I cleaned behind toilets for my home study. I was the single mother of six-year-old Cordelia, and spun a bright, ambitious picture of our family life for our social worker as I worked to adopt a four-year-old I’d name Susie. Before our adoption trip, I sent Susie a photo album filled with images of Cori and me doing all the things we would do as a family—playing in the snow, baking, visiting the park—a sort of “picture yourself here” that would help her feel connected to us. And when we traveled to China, I posted numerous photos of the girls “bonding” to Facebook—watching a video in bed together, wearing matching Christmas outfits. One post was titled, “Introducing Our Family!” And it was all genuine. So why, deep down, did it feel fictitious?
There were lots of reasons to keep the doubts and moments of panic mostly to myself. Was this whole thing crazy? Could I really parent two little girls with Down syndrome? What if Cori and Susie hated each other? What if I couldn’t hold us together? It was a dark road to go down and there were too many people already asking me these questions and expecting me to fail. I needed to convince them. I needed to convince myself. So I posted photos of us touring a sculpture garden, but omitted the story of both kids simultaneously melting down when we stayed too long. I proudly snapped a picture of our kitchen table at home set for three for the first time, but kept quiet about Susie’s subsequent screaming fit, which ended with her alone in the living room with a bottle of baby formula while Cori and I sat in stunned silence amidst the ruins of our welcome-home dinner. Outwardly, we looked like a family. I was still waiting to feel like a family.
“We Have a Situation Here!”
We’d been home for 10 days, Cordelia back at kindergarten, when disaster struck. The school called to tell me she had a fever. I picked her up and she seemed a little pale and droopy, but I wasn’t too concerned. She rested Friday and Saturday while Susie and I quietly played on the living room floor. But on Sunday, the cough she’d had on and off all weekend became worse. It turned into a deep barking sound followed by a whistling gasp for breath that I recognized as croup.
When I saw that she was not breathing well, I reflexively grabbed her and ran for the bathroom, where I turned on the shower and wrenched the dial all the way over to hot. But wait! This wasn’t going to be resolved in 90 seconds. I had two children now. Still clutching Cordelia—I was afraid she’d suffocate if I left her—I flew downstairs, snatched Susie out of her high chair, snagged my phone while I was at it, and bolted back to the steam-filled bathroom, where I collapsed onto the toilet and shouted at Siri to call the pediatrician.
I got the after-hours receptionist. Cori was on my lap, coughing and crying and gasping. Susie was unraveling all the toilet paper. The shower was running full force. “Ma’am?” the receptionist asked. “There’s a lot of background noise and I can’t hear you well. Can you step into another room?”
I almost threw the phone into the shower. “NO! Are you crazy? I have a situation here! Just have someone call me! Tell them it’s an emergency!”
By the time the nurse practitioner called, eight endless minutes later, the steam had started to work; Cordelia was still coughing, but was breathing more easily. Susie had decimated the toilet paper roll and was now standing next to us, anxiously patting my knee. “It’s that barking cough—” I started to explain.
“I heard; that’s definitely croup,” she interjected. “Everything’s okay. You’re doing all the right things.”
We discussed medication and the nurse confirmed an appointment for us in the morning. “And Mom?” She said as we were wrapping up. “If she’s up during the night and having trouble breathing, you need to call 911.” Vision of Cori at 3 a.m., blue and gasping for air. I swallowed and disconnected. After another 20 minutes of steam, I scooped up both kids and maneuvered through the door, across the hall, and into my bed.
Cordelia, still weepy, slumped against my chest. I offered an arm to Susie, but that wasn’t enough and she tried to climb into my lap with her sister. When a newly adopted child requests affection that is huge; you drop everything and cuddle her as much as she’ll allow. But Cordelia screamed and pushed her away. I tried hard to accommodate them both, but Cori wasn’t having it and it wasn’t the right time for the “Mama’s Lap Is Big Enough for Two” talk. This was the moment I’d been dreading; I literally did not have enough arms and someone was going to get short-changed.
Frantic about the damage I might be doing, and offering a million apologies and kisses, I tucked Susie into her crib. Then I returned to Cordelia, who was asleep in my arms in minutes. Both of my children had needed 100% of my attention, but I was never more painfully conscious of being just one person. I sat in the semi-dark, listening to Cordelia’s breathing and wondering how I’d managed, and IF I’d managed.
Introducing Our Family, for Real
The doctor’s office the next morning felt easy, probably because of my relief at making it through the night in one piece. The morning after that, a car pulled into our driveway. Our social worker, Ava, was here for our first post-placement visit. I’d made the appointment the previous week and written it on the calendar, then completely forgot. I flashed on the memory of donning a nicer-than-usual outfit and welcoming her into my perfectly clean and ordered home just a few months earlier.
This time, she had to climb over a pile of bags and shoes to get through the front door, then stand patiently while I cleared a spot for her on the couch. Once seated, Ava pulled out her notebook and pen and asked brightly, “So, how are things going?”
I surveyed the room: Susie, on the carpet amidst a sea of toys and cracker crumbs, Cori barely visible beneath a pile of pillows and blankets, Curious George cavorting on the TV. I was not embarrassed. I was not insecure. We’d been through the war together, and the contrast between our rumpled pajamas and uncombed hair and Ava’s crisp pencil skirt and leather boots felt like a badge of honor that cemented us into a unit. Introducing Our Family, I thought. It wasn’t photo-worthy but it was real life. I let out a breath and said, “Ava, it’s so much better. Everyone’s breathing comfortably.”