Our relief swelled at hearing the birthmother’s preference. It wasn’t her call, but we’d planned to honor her wishes. Thank God we didn’t have to consider heaven spelled backwards. Or a weather pattern. Or a random fruit.
Al and I had hoped for a girl, and although not on our radar, the name Lily sounded lovely.
It’s been over six years. Lily wouldn’t be much older than our six-year-old daughter. Did she love the water and purple, too? Did Lily shun all vegetables? Was she mule stubborn? A night owl? Could she count to a hundred? Ride a bike without training wheels? Dive? Did Lily’s laughter send ripples through your soul? Was her smile punctuated by a front-tooth gap?
I don’t remember much about what Lily’s birthmother Ana looked like. I didn’t pay close attention to her features, maybe because our connection felt awkward and strained from the start, and by the end, became so painful and humiliating that I blocked out the length of her hair, the color of her eyes, the function versus form of her maternity clothing.
I’ll never forget what Ana ordered the moment I knew the adoption was in serious trouble. A hot turkey sandwich on white bread with gravy a synthetic shade of tan. I wore something casual for the meeting, a button-down plaid shirt from the Gap: teal and white, colors too optimistic for early spring in Michigan.
Ana had brought a surprise guest, the kind friend who’d provided a roof over her head, who she insisted wasn’t Lily’s father. The subsequent ambush went like this:
How did we plan to help Ana after she had the baby? She was handing over her child, after all. She had entrusted two people with zero parenting experience with something we could never truly repay.
Did we know she had dreams of going back to school?
Or that she could use a decent pair of shoes for her throbbing and swollen feet?
She’d sure love to make her mother’s tamales, but that required special ingredients.
How could she be expected to get a good job without reliable transportation?
Help with rent, medical bills, prenatal vitamins. Additional necessities for the birth mother, as deemed appropriate and legal by the adoption agency. This wasn’t in the ballpark of sufficient. Keep in mind, Ana was relinquishing all rights to her child.
Ana’s friend had an aunt with a car. Nothing new. Nothing fancy. He didn’t mention the make or model, but said she’d sell it for three grand. No need to contact the agency, he continued between bites, and Ana nodded. Other than to eat her sandwich, she’d scarcely opened her mouth.
He promised any compensation would be our little secret. It would stay between me, Al, Ana, and of course, this man willing to negotiate with us at Russ’, a family restaurant since 1934.
Al and I must have nailed the part of suckers, our certified pre-owned BMW parked in plain view from the booth. When we paid the bill and left, I told Al if the adoption fell through, next time we’d rent a Pinto to drive the birthmom to her doctor’s appointments.
It wasn’t funny, but I assumed our stupid yuppie wagon made Ana and her friend see green. I assumed the worst about her, that she never had an abusive husband, that her five other children didn’t exist, that the man she brought with her that afternoon was some kind of pimp, that she took us to the ultrasound before Russ’ on purpose, that for her, this was all a transaction.
I thought about baby Lily again when I came across the affidavit. This is to confirm that we, ALAN and AMIE, in mutual agreement with THE AGENCY, wish to no longer be linked with ANA as birthmother. I’d unearthed the paperwork in an unlabeled manilla folder along with a few greeting cards congratulating us, the date of one of Ana’s doctor’s appointments handwritten on a torn-out sheet of notebook paper, our original placement agreement, and a color-coded timeline for the domestic adoption process.
There it was in black and white, t’s crossed and i’s dotted, tucked away in the same cupboard with the mountain of forms and training materials that eventually led us to the daughter who officially became ours one year, six months and twenty days after Lily’s adoption fell through.
Why I kept Ana’s paperwork I’ve no idea. All I know is my assumptions about what transpired with her aren’t as certain anymore. I still believe she lied on some level. I’ve no proof, but I still believe the friend who escorted Ana to Russ’ that afternoon was, in fact, the birthfather. I still believe it was wrong to ask for money outside of the legal adoption parameters. Yet what I feel about the situation has softened.
I might owe this change to the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day reality of mothering. The role of mother places you in a remote and exotic emotional hemisphere. When you are responsible for the wellbeing of another human, your hardwiring rearranges itself in terrifying and exhilarating ways. The shift is tectonic.
Being somebody’s mom has widened my empathy net, especially toward other parents. Who was I to speculate about Ana? Why did I sprint to such judgment?
Ana could’ve had five other children she lost custody of due to an ex who beat her.
Ana is hispanic. She had gestational diabetes and didn’t own a car. Achieving gainful employment could’ve been complicated by her health, her lack of transportation or her ethnicity.
Ana could’ve had nowhere else to go. Her friend providing her with a so-called safe haven could’ve been manipulating or abusing her.
We didn’t know Ana’s last name. Ana didn’t know our last name. We didn’t know the whereabouts of Ana’s other children. Ana didn’t know where we lived. We didn’t know the identity of Lily’s birthfather. Ana didn’t know we were scared shitless of screwing up her kid.
Favorite colors, pastimes, TV shows. Food dislikes, hot-button issues, world views. Family history. There were plenty of unknowns from which to make baseless assumptions, not just from our perspective, but from Ana’s, too. It’s innate to fill in a story when presented with blanks.
Ana may have seen our BMW as a badge of entitlement.
Al and I are passive. We aren’t easily given to public displays of affection. Ana may have taken this as a sign of detachment, toward each other, toward her, toward her baby.
The first time we met Ana we brought her a mixed bouquet of flowers from a grocery store. She may have viewed this gesture as insulting, as if a cheap bunch of wildflowers would somehow make the weight of her decision lighter.
After our exchange at Russ’, we terminated the adoption, without any further discussion with Ana or her friend. She may have assumed the termination was because we thought hispanics were drug-dealing thugs, and while we said we were open to all races, what we really wanted was a white baby.
Our daughter is black. She is beautiful, willful, impatient, resilient, hilarious and shy. Our hearts beat with hers. The blood we don’t share flows with hers.
Since September of 2016 I've been shuffling next door in rumpled sweats to watch her climb aboard her beloved yellow school bus. Rain, sleet, thundersnow or shine. I bring the dog with us. Sometimes Al joins us. Sometimes we argue and rush and run. I snap and yell. Ava whines and cries. Goddamn it, there’s no such thing as the perfect parent, I remind myself.
Each of these mornings I’m astonished at both her ability to go it alone and my ability to let her go it alone. People say kids grow up fast, but the truth is, child rearing scurries and crawls simultaneously.
The early hours of having our daughter in our life are a blurry chapter now. Back then those same hours, days and weeks felt static, endless circles of bottles, burping, diaper changes, and too many infomercials and lame sitcoms at three a.m. Our happiness was palpable, but so was the pull and drain of anxiety. Scads of ovulation detectors, two hysterosalpingograms, three unsuccessful aritifical inseminations, one miscarried in-vitro fertilization and one broken adoption had finally delivered our six-pounds and eleven ounces.
Post-Ana, my husband had made our position clear to the agency: 1. there would be more vetting of our next birthmother or 2. there would be a baby with less red tape and/or strings attached. Yes, we were sick and tired. Yes, we were presumptuous. Yes, we understood there were no guarantees.
Six months after that phone call a girl was born in a Catholic hospital in the suburbs of Detroit. A safe delivery. Per protocol, we would not meet the birthmother. The agency granted us twenty-four hours to prepare for our new arrival.
When we at last reached our daughter, her birthmother had already checked out of the hospital. Her name began with an a. Her son and daughter also had names that began with a. Could Baby Doe possibly have a name beginning with a? This was her only request.
In our fantasies of becoming parents, our little girl’s name didn’t start with the first letter of the alphabet, but on the way to making her ours, I grabbed my phone and scrolled through baby names. Behold the power and magic of Google ...
We still joke about naming our daughter after a somewhat cute, termite-slurping “earth pig,” option number one on the “Baby Names Beginning With A” list.
Two days later, the social worker called to tell us the birthmother loved our choice. I don't know if we’ll ever even have the chance to shake her hand, but each year I send her a letter and at least ten pictures of our Ava, the amazing daughter she gave us. Selfless and kind and generous don’t do her sacrifice justice, but I sprinkle in adjectives like these anyway. I’ve considered writing a letter to Ana, too, because as destiny or kismet or happenstance would have it, if it weren’t for her and Lily, we wouldn’t have Ava either. With any luck, what I struggle to compose on paper and in my imagination will express the depths of our gratitude.