"Helpless Love"

No one ever saw me as a mother. So why was I suddenly in such a rush to adopt a baby from China as a single parent?

My life changed forever when I decided to adopt a Chinese baby

This is a story that never changes. I’ve told it over business lunches and at cocktail parties, in my gynecologist’s office. Every time I tell this story, my listeners’ eyes brighten — it is a happy story — and this brightness in the their eyes eggs me on.

But each listener also looks at me as if I’m speaking of something odd — happy, but odd. This is a true story about my life. To me, it is commonplace, a story about ordinary love.

I was 34 years old, divorced, happy. I lived in a two-bedroom New York apartment with a nice roommate. I jogged in Central Park, went to afternoon movies with friends, hung out in bookstores. I went on dates; I liked dating.

I made my living as a freelance writer and had $20,000 in the bank. On the telephone I told my brother, “If I get hit by a bus or anything, please know that I’m happy. Whatever happens from now on, it’s all right with me, because I have known happiness.”

Then one Sunday morning, I happened to be alone in my apartment reading The New York Times Magazine. The cover story was about an adoption. The article mentioned that the Chinese government allowed single women to adopt Chinese infants. As soon as I read the article, I was done for.


That’s what everyone wanted to know.

Was something wrong with my reproductive system? Didn’t I want a biological child? Didn’t I want to wait for a partner? Why wasn’t I waiting until I was a more established writer? Why did I want to adopt a Chinese baby? (Was I a racist — why not an African-American baby, a Mexican baby?) Some friends, some dates, even some gossipy acquaintances had questions for me.

But my own only question was asked by a gleeful voice in my mind: “You’re going to do what?” From the day I read that story, I never had a doubt.

I contacted one of the adoption agencies mentioned in the article. I went to the agency’s required introductory meeting. After the meeting, I signed up for an “intake interview.” After the interview, a committee at the agency decided to take my case. Shortly afterward, I fell in love with my friend Steve. Two weeks later, Steve moved in.

Why would a woman who was with a man and who could bear a child want to adopt? At the agency, I said, “I’m seeing a man I might marry. Do you want to know about this?” The agency said, “If you were in a permanent relationship, we would recommend that you pursue biological parenthood first.” “Okay,” I said. I didn’t tell them about Steve.

I went through a physical, a fingerprinting session at my neighborhood police station, a social worker’s visit. I collected my birth certificate, divorce decree, tax forms, a financial statement from my accountant.

I filled out dozens of government forms — immigration forms for the baby, forms testifying to the expertise of my social worker, a paper swearing that I would love the child forever and that I would put her through college.

Steve started seeing a therapist. He loved me, and he liked the idea of my adopting a baby. But he was worried because he just wasn’t picturing a baby in his daydreams about our future.

By August my papers were in order. In September the social worker phoned to say she had received a report on and photograph of a three-month-old baby girl. Briefly, in the hour before I saw the picture, I imagined this infant as a delicate flower, exotic and wan. In fact, she looked like a Chinese Winston Churchill, deeply skeptical about the merits of the photo session, powerfully irritated — as if someone had just taken away her cigar.

Oh, I hear the other mothers talk about Maria now. They call her a “buster,” a “pistol,” they say she’s “like a boy.” One mother greets her at a kiddie birthday, “Hey, girlfriend,” as if Maria were thirty-five years old. Another mother, pregnant with her second child, leans to me and says out of the corner of her mouth, “For your second child, you deserve an easy one.”

In the same week two friends, independently, tell me that I look at Maria with “a look of helpless love.” It’s interesting that two people say the exact same thing, so I consider what they’ve said. But I do not love her with a helpless love; I have help.

Once, when Maria was eight months old, Steve and I walked with her along the river on iced-over sidewalks in subzero winds. We were going six blocks and it seemed silly to find a taxi for such a short distance. So we pushed along on foot, against the kind of wind that makes your eyes tear, in the kind of cold that freezes those tears to your face. Steve had Maria against his chest, inside his coat.

Four blocks from our building, on an overpass, crosswinds began to slam us from the side. Later, Steve told me Maria screamed a desperate scream then that he’d never heard before and could never have imagined. I was less than a yard behind him, but I didn’t hear a thing because of the winds. I struggled to stand, to inch forward, to not slide into the street.

In the street a car spun around. Suddenly Steve took off. He squiggled. He shimmied. All of the great effort he’d summoned looked, from behind, as if he were merely doing a little dance. Still, he had sped up; he departed from me. He and Maria moved up the hill and around the corner, out of sight.

In our lobby, panting, our cheeks aflame, Steve said, “Well, I hate to say this, but I’ve made my choice.” If it were between me and Maria, he’d have to save Maria now, he meant, because she was his daughter.

The irrevocable moment in which you become a parent is not the moment you conceive a child; it’s the moment you conceive of her. Maybe in your mind she looks partly like you and partly like your husband. Or maybe partly like you and partly like some handsome, genius sperm-bank stranger. Maybe she is coffee-brown and Peruvian; you are albumen-white and Swedish. Maybe she is a he.

But whatever your idea of your child, once you have it, once you have thought of her as yours (which may happen years before she’s born, or four months into your pregnancy, or six weeks after you meet her), nothing can stop you from wanting her. And only some terrible force outside of your control will prevent you from having her.

You will run through icy winds for her. You will leave your spouse for her. You will quit your job for her, take two jobs for her. You will lie slant, almost upside down, for forty-eight hours so she can be born two fewer days premature. You will let your bones crack apart for her.

If the adoption agency says you are too old to adopt her, you will find another agency. If the first in vitro insemination fails to produce her, you will shoot up hormones for another month. And if you miscarry, your child has died. If the birth mother changes her mind, your child has been torn from you.

I traveled to China with my mother and seven other adopting families. Only an hour after we checked in to the hotel, our guide told us to go to our rooms: the babies were coming. Before I knew it, a stocky woman was showing me a fat-cheeked five-month-old in a pale blue sweat suit. The baby fixed a long serious look on me, frowned, and started to bawl.

My mother started to bawl too. And eight days later, when I carried Maria out of international customs and through the revolving doors at Kennedy Airport in New York City, there was my father, holding a huge sign that read “Welcome Maria,” and sniveling. And there was Steve, weeping — I had never seen him cry before. But as I first lifted my daughter from the stocky arms of the woman who had been her night nurse and looked into her furious face, I did not cry.

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