One mother's gain

The third in a trilogy of stories by three women whose lives were changed forever by adoption.

Published January 6, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

When it comes to motherhood, I have really never thought of myself as anything other than just a "mom." Not a qualified "adoptive mom." Just a "mom."

Our first baby, a son whom we named Jimmy, died at 7 weeks. We had been his parents since we first held him when he was 3 days old and took him home from the hospital with us two days later. When he was 6 weeks old, my parents drove from Denver to see their newborn grandson. The night after their arrival, while my mother and I were at a shower for our baby, my husband, Frank, called to tell me that our son's slight fever had risen above 105. We hurried home, and Frank and I rushed him to the emergency room.

Frank and I were young and hopeful, and seeing Jimmy at the hospital made us feel strangely reassured. In thebaby ICU, surrounded mainly by tiny, fragile-looking premature babies attached to machines, our son looked round and beautiful and large. It never crossed our minds that he would be the one who would not live. But after five agonizing days of fighting meningitis, he died.

Three weeks later, I went back to my work as a first-grade teacher, hoping that class rosters, homework assignments and playgrounds might assuage the despair I felt about his death and help me gain some sense of equilibrium. But after school one afternoon shortly following my return, Al,the school custodian, paused in his sweeping of my classroom to offer his condolences. "It's really not all that bad," he said. "At least he wasn't of your flesh and blood."

Al's words, meant in comfort, stung me. He was right -- Jimmy wasn't our flesh and blood. But what did that have to do with our being his mom and dad? Since that time, I have heard this sentiment expressed again and again -- that adoptive parents are somehow less real parents. A few years after we had adopted two more children, a friend told me over lunch how her inability to have a baby had tormented her and forced her to conclude she was less of a woman -- a failure -- until she finally was able to bear a child and pass on the "line." As a student of British history, I certainly understood the importance of lineage -- why was I sogreatly surprised?

The answer, I think, is that I was interested mostly in being a mother, not in bearing a child. To me, my friend's desperate interest in fertility and passing on family genes had little to do with nurturing a new life, even as it made me realize how important the issue is to others. Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps, also, I protected my naiveti because it protected me.

In part, my naiveti was due to my own heritage: By the age of 6, my father was an orphan without siblings; by 12, my mother had lost her father and all but one sister. Frank's mother and aunt, an aunt who had helped to raise him, had also been orphans. All of these people, whom we deeply admired for their strength of character and capacity to give unconditional love, made our wish to adopt seem a natural and even desirable means to becoming a family. They had passed on a reverence not for bloodlines, but for loving the family they had.

During the first five years of our marriage, Frank and I had made a conscientious effort to see that I didn't become pregnant while he finished college and I worked to support us. During the next five years, when we were ready to start a family, we came to suspect that we were not going to have children biologically. When the doctor confirmed this suspicion, I remember thinking there was a little baby out there somewhere who needed us just as badly as we needed a little baby.

We opted for a private adoption, which my gynecologist arranged. Duringthe '60s in California, a private adoption, unlike one strictly controlled by the county, meant that the adopting parents could learn something about the birth parents beforethe baby was born. My gynecologist knew both parents; he told us that the biological mother was a nurse and the father a doctor. We were also fortunate in knowing that if it became necessary for health reasons to learn more medical history, quick contact with the biological parents could be made. However, the arrangement had one major disadvantage for adopting parents: For one year, the biological mother had the right not only to visit the child, but to change her mind and take the child back. We were assured that this would not happen, as the doctor was an older, married man with several children and had no intention of breaking up his family. The birth mother had insisted she had no interest in raising a child by herself; she had already relinquished one baby for adoption. But several months after Jimmy's death, we heard that the doctor had indeed left his family and married the nurse. We often wondered if they might have decided to take Jimmy back and we would have lost him in yet another way.

Jimmy was born before his due date, while we were on a trip to Colorado visiting our families. I still remember how we heard the news that we had a new baby boy: We were at my sister's house, barbecuing hamburgers in the backyard, when we got a call informing us that our son, a healthy baby boy of six pounds, seven ounces, had been born. When could we get back? We packed right away and left at dawn. During the drive to California, we talked a little about our fears of how the baby would change our lives, but mostly we were exhilarated with anticipation: about the future, about someday watching our son play baseball, rip open Christmas presents or play in the yard of the house we did not yet own. After trying for five years to have a baby, the thrill of seeing Jimmy and holding him in our arms for the first time at the hospital had nothing to do with flesh and blood. Neither did the depths of our grief when, six weeks later, after a four-week bout with a staph infection, we found ourselves rushing himback to the hospital. As the doctors worked to save him, we watched him slip into a coma from which he was never to recover.

Does love begin when a child is born or first imagined? Jimmy had been ours to hold andlove for a short six weeks, but he had been in our hearts for muchlonger -- through months of elaborate infertility testing and discussion of procedures that could possiblylead to a pregnancy; through hours of intense, personal interviews to determine our capacity to parent, something biological parents are not subjected to. We hadn't carried our child for nine months only. We had carried him for several years.

We balanced our sense of losing Jimmy with our desire to adopt another child, and our social worker supported placing another child in our home. I remember coming home from work on the last day of school with the phone ringing as I came in the door. The social worker on the line said that a 6-week-old baby girl was ready and waiting. When could we be ready? Two days later, our daughter's room was prepared. On Friday I had been a teacher. By Monday morning, I was amother again.But we found our fitness as parents still being scrutinized. The previous spring, Frank and I had decided to move back to Colorado to be closer to our families. The Los Angeles County Adoption Agency was supportive of my need to work during Kathy's first year -- provided we made arrangements for good child care -- and of our interest in adopting a second child as well. So we did not anticipate the reaction we encountered when a part-time Colorado social worker paid us a visit. We had looked forward to her calling and had lemonade and cookies ready when she came. But from the moment we answered the door, we could sense something was wrong. She refused our lemonade and had to be coaxed into looking at Kathy, who was sleeping in her room. All her questions were focused on my working. As she prepared to leave, after the briefest of stays, she announced that the fact that a mother who professed to want a child so badly could return to work indicated to her that this would not be a desirable home for a child. She said she would do all she could to see that Kathy was taken away from us.We had just lost a son to a sudden death; we couldn't lose our daughter. Frank was on the phone to the agency in California as soon as the front door closed. The worker there reassured us that all decisions concerning Kathy's adoption would come from her office. Although the Colorado agency managed to drag out finalizing the adoption for more than a year, we finally became Kathy's legal parents. Two years later, when we were ready to adopt again, we learned that the social worker who had made the case against us was a teacher who had been hired for a summer. When she left, she also left a note in our file stating that no more children should ever be placed in our home. Fortunately, the next social worker assigned to us was supportive, and our efforts to adopt our second daughter, whom we named Kristina, went quickly and smoothly.Having waited so long for children, we now relished being a mom and dad. Our sense of invulnerability, however, had long since vanished. We were fanatical about germs and overly worried whenever either child had a fever. We were horrified when Kathy,at age 5, slipped into a coma and was diagnosed with meningitis -- I brought to her illness the blind fear I would have had for Jimmy had I known his fate. We refused to leave the hospital; numbly, we went through the motions of sleeping and waking up, but never fully doing either. We spent our days in the waiting room outside the ICU, wanting to see Kathy but chilled by what we saw during the short moments we were allowed to be with her. Finally, after three weeks, we were able to take her home. Fortunately, I was no longer working during the months of recovery when Kathy was unable to return to school or be with other groups of people-- she had double peripheral vision and an overwhelming sensitivity to sound. Kris, Kathy and I spent many hours playing games, reading books, enjoying the little kittens that each of the girls had picked out. At first, Kathy's sensory overload made her fearful about venturing outside; later she would explore in the company of one of us, and gradually, as her body healed, she regained her confidence. Frank and I were guarded and watchful during these months, but I also believe that that time bound our family together in an unusually intimate way.Even during our daughters' teen years, we were a close-knit family. I remember that Frank and I had fixed up the house to accommodate lots of kids and looked forward to the many hours our children and their friends would spend afterschool at our house. This, of course, turned out to be a parent's fantasy. We got to know their friends better by driving with them to sports events, music lessons, trips to the malls or an occasional rock concert. Even when relations were strained, one thing we were blessed in never hearing from either of our girls was, "You can't tell us what to do. You're not our real mom and dad." We may have been hopelessly square or too strict, but we were still their parents. Kristina and Kathy were teenagers when their dad died suddenly while playing tennis with friends. Frank had been a very protective father; now both girls felt that much of what they had depended upon had been taken from them and they could not know when someone else they loved and counted on would be gone. Kris became highly independent, often cold and distant, not wanting or allowing anyone to do anything for her. Kathy became rebellious. Since life couldn't be counted on, she felt, what difference did it make what she did?The issue ofbeing abandoned at birth could have exacerbated my daughters' sense oflosing their father, but I have to admit that this thought never occurred to me, or any of us, at the time. Now, however, I think back to the time shortly after Kathy's illness, when our pediatrician encouraged us to go as a family to a child psychiatrist. Kathy had become something of a tyrant and neither we nor her doctor were certain whether her behavior was related to the assault on the brain caused by meningitis or was simply clever manipulations. It didn't take the psychiatrist long to determine that Kathy was manipulating all of us. I remember the shock and disbelief I felt when he told us that adopted children know they were rejected at birth and would generally act in one of two ways: They would either be so good that no one would ever want to reject them again or they would be so difficult that if ever rejected again, they would be able to feel it was because of how they chose to behave, something over which they had control. I denied this vehemently. No little girls ever could have been more wanted, I explained. Besides, they were too young to grasp the concept of being adopted. He leaned over and patted me on the arm. "You believe what you want to, Mother, but I'm telling you that you have classic examples of both behaviors." Was I again being naive? If so, I confess to cherishing that kind of naiveté because it demanded that our family give full attention to ourlives, rather than dwelling on other people's concepts of our lives. I also believe that our family's frequent reminders of how quickly we can lose those we love have left me with little patience for probing subtler forms of loss.However, I often wondered what might happen if the girls decided to search for their biological families. I could understand their curiosity and desire to fill this missing part of their lives, but I hoped that if they found their birth parents,they would be welcomed, not once again rejected. I also wondered if the girls' sudden reappearance would bring up painful memories for those involvedand complicate their lives and the lives of their families. While I worried about what my daughters might feel if they found their birth parents, I didn't realize that my daughters worried about what I might feel. When Kathy was 26 and training for a marathon, she decided that it was important to know more about her medical background and the health of her biological parents. We had been given only the briefest of information about the birth parents' health. Kathy wrote to an agency that could help her get more information and discovered that her birth mother had indicated she would like to be in touch with Kathy if the interest were ever mutual. This was certainly a part of Kathy's life about which she had very little information and a good amount of curiosity, but she held back from telling me about her contact with her birth mother for more than a year. One weekend, as we headed out to a cabin in the mountains, I noticed that Kathy seemed quiet and withdrawn. She said we needed to talk and suggested we pull over to a diner for a cup of coffee. After we slid into a bright red vinyl booth and gave our order to a waitress on roller skates, Kathy began her somber remarks. She said she had something to tell me that she was afraid would hurt me. "What's the worst thing you can imagine happening?" she asked. Now this is a question that will strike terror in any mother's heart. When she finally said, "I've found my birth mom," I felt nothing but relief. If I was hurt at all, it was that she had waited so long to tell me because she had thought I might be hurt. Later, over coffee, I asked her if she thought Kris might have done the same. She hemmed and hawed a bit before saying she didn't think so. But the next night when Kris called and said, "Mom, I've got something to tell you," I was not surprised. I finally met Kris' birth mother, Ceil, at a big family picnic in Colorado. I liked her immediately -- she is a warm, caring woman. Sitting across from me at the table, she asked question after question about Kris' life -- her first ballet lesson, her first day of school, all the moments she had been forced to relinquish when she gave up her child. And yet, neither she nor Kathy's biological mother had been able to completely give up those moments; both women told me that not a day had gone by that they didn't think about the babies they had given away. I wasn't uncomfortable but happy to share with them all they had missed -- I knew that in their situation, I would have felt the same way. Meeting Ceil made me realize that finding each other was as important to her as it was to Kris. Am I being naive when I say that meeting my children's other parents has been my gain as well as theirs? And now, when I ponder the new form of parental love that is being offered to Kris and Kathy by their biological parents and newfound siblings, do I qualify myself as anadoptive mom? No, I'm still just "mom."

By Maurine Zarlengo Christ

Maurine Zarlengo Christ is a retired first-gradeteacher now living in Santa Rosa, Calif., with her husband. She has two adopted daughters as well as a stepdaughter and a stepson.

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