10 April 2006

Someone Who Might Have Brown Eyes

This is my entry for April's Blogging for Books, which will be judged by YA author E. Lockhart, whose new book Fly on the Wall is the inspiration for the contest's theme:
I want you to use the book's title as a jumping off place. You can use the words 'a fly on the wall' in your essay, you can use the words to jump to writing about homilies or cliches or Kafka or transformation, you can write about eavesdropping or being eavesdropped upon or a time when you haved like to be a fly on the wall---There are a THOUSAND ways to go with this, so don't be afraid to think outside the box.

We talk a lot at our house. One of the maternal responsibilities I take great joy in is narrating the world for Curious Girl. I started with small statements: Hello, Little Girl. You’re beautiful. I’m so glad to see you. I’m going to be your Mama. This is Mommy. What do you think about that? And then moved beyond the immediate: Cat. This is The Cat with the Best Disposition Ever. Cats need gentle. Open palms. Good job! Or Look! A white truck! I talked to CG even before she could understand me, hoping to convey with my tone what words could not yet: I’m here, I’ll help you make your way through the world. Join me, and let’s explore.

Adoptive parents have a special responsibility to help children narrate themselves. Curious Girl was born across the ocean, and she has no conscious memories of her birth family or birth country. Goodnight, my friends in the orphanage! She called as she went off to bed tonight and some pictures from her orphanage floated across my computer screen. But she doesn’t really remember. She knows what we tell her, and what she sees around the house: photos of the three of us on the day we met, photos of the three of us after we were a family, photos of us touring together before we flew home, souvenirs from her homeland, the adoption scrapbook which narrates our adoption process (it starts with preadoption paperwork and ends after our first summer as a family), the lifebook which narrates her life (it starts with her birth and ends with description of how she’s growing so very big).

Narrating her life is an awesome responsibility, and a tricky one, for it’s her life, not mine. I don’t want to take over her story; I want to give her the ability to tell her own story. And so we talk about adoption often. We have various books—Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, A Mother for Choco, I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, Felicia’s Favorite Story—that raise adoption issues, and we talk about her life. You were born over here, I say, as we look at a map placemat. You grew in U.’s tummy. Maybe she has brown eyes, like you do. Maybe she likes to dance. Maybe she is very curious about the world, because some of the way we are comes from our parents.

So far, so good. Curious Girl was still two when she was able to tell people where she was born, and she took great interest in looking at pictures of herself in her orphanage or with us around the time of the adoption. She’d make up little stories—I crying, I cold—and largely focused on what she knew: Mama, Mommy, and Curious Girl. Around the time she turned three I finished her lifebook, which includes virtually all the information we have about her birth mother and father, as well as information about her home country and town, her orphanage, and her--how big she was at birth, her new family, her medical problems, the people who helped her solve her feeding problems, her passions and personality. We’d told her the names of her first family, and she remembers them. She doesn’t always linger on the original family pages in the lifebook (the book about when I was a baby, she calls it). She prefers photos of herself to a page of words with no pictures. She’s a typical almost-four-year old, thinking more about herself than other people. But she does think about the people who gave her life. Every now and then, she'll suddenly reveal a little bit of this thinking, and I am invariably surprised, proud, challenged, and amazed to suddenly be in a position to peek into her inner thoughts.

Is S. dead? She asked, all of a sudden, during brunch with friends. People are always surprised that she knows her birth father’s name (or what we think is his name—we tell her we think it’s true, but we’re not sure.) Another day, as she was laying in bed, trying to fall asleep, she rolled over and said, I’m thinking of someone with an S. "S like Susan?" I asked. No….I’m thinking of someone who might have brown eyes, she said. "Ah, your birth parents," I said, "are you thinking about S.?" Yes. Is he dead? "I don’t know, sweetie." What about U.? Is she dead? Again, "I don’t know." I growed in her tummy. She’s not dead. I eated her dinner! When I was in her tummy, she eated her dinner, and then I eated it all up! " That’s right, honey, when babies are growing inside their mothers, they get food from what their mothers eat. And that’s what you did inside U."

Another night, she had a conversation with Cinderella (who’s on one of her nightgowns). Do you have a baby? "No," said Cinderella (with some help from me). I have a baby inside me, explained Curious Girl, who frequently pretends to have a baby or be pregnant. Did your baby growed in you? Cinderella said she didn’t have a baby yet, and she didn’t know if she had a baby whether it would grow in her or be adopted. She didn’t know. I grewed inside U’s tummy and when I was born she couldn’t take care of me so she putted me in a hospital and I didn’t have an operation. That’s just the language I use: "when you were born, U. couldn’t take care of a baby, so she made sure you were somewhere safe, with food to eat and doctors to take care of you. You were very little and needed people to take care of you." Curious Girl is retelling the story I’ve given her.

This morning, when I was dozing and she was not-so-patiently sort of entertaining herself while I tried to get going, she asked where I grew. Inside Nana, I told her. Where did her cousin grow? Inside her aunt. A few minutes later, she asked Why Aunt C. could take care of a baby when Elder Cousin was born but not when I was born U.? That got me awake in an instant. I drew on language Politica and I have talked about countless times as we prepared for--and reacted to--conversations about her past. When people have babies, they might need help. Uncle D. was there to help Aunt C., and they had a house with room for a baby, and they could take the baby to the doctor, and they had plenty of food to eat. Maybe U. didn’t have anyone to help her, or maybe she didn’t have enough food to eat. Her curiousity piqued, CG started riffing on more reasons why someone couldn’t take care of a baby, none of which made any literal sense. She soon meandered off into some other game with her stuffed animals, but not before she told me that she wanted to be borned in my tummy, that she didn’t want to be borned in U. With that, CG was done talking. She had a new game going, thank you very much. I’ll find a way to circle back to what she might have meant by wishing she were born in me in the coming weeks.

The fact is, I don’t know why U. couldn’t take care of a baby. I don’t know whether S. was there with her when CG was born. I don’t know what they look like—although I can guess, looking at CG’s big brown eyes, that one of them has big brown eyes, too. And I don’t know what they are like—although I can guess, looking at my daughter, that maybe they like to sing, or love animals, or are easy to get along with. But then, maybe not: every family has its oddballs, and not all our traits are so easily mapped to our parents. I just don’t know.

I do know that CG’s parents relinquished parental rights very early, and she lived in institutions for several months before she was available to adoption, first by citizens of her home country, and then by non-citizens. Sitting here in my comfortable house, I can’t know what it’s like for new parents in another country who choose to relinquish their parental rights. I have a financial cushion, I have a supportive family, I have a wonderful partner, I have a steady job. My world is predictable. And all that means I can parent with a lot of help. But the world in which CG’s first family lives is not that world. It’s economically more chaotic, politically less stable, socially more fragile. It’s a world in which tens of thousands of children—maybe close to a million—are in some kind of state care, and in which many mothers relinquish more than one child. I don’t know how to explain that to Curious Girl. I’ll find the ways, eventually, as she gets older, of course, but sometimes the enormity of it all overwhelms me. I can read histories and social science studies, I can gain insight into the culture via literature and memoir and news reports, but I probably can’t ever know just how these big social trends play out in the lives of the two people who came together and created Curious Girl. I can explain the big picture, but the family portrait is cloudy.

I just don’t know. What I would give for just one glimpse into U.’s life, so I could tell Curious Girl what U. looks like, or how she moves. So I could tell her what U.’s life is like, so I could tell her something more than “She couldn’t take care of a baby.” I’ll probably never have that glimpse, and so instead, I tell stories. I am very careful to label facts as fact, guesses as guesses. But in my stories, I make room for CG to imagine her birth mother, to make her real. And as I lay next to my girl and get glimpses into her inner life, I know that S. and U. are real to her. She thinks about them, and she tells me she dreams about them sometimes. And in her dreams, I hope she can see them clearly. I’ll never know for sure what CG is thinking, and neither my questions nor hers about her mother and father will be answered fully. But we talk, and we dream, and use our words to make spaces for imaginings (maginates, she would say), insights, emotions. And that’s as close as we can come to knowing about the decision that has so shaped all of our lives.


Beanie Baby said...

that is absolutely gorgeous. Thank you for writing it, and for posting it.

Brooklyn Mama said...

this post is profoundly moving to me - especially right now as my little girl (at three years) is trying hard to figure out pregnancy and the role of her birthparents. Thanks for writing this.

halloweenlover said...

Beautiful, Susan. CG is so lucky to have you, and you her! She sounds like such a doll.

I've been meaning to ask you, did you ever write about your closet?

Arwen said...

So, so beautiful. CG is very thoughtful, and it is wonderful that she has thoughtful parents to guide her.

I know the playing at pregnancy very well. I wonder if it's not a pretty common stage - the "when did I get here and how?" feelings are with us always, aren't they?

Just as a point of comparison, at one point Ripley mentioned that he wished he'd been born to his Dad. ( which made me laugh on the inside - oh, wouldn't that have been nice! Someone else can have the stretch marks!) Part of it, for Ripley, is a sadness that he can't get pregnant: he played pregnant a lot while I was carrying Tate, but knows the biology of it isn't like that. The other part was that he was feeling overwhelming security and love for his dad at that moment; it was obvious that he was expressing his intimate feelings for Dad. So Dad hugged him tight and carried him around, and that seemed to work. I imagine it's a metaphor for the feelings of childhood connection: that extension-of-parent emotion. We frame their world when they're so young.

cloudscome said...

So true, an awesome responsibility but also such a joy! I loved making my sons' life books too.

Mommygoth said...

The more I read about this child, and your family, the more I think you were meant to all be together. What a beautiful story, and how wonderful that CG feels safe enough to ask these kinds of questions.

susan said...

Interesting comments, all....and cool stories about Tate and Ripley, Arwen. I'd never thought about boys being sad about not being able to be pregnant. I think that CG is working out both a closeness to me and Politica, differentiating her relationships with me and Politica, and working out some feelings about her first mother.

In preferential adoptive circles, we sometimes wonder whether it will be easier for our children to confront adoption b/c they won't have the issue of thinking that the adoption was a second choice. (not that all kids whose parents first tried to have kids biologically and then moved to adopting necessarily think that or even that it's a true descriptor of all in that situation.) But now I'm thinking that CG may well have some sadness that she didn't grow inside me, and that I didn't want that. I guess it's complicated anyway it goes.
And when I'm less exhausted I'll try to think it through more eloquently.

The meant-to-be-ness of our family is an interesting notion, too. I love our family, but I'm not much of a believer in destiny. But I'm pleased that you think we sound well matched, Mommygoth, and I'll be thinking about this a little more.

A closet post coming soon, I promise! But now, bedtime!

elswhere said...

Now that seders are over I finally got a chance to sit down and really read this. It's so moving--CG's specific four-year-oldness and the way she is working with her story, and your respect both for her first parents and for her own process. I'm really grateful you wrote it. (And congratulations on making the final 7 in Blogging for Books!)

susan said...

OMG! I didn't know I made the final 7: I'm so excited!

It is really interesting watching just how kids process different things--when it gets hard for me, I try to remember to step back and remember how fascinating the process of it is.

dragonfly said...

Wonderfully touching story. And congrats on making the final 7!

fin said...

That was lovely!

Leah said...

Hi- I just stumbled across your blog and I'm thoroughly enjoying reading about your beautiful family. I realize this is a year-old post, but I still wanted to comment. ^_^

I'm adopted, and my parents would always talk to me about my adoption when I was young. I had a closed adoption, but my parents told me as much as they knew and always made me feel loved and wanted. When I was three or four, a friend of the family got pregnant. I remember pointing to my mom's scar (she'd had a hysterctomy) and asking her if that's where I came from. She gently reminded me that I had grown inside another lady, and that lady wasn't able to take care of me, so she gave me to Mom and Dad.

Even at that young age, I felt like there was something "wrong" with the idea that my natural mother could not keep me. I asked my mom if her friend was going to give her baby to other people. I asked her if my other friends had come from different parents. I didn't know any other adoptees, and although no one ever spoke badly about adoption around me, it just didn't seem normal. I felt so angry that I didn't grow inside of my mom, since she was the only mother I knew. Back then, being different was scary... thinking that somewhere out there, some woman had given birth to me and then given me to my parents, it was really a hard concept to grasp.

I don't know if there is anything that can ease that tiny little pang of sadness or anger or longing that CG might be feeling, other than time, but she is very, very lucky to have such open, honest, loving parents!

susan said...

Welcome, Leah! I'm lucky to have such a generous new reader!