At the very beginning of our adoption process, before we embarked upon the serious paperwork, my husband and I filled out a questionnaire designed to measure our adoptive-aptitude. The questionnaire asked prospective parents to rate a list of statements using the familiar lexicon: strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree.
The statements were opinionated generalities, obviously intended to weed out couples not suited to raise someone else’s offspring. They included:
Passing my genes along to my children is my primary legacy.
Love is a biological function.
A woman’s most important role in life is to give birth.
I will always regret not reproducing.
Biological heritage is foundational to a family.
The best part about parenting is “seeing” yourself in your kids.
My extended family is capable of accepting an adopted child.
My spouse is reluctant to give up hopes of our own baby.
Adopted children have more problems than birth children.
It is fine to keep adoption status a secret.
My husband and I snickered at the exaggerated, procreative prowess of the statements and asked our caseworker if anyone had been snared by the trap and sent back to the in vitro clinic.
“You’d be surprised,” she told us. “Genetics and pregnancy can be deal breakers.”
I understood exactly what our caseworker meant. Among my handful of pregnant friends, I had endured endless discussions about amnio-markers, familial resemblances, and rare, genetic anomalies. Once they delivered their babies, I hoped it would subside. But, no, my friends became even more invested in the idea that these wriggling, pre-verbal bundles were self-replicas. They sought validation in every squeal, every sneeze, every grimace, and – to my growing irritation – they acted like reproduction was the essence of parenthood.
Was I bitter? Maybe, a bit. But I had also recently completed the comprehensive family and home studies for our adoption, and I had a broader vantage point. My new-mom friends were looking for connections to their babies in one basic realm: the physical. Any commonalities beyond that – speech patterns or inflection, gait or talents – any traits that were decidedly more idiosyncratic, had yet to appear.
After waiting nine months, my husband and I were matched with a four-day-old girl. She came with no history, pre-natal or otherwise. Is that something we could handle? our case worker asked. Unequivocally, yes, we told her.
Our friends and family threw us an adoption shower, which was tactfully low-key, and we stepped right into parenthood. We had the gear and we had the baby, which meant, I was now officially and legally a mother. Though I was the only mother my daughter had ever known, it was in the midst of this newborn hype when I felt most acutely aware of not being biologically connected to her.
People saw a baby and expected a birth story. They expected a report of when I went into labor, how long it lasted, what my husband ate, and how the smell bothered me. They expected a summary of familiarities sewn into a graphic and intimate account. They didn’t expect, “I don’t know, I wasn’t there.”
Routine visits to the pediatrician, where I explained repeatedly to every person in the office that my baby’s health history was unknown, grated on me. Why couldn’t they write it down and stop asking? Pregnancy and genetics mattered a great deal, so it seemed.
Until, they didn’t.
As my daughter grew, details of her life in utero – or the lack thereof – faded into the background. They were replaced with the same things that occupy other families: learning, playing, eating, and growing. My job as an adoptive mother became indistinguishable from that of a biological mother, and my daughter’s identity as our child became indistinguishable from that of a birth child.
She was our own, she couldn’t feel any more ours, and it would be impossible to love her any differently.
Every now and then, I remember that questionnaire, and I think, Wow, when I read that, I wasn’t yet a mother. How was I so sure of my answers? But, really, the questions clarified what I already knew: Giving birth does not define a relationship. And I was right.
Adoption distilled my belief that raising a child, not just birthing one, is the essence of parenthood.