Babies and Birthmoms and Bellies, Oh My!
When my two children began to ask questions—lots of questions—we found answers in homemade adoption storybooks.By Elizabeth Di Grazia
When the questions finally came, I didn't find them as hard as I'd imagined. And when I relayed the conversations to my partner, Jody, she was sad about missing out on the moments I shared with our children during the day, while she was at work.
I credit my niece, Tina, for my five-year-old children's sudden interest in whose belly they came out of. Tina, her husband, and their son, Jack, join us for a weekly playdate. For months, Crystel and Antonio had been watching Tina's belly expand. The week before she was due, she explained to the children that a baby was growing inside of her.
The questions began the next day, after lunch.
"Whose belly did I come out of?" Crystel asked. "Yours or Mama Jody's?" We were sitting at the kitchen table, the remains of our meal scattered about.
"You came out of your birthmom's belly," I said.
Her brother, Antonio, sat on the edge of his seat, listening quietly. He looked as if he didn’t know whether he should stay or go.
"No," Crystel insisted, with irritation. "Did I come from your belly or Mama Jody's belly?"
"You came from your birthmother's belly," I repeated. I raised one finger. "This is Mama Jody." I raised another finger. "This is me, Mama Beth." Then I raised a third. "This is your birthmother. You came out of her belly."
Crystel paused. Then she looked hopeful. "Did Antonio and I come from the same belly?"
I raised a fourth finger. "Antonio came from his birthmom's belly. He was born in the same country you were."
Even I knew this was too much information to process all at once. And I was going to run out of fingers. "Mama Beth, Mama Jody, your birthmom, Antonio's birthmom."
"No. You make me so mad." Crystel flopped in her seat. "I'm frustrated."
Antonio ran into his bedroom and shut the door.
After lunch, I went to check on Antonio.
"I'm so happy you're my boy, Antonio," I said.
"No," he said. "I didn't come from your belly." He heaved great sobs and leaned against me.
"All of your moms love you—me, Mama Jody, and your birthmom, too."
"I miss her," he wailed.
I told Antonio about the first time I laid eyes on him, as I had many times before. "You had the widest smile I had ever seen," I said.
On the best of days, Antonio doesn't like it when we talk about his adoption. But that day he bawled, "You didn't know me when I was a baby."
"That's true. Not when you were a little little baby. But I have pictures of you right after you came out of your birthmom's belly. And the moment I saw them, I felt as if I had known you all my life."
At the library, we stuffed our backpacks with adoption picture books. They soon became requested reading at bedtime.
I squeezed him tight. "You're my favorite boy in the whole world."
Instead of crying at nap time, Crystel screamed when I wouldn't let her fill up her humidifier.
"No, Crystel, it's already full. You can add more water tonight."
"I want to do it now!"
But we both knew that it wasn't about that. She wished she'd come out of my belly or Mama Jody's or, at the very least, out of the same belly as Antonio.
Off to the library
The day after our lunchtime conversation about birthmoms, Antonio, Crystel, and I went to the library. From watching me, the children had learned that this is the place where answers are found. We stuffed our backpacks with adoption storybooks, and these books became requested reading at bedtime.
And then, soon enough, it was time to go to the hospital to meet Tina's new baby. I felt it was important that the children see a newborn, so they could envision having a birthmom. I wanted them to know that they weren't magically released from the clouds when Jody and I happened to be standing in the right spot to catch them as they fell to earth—and I still wasn't sure how much of our recent adoption talks they'd understood.
When the adoption books were due back at the library, but interest in reading them hadn't abated, I realized it was time to complete a project I'd begun many months before: creating a customized adoption storybook for each of our children. Jody took a day off from work, and we put the finishing touches on the two 20-page books, told in Antonio's and Crystel's "voices" and illustrated with photos and pictures.
Sitting on the couch, we read Antonio's book to him first:
"My name is Antonio. My moms told me that my sister and I were adopted. We lived together in the same foster home until our moms came and got us. This is a picture of Cissy and me when we were babies.
"Before I was adopted, I was born. I was born in a beautiful country far from here. Every baby grows inside a woman’s body. That place is called her uterus.
"Many children stay with the women who gave birth to them. Some children need to be adopted, the way my moms adopted me. I know lots of children who were adopted, just like me."
After we turned the last page, we handed the book to Antonio.
"Oh, it's exactly what I wanted," he said, hugging the book to his chest.
I've had a few heart-pounding moments with their storybooks. One day, Antonio and Crystel pulled out the books during snack time at their playgroup and showed them to the other children. I listened in from the kitchen.
"See our moms standing on the diving board? They're getting married."
Two children crowded around Antonio to peer at the picture.
"They're getting married?"
"Yeah," he said. "Don't they look silly?"
A year earlier, when Jody and I had looked through our wedding book with the kids, Antonio and Crystel asked why they weren't in any of the photographs. This was before you came home, we told them. There was a lingering sense of sadness and wonder that they weren't at the celebration, and that their moms had had a life before them. Their favorite picture from the album was of Jody and me on our diving board in our dresses, so we included a copy of the photo in each of their books.
Three other children huddled around Crystel.
"Look at this picture," she said. "That's a mommy having a baby!" She pointed to an illustration of a pregnant woman and another drawing of a baby being born. The children stared.
Those few anxious moments aside, the books have been a profound source of comfort. When the children first came home, I used to cringe when the word "adoption" was used in their presence. I couldn't explain to an eight-month-old what adoption meant. Now, their storybooks have helped it become an everyday word in our house. They know their stories. They can flip through their albums as often as they'd like in the privacy of their rooms. When they choose, they can share them with friends.
Creating these personalized books was important to Jody and me. But I know they mean even more to our children. As their parents, we want Antonio and Crystel to know that adoption is a beautiful thing. As any parents, we want them to feel loved and to know, without question, that they belong.
Elizabeth di Grazia is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Richfield, Minnesota.
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