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Expecting the Unexpected

By Lyssa Friedman

By the time I decided to adopt, the unexpected had already happened: I had not become pregnant. That was just the first of many surprises—not to mention life-altering, jaw-dropping discoveries—along the road to adoption. Looking back over this process, I’m surprised, once again, to find how closely the stages of adoption resemble the phases of pregnancy.

First came sheer, giddy delight and wonder. Like the newly pregnant woman who studies her tummy in the mirror, searching for signs, I stared at my face and said, “You don’t look like a mother.” I told my parents, phoned close friends, e-mailed every relative from New York to New Mexico. “I’m going to have a baby!”

Then I paused. When will I know the adoption is guaranteed? After the social worker ensures I have neither a criminal record nor a history of psychosis? When the Immigration and Naturalization Service awards my petition? The bank approves my loan? I delayed telling distant friends and colleagues, nervous that if I spread good news, bad could follow. Besides, I couldn’t answer the questions I anticipated. What country? Still deciding. Age, gender? Not sure. When will you travel? Don’t know yet. I huddled inward, protecting my hope as if cradling a barely-beating heart.

Like the woman ticking off the weeks of her first trimester, I fretted what miscarriage could befall my barely-conceived dream. Instead of scheduling an exam with the obstetrician, though, I booked a fingerprinting appointment with the county sheriff. Rather than obtaining a prescription for prenatal vitamins, I got notarized verification of my employment. In lieu of worrying how my nutrition measured up against mounting morning sickness, I despaired that my homestudy social worker would find evidence that I didn’t measure up.

Then, elation: the INS granted my petition and my homestudy agency submitted my application to the overseas facilitator. Now it was time for second trimester-style waiting. I prepared my relatives for the new arrival and got my workplace ready for my family leave. I compared the safety features of car seats and strollers and contrasted paint colors for the spare bedroom-turned-nursery.

The months passed, rich and languid as a southern summer. You could say I positively glowed. But I was no more ready for my referral than I would have been for a pre-term delivery. I needed time to contemplate this transition. To appreciate the adult-oriented life I now lived, even as I prepared to leave it behind. To try on the mantle of motherhood. To nurture the kernel-like fantasy of my not-yet-identified child, and watch that fantasy grow.

Now I’m just weeks from my referral. And as my application comes due, I’m reminded of the woman who, with delivery imminent, screams, “Stop! I can’t have this baby!” Have I made a mistake? Will I be a good mother? How will I manage the money? The time? The chores? The diminished sleep?

Between moments of panic, I stare at the phone and will it to ring. What’s taking so long? How will my baby smell? What personality will emerge from behind my child’s eyes? During the long nights, I count the hours on my bedside clock. Fear and anticipation keep me awake, as if I had a nine-month fetus pressing my lower back.

But sometimes, in that quiet time after dawn and before the morning commute, I sit in my rocker by the window and listen, eyes closed, to the birds. I am poised between two stages of development. In one, I know nothing of motherhood. In the other, I am someone’s mother for the rest of my life. It’s then that I feel as if each moment is frozen in crystal, the easier to be taken out and examined. I am more full of life than I can remember having ever been.

Lyssa Friedman lives, writes, and waits for her baby’s arrival in Mill Valley, California

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