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Adopting Lucy

September 10, 2001, Hanoi, Vietnam

Christina: In a few minutes, we'll meet Lucy Thu Lien, the 6-month-old whose photographs we've been studying for three months, the baby girl who'll become our second daughter and complete our family. For over a year, we've done nothing but talk about what this moment will be like. Yet now we're speechless, each of us in our own world of trepidation and joy.

The minivan we're in, with two other adoptive families, charges through the Hanoi traffic  -- an anarchic river of bicycles and mopeds heading directly toward us. Finally, we arrive at Tu Liem orphanage. Exiting the van into the steamy, fragrant heat, we walk up the steps of the weatherworn building. Before we can prepare ourselves for the big moment, Lucy's in front of us, perched calmly in the arms of her caregiver.

She's tinier than in her photos; her hair has been crudely cut and she smells a bit like sour milk, but still she is completely lovely and precious. The moment Josh, Olivia, and I first hold her is both awesome and ordinary. Suddenly and forever we are a family of four.

Christina Frank is a freelance writer. Josh Lerman is a senior editor at Parenting.

March 2000 to October 2000

March 2000

Josh: We conceived Olivia with relative ease four and a half years ago, so I'm a bit surprised when a year of trying to have a second child yields no results.

I'm willing to attempt a few low-tech fertility treatments, but elaborate in vitro techniques hold little appeal. The hormones that Christina would have to take seem wild and unpredictable. And there's a slippery slope: If you try IVF once and it doesn't work, you're tempted to try again. We've met couples who are on their third or fourth attempt, and it's as though what started as the most natural of impulses has become an awkward lump in their relationship.

It just doesn't feel quite right to spend thousands of dollars in order to have a baby when we already have a biological child and there are babies all over the world who need parents. We love Christina's adopted niece, Katherine, so the notion of adoption doesn't seem odd  -- it feels logical. So all in all, the decision has evolved naturally and quickly: We'll adopt.

April 26, 2000

Christina: Josh and I meet at Spence-Chapin, the adoption agency, for an orientation session. We're here, along with 20 other couples and many single women, to learn what our options are for adopting abroad. (We've rapidly ruled out domestic adoption now that we've learned that it takes much longer and is more complicated.) We hear about programs in various countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Parents speak about their recent experiences adopting from China, Vietnam, and Moldova and show off their children.

At first, we consider Russia. We think it might be easier for a child we adopt to look somewhat like the rest of our family. But new laws in Russia have slowed down the adoption process.

Our next choice is Vietnam. Based on what we've heard, the babies are generally healthy, well cared for, and available at 4 to 7 months old, about as young as you can get with international adoption. The wait is reputed to be relatively short. Katherine is Korean, so another Asian child in the family makes sense. Plus, the Vietnamese baby at the meeting is adorable.

Josh: Another reason we're attracted to Vietnam is that its program allows parents who already have one child to choose which sex they'd like. Korea had appealed to us too, but it doesn't let parents specify gender preference. We've decided we want a girl.

Most people assume that since we already have a daughter we'd want a boy. But our apartment is small, so the kids will have to share a room; as we already have a girl, we kind of know what to expect. And for many reasons, Christina feels strongly that she'd like a girl.

I never thought I'd be able to choose the sex of any of my children anyway, so abdicating the decision to her isn't a sacrifice. We'll have another daughter!

May 2000

Christina: First we need to be formally admitted to Spence-Chapin's program. We meet with a weary social worker in a stuffy meeting room for an exhaustive three-hour "intake" interview. We're grilled about our upbringing (mine's an O'Neill drama; Josh's, a '50s sitcom), our relationship (terrific), any drug experimentation (well, we were teenagers once), criminal records (none), and tendency to beat children (none).

Josh: The social worker asks what we like about each other, and it's ultimately an exercise that delivers more than just information to put on a form. By having to articulate in front of a stranger what has kept me with my wife, I am describing  -- for perhaps the first time ever  -- the nature and underpinning of my love. Interestingly, we both cite almost the same things: We share a particular understanding of the world; we like and get each other's sense of humor; we respect each other's opinions. And, speaking for myself, I think Christina's hot.

We pass.

July 12, 2000

Christina: We enter the "home study" leg of the process, which begins with two group meetings about six weeks apart. With a social worker, we discuss with other parents-to-be the particulars of adopting from Vietnam  -- the paperwork involved, travel details, and feelings about "transracial" issues.

Josh: In a group session with six other couples who wish to adopt from Vietnam, we're supposed to share our fears.

While I don't admit to being scared or worried, there is one thing on my mind: Shouldn't we really give some thought to the implications of becoming a biracial family? On one level, I think race is immaterial  -- love is what's important. But I also know that's naive. Depending on our daughter-to-be's temperament, the fact that she's Asian and we're Caucasian could be an issue. Will she feel like an outsider in our family? Olivia is blond and blue-eyed; she looks a lot like both of us, as well as her grandparents. How will it feel for our other daughter to resemble no one in the family, and to have racial characteristics that stamp her immediately as genetically unrelated to us?

The adoptees we've spoken to, Christina's niece among them, all have widely different answers. Most say that their race isn't an issue in terms of their feelings of belonging. They know they're adopted, they can see they're Asian, and it doesn't matter. But a few are keenly aware of their differences and wish their parents had done more to make them comfortable with their Asian-ness.

There seems to be no formula to learn though.

August and September 2000

Christina: We're handed thick folders with reams of daunting instructions, flowcharts, and poorly photocopied forms, many in English, French, and Vietnamese. Are we intelligent enough to do all this correctly? The Spence staff assures us that everyone feels this way and everyone still manages to get it done. But having counted more than 30 forms to sign, we're not so sure.

Josh: I'm annoyed by the whole adoption process. There's the sheer quantity of work  -- Christina and I have to supply certified birth certificates, a certified marriage certificate, certified medical certificates, proof of employment, a financial statement, color copies of our passports (each of which states quite clearly that it's illegal to make a color copy of it), photos of a very particular size of each of us, and on and on. A total of 24 separate documents have to be prepared just for the initial application packet.

As we wade through the scores of detailed specifications for not only what we have to fill out but also how we have to fill it out, I start to bridle. We already have a child, so to have to provide all of this documentation seems like a joke. No one asked us for financial records or character references or proof of employment before we had Olivia. We just want a baby  -- should it really be this complicated?

But I guess I understand the mounds of paperwork. If I were in charge of giving away a baby, you can be damn sure I'd demand proof that it was to someone who seemed at least marginally capable of meeting her needs. So I take a few deep breaths and carry on.

Christina: We're assigned to another, Vietnam-specific social worker, named Rose, who will see us through the process and be there to discuss the inevitable emotions that surface. With her, we endure another exhaustive, multiple-hour discussion about our upbringing, relationship, and any bad facts about us that might have slipped through the cracks during the intake interview.

We're also asked to write a "Dear Birth Mother" letter, in which we try to communicate to our prospective child's birth parents our feelings about the adoption.

Josh and I flinch at this kind of forced, touchy-feely exercise and spend a lot of time making inappropriate jokes about what we might write. Eventually, we decide to be honest. "At this point, we're mostly thinking about our own family," we write in the letter, "though we do wonder what the circumstances are that have forced you to put this baby up for adoption. When we actually have this baby, you'll probably become more real to us."

Rose also asks us to share any fears we have about the unknowns of adoption. I hesitate before I fess up to something that I'm certain will get us booted out: I'm afraid that the baby will be hideously ugly and that I won't be able to love her.

Rose laughs and says this isn't uncommon  -- it's really about deeper issues of bonding and love. As with a birth child, the connection will grow, irrespective of the baby's appearance. I try to accept this idea, but I still feel guilty for being so shallow. What I really want her to tell me is that Spence has never placed a less-than-perfect baby with a family.

Josh: Adoption may be more of a sure thing than fertility treatments, but it can be just as expensive. We're starting to squirrel money away every chance we get. I've calculated that we'll be sending out some 19 checks totaling $14,000 or so, all for either the adoption itself or services required by the process. (This seems to be the standard cost.) And that doesn't include travel  -- another $7,000 for hotel, airfare, and living expenses.

October 12, 2000

Christina: We prepare ourselves for the final step in the process: the dreaded home visit. We're told not to go crazy scrubbing and polishing; no one is going to check our closets. The agency just wants to make sure we have the square footage for a crib  -- something you don't take for granted in a New York City apartment.

Rose meets Olivia, who doesn't want to go to preschool that day and dissolves into a tantrum. I worry that maybe we'll seem like an undesirable family for a new baby after all. But we end up passing this test too.

Josh: A couple of days before Rose comes, we tell Olivia that she's going to have a little sister. Ideally, we'd wait longer to tell her so she doesn't spend the next six months asking when the baby is coming, but the home visit makes this impossible. She's very excited and asks many questions about the adoption, Vietnam, babies, and when we'll go get her little sister.

October 20, 2000

Christina: We submit our initial application  -- which contains Rose's write-up of us as well as assorted certificates and forms  -- to International Mission of Hope (IMH), the organization in Vietnam that will handle our adoption. For now we can relax a bit and start counting the weeks until we get a referral  -- the assignment of an actual baby. At this point, we're expecting it around March.

January 2001 to June 2001

January 2001

Josh: Rose calls: It's time to do the second chunk of paperwork  -- our referral could be as little as six or eight weeks away. If the quantity of paperwork seemed crazy the first time, the amount required this time around is simply mind-boggling. We have to get a "good conduct certificate" from our local police. We live in a city of 8 million, and I daresay the local police don't have the slightest idea what our conduct is like.

What makes the forms difficult  -- besides the sheer volume  -- is the rules dictating how each must be filled out, signed, and authenticated. Each signature must be notarized, with the notary stamping his seal on a gold sticker we provide for that purpose. And then the notarization must be certified by the clerk of the county in which the notary is qualified. And then that certification of the notarization of our signatures must be registered by the office of the secretary of state of New York.

February 15, 2001

Christina: We finally have everything ready to go. I FedEx our "dossier"  -- as it's officially known  -- to the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, DC, for further authentication. When that's done, the package will go on to the IMH office in Hanoi.

March 2001

Christina: We learn that our dossier has arrived in Vietnam. Now everything is in place for a referral. I start out waiting in a fairly rational state of mind, which slowly devolves into near insanity as the weeks pass. Whenever the phone rings, my heart races and I steel myself before answering it.

I call Rose at the end of the month, and she explains that the referral waits have increased, as the number of applications IMH received last fall was at an all-time high. She can't say exactly when we'll get our referral, just that we will. Eventually.

This kind of noncommittal answer is clearly a well-rehearsed, routine part of the agency's day, much of which is spent fending off desperate, hysterical parents at various points in the waiting game. I can't say I blame Rose for the way she handles my questions; still, I begin to view anyone who works at the agency as the enemy.

April and May 2001

Christina: These months have been pure torture, an unremitting roller coaster of hope (as in: Today could be the day!) and despair (as in: It wasn't). When I'm away from home, I call my voicemail twice an hour. I spend an embarrassing amount of time on my e-mail listserv, Adoptive Parents of Vietnam, which is a great resource for families. I become obsessed with how long other people have been waiting and am thrilled, though envious, when someone gets a referral. I find a cyberbuddy named Lisa, who expects her referral right around when we expect ours. We share our anxieties many times a day.

June 1, 2001

Christina: Still no referral. I have almost given up hope.

Josh: The wait for our referral is longer than we expected, but for me time passes quickly. Maybe it's a guy thing, but I don't feel as anxious as Christina does. It's a relief to be finished with the paperwork; now that I know we'll get a baby and the only question is when, it's possible to relax.

June 11, 2001

Christina: Finally, it happens. The telephone rings while Olivia and her friend are playing dress-up. Rose tells me we have a referral  -- a little girl named Nguyen Nhu Thu Lien, born March 4 and abandoned at a health clinic in Hanoi. There's no information at all about her birth parents. Rose wants us to come to Spence that afternoon to see her photo and other documents.

I'm flying! The excruciating wait is finally over! I immediately call Josh to tell him the news.

When we arrive at Spence, Rose actually makes us wait to see the photo while she explains the next procedure: We'll have two days to have the baby's medical info looked over by a doctor and to decide whether we will accept the referral. I am trying to listen politely while doing everything in my power not to grab the photo from her.

Then she shows us the picture, and within seconds all the months of anxiety and waiting and preparing myself to love a monster-child vanish. I'm amazed to be looking at a baby who's truly beautiful. (Did someone go out of her way to accommodate my shallowness?) She's lying on a quilt, wearing baggy orange-and-yellow striped pants and a white T-shirt. She has bright eyes and a perfect little turned-down rosebud of a mouth. She is looking off to the side  -- alert, maybe a bit skeptical. She is unquestionably adorable.

Many adoptive parents claim they fall in love with their child the moment they see the photo. I can't say this is true for us  -- she's still just a two-dimensional image  -- but it's a joyous moment. I feel relieved, similar to the way I felt when I gave birth to Olivia. After so much anticipation, everything is finally resolved and better than expected.

Josh: Christina and I toast our new daughter with overpriced glasses of wine at a nearby bar. That night we have a phone consultation with Dr. Jane Aronson, a pediatrician who specializes in international adoption. She reviews Thu Lien's medical chart and photo and says that from what she can tell, our little girl looks just fine. We officially accept the referral, send an $8,000 certified check to IMH to cover what's vaguely referred to as the "country fee," and begin counting down the next two- to three-month wait to travel to pick up our daughter, whom we decide to name Lucy Thu Lien Lerman.

July 2001 to Summer 2002

July and August 2001

Christina: Surprisingly, I find waiting to travel to Vietnam pretty easy, because there's so much to do. We need to get vaccinations, amass enormous quantities of prescription and over-the-counter drugs (Vietnam's are not necessarily reliable or accessible), prepare Olivia for a big trip, find her old crib and baby stuff, and on and on. We're happy when Josh's parents call and offer to help out by joining us on our trip.

And through all the preparations, our single photograph of Lucy beckons. We memorize her lovely face, her little feet, her clenched fists; we ask the picture, "Who are you?" What will it be like to finally meet her and to incorporate her into our tight threesome?

August 23, 2001

Christina: The travel call comes while I'm organizing a kitchen drawer. (Nesting, I guess.) We need to be in Hanoi on September 9, to pick up Lucy the next day!

September 7, 2001

Christina: Our itinerary is New York-San Francisco-Taipei-Hanoi: about 24 hours worth of travel time with an 11-hour time change to boot. We board an American Airlines jet, which, ironically, is showing reruns of I Love Lucy as we wait to take off.

September 21, 2001

Josh: Our time in Vietnam has ended up being a blur. We arrived in Hanoi on September 9, were given Lucy on the 10th, and were blown out of our self-involved world the next day when Christina's mother called with news of the terrorist attacks. What was supposed to have been an exciting and joyous two weeks has become more about coping and counting the days until we can leave.

Christina: I never expected the trip to be exciting or joyous. There have been a lot of stressful aspects to it  -- a new baby, a foreign country to get used to, Olivia's adjustment to being a big sister. And on top of that, September 11.

Epilogue: Summer 2002

Josh: Now we're home. We have two daughters. The insanity of the process is just a hard-to-conjure memory. Lucy is a smiley, wonderful baby who fits right in with us. She seems like an obvious and natural member of the family. We can't imagine anyone else being here, blending in better.

The adoption process, of course, is absurd. But what else could it be? A baby is born to a woman who's unable, for whatever reason, to take care of her, and on the other side of the world, a man and a woman want nothing more than to have a baby. Somehow we accomplish a transfer. And despite the randomness of the entire process, the result  -- Lucy  -- seems inevitable.

I find myself wondering about Lucy's mother, and thinking that I'd like to write her. Before the thousands of questions I want to ask her, the first thing I'd say would be thank you.