"Unleashing the Mom Within"

I wasn't quite feeling like a mother the first day I met my child. Even on adoption day itself, I had some doubts. Would I ever be Alina's mom?

The author, finally feeling like a mom

Last winter, I stood before a Russian judge and explained why I should be allowed to adopt a 7-year-old girl from an Ekaterinburg orphanage. I said all the right words: “Yes, I can provide for her on one salary. My brother will take care of her if I can’t. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time.” All true. But something was missing. This was the part where you’re supposed to say “I do” with some measure of conviction. But I felt numb.

The truth is, my feelings — or lack of them — didn’t really surprise me. I was content with my single life. I had a job I loved, a new house, many friends, and a long list of interests. So what was I doing stirring up things so profoundly at age 50?

Indeed, I always thought that I’d marry and have a family of my own. Even back in my “hippie” days, when women cast cool eyes at the “shackles” of marriage, I still thought I’d find a sensitive, brilliant, evolved guy, and we’d have a couple of kids. When I was ready. Yeah, right.

At 42, after two years of working as a reporter in Australia — and Mr. Right still hadn’t come along — I started exploring the idea of adoption. But I wasn’t committed. I changed my mind all the time — there had never been a decision so hard to make. One day I wanted it badly; the next, it was out of the question. My indecision worried me. Did my fickleness mean I wasn’t meant to be a mother?

Trying It On for Size

A recent national tragedy struck too close to home, and sent me a message: Don’t postpone your dreams, life is unpredictable. This, plus the fact that friends of mine had recently adopted a Russian boy through a summer host program, propelled me forward. They sent me a photo of their new family, which stayed on my refrigerator. Whenever I walked by, I’d think how healthy and wonderful he looked.

For indecisive me, a host program seemed tailor-made. I could try out motherhood for a summer. So Alina arrived, a delightful little girl with flying, waist-length hair. She was smart, pretty, wise, and happy.

I’d heard of other adoptive parents falling in love the second they laid eyes on their child’s picture. It didn’t happen like that for me. When we met, I liked her a lot; I felt loyalty to her. But I didn’t have that feeling that she was my child.

It was the dead of winter when I arrived in Ekaterinburg and met Alina at the orphanage. She looked like a sausage, encased in coat, scarf, and boots. Her lovely hair was hidden under a cap. She looked as tentative as I felt, staring out the car window as we drove to the zoo.

The morning of the court hearing, I got upset over a nonfunctioning phone card. Of course, the real issue was much bigger. Despite the time I’d devoted to the adoption process, the endless documents I’d filled out, the savings I’d depleted, I still wasn’t sure. Actually, I was feeling dread: What if Alina had put up a good front for the summer but was really demented? What if we got home and hated each other? What if this ruins my life?

Despite my panic, I kept going. No way was I coming home empty-handed. I told myself what other people had told me — that bonding with older children is not the same as bonding with infants. It takes time. Trust the process, I repeated over and over. But wistfully, I yearned for a more joyful, exuberant sense of the whole thing, like what I imagined biological mothers feel after giving birth.

A Mom Is Born

A few nights after the court hearing, the orphanage let me take Alina back to my hotel for the night. She was leaping with excitement over the new clothes I’d brought her; and the bubbles in the deep porcelain tub were a gift straight from the gods.

She started singing a Russian nursery rhyme about a fox. It went something like this:

Hee hee hee
Ha ha ha

Splashing around in the tub, she repeated the verse in a singsong fashion. Then she threw out a line, looked at me, and waited: Your turn!

Hesitantly, I said a line. She came back triumphantly with the next one. I thought, she’s teaching me! We said the ditty over and over, in different voices, fast and slow, swapping parts.

That was my first sign that everything would be all right. She had reached out to me and flipped some kind of switch that immediately started my mom juices flowing.

Two months after we got home, our bond took another leap. One night, I was sitting in her bed reading a story. She seemed sad and was urgently trying to tell me something that I couldn’t understand. So I phoned our grandmotherly friend who acts as both a translator and a babysitter. She told me, “She misses her friends in the orphanage. She doesn’t have any friends here, and she doesn’t like sleeping in a room by herself.”

Alina, who is independent, stoic, and strong, started to sob — deep, body-wrenching sobs. My heart filled with sympathy. Alina had traveled 9,000 miles to start a new life in a place where nobody spoke her language. She had held it together so well. When she finally cracked, I did too.

We’ve been home just over a year now, and we’re doing fine. Moment by moment, we create new, wonderful filaments of connection.

Every adoption is a leap of faith. You hope the child will be healthy and that you’ll bond. But for me, the leap of faith was taking the chance that there was a mother’s heart beating inside me. Underneath the fears, the resistance, the ambivalence, I banked on it being there, waiting to be called on. And — phew — it was.

Hee hee hee.


Reprinted Courtesy of The Boston Globe.

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