Saturday, February 5, 2022

Happy 1st Birthday to Alexander & Some Reflections on Adoption

(Wrote this in 2014. Published it today, 2/7/22)

Today is a special day.  Our Alexander turns 1 year old today.

Today marks the anniversary of the day he was born, the day we arrived in Arkansas exhausted from an overnight drive from Colorado, the day we, in a flurry of nerves and excitement, met our 2nd son and his birth family, a group of people who have changed our lives immeasurably and forever.

Today, and all of this month, November, millions of people around the country celebrate adoption: an institution not without faults but overwhelmingly intended for the good and happiness of the millions of adoptees and adoptees-to-be out there, but also of their adoptive families and birth families.

Today my heart is full of gratitude in so many ways; ways that are very similar but also very different from the ways I feel on every one of my biological son's birthdays:  Today I remember how I became a mother for the 2nd time.  Today I remember how Alexander's birth mother became a mother for the 2nd time.  And today I especially remember how those two realities, seemingly conflicting and yet entirely not, will ever be intertwined in a bittersweet reality that has made our family more complete, more fully what it is today and ever shall be.

I've shared our full adoption story with only a few people.  It, of course, involved so much more than just endless paperwork and six days in Arkansas last November.  It started as a tiny hope inside my heart once upon a time and grew into a full-blown determination by the time I was an adult.  It involved persistence, heartache, excitement, disappointment, and reevaluation of my belief system in equal parts.  It changed me.  And it changed my concept of maternal love.  It changed my husband and his concept of fatherhood.  It changed my son - even at four years of age! - and his capacity to accept, love and defend others.  His love for his brother is fierce beyond anything I'd ever hoped and that - seeing that, feeling that - changed all of us.  It showed us a truly ever-expanding capacity in humanity for good, if only given the chance.  Today, without a doubt, the two things I am most proud of are giving birth to my son Roman and adopting Alexander.

But Today, on Alexander's birthday - and next Saturday, November 22nd, the day the adoption was legally finalized, coincidentally also National Adoption Day - it feels appropriate to celebrate him, his adoption, his fortuitous addition to our family, by sharing a few reflections on both adoption and the wondrous Mr. Alexander himself.

*  *  *

Can you imagine what it's like to walk into a maternity unit with the intention of meeting your son for the first time but knowing that taking him home will also involve taking him away from the woman who just gave birth to him forever?

The first time I ever had to do that I was physically sick.  I can be a pretty stoic and determined person when necessary but before I walked into that hospital ward during our first adoption match in March of 2013, I had to run to the bathroom, much to Matt's surprise and horror.  I'd never anticipated the gamut of emotions that would hit me all at once.  The fear, the excitement, the overwhelming nerves.  I also never imagined I'd ever be taking that little boy home.  Or that four days later - all of us already fully in love with him - a social worker would be taking him away from us again, because his birth father - a man who'd never even wanted to meet him - had refused to sign the adoption papers.  I wasn't sick that day.  Not physically, anyway.

When the second adoption match fell through the week before we were to travel to meet the birth family, I was more horrified at the thought of a third match than the one we'd just lost.  It seemed like nothing would ever work out.  A lot of the excitement and anticipation had been sucked from the process.  Family, once bright-eyed and eager to hear how things were progressing, retreated and no longer asked questions - not that we were sharing much at that point anyway.  Those kinds of losses, not unlike the pregnancy losses I'd experienced before, leave you in a state of suspended reality and reluctance.  Better not to share than to have to retract once more.  To this day, I can't shake that tendency.

But, against all odds, less than 2 months later, we found ourselves walking down yet another hospital corridor in Little Rock, Arkansas.  And all those same exact emotions hit me again - just as they had the first time - as we neared the room Alexander slept in, his birth mother quietly at his side, both waiting to meet us for the first time.

There was a little dry erase board on the wall that the nurses used to write basic stats and on it his birth Grandmother had written, "Welcome Matt & Brenda!" and under "Today's Goal" she'd also added, "Meet Matt & Brenda!"  That little board put me at ease in ways they'll never know.  But my hands were still shaking and for one of the first times in my life, I felt deathly afraid to make eye contact with anyone when I was finally allowed to hold the baby for the first time.  I was afraid his birth mother would see how desperately I wanted to fall in love with this child.  I was afraid she'd see the years of hopes and intentions and dreams for him flashing in them.  I was afraid she'd change her mind because she had every right - more right than I ever had then - to want and feel and hope those things for him.

But she didn't change her mind.  She didn't change her mind!

Instead, when I finally looked at her, that little boy in my arms, what I saw in her eyes was real love, peace and determination.  Determination that her son would have a better life than she felt she could give him.  Surety that she had chosen the right family to give him that life.  And all I could do was feel humbled; feel in my heart a steadfast determination myself to make all those hopes and good intentions come true for this child.  I swore that I would make this most painful of sacrifices, most unselfish of choices worthwhile for her and for that baby.  That I would never take for granted the immensity of the decision, the choice, the loving placement she was making.  That I would never pretend that she or her family didn't exist.  That Alexander would live secure in the knowledge that he was, is, and will always be loved by both of his families.  That "abandonment," "easy-way-out," "ignorance," "selfishness" - any of those awful adoption cliches - never even came close to being a part of his birth, his adoption, his story.

The morning of the day we were going to be allowed to bring Alexander back to the hotel with us, I was both walking on air and bogged down in a suffocating cloud of fear that is almost unimaginable in its contradiction.  I was famished but felt sick when I ate.  I was bubbling over with happiness to the point that I blurted out that we were adopting and bringing home the baby with us that day to a random hotel maid in the hallway.  She seemed surprised but genuinely happy for me, and when we got home that evening I found she'd actually put a note of congratulations in our room for us along with some baby toiletries.  At the hospital, I made Matt pose for one last picture just-the-two-of-us in the underground parking lot, holding an empty car seat, as if we'd look so different once we had our second child in our arms.  In our eyes the hope is palpable when I look at that picture now.

We took him home that day, against all odds.  We survived the endless check-out procedure at the hospital, hours on end of scrutiny over our British car seat, awkward and melancholy moments with birth aunts and birth great grandmothers.  At a certain point Matt simply went for a walk around the hospital because the tension and anticipation was almost too much.  I couldn't bring myself to leave the room, certain that if I did the whole thing would fall apart, or Alexander would somehow vanish and I'd wake up from the dream.  But we did take him home.  Gut-wrenching hugs goodbye were given, tearful thank yous that felt inadequate were exchanged.  And then there he was: our Alexander - though not really technically ours yet - quietly sleeping in his car seat, on the first part of his journey home. 

Arkansas has a 6 day revocation period during which the birth parents can change their minds.  We were told to drive to a different city where our lawyer's offices were, about 4 hours from Little Rock.  Before leaving, we had a last meeting with Alexander's birth family at a bbq restaurant where much of his birth family came to see us off.  The lunch was filled with jokes and photographs and delicious pulled pork.  Only the goodbye - or the "so long" as his birth grandmother put it - came with tears.

Those days in the hotel went by in a blur.  The jolt of suddenly having a newborn without any of the biological prep for it was harsh.  I thank God my mother and sister kept Roman for us in Dallas as the lack of sleep and the challenge of living in a hotel room was an intense reintroduction to having an infant.  And yet somehow being in that hotel room in North Arkansas, surrounded by beautiful forests and changing foliage, we felt protected and at peace, trying to connect with this new child, making the best of the limbo we were dealt.  We went to a world-class American art museum.  We visited the original Wal-mart nickel and dime and had an ice cream at the soda shop.  We scoped out the court house where we would be finalizing the adoption that Friday with the judge and our lawyer - it all resembled the town from back to the future so eerily.  And we even had a chance to briefly meet the social worker who had helped make this all possible for our family.

When Friday arrived it felt like the minutes were dragging on.  We woke up early and dressed Alexander in his best newborn outfit.  Matt fixed his tie; I attempted to put on make-up and do my hair, frazzled and exhausted as I was.  Alexander didn't make a noise - such an easy, lovely baby.  He was ready too.

The judge was a kind middle-aged man who took pride in his pro-adoption stance.  He liked to make the experience a happy one for people, he told us, rather than interrogating or making people fearful that he may not sign the papers.  Everything was in order.  He asked Matt and I about our respective college experiences and commented on the fact that we live in Colorado, as he liked to ski there whenever possible.  He asked how our son Roman felt about the adoption and how the process had gone for us.  Then we all signed the papers, smiling, shaking hands, and took a few pictures in his chambers before walking to the clerk's office to get documents copied and verified.  And so, in less than an hour from when we'd entered the courthouse, we had a new son.  The legal process had finally caught up to the reality our hearts had accepted and longed for from the very moment we met him.  Our year-long journey was over at last.

*  *  *

Of course, in reality, the adoption journey is never over.  Adoption is something we all live with on a daily basis.  In these early years it's very easy because Alexander doesn't ask about it or understand it yet, but I know that in some ways it will get harder as he grows and becomes more aware.  I know that with all the blessings it brought us all, it will also come with difficult realities, difficult questions, and the difficult acknowledgement of a primordial loss for Alexander that I, as a person who grew up with her biological mother, can never fully understand.  But, as a family, we are all determined to make this journey, with its ups, downs, beauty and hurt, together.  We are a part of it and will continue to be present in it for Alexander, learning and understanding from now ever on.

One thing I hadn't anticipated was that Roman wouldn't fully understand the permanence of adoption.  Roman knows now that nobody can ever take Alexander away from us, but it took him an entire year to truly feel sure of it. We met with Alexander's birth family shortly after his first birthday - an arrangement we'd agreed to at his birth - and at that visit Roman, though kind and excited and very friendly with the birth family, admitted that he was afraid we were taking Alexander back to them or that they might try to take him home.  Big brother seemed quietly confident and relieved when we all said our goodbyes after a fun-filled afternoon and made our way home, Alexander happily giggling in his car seat next to him.

Birth families are a reality that, though not present on a daily basis, remain with you in everything you do.  You see their faces in your child's.  You wonder how their personalities and tendencies and interests will shine through your son.  You ask yourself constantly how they're doing, whether you keep in touch enough (how much is too much and how much is too little?), and whether you're doing this "right" so that your son will never feel you kept him from anything that belongs to his story, his heart, his identity.  Maybe it's the process of these thoughts and intentions that is most important - the constant reevaluation, self-critique, so that you intentionally do your best in the most unselfish way possible for your child.  You want to give every angle of his story its due respect, and yet, you want him to be 100% a part of your family, because to us, no matter who gave birth to Alexander, he is 100% our son, forever.  I hope he always, always knows that.

*  *  *

I feel bad that I haven't had the time to write more about Alexander.  I was so good about doing monthly and annual posts for Roman, but the actual reality of being a mother of two has been all-engulfing.  I'm happy to live my life rather than write about it, but I do want him to know that the intention to document his first year in more than photographs, was always there, so here is a brief reflection on Alexander Christopher.

From the day we met him, Alexander was a genuinely happy, laid back, quiet, and observant human being.  His demeanor was so easy and pleasant to deal with over the first year that we almost couldn't believe it.  He hardly ever cried (once we figured out that he had reflux and a bad reaction to the initial formula we gave him), and slept very well during the day and night.  Most striking of all was his smile.  Everyone commented on the constant happiness.  He giggled and laughed and smiled constantly.  He had no problem being held by anyone.  He loved every single one of us and adored and emulated his big brother from the start.  He is happy and willing to go along on all of our adventures as long as he's fed and clean, and hardly ever complains.  He put up with me messing with his lovely newborn curls.  He didn't seem bothered when Matt finally buzzed them off shortly after his1st birthday, either.  He plays cars with Roman and sweeps the floor with me.  He has a love affair with the vacuum cleaner (though one time he did throw it down the stairs - rough day).  He earned the nickname "Screamy" pretty early on. Roman observed that he was "a little bit screamy" on the 2nd day he was home, and it stuck.

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