Relishing in the Bittersweet: Heartache in Adoption
by Rachel Garlinghouse
While I was waiting to adopt my first child, I spent a lot of time imagining what I thought would be the high points: the day we would get THE call stating we had been chosen, meeting our baby for the first time, our first family photo session, the child’s first birthday…
Each of these moments would be monumental if not divine. Cloud 9, the “Halleluiah” chorus, slow motion movements. Smiles, laughter, hugs. Perfect. Straight out of a Nicholas Sparks’ novel.
We waited fourteen torturous months for our first child. On a sunny November weekend, we were painting our kitchen when my husband’s cell phone rang. Chosen. Baby girl. Already here. Come.
What I felt at times, while rocking my daughter in her softly-lit nursery, were waves of guilt, sympathy, confusion, and heartache. This wasn’t how adoption looked on the front of the agency brochures or in the Hallmark movies.
Guilt. My joy was stemming from another mother’s loss and pain. How could I have willingly participated in such a severance?
Sympathy. I couldn’t imagine my life without my child. Yet someone was living her life without her child.
Confusion. Why must someone else’s loss be my gain? How can I be happy when I know my child’s first mother is broken?
Heartache. Why did my child have to lose her biological mother through adoption? Would my daughter grow to resent me?
Most days were as a lovely as I had imagined. My daughter’s mocha skin, coffee-colored eyes surrounded by an abundance of dark lashes, and her perfect, rounded afro accessorized by tiny bows were the center of attention from family, friends, and strangers. My husband and I marveled at her every yawn, smile, and sneeze. She had enough outfits to go without doing laundry for three weeks. She was loved, no, adored.
But without warning, the feelings of guilt, sympathy, confusion, and heartache would snake into my soul. It was crushing, knowing that I had “won” at the expense of someone else.
The first time it happened was about a week after my daughter was born. My husband and I were standing in the waiting area of the courthouse, just a few minutes before our appointed court time where a judge would award us custody. Standing right next to us was our daughter’s biological mother, whom we were meeting for the first time. Strangers, yet soon to be forever united by a child, we listened carefully to the biological mother’s hopes for the child. With each sentence, I felt myself wanting to scream, “Are you sure you wish to give her to us? Are you sure you can’t parent her? She’s yours. She looks like you. She needs you. You are all she has ever known.” Our conversation was cut short when the biological mother’s lawyer alerted her that it was her turn to meet with the judge. And just like that, she was swallowed up by two heavy brown doors. When she emerged minutes later, she hugged us, told us to take care of the baby, and was gone. And immediately, we were ushered into the court room for our turn. With my heart in my throat, I listened to the judged, answered questions from the lawyer, and promised to take care of the little girl as if she were born to us.
About six months later, my first Mother’s Day dawned sunny and warm. I smiled for the camera while holding my daughter close, breathing in her milky scent, her sticky fingers on my cheek. I accepted cards and gifts, meanwhile hoping that the card I had sent my child’s first mother had arrived on time and was well-received. I hadn’t forgotten her. With each card I picked up at the store, I felt more and more heaviness in my heart. No card was appropriate for the occasion. There were no cards to express the bittersweet reality.
On the day my daughter turned ten months old, it hit me that she had been with me the same amount of time she had been with her biological mother. 40 weeks. 280 days. I loved my daughter with such depth. To lose her would devastate me. Break me. She was my world. The thought of not having her in my life, which I could barely approach, took my breath away. I remember holding my sleeping infant against my chest and quietly singing to her the alphabet, while praying for the woman who gave her life and praying I could be the mother my daughter needed.
A few weeks later, my daughter looked at me and uttered the words every mother longs to hear: “Mama.” When we clapped and cheered and jumped around, she repeated it over and over and over. The word is sacred. Reserved for the woman who wipes runny noses, prepares food, cuddles and caresses, bathes, and plays pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo dozens of times in a day. But sometimes the word felt like it should belong to someone else, or at minimum, should be shared.
On the day my little girl turned one, I was busy and blissfully happy. We threw her a pumpkin-themed birthday party with many guests who snacked on s’mores and hot chocolate and cupcakes. There were mountains of gifts. Cameras flashed left and right. My daughter waddled around in her multicolored tutu, soaking up the attention. As we drove home from the party, our car full of streamers and gifts and food, my daughter napping in her car seat, I thought about the significance of this day one year ago. The day she was born, the day her first mother called the agency, the day she chose a family from amongst the profile books, the day we got the call, the day our new life began.
Meanwhile, throughout the first days and months of my new role as mom, people (some I knew, some I didn’t) would “affirm” our choice to adopt with exclamations of “Oh, there are so many kids who need good homes!” and “God bless you!” and “She’s one lucky little girl!” And then there were the questions: “How could someone give her away?” and “How old was her mom?” It was all so overwhelming to process: my own emotions, the questions and assumptions from others, and, most of all, my tiny daughter’s huge brown, imploring eyes, reminding us that she was the innocent party, hopelessly reliant on adults to make the right choices for her.
Agencies and attorneys and even the general public tell us that birth parents often place and “more on with their lives” or “get over” or “move past” the placement. Do they say these things to help us feel better about adopting? Do they say these things to grant themselves false peace about the complexities of adoption? Or is that most of us don’t want to stop and think about how heartbreaking it must be to carry a child and give him or her away, forever?
When I am faced, as I still am five years later, with guilt, sympathy, confusion, and heartache, I stop, I breathe, and I embrace these. These feelings are not to be feared or ignored. They are part of the journey. This bittersweet adoption path has conditioned me to see with clarity, respond with love, and simmer in possibility.
Rachel Garlinghouse is the author of Come Rain or Come Shine: A White Parent’s Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children. She’s mothering three brown babies, baking without ceasing, and in her “spare” time, writing and talking about transracial adoption. She’s been on MSNB’s Melissa-Harris Perry, The Daily Drum national radio show, and her family has been featured in Essence magazine. Her articles have been published by MyBrownBaby.com, Madame Noire, and Adoptive Families. Keep up with Rachel on her blog at www.whitesugarbrownsugar.com
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