I used to be a high school English teacher, and so words are very important to me. Words have a tremendous amount of power, good or bad, and you have to be so careful about the words that you choose. In my life there are certain words that have significance, and that’s really the heart of what I want to tell you about.
I met my husband in college, and when we were dating, we found out that each of us had a cousin who had an adopted child, and we both had made a life plan that included adoption.
So when we decided to get married, we knew just what we were going to do. We were going to have a bunch of kids, and then we would absolutely adopt.
Sometimes, though, life does not work out the way you expect. When we first got married, I didn’t want to have kids yet – my husband was in school, and I was working, and I loved my work.
Then eventually I was ready, but I couldn’t get pregnant. It was really hard. It took a very long time.
Finally I got pregnant. I had a wonderful pregnancy, but the baby had birth defects and died at birth.
Hospitals today are far more sensitive than they used to be when a baby dies. In those days I didn’t see the baby. I never held him or said goodbye. My husband and I named him, and we made arrangements to bury him, because that is what you do.
“All around me were flowers and balloons and mothers and their babies, and I went home with no baby, back into my neighbourhood, surrounded by young couples with children”
But there I was in the hospital, devastated. All around me were flowers and balloons and mothers and their babies, and I went home with no baby, back into my neighbourhood, surrounded by young couples with children.
It was just awful. I felt so disconnected.
Well, now I wanted to have a baby more than ever, and once again I couldn’t get pregnant. So I went back to teaching.
And then one day there was one of those moments – you know, the ones that change the whole rest of your life forever?
The teacher from next door came in, and she said to me, “Maris, I have to leave early because my brother and sister-in-law just adopted a baby from Seattle, and I want to go see the baby.”
Well, that was it for me.
I went home, and I said to my husband, “We said we were going to adopt someday anyway. Here’s our chance. How about if we find out what that couple did, and maybe we can adopt a baby now?”
He was fine with that, and I did it. I spoke to the sister-in-law, and I spoke to the adoption attorney in Seattle, and six months later we got a call to come and pick up our newborn baby daughter.
It was an incredibly exciting time. We flew to Seattle on a Sunday. The attorney took us to the hospital, and my husband and I were walking down the corridor to get to the big nursery window.
I knew I had to warn him, because I’m the oldest of four, and he’s the younger of two and really didn’t know anything about babies.
“We got to the window of the nursery and there in front of me were five of the ugliest babies I had ever seen. I didn’t care – I just wanted to know which one was mine”
So I said to him, “Listen, newborn babies are not always pretty. In fact, sometimes they’re really funny-looking. But it’s okay, they get better—just be prepared.”
Sure enough, we got to the window of the nursery and there in front of me were five of the ugliest babies I had ever seen. I didn’t care – I just wanted to know which one was mine!
The attorney said something to the nurse, and I figured she was going to point out which was our baby. Instead, from the back of the nursery came another nurse, carrying a newborn wrapped in a new pink blanket.
That was our baby. And she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen in my life. The next day we brought her home.
Now, I have to tell you that in the months that we were waiting for that phone call, I had an opportunity to talk to a surgeon about having a procedure that would maybe help me get pregnant.
I said to the surgeon, “I don’t know what to do. We’re supposed to adopt a baby.”
The surgeon said to me, “Maris, this procedure only works half the time anyway, and if you do get pregnant, it won’t be for probably a year or more. So have the procedure and go adopt your baby.”
Would you like me to tell you the sequence of events?
I had the surgery in September.
We picked up our daughter in November.
I became pregnant in January, and ten months and three weeks after our daughter was born, our son was born.
So now we had two babies.
“I became pregnant in January, and ten months and three weeks after our daughter was born, our son was born”
Now, why am I telling you this? Because of words. Because we never imagined in a million years that we would hear the words that we heard when we entered this new world of having a baby by birth and a baby by adoption. People said really strange things. They were not nice words.
When our son was born, somebody said to me, “Well, aren’t you sorry you didn’t wait a little longer?”
In other words, why did we bother going to Seattle?
And some were worse than that.
Somebody else said to me, “Well, you’re going to give that girl back now, aren’t you, now that you have your own child?” Incredible. As though our daughter were any less our own child than our son was.
We ended up adding a third child to our family by adoption. We had had two babies in a year; I didn’t want another baby. So we adopted an older child. I wrote a letter and sent an application to a big international adoption agency, and we got a referral for a three-year-old girl from Korea who needed a family.
Now, it’s not like today. Today when you get an international referral, you get a photo album, you get a video, you get a file of medical reports to bring to your paediatrician.
Not then. We got a couple of pages of information and one little picture – like a mug shot – of this little girl with a very serious face.
It was enough for us!
I immediately wrote back to that agency and said, “Yup, we’ll take her! Absolutely. She’s ours,” and then we waited for her to come to America.
Well, it was the end of the Vietnam War, and it took a really long time. We ended up going to Kennedy Airport six or seven months later. By coincidence it was a friend of ours who was the volunteer who was bringing her off the plane.
As they were walking toward us, I wasn’t really worried about whether I would bond with her or whether having a three-year-old to start was the same as having a newborn. What struck me was that our friend wasn’t bringing me some stranger who was just coming into our family—she was bringing us our daughter who had been our daughter for six months already and was just finally coming home.
Now, there we were, an interesting family. Don’t you think somebody didn’t say something?
Somebody actually said to me, “Well, Maris, it’s obvious that you love all three of your children. But didn’t you feel just a little bit different when your son was born? After all, he’s your blood.”
I would’ve liked to have the words right then and there to answer people like that and tell them how I felt about my children. But for years I, who loved words, did not know what to say.
And it didn’t stop.
“Our son, our birth child, married a woman who had been adopted as a baby. So we had two adopted daughters and an adopted daughter-in-law, who in fact has truly become our third daughter”
Fast-forward twenty-five years. Our three children all grew up great, and they all got married – imagine, three out of three, which is in itself astounding!
And our son, who is our birth child, married a woman who had been adopted as a baby. So we had two adopted daughters and an adopted daughter-in-law, who in fact has truly become our third daughter.
All of them decided they wanted to start a family. Well, you know what I said. “Don’t you want to adopt?” And in essence, all three women answered me the same way. “Oh, Mom, I want to have a baby.”
Rightfully so. And they did.
In the course of fifteen months, each of those three women gave birth to a baby girl. So now we had these three incredible, delicious granddaughters – not genetically related to each other, don’t look anything like each other, but they’re close cousins. They talk to each other, they laugh with each other, they play with each other, they love each other. And all the rest of that stuff is just details that they don’t care about.
Well, don’t you think somebody didn’t say something to me about them?
Somebody said, “Maris, it’s obvious that you love all three of your grandchildren, but didn’t you feel just a little bit different when your son’s wife had a baby? After all, that one’s your blood.”
As our kids got bigger, I went back to school. I became a social worker, and I started to do work with an adoption agency. I loved doing adoption work, because I was bringing other people to the place where I was.
Then a bunch of us who did this work together decided that we wanted to open our own adoption agency. We wanted to place babies, but also older children.
“As our kids got bigger, I went back to school. I became a social worker, and I started to do work with an adoption agency”
Now, obviously, some of the motivation was the good stuff from my own life. But it was more than that. We wanted to make sure that these older kids didn’t have to wait so long for a family, and we wanted to do it the best possible way.
And I have to tell you—we did. We opened our own adoption agency, Family Focus, in Queens, and it’s still going strong, all these years later.
We had to create it from scratch.
So there we were, sitting around thinking, Well, what should we say to people who come in the door?
After all, people come in and sometimes they don’t really know what adoption is. We have to be able to explain it to them, so that they can decide if it’s even something they want to do.
I was going to be the trainer for those new families, because I was a teacher. And I already knew in my head what I would say to new people.
“Listen, adoption isn’t just when you go to court and a judge signs papers. And it isn’t just when a social worker comes to your house and writes a report and you give all this documentation and paperwork. Adoption is different, and it’s way more than that.”
And that’s when I came upon a word—the best word. And actually the word had probably been inside me all those years.
We were doing the planning, and I was talking about my own life. And all of a sudden, it popped right out of my mouth.
I said, “I know what adoption is. It’s just a claim you make. You claim your child, and it’s forever. And that’s it.”
Everybody in the room picked up on the power of that word right away. And we’ve been using it in our training ever since.
I’ll tell you that all adoptive parents understand it, because what it is saying is that we claim our children exactly the way birth parents claim their birth children.
I’ll tell you who else understands it: stepparents. Many stepparents can never go to court to legally adopt their stepchildren, but in their hearts they absolutely claim them, and that’s forever, too.
And adoptive parents don’t only claim babies.
A woman once came to our agency who wanted to adopt a much older child. She looked in a picture book of children who needed to be adopted, and she saw a teenage boy who really needed a family. He had some learning disabilities, he had some medical issues, but mostly he had had many disappointments in his life.
She liked him. She read his material. She asked if she could meet him.
We introduced them. They got along really well.
She visited with him a long time, until he felt comfortable enough to move into her house. They went to court, and she adopted him.
Two years later I happened to bump into her at a conference. After we did the whole big hello, I said to her, “So how’s Larry?” She said, “Oh,” and she reached into her giant pocketbook and pulled out one of those little plastic photo albums – the kind that new mothers and new grandmothers used to have before everybody put their pictures in a smartphone.
She said, “Look! Larry graduated from high school. Here’s his picture. And here he went to the prom – look at his tuxedo! And here he is in his uniform working at McDonald’s.”
And I realised this was a new mother who had claimed her baby. It didn’t matter that he was eighteen-years-old. He was her baby, and she was one happy woman.
So did I ever claim my baby that died, or did I remain forever disonnected? Of course I claimed him. Absolutely. I realised long, long ago that he is every bit as much my child as all the others.
And as far as that ridiculous question, Can you love a child you didn’t create as much as you love your blood child? I have an answer for that, too, now, and it’s really simple:
There’s no such thing as “as much as,” because love is not measurable. Our children – all our children – are claimed by us, and that’s it.
What’s ours is ours. And that’s my last word.
Maris Blechner is an adoptive and a birth parent, social worker and founder Family Focus adoption agency in Queens, New York. This story is cross-posted from The Moth’s latest book, Occasional Magic. You can buy the book here.
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