Weekend in New England
There is a lot to be said about the weekend, and I'm not sure where I should start. I took notes during the whole weekend, not notes on the agency's policies or practices, but on issues I wanted to explore more in my own mind. But as I look over my list, the problem becomes clear. It's not my mind that needs changing about adoption — because in our case, what could be more obvious? — but my heart. And at the moment, after 36 hours of immersion, my heart is feeling decidedly fatigued. Maybe this anecdote will tell you something about the emotional climate I found myself in over two uncomfortable days. Ready?
Meals were served at large communal tables in the dining room of a down-at-heels country inn. Naturally this made for any number of easy, freewheeling, congenial conversations. "No, no, don't tell me. Let me guess. Male factor? Oh, I just knew it." "How strange that your shower was cold — we had plenty of hot water this morning, and a son at home." "So! What brings you here? Six failed IVF cycles and the most depressing decade of your life? Well, hey, what do you know about that! We're utterly crippled by grief and feelings of inadequacy, too!"
At every meal and every break, I talked too much and made too many jokes, made manic by a discomfort I couldn't seem to shake. On Saturday night, most of the others skipped dessert and left dinner early, so Paul and I found ourselves marooned alone at the end of a long table. At the other end of the table, a couple sat talking with the agency's birth mother panelist over coffee.
Feeling conspicuous and kind of lonesome, I impulsively dragged Paul over to join the others. As I was sitting down, the woman was saying, "And we had all these early losses, which were really hard. And then...[deep breath]...we lost our son." The man reached over and silently squeezed her shoulder.
Never let it be said that my timing is anything short of impeccable.
Because Paul was waiting for his dessert to be served, we couldn't even quickly bolt our coffee, look at our watches ostentatiously, yodel, "My, would you look at the time?" and make a hasty exit. No, we sat there for twenty of the most excruciating minutes of my life while the couple and the birth mother continued their conversation as if we hadn't ineptly barged right into it, as if we weren't even there. Believe me, I wished I weren't.
The whole weekend was like that. I felt myself buffetted by other people's emotions when I'm not even sure of my own. It wasn't just the prospective adoptive parents, either. Every panelist who spoke — the birth mother, the new adoptive parents, the adult adoptees, the adoptive parents of many years' standing — ended up in tears. I told one of the agency personnel that that surprised me. "I must have told that story fifty times," she said, at a loss to explain her own tears, "but I guess that's why we call that program 'Lifelong Issues in Adoption.'"
I cried, too, of course. But then I'm easy that way. It is no particular feat to make me weepy when you tell me about your son waking in the night crying, asking, "Is my birth mother okay?" and having to answer, "I don't know."
I leaked like a fucking faucet all weekend. Mostly that was okay. The only time I hated myself for it was during the ten-minute video presenting the theoretical thoughts of an unborn soon-to-be-adopted baby: "Don't be surprised when I'm four and I won't come out of my Spider-Man sleeping bag. It's warm and quiet and safe in there. I wish you could have given birth to me." Yeah, kiddo, so do I. But then I'm easy that way.
Yes, Rebecca, it is an awful thing to say.
My ambivalence about adoption is well established here, if not fully fleshed out. Every time I write about it, many of you warmly assure me that I would love an adopted child as passionately as I love Charlie. But that's never been at issue; from the time of Charlie's birth, a transformative experience in ways both good and bad, I knew I could love any baby who'd been entrusted to our care.
The love has never been in doubt. The love seems like the easy part. Everyone I know who's connected with adoption in any way confirms that. I take that as a given, reserving my concerns for all the rest of it. So I was surprised — which is my detached, polite way of saying "sputtering with incredulous indignation" — to read this New York Times article on feminist writer Rebecca Walker's Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence:
The most incendiary notion in "Baby Love" may be that, for Ms. Walker, being a stepparent or adoptive parent involves a lesser kind of love than the love for a biological child.
In an interview, Ms. Walker boiled the difference down to knowing for certain that she would die for her biological child, but feeling "not sure I would do that for my nonbiological child."
"I mean, it’s an awful thing to say," said Ms. Walker, who in a previous relationship helped rear a female partner’s biological son, now 14. "The good thing is he has a biological mom who would die for him."
That is a good thing. Note to Walker's stepchild: Be very, very careful you're with the right person when you happen to get trapped in that burning building, okay?
What bothers me more than Walker's position itself — upgrading from "incredulous indignation" to "incoherent flailing" — is its shift from an earlier stance:
In a 2001 Curve magazine article she said, "the bonds you create are just as important and just as powerful as the bonds that you are born into."
When asked about this incongruity, she explained: "To grapple with how my parents [Walker is the daughter of author Alice Walker] raised me I had to come up with a philosophy that could sustain me. Having my own child gave me the opportunity to have a completely different experience. So hence a different view."
Fellow feminist Jennifer Baumgardner defends Walker's 180 by calling it consistent with Walker's feminist stance: "She reserves the right to evolve, and that's a good model for us."
But is it truly evolution when it entails a step back into what seems like a less enlightened view?
Dawn at This Woman's Work, who has always written beautifully about parenthood, adoption, and race, isn't bothered by the comment: "I figure, why should she feel sure? How can we know about things we haven't experienced?" And I am trying to come around to that point of view, remembering all of the people I know who've expressed worries about creating their families through adoption or donation. "How can I be sure I'll love the child?" is a very common question, and I usually admire without reservation the honesty it takes to ask it.
So why does it disturb me so — "full-body paroxysms of irritation" — that Walker's doing what amounts to the very same thing?
Thanks to T. for the link and sdn for the nudge. I would be delighted to find myself in a burning building next to either of them.
The juxtaposition of "Shaft" and "cockfights" is purely coincidental, I assure you.
Hey, you know who I envy? I mean, besides those who look at a calendar, get out a Sharpie, and draw a big red heart around the date they hope to conceive, preferably some sentimental special date like a wedding anniversary or Lincoln's birthday or maybe National #2 Pencil Day. And then they buy a bottle of wine, change the sheets, and actually maybe even shave their legs — I know! This babymaking business takes work, y'all! And then they lie back and think of Isaac Hayes ("Shut your mouth!" "But I'm talkin' about Shaft!"), and then two weeks and some days later they notice that their period is a touch late, and, hey, wouldn't it be funny if...? Wouldn't it be great? And it is, and it is, and thus the deed is done.
It's those of you who've either decided against starting fertility treatment at all, or called a halt to the whole messy business, and then moved on to adoption with a joyful heart.
I love the blogs and personal stories I read where you're not only resolved that adoption is the best choice for you, but truly excited about the idea. Really energized, positive, and full of faith in the process as well as the eventual squalling pink product. It's that certainty I envy, the knowledge that this, at last, is what you truly want instead of what you're merely settling for.
In my messed-up heart of hearts, I know that to adopt right now would be, for me, settling. I still have enormous reservations about the process. But it has slowly been dawning on me that maybe that's possibly...sort of...okay.
Many of you have said, with utmost kindness, compassion, and, I think, a real understanding of my feelings, that if I don't feel good about adoption, then it's not something we should pursue. But do you really have to feel good about it to do it anyway? Is it enough to trust in the product? To believe that the love, the love I don't doubt, would override those misgivings?
It was akeeyu who wrote, "Nobody really wants to do IVF." (I must respectfully disagree. I want to do IVF. I love almost everything about it: the ritual of injections, which I approach with obsessive zeal; the narcissistic fascination of becoming my very own science experiment; the unparallelled suspense, even when it culminates in nauseating disappointment; and the gamble. Sweet Jesus gay, do I love the gamble. Which is precisely why I should stay away from those tempting jewellike ampules of Follistim, cockfights both legal and il-, and gaming hells in Regency romances. You would not believe how I suck at piquet.)
Anyway, akeeyu wrote: "Nobody really wants to do IVF, after all. Everybody just wants to do what is supposed to come afterwards." That last part is where the truth lies. We want what we hope will result. Despite the inherent awfulness of the process, we hold our noses and take the plunge. We lie back and think of England. Or Shaft, if you swing that way. ("You're damn right.")
It is that knowledge that makes me suspect there are those of us who don't really want to adopt, either, who don't, in fact, embrace the process, but who go ahead and do it anyway. Who want what comes afterward, and proceed despite their reservations, betting that the beauty of the end — a family at last — will eclipse their concerns about the means.
Am I on to something? Have any of you proceeded with adoption despite continuing doubts? And how is that working out? Tell me your thoughts, anonymously if you prefer. I am beginning to think that it would be an even bigger risk than IVF at this point, and I do tend to love a gamble.
Make up your own clever title. I'm busy being sincere.
One thing any infertile person has to do, when considering whether or how to proceed, is to ask, "Am I ready?" Am I ready to take more serious medical measures? Am I ready to adopt? Am I ready to live without children? Am I ready to move on, change course, take on a new gamut of obstacles? Can I handle the repercussions of whatever the next step might be? That's what I am asking myself, both here on my blog and in my mind, a thousand times a day.
Sometimes the answers come easily. It was no surprise to hear back in 2002 that IVF represented our best chance for pregnancy and birth. Because I'd been diagnosed with extensive endometriosis, I'd already known my fertility might be compromised. Because I was already a seasoned veteran of the pelvic wars, I had no fear of the process. Because I was relatively young — 31 — I had a reasonable expectation of success. There was very little to come to terms with. Having a plan, especially one that seemed so promising, was a relief. Easy. Even exciting, something I felt good about. I was ready.
Sometimes the answers come hard. Five years later, here we are, with exponentially more knowledge, experience, pain, and joy to complicate what once felt like such a clear-cut issue. Am I ready for the realization that my body has given up on itself? No, but there it is anyway. Am I ready to abandon the notion of pregnancy, given how very, very badly I do it? Apparently not, because damned if there aren't four information packets on egg donation sitting on my desk right now. But am I ready to tell my liver, my pancreas, and my inherited hypercoagulability to go fuck themselves and each other — go on, I'll wait while you work out that visual — and try? I guess I'm not, because there those packets sit, mostly unread.
The same is true of adoption. For me, the answers aren't coming easily. I have been trying to feel ready — probably even trying to force it, because it is clear to my rational mind that when one objectively considers the facts, adoption is obviously the best choice for us. The trouble is, there is more to any of us than just a rational mind and a neatly ranked list of pros and cons. In me, there's a sad and uncertain heart terrified of courting more loss. I am well aware that there are no guarantees about anything, ever. But how on earth do you decide which particular flavor of loss you're most comfortable inviting in?
What I hoped to consider in my last post was the question of whether I could proceed despite the worry that I am not yet ready for adoption, and count on time spent waiting and the prospect of an as-yet-unknown child to make me ready, to make me receptive to the magic I know adoptive families feel. I wanted to know whether others had faced that same question, whether others had continued with adoption despite lingering concerns. No one, of course, can answer my question for me, but I learn a great deal from what you all tell me about your own lives, and am always heartened to be reminded that whatever we go through, we are never the only ones. I'm grateful to each of you who shared your stories.
That's not to say, however, that some of the comments didn't bother me. I try very hard to be precise when I write, especially when dealing with sensitive subjects like this one. When something I've written causes controversy, I first examine my writing to see whether I've expressed myself badly. That's far easier than examining my conscience, which is the necessary next step if I've said what I truly meant to say, and far more productive than wondering how the hell an acknowledgement of "the love I don't doubt" earned a long string of both assurances that I would love an adopted child, as if I'd seemed to need them, and cautionary tales of adoptive families where that love was not a given. Because I don't really know what to do with those, except to throw my hands up in exasperation. And when my liver, pancreas, and inherited hypercoagulability are already getting restive, making sudden moves could well do me in entirely, so go easy on that, huh?
Anyway, I did, in one respect, express myself badly — or revealed all too much, I'm not sure which. I said, " It's that certainty I envy, the knowledge that [adoption], at last, is what you truly want instead of what you're merely settling for." That was clumsy, and I regret it. I do not believe I accused any adoptive parent of having settled for anything; I meant to acknowledge, in fact, that I know they didn't, and to lament my own disappointing limitations. But by even typing the word "settle," I needlessly clouded the point I hoped to make, and I wish I hadn't done that.
The point, which most of you understood, was that adoption still does feel to me like an uneasy compromise. What I am coming to understand, and what your comments have helped to clarify for me, is that I am not yet ready. My reservations are so numerous and dense that I can hardly untangle them in my own mind, much less detail them here, but in general they have to do with loss: my own loss of any biological connection to a child, which still seems to matter a great deal to me; the loss inherent in abandoning my own body's reproductive potential, no matter how feeble that is; the loss of yet another layer of privacy and autonomy; and, most troubling to me, the loss both a child and his birth parents may experience even in the happiest adoption scenarios. To be sure, loss is part of the human condition, but it is proving difficult for me to believe I could help ease someone else's while I am still so wrapped up in my own.
It is altogether too easy to come at this from the wrong direction. When every available option feels like it has serious drawbacks, it's tempting to decide based on which one seems least unpalatable. I can stew for months — have done already — about why adoption doesn't feel right for us just now, and I can try very hard to overcome those objections by force-feeding myself information and anecdotes. It can become an endless mental exercise, one that's encouraged by every well-meaning friend and relative who's ever said, "Why not just adopt?" But it's ultimately a pointless one. Some of you said so gently, with great kindness, and I thank you for your compassion and patience as I work through what should have been obvious: Building a family isn't Getting to Yes. I don't want to adopt, don't want to do anything, in fact, unless and until I feel actively good about it.
I don't have to remind you that our habitat is overloaded. [...] And all those little humans are causing major stress for Mother Earth...With the population burgeoning, parents who are facing infertility may be given a wonderful opportunity to help the planet a bit, by taking in a hungry mouth -- a baby who is already here, in a glowing package waiting for love.
-- Psychologist Wendy Walsh on IVF versus adoption
Over at TODAYMoms I was asked to respond to Walsh's article. I was offered 500 words to make my case. My first draft came in at about 8,000. I excised my careful refutation of her stats on IVF, which are inaccurate and alarmist, thereby trimming a good 1,500 words. I deleted a few cheap shots, which was about as painful as you'd expect given that that is kind of my thing, but which brought the count down a cool 3,750. And finally, in the spirit of professionalism, I cut out a whole bunch of swears -- unusually florid ones, even for me -- which brought it down to a manageable 800 or so. But there were still about 3,000 words I didn't have room to include, reasonable ones, good solid arguments, so I hope you'll understand that this is not the entirety of my response.
Check it out. In the next few days I hope to expand here on what I wrote there, if I'm not too busy polishing my Hummer with the skins of clubbed baby seals; giving hungry orphans the finger as I selfishly refuse to rescue them like a good infertile would; and heedlessly continuing to rely on fossil fuels to warm my home this winter when everyone knows that the more environmentally responsible option is radiant heat from all...those...glowing...packages.