Yesterday, Siena said the word “adopted” for the first time. I am not sure why I didn’t prepare myself for this event. Of course, I knew that she would one day discuss her adoption. A lot or a little, that would be her choice; but, certainly, in the sanctified space between mother and daughter, we would, I knew, discuss it often. Outside of these intimate conversations, I imagined her un-scrolling her genesis in moments she would choose wisely. She would, of course, one day tell friends at summer camp and to her first love. It would be her truth and how much she shared would depend on circumstance. But that day seemed so far off until it wasn’t. It was now. You forget that between knowing/ not knowing is a whole spectrum of self-knowledge.
We were in the produce section of Whole Foods, picking out just the right kind of squishy avocado. She was riding in the front of the grocery cart, which she adores because she likes to play the FDA and inspect carefully everything that I choose. I handed her an avocado and she inspected it this way and that, sniffed it, checked the squish factor and then twisting in the seat, laid it carefully over the other stuff. Her brother, Dashiell, an eleven year old boy whose zooming nickname “Dash” suits him perfectly, made a beeline for the cheese section to pop cubes of Manchego samples into his mouth.
I spotted my friend Tammy, who I hadn’t seen in some months. She was picking out some dinosaur kale, her stomach a tight bulge the size of a watermelon. I walked up to her to congratulate her. I knew she had been trying to get pregnant for many years. “I am so happy for you! “A baby! Congratulations!” I exulted.
“Yes, yes we are! We are so excited” she gushed, instinctively laying her hand across the shelf of the soon-to-be born baby inside.
Siena looked at her square in the face, and announced, “I am adopted.”
It’s not that it’s a secret she is adopted. We certainly never dreamed of lying to her or keeping her birth origins a family secret. Neither do we, on the other hand, sing the adoption song in public on every month anniversary of the “Gotcha” day. Both Joe and I land solidly in between the two extremes of total secrecy and total openness, given her young age. While I am slightly more on the side of a casual openness, Joe is a little bit more on the side of not dwelling, letting her move on. As an example, I want the baby book one set of foster parents made for her on her bedroom bookshelf. He feels that the baby book should be kept on a high shelf for special occasions. Yet, these differences seem minor. Both of us, especially in these first years, want to emphasize her belongingness. We talk casually enough about “the day she came.” On the other hand, we also don’t make a point of talking to every stranger about her adoption.
We also don’t talk a whole heck of a lot about the three days of intense, excruciating labor it took to birth Dash. This labor made me grab the midwife by the throat and snarl, like a deranged wolf, through grinding teeth, to take me to a real hospital, or I might just poke out her eyes with my claws, labor that had broke the blood vessels in both of my eyes, the red staining the whites crimson for a month. It was nice to just put all that labor behind and focus on the love. I had never told Siena the dictionary definition of adoption or had that conversation “your birth parents loved you but just were not equipped to parent.” I knew that we would one day have that conversation. Maybe at age seven or eight or nine. That conversation would lead to more questions at age 14, which would lead to her desire to know more about her birth origins, which, would lead to her typing their names into a search engine and within a nana-second get a long, frenzied list of police fugitive lists and court reports. One day that would happen.
Yet, just like my pregnant friend now bumping into me, I had bumped into old friends with a chubby cheeked toddler in tow, after we had picked her up from that warm, summer day. Siena looks like me. I am white and so is my husband. Our daughter is biracial and could look like one of us sometimes but not both at once. Conceivably, she could be my birth daughter, if I had a baby with someone other than my spouse, a baby who had grown three and a half years in the span of time I hadn’t seen this friend. Or maybe Siena was the product of a secret family I was only bringing to Whole Foods on Wednesdays. “Did you have another one? How did I miss that!” the friends would ask, baffled and sometimes, seeming to imagine the extramarital shenanigans I evidently had been up to recently.
“Well, we are adopting her. She came to us a few days/weeks/months ago!” Time flies. For Dash as well, the space between not having and having a sister got wider. But when a kid from Dashiell’s old school saw him with his sister at the playground would say, “I didn’t know you had a little sister!” Dash would kvell “I got one! We adopted her!” So, duh, she must have been listening to these conversations. You forget that they listen to every word you say.
Now, the words, “I am adopted” to the pregnant lady made my eyes well with tears. I forgot the friend and the growing life inside her entirely and bent down to look deeply into Siena’s exquisite face, which was inscrutable. For the first time, I had to ask myself if she saw herself as less than her brother, whose face, like a juicy plumcot on a spring day was exactly a perfect hybrid of his parents’ features. She did sometimes mention things fantasy memories like, “do you remember when I was baby and I was crying?” She even talked about being in my belly and liked sometimes to play pretend pre-natal and hide, curled around my belly button in the dark under my shirt. I did not go for the opportunities to correct, per se. Heart/belly it’s a fine line for a toddler. But maybe I had messed it all up. Maybe I should have prepared and planned a real conversation instead of saying, “I am so happy you were born!” Did she say “I am adopted” like a concession prize at the county fair, or proudly, like a silk-screened shirt, “Adopted and Proud?” Of course I hoped the latter, and I had one of those parenting moments, where I hoped I hadn’t just screwed all this up for her. Should I have made her origins more explicit? In fact, she sounded matter-of-fact, neither bad nor good, just telling the truth, as 3 year olds tend to do. I gave her a peck on the cheek, waved good-bye to Tammy and pushed the cart to the bakery.
About the Family
We are a family of four living in Massachusetts with one adopted daughter, one biological son and more than the recommended number of animals, including a cairn terrier who is a stellar soccer player. Reva is a middle-school teacher and a writer. As a family, we enjoy hiking on the beach, eating locally, and balancing our busy lives in a small town with traveling to big cities.