Sunday, May 13, 2007

Thoughts on Adoption


Our son, Teddy, is adopted, and I can still remember the first day I held him in our arms when he was only three days old. What was truly remarkable was that I felt like a father to this tiny child the moment that I held him in my arms.

We were lucky that Teddy was (and still is) a healthy thriving child. Life, however, has few certainties, and the health of a child (whether adopted or not) is not one of those guarantees. I thought about the nature of our love for our children this afternoon after I read a remarkable essay by Elizabeth Fitzsimmons in The New York Times. Fitzsimmons describes flying to China to adopt a baby girl, and to receive horrifying news about the child they are to adopt:

A CT scan confirmed that there had been a tumor that someone, somewhere, had removed. It had been a sloppy job; nerves were damaged, and as Natalie grew her condition would worsen, eventually leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Control over her bladder and bowels would go, too; this had already begun, as indicated by her loose sphincter. Yes, she had a form of spina bifida, as well as a cyst on her spine.

Fitzsimmons then describes the decision that she and her husband made about whether to adopt another child instead:


Back at the hotel, we hounded the women from the agency: Why wasn’t this in her medical report? How could a scar that size not be noticed? It was two inches long, for God’s sake.

They shook their heads. Shrugged. Apologized.

And then they offered a way to make it better.


“In cases like these, we can make a rematch with another baby,” the one in charge said. The rest of the process would be expedited, and we would go home on schedule. We would simply leave with a different girl.


Months before, we had been presented with forms asking which disabilities would be acceptable in a prospective adoptee — what, in other words, did we think we could handle: H.I.V., hepatitis, blindness? We checked off a few mild problems that we knew could be swiftly corrected with proper medical care. As Matt had written on our application: “This will be our first child, and we feel we would need more experience to handle anything more serious.”



Now we faced surgeries, wheelchairs, colostomy bags. I envisioned our home in San Diego with ramps leading to the doors. I saw our lives as being utterly devoted to her care. How would we ever manage?



Yet how could we leave her? Had I given birth to a child with these conditions, I wouldn’t have left her in the hospital. Though a friend would later say, “Well, that’s different,” it wasn’t to me.



I pictured myself boarding the plane with some faceless replacement child and then explaining to friends and family that she wasn’t Natalie, that we had left Natalie in China because she was too damaged, that the deal had been a healthy baby and she wasn’t.



How would I face myself? How would I ever forget? I would always wonder what happened to Natalie.



I knew this was my test, my life’s worth distilled into a moment. I was shaking my head “No” before they finished explaining. We didn’t want another baby, I told them. We wanted our baby, the one sleeping right over there. “She’s our daughter,” I said. “We love her.”



Matt, who had been sitting on the bed, lifted his glasses, and, wiping the tears from his eyes, nodded in agreement.



Read it all.

This story does have a happy ending--the diagnosis is wrong, and Fitzsimmons' daughter is now thriving. Still, the choice she made seemed remarkable until I reflect on that day in the hospital when I held my son in my arms for the first time. I know that by the time I handed him back to the nurse, he was my son. Like Fitzsimmons, we did not feel ready to take care of a special needs child. Yet, if he had been diagnosed with some problem after I held him in my arms, he still would have been my child. I loved him immediately.

To "return him" would have been unthinkable.

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