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Empty Boots

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Andrea Ross

I readied myself for my appointment with Joan, the social worker at the adoption agency in Denver. Adoption rights advocates had told me that social workers who were sympathetic to adoptees in search would sometimes meet in their offices, then excuse themselves from the room after chatting a bit, leaving a piece of paper on the desk that had a scrap of identifying information on it: a birth parent’s name, for example.

I hoped Joan was this kind of sympathetic social worker. They told me that one social worker at her agency was willing to divulge information. But I also had a backup plan to ask a series of questions based on my non-identifying information in hopes that she would slip up and tell me something even if she didn’t mean to.

The crow’s feet around my eyes had deepened during the past year working in New Mexico’s backcountry as a wilderness guide. Was I seeking something or running away from something else: myself, my life? Would the pain of losing my birth parents fade as I aged? I was twenty-nine years old and hadn’t grown up.

I was still a baby who had been given away, abandoned. Did I expect finding my birth parents to solve all my problems—to clarify who I was and what I should do with my life? I think I did. I was looking for unrealistically big answers, pinning my hopes for self-understanding and direction in life on these shadow people. Desperation swirled around me, a self-inflicted storm. Would I really feel better once I knew who they were?

Finally, late that morning, I navigated my way into the office of Lutheran Social Services in Denver to meet Joan. After a year driving the gravel roads in the tiny town where I’d lived in Northern New Mexico, Denver’s traffic and dense population felt too fast and noisy for me, adding to my nervousness.  Even though the information I sought was rightfully mine, I couldn’t help feeling guilty, as if I were doing something illicit.

I walked into the building, wrapping my arms around myself as the air conditioning slapped me. Joan met me in the lobby. She was a tall woman in her sixties, with short white hair and a kind, wrinkly smile. She offered me a tour of the office building, which I thought was strange because I didn’t care what the office looked like. Maybe she thought I would envision it as a kind of home since my birth mother had once entered that building, and because the names of my birth mother and birth father were written on a slip of paper in a file there somewhere within that building.

When I thought about it, I realized that it did feel onerous to stand in the building, perhaps the very room, that held definitive information about my origins, which I was prohibited from seeing. I walked alongside Joan, trying to be polite, nodding, smiling, and shaking hands with social workers, but distracted by the fantasy I entertained of tearing around rooms, ripping open file cabinets, grabbing documents, and shoving rolls of microfiche under my shirt.

After the tour, Joan suggested we go somewhere for lunch. My heart raced. Surely this was my chance. I was positive she was communicating to me in a kind of code that she couldn’t talk about my case while we were in the office, but if we left the building she would be able to give me the information I sought. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation, and she asked me to wait in her office while she collected her things to leave.

As I waited, I remembered that her exit from the office might be an encoded invitation to look around the room for information, so I hoped, and half expected, to see a file folder with my name penned in red lying on the grey Formica desktop.

I was so nervous I could barely see straight, but I looked around for anything she might have left me as a clue. The office was very tidy. Everything was grey: file cabinet, desk, computer monitor, chair.

The desk was completely bare, the computer turned off. The file cabinet was closed. As I tried to muster the nerve to jiggle its handle to see if it was locked, Joan returned. My body pulsed with disappointment and fear that I wouldn’t get any new information from the visit.

Joan escorted me out of the agency’s doors into the bright August noon. It was very hot, and even though we only walked about a block to a little Mexican restaurant in a strip mall, I was sweating by the time we arrived.

The restaurant was cool and cavernous inside, and it felt like a good place for a secret meeting. I held onto hope that she would disclose information in private there. We sat at a table, ordered food, and chatted as we waited for the waitress to serve it to us.

Joan asked me where I had grown up. Under the table, I twisted my napkin in my hands. “We moved to northern California when I turned one. My dad had just gotten a job as a professor there,” I said.

Joan sipped her water out of its slick plastic cup. “And where do you live now?” she asked.

I don’t live anywhere, I thought. “I’ve been living in New Mexico, working as a wilderness guide.” I smiled weakly. The fear of rejection was always just under the surface of any encounter I had with people, and right then it felt as if that fear had taken a seat at the table with Joan and me.

The waitress arrived with my plate of enchiladas and Joan’s burrito and set them on the table. I began to cut a gooey piece, and asked Joan, “How long have you been working with Lutheran Social Services?”

“I’ve been there for thirty-five years, if you can believe it.”

Butterflies stirred in my stomach. “You were there when I was born?”

“Yes, I was.”

My heart beat rapidly. Had she seen me when I was an infant? Had she interviewed my birth mother when she placed me for adoption?

“I’m sorry to tell you, Andrea, that I was not the social worker assigned to your case. She retired many years ago.” My heart fell. Still, I wondered if Joanne had seen me as a three-day-old baby going into foster care or as three-week-old baby being adopted by my parents, if she had held me, or had at least cooed at me while I was bundled up asleep in someone else’s arms in the agency’s waiting room. And if she hadn’t, who had?

Who had held me, fed me, and dressed me when I was a newborn? All these questions made me feel like I was going to explode. I felt angry sitting there in the stupid strip mall Mexican restaurant because I had no answers to any of my questions and because I had to ask them at all and because I had no legal right to their answers.

How many times had I been handed off? Why would anyone think it was a good idea to remove newborns from their mother and give them to someone else, only to remove them again weeks later to give them to the adoptive parents? So much for forming secure attachments early in life.

Throughout my life, in moments of self-doubt or loneliness, an image had often popped into my mind: a baby curled fetally, surrounded by dark space and twinkling stars of the universe with her umbilical cord spooling out from her tiny belly, connected to nothing.

My search was about wanting to find a place where the raw end of that cord belonged, and to draw the baby down to earth and into the arms of a primal mother. So as a young adult I had begun imagining grasping the baby self by her cord and walking through the world trailing her like a helium-filled balloon.

“You may have guessed that I’ve decided to try to search for my birth mother,” I said. “I have a letter signed by my adoptive parents stating their support for my search and asking the agency to help me.”

Joanne dabbed the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “Yes, I assumed you were here because you want to search. I’m glad your parents are sympathetic to your desires.”

“I also have a letter stating that I give permission for your agency to give my birth parents my contact information if they contact you in search of me. Would you put it in my file?” I asked.

She agreed. I took a deep breath and asked, “Has your agency received any word from my birth mother or birth father since my adoption, asking for information about me or providing information about themselves?” I held my breath.

Joan’s eyes crinkled a little at their edges. “I checked your file before you arrived, and there was nothing like that. I’m sorry.”

My chest felt heavy; it was devastating to be told that no one was looking for me, that in twenty-nine years, no one had made even the small gesture of sending a letter, to find me.

I wondered if my birth parents were dead, in denial of my existence, or just didn’t feel they had the right to search me out. I squeezed the loneliness into a very small place in the back of my mind so I could continue. “Is there anything you can tell me to help me with my search?” I said.

Joan folded her paper napkin and placed it on the table. “Well, since your adoption is a closed one, I’m not at liberty to reveal any information that would identify your birth parents.” Apparently, our trip to the Mexican restaurant was just for lunch, not for talking with me candidly.

My enchiladas congealed on my plate while I tried to gather the confidence to ask her some questions about my non-identifying information. Ask her! I coached myself. This is your information! She won’t give it to you if you don’t ask for it. No one else is going to do this for you. I was sweating again, and I wanted to give up, but I knew it was probably my only chance to ask her.

I took another deep breath and asked her, “Since both of my birthmother’s parents were Norwegian, did she have a Scandinavian-sounding last name?”

“I suppose you could say that,” she replied. I had scored a point, but it was a vague one.

“I also read that she wanted to go to school to be a teacher, and the local teacher’s college was the Colorado State University at Greeley: is that where she was enrolled when she became pregnant?”

“Yes, that’s where she was.”

At last I had gained one solid piece of information—now I knew where she had gone to college! And in the over-air-conditioned darkness of that nondescript Mexican restaurant, an idea occurred to me: I knew my birth mother had attended Greeley, so perhaps I could obtain the college’s enrollment records from the fall semester of 1966 and compare the names of newly enrolled women with those still on the enrollment list in the spring of 1967. Then I would be able to make a list of all the first-year women who had enrolled in the fall but hadn’t returned for the spring term. My birth mother would be on that list.

It was my first breakthrough in years. It seemed like an elegant plan; since Joan had said it was a Scandinavian name, I could put the list of names together and find the ones that sounded Scandinavian, then track them down. There would only be a few names, maybe ten or twenty. Perhaps Joan had, after all, given me the information I needed.

“I understand,” I said.

“Good luck.”

The next day, I drove through the Front Range’s bright pastureland to Greeley, a town that smelled of cattle feedlots, to the university’s library. I found the archives in the basement, a small room with a few tables with people sitting at them. I requested copies of enrollment records for fall of 1966 and spring of 1967. After a while, a woman handed me two heavy stacks of warm, photocopied paper.

I ran my hands over them before beginning to compare semesters and highlight in yellow the names of young women who might be my birth mother. After the first three pages, I paused. There were not going to be just ten or twenty names. I was highlighting several per page. What had happened to all of the girls who disappeared?

There were more than two hundred first-year girls enrolled in the fall of 1966 who had disappeared from school by the spring of 1967. How could I find my birth mother among all those names? I scanned the list of names—many of them looked Scandinavian.

I spent the rest of the week at municipal libraries in small towns looking at high school yearbooks looking for evidence of swim teams and Norwegian surname, driving around farm communities and stopping into irrigation supply stores to ask old timers if they knew of the family I was looking for. But I didn’t make any headway, and it was time for me to leave.

I felt defeated. I had budgeted my savings so I could survive without earning a paycheck until the end of summer, and I was running out of money. The vast expanses of eastern Colorado, Utah, and Nevada lay between my hometown destination and me. I had a lot of solo miles to roll across in my car in the next week or two.

I road-tripped with the list of two hundred young women’s names propped up on my passenger seat like a traveling companion.

Driving highway 50 through Nevada, dubbed The Loneliest Highway in America, I listened to hour after hour of talk radio on the AM stations for lack of any other choices.

It was the only tree of any stature I’d seen in hours. I pulled over to the side of the highway beneath the tree. Its verdant leaves rustled in the wind, a welcome swath of green on the desert’s dun palette.

Looking up, I saw that every branch was hung with shoes, all kinds of shoes: shiny soccer cleats, canvas high-tops, leather work boots, shredded hiking boots, you name it. Any shoe that could be suspended from a tree branch was represented there. Why were they there, swaying, mysterious and lonely, in the harsh, high desert wind? I marveled at the display of human artifacts in such an unlikely place.

I felt exposed beneath the soles of hundreds of shoes fording their ghostly paths through air, signs of people who had passed by before me. The shoes echoed those hundreds of names I’d found in the archives, young women who had dropped out of college. Why had they left? Marriage? Pregnancy? Tragedy? Emptiness rang and clacked as the wind gusted, guttural whispers in a language I couldn’t understand.

Andrea Ross is formerly a wilderness guide and ranger, currently a writing professor, mother, and activist. Always an adopted person. This essay is an excerpt from her memoir manuscript, Natural Selection, which is in search of a publisher. She lives in northern California with her husband and son, and teaches writing at UC Davis. Andrea wrote a piece for the 2016 Portrait of an Adoption series.

 Find more of her writing at the following links:


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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

Becoming A Mom While Single And Over Forty: Giving It To You Straight

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Becca Gruenspan

The term Single Mother by Choice (SMC) is a funny one to me. Yes, ultimately it was my choice to adopt a baby on my own, but was it really what I would have chosen? No. I wanted to be married with a large family. To go on vacations together and return to our comfortable home with enough bedrooms for all. Yah, so “choice,” uh, not REALLY!

Most of my fellow (touché) SMC’s are over 40 as well, which presented another set of questions that arose when I was making the decision to embark on this thing called single motherhood. Namely…

  • Will there be anyone my age with young kids who I will be able to relate to and hang with?
  • If not, am I ok hanging out with other moms in their 20’s and 30’s – are they ok hanging out with me???? Maybe that’s the real question. Eh, I can pass for 35 – or so I keep telling myself.
  • Will I have energy to raise a child? Let’s be real, when he is 15, I will be approaching 60. Not exactly what I had in mind when I dreamt about what my family would look like. My parents were 22 when they had me. I always thought I’d be a young mom too. Turns out, I’m just young at heart.
  • How will I raise my son to be a good man? After all, what do I know from being a man? I grew up with two sisters. Will he have sufficient male role models, will I fall in love after all (I’m still hoping so). How will not having a father impact my child?
  • Will I stay healthy? I’m all he has!
  • Do I have the right support system in place?

These are serious questions to consider. Ultimately, I decided I was enough and had what I needed to be a “good” (well, that’s loaded term) mom.

Thankfully I live in the big city of Chicago, where it’s probably been a lot easier for me to build my tribe. Surprisingly, there are a lot of women in my life my age with young children – usually a second or third child as opposed to their first.

I have the privilege of having a large and active SMC group where I’ve met some of the most supportive women – some of whom have become my closest friends. This support has been extremely helpful to me and I can’t imagine doing this on my own without this tribe who make me feel “normal.”

Let’s talk about the question of energy. I am now 48 years old (I mean 35) and struggling with peri-menopause. For those of you who don’t know what that looks like, let me paint a picture…My hormones are all out of whack, I’m ravenous all-the-time and hence, have gained over 20 pounds – my son has told me more than once that I have a baby in my tummy and plays with it (that’s lovely), I’m tired and I don’t even want to talk about the night sweats!!

I’ve become a bit of a hypochondriac too. Being a single mom without backup if, God forbid, something were to happen to me, is something I worry about. So I am constantly trying to teach my son what to do in case of emergency, which just freaks him out. Now every time I’m five minutes late picking him up from after-care at school, he thinks I died. Great! I try to eat healthy (but then there’s that peri-menopause thing I’m grappling with) and work out, which is not always easy because of the lower energy and, oh, I own my own business to boot. And of course I stress out about finding time to give my son enough attention.

Ah, attention as a single mom.  All he wants is for me to play. There’s laundry piling up, dirty dishes in the sink, my floors are covered in toys and I run my own business to keep us afloat. And he wants my attention. Right. OK. Yah, let’s play Legos together or a quick game of Go-Fish. I’m just not the creative “project” mom and when it comes to homework – oy, homework! It becomes a battle.

Do I really want what little unstructured interaction we have during the week to be consumed by an argument? Nope. So, don’t do your homework. Maybe I’ll outsource for that – there’s gotta be someone else better at this.

But we sure do love snuggling on the couch to watch a TV show. He’s an affectionate little guy who loves his mommy. We love to cuddle and morning tickle time is our favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I do love throwing a baseball around with him, but I can only do that so much.

I have found that the best thing to do with and for my active 7-year-old boy is to get out of the house! We tend to do a lot of activities and play dates (for him and me). Often, it includes drinking wine with another mom while our kids play. That counts, right? And signing him up for sports is a win-win – usually also filling that void of being around male role models while getting out some good built-up energy.

I can’t tell you how important having an adoption community has been to both my son and me. I know how crucial it is for him to see other families like ours and I need other adoptive parents to run things by and share with. As an adoption professional myself (that’s my business), I sometimes find it challenging to seek out answers to my own personal issues around adoption on Facebook groups or other public forums.

There is a fine line between personal and professional and I struggle with how that should mix. I tend to seek out people and build my own community of support and use the awesome Facebook groups to continue learning from others.

As an “older” mother, sometimes I feel as if I don’t fit in. My son also struggles with not fitting in. Thankfully not about how old his mom is (at least not yet). Usually, he struggles because he looks different (he’s Hispanic and I’m white, which is another layer) or because he doesn’t have a father and/or siblings.

He desperately longs to fit in and have what most others seem to have, and he is very vocal about it. In fact, for years he told people about his dad and siblings – I would often have to tell his teachers that those people don’t exist in real life.

The nice thing about having always been single is that I don’t feel the need to hide my dating life… Not that it’s anything to talk about. I can show him that I’d love for him to have a daddy too and I’m trying…for both of us. I also stress that if that doesn’t happen, he and I make a great team! Although sometimes dating is just one more thing I have to make time for and frankly, my life is pretty full and happy. We share all the cuddles and unconditional love every single day.

Being a single mom is so much work, and yet I’ve noticed that, as the only adult in the home, there is no arguing or negotiating over who has to do what or how things should be. I do it all and still sometimes feel I’m better off than some of my married friends.

For any woman who hasn’t found a life partner and does not want to give up on her dream of being a parent, my personal journey has taught me to ask yourself the hard questions that really, only you can answer. Don’t let other people’s opinions and judgments sway you. Make sure you can provide for your child and connect with a great support system, whether that includes friends or family.

I asked myself the hard questions as I prepared to become a parent to the most amazing little guy in the world. I found that being an older mom has its benefits and yes, I can absolutely do it on my own. I wouldn’t change my situation for anything.

becca-1 becca-2 becca-3

Rebecca Gruenspan is the Founder and Chief Consultant of RG Adoption Consulting ( She and her team help guide hopeful adoptive parents from across the United States, through the domestic adoption process. Their goals are to help hopeful parent(s) reduce their stress, mitigate their risks and bring their baby home as quickly as possible.  Rebecca resides with her son in Evanston, IL.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 17: Who Dares Fathom Such Grief?

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Daniel Drennan ElAwar

We remain the repulsed, splinters, expelled from the body; the corpus surrounds us, englobes us, drives us out; it then returns to a state of “as if” we had never existed. Should we attempt return, we do not notice that the immune response starts yet again, only at this point we are incapable of understanding its reasonings and explanations.

Ô Lebanon! Shall I be sorry that I wished not to return as an “American”? Had I done so, I know I would have been embraced with open arms, as the colonized greet their oppressors. There is no comfort here.

No, I sought something more from you: an origin, a sense of source, an acknowledgement of belonging, a claim to place—a wish shared by many also discounted as not being “of” this place, none of which you deemed worthy of offering. In this regard, I was naive to an extreme, no doubt.

Things have changed as they are wont, though it took much of a lifetime: After a decade of search, a DNA test, and reunion with extended family, a great unblocking took place as word got round, as the who and the what and the why made the rounds; and an elderly man plagued by his memories of a child absconded with half a century ago came forward, and revealed a secret to the only man he trusts with such information, my cousin Jamal’s father.

And with that the Sisyphean task, twelve long years later, is accomplished.

Of the two scenarios I had whittled things down to, I perversely preferred the one involving kidnapping; such an act absolves kin of any crime, of any complicity, and reunion might thereafter be imagined to be a joyful occasion.

Quite the other scenario has borne out. There was a woman in trouble, and a paternal denial; there was a choice, and a determination, and there was a familial verdict: Her life, or mine. One reasoned voice prevailed and saved both our lives, forbidding the doubling of sin; then followed a forced sequestering, and a calculated banishment.

Despite unmatched balances of familial power, my grandfather sought a reprieve, requested a stay, asked for a paternal registration so that I might be raised by maternal family—this was refused: Not once, but twice.

My mother fought to keep me an extra month to nurse me; to prepare me for the journey literally out of her hands. She resisted other pressures, never marrying, and never bearing other children. She sought refuge in her faith, the family being mushayakh [1]; this is a comfort to me.

The question now remains: Who dares fathom such grief? Who will atone for such suffering? Jamal recounted the narrative, and before I could even formulate the question, he informed me that my parents had passed away some time ago; an infinite pause followed, and a chasm opened its maw before me.

Her name, in Arabic, means “happiness”. What I would give now to have seen her eyes gladdened by my return; her name thus restored as well.

To those who propose the “win-win” of adoption, I ask you now: Do you feel no duty, no compulsion, to take on this, the grief of a mother for the child she hardly knew? Now compounded by that of her son, grieving the one he never met?

I visited her grave two days before I left Beirut, and there, at that time, I placed this crime on your shoulders, just as I placed candles at her resting place. Will you, at long last, include us in your horrid calculus of valid humanity?

Do you imagine, after all this, I will continue to suffer gladly your sidewise glances, your sneers, your judgments, your backstabbings, your underminings, your euthanizing musings? Above the crypt door was placed a mirror engraved with the words of the Prophet: “Paradise lies at the feet of mothers”: a succinct condemnation of your arrogance and disdain.

Her story, of patience in the face of incalculable adversity, is one shared by millions of others, her narrative of standing up to you is a comfort you cannot deliver and an agony you cannot assuage with your despicable adoption, its baleful marketing, its woeful mythologies.

To note: I have nothing if not my mother’s resistance, and I say to you now: You have failed miserably, on a global scale and on a universal level, and the displaced, and the dispossessed, and the disinherited now hold you to account. You are the inculcators of an intolerable misogyny; the doctrinaires of wretched misery, all in the name of “family”. What is your answer? How do you plead?

Upon return to source we are obliged the word “repatriation”, as for bones, for relics, for bodies returned from war. I rather prefer the Indigenous term: rematriation. [2] For evidence I present umm and umma, the Arabic words for “mother” and “supranational community” both sharing a similar root.

From these selfsame Moorish roots arose Spain as well as its outcroppings, Argentina and Guatemala among others; lands where the matriarchs and the grandmothers and the matrons endlessly seek what was taken from them.

Their sisters perform the backbreaking work that aims to rectify, annul, and renegotiate the writs of ownership that deny the ability to re-establish Motherhood; they demand accounting for their “disappeared” children; they march and protest for their sons and daughters gone missing; they requisition the return of progeny adopted out of their hands; they fundraise to keep children with their mothers; they are the daughters of those mothers in the foundling hospitals of a century past who sewed scraps of clothing to their children’s swaddling in the hopes of eventual reunion.

Village rumor reports that my mother was sickly her whole life, supporting the pain of separation as best as was possible in those days; and yet, she resisted banishment, and much worse.

I thus rematriate for her, and for those like her, the women of “al-bilad ash-sham” [3] who claim me as theirs. The mothers who forego adherence to patrilineal duty, reaching out to protect me; the village women chastening powerful sheikhs demanding I desist in my search; the neighborhood women ignoring the potent proscriptions concerning veils and non-family members, like the hajjeh upstairs from me in Beirut reducing me to tears in our stairwell with the words: “Daniel, enta ibni.” [4] Rematriation is popular, not political; a spiritual bond, not a legal contract.

Goodbye, Lebanon. May you treat more kindly those who follow. And may they find something other than the harsh rebuke suffered by those who have the great misfortune of finding themselves within your bogus borders.

May you be haunted eternally by all of those you have disappeared, in ways as diabolical as iniquitous; those who have gone missing to preserve your fascistic notions of reputation; of purity; of patriarchy.

I survived your immune response for twelve years, and what I know now, what I have learned about myself, in terms of my sense of place and family and belonging, will undoubtedly inoculate me for however long a future that might remainder me in this realm.

You can no longer sap my soul, nor will I allow you to foment my nightmares; you are bereft of power over me, you are exorcised and extirpated in turn. And my name henceforth shall be: Daniel Ibn Bahija[5], grandson of Hussein and Latifa—may God rest their souls.

You cannot deprive me of my right to origins. And there is one final statement to make before I close this chapter of my life: know that I will return. My place is secured; the mountain winds are at my back; my journey is as on the plain [6]; my people have been informed of your doleful crime.

And now I state I have survived you twice; returning stronger each time; and it is my great pleasure knowing that my expulsion will be forever marked by a scar, and I am honing my skill at further flaying your woundings.

For I have learned the meaning of patience, and steadfastness in the face of adversity; and my very being, let it be known, is noble testament to my mother’s fortitude.

Two days before I was to leave Jamal and his father drove me up to the communal crypt where my mother was laid to rest; they pointed out my father’s lands, as we discussed the rejected attempt to contact my five half-siblings, fearful of a trespasser usurping their inheritances.

I came armed with a poem courtesy of my friend Zeina; it recounted the words of a mother of one of the disappeared during the Civil War; the mother, realizing she will not outlive her son’s absence, states: “Should my son come back, let him knock on my grave three times; in this way maybe, I will find peace.”

At the door to my mother’s crypt I completed my journey, I came full circle; I keened, my tear-streaked visage mirrored in the reflection of the Prophet’s reminder. The steep valleys and enormous pines stoically reverberated an arrested time come to an accomplished halt; with the little energy left me I knocked three times on the crypt door;

I informed my mother I was back and I begged her forgiveness for my tardiness; I pleaded she overlook our paths that had not managed to overlap, I beseeched her to realize, as my friend Omar assured me, that the answer to her lifetime of dowaa [7] had, at long last, come to pass: I had returned. And I made her a promise, and I declared it out loud: “My story is your story; and my existence is your resistance.”

[1] Druze religious family.
[2] Term coined by Steven Newcomb, Executive Director, Indigenous Law Institute.
[3] Damascus Country, the pre-colonial name of Levantine Southwest Asia.
[4] “Daniel, you are my son.”
[5] “Daniel, son of Bahija”.
[6] An expansion of the common greeting, “Ahla wa sahla”, literally “[Your] people and plain”.
[7] Prayers/supplications.

Daniel Drennan ElAwar was adopted via Lebanon to the United States at the age of two months. In 2004 he returned sight unseen, and taught graphic design and illustration at various Beirut universities. He continues to work as a special advisor to the Beirut-based children’s rights organization Badael/Alternatives on issues of adoption and adoptee return. He is co-founder of the web site Transracial Eyes ( From January to June, 2016, he was a research fellow at the Asfari Institute of Civil Society and Citizenship in Beirut, focusing on citizenship as a function of displacement, dispossession, and disinheritance. As of June 2016, he is in reunion with his family in Lebanon. He currently is an assistant professor of Illustration at Emily Carr University, Vancouver, Canada.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 16: The Love Flows The Same

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Allison Banta

I remember when people would find out that we were adopting, there were always so many questions. One of the most frequent was this, always posed with hesitation and intended tact, but still. Still it was asked, over and over:

“How do you know you will love her? How do you know it will be ok? How do you know it will be like it would if she were your own?”

Then, six years and a lifetime ago, before these two girls of mine were people, before they were here, little humans on this beautiful planet, I would answer as briefly as possible, uncomfortable. I would say:

“I just know.”

“Well how could we not?”

“What difference does it make, how they came to us?”

And always, always I would clarify: “She will be ours. Our girl, our daughter. Just exactly the same as if she had been born to us.”

And I believed. Every word I said, I spoke as truth.

Words matter though. They carry weight. They can be heavy or light. They can tell truth or spin a lie. And sometimes I would be still and those voices would echo in my head and I would wonder…

Will we?

And then she was here.

And she slept all the time, and her cheeks were magic. And then she grew, and woke up, and determined never to sleep again. And so neither did we. And then she was one. A whole year. A whole year of being her mama, of waking up in the half-light to hear her “ode to the dawn”; her crazy-silly cackling and laughing as she greeted the morning, every day, for three hours, until she finally, happily, fell back over from exhaustion.

She slept again just as the sun showed its face in the window. And then she was two, and she got a puppy, true love. And then three, and a surprise baby sister joined the madness. Another year of no sleep for parents, of living in a fog, of pizza and leftovers for dinner and joy doubled.

And then she was four and the sister was one. And they ran and laughed and cried and fought and hid and played in tandem. They held hands and terrorized the dog, they snuck snacks together and giggled their way out of many well -deserved consequences.

And soon she’ll be six. And then the little sister will be three.

And I have to confess, I was wrong.

Now that I have them both, I know.

It is not the same.

It is not the same as if she were “our own”.

She is our own.

There is no comparison, I can’t even find words for it, because the love flows the same.

Their two small faces, one brown and one white, mimic the faces of that Dad guy, learned from hours of being held, and tucked into bed, countless dinners and dances and endless games of being tossed high into the air, and always caught – laughing, merry, breathless. They are mine. Ours. Both my girls. Our girls. As much as any two girls can belong to a daddy and a mama.

And yet, she is never only ours.

One of my loves has another mama. She was the first mama, and always will be. That is her space, and I cannot fill it. It is not mine to fill. It is her own place. She belongs for all the days to my sweetheart girl. She was the first. She carried her and gave birth to her. I will not ever fill that space. I couldn’t if I tried, and I would never, ever try. I am here now, I get to be with our girl.

I am the everyday mama. I kiss away the tears and scrub the shoes and help her learn to be kind. I braid the hair and help find the missing special feather when it’s “wost”. Someday I hope I get to drive with her to visit colleges, and decorate a tiny first apartment. I hope I get to meet her dearest love when she finds them, and hear about her first real job over dinner, and rock her babies when they run wild and she needs a break. That is my space. I have the great privilege of those everyday things, and I take it lightly never. Not for either of my loves. Being their everyday mama is my highest honor.

And now. Now there are two sweetheart girls, made part of our family by different means. They are loved equally in strength, but they are not the same. So what is the real answer to, “How do you know you will love them the same?”

Now, after six years and two small people?

Now I would answer simply. I would say, well, I won’t. I couldn’t possibly.

Every single child will be their own self, and you never love two people exactly the same, do you? You just love them wholly, with all of your might. Not identically. Love bends and moves and stretches to accommodate the person that it is reaching toward.

I love my girls so differently, and yet always in equal measure. It has been a delightful discovery – realizing that I was wrong. I will never love them the same. I can’t, because they are two different girls, two separate human beings. But I can love them in equal measure, with all that I have.

Even when they glue sequins to the dog. Even then.

As many wise people have said, love multiplies. It does not divide.

Love can hold these tensions. Love holds it well and open-palmed and unafraid – this space for two girls in one heart, for two mamas in one heart.

Love does not need to be the only because it knows that there is always room.


Allison Banta is a mama of two wild and delightful girls, and wife to her favorite friend. She lives in Alabama with her family and would describe herself as a reluctant southerner, in possession of rather too many
words. She spends most of her time chasing humans and dogs, and trying to make sure people wear pants when they leave the house.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 15: Finding Herb

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Jennifer Evans

“Molly, do you remember my father?” I had a right to know.

“Of course. His name was Herb.” Her voice was barely audible through the phone, and her New York accent, with a hint of British, made it a little difficult to hear. She continued, “I only saw him a couple of times. He was a salesman and traveled to the City for business. He had brown hair and blue eyes. His last name was unusual, Linthi…. something. I’m sorry, I don’t know how it’s spelled.”

Molly is my birthmother. We met only a month ago and have been calling each other every week. Apparently, my birthfather had left her once he learned she was pregnant with me. Typical story, I thought. The father dismisses his responsibilities after he learns he’s impregnated a girl. Out of fear? Out of shame? Out of sheer selfishness? Whatever his reason, I felt sorry for her.

I was hoping she would remember something about him … his name, what he looked like or where he was from. It had been easy finding her; perhaps luck would be on my side again and I could find him, too. My curiosity was piqued.

“He was from North Carolina, or was it Virginia?” She questioned herself as I scribbled every word onto my notepad; my journalism instincts never sharper. “We saw each other a couple of times. Linthicum? Maybe that was his last name, I don’t know. I try not to remember him.”

There was a long pause. “He never told me he was married,” her voice cracked. I stopped writing. Her pain was loud and clear. I’m sure his admission was bereft of any remorse for her or her baby. I was sorry for her but mad as well because it takes two, right? Was she really that naïve to have an affair with someone before knowing his story? And was I qualified to judge?

“Jennifer, I prayed that our relationship would have turned into more. I was taking birth control pills, but I might have forgotten to take them that night; I don’t remember.”

“Oh, Molly. I’m so sorry,” I said. I grew up Catholic, so the words birth and control were never discussed in my family. I would have never thought to have requested such a prescription from a doctor, either. Hearing my birthmother, almost a stranger, tell me this so nonchalantly was unsettling.

I recalled a previous phone call. Molly grew up an orphan in Hertfordshire, England and lived with an abusive family. She had moved to New York City, single with no family, where she found a job as a nanny. Why wouldn’t she believe that this man would just sweep her off her feet? According to her description, he was handsome and seemed sincere. It reminded me of the soap operas my mom would watch in the afternoons — the melodrama and sappy instrumentals.

Molly continued, “When I told him I was pregnant, he suggested I visit his doctor in Virginia. I was scared, but decided to take him up on the suggestion.” Her talking slowed. Clearly this was not easy for her. “His doctor gave me some pills, Jennifer, but I didn’t take them. I returned to New York and never heard from him again. I tried to contact him, but he never did anything to help me. There was no money, nothing.”

He wanted me aborted! Molly said she didn’t take the medicine, but could I trust her? What if she had taken what the doctor had prescribed and then changed her mind? Could that be the reason for my multiple sclerosis diagnosis fifteen years ago?

I didn’t probe; I couldn’t make her feel any worse than she already did. It was obvious this man wanted nothing to do with me before I was born, and apparently not now either.

It’s uncanny how simple it can be to find people online. I searched different spellings of LinthicumLintikumLinticum, and for someone living in Virginia and/or North Carolina who would be around 70 years old. I learned that Linthicum is of Welsh ancestry. That explained my brown hair, blue eyes and lily-white skin.

I found a couple of entries in Virginia for Linthicums who were in their seventies. I chose one of the numbers to call; what did I have to lose? Of course, I didn’t want to give away too much information, and I had to have some respect for whoever was on the other end.

I left a message at the beep, “Hi. My name is Jennifer and I’m looking for Herb Linthicum who would have traveled to New York City back in the seventies. Thank you. Oh, please call me at 972-555-5252.” I hung up. Well, that sounded dumb. What was I doing? My husband thought I was crazy to be calling a complete stranger. I had a right to know who created me. And, I had to start somewhere.

The man whom I had left a message with ended up returning the favor the next day. Knowing it could be him, I picked up on the first ring.


“Hey. I got a phone call from you yesterday.” He sounded young. “I have a father named Herb, but I haven’t talked to him in years. He’s a real jerk. Good luck finding him.”

And that was that. “Oh, OK. Thank you,” I said. This person on the other line could have been my half-brother for all I knew. I was too stunned to continue the conversation and thanked him for calling. At least I had his phone number if I ever wanted to call him back.

I decided to write a letter to an address I found for a Herb Linthicum. I reassured the receiver that I didn’t want to prod into their personal life. All I wanted was health information.  I shared my background, as well as my meeting Molly, and asked for them to please call me if they were them.

A week later I got a phone call while I was at work.

“This is Jennifer,” I answered.

“Jennifer. This is Herb Linthicum.” I gasped. It was him. I got up to shut the door to my office.

He sounded a bit like former president Jimmy Carter, with a deep southern Appalachia accent. He was quick and to the point with a hint of condescension. “I got a letter from you in the mail. I must say I was surprised.” There was a short, uncomfortable pause after each sentence. “What you wrote sounds about right. I had to call you. How did you find me?”

“A simple Google search.” I cleared my throat. “I found my birth mother a year ago. Her name is Molly.” I paused in the uncomfortable silence. “She said she met a Herb Linthicum in New York City. Would that be you?”

“Hmmm, that could be right. I traveled up there for business and we met a few times. I guess you must be who you say you are.” Then more silence before he continued, “When she told me she was pregnant, I didn’t believe her. I guess she was pregnant. It’s a good thing I got your letter first and not my wife. If she finds out, she’ll divorce me.”

You coward, I thought. You’re afraid she’ll divorce you after all these years? I don’t know how he could live with himself. What a secret to keep! Did he really not know he had a daughter, or had he conveniently forgot? What a contrast from my adoptive father who is dignified, faithful, God-loving, caring and supportive. This guy was a loser.

“Yes, I understand.” I remained calm, as I’m not one to mouth off like that. I gripped the phone, wanting to wring this man’s neck … this person who hadn’t a care in the world for what he had done. I had to act civilized. “I don’t want to intrude. I’m simply interested in medical information. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis approximately fifteen years ago. Is there a history of it in your family?”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. No. Not that I know of.” He was warming up. “Actually, you come from a healthy family,” he said with pride. I wanted to believe him. “My parents never had any illnesses; they died of old age. Your family comes from Wales and they are all healthy. The only thing I’ve ever had is hip surgery.”

“That’s good to know.” Was that all I could think to say? “What do you do in Virginia?”

“I’m a cattle rancher. In fact, I’m out in the field right now. I like being out in the open alone with my thoughts. It’s beautiful and quiet out here,” he continued. “I have two sons, my younger one was killed in a car accident years ago. The older son I don’t see much, except during Christmas, but our Christmases are sad nowadays. After losing Travis, it’s never been the same. Understand?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. And I was. Christmas was my favorite time of the year. I imagined him sitting in his home with his wife, no grandkids, perhaps a tree and a few presents. I pictured him tending to his farm and having an early dinner, just him and his wife.

“Are you married?” he asked me. “Do you have children?”

“Yes. I’m married. I have two young children, a boy and a girl. I’m a writer. Both my parents and younger sister live here in Texas. I found Molly a year ago. She lives in New York and has been down to visit.”

“Well it sounds like you made out all right.” There was nothing but silence for what seemed like ten seconds. Then, “Your children would love it down here with the cows. I have friends in Texas; we go hunting. Maybe some time when I’m over there I can meet you. I would like to meet your kids.”

He never wanted anything to do with me. He didn’t even know I existed. Now he wants to meet me and my children? I’m not going to give him the satisfaction, I thought, changing the subject. “I would be interested in getting a picture or two from you. I can send some of myself and the kids. Would that be okay?” I asked.

“Well, sure. I’ll give you the address of my friend down the street. Mail letters to him and I’ll be sure to receive them. But you can’t call this phone number. You understand, don’t you?”

“I completely understand. Again, I don’t want to intrude on your privacy. Thank you for calling me,” I said. “I’m glad I found you.”

“Well, I don’t know when I can call you again, but I will try. Have a good day.” He sounded distant, his defenses up. Something told me not to hold my breath for that return call.

I scared him! For all he knew, I was aborted. And thinking about the way he treated Molly? What an asshole. Part of me hated this man, another part wanted to know more about my family.

A letter post-marked from Virginia arrived the following week. His photos! I held it for a few seconds, my hands shaking. He had used a business-sized envelope and the handwriting was beautiful, just like mine. This was the closest I’d come to meeting my birth father, other than hearing his voice. I took the photos out and there I was! My blue eyes and brown hair looking back at me. I even saw a resemblance in his two sons, Wes and Travis. As an eighteen-year-old, he was handsome.

Another photo was of Herb later in life with gray hair and a frown. All seriousness. He was standing next to his wife. They stood the same height, dressed formally, and accepting a 2008 Clean Water Farm Award. His farmer character disappeared in his business suit. His wife reminded me of a librarian, ready to scoff at you if you were caught giggling.

I stared at those pictures for a long time. I definitely resemble him more than Molly. A younger photo of him was a spitting image of my fifteen-year-old son. Being adopted, DNA never offered an “aha” moment in my family, until now.

I would probably never meet Herb in person, but I’m glad I found him. I was thrilled finally to have found both of my birth parents, yet still filled with emotions I could not yet identify. Who knew I would have found both of them within a couple of months!

I looked at his photo again. I had no doubt that this man was my father. I have his eyebrows, his blue eyes, the shape of his face, even the color of his hair. I felt proud of my detective instincts. My curiosity had paid off. Or had it? I’m grateful that the ones who raised me taught me right from wrong. They’re the ones who loved me, cared for me, raised me — not this blood relative!

Herb called around Christmastime that year, and the years following. They were simple conversations — a lot of “How are yous” and “Sorry I didn’t call you sooner.” I recognized the phone number before answering. I could never call him; I could only write and I was OK with that. He even sent money at Christmas.

Then the phone calls stopped.

Today, I’m indecisive about whether to call his number or just leave him be. What would his wife think if she answered the phone? Would I be welcomed? Would I become the daughter she never had, a replacement for the son she lost? Should I play detective again?

I just don’t know.


Jennifer Evans is a writer and editor by trade. She was blessed by adoption at the age of five months. She enjoys traveling, reading memoirs, cycling and spending time with her family. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992 and enjoys helping others who struggle with similar conditions. She has lived in five states and attended high school in The Netherlands.  Here is a link to a poetry anthology she published about the MS (multiple sclerosis) experience.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 14: New Beginnings

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Lori Prashker-Thomas

“I met you on March 23, 1996.”

I dropped the card and began to cry. I knew immediately it was from my daughter, April, who I had placed for adoption immediately after she miraculously entered the world.

The decisions that led up to placing my daughter for adoption were very difficult. At that point in my life, I had lost my job, my apartment and my boyfriend of four years. I was emotionally distraught. Feeling lost, I started to drink and party. It was a dark time for me.

It was November of 1995 and I was pregnant. I did not know who the father was and needed to figure out what to do. Abortion? Maybe…I am pro-choice and feel that every woman has the right to choose. I went to the clinic and started filling out the paperwork, but I could not go through with it.

Not knowing what to do, I packed my bags and moved 1,000 miles away, in the hopes that my family would not find out about the pregnancy. I knew I could take care of myself financially, but not emotionally. I realized I was not ready to raise a child.

The only option left was adoption. Not knowing what to do or where to turn, I started looking in the yellow pages for adoption attorneys. I picked the one with a big, bright ad. Scared and embarrassed, I walked into her office and sat down. I went through the questionnaire the attorney gave me and went to the OBGYN for the tests. Then, I sat down to choose the family who would raise my daughter.

I had only two requirements: I wanted them to be well-established and Jewish. I chose a couple who seemed secure, loving and responsible. We met only a few times and the decision was made.

On March 22, 1996 around 8 p.m., I went into labor, alone and scared. I entered the hospital with the attorney’s social worker. My family still didn’t know.

Seven hours later, my baby girl was born (six weeks early). She was tiny, only a little over four pounds, but otherwise perfectly healthy. I held her in my arms, talked to her, and tried to explain why I was letting her go. I handed her over to the nurse, and off to the NICU she went. I never saw her again at the hospital.

For many years, I didn’t talk about this experience. The conversation around abortion and adoption is so frequently weighed down by judgments, opinions, and agendas. With great sadness, I have found this to be the case within my own Jewish community, and within my own family.

The decision I made to place my daughter for adoption not only affected my life, but my family’s as well. When my mother learned about my choice, she said that she never forgave me for placing her grandchild up for adoption. That conversation sticks with me; it still stings. Thank G-d, today I am in a good place with my family.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”  This is my motto. Making the decision to place my child for adoption was my first stop of faith. It forced me to reconnect with my roots, my core reason for being.

After many years of struggling with G-d, I walked into Shabbat Services and started to pray. Amazingly, as I was praying, I began to feel grounded. I felt prepared to pick up the pieces of my shattered life and piece them back together.

Today, I am married to the love of my life. I have started two successful businesses. I gave birth to another daughter who I have been privileged to raise. I have reconnected with my family. And, today, I have a close relationship with April, the daughter I was not ready to raise when she first entered the world.

April’s courage allowed a beautiful new beginning to emerge. She, my daughter, reached out to me. She asked hard questions. I was as honest as I could be. I told her why I chose to place her for adoption. I tried to explain that I was not emotionally prepared to be a parent. I told her life does not always play out the way you envision it. Circumstances change. Seasons change. People change.

Today, I try to live each day as fully as possible. I tell the people in my life — and especially the women I am privileged to meet — that they are not alone. You are not alone. Try and make the best decision possible at any given moment. Be honest with yourself, and with others. Love deeply, love bravely. Do not let the fear of losing those closest to you keep you from loving.

Though the road of life may twist and turn, there will always be a chance to start anew, and begin living again.


At 23, Lori’s life was unraveling. Pregnant and alone, she felt abortion was her only option. When she couldn’t bring myself to go through with the abortion, she set out on a lifetime’s journey as a Jewish birth mother.  Twenty years later, she is a successful business owner, in a wonderful marriage, with a great relationship with both of her biological children. She has always had an interest in the arts. She is an accomplished photographer, speaker, and writer.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 13: Adopted Across Color Lines

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Lucy Waldmeir

“Where are you from?” I’ve been searching for the perfect answer to that question for my entire life. On occasion I will say I’m Chinese, and then an American asks me, “Why is your English so good?” or “How come you don’t have an accent?”

Other times I will say I’m American if a Chinese person asks me, “But where are you actually from?” or “Why can’t you speak Chinese better?” Most of the time however, I say Chinese-American in an attempt to avoid any follow-up questions.

I am far from a conventional adoptee, as I have lived equal halves of my life in the US and in China. I have experienced the stigma that comes along with being adopted from both sides of the world, most of it stemming from lack of understanding.

As a young child growing up in America, I can remember little about how I was treated in reference to being adopted. All I can recall is realizing I was different. My black hair and almond shaped eyes never matched the blonde or brunette hair and round eyes of my friends and family.

I’ve always known that I was different, and as a young child wanting nothing more than to fit in, I resented not looking like the classic American princess. Although back then I thought I could dye my hair and that would be the end of it, I now know that my identity problems (if you can call them that) are far more complicated than that.

Fast forward to when I moved to China and I experienced entirely different problems. I had never been in a place where I looked like the majority as far as I could remember up until that point, and that helped China quickly start to feel like home (though I would not admit this to my mother until years later).

Though it wasn’t all good as I had never, up until that point, been held up to an impossible expectation: to speak Chinese fluently. While praised for the ability to speak fluent English (my mother tongue), the inability to speak what was assumed to be my first language made me feel inferior.

The first couple years we lived in Shanghai, before I got fluent in Chinese, were the worst. I was constantly being spoken to and expected to speak fluent Chinese. When I was unable to converse, I got nothing but looks of confusion and disapproval. I felt like a failure in the eyes of “my own people” which perhaps motivated me to learn Chinese.

Culture shock hit me in many different ways besides from the language barrier. I may not have looked the part, but I had been treated like an American princess my whole life and this meant cleanliness and friendliness — two things China is largely lacking.

Between the snot-filled spit that littered the streets and pavements to the dreaded public restrooms which were worse than I could imagine, I was getting hit with a major reality shock in culture difference.

The pollution and trash-littered grounds were almost unbearable in the beginning, though I quickly found all of this to be routine. I tried to keep interaction with locals as minimal as possible for fear of either getting scolded for my inability to speak Chinese, or lectured about how lucky I was to be adopted.

Whenever I did come into contact with people, I quickly learned to keep my head down, never to smile, and not to go out of my way for any stranger because that favor would not be returned. People in China were fast-paced, always moving, and so I quickly adapted to do the same well (a habit I had to correct when moving back to America).

What would seem rude or isolating in America was the norm in China. I spent the most crucial years of my childhood in Shanghai, and most of my seemingly bad habits (including rarely smiling or interacting with strangers, only doing things if I have a strong purpose to do so, and maintaining a constant quick pace about me) emerged because of my time there.

I may not have been enamored by the locals, surroundings or the language, but I was quick to fall in love with the food. Unlike my sister, I loved and continue to favor Chinese cuisine over any other.

I remember joking around with my sister saying I was “the perfect example of an Asian stereotype” as I love Chinese food, play Chinese sports, have good grades and a competitive need to do well in school, as well as the conventional Asian body.

In a way, I liked this joke more than I should, as it made me feel connected to a culture in a way I never had felt before. Though living up to my Asian stereotype in many ways, I was lacking in a talent for math. I seemed just average for the Chinese standard, which was always a disappointment.

At school, I was far from a conventional Chinese student, and I quickly fell into the “foreigner friend group” with all the children at my international school who were westerners ranging from Nigerians to Finlanders.

I fell into this group simply because of my interests including theatre which was something the Chinese students didn’t have time for. My school had and continues to have one of the best Chinese programs among the international schools, and I quickly picked up on the language. I studied Chinese for 8 years and became fluent. Recently I took my AP Chinese self-study, and received a 5.

Many of my Chinese teachers were my favorites. They took a liking to my story and unconventional personality as compared to the normal Chinese student. School was where I felt the least stigma for being different, though it was hard being one of the only adopted people many of the children had ever met. They gave me constant pity.

I was never one to appreciate pity and always made sure people understood how I felt about adoption. Being adopted was the norm for me and I did not feel bad because of it.

With mastering the language to the best of my foreigner abilities came mastering the signs, locals, everything. I could get to wherever I wanted cheap, easy and quick. I could order food at restaurants or buy groceries proficiently and towards my final years in Shanghai, I was often never recognized as a foreigner as I perfected my accent and would translate for my friends (even ones with Chinese-speaking parents).

My proudest moments were when I could maintain an entire conversation without anyone detecting Chinese as not being my first language. Though I didn’t receive any praise because of it, unlike my mother, I felt personal pride and achievement when I was able to prove my Chinese abilities.

My Chinese way was exercised constantly, whether it be in school, everyday life or even at home. At home was where my beloved AiYi (which loosely translates to nanny) worked for us for all eight years. Though she was there to cook, clean, walk the dogs and look after us, she was more like family, and we called her our Chinese mother.

I love AiYi as my family and my mother treasured her as her best friend, despite the fact that she could not speak a word of English. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with China when you had family there. She knew my sister and me better than we knew ourselves and catered to our every need, spoiling us endlessly.

I will keep in touch with AiYi forever, and she will always be in my life. She was constantly sticking up for me during my earlier years in China when I couldn’t speak the language and she helped me through any tough times.

I found it hard to get used to public transportation. It was less convenient than having a car, though I quickly realized it was my ticket to freedom. I knew that living in such a safe place came with its perks and was quick to take advantage of this. I was able to navigate my way around the city which was full of fun and exciting things to do especially as a teenager, something I would never have gotten to experience in America and for that I am grateful. It was dirt cheap, too, which was always appreciated by my scrappy teenage self.

There is a lot I was able to experience in China that I never would have encountered in America. I was engulfed in a third world country for half of my life, and this changed my perspective of the world as a whole. I often feel American peers know and experience little outside their American bubble and are stunted by ignorance because of it.

I have travelled not only Asia but to the rest of the world and that has given me experiences far more unique than many people I know. I have been to ice festivals in HarBin, seen the Terracotta Warriors in XiAn and climbed The Great Wall in Beijing. I have been exposed to dog eating festivals, up close and personal fireworks, and the poorest of locals. I have experienced all the Chinese holidays partaking in the traditional holiday activities and traditions. My life in eight years has been filled with more exciting experiences than many people achieve in a lifetime.

One of my favorite experiences was going back to visit my own orphanage in AnHui, though I was young at the time and my memories may deceive me. I remember it was one of the holidays where I got almost all of the attention, something I loved, being a theatre student.

I remember meeting all these people who made my very existence seem like such a big deal. I recall seeing the disabled children left in the orphanage and feeling sadness in my heart knowing they would most likely end up living their whole adolescent lives in the stuffy orphanage.

Most of all, I remember feeling such privilege that I had made it out of that place. I remember thinking about what my life could’ve been like before going to bed and for the first time really thinking about who my birth parents were and why they abandoned me.

My curiosity fueled by personal interest started my research into adoption in China. I wrote many papers about this topic over the years of my schooling. Though there were many facts that shocked or interested me, my favorite part about learning about adoption in China was trying to connect it to my own adoption.

Was my family one where my parents loved me but were forced by my grandparents to give me up? Or could they simply not afford the fine? My mind always raced with questions whenever I did my research and this eventually led to my curiosity about finding my birth parents. This was something much more complicated than I could ever really imagine.

I never wanted to find my birth parents at a time that was inconvenient to myself. I took a more selfish approach, because I often blame my birth parents’ decision to give me up for my lack of feeling good enough and the constant need to prove myself.

I was harsh and unemotional whenever my mom asked my about finding my birth family, because in my eyes, they didn’t want me for whatever reason and that was all that mattered. Be this as it may, unreasonable or unfair, it’s how I felt and how I still feel to some extent.

I feel no obligation or responsibility towards them though my mother fears this to be untrue once I have a more mature view of the situation. I have now decided to wait until I’m older to start looking, though I may never look.

Though now I have moved back to America, I still consider China my home and have made it a necessity that I go back and visit at least once a year. In 2017, I went back and volunteered at the Shanghai Healing Home where disabled orphans were taken care of and nursed back to health with the love and one on one care they wouldn’t be able to receive in a crowded orphanage.

Little did I know at the time that this was going to be a life changing experience for me. My sister and I went to the orphanage every day for a week, spending our time feeding the children, playing with them, and just giving them love and attention.

I expected it to be depressing and was surprised when I saw how much love these children got and how much love I felt for these children. They were like me, not knowing where they came from, and I felt an instant connection to them because of it. My sister and I were quick to develop our own favorites and bonded with them as much as we could.

Prior to that experience, I had never considered adoption for me, though I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I wanted to love a child I had created, because all my life people seemed surprised an adopted kid could get as much love as a biological kid. This experience showed me how untrue this was as my bonds to the children were strong and almost immediate.

My outlook on being adopted has been significantly influenced by my experience overseas which I now call home. I can honestly say I feel more Chinese than I do American. I am not like any other adopted kid I know as simply speaking the language sets me apart let alone living in the country I was born into for so long.

Yes, I am different and I have often found myself wishing I could be just like anyone else, though now I realize how unique I truly am. As far as answering the question “Where are you from?” goes, truth is that I don’t really know. Perhaps there is no right answer without an intro to my special life story.

However, I do know I am and always will proudly identify as an adopted Chinese American.


Lucy Waldmeir spent spent eight years of her life, from ages seven to fifteen, living in China as a Chinese American adoptee. She is now a high school senior at an American public high school. She is interested in pursuing anthropology as a major in college.  

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 12: Good Hair: A Lifelong Labor of Love

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Heather Freer Kurut

A few years ago, when our twin girls were just three months old, I took advantage of their then-predictable afternoon nap time to watch the Chris Rock documentary “Good Hair.” I sat with rapt attention, equally fascinated, moved by and, at times, horrified by the lengths we will go to in the name of cultural ideals of beauty.

The irony of a white woman with thick, straight hair – who has donated her own quickly-growing braids multiple times – watching and being moved by Chris Rock’s film was not lost on me. But I am a mommy, too, to two beautiful brown girls with heads of coily curls who arrived to our family through adoption. They share none of my genetic material; not surprisingly, their hair and skin share none of my characteristics.

After finishing the movie, I pledged: “I will spend my life assuring our girls that their skin, their hair and their shape are all perfectly beautiful and exactly as God intended.” (And I put it on social media, so you know I meant business).

I agreed whole-heartedly with Chris Rock’s parting words of wisdom: “What do I tell my daughters? I tell them that the stuff on top of their heads is nowhere near as important as the stuff inside their heads.”

Then (in hindsight, and much to my chagrin) I simply ignored that stuff on top of their heads.

After all, I assured myself, I had grown up loving to style hair, and eagerly learned tips and tricks at every opportunity. I could French braid with the best of them, knew how to cut hair with scissors and with clippers, and could do “period” hairstyles for theatrical productions – French twists! 1940’s up-dos, with snoods! Pin curls and finger waves! Braids and buns and wigs galore!

I had even earned college credit and been employed doing hair design for shows. So, I did what I knew to do with kid-hair – I shampooed their hair daily with baby shampoo, and combed it, and then just kind of let it be. Even now, as I write this, I cringe.

My husband and I have a running joke: that our girls will, during their teenage years, look back upon photos from their first two years, see the state of their hair, and immediately stop speaking to either of us. (My darling girls – we are so sorry. We simply didn’t know.)

The first time someone addressed the state of their hair in public was at a restaurant. A lovely older woman approached our table to say hello. She smiled at the girls, who promptly smiled back. She remarked that we made a beautiful family. We beamed. After all, this was a welcome change from the strangers who’d tried to figure out if we were biologically related.

A few minutes later, I ran into the same woman in the ladies’ room. “You know, honey,” she said to me, gently touching my arm, as I eagerly anticipated more compliments, “those babies’ heads are DRY. You’ve got to start getting some moisture to that hair.”

I went back to our table, red-faced, and a bit indignant. She was a stranger! She didn’t know me!  I shared the bathroom interaction with my husband, liberally peppered with lots of “can-you-believe-its” and a few “I-would-NEVER…s”. To his credit, he gently asked, “Well, should we be doing something different?”

What I was too proud to realize, of course, is that she may not have known me, but she did know their hair.

A few weeks later, in a hair care aisle at Target, I spotted a woman with hair just like our girls, only her coily spirals were shiny, and defined, with tell-tale healthy bounce. After staring for a little too long at this stranger’s magnificent crown of curls, I glanced past her to her cart and spotted an adorable little girl, with hair perfectly parted into two round, springy puffs. Same curl texture as our girls. Same shiny bounce as her mom.

“Pardon me…” I opened, “Can I ask you a question?” The woman shot me a sideways glance, perhaps unsure if agreeing would open a proverbial can of worms. After a hesitant “okay,” I asked for haircare guidance, explaining the similarity of textures, yet the noticeable difference in condition of our respective children’s hair.

“You’re not using baby shampoo, are you?” she asked, her raised eyebrow and side-eye as defined as when I initially approached her. “Not anymore!” I confidently responded. She spent the next several minutes showing me different types of products while I eagerly took notes on my phone. She talked about the importance of moisture, explained the benefits of going sulfate-free, and shared a phrase that would later change my life: protective style. I thanked her for her advice and filled my basket with products she had recommended.

I came home from Target a bit overwhelmed with information, but equally motivated to learn.  That same afternoon, I ordered two books (Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care by Rory Mullen, and Come Rain or Come Shine by Rachel Garlinghouse, both written by mamas through adoption).  I found the blogs Mixed Family Life and De Su Mama, and pored over their haircare tips and tricks.

In hindsight, I only followed some of the recommendations. When washing and styling the girls’ hair, there was a lot of trial and error; mostly error. The condition of their hair was improving, for sure, but they still had a lot of dryness and breakage. Though the books and blogs were (and still are) tremendously helpful, I knew I needed more help. We signed up for a haircare class, sponsored by ORS Olive Oil products, at our adoption agency. I was invigorated, and ready. I clapped victoriously when we completed the class registration form.

And then, as happens from time to time amid the busy-ness of parenting and working and spouse-ing, I goofed. Though I had the class scheduled in my calendar, I had forgotten to set an alert. When I realized that we had missed it, I cried. Cried as though I had committed some egregious criminal act against our children.

My mama-guilt at an all-time high, I wept to my husband. “What if they go to Middle School having to ask friends’ moms or, worse yet, their teenage friends to fix their hair because their mom is clueless? What if they resent me for letting their hair get so out of control? What if they are ashamed of me?”

My level-headed, stoic husband – my voice of reason when I am creating catastrophes out of conflicts – gently asked:

“Why don’t you ask people who love you for help?”

Of course.

Tucking a teeny bit of pride away, I sent a Facebook message to a group of strong, loving African American women I feel close with, each of whom has beautiful, natural hair. “Hi ladies,” I wrote through tears. “I am writing to ask you for some advice.”

My former student Jessica (now an accomplished adult) responded immediately: “What’s up”… and I launched right into it, sniffling as I typed. Within moments, I also received responses from a classmate from undergrad (Nikki), and three other former students (Ivory, Marcia and Sharice).

In several paragraphs, I sheepishly admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing.  I, who, for a lifetime, had prided myself on being a good student, had read books and blogs and tried things, and still felt lost. I felt like I had failed.

Without an ounce of judgement or condescension, they each offered input and made suggestions.  They shared details from their own natural hair journeys, and asked what we were doing that had been successful. They recommended products and styles, video tutorials and continued support.  Though this group message thread was two years ago, I routinely re-read much of what they wrote.

I follow their tried-and-true guidelines for cleansing, and caring for these precious curls. I will forever be grateful for both their patience and their sage advice. Likewise, I am grateful for the stranger who approached me with gentle concern, for my husband’s careful prompting, for the woman in the Target haircare aisle, and for the online and print resources available to parents whose children have hair texture that differs so vastly from their own. The combined efforts of the people who helped us have resulted in phenomenal hair growth, and shiny, happy, curly heads of hair.

Though it has been over two years since our family’s hair care journey began, I continue to learn as much as I can about braiding, gentle cleansing, preventing breakage and protective styling.  As is the case in many other families’ homes, hair washing, moisturizing and styling is a weekly event.

Our girls can relate to the main character in the children’s book I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley; they identify with both her impatience at the time it takes to detangle, wash (or co-wash) and style, and the pride in the shiny, braided product. In what I consider to be the ultimate compliment, a co-worker recently referred a woman to me for haircare advice for her multi-racial family. In talking with her, I realized how very much I have learned… but I’m not done learning yet.

Most recently, we took our girls to Aishia, an African American stylist, for an end trim and consultation. Hearing her remark that their hair is healthy and strong made me beam with pride.  Her confirmation of our hair care routine was reassuring, and her suggestions for products were spot on.

She recommended another stylist, Lauren, for a braided protective style.  Our girls were champs for a whopping three hours (total) in Lauren’s chair, during which time I asked what must have been hundreds of questions about comb tails and parts and non-tearing elastics. While at the salon, an older woman approached me and said, “What a beautiful family you have. Their hair looks fantastic.”

I recently watched “Good Hair” again, and found it as moving as my first viewing. I agree that what’s inside my daughter’s heads is far more important that what’s atop their heads… and yet, I know that how I treat their hair is pivotal on the path to helping them love all of themselves.  And after all, that’s what I pledged to do.

This time around, my favorite moment from the film was from Chris Rock’s interview with Maya Angelou.  Dispensing some of her trademark wisdom, Dr. Angelou remarked: “I would say that hair is a woman’s glory and that you share that glory with your family.” Ultimately, styling and protecting our girls’ hair is an act of love, and we do it gladly.

To our darling daughters:
Daddy and I are in awe of the glory of your hair.  Your curls could run the world. 

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When she’s not hanging out with her family, Heather Freer Kurut works as a Middle School Principal and a Yoga teacher. She volunteers as a speaker for the Cradle’s Adoption Education program. She and a colleague created a workshop to help schools craft curricula that works for families formed in all types of ways. Heather Kurut has written previously for the Portrait of an Adoption series.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 11: From Adopted To Surrogate: Discovering My Family of Origin

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Jen Rittenhouse

Five years ago I shared a piece of my birth story for this blog. I had just closed the door on the chapter of my life that was getting to know my biological family. My daughter was eight months old. I was processing and moving forward.

You are reading this so you already know adoption stories are vastly different. I tossed mine in the mix years ago to add a layer of irreverence, heartbreak and not-so-happy ending that I longed to connect with as my relationship with my biologicals was unraveling.

It was cathartic, liberating, candid and mine. I’m a writer. That’s how we do things.

I hadn’t thought about my biological family — namely the mistakes I made, the people I hurt, the disappointment I felt and the lessons I learned — for almost eight years until I was dropping my youngest daughter off at her childcare center last spring. I recognized a biological cousin from a meeting a decade (or more?) ago.

Small world, I thought.

I had no intention of introducing myself until we were both leaving the center. We made eye contact, quite literally walking out the door at the same time, so I did what felt like the decent thing to do.

I introduced myself. We shook hands and I asked him how old his daughter was. The encounter was brief and I remember driving away thinking about how sweet it is to see a parent’s face light up during that first year when everything is a marvel and new.

Four days later all hell broke loose.

A direct message to my Instagram account from my biological sister. She was mad and wanted me to know her family wanted nothing to do with me. She referenced the blog story I wrote five years ago and made some general statements about what I said about my biological mother.

My reaction was visceral: I deleted the message as soon as I read it. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Not because her words were intended to hurt me, but because it was so clear how deeply I had hurt her.

I carried an apology to her in my heart for days. I whispered “I’m sorry” into the universe every night before I went to sleep hoping it would get to her. A biological aunt, the only biological connection I keep, reached out to have a lunch date.

She gently told me that her family members wanted nothing to do with me. She explained they were upset about the blog story (you do the math, my biological sister had to Google me to find it) and never believed I should have lingered in their lives as long as I did. She asked that I not acknowledge her nephew if we passed at childcare.

We laughed about the drama. I shared stories about my girls. As we parted ways we hugged and agreed the drama wouldn’t impact our relationship.

As part of processing the ordeal I let myself feel mad, sad and frustrated (and sad, did I mention that?). I cried. I went to counseling. I journaled. I Instagrammed. I Googled everything I could find about healing wounds for your family of origin.

I was twenty weeks pregnant as a gestational carrier (aka surrogate) for my friend as this was all crashing down. I’m a compassionate carrier, quite literally having someone’s child out of the goodness of my own heart. And yet I struggled with the doubt I was suddenly feeling about myself.

Could I truly be the careless villain this family believes I am?

I was in a rabbit hole about family of origin when it occurred to me I’ve been seeing things upside down my whole life. I was so desperate to be accepted and be a part of a family that was never my own. And with this latest kerfuffle I was eager to heal a wound that I believed I had caused by being born.

There’s a reason the saying goes “it hit me like a ton of bricks.” Sometimes when you have a realization that hard you can quite literally feel the weight of it.

My realization: I may have been born to a member of another family, but I belonged to my parents – to my family. To my grandparents. To my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who have nurtured and loved me for my entire life.

I remember looking in the mirror at my pregnant self as these thoughts came to me. I thought healing for my birth story and my mother’s infertility would come through having children of my own. And while the miracles of new babies certainly make our lives better, carrying a child for a woman unable to carry her own is where I can create healing for a primal wound in my family.


My mother tried for years to have children. Miscarriage after miscarriage. She almost died from an ectopic pregnancy. Then came more heartache as multiple adoptions fell through. She was scrubbing toilets on a Monday morning when her phone rang.

The social worker had a baby for her. How soon could she and my dad get to the hospital?

I can offer apologies and explanations to my biologicals but it will always feel empty to them. But with this baby I can offer something far more significant to my parents, the people who experienced heartbreak along with them so many years ago, and to my friends planning for this this baby boy.

My adoption story taught me that sometimes you have to accept that you hurt people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t forgive, grow and recover. It doesn’t mean you can’t still find healing and hope.

I spent decades desperate to trace my roots and know where I come from. Turns out, I never needed to look very far to understand who I am, where I come from and most importantly, where I belong.


Jen Rittenhouse is a copywriter and social marketer who lives in the not-Seattle Seattle-area city of Puyallup. By day she manages social media for a Puget Sound-based health system. By night she wrangles her daughters, 6 and 3, and dreams of a full-time freelance life. You can connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @YennyPie.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

DAY 10: Children Are Exactly Who They Are Meant To Be

Children Are Exactly Who They Are Meant To Be

 Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives. 

By Anne Moody

This piece is an adaptation from Anne Moody’s intelligent, thought-provoking book called The Children That Money Can Buy: Stories From the Frontlines of Foster Care and Adoption.

“When a wonderful baby flies over the ocean
To come like a little bird, safe to this nest,
We’ll surround her with all of our love and devotion
And give thanks for the child from the East who came West”

By Jean Moehring, on the occasion of her granddaughter’s arrival

I have a distinct memory of the moment I first wanted to be an adoptive parent. It was 1964. I was thirteen years old and on a spring-break road trip with my parents and sister. We were driving across country, stopping at various sites of historical significance along the way, but I just wanted to stay in the car and read.

At one point in the trip, I was sitting in the car reading a newspaper article about a single woman (I believe she was a well-known reporter) who had adopted a little girl from Korea. I think what made the story newsworthy was that the woman was a little bit famous and had managed to adopt as a single parent at a time when that was almost unheard of. But whatever the reason, I was fascinated—and could clearly see my future, most of which was extremely murky, as the mother of a Korean daughter.

Twenty-three years later, that future was realized in the adoption of our youngest daughter, Jocelyn, who arrived from Korea at three-and-a-half months old. My husband, who is a writer, wrote a wonderful story about our adoption experience for the Seattle Times, in which he tried to explain why we had made the decision to adopt.

As he told it, when I brought the subject of adoption up to him it didn’t seem like I wanted to start a discussion; it was more like I was announcing a pregnancy. And that’s exactly the way I felt about it.

People were curious about why we had decided to adopt. We were already the parents of two daughters who had fulfilled our expectations of parenthood beyond our wildest dreams. The grandparents, especially, couldn’t figure out why we didn’t just have another child like the two we all adored so much.

I would try to answer their questions logically, by saying things like, “Well, we just feel we’ve been so fortunate to have two healthy children and we don’t want to press our luck with a third pregnancy.” But that wasn’t true at all: We wanted to adopt because it felt fated that we do so. I had known that little girl was coming for a long time.

I had been an adoption counselor for five years by the time we adopted Jocelyn. I don’t think it’s necessary for adoption counselors to be adoptive parents—although many are—but there’s no question that becoming an adoptive parent teaches you things you can’t learn in any other way. And being an adoption counselor definitely helped me as an adoptive parent.

Jocelyn’s adjustment to her new life as a member of our family was not easy for any of us. Although she weighed only ten pounds when she arrived, Jocelyn was a mighty force who immediately dominated the household with her distress.

Her sisters, Erin and Caitlin, who were eight and five, were old enough to understand that she was, as her doctor so scientifically explained, “freaking out” about all the changes in her world. Most specifically, she was freaking out about the loss of her foster mother, and she wanted nothing to do with us—with the exception of her sisters, who could amuse her by day, and her new grandfather, whose broad chest could comfort her into sleep.

Since Grandpa loved naps, this worked well for both of them when he was around. But the night times were dreadful.

Because I had known other babies who had similarly difficult adjustments, I took Jocelyn’s unhappiness as a sign that she was smart and sensitive and, most importantly, that she had been able to develop healthy attachments in her foster home, along with the belief that her crying and protests would matter to someone.

The babies who concerned me in my work were those who seemed not to have noticed that their lives had been upended, not only by new caretakers but by an entirely new world with strange sights, sounds, smells, and touches.

It was common for me to do a post placement visit in the first few weeks after a baby’s arrival and then write a report stating that the parents described the child as calm and easygoing, noting that she rarely cried and was already sleeping through the night. On the surface, it looked as though these babies were doing well, and their passivity made the early adjustment period for their families relatively easy.

But I think many of these “easygoing” children were actually so frightened and overwhelmed that they had retreated emotionally. Rather than register protest, they responded to the trauma with silence and complacency.

I remember one seven-month-old baby from Korea who carried this reaction to an extreme. She arrived bearing no resemblance to the child described in her referral paperwork. Her parents were expecting a child who was “smiling and babbling, sitting steadily and standing when her hands are held.”

Instead they brought home from the airport a silent and limp baby who seemed unable even to hold her head up. They rushed her to the doctor, assuming she was sick, but there was no indication of a physical problem.

For two excruciating days and nights, the parents worried while the baby remained listless. Then, on the third day, she began to cry and she cried for hours while her parents made futile attempts to soothe her. Finally, completely exhausted, the baby was quiet in her mother’s lap.

Then she slowly lifted her head, sat up straight and cautiously reached up a tiny hand to touch her mother’s cheek. This child turned out to be exceptionally bright, and I think she had just initially “decided” that total withdrawal was an intelligent and sensible response to such a traumatic situation.

Jocelyn’s adjustment period wasn’t nearly as dramatic or as rapid. It felt as though it took months before we figured out how to make her happy, yet when I look at pictures of her first few weeks with us now, there is evidence of faint smiling even then. But she remained mysterious to us, and my husband and I had to relearn many of the things we thought we knew about parenting.

This time, our tried and true methods for getting a baby to sleep, such as gentle rocking and quiet singing in a darkened room, seemed only to infuriate the baby. We finally figured out that what she found soothing was rigorous bouncing and distracting chatter, neither of which came naturally to our minds as methods for soothing babies. (When we met her incredibly vivacious foster mother twelve years later, we finally understood why this behavior felt comforting and familiar to Jocelyn).

I think a primary lesson parents, whether by birth or adoption, need to learn is that it is their job to adapt to the child—not to try to make the child adapt to them. All children come to us as unique, distinct people, and it is the parent’s responsibility—and joy—to discover how to help them thrive. This responsibility extends to everything from figuring out how to soothe them as babies to knowing how to steer them toward becoming independent adults.

When Jocelyn was a toddler, I was working as a supervisor of the birth parent counseling program at a large adoption agency. Ten years earlier, this agency had been one of the first to embrace open adoption.

I remember a training session for the counselors that included a fascinating talk by a psychologist who wanted to give us tips about how to talk to birth parents about choosing adoptive parents for their child. She told us about a study of adoptive placements whose authors concluded that the single most significant factor affecting long-term happiness in adoptive families was the fit between parents and children in what the psychologist called “energy level.”

She explained that a mismatch in the energy level of the parents and child was the most highly predictive indicator of an adoption disruption—meaning that the child ultimately left the family.

At first this idea seemed preposterous to me. After all, there are plenty of birth families in which there is an obvious mismatch in the energy levels between parents and children, and they seem to have no more trouble getting along than do families in which everyone is similar in that respect. I also resisted the idea that families can be typed according to energy level and that family members necessarily resemble each other in this way.

I found myself rejecting a lot of what the psychologist was saying, but as I thought more about it I realized that my agency and others that encouraged open adoption were already doing a version of what she recommended. We weren’t doing it deliberately—it was just a natural outcome of openness.

When our birth parents searched for the right adoptive family for their child, they looked for people with whom they felt comfortable, and their (possibly unconscious) recognition of a shared energy level probably contributed to that feeling in subtle but significant ways.

When a child is born to a family, we assume that he or she will in some ways be a “chip off the old block.” Children aren’t clones of their parents, but they do share traits that go beyond height and hair color to include more nebulous areas such as talents, interests, and personality type.

As someone who has worked with many hundreds of birth parents and adoptive families over a period of thirty-five years, I have been in a position to study the age-old nature-or-nurture question. I’ve watched in amazement as some children turn into the spitting image of their adoptive parents, even when they are of different races.

I’ve been equally amazed by children who have had no contact with their birth parents but nevertheless grow up to share not only their physical traits but their mannerisms, avocations, and dispositions.

I often thought about the psychologist’s explanation of this “fit” between the energy levels of adoptive parents and children. She had used the example of the Thanksgiving dinner traditions of two large extended families. One family traditionally played football after dinner; the other played Scrabble. The kids in each family grew up knowing what was expected of them as they became part of the family tradition.

For a high-energy kid in a football-playing family, everything feels natural, just as it does for a quieter kid in a Scrabble-playing family. But when you have a child who doesn’t like to play football and is either forced to play anyway or is allowed to sit out (maybe reading a book), then problems can emerge. Other family members might interpret his behavior as being uncooperative and “not like us.”

Conversely, the kid who loves to play football would be just as noticeably different in the less energetic family. He would be squirming, unable to focus on the Scrabble game and dying to work off some energy—and the family might interpret all of this as uncooperative and “not like us.” Of course, the families still love their children, but there is an underlying recognition of difference, and when the different child is an adoptee, that can feel significant.

Then I started thinking about my own family, and the fact that there was a clear discrepancy between Jocelyn’s energy level and the energy levels of the rest of us. Jocelyn is not hyperactive and the rest of us are neither quiet nor sluggish, but there was a noticeable jolt of energy when she joined the family.

My husband referred to her, with what he called her “outsized zest for life,” as “the human plus sign,” but she could be just as energetically unhappy when forced to do something that required sitting still.

My husband and I were kept busy modifying our beliefs and approaches to what we had assumed was good parenting in order to accommodate the reality of this very distinct little person. With Jocelyn, good parenting meant things like understanding that a toddler—at least this toddler, unlike her sisters—just shouldn’t be expected to sit happily at the table (not at home, not at someone else’s house, and definitely not at a restaurant).

Had my husband and I shared Jocelyn’s energy level, we probably already would have known that.

Intellectually, I understand that high-energy children might fit better in a high-energy family and that the same is true for calmer children and calmer families. I also understand how completely appropriate it is for birth parents to pick adoptive families with whom they feel familiar and comfortable.

It all makes perfect sense—except that if adoption agencies actually matched children with adoptive parents according to this metric, we never would have been matched with Jocelyn. And that makes no sense at all.

Before we adopted Jocelyn, I was part of an adoptive-parent support group made up of clients and fellow counselors. The group included mothers with children, aged newborn to six years old, who had been adopted from all over the world as well as through in-country infant adoptions. There were also a few birth children—including my two daughters—in the group. I thoroughly enjoyed socializing with these women and learned a lot from them and their children.

I also sometimes attended a larger gathering of adoptive mothers where speakers would share information and facilitate discussions. One discussion focused on the proper way to talk with a child about adoption—particularly about how to address your child’s feelings of loss or confusion over not having “grown in your tummy.”

The consensus was that when children expressed this feeling, parents should soothe and cuddle them and tell them that they also wish that the child could have been in their “tummy.” The mother and child could then bond over their shared loss.

I wasn’t an adoptive mom at that point, and everyone else seemed to be in agreement, so I didn’t say anything. I had read similar things in books about adoption, and although the approach seemed a little odd, I couldn’t explain why it bothered me.

Some years later, we adopted Jocelyn, and she grew into an energetic, outgoing, mischievous little four-year-old. She was not at all what I would call introspective, and generally made it obvious when something was bothering her.

Because of my work, we talked about adoption freely around our house, and we knew many other adoptive families—including our own extended family, with four of the eight cousins being adopted. (In later years, the number of cousins in the family would number eleven, with seven of them being adopted and four of them being Asian.) So Jocelyn just naturally amassed a lot of information about the subject.

Jocelyn knew the basics about where she had been born, how she had come to us, and that she looked different from the rest of us. The most complicated thing that she knew was that she had a birth mother and that when she was born, her birth mother hadn’t been able to take care of a baby and had decided on adoption. It was complex information for a four-year-old, and she didn’t ask a lot of questions or express concerns until one day when she voiced the classic, “Was I in your tummy ?”

I had always assumed I would say and do some version of what had been advised by other adoptive mothers. But the moment my daughter said that to me, I realized that telling her I wished that she had grown in my tummy was not only inaccurate but could be interpreted as saying that I wished she was a different child.

The truth for her and for me was that her father and I had quite specifically wanted a daughter from Korea. We had made the deliberate choice not to have another child by birth primarily because I had always wanted to adopt a child from Korea. A child who had “grown in my tummy” not only wouldn’t have been Korean—she wouldn’t have been Jocelyn.

I ended up telling her that she was exactly the child I had wanted and the child she was supposed to be. I also told her that I didn’t know why it had happened that she had been born to her birth parents and then adopted by us but that, for us, it was exactly the right thing to have happened.

And, most importantly, she was who she was, the exact right person, because she had been born to her birth parents, not to us. There was a little further talk about how it was very, very hard for women who lived in Korea (31 years ago) to have a baby when there wasn’t a daddy around to help them, and that maybe her own birth mother had decided that she wanted her baby to have two parents to take care of her.

That sounds like a pretty complicated conversation to have with anyone, let alone a four-year-old, but it was actually quite brief, and off she went on her busy, independent way.

There were no tears or cuddling—just big sighs of relief on my part for having figured out in the nick of time not to inadvertently make her feel like I wished she was some other child.

About six months later, when she was five years old, I read Jocelyn The Mulberry Bird. We had already read lots of books about the process of adoption and had talked a bit about her own adoption, but this was the first time that the idea of birth mothers (in this case mulberry-bird birth mothers) was addressed in any depth.

The book is about a young mother bird who is trying to raise her baby on her own because mulberry birds are the sort of birds where the father doesn’t stick around. Although it is hard, she is doing well until a storm blows her nest to the ground and she has to struggle to keep the baby warm and protected while also having to go off in search of food.

Eventually the baby gets sick and the mother realizes that it will die if she doesn’t get help, so she seeks advice from a wise owl. He tells her about some ground-dwelling birds that live far away (sandpipers, who according to the book raise babies as couples, so that one can look for food while the other stays and protects the baby), and she agrees to put her baby on the owl’s back and let him fly the baby to them.

Jocelyn took in the story without question, no doubt registering the breaks in my voice and lengthy pauses while I collected myself. (I cannot read this book without getting emotional even though there are some flaws in it, such as why not have the owl just fly the baby to a new nest, since single parenthood apparently works for mulberry birds most of the time).

I wasn’t sure that Jocelyn even understood the book as a story about adoption because it doesn’t actually use the words “adoption” or “birth mother.” But when I was tucking her into bed she told me that she thought that maybe now her birth mother “has a daddy and some other children.” She went on to say “wouldn’t it be nice of we could go and see her sometime and see her house and her beautiful garden.” (It’s all recorded in her “baby” book.)

Jocelyn didn’t say anything further that night about adoption but she had clearly understood the essence of the mulberry bird’s story. And she had clearly remembered our earlier conversations. At age five, there was obviously still a great deal she couldn’t understand about the selflessness of a birth mother’s love for her child (even when disguised as a mulberry bird).

But I do think she got the message that birth mothers love their babies, that her birth mother had loved her, that we loved her, and that she was exactly who she was meant to be.”

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Anne Moody is an adoptive parent and the co-director of an adoption agency specializing in in-country infant adoption. Her youngest daughter, Jocelyn, came from Korea in 1987 when she was three-and-a-half months old. Anne is the author of The Children Money Can Buy: Stories From the Frontlines of Foster Care and Adoption. Anne Moody wrote a piece for the 2016 Portrait of an Adoption series.

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter