Mothers Who Think: Heedless Love

The irrevocable moment in becoming a parent is not the moment you conceive a child; it's the moment you conceive of her.


Barbara Jones
May 8, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

This is a story that never changes. I've told it over business lunches, at cocktail parties, in my gynecologist's office. I've told it in letters, in a magazine article, live on national television. First, I told it to family and friends; soon I'll be able to tell it to my daughter. Every time I tell this story, my listener's eyes brighten -- it is a happy story -- and this brightness in the eyes eggs me on; I tell the story again and again. But each listener also looks at me as if I'm speaking of something odd -- happy but odd -- and this is a true story about my life that I didn't experience as an oddity. To me, this story is commonplace, a story about ordinary love.

I was thirty-four years old, divorced, happy. I lived in a two bedroom, two-bath apartment in Manhattan with a likable and almost always absentee roommate. I jogged alone in Central Park, went to afternoon movies with writer and actor friends, showed up at art openings, hung out in bookstores, bought designer clothes at sample sales, danced the AIDS Danceathon, fished for blues from the North Fork of Long Island, flew to Italy for a long weekend. I went on dates; I liked dating. I made my living as a freelance writer; I had $20,000 in the bank from a book I'd ghostwritten. On the telephone I told my brother, "If I get hit by a bus or anything, please know that I'm happy; whatever happens from now on, it's all right with me, because I've known happiness." I suppose I don't like to think of the nag I was during my marriage as me; in any case, as a devil-may-care divorcee-reading Boccaccio's Decameron with friends, eating Thanksgiving dinner in a Polish diner with a lover, greedy and generous, content and desiring -- I was the person I think I am.

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One Sunday morning in April, I happened to be alone in my apartment reading The New York Times, and the Times Magazine cover story was about a couple who had adopted a baby girl from China. The article mentioned that the Chinese government allowed single women to adopt Chinese infants. The article also mentioned that these babies were all girls. In China parents are allowed only one child, and most parents dearly want a boy (they need a boy, they feel, because sons and daughters-in-law take care of elderly parents -- without a son, a Chinese citizen has no pension); in China about a million newborn girls are killed or abandoned every year. As soon as I read the Times article, I was done for, although I didn't realize it then. Reading the paper I only thought, "Well, I want a daughter" and "If I don't remarry in a few years, this is what I'll do: I'll adopt a baby girl from China." I saved the magazine, set it aside just in case -- in case in six or eight years, I might need to refer to it. But only a month later, while cleaning off my desk, I happened across the article and reread it. On this read, I saw something I'd missed the first time: If I remarried and had a biological child, I would no longer be eligible to adopt a daughter from China. The Chinese government was offering children only to the childless. In May, as in April, to adopt a daughter from China and have no biological children seemed like a fine possibility, but in May, suddenly, to have biological children but no child from China felt unbearable.

Why?

That's what everyone wanted to know.

Was something "wrong" with my reproductive system? Didn't I want a biological child? Didn't I want to wait for a partner? Why wasn't I waiting until I was a more established writer? Why a Chinese baby? (Was I a racist -- why not an African-American baby, a Mexican baby, a Caucasian baby?) Some friends, some dates, even some gossipy acquaintances had questions for me. But my own only question was asked by a gleeful voice in my mind: "You're going to do what?" I never had a doubt. From the day I reread that magazine story, I thought, "I'm going forward with this. Maybe someone or something outside of me will to try to stop me, but I am not ever going to stop."

I contacted one of the two adoption agencies mentioned in the Times article. I went, accompanied by my roommate and by another male friend, to a required introductory meeting at the agency. I learned that to adopt an infant from China, I needed to have a plan for who would take care of the child if I died and I needed to earn at least $30,000 a year. The cost of the adoption, including all expenses for travel to and from China, was $20,000. After the introductory meeting, I signed up for an "intake interview" at the agency. After the interview, a committee at the adoption agency decided to take my case. After the committee decided to take my case, I fell in love with my friend Steve. Two weeks later, Steve moved in with me.

Why would a woman who was with a man and who could bear a child want to adopt? At the adoption agency, I said, "I'm seeing a man I might end up marrying. Do you want to know about this?" The agency said, "If you were in a permanent relationship, we would recommend that you and your partner pursue biological parenthood first." "Okay," I said, and I didn't tell them about Steve.

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I went through a physical, a fingerprinting session at my neighborhood police station (so I could be checked out by the FBI), a social worker's visit to my home. I collected my birth certificate, my divorce decree, tax forms, a financial statement from my accountant, recommendations from friends; I wrote an autobiography, and I filled out dozens of government forms -- immigration forms for the baby, forms testifying to the expertise of my social worker; I signed a paper swearing to the Chinese government that I would love the child forever and that I would put her through college.

Steve started seeing a therapist. He loved me, and he liked the idea of my adopting a baby, but he was worried because he just wasn't picturing a baby in his daydreams about our future together.

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In August my papers were in order, and the adoption agency sent them to China. In September the social worker phoned to say she had received a medical report on and photograph of a three-month-old baby. Did I want the baby? Briefly, in the hour before I saw the picture, I had imagined this infant might be a delicate flower: exotic and wan. In fact, she looked like a Chinese Winston Churchill, deeply skeptical about the merits of the photo session, powerfully irritated -- as if someone had just taken away her cigar.

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At a birthday party for a friend who is a poet, we gather in her step-children's bedroom because that's where the upright is. We sit on the bunk beds, on the changing table, on the dollhouse roof, on the floor. A composer has set one of the poet's sonnets to music, and a soprano will sing this love song while the composer accompanies her on the piano. As soon as the music begins, the poet and her lover begin to weep. My daughter, Maria, is now two and a half and lushly beautiful, a Chinese-American Sophia Loren. The composer begins to play, and Maria, clutching a cache of tiny stuffed animals, climbs onto the piano bench alongside the composer and begins to throw the toys, one by one, at the composer's head. The composer ducks and bobs and somehow keeps playing. The poet and her beloved continue to weep. I manage to step between and climb over party guests to reach Maria, grab her, swing her above my head and across the room, and plunk her down amidst other children on the top bunk; immediately, she stands and shouts repeatedly, "I'm up here! Look everybody!" When the song ends, the composer, the singer, the poet, and the poet's lover collapse in tears; Maria demands her turn at the piano, banging out an overture, lifting her hands in a melodramatic caesura, before launching, singing, into "Someday My Prince Will Come. "

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Oh, I hear the other mothers talk about Maria. They call her a "buster," a "pistol"; they say she's "like a boy." One mother greets her, "Hey, girlfriend," as if Maria were thirty-five years old. Another mother, pregnant with her second daughter, leans to me at one of the kiddie birthdays and says out of the corner of her mouth, "For your second child, you deserve an easy one." My daughter's grandmothers send her dresses and toys and phone us cooing at her beauty in the photographs we send, but both have told us outright that they will not baby-sit her by themselves: she's just too much to handle.

After the scene at the poet's birthday, two friends, independently, tell me that I look at Maria with "a look of helpless love." It's interesting that two people say this exact same thing, so I consider what they've said. But I do not love her with a helpless love; I have help.

Once, when Maria was eight months old, Steve and I walked with her six blocks along the river on iced-over sidewalks in subzero winds. We were going from a party to our home, and it seemed silly and impractical to find a taxi for such a short distance. We pushed home on foot, against the kind of wind that makes your eyes tear and in the kind of cold that freezes those tears to your face. Steve had Maria against his chest, inside his coat. Four blocks from our building, on the overpass above West Ninety-sixth Street, crosswinds began to slam us from the side. Later, Steve told me Maria began to scream a desperate scream then that he'd never heard before and could never have imagined. I was less than a yard behind him, but I didn't hear a thing because of the winds. I struggled to stand, to inch forward, to not slide into the street. In the street a car spun around. Suddenly Steve took off. He squiggled. He shimmied. All of the great effort he'd summoned looked, from behind, as if he were merely doing a little dance. Still, he had sped up; he departed from me. He and Maria moved up the hill and around the corner, out of sight. In our lobby, panting, our cheeks aflame, Steve said, "Well, I hate to say this, but I've made my choice." If it were between me and Maria, he'd have to save Maria now, he meant, because she was his daughter.

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The irrevocable moment in becoming a parent is not the moment you conceive a child; it's the moment you conceive of her. Maybe in your mind she looks partly like you and partly like your husband. Maybe she looks partly like you and partly like some handsome, genius sperm-bank stranger. Maybe she is coffee brown and Peruvian; you are albumen white and Swedish. Maybe she is a he. But whatever your idea of your child, once you have it, once you have thought of her as yours (which may happen ten years before she's born, or four months into your pregnancy, or six weeks after you meet her), nothing can stop you from wanting her. And only some terrible force outside of your control will prevent you from having her. You will run through icy winds for her. You will leave your wife for her. You will quit your job for her, take two jobs for her. You will lie slant, almost upside down, for forty-eight hours so she can be born two fewer days premature. You will let your bones crack apart for her. If the adoption agency says you are too old to adopt her, you will find another agency. If the first in vitro insemination fails to produce her, you will shoot hormones into your butt for another month. And if you miscarry, your child has died. If the birth mother changes her mind, your child has been torn from you.

I traveled to China with my mother and seven other adopting families. We spent our first day in Beijing, sightseeing in Tienanmen Square and at the Great Wall. Our second day, we flew south to an industrial city called Hefei, and while we were flying, our babies were traveling too -- four bumpy hours in a van from Wuhu City to Hefei. Only an hour after we checked in to our hotel, our guide, Xiong Yan, told us to go to our rooms: the babies were coming. Each baby would be delivered to its parents in their room. At first we were all too excited to obey Xiong Yan. We gathered in the hotel hallway, giggling, whispering. Every time we heard the whirr of the elevator, we raced back to our rooms and stood in the doorways, peeking out. Finally we heard the elevator stop on our floor; we heard the elevator doors open; we scrambled to our rooms. My mother and I, looking down the hall, saw a beautiful infant in a yellow jogging suit. "Is that ours? We'll take her," my mother said. But she wasn't ours. "This is your baby," Xiong Yan said. A stocky woman was in our doorway, holding a fat-cheeked five-month-old in a pale blue sweat suit. The baby fixed a long serious look on me, frowned, and started to bawl. My mother started to bawl too. And eight days later, when I carried Maria out of international customs and through the revolving doors at Kennedy Airport, there was my father, holding a huge posterboard sign that read "Welcome Maria" and sniveling. And there was Steve, weeping -- I'd never seen him weep before. But when I first lifted my daughter from the stocky arms of the woman who had been her night nurse and looked into her furious face, I did not cry.


Barbara Jones

Barbara Jones is a senior editor at Harper's magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in New York City.

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