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The Small Things That Count

As we marched through the approval process, my nerve was steady, my spirits high. But my fingertips failed me.



My husband and I began the process to adopt a baby girl from South Korea feeling confident and optimistic. “We’re both lawyers,” we reasoned. “Surely we can fill out and assemble paperwork.” We had researched transcultural adoption extensively and knew it was the right route for us. Moreover, we were not even first-time parents. We had a two-year-old son by birth, one whose severe colic had taught us about the patience required to be a parent.

Still, warnings rolled in from well-meaning family and friends: “The process is hopelessly complicated.” “You won’t believe the endless bureaucracy.” So we reconciled ourselves to encountering some red tape, but we never imagined that the things that would come between us and our daughter would be…my fingers?

Full speed ahead
At first, all went as expected. We breezed through the initial paperwork. Our interviews were not just positive, they were enjoyable. We regaled our social worker with tales of our impish, chubby-cheeked toddler, and she enticed us with stories about adoptive babies crawling into the homes—and hearts—of their forever families.

Only a single step (a mere formality) remained before we’d be placed on the waiting list to adopt: the approval of our fingerprints by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

On the appointed day, we turned the occasion of being fingerprinted into a small celebration, gliding from the CIS office into the expensive children’s furniture store across the street. We mined the displays for ideas for our new daughter’s room. We were on the way to bringing her home!

A month later, I tore open the envelopes from CIS, anticipating our official entry into the club of “waiting families.” Instead, I found a roadblock.

Ten unexpected delays
My husband’s fingerprints were approved, but mine had been rejected. There was no explanation.

I recalled how the CIS officer had placed my fingers over and over on the digital screen, attempting to get clear prints. He must have screwed up, I reasoned, and now we’re delayed because of his incompetence.

At the scheduled time, I went back to the CIS office. “Hmmm,” the officer mused over the images on the screen. “This isn’t good. I think they’ll reject you again. Your fingers are overused.”

“Excuse me?” I replied, certain that I had missed something.

“It happens all the time, especially with women.” This was news to me. The officer pointed to a poster of giant black-and-white thumbprints, mounted high up on the wall. “Do you see the good prints? See the swirls? Well, your swirls have lines through them. Overused fingers.”

I could see the swirls and lines to which she referred, but I was no closer to understanding my predicament.

“Well,” I joked, hoping to ease my own frustration, “I guess I have the right fingers for a criminal.”

“Oh, no,” the officer corrected me. “These fingerprints could identify you if you committed a crime.”

My friends and family all had the same reaction. “What? That’s ridiculous! Who ever heard of overused fingers?!” The situation was humorous, except for one thing: My “overused fingers” were keeping my husband and me from our daughter.

Forging on
Each extra step we needed to take, I realized, would further delay her arrival. I stopped decorating the baby’s room and stopped introducing the concept of a “little sister” to my son. I shelved my stack of books on Korean culture, halting my immersion in a world that would be denied to me for an unknown period of time. I felt frustrated and powerless.

By the time the second rejection arrived in the mail, however, I had steeled myself. This time, I was ordered to report to the CIS office with a number of documents, including a police background check from every town in which I had lived in the past five years.

I dove into the task. I spent countless hours on the phone, being transferred from city to county to state police departments, growing increasingly discouraged.

For months I had nursed an image, however inaccurate, of my daughter’s Korean birthmother, distressed over her pregnancy but clinging to the hope that her daughter would find a beautiful life with a good mother: me. Now I envisioned this same woman placing my baby girl in the arms of another joyful mother, one who had the sense to keep her fingers in good shape.

The wait resumes
The paperwork was finally assembled, and I made yet another trip to the CIS office lugging a bulging folder. Somewhere along the way, I had graduated from front-office functionaries to an officer whom I could address by name, and that session went well.

I handed over a final sworn statement and was assured that, within a month or so, we’d be placed on the waiting list for our baby girl.

As we close this chapter of our adoption journey, I wonder what other bumps may await us on the long road to our daughter. I’ve begun to delve, slowly, back into my pile of books about Korea and about adoption, and I take what I can from these circumstances: lessons about patience and surrendering a sense of control.

Hmm…those sound like useful lessons for raising a child. 

Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a former lawyer and advocate for civil rights and civil liberties. She lives in Concord, New Hampshire, with her husband and their son.

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