Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. – Psalms 127: 3-5
I assumed I would conceive naturally when my husband and I decided to start a family. I didn’t. We turned to fertility drugs with ambivalence. Reports of the mood swings the drugs sometimes cause worried me. I had only gotten through one round when I broke a wooden dish drying rack over my husband’s head. I don’t remember what he said but I’m sure it was something I would have otherwise considered innocuous. Instead a growling uncontrollable rage emerged from nowhere and then overcame me like an emotional tsunami. We decided the drugs weren’t for us.
Even if the drugs had taken, there would have been the aftermath of pregnancy to contend with. Having struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, I believed I would be a good candidate for post-partum depression. That will be me, I thought, whenever someone told me a story about a woman suffering from post-partum depression, so severe in one case that long-term care in a treatment facility was necessary. A mother of a teenager told me that she felt she had yet to return to pre-pregnancy self. I wondered if pregnancy would be worth it.
When I heard about couples who had invested tens of thousands of dollars in the struggle to conceive, I wondered if pregnancy would be worth it, literally. I wanted to spend my money on other things. I didn’t say this out loud; it seemed sacrilege. Sometimes I wondered if I was too selfish to get pregnant. Often I wondered if my infertility was some kind of holy judgment on my marriage or me. Always I wondered if other women wondered these things, or if there was something unnatural about my thoughts in particular. During all those months of wondering, I never once considered adoption, until I did.
I had gone along with the fertility treatment for the same reason I went along other non-decisions I have made in my life, like having an enormous wedding: because people whom I loved and respected wanted it for me. I thought I was supposed to want it, just like I was supposed to want to get pregnant by any means. Yet I cried genuine tears when, month after month, I was unable to conceive. I felt like a failure. Still, there was always a little door in my heart that was closed to it. Behind that door was my truest self, and she didn’t want to get pregnant that badly.
Not long ago, I read an interview with a famous actress who adopted two children. When the subject of pregnancy came up, the actress said something like, “It didn’t interest me.” It wasn’t that pregnancy didn’t interest me at all; it just didn’t interest me enough.
Adoption, however, came naturally. One day I woke up and I knew. It hit me like a revelation. We were going to adopt, I told my husband John, and we were going to adopt from Africa— Ethiopia, to be exact. There is a notable Ethiopian-born population in Vermont, and a substantial number of them are adopted children. But to me the decision felt less practical than magical. I’m the kind of person who typically questions her instincts. In this case, I did not.
Sometimes people assume that my husband and I adopted for altruistic purposes. In truth we adopted for the same reason that people pursue natural birth: because it was what we wanted to do. And for me, like any woman determined to conceive, like anyone who really wants anything, the question of money paled in comparison to my desire.
As it turns out, I am selfish. Adopting my daughters is the most self-centered thing I have ever done. It is the one decision I have made in my life that represents who I truly am, the one choice that aligns most squarely with my deepest and most fundamental belief about life on Earth: that we are here to see one another through this journey. We are here to keep our brothers. Our sisters, too.
Once we decided, signs seemed to spring up everywhere. I sat in a waiting room and opened a magazine to an article written by a woman who had adopted as a last resort and then conceived a second child naturally. Her greatest fear about adoption, she wrote, had been that she would not be able to bond with her child as intensely and authentically as a natural mother, that the bond between herself and her daughter would be, at best, only an approximation of that natural bond, or, at worst, simply counterfeit.
She discovered that they were different, her relationships with each of her two children, but the most fundamental difference between being the mother of an adopted child and being the mother of a biological child, she said, was that she was able to take public pleasure in the beauty of the child she adopted. When strangers said of her adopted child, “What a beautiful baby!” she could respond without hesitation, “Yes, she is, isn’t she?” But when strangers exclaimed over her biological child, she fumbled for a response. To agree, she explained, felt like vanity.
I still hold her story in my heart.
I was on the phone waiting for a picture of my daughters I had forwarded to a friend to open on her computer screen. I already knew the picture intimately. It featured two brown babies with enormous eyes. One of them was in tears; the other one looked like she was trying not to laugh. Both of them were wearing crocheted yellow caps that made me think of Esther Williams.
Before we heard about the girls, John and I had never considered the possibility of twins. As the jpeg opened slowly on my friend’s screen, she and I discussed this unexpected factor and all of the challenges it would present. When the jpeg finally opened, my friend went quiet. Then she said, “Oh, you’re fucked.”
We were, indeed, happily fucked. There was no turning back. The question shifted from How? to When? What we assumed would be a straight line from us to them turned out to have close shaves and hair-raising detours. At one point, it looked like the adoption would fall through. John and I were in Ethiopia at the time. A government official told us to prepare ourselves for the worst. That night John and I held each other and sobbed. I was more terrified that night than I have ever been in my life; the anguish seemed to have no bottom to it. I remembered their eyes, their feet, their hands. They will have no memory of me, I thought, but I will remember them forever. The next morning we soberly considered other options, like going for another round of drugs. Later I joked that I might be the only woman on Earth to pursue pregnancy because I couldn’t adopt.
We hardly slept for the next seven days, keeping our phones close and checking our email almost hourly. Suddenly, the same official emailed to say that she had decided to approve the adoption. She didn’t explain and we didn’t ask why. I am still baffled and awed by the sudden turnaround that changed our lives forever. I routinely tell my daughters, Giulia and Isabella, that they are my miracles, gifts from Providence himself, to which they respond with exasperation, “Mommy, stop.”
After a twenty-four hour journey, we met John’s mother, sister and her two children at the airport in Boston. They burst into tears as the four of us deplaned. John drove us back to Burlington in the middle of a snowstorm. He was so exhausted that twice he pulled over to do jumping jacks in the snow in order to stay awake. He had no choice: when I took the wheel I nearly ran us off the highway.
The girls sat silent and staring in the back, looking like tiny Michelin Men in identical padded snowsuits. Eventually they fell asleep. When we finally arrived and put them on our bed, they lay flat as boards. Their eyes flew open. They looked at us, and then peered around their fur-lined hoods and looked each other. A feeling of peace seemed to settle between them. It lasted for a second. Then, as if on cue, they commenced to wail in unison until they passed out.
During those dizzying early months, two good friends became pregnant in quick succession. I agreed to host their baby showers. No, I offered. Actually, I insisted. I consulted friends and the Internet for baby shower protocol, shopped for the right decorations, ordered cute cakes, all the while asking myself, What are you trying to prove?
At one of the showers, every single guest seemed to be pregnant, too. A woman I hardly knew put a newborn in my arms. Overwhelmed by feelings I didn’t understand, I handed the baby back and went into another room to cry in private. What had my daughters looked like at that age? I tried to imagine their one-year old faces pasted onto newborn bodies and cried some more. I would never know. I hated feeling so vulnerable, but even more than that, I hated that those feelings of vulnerability could be so easily triggered by a stranger. The fact that I had no control over those feelings frustrated me. I cried out of frustration, but also out of shame. I was ashamed of the secret envy I felt as I stood and chatted with women whose stomachs were as big as beach balls. I’ve heard adoptive mothers say that they wish that they had originated their children. I know that if I had given birth to my daughters they would be wholly different people, and I like them just the way they are. Still, when I stand next to pregnant women, my stomach sometimes feels concave and hollow in comparison.
I no longer cry at baby showers, but the feeling of vulnerability, the experience of sudden exposure and, sometimes, a shameful, secret envy of women who have successfully conceived compose an quiet even current in my life as an adoptive mother. These feelings exist in the private chambers of my heart. The very same chambers throb with the electric joy I experience as the mother of my daughters.
I never know how to respond when those negative feelings are triggered. Once a friend and I stood naked from the waist up as we changed clothes to go to a Zumba class. “Look at those breasts that never nursed,” she said wistfully. She meant it as a compliment. I was on the phone with the same woman a few weeks later and confided to her my worries about some problems one of my daughters was having with math. “Well, they’re not genetically yours, so at least you know it’s not your fault,” she said. Later, she explained that she had meant the comment to reassure me.
Both times I was caught completely by surprise, stunned by how quickly ordinary activities—changing clothes, an idle conversation with a friend—transformed into emotional landmines. I believe that she meant no harm, but the effect of her comments was to remind me that I was not a biological mother. I don’t need reminders. Even more disturbing was the fact that her comments revealed that she, herself, was constantly, even vigilantly, aware of the fact that I was not a biological mother. Her reminders touched my own quiet fear that my bond with my daughters might be missing something vital; that my maternity is counterfeit, an illusion and a lie.
I have found that another constant in my life as an adoptive mother is that other people often project onto me their essential feelings and beliefs about the mother-child bond. While we were in the process of adopting, one friend wondered aloud if true bonds were even possible between mothers and children who were not biologically related. This same friend calls her adolescent daughter a stranger. Still, to her, to most people, the biological familial relation—blood—is supreme.
Recently, I told my daughters that I had made contact with their biological cousin.
“We already know all of our cousins,” Isabella said.
“But this cousin is related to you by blood,” I explained.
“‘By blood’,” Giulia wondered. “What’s that?”
Before I became a mother, I believed in the primacy of blood. Once I even said to one of my closest friends who had decided to use a surrogate that I was relieved she had chosen that route instead of adoption, because using a surrogate meant that her children would be “really” hers. Today I am embarrassed and amazed, not only that I said those words, but even more that I actually believed them.
For me, adoption has been a journey from ignorance to enlightenment. What I understand now is that the difference between pregnancy and motherhood is something like the difference between having an enormous wedding and being married. But I’m not sure I would have found this out otherwise. In the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, the main character shares with her best friend a few things she has found out about life over the years. “It’s uh known fact, Phoeby, you got tuh go there tuh know there,” she says. “Two things everybody’s got to do fuh theyselves,” she continues. “They got to go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
When I was a child I dreamed of being adopted, not only because the dynamics in my family sometimes mystified me, but also because the adoption stories that I knew about sounded so romantic. I grew up in a community in which adoptions were kept hidden from children but were whispered about among adults. Revelations about non-biological bonds were revealed dramatically at momentous junctures, like an eighteenth birthday, or recklessly, through an overheard conversation. Adoption sounded to me like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, but in reality, these revelations created wounds that never healed. Happy families were perceived suddenly as fraudulent. Lives were thrown off track and personal histories reevaluated. “No wonder he always…” “So that’s why she never…” That was thirty years ago. Older relatives who are products of that era used to suggest that I keep the girls’ status as adoptees a secret from them. But they did not suggest what I should tell the girls instead. In order to keep such a secret, I would have needed an alternate narrative just as elaborate as the true story, considering the fact that the girls’ father, my husband, is white.
Even though the adoption stories around me when I was growing up were shrouded in secrecy, shame and pity, I knew of many people in the Deep South who raised children to whom they did not give birth. In fact my grandmother was not ready to be a mother when my mother was born, so she entrusted my mother to her parents and siblings. My mother remembered her grandparents as upright, religious people who policed her posture and ate bacon with a knife and a fork. She adored them and described her years with her extended family as some of the happiest of her life. My mother called her grandmother Mama and her mother Mother. To me this said something about the different quality of intimacy she felt for each of her mothers. When I floated this theory by my mother she considered it briefly, but she died before we got a chance to discuss it again.
When she was six, my daughter Isabella went through a phase during which she tried to figure out what to call me. For a while, she settled on stepmother. I felt tender amusement as I witnessed her trying to make sense of the nature of our relationship in her own mind. It is only Isabella who has puzzled over what to call our bond. Not coincidentally, Isabella, when I deny her something that she wants, is the one to sometimes fling the barb that perhaps all adoptive mothers fear: “You’re not my real mother!” In one such instance I replied, “I am your mother on Earth. And you still can’t wear your pajamas to school.”
I am fascinated by the fact that my daughters never question the authenticity of their father’s paternity, considering the racial difference between them. Isabella is happiest when she can begin and end her days with John. “Daddy, you should get a tattoo of me going like this,” she tells him, mugging like Shirley Temple. Recently, she informed me calmly that it would be most convenient if I died first, so that her daddy could take care of her without my interference. John is the one she goes to when she has a bad dream. “You can’t comfort me the way daddy does,” she once explained to me gently. Even when John becomes irritated by the chaos that the girls create and leaves the room, Isabella trails behind him, a stuffed animal under her arm and an identical scowl on her face.
“No one on Earth wants to be with me as much as Isabella wants to be with you,” I sometimes complain to him. John pats my shoulder somewhat pityingly, like a prince dispensing coins to a pauper.
My daughters’ biological mother is dead but she is an active presence in our lives. Isabella says her mother appears in her dreams, and sometimes signals her presence by turning the light on and off in their room. “She is your mother in heaven,” I tell her, “and she entrusted you to me.” Like a divine priestess, like a holy ghost, I believe she blesses our union.
“Adoption is a holy sacrament,” said the priest at a ceremony my parents arranged to welcome our daughters into our church family in Nashville, where I grew up. I believe this is true. I have the same feelings about adoption as I do about zebras, in whose astonishing, majestic presence I think, This must be God at work.
When we met the girls’ maternal grandmother, she said I was her daughter returned to her from the dead. She compared me to Mary, Mother of God. I was glad; I felt unworthy. I felt her quiet agony over her daughter’s death. I looked at my new daughters and realized immediately that I would spend my life trying to reconcile myself to the terrible coincidence that brought about our union, and the fact that my greatest joy was occasioned by someone else’s tragedy.
But tragedies happen. People die and the living must take up where the dead left off. This is our duty; this is our joy. A friend once told me that she had never felt more like a woman than when she was pregnant. When the girls were placed in my arms, I had never felt more deeply human.
Perhaps because of the adoption stories I grew up with, our daughters have known that they were adopted from the moment they were capable of knowing anything. Some stories about adoption emphasize poverty or lack; a child unwanted or abandoned, a lost history. The stories we tell the girls are about bounty. You are adored on two continents, I tell them. You have two worlds, two countries, two languages, and two stories to tell about how you came to be. So far, this strategy seems to be working. One of their favorite babysitters did not know they were adopted until the girls told her. The babysitter reported to me that in response to this news she had said, “Ohhhh,” in a high pitch and put on a sympathetic face. Giulia knew the look. “Well, it’s not sad,” she explained.
For as many Ethiopians as there are in Vermont, exponentially more live in Washington, D. C. We have made two trips to D. C. with the girls, and both times it has felt like a homecoming. The girls are recognized and treated like prodigal daughters. I admire this, the fact that my daughters really come from somewhere. As an African American, sometimes I feel that my connection to Africa is more fantasy than fact.
Six years ago, when the girls were two years old, we traveled to D. C. to meet our Ethiopian adoption liaison for dinner. It was his first visit to the United States. He had spent the day playing tourist, visiting monuments and museums. “Americans,” he said, “you know how to preserve your stories.”
We all met up at Queen of Sheba, one of the many Ethiopian restaurants in Washington. When I took Isabella to the bathroom, Giulia accompanied us but agreed to stay behind with the waitress, a beautiful young woman in traditional dress, who knelt and held Giulia’s hands.
“Twins?” asked the waitress when Isabella and I emerged from the bathroom. I nodded.
She asked me what part of Ethiopia they were from.
“Tigray,” I said.
I knelt with Isabella while the waitress began to speak to Giulia in Tigrinya. Giulia nodded and shook her head.
Then, Giulia looked at me and put her arm around my neck. She pulled me closer as her conversation with the waitress seemed to pull her deeper and deeper into memory. You belong to me, said her fierce two-year old grip. I leaned in until our bodies made a bridge between the present and the past. With all of my might, I assured her through my skin, And you belong to me.
We do belong to each other, but Giulia, along with her sister Isabella, also belongs to something and somewhere else. They belong to a history preserved in the recesses of their minds and hearts; in their bodies, too, perhaps down to the level of the cell. Where the girls’ identities reside in the worlds between past and present, there and here—that is a story that they will make up on their own.
There is one story that is unequivocally true, and that true story goes like this: I am their mother on Earth, their here and now. The one who prepares them for spelling quizzes, smells their breath to make sure they’ve brushed their teeth, and nags them to tidy their room—that’s me. I am the present and, with any luck, the future, too. As they grow older, questions about their past will not be the only ones I will not be able to answer. They will come upon other mysteries in their lives to unravel, and I will encourage them to view life’s mysteries as vitalizing and not crippling. But like everyone else who resides on Earth, they will have to go there to know there and, ultimately, find out about living for themselves.
Emily Bernard is the author of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White. Her other books include: Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten (2001), which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Some of My Best Friends: Writers on Interracial Friendship (2004) was chosen by the New York Public Library as a Book for the Teen Age. Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (2009), a book she co-authored with Deborah Willis, received a 2010 NAACP Image Award. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and journals, such as American Scholar, Oxford American Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Best American Essays, Best African American Essays, and Best of Creative Non-Fiction. She has received fellowships from the Alphonse A. Fletcher Foundation, Yale University, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the W. E. B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University. She is an associate professor of English and ALANA U. S. Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont.
Author photo © Stephanie Seguino.