wasn’t married when we first knew her, and we are creatures of habit in this house.

And also there was this.

This is cute in sort of a standard way, but that is not why I love it. It tells me when he’s going to graduate high school without having to count in my head, but that is not why I love it.

I love that his construction paper face is brown. I know it’s a small thing, but in an overwhelmingly white district, I love that his teacher took a little extra time to make sure he matched his own emoji. Thank you, Mrs. Beichler. We love you, too.

It was a pretty good year.

Empty Frames

We don’t have any pictures of our boys’ birthmothers.


I am sad about this for my boys. They have asked about pictures, a little, and I think it will be more important to them later, as they grow up and think more about what adoption really means. Perhaps when they are first asked to make a family tree, or write an autobiography.

Each birthmother made the choice not to give us a picture. And so even though I would have liked those pictures for my boys, I wouldn’t change what is. They had their reasons, I am certain. And from women who were already giving us everything — their children, their hopes, their trust – to insist on more would have seemed cruel.

Mother’s Day is an obvious one, but I think of them often, our birthmothers. It has been some years now, and the faces I thought were seared into my brain are fading. We met them each for just a few minutes, all of us with fear and hope and adrenaline surging through our blood, and what I remember now are flashes and impressions. Long black hair. Shy brown eyes.

I try, when they ask me, to make word pictures of their first mothers. I tell them how they looked, and I tell them what they said, the best I can remember. Mostly, though, I tell them how they were; the things I will never forget.

She was strong.
She was kind.
She was generous.
She loved you so, so much.
She was afraid, but she was brave.

If I could, I would tell this to the mothers who gave me my children: We remember your names. We remember you. You are honored in this house. I hope, this Mother’s Day, that you are well. And I hope that alongside the bitter, there is sweet.


I’m not always great with dates. I’ve mentioned before that anniversaries sometimes sneak up on me. I am convinced that this is not an actual decline in cognitive ability, but the fact that I am trying to remember roughly 1000 things at any given time. (Just nod and smile.)

So last night when I slid into bed, already far too late, and Paul sleepily asked me what was wrong I said, “I don’t know.” And I didn’t, but that didn’t stop me from lying awake under a cloud of nebulous anxiety.

This morning, Paul posted a link to this piece I wrote a few years ago, on the twentieth anniversary of my dad’s death, which means that today it’s twenty-three years.

Oh. Right.

This is the oddest thing to me, that I don’t see it coming but my body does. My conscious mind is busy getting the children to school and driving to work and making food Elias will refuse to eat, and my body is tensing against the approach of remembered grief.

This is in no way unique to me. I was talking with a group of other adoptive moms recently. Some of their children were adopted before they could possibly remember food scarcity, and yet they hide food in their rooms. They worry about whether they’ll have enough to eat, despite the fact they haven’t truly been hungry since they can remember. One boy struggles without visible external reason for a few weeks every year around the time when he was surrendered by his birthmother.

It is as if pain and fear and grief seep into our very cells and lie there dormant. Waiting.

I read somewhere that grief is the price we pay for love, and I believe it’s true. You love someone, you’re going to break your heart over them somehow, someday. But that isn’t the end of the story.

That boy I talked about? His story goes on with his mother knowing about his hard time coming and preparing and planning and lying on the bed with him when he cries and when he doesn’t, and loving him so hard and so there while he grieves for the mother he lost. Those kids who are worried they won’t have enough to eat even though they don’t know why? Their stories go on with their mamas, breaking their hearts that their babies ever suffered and breaking their brains to think up ways to help.

And even me. When I am busy not paying attention, I have someone who remembers for me, and people that tell me stories I never heard about my father. He woke up in a recovery room once, and the first thing he wanted to do was comfort a baby he heard crying. I didn’t know that story until today, and I’m a little richer for it now.

We all bear scars – if you don’t, maybe brace yourself – and it does no good to pretend that remembered pain doesn’t hurt. But I am convinced that it’s no match for present love.


Paul took the boys away to a cabin for a couple of nights over the holiday weekend. People have been asking what I’m doing with myself. Mostly cleaning and decluttering like a woman possessed. Yes, I know I should take some time to relax, but you know what really helps me relax? A clean house with clear surfaces. I mean, I think it would. I don’t really remember.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that we adopted Levi, but almost never that we adopted Elias. The exception is a very drunk Russian guy who talked to Paul on the beach in Florida while the boys were examining a gopher turtle, looked the boys over carefully, looked at Paul, and said, “Aaaaaaaaahhhh. You have two womens!” (Paul politely said no, he could just barely manage the one, thanks.)

People are further startled on occasion by how bluntly we refer to color in our family. I think* this is the right thing to do. If we never mentioned the fact that some of the people in our family are brown and some are pinkish, that would be weirder than talking about it. “I don’t see color” sounds nice if you don’t think about it very hard, but it’s a fact, and not talking about it doesn’t make it not matter. More than anything, I don’t want him to grow up thinking there’s something wrong with it. Which is what happens a lot of the time if nobody talks about stuff – it gets this weird, forbidden feel to it.

Elias is, as far as we know, a full-blooded native South American. So when Paul found a North American native powwow, he knew it wasn’t quite on point, but it’s a lot closer than a Swiss Anabaptist potluck dinner. Not that there’s anything wrong with those; the pies alone are a major draw.

What a time they had.

These kind folks are Gentle Dove and Blueeye. They led Elias through some of the dances.

I’ve heard a lot lately about how we’re all living in silos. We watch the news channel that reinforces our worldview, we talk to the neighbors who think like we do, and we don’t worry too much about the people who disagree with us because clearly they are wrong. Or stupid. At the very least, they are not like us, and getting to know them would be, well, a lot of work. Who needs it?

I wasn’t there to say it in person, but I would like to thank you, Gentle Dove and Blueeye and all the rest of you, for bothering. Thank you for inviting my boys to the dance.

Even the pinkish one.




*It’s parenting, so really, I have no idea. We’re just trundling along doing the best we can at any particular moment in time.


Right before I left to pick Elias up from preschool today, I saw a video on Facebook of a little girl holding her baby brother for the first time. When I got to the school, I had to sit in the car for a minute and pull myself together, because I couldn’t stop crying.

There’s nothing more or less special about their story than any other family’s story, I guess, except that I know them. And this is a baby boy that they are adopting, and so their story resonates with me in a deeper way. A way that makes me a faucet, apparently.

The mom in this story, in a message yesterday, thanked me for talking to her about adoption. Honestly, I only half-remember this conversation, and I certainly can’t remember exactly what I said. Not because it wasn’t important, but because I’ve had a lot of these conversations with people who are considering adding to their family via adoption. They have read the papers an agency sent them, probably, and they have Googled until they are simultaneously exhilarated and terrified, and they are a little bit overwhelmed, or maybe a lot. And for sure they have read about the money involved and thought about lying down with a cold rag on their forehead until they recover from the body blow. But no one has been able to tell them what it’s like.

And I can’t really either. Every single experience is different. People are involved, and intense emotions, and anytime you bring those two things together, predictability goes out the window.

One thing I can tell them is that there is going to be pain involved. I have yet to meet a person involved in an adoption that doesn’t experience some pain. Many – not all – adoptive parents are dealing with infertility, which is a saga of its own. All adoptive parents deal with red tape and frustration and invasions of privacy. And low-level anxiety that dissipates only when you walk back through the courtroom doors after the finalization hearing, breathing out the world’s gustiest sigh of relief.

And the birthparents. I wish I could tell you some stories, but they aren’t mine to tell. I’ll tell you instead what I tell my boys every time they ask about their respective birthmoms: She did a hard, hard thing, and she did it for you. She loved you fiercely and completely and she loves you still. These things will never not be true.

So, it is hard.

For us, there are obvious compensations; we are raising two of them.


Friendships count among them, too. This is not universally true, but often there is an immediate connection between adoptive families. We speak the same language.

But sometimes compensations come from strangest of places. We were involved in a failed adoption – a rather spectacular one, as these things go. Some of the days during that the time still count as the very worst days of my life. If you had asked me at the time, I would have wished it all away, to never have experienced any of it.

But I saw that baby born, which is something I will probably never get to repeat. I was in the room, and I saw his head crown. One second, there were seven of us in the room and the next second, there were eight. I met his grandmother’s eyes over the doctor’s hands and we both cried, in joy and grief and wonder. I would never give that moment back, no matter what came after. We are still friends with that family, in a way that seems inexplicable to other people sometimes. They are part of us. We see them – not often enough – and our lives would be poorer without them. It’s all mixed up together, the awful and the beautiful and the painful and the unbelievable.

And that is, in essence, what I tell people when they ask me what it’s like. Adoption is hard. It’s scary. It’s messy. But oh, the glorious things that rise out of the mess. You wouldn’t believe.