I Have a Hereditary Visual Disability – Is My Son a Ticking Time Bomb?

For prospective parents with chronic hereditary medical conditions, exploring this has merit. Here are three important considerations.

“There’s a blood test for that now,” said the neuro-ophthalmologist, my fourth in 15 years. I had sensed that my last specialist was missing something. I was right.
Some background: When I was 23, I started losing my eyesight. Over a two-year period, my once-20/20 acuity dipped to 20/30, 20/40, 20/50. Meanwhile, visual field tests revealed sizable blind spots in my central vision.
Doctors with increasingly long, intimidating titles took turns ordering bloodwork, CT scans, MRIs, even a spinal tap. The problem was clear – my optic nerve was deteriorating – but the reason was not. One said I probably had multiple sclerosis, another that I’d likely go mostly blind.
Fortunately, both were wrong. At 20/60 corrected with gaping bilateral blind spots, it suddenly stopped getting worse. That was 2004; mercifully, since then my eyesight is largely unchanged – shoddy yet stable.
Fast forward to present-day. Apparently, a blood test now existed for the malady that, for over a decade, had been my diagnosis by default: Dominant Optic Atrophy. A rare, often progressive disorder generally not detected until adolescence, DOA ranges in severity from asymptomatic (no measurable vision loss) to legal blindness.
Loosely defined and erratic in impact, dominant optic atrophy is a vision impairment wildcard. Mine stabilized, but others aren’t so lucky.
That brings us to “dominant,” which is medical jargon for “hereditary.” For someone with an 18-month-old son, that’s one hell of a word to place in front of “optic atrophy.”

Too see, or not to see

As it turned out, the test was inconclusive.
“You probably still have it in one form or another,” my doctor said. Despite a lack of clear-cut DNA evidence, my symptoms – when weighed against the ailments already ruled out – still pointed to some variation of dominant optic atrophy.
It was, at best, a semi-relief. In this case, no news was “less-bad” news.
Of course, I’d been prepared for bad news. My condition, and longstanding diagnosis-via-educated-guess, was well-trod territory for my wife and I as we decided to become parents. It wasn’t as if my offspring would certainly, or even probably, develop DOA. But the risk was – and still is – there.
But this latest failed attempt at a precise diagnosis plunged me into the depths of this decision-making process. If new, more worrisome news about my condition’s hereditary nature surfaced today, would it stop me from having another child? Under what scenarios are the risks too great to justify having kids? At what point does procreation’s selfless genesis intersect with ill-advised selfishness?
For now, my questions are hypothetical – since Nicholas, my son, is not. But for prospective parents with chronic hereditary medical conditions, exploring this has merit. Here are three important considerations:

What are the exact chances of passing this condition to my child?

My two-year, diagnosis-less ordeal gave me a precarious peek behind the retractable hospital curtains. My scariest surprise: Getting a straight answer out of a doctor can be amazingly difficult.
Doctors hem, they haw. They’re afraid to lose credibility, lose a patient, lose a lawsuit. And they love to insist you’re imagining symptoms that are literally right in front of your eyes (or in my case, aren’t).
Genetic disorders have a broad range of pass-along rates depending on their nature. A doctor – even a specialist – may not fully understand the likelihood of your offspring developing your ailment, especially if your illness is rare. So ask questions. Be persistent. Be annoying. And if you’re not satisfied, get second and third opinions.
Your future child’s well-being is too important to take “I don’t know” for an answer. Your goal is to find, within reason, the exact chances of your children contracting your disorder.

Could my child live with this?

We want the best for our children, but for prospective parents with hereditary illnesses, the best may be far from perfect. For us, having kids is a gamble, and the genetic slot machine may align unfavorably. We must consider the “what ifs.”
Suppose your child contracts your illness. Many chronic hereditary conditions – myoclonic seizures, for example – have variable expressivity; the effect on one person may be mild, while another suffers worst-case symptoms. It’s a known unknown.
Often, all we have to go on is our own symptoms. It’s honest assessment time: “Can my child live a happy, fulfilling life with this condition?”
My visual impairment is frightening, frustrating, and frequently humiliating. Everything from driving to reading to watching TV can result in throbbing headaches. I can’t golf (what ball?), ski (what tree?), or play paintball (friendly fire!). It affects nearly everything I do to some degree.
I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But this isn’t about wishing. It’s about living.
Despite these struggles I have a wife, a promising career, wonderful friends. My life is not only livable but enjoyable. I am cautiously optimistic that my son’s will be as well.

What are the psychological factors?

My two-year period of acute vision loss was one prolonged panic attack. When it finally leveled off, the calm-after-the-storm left me mired in deep depression that requires professional help to this day.
This isn’t about toughness or fortitude – it’s about your child’s chances for happiness. No doctor can deduce this; it’s up to us to assess the known facts as objectively as possible and decide based on truth rather than instinct. Our natural biological imperative must be temporarily ignored for sane decision-making.
As cold as it sounds, sacrificing someone’s long-term happiness for the short-term joy of holding a baby in one’s arms is selfish. Though I concluded there were too many X factors to pass up fatherhood, if my son is legally blind 20 years from now I may regret that decision – and it will be on me, and me alone. I’m not ready to face that – I can barely type it – but it’s true. We must consider the consequences.
Because of course, there’s a third path between procreation and childlessness. Hereditary illness is a key reason parents choose to adopt. Perhaps no better example exists of something wonderful arising from something terrible.

Playing the Parenting Game for Keeps

My sons often remind me that the parenting game is not necessarily about winning or losing. It’s about the effort that goes into playing the game.

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When Brazil faced Germany for soccer’s World Cup finals, it was the pinnacle of Brazilian pride in our household. Myself and two adopted sons from Brazil comprised the audience.
Unfortunately, Germany’s victory was quite the spectacle as Brazil’s crushing defeat clashed loudly against its proud, fabled history as a soccer giant. Amidst the backdrop of the controversy regarding debt and corruption soiling the country’s social consciousness, Brazil needed this win.
Well, it’s only a game. Or, is it?
Not to soccer-crazed Brazil, which truly epitomizes what it means to live and breathe a sport. Not to conscientious parents who live and breathe raising their children. The parenting game, metaphorically speaking, often rivals the emotionally charged kicking back-and-forth of a soccer ball.
Parenting any child is not for the faint of heart, although especially so for parenting the older adopted child. It’s different with older adopted children – different from raising children from the start, where they learn the game plan for life as it could be, or should be.
In parenting the older adopted child, the game plan seems forever to be shifting to accommodate even the slightest rumblings of insecurity and/or anxiety from past affronts that influence their defensive instincts. Yet just when I think I maneuvered a craftily executed offensive move, not unlike soccer, it only seems to work the one time.
To stay ahead of the game, I forever have to adapt and enact new strategies to keep the ball hurtling toward the goal. It could be as simple as coordinating whose turn it is to sit in the front seat of the car, or as involved as getting two children to share the space of one suitcase to save from paying for two pieces of check-in luggage.
I adopted my two sons seven years ago from Brazil at the cusp of nine and 12 years old. Eventually, they began to trust that the ground beneath their feet wouldn’t necessarily quiver, crack, or open up and swallow them whole.
Yet even with a more secure worldview, when I exercise my authority as their team captain, it invariably seems to them to be without justifiable merit, without logic or sensibility – or that it’s just “not fair!” I often find myself struggling to rally my sons past sullen, disagreeable, or uncooperative spirits in favor of the right decisions for the better of the home team.
Even when the pain of past oversights, missteps, and misguided self-interests remain fresh in our memory banks, I always get another turn at this so-called parenting game. It’s always about the next kick of the ball, whether to defend against another opposing behavioral insult or to set up a play that better positions one of them to make the better choice rather than dig in their heels.
This game can be exhausting, with foul moves often leaving me feeling dejected, demoralized, and unappreciated – perhaps not much different than how David Luiz, Brazil’s acting team captain for the World Cup game was feeling about his performance as he tearfully and humbly expressed how he “just wanted to give some happiness to my people.”
Although I sought to avoid harboring unrealistic ideals in preparing to step out on the field with my two recruits, assuming leadership on their behalf was a tenuous prospect. Like Luiz, who assumed leadership over Brazil’s team only after Thiago Silva was sidelined for his second yellow penalty card, I, too, was the second go around for my team of three.
And the last thing I ever wanted to do was to disappoint them.
Even when they don’t intend to, my sons often remind me that the parenting game is not necessarily about winning or losing. It’s about the effort that goes into playing the game. Even more important: I am determined to stay in it for the “win.” I am in the parenting game for keeps. Their fearless captain is here to stay.
It sometimes can become difficult for me to see the bigger picture after experiencing a parenting setback. I know they understand when I see how they cooperate with me, work together with each other as dutiful teammates, and use good judgment that parallels my coaching. Even a bad call can get excused by way of their trust in me to prevail in their best interests, allowing me to regain my better sense of judgment.
Bonded together as a family, traversing the field of life as teammates with a sense of belonging together, the parenting game doesn’t need to be a competitive one. That alone is a win-win for us all.

What It Really Means To Love Like A Mother

Mothering is so much bigger than grocery lists and school projects. Mothering happens when the child in front of you needs deep and unconditional love.

She stands in the kitchen looking at me. Her hair is stringy and needs to be brushed. She’s shifting from side to side uncomfortably, unsure of what I’m doing there or what to say.
Her brother overdosed last night. Her mother is my good friend, and the swirling vortex of grief and community sucked me into her kitchen, stocking the refrigerator and tidying the counters because that feels like something when there’s nothing.
“I don’t know how to make lasagna,” she says, glancing at the pan I’m sliding into the freezer.
“That’s okay, sweetheart. I can show you.” I begin to walk her through how to preheat the oven.
She interrupts me. “I don’t know what to do next.”
I pause, and look at the shattered girl standing next to me. “No one does, love. Sometimes, when really terrible things happen, nothing comes next. Sometimes we just sit together in the awfulness.”
I haven’t seen this lanky 22-year-old in years. I knew her when she was in grade school. As the years passed, she breezed in and out of my girls’ nights with her mom, and was off to college faster than any of us expected. She’s a woman I don’t know.
But I know her today. Today she’s a girl standing in the kitchen in search of a mother, and she found me.
I stroke her hair and hold her hand and we stand together unmoving as the oven beeps.

I started loving like a mother sixteen years ago

Simon was born after a day-long labor, angry, red and screaming. The doctor held him up and, for a split second, I thought he’d pulled the baby out from under the table, like a medical magician. I expected to feel overwhelmed by love and gratitude and motherhood, but I felt none of those things. I just felt tired.
That disconnected feeling lasted through the next day. The nurses would bring him to me and we’d say all the right things and go through the motions of nursing and burping and changing, but it felt like an elaborate game of make-believe. This wasn’t my baby. This wasn’t real.
In the pre-dawn hours of our last day, I was walking the halls with my IV pole, following my doctor’s orders to move my body. I was alone in the corridor and heard a baby in the nursery start to cry.
“That’s Simon,” I thought, and then instantly laughed at myself. How would I know Simon’s cry? I’d only just met him, after all. I kept walking.
On my next lap, I met a nurse pushing a bassinet out of the nursery.
“Mrs. Chapman! You’re up! I was just bringing your little boy to you. Simon was crying and I didn’t want him to wake the others. He needs his mommy.”
So the mother in me was born.
Many years and many children later, I often fool myself into thinking that the business of mothering is carpooling and filling out forms and sitting in the bleachers. I confuse mothering with picking up shoes, clearing the table, and shouting up the stairs that it’s time to go for real. I diminish mothering with prefixes and qualifiers: single, divorced, foster, and step.
I’m wrong. That’s just the daily noise of it.

Mothering is so much bigger than grocery lists and school projects

Mothering happens when the child in front of you needs deep and unconditional love. It happens when she needs a safe place to land. It happens when he needs a champion.
I’ve mothered a 13-year-old boy who’d just come out to his deeply religious parents. It hadn’t gone well. He was worried he’d broken his family and hurt his mother and might never fit in. Simon dragged him off the bus and brought him home for mothering. I fed him meatloaf and mashed potatoes and reminded him his mother and father loved him beyond reason.
Sometimes parents get a little lost in the details, but that doesn’t make the love any less real.
I’ve mothered a four-year-old girl who was so banged up and broken from the three foster homes she’d been through already. She was awful. She locked my baby Caden in a box and shoved him under the bed. She set fires. It was everything I could do to advocate for her, pushing for therapy and medication. Truthfully, it was hard to like her, but for that chapter in our lives, she was mine to mother, and I loved her fiercely.

Loving like a mother isn’t unique to me

My children’s group leaders, teachers, stepmother, grandmothers, and aunts have loved them like mothers. Their friends’ mothers have set places at their dinner tables and offered a shoulder when they needed one. I’m quite sure I don’t know the half of how my children have benefitted from the rich love of other mothers. It’s a strange feeling to walk around grateful for something you know is happening but haven’t witnessed directly.
Loving like a mother isn’t bound by blood, paperwork, or gender. It isn’t qualified by the word that comes before the title. It isn’t found in limited quantities. Its presence doesn’t diminish the love of other mothers.
Loving like a mother is simply defined by the object of that love. When you love someone unconditionally, in the way they need to be loved in that moment, you love like a mother. And the world is richer for it.
This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, This Life in Progress.

Starting Over: When Mama is Nana

The term “grandfamilies” has entered the lexicon.

Last fall, my friend spent Tuesdays in a utilitarian meeting room sitting on a folding chair while “experts” expounded on topics like bonding, sleep patterns, and infant milestones, information she didn’t need since she’d already ushered her own children into adulthood. The good part was that there were other grandmothers in the class who told each other their stories. Tuesdays also brought paperwork and state mandates and social work regulations. Her new normal – the one she never saw coming – had just landed in her lap.

When her grandchild was born and it was clear the birthparents could not be the caregivers, my friend began to quietly text the baby’s temporary foster parents in another state. She relished the photos they would send her. She would comment on “the sweetest little hands.” That text would, the next month, turn into “the cutest smile ever.” She sent books and clothes and every age-appropriate toy she could find.

It made sense that she’d be invested in giving this baby the best start she could. After all, she was the baby’s grandmother. I figured her role would be filling in the gaps until “real parents” could be found as soon as the court ruled the adoption could go forward. Then, I thought, the social worker would consult the list of couples yearning for a baby, and a whole new family – a young family – would be created, and those parents would take over.

I was fooled. Partly because my friend carefully skirted the issue of the baby’s future. She’d indulge me in phone conversations that began with me saying things like, “I know this is sad, but there’s a young couple somewhere, just aching to have a baby and soon they’ll have one!” Looking back now, I remember her soft silences in response to my enthusiasm. She was probably averting her eyes too, but I couldn’t see that.

I believed that in her life, as in mine, it would be unthinkable to dive back into the grinding mechanics of caring for an infant 24 hours a day, much less summoning the reflexes to prevent a  three-year-old from darting into traffic. Or sitting, albeit proudly, in the audience at your kid’s high school graduation when you’re in your 80s.

When she finally told me she was beginning adoption proceedings, I told her all the reasons she was making a terrible, immutable mistake. I warned her that once the baby arrived in her home, no matter how difficult the going got, she would never be able to turn back to her old life – her sane, comfortable, predictable life – with me as her sane, comfortable, predictable friend.

“How fair is that?” I asked. Not fair to her and not fair to her grandchild, not when there were prospective (young) parents, waiting so hopefully in the wings.

She approached my logic with statistics about the numbers of babies who have been rescued by willing grandparents: 2.7 million nationwide. She told me about her distrust of the system the baby would be thrown into, even for a short time, and the damage that could be done. Then she refuted my logic with emotion. The term “grandfamilies” has entered the lexicon. The baby was part of her extended family. That baby was her family.

Her mind was made up, and I was left to look at what my rational arguments said about me. I wanted our two lives to stay on the intended arc we envisioned together, the continuation of everything we’d shared. We always had each other as we parented our young children. Then came the teenagers and the college years. We hosted weddings, then baby showers. Now we were supposed to be free to go out to lunch, learn to play golf, discuss politics, or gossip idly without any interruptions. What about our bucket lists?

It turns out her baby loves eating in restaurants, watching people go by, sampling new foods, and playing peek-a-boo with the waiter. I look at my friend, enveloped in all of it. She’ll be called “Nana,” she tells me. The baby is beautiful.

There are all kinds of bucket lists.

Maria von Trapp: An Adoptive Parent's Hero

No one will ever have the perfect success that Ms. von Trapp did, but her lessons continue to encourage and strengthen me as a new mom.

I’ve always identified with Maria. Not because I’ve ever been a nun, or fallen in love with a Navy captain, or whipped up some jumpers out of hippie-colored curtains, but because she was a bit of a flake. Known for being “always late for everything, except for every meal,” her absent-minded whimsy was her way of shielding a superabundant and vulnerable heart from people who didn’t understand her.

Maria’s lack of authoritarian presence led the von Trapp kids to see her as an easy target at first, and while no one has ever left a frog in my burlap sack, I know the feeling. She was inclined to seek more creative ways of soliciting love and cooperation from her children. No one will ever have the perfect success that Ms. von Trapp did, but her lessons continue to encourage and strengthen me as a new mom.

1 | Music is a great healer

I’m not talking about fetching your guitar while your children gather around you and vocalize about native flowers, but there are times when music does indeed soothe the soul. That time of day my mother always called the “witching hour,” the few hours between snack and dinner when the last thing kids want to do is pick up another pencil and follow directions, can be mollified almost immediately with music. Upbeat, acoustic songs with lots of major chords playing in the next room has an instant effect on my kids. They will start saying funny or considerate things and take steps towards participation. It also distracts them from arguing with one another. I love Taylor Swift or One Direction songs because they’re familiar, full of good hooks, and automatically put everyone in a jaunty mood.

2 | Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to empathize

The von Trapp kids relished Maria’s pain when they put a frog in her luggage, their smiles revealing no hint of remorse. It’s so easy to write our kids off when they don’t seem to care that they’re hurting us. However, appealing to your child’s humanity is sometimes the best way to reach a kid who have been punished excessively by controlling or cruel caregivers, and have learned to shut down when he is reprimanded. Simple statements like, “That really hurts my feelings,” allow children to see that you’re not trying to dominate them, but to help them relate better to others. It also lets them know you trust them to be compassionate.

3 | Give them freedom within limits

The most important thing about adoptive parenting is that children know you are on their side. So, yes, sit on a hillside and munch on an apple in your frock while the kids toss a football before launching into a number about solfeggio syllables. Allowing kids to create their own competitions and adventures should be strongly encouraged (and it gets them away from drooly screen time). Let them turn the closet into a craft room, chalk up the driveway, and create pretend packages that get delivered to the house. Show great enthusiasm for the diversions and hearten them to keep it up.

4 | Let them know their dreams can come true

One of my favorite scenes from “The Sound of Music” is when Maria is comforting her new daughter after her first broken heart. She told her to “cry a little, and wait for the sun to come out. It always does.”

Minimizing your child’s hopes in order to save them from a crushing blow will only serve to make them discouraged and resentful. Let them know that, while this bus didn’t stop for them, there is one coming along that will be even better. After all, someone brought you together with the perfect child after many years of hoping, praying, and, somewhere deep inside, knowing that child was out there.

Kramer Versus Who?

I caught the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer” the other day. I first saw the movie when I was a young teen in the 1970’s, too young to really understand its significance at the time. Now though, as a single adoptive father deep in the throes of parenthood, I found Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of single parenting particularly riveting. Though entirely my desire and choice and with much preparation beforehand, it was also a shock for me to essentially wake up that first morning suddenly a single father, solely responsible for the life of a child – although make that a pair for me, nine- and twelve-year-old brothers at the time.

There’s an early scene in the movie depicting the morning after his wife left him, when Hoffman’s character botches breakfast. This scene echoes with the pervading societal views of a father’s ineptness in care-taking. Set in 1979, it was interesting to see Hoffman’s Ted repeatedly face the narrow-minded perceptions of a father’s role in caring for his children.

All these years later, such perceptions have not necessarily changed that much. I have encountered much narrow-mindedness with each metaphorical slam of the door in seeking to adopt a child as a single father. As much as I coveted fatherhood in all its idealistic glory, the most poignant scene for me was when Ted threw (well, tossed) his son into bed out of frustration over the boy’s unrelenting defiance, unabashedly answering, “I’m all you’ve got!” to his son’s pleas for his mother. Good, bad, or indifferent, I too am all my sons have.

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Although perhaps it’s my own self-consciousness, my role as nurturer is still sometimes shaken in comparison to societal stereotypes favoring the mother in child rearing. The movie plays out over the better part of a year as Ted transforms from insecure and uncertain about his role as a forced-upon full-time single parent to one who is in charge, secure, confident, and absolutely committed to his son. This could not have been illuminated more beautifully than in the scene when his son is supposed to return to live with his mother, as ruled by the courts nearly a year later. Watching Ted and his son prepare breakfast together, and how father and son now seamlessly work together in a way that conveyed their sense of belonging to one another, was a sight to behold.

I vividly recall being in awe at our first anniversary together as a family as I looked at where I had started only a year ago. Like Ted, I became much more open to life as it was, rather than what I thought it should be. In so doing, I’ve become a better adoptive parent – one who is more in tune to and better able to meet my sons’ needs.

Our relationship together as father and sons continues to deepen over the years. Fatherhood encompasses my every being in ways I’d never really thought about before becoming a parent. Parenting single-handedly actually enhances my fatherly role exponentially, as in actuality I am all I’ve got. Along the way, I found out just how much there is of me to give. Society, in turn, also better recognizes my ability to parent and nurtures my sons’ innate goodness as they mature and set out to make their mark in this world, when previously for them, that wasn’t even a possibility.

Finding My Way Around "Advancing Age" and Into Motherhood

Advancing Age got the last laugh when two weeks later we got the news that I wasn’t pregnant. I needed to take a long hard look at my 40-something body.

“Promise me, Barbara, you’re not going to wait until you’re 43 to begin trying,” my gynecologist pleaded. Well, I made us both proud by conceiving easily when I was 41. Then I became pregnant again at 42. Great. Well, not so great. The trouble was, both pregnancies ended badly.
Then my husband and I tried a round of IVF after discovering I still had “Decent Ovarian Potential,” as the reproductive specialists like to say. I produced four eggs that were retrieved during what I liked to call “The Great Egg Hunt.”
However, from those four, only two eggs were able to fertilize. The slimmest of slim pickings perhaps, but they were considered grade one, cream-of-the-crop embryos, which were then transferred from sterile Petri dish to my drug-induced, lush uterine lining. (Ha, in your face, Advancing Age.)
Naturally, Advancing Age got the last laugh when two weeks later we got the news that I wasn’t pregnant. The time had come: I needed to take a long hard look at my 40-something body.
 
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From the outside, I must say, it looked good, easily 10-years younger than my chronological age. But inside I heard them. My eggs, clamoring loudly as the elderly and decrepit sometimes do: “We’re cranky as hell and we’re not going to reproduce anymore. Now let’s play bingo.”
Next my husband and I explored donor eggs, but I wasn’t interested. Honestly I was pretty much over my body and still angry with it for failing me not once, but three times. I also didn’t like that the donor would be anonymous.
I couldn’t imagine growing up not knowing where my obnoxiously loud laugh came from, or the million other traits that I can trace back to the cast of characters who passed along my genetic code. I wanted a child of mine to have this knowledge, too. That’s when we turned our hopes to domestic adoption.
This was also the time I realized I needed to be on friendly terms with my body again. I started seeing a therapist. It helped. There’s nothing better than having scheduled appointments for a good talk and an ugly cry over ill-fated pregnancies and the sobering fact that my tired, old eggs would have no part in creating a child with the man I loved.
Then – after 18 months of numerous pre-adoption legalities, another glance into donor eggs, and one monumental, earth-shattering decision from a woman I had come to know in the months leading up to the birth of her child yet barely knew – I became a mother at the ripe older age of 45.
From that moment, eight years ago, I have never looked back. I never held on to the moniker “infertile.” I never wished that I was able to become pregnant, because I could never have been pregnant with her, my daughter.
My feelings are confirmed one bajillion times over, each and every time I catch a passing glimpse of her blonde hair, or hear her voice whining away about some toy or treat she has to have. She is it. She is my child. My very heart. I am forever grateful that it is she who calls me “Mom.”
This article originally appeared in Adoptive Family Circle.

DNA Relates You, But Here's What Makes a Family

“DNA doesn’t make you family,” a hand-stamped keychain from Etsy will remind you, “love does.” Now I know it’s way more than that.

Around the time I started telling friends and family I was dating a girl – in other words, when the whole gay thing became official – I unexpectedly mourned the idea of having a child that was genetically descended from both me and my future partner.

Maybe I cared because, growing up in a mixed family, comparing nose widths, head shapes, and hair thicknesses was a form of entertainment. Over the dinner table on a good day, my dad would make fun of my mom’s long, skinny Caucasian nose, and my mom would make fun of my dad’s wide, meaty Asian nose. Maybe it was just silly banter, or maybe it was a way of making sure that my brother and I felt lucky about our moderate noses and secure about our blend.

Almost a decade later, when that same girlfriend (now wife) and I decided to have kids, I initially wasn’t interested in doing any kind of (in my mind at the time) “unnatural” fertility or insemination procedures, at least none involving my own body. Coming from a family of holistic health freaks, Christian Scientists, and cheapskates, I was distrustful of any medical intervention that wasn’t 102 percent necessary. “We’d just adopt,” I thought, believing I was being the logical one.

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My wife, who’d been adopted at birth, was determined to carry a baby and pass on her DNA. The arrangement wasn’t ideal, my brain reasoned. I’d be the only one left out of this genetic scheme, and out of any future conversations about who looks like whom. We’d have to use sperm from either someone we knew or someone we didn’t know. (Which would be weirder? It was hard to say.) Plus there was all the medical “stuff” we’d have to deal with.

Then our baby was born, and after six intense weeks that felt like one six-year-long day, those worries all seemed so far away that they were completely irrelevant.

“DNA doesn’t make you family,” a hand-stamped keychain from Etsy will remind you, “love does.” Now I know it’s way more than that.

Family is setting the alarm (actually, two: one for backup) for 11:30 pm, 1:30 am, 3:30 am, 5:30 am, and 7:30 am, and spending an hour and a half each time wrangling a little wire attached to a syringe filled with formula into our newborn’s mouth, in addition to breastfeeding, so she can gain the recommended one ounce a day.

Family is holding our breath listening to a tiny human’s shrieks, sneezes, and wheezes in the bassinet next to our bed and hoping she’ll make it through another night. Family is walking out of the drugstore into harsh sunlight and shielding my kid’s eyes before even thinking of putting on my own sunglasses.

Family is having 97 nicknames for someone who doesn’t even know her own name yet. Family is making up enough original songs in two weeks to produce three absurdist children’s albums and headline four experimental live performances at the (insert hottest New York venue here, I have no idea about these things anymore) but not caring about any of that except for soothing one very small person for the next 30 seconds.

Family is wiping someone else’s spit-up chunks, belly button cheese, and eye crust. Family is counting pee and poop diapers so we can defend our collective honor to the pediatrician at our next appointment. Family is being part of the same freaking fart cloud.

Maybe I’ll never be able to recognize our daughter’s nose in the contours of my ancestral line, but I’ll know it’s the one I’ve coaxed boogers out of with my bare hands and watched the light shine off of as I bounced her into a temporary state of serenity by her favorite window. That’s more than enough for me.

Reclaiming the Lost Birthdays of My Daughter

My daughter was nine years old when my husband and I adopted her. We had a lot of birthdays to make up for.

My daughter was nine years old when my husband and I adopted her. She was abused and neglected during her first four years, and then bounced around foster care for the next five. She’d lived in 12 homes before ours. Amazingly, she was still willing to give trusting and loving us a shot.

It was – and still is – hard work for all three of us, but she’s attached. We’re a family. We love each other. We’re her parents and she’s our baby.

Turning 13 was a really rough transition for her because she realized she doesn’t seek the same level of independence as her peers. She still wants to be a little girl. She finally has a mommy and daddy who truly love her, take care of her, and keep her safe, and she isn’t ready for this chapter of her life to close. She missed out on too much.

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Birthdays are especially challenging for her. They remind her that she wasn’t always ours, and make her think of all of the hard times she had before us. She often tells us that she wishes we were her first parents, in addition to her last.

One morning the summer before she started middle school she began sobbing, saying that she wished she were only six, and an idea popped into my head. We missed out on her first nine birthdays. Her tenth birthday was the first one we were part of, and it was the first birthday party she’d ever had.

I decided to redo all of the others.

I had her first birthday party all set up when I picked her up from camp that afternoon. I decorated with free printables I found online. I gave her a birthday crown to wear. We sang “Happy Birthday” and ate mini-cupcakes. We talked about the milestones children usually hit at that age and what her first birthday would have been like if she had been with us then. We played “Ring Around the Rosie.” We even gave her gifts to unwrap (possessions she already owned: a playground ball and a book).

We continued the birthdays over the week, celebrating as a family at dinnertime. Each party had a theme, from Dora the Explorer to cowgirls to high tea.

As I prepared for each party, I wrote my daughter a letter describing how we would have celebrated with her if she’d been with us, and what I thought she would have been like. In each letter I included photos of children of that age who look a little like her as my daughter has very few photos of herself from before she joined our family.

Some of the celebrations were hard and filled with tears. During her fifth birthday redo party, she shared that she was sad because it was the first birthday she spent in foster care. She knew that must have been a really difficult one for her.

Her ninth birthday redo was especially heavy because she was in the midst of a traumatic situation that year. I tell her all the time that the only way to process the hard stuff is to deal with it. These birthday redo celebrations have helped her with that.

My daughter now has a file folder in her brain of good memories from these family parties, plus dozens of photos. I’m confident the positive memories will outweigh the negative ones over time.

Making Your Life a Masterpiece – an Adoption Story

For the past 20 years, I have been fielding questions and comments regarding my son’s adoption. The first time it happened, I was grocery shopping with my baby when a man standing in front of me said, “Now you will get pregnant.”
I looked behind me to see if he was addressing someone else. When I saw no one, I realized he was talking to me. I must have given him a quizzical look because he elaborated: “Now that you’ve adopted, you will get pregnant. It happens all the time.”
A little flustered and in no mood to discuss my fertility with a stranger in the produce aisle, I stated that my baby was the spitting image of my husband and walked away. I generally am pretty open and honest about things, but people, there is a time and place for certain discussions.
 
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That may have been the first, but it was certainly not the last time I’ve had to address the issue. When my son was in kindergarten, his teacher called me up on St. Patrick’s Day to tell me that he had told the class his birth father was Irish, a story she was certain he had fabricated. I pointed out that the term “birth father” was quite sophisticated language for a five-year-old and, in fact, his story was true.
I also told her that I knew of two other adopted children in the class. This was completely untrue, but I thought trying to figure out which children were the adopted ones would keep her busy for a while – perhaps even too busy to call me again.
As my son grew (and grew and grew), it became even more apparent that he did not physically resemble us. When I am out with my son, people look at the two of us and ask, “Is your husband tall?” I am a five feet, four inches, and my son is over six foot, one, so I guess it’s a logical question. But when I reply that no, my husband is not tall, the questions continue.
At this point, I should mention that my son is half Thai (and very handsome, I have to add). You would think people would be able to put two and two together, but that’s usually not the case. If I tell people he was adopted, the questions continue further. I have been asked what country he is from. Unless Florida has seceded from the Union, I am pretty sure he was born in the United States.
My son has spent several summers working at the company where my husband is employed. Much to his amusement, people often assumed his dad was the IT guy rather than the General Counsel. I won’t even comment about stereotyping.
Then there is the ultimate adoption reflection. People have expressed their doubts about whether they would be able to love an adopted child as much as they do their biological child. To those people, I have responded with a question of my own:
“What if you discovered there had been a mix-up at the hospital, and the child you brought home was not genetically linked to you. Would you love him or her any less?”
Of course not. Love is about familiarity and commitment, the intertwining of lives, not about a genetic connection. Adoption is the term for what happens on the day you get your child. Parenthood is the term for what happens every day after that.
An adopted friend of mine once told me that your “real” mother is the one who causes you to need psychotherapy. Perhaps that is true. Despite my mistakes, I hope my three sons know that I love them with all my heart and always have their backs. I hope they hear my (cautionary) voice in their heads before they do something dumb and know how proud I am when they do their best.
It is only fair to mention that, in addition to the personal, amusing, and odd comments we have heard over the years, we’ve heard incredibly positive sentiments as well. A card we received after we brought our son home read, “Sometimes you need to color outside the lines to make your life a masterpiece.”
We colored outside the lines to help us create our family, and the result is beautiful.