Adjusting to a new life
Eric and I emerged from this gauntlet of bliss and heartache as parents, forever changed. I wanted to share our wondrous story with everyone. Rebecca, after all, was made of it. But as soon as we returned home with Rebecca and I started telling my friends and family about our experience, I began to hear their amazement. When I'd add that Mallory would visit in three months, and we'd be seeing her every few months after that for the rest of our lives, their amazement turned to something like fear. "Aren't you afraid she'll want to take Rebecca back?" they all—from casual acquaintances to my own closest relatives—asked. (My honest answer: No, because she can't legally, and because, having spent time with her, I believe her when she says she doesn't regret her choice.)
That's when my newfound role as informal open-adoption evangelist began. I offered explanations like this countless times in the first year of Rebecca's life. Often, I smiled through gritted teeth as I did so. It hurt that near-strangers felt free to make rude remarks like, "I'm sure the real mom will lose interest soon," or "Well, I understand why you did it -- it's so hard to get a white baby these days." It made me even crazier that close friends and family, who'd seen us through this process from the beginning, continued to seem clueless about why we'd want Mallory in our lives.
My fellow new mothers were especially shocked. "I could never do that!" one said after the other. "You're so brave." As I ventured into the world of new-parent support groups and infant "playdates," I discovered that new-mama bonding doesn't leave a lot of room for different experiences. For most women, motherhood begins in their own bodies. Mine started with a relationship I'd forged with a stranger, and that would forever be part of the bond growing between Rebecca and me. I have to admit that the love between my daughter and me is not "natural"—it's built from faithfulness and time and mistakes and hard-earned insight, like the connection between her birth mom and me.
I don't blame people for getting spooked by my family's unorthodox situation. A lot of it comes from deeply rooted attitudes about what a family should be. The still-unresolved debates about everything from daycare to working outside the home all begin with the lingering dream of a mommy, daddy, and baby, bound by blood and comfort in their roles. When life doesn't work out in quite that scenario, it makes us all nervous—even those of us who never thought we wanted to live that way.
A mom who acknowledges another mother as central to her family throws everything up in the air. If Rebecca has two mothers (a "sun" and a "guiding star," as a corny pro-adoption poem puts it) then how can I be everything she needs? And if I can't be, am I good enough for her? I've had to wrestle with many of these questions over the past two years. Wouldn't it have been easier if they'd never come up? Not all moms in my position are so eager to dwell on the fact that they're not biologically connected to their child. I have friends who never tell strangers their kids are adopted. For me, though, there's no other choice—not because I'm better or more politically correct, but because my firm belief that family ties are created as much as fated makes anything but unqualified honesty seem like self-deception. I'm a mother because another mother granted that chance to me.
I believe that openness helps put people's sense of family more in tune with reality—a reality that includes stepparents, foster families, surrogacy, stay-at-home dads, and whatever twist on Ozzie and Harriet that life demands next. And I'm grateful for openness in a personal way, even when it's meant standing in a corner while Mallory held Rebecca at her high school graduation or dealing with those questions from strangers and friends. It turns out that the one person who could really make me feel good about being Rebecca's mom was her other mom.
It's Mallory who has written me kind e-mails when I've felt insecure and shared tears of confusion and hugs of reassurance. Sometimes, just acknowledging the weirdness of our situation makes it better.
Mallory, now a college student, has struggled with her own complicated role. Her hometown is fairly small, and she's endured hurtful comments from strangers, even friends. But she's chosen not to hide anything, covering her dorm room with pictures of "my kid" and introducing us as family members to everyone from her grandmother to her former manager at Wendy's. And if you think my momhood challenges people's assumptions, think about her: a proud and loving mother who nonetheless knew that her child would thrive in another woman's embrace.
We've both gained much more from staying connected than ignorant comments can erase. And we care about each other too much to keep quiet about it. But this may change when the 33-inch-tall marvel who united us gets old enough to realize what having two mommies really means. I feel that openness is healthier for Rebecca; I've seen families torn apart by secrets, and I'll do my best not to have that happen to my daughter. I'm raising her to be proud and feel lucky that adoption has given her a big extended family who loves her. But if she ultimately decides that this is all a private matter, I'll follow her lead. Maybe that will be her first act of independence, which I'll have to accept. I'm already getting less intense about playing the role of open-adoption poster mom. Now, when someone comments on how much Rebecca looks like me, I still usually say she's adopted, but I don't launch into a five-minute speech. We've been walking the walk for two years now, and sometimes I figure it's okay to keep the talk to a minimum. After all, we're normal, too—or as normal as any square in this crazy patchwork quilt of love, chance and choice that we call the modern family.
Ann Powers recently moved to Los Angeles with her family to become the chief pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times.